2012 NHL Playoffs: Handicapping Each Team's Stanley Cup Chances

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIApril 12, 2012

2012 NHL Playoffs: Handicapping Each Team's Stanley Cup Chances

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    With the 2012 Stanley Cup playoff schedule set, odds makers are busy setting the lines for each team.

    The average team has just a 6.25 percent chance to win, expressed as 15:1 (15 teams fail and one succeeds). Naturally, there are those teams considered more ready, talented or with an easier road before them.

    In this piece, I will compare the odds Pro Hockey Talk has given each team with what I think their chances are. Each will have a short explanation of why they are where they are. Bets will be ranked sizzling, hot, warm, cool and cold.

    Teams whose odds are better than listed there are good bets, not necessarily because they are likely to win but because their chance compares favourably with the payout. However, they will be listed in order of the likelihood of them winning it all to show that, as well.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Warm

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the best teams in the league before one of the best players in the world returned to their lineup.

    They are now the team to beat.

    No one has the combination of depth and high-end talent Pittsburgh has. They have players on the blue line who can move the puck and shut down the opposition. They have a very good goalie and excellent coaching staff.

    However, they have a tough first-round matchup and will likely face another in each successive round. As a fourth seed, they will have to win on the road. However, they have proven they can clinch even Game 7s on the road and win the Stanley Cup from the fourth seed.

    The only reason they are only a warm bet is they pay only 4:1. When the crowd banks on the favourite, it is better to put your money on the underdog.

Boston Bruins: Hot

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    The Boston Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and there are only three teams who could get home ice advantage over them...and not until the final two rounds.

    This team finished the season with the best goal differential in the NHL, plus-67. They have one of the best blue lines in the game (and probably its best two-way player), two very good goalies and physical and talented forwards.

    That being said, no team has repeated as champion since before Tyler Seguin, one of their best players, began school (Detroit Red Wings, 1997-98). Not only is the fatigue an issue, but teams learn to play you better.

    That seems to have been the case this season, as the Bruins have only the league's seventh-best record. The exceptional goaltending that carried them through last season has been more vulnerable, and the competition is stronger.

    That being said, they have a favourable first-round matchup and may get another in the second. Give me a complete team champion almost guaranteed to make the second round who has only the fifth-lowest payout (8:1) any day.

Vancouver Canucks: Warm

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    I am no believer in the Vancouver Canucks. I think they have underlying character issues that remain impediments for winning a championship.

    However, battling through this season, they did win the President's Trophy for the second year in a row. They are immensely talented in all three units, have the special teams, speed and skill to give any opponent fits.

    Plus, thanks in part to the weakest schedule among Western Conference teams, they have the easiest road to the Stanley Cup finals. You cannot win it until you get there, and the Canucks proved the weak division is not an impediment to their playoff readiness by losing just six games before reaching the finals last year.

    This makes them the third-most likely winner, and their 11-2 payout reflects that (tied for second-lowest). Even though their chances are not especially high, they are high enough to justify the relatively low payout.

Nashville Predators: Sizzling

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    In 1997, the AFC West champion Denver Broncos changed their uniforms and won the next Vince Lombardi Trophy. In 1999, the last place St. Louis Rams changed their uniforms and won the next Vince Lombardi Trophy.

    In 2011, the Nashville Predators won their first ever playoff series. They changed their uniforms in the offseason, and have to be hoping for a little of that NFL luck.

    They do not need it.

    They have arguably the best goalie in the league and the best defensive pair in a season when the back end is more important than it has been since the lockout. They have eight top-six forwards and are deep. They have the best coach in the league and play blue collar hockey.

    They even were buyers at the trade deadline. Because of the precarious finances of the franchise, this also gives them the urgency to win, as they may lose a few free agents.

    That is why they are my pick to win the Western Conference. The 14-1 odds they were given prove too few people see what I do. That makes them the absolute best bet to place.

New York Rangers: Cool

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    The New York Rangers are one of those teams that is usually better on paper than they are on the ice.

    Their season is usually over before Mother's Day...if they make it out of April at all. Then they are the big winners every offseason.

    That pattern held true over the last 12 months, but there are good reasons expectations are higher than in previous seasons. They have struggled with their identity as a defensive team in the past because they have not gotten the play they needed from the blue line.

    Since the marquee defencemen they have signed in the past have not panned out, they stuck to homegrown talent. Thanks in large part to the play of Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi, they have gotten everything they needed.

    The Blue Shirts finished third in the NHL in goals allowed, thanks largely to leading the league in both hits and blocked shots. They also finished 11th in scoring, giving them enviable balance. They face one of the weakest first-round opponents and cannot face four road games in a series until the Stanley Cup Finals.

    So why are they ranked cool as a bet? Because they were not even the best team in their division in the final months of the season, and they will have to go through a better Pittsburgh team to even make the finals. Teams without a history of winning in the playoffs rarely make it through their conference playoffs.

    All of that is why they are not a good bet when they are tied for the second-lowest payout (11-2).

Chicago Blackhawks: Hot

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    The Chicago Blackhawks were only the fourth-place team in their division. How can they be the sixth-most likely team to win the Stanley Cup?

    For one, they were one win away from being second place. For another, finishing sixth was the ideal place if you were not winning your division.

    Nashville and Detroit have to face each other for out-performing Chicago. The Hawks get to face the Phoenix Coyotes, easily the least talented team in the Western Conference playoffs.

    Getting through the first round, possibly with a little rest, puts them in a great position for a long run. They have a lot of success against four of their top conference challengers: Vancouver, St. Louis, Detroit and San Jose. They have recently won the Cup.

    Factor all of that in, and even a sixth seed has better odds than the 16-1 (below average) they were given.

St. Louis Blues: Cold

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    The St. Louis Blues play suffocating defence, are well-coached and have more experience than people may think on their roster. That earned them the second-most points in the league in its second-best division.

    However, teams rarely even win their conference when they have not reached the playoffs in either of the past two seasons. They finished the season not playing their best and they drew the dangerously talented and experienced San Jose Sharks in the first round.

    That leaves questions about their ability to advance to the second round for the first time in a decade. (Yes, I am a Sharks writer. But I picked the Blues in six.) You cannot win the whole thing if you do not advance, and they would have to beat at least two more teams with more talent even should they get out of the first round.

    That is a team I am supposed to put money on with the fourth-lowest (15-2) payout? That rates them the single worst bet of the teams, even though their style of play and accomplishments make them the seventh-most likely champion by my assessment.

Philadelphia Flyers: Warm

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    The Philadelphia Flyers let two of their three or four best forwards go in return for a goalie who is not a prime time performer.

    Ilya Bryzgalov has never won a playoff series. He dropped 10 straight decisions to the San Jose Sharks, the team that for nine of them was within reach in their division. Had he won two more games each season, the Phoenix Coyotes would have finished ahead of them to win the Pacific Division.

    Journeyman goalie Mike Smith replaced him for under a third the price and was immediately able to accomplish what he could not. Until he proves me wrong and Philly proves they are not a sieve in net, I will not place much on them.

    Moreover, they face the best team in the league in the first round. This is made all the worse by the loss of Chris Pronger from their blue line. There is no way that justifies a payout in the bottom half (14-1) of the teams left standing.

    That being said, they had the talent to give up two top forwards and lose a defenceman. They are still among the best scoring teams in the league and Bryz played better down the stretch. They certainly have the talent to go deep, have gone to the finals recently and may be the new favourite if they beat rival Pittsburgh in the first round.

Detroit Red Wings: Cold

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    The Detroit Red Wings are running out of time.

    I know, I know, they have great prospects. But when they lose Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, they will not be the same team. Those two champions have meant so much to the organization, and they are not alone among veterans close to retirement on the second-oldest team in the league.

    That gives them urgency. But only three teams in the playoffs have won a title more recently, so they will not have more urgency than most.

    Meanwhile, that age has been their downfall. The San Jose Sharks are not exactly known for playoff success and have eliminated the Wings in two consecutive playoffs while taking only four losses. They have made them look very old in the process.

    True, some players suffering injuries during the season may in fact allow them to be more rested and look less over the hill this season. But they have drawn one of the best teams in the league in the first round, and things are not likely to get easier from there.

    Even if they can make it through the brutal travel a lower seed in the three-time-zone Western Conference faces, they are likely to be worn thin by the end. They do know how to win at this time of the year, but having them the sixth-lowest payout (12-1) makes them a bad team to bet on.

San Jose Sharks: Warm

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    The San Jose Sharks do not act much like their animal mascot. They rarely "smell blood in the water" and show the "killer instinct" it takes to win late in the playoffs.

    No team but Detroit has had a better record over the previous seven years, yet the Sharks have just three wins and 12 losses in conference finals games. They have a first-round exit and barely a winning record in the playoffs.

    They are far too complacent, impressed with and reliant on their own talent and lacking in blue collar work ethic. That does not seem like a team to believe will beat four elite teams to win the 2012 Stanley Cup.

    That is why they are an above average payoff (18:1). With the talent and early round playoff experience this team has, they are a decent threat and that is a little better payout than their chances warrant.

New Jersey Devils: Warm

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    No team was as good as the New Jersey Devils in the shootout (12-4). That will not help them in the playoffs.

    That is why they have the third-fewest regulation and overtime wins among Eastern Conference playoff teams. They are the oldest team in the league partly because of Martin Brodeur; for once, goaltending is not their strength.

    They have great forward play and are exceptional on special teams. New Jersey allowed the fewest power play goals (27) and scored the most shorthanded (15); every other team had a differential over 25. Their power play is in the top half of the NHL.

    They finished in fourth place, but that was in the toughest division in hockey. They were one of 10 teams to exceed 100 points, and even though they are the lower seed in the first round, they drew the easiest opponent: The Florida Panthers have the fewest wins overall and in regulation/overtime despite the easiest schedule in the Eastern Conference.

    Getting through the first round and playing for one last hoorah for their Hall of Fame goalie makes them a pretty good long shot bet, especially at 25:1. But in reality they are no longer good enough on the back end to win it all since they cannot rely on special teams play with the swallowing of whistles this time of year.

Los Angeles Kings: Warm

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    Since the trade for Jeff Carter, the Los Angeles Kings have become a high-scoring team, averaging exactly three goals per game. They remain almost as good defensively as they had been up to that point, giving up just 2.10 compared to 2.07 prior to the trade.

    There was some question whether Carter would be ready for the start of the playoffs, but he is. This makes the Kings a very dangerous team, hungry for playoff success and filled with players who have had it elsewhere.

    They generally know how to finish, with just nine losses in their last 95 games in which they entered the third period with a lead, and all went to overtime. But in a regular season mini-series finale against the San Jose Sharks, they lost both games in that fashion including one in which they had a 2-0 lead and another in which they gave up five goals plus the shootout.

    This dropped them from the third to eighth seed. That shows the inexperience of going over a decade since they last won a playoff series.

    They are up against two-time President's Trophy winning, defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks in the first round and face the likelihood of having to beat three more teams that finished with over 100 points to win Lord Stanley's Cup.

    That is why eighth seeds rarely make the finals and never win when they get there. They may be a better team right now than their record suggests, but they are at best an average bet at 20:1.

Washington Capitals: Warm

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    The Washington Capitals are arguably the biggest disappointment of the 2011-12 regular season. A team that has won its division for four prior years and only underachieved once the playoffs started this year barely made its way into the tournament.

    Their failures mirror the issues of the San Jose Sharks (see three slides back for more on the issues). The good news for both teams is that two of the three seventh seeds to make it out of the first round in the last seven playoffs won their conference. The bad news is neither won the Stanley Cup.

    The reality is much was expected of the Caps because of their talent. For this very reason, they could put it all together and make a run. They also were the best team in their division (for what that is worth) after making the coaching change from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter.

    Still, coming up with series wins over four elite teams better prepared for long runs is a long shot worthy of their 30:1 payout.

Phoenix Coyotes: Hot

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    There is no team with less talent on their roster in the Western Conference. They are also in the tougher of the two conferences.

    So why are they only the third least likely champion? How do they rate a hot bet?

    For one, they play fundamentally sound hockey. Dave Tippett is a great coach getting the most out of his talent, including journeyman goalie Mike Smith. They have good speed and have a good balance of youth and experience to handle a deep run. They may also be playing for the last time for the city of Phoenix.

    But more than that, by winning the division they could avoid the best that their conference has to offer until late rounds and have the home ice advantage before that. That certainly makes them better than 40:1 in my book.

Ottawa Senators: Warm

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    As previously stated, betting on an eighth seed to win the Stanley Cup is not a good bet. Only one team in the Eastern Conference playoffs had fewer regulation or overtime wins, and only two had a worse goal differential.

    That is why the Ottawa Senators are a 40:1 long shot. But that does not mean the team is not talented enough to win it all.

    Ottawa still has one of the best top lines in hockey, with two of the three actually earning an All-Star appearance (Milan Michalek got one only because of ballot stuffing for the locally-played game). There are enough role players behind them to at least hope for secondary scoring.

    They also have a certain Norris trophy finalist anchoring a pretty good blue line. They have a goalie who kept an inferior team in a playoff series for over four games before finally being worn out.

    But I project they would have to beat the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers just to make the Stanley Cup finals. That is a far-fetched scenario that probably even makes that big payout not worth shooting for.

Florida Panthers: Cold

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    The Florida Panthers were one of the biggest overachieving teams in the league this year. Still, they are by far the least worthy team in the playoffs.

    They have the fewest wins, fewest regulation and overtime wins and worst goal differential despite the easiest schedule. They have a worse record than any playoff team in the Western Conference.

    They have one goalie who has never won a second-round series and another who has never seen a playoff game. Only three teams scored fewer goals, yet they were middle of the pack defensively.

    They have the worst ratio of goals scored to yielded five-on-five, where teams live in the playoffs because referees loath deciding games with the whistle. Even if they do get power plays, they are up against a team in the first round that has a penalty kill that has only given up 12 more goals than it has scored.

    That team has tremendous playoff experience. But any team will have considerably more than Florida, who has not been to the playoffs since 2000 and has won just one playoff game since being swept out of the finals by the Detroit Red Wings in 1996.

    They get to start as the third seed and the payoff for winning a bet on them taking home the Stanley Cup is 35:1. But juxtaposed with the plethora of negative indicators, they rate as one of three worst teams to bet on to take the title.