NHL Playoff Odds 2017: Handicapping Every Team's Stanley Cup Hopes
The only definite promise to be found in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs is uncertainty.
Outside of Washington, a team which carries the weight of expectation given its position in the standings and franchise history, there isn't a club out there that doesn't have difficult questions to answer, even in the first round.
Pittsburgh is down its best defenceman, while San Jose could be without its top two centres. Chicago spreads its Cup-winning core thinner and thinner with each passing year. Minnesota and Columbus stumbled into the postseason. All of these contenders—as well as those we haven't named in this intro—carry differing mixes of strength and weakness.
The result is a wide-open field, one with painfully few clear outcomes and lots of ambiguity. For a fan, it's a fantastic situation, a true crucible which will reveal the best of the bunch over hours of exciting action. For a prognosticator, it's a nightmare.
Nevertheless, we've tried here to offer a reasonable guide on each club's chance of ultimate postseason success. For each club, we've identified a major asset and a major weakness. Read on to see which teams we like to win it all, and just how much we like them.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Reason for Faith: Mike Babcock
Babcock is generally recognized as being an elite NHL coach, one of the top two or three in the game today, and Toronto's quick return to competitiveness isn't going to hurt that reputation any.
The Maple Leafs are the kind of team well-suited to a creative coach, with three attacking lines and a fourth unit made for bar-the-door defensive play. If he can find the right matchup magic, Toronto may just have a chance.
Reason for Fear: Injuries
The Washington Capitals were always going to be a tough first-round opponent for Toronto, but that matchup may have gotten much worse in the closing days of the regular season.
Babcock told the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran that he expected both starting goalie Frederik Andersen and 22-minute-per-game defenceman Nikita Zaitsev to be ready for Game 1 after the duo suffered injuries in Toronto's final two games. Whether they'll be at 100 percent is a different question entirely.
Stanley Cup Odds: 40-1
St. Louis Blues
Reason for Faith: The New Jake Allen
For much of the year, goaltending was a problem for the Blues and arguably even the primary reason the team looked more like a playoff bubble club rather than a legitimate contender.
Jake Allen has found new life, though, and guided his team to a resurgence. Since the start of February, Allen is 16-7-2 with a 0.938 save percentage. He could be a nightmare to the Blues' playoff opponent(s).
Reason for Fear: Post-Shattenkirk Shot Metrics
A year ago, the Blues hung on to pending free agent David Backes, taking a chance on losing him for nothing in an effort to win rather than making a trade at the deadline. This year, they took the opposite tack with star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, and there have been consequences.
Improved goaltending has hidden a lot of the decline in the Blues' possession game, but that decline is there. Over the 21 games since Shattenkirk's departure, the Blues have a score-adjusted Fenwick rating of just 49.9 percent, not quite break-even. That's nearly a full percentage point down from where they had been prior to his trade.
Stanley Cup Odds: 35-1
Reason for Faith: Craig Anderson
Ottawa has been a different team with Anderson between the pipes this season.
The Sens have won 25 of his 40 starts (63 percent) and won just 19 of the other 42 games (45 percent) they played this season. That's a massive differential, and they will be a different club with his 0.926 save percentage in net for every postseason game.
Anderson is not a newcomer to the playoffs. He ranks second among active goaltenders (minimum 20 games) in playoff save percentage, at 0.933. He's the kind of player who can steal a series victory or two.
Reason for Fear: Goal Differential
Fifteen of the 16 NHL teams to make the playoffs this year have a positive goal differential, meaning they've scored more goals than they've surrendered. Ottawa's first-round opponent, the Boston Bruins, finished the year 22 goals above break-even.
The Senators, though, finished the year minus-two.
Stanley Cup Odds: 30-1
Reason for Faith: Top-End Strength
The top end of Calgary's roster can go head-to-head with just about any team in the league.
Up front, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau came out of long funks in the back half of the season, restoring Calgary's top line. The team's second unit of Matt Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik is one of the most effective in the NHL. Defensively, the trio of Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie is exceptional, and starting goalie Brian Elliott has belatedly turned into a nightmare for the opposition.
That gives the Flames top-end strength across positions, which should make them a tough opponent for a team like Anaheim with defensive injuries.
Reason for Fear: Depth Problems
Against a deep opponent, though, the Flames could be in some trouble. The third line has been a problem all year, with Troy Brouwer struggling through a wretched debut campaign in Alberta. Michael Stone and Matt Bartkowski were brought in late in the year to shore up the defence, but there's still a massive drop-off between the third and fourth spots on Calgary's blue line.
These are all vulnerabilities that are likely to be exploited at some point over four playoff rounds.
Stanley Cup Odds: 20-1
Reason for Faith: That Glorious Top-Four
Nashville has long been built from the defence out, with a forward corps that generally plays a strong possession game but is somewhat lacking in high-end firepower. That generalization mostly fits the bill this year, too.
The Predators don't get a lot of use out of their third pairing. Instead, they're anchored by an impressive quartet of defenceman, all of whom log more than 23 minutes in an average game: Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Against a Chicago team with depth issues, that strength just might be enough to decide the series.
Reason for Fear: Pekka Rinne
Pekka Rinne's totals on the season (31-19-9, 0.918 save percentage) are quite decent for an NHL starter, but the bottom-line numbers don't show what a roller-coaster ride the season was for Nashville's long-serving starter. Consider his save percentage month by month over the five months in which he played at least 10 games:
- November: 12 games, 0.949 save percentage
- December: 10 games, 0.875 save percentage
- January: 10 games, 0.933 save percentage
- February: 10 games, 0.888 save percentage
- March: 10 games, 0.923 save percentage
Rinne oscillated between great and terrible all year. He did it in the playoffs last year, too, and his meltdown late in the second round arguably cost the Preds their series against San Jose.
Stanley Cup Odds: 18-1
Reason for Faith: Closing out the Season in Style
Anaheim has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the last quarter of the season. The Ducks' last loss in regulation was March 10; since that game against St. Louis, the Ducks have gone 11-0-3, claiming the Pacific division title in the process.
If there's any value in being hot going into the postseason, the Ducks are that. For those more skeptical of the concept of momentum, there's still the fact that since the start of March Anaheim has gone 11-1-1 against playoff teams. The Ducks know how to win against the best.
Reason for Fear: Defensive Injuries
The Ducks are famous for their deep blue line, and they'll need every inch of that depth for the playoffs. Simon Despres and Clayton Stoner have been out of the lineup for ages. Both Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen missed time near the end of the season, though both were able to get back into the lineup by Game 82.
Worst of all, Cam Fowler won't be playing. The Ducks' No. 1 defenceman is currently expected to miss a month with a knee injury.
Put it all together, and the Ducks' three best defencemen are either out or just returned from injury, as are two veteran depth players. It's awfully difficult to overcome that sort of thing.
Stanley Cup Odds: 17-1
Reason for Faith: The Nastiest Three-Line Attack in the NHL
Evgeni Malkin is back (as per NHL.com's Wes Crosby) after missing 13 games to an injury, and that means the Penguins can once again go back to the strategy that worked so well for them en route to last year's Stanley Cup: three scoring lines.
Sidney Crosby anchors one unit. Malkin anchors another. Based on Wes Crosby's report from practice, Phil Kessel looks like he's going to start on Malkin's wing, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him moved to a third unit once the big centre is up and running again.
Few teams have the ability to shut down Pittsburgh's big guns, and head coach Mike Sullivan has demonstrated an ability to find and exploit vulnerabilities in his opposition's units with those players.
Reason for Fear: Kris Letang
Last season, Letang averaged 28:52 per game and put up 15 points in the playoffs on the Penguins' road to the cup. That's seven points and nearly six minutes nightly more than any other Pittsburgh defenceman. Although general manager Jim Rutherford took pains at the deadline to add some insurance to the roster, the truth is there isn't a player on the team capable of duplicating what Letang brings.
That's a problem, given the team announced last week Letang is out for the season. It may be as simple as no Letang equalling no Stanley Cup repeat.
Stanley Cup Odds: 17-1
New York Rangers
Reason for Faith: The 100-Point Wild-Card Team
If ever evidence was needed that the NHL's current standings system leads to some ridiculous outcomes, 2016-17 provided it.
The Rangers will play Montreal in the first round, with the Canadiens division champions and New York a wild-card team. Despite this apparent imbalance, the Habs enter the series with 103 points and a plus-26 goal differential, while the Rangers boast 102 points and a plus-36 rating. They may well be the best team playing on the Atlantic side, and thanks to the wild-card setup, they also get to dodge two tough Metropolitan opponents in the first two rounds.
After playing in the league's best division all year, moving over to the weaker Atlantic might be just what New York needs to put together a long playoff run.
Reason for Fear: The Last 20 Games
New York stumbled over the finish line of the regular season, going 8-8-4 over its final 20 games. The Rangers were even worse against playoff teams, winning just three of their final 11 contests and losing the other eight.
Now they need to find a way to win four of seven. And then do it again, and again, and again. It's a tall order.
Stanley Cup Odds: 16-1
Reason for Faith: The NHL's Best Player?
Connor McDavid won the Art Ross Trophy this year as the NHL's leading scorer, which is obviously a tremendous achievement. More impressive was the margin by which he won it: He finished 11 points ahead of second-place finishers Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. That gap between McDavid and Kane was almost as big as the gap between Kane and Leon Draisaitl, McDavid's primary right wing this season.
With the possible exception of Crosby (who would have been a lot closer if not for injury), nobody in the NHL is a match for Edmonton's franchise player. He can carry a line; he can even carry the team.
Reason for Fear: Secondary Scoring
At their worst this year, the Oilers sometimes looked like a one-line team.
Consider even-strength points for a moment. Outside of McDavid (71 even-strength points) and his various regular linemates (Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Patrick Maroon), the only other player on the team with at least 30 points at evens was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (32). Milan Lucic, who had a lot of top-line time, only managed 25. Zack Kassian, at 24, was basically on par in a lot fewer minutes.
Lucic, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle have found some chemistry late in the year, but there's a chance that if McDavid's line isn't scoring, nobody else will be.
Stanley Cup Odds: 15-1
San Jose Sharks
Reason for Faith: Remember 2016?
It probably isn't necessary to go into all the things that make the Sharks a great team.
Anyone who watched the club's progression to the Stanley Cup Final knows about its formidable group of veteran forwards and the way anchoring one defence pairing with Brent Burns and the other with Marc-Edouard Vlasic makes this a tough team to beat.
It's the same club this year. San Jose ranked fifth in the NHL by score-adjusted Fenwick over its final 25 games and was the best team in its division by that metric. The Sharks dominate possession and the scoreboard and are obviously not riding any kind of bubble.
Reason for Fear: Injuries, Again
One of the reasons the playoffs are so wide-open this year is that a ton of good teams have had major personnel losses. San Jose's injured list is particularly ugly: Logan Couture is out and has no return date, while Joe Thornton has missed three games with a knee injury.
The Sharks are fortunate in that they have a ton of centre depth—Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau can all play down the middle—but no team loses two guys like Thornton and Couture and looks the same afterward.
Stanley Cup Odds: 15-1
Reason for Faith: Strong Possession Team with a Dominant Goalie
Montreal is obviously a quality team. The Canadiens' 51.7 percent score-adjusted Fenwick rating over the last 25 games is the third-best total in the East, the defence is solid and new coach Claude Julien has worked hard to diversify the attack up front.
What may put them over the top is goaltending.
Carey Price's 0.923 save percentage this season marks a low ebb in his performance, the result of a midseason funk through December and January in which he looked as vulnerable as he has in ages. If that's firmly in the rearview mirror, though, he should be the league's best starting goalie entering the playoffs.
Reason for Fear: Do They Have the Necessary Strength Up Front?
Canadiens fans could be forgiven if they felt a shudder of dread when Max Pacioretty left practice early Tuesday after taking a stick to the face (as per Sportsnet's Mike Johnston). Montreal doesn't have a lot of top-flight forwards around.
Pacioretty was the only Canadiens forward to top 60 points. Outside of Alex Radulov, nobody else on the team even hit 50. Despite tremendous performances by Paul Byron, Phillip Danault and (especially lately) Artturi Lehkonen, it isn't clear that Montreal has the required firepower to win four playoff rounds.
Stanley Cup Odds: 13-1
Reason for Faith: The Underlying Numbers
Boston is a trendy analytics dark-horse pick this year because it has done such a good job of dominating puck possession. Normally, the Kings are the team that gets this love, but the Bruins surpassed them this year, becoming the only team in the NHL to post a Fenwick rating north of 55 percent.
That kind of control has all sorts of advantages. It keeps opponents from generating shots; it means the Bruins get all manner of shots on net themselves. In the postseason, which typically doesn't see a lot of wide-open hockey, that can be decisive. Especially if Tuukka Rask is in net.
Reason for Fear: A Decimated Top-Four
Boston is yet another team with serious injury woes.
The key names on the Bruins' current injured list are those of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, who on a typical night generally play more than 42 minutes between them. Their absence places an even heavier burden on an aging Zdeno Chara and likely pushes Adam McQuaid into the No. 2 slot on the defensive depth chart for Game 1 against the Senators.
Stanley Cup Odds: 12-1
Columbus Blue Jackets
Reason for Faith: The Four-Line Attack
There is a lot to like about the Blue Jackets, including the fact that their starting goalie led the NHL in save percentage this year, but it's hard not to focus on those glorious forward combinations.
Columbus had 10 different forwards with 10 or more goals and 10 different forwards with 25 or more points. Neither of those lists include Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has 13 points in 26 games. John Tortorella used to preach "Safe is death" in Tampa Bay; these days he could advise his opponents that "Safe doesn't actually exist."
Reason for Fear: Late-Season Slide
Even the toughest teams hit stretches where things go sideways for them, and the Blue Jackets found themselves in such a stretch to close out the season. If not for a Game 82 victory against Toronto, Columbus would have found itself losers of seven straight to close out the year.
Stanley Cup Odds: 12-1
Reason for Faith: That Glorious Core
Somehow, they're still doing it. Even after the salary cap stripped away key supporting piece after key supporting piece, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has managed to find an arrangement in which Chicago's core is spread thin enough to have an impact everywhere but not so thin as to be overly exposed.
Jonathan Toews anchors his own line, seemingly regardless of who his wingers are. Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin remain lethal together. Marian Hossa, split off from Toews, is still reasonably productive. Add in Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and of course Corey Crawford, and Chicago remains lethal.
Reason for Fear: The Delicate Balance
It would be wrong to say the analytics are down on Chicago. Over the last 25 games, the Blackhawks' score-adjusted Fenwick rating of 53 percent is one of the five best totals in the NHL, comparing favourably to Washington and Minnesota.
What's a little troubling is that over the season as a whole, it's a lot lower, down around the break-even mark. It took a lot of work on Quenneville's part to optimize this roster, to find the delicate balance with which it could have success. One bad break, and it could come apart.
Stanley Cup Odds: 11-1
Reason for Faith: Post-Deadline Underlying Numbers
A brutal slump by Devan Dubnyk (3-8-2, 0.889 save percentage) wiped out much of March for the Wild and did a good job of covering over some of the real improvements Minnesota made post-deadline. Key among these was the addition of Martin Hanzal, a two-way matchup centre who has scored 13 points in 20 games since his arrival and who has enabled the Wild to attack in waves up front.
The result of this realigned attack? After adjusting for score, Minnesota has been the league's second-best Fenwick team over the last 25 games. The Wild dominate the shot clock, and as long as the finishers do their part and the goaltending holds up, they're going to be tough to beat.
Reason for Fear: Dubnyk's Late Slide
Dubnyk has been a critical piece of Minnesota's success this season and for much of the year was considered a strong candidate for the Vezina as the league's best goaltender. His collapse in March probably ended any chance of that happening and is of greater concern given his lackluster career playoff numbers (6-10-0, 0.896 save percentage).
The Wild can't win without a strong run from their starter.
Stanley Cup Odds: 10-1
Reason for Faith: What's Not to Like?
This is an incredible team. The top-end talent is undeniable, with the lines centered by Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov both powerhouses.
A lot of work was done in the summer to upgrade the depth, and as a result Washington can point to 11 different forwards with 12 or more goals. The defence was great even before the arrival of Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, and Braden Holtby is a proven commodity in both the regular season and postseason.
There are no discernible weaknesses on this roster.
Reason for Fear: The Gauntlet
There's no such thing as a perfect team, and the road to the Final is a tough one. Take a moment and imagine it for Washington.
First, the Capitals face Mike Babcock's Leafs, a well-coached team with a diversified attack that has no pressure after already being written off by every pundit out there. Then, they face the winner of Pittsburgh/Columbus; either last year's champion or a club with a four-line attack and Vezina favourite in net.
Then comes the Atlantic champ, a team which will certainly have an elite goaltender. Finally, it's a simple matter of knocking off a Chicago, or Minnesota, or San Jose, in the Stanley Cup Final.
It's an ugly, difficult task. Many a great team in the past, including teams from Washington, has fallen short. Being the league's best team on paper is no guarantee of survival in the NHL playoffs.
Stanley Cup Odds: 7-1