In case your March Madness bracket didn’t go the way you hoped, fear not! There’s a chance for redemption coming up. With the NHL regular season coming to an end this weekend, it’s time for us to start thinking about how we’re going to fill out our Stanley Cup playoff picks between now and puck drop on April 10.
While postseason hockey can be maddeningly random because of the combination of the nature of the sport and the seven-game series format, there’s still some trends we can key in on to get a better sense of what to expect. One of them involves taking a closer look at late-season results, and weighting them more heavily than the information from earlier in the campaign.
That’s not to say that we should be completely tossing aside the data from the start of the season, since it helps create a larger sample. But full-season numbers can be misleading this time of year because a lot can change between October and March, on both an individual and team level. Young players get better as they earn their coach’s trust, older players wear down as heavy workloads take their toll, teams add to their roster through trades and lose key contributors to injuries.
That’s why the trade deadline serves as a reasonable, albeit arbitrary, cutoff point for our purposes. With everyone having played roughly 20 games since then, we have a good feel for what teams are working with heading into the postseason. It’s not so much about overvaluing momentum as it is about looking for underlying performance indicators that can help identify teams that are flashing warning signs and looking suddenly vulnerable, and conversely teams that are putting things together and playing their best hockey at just the right time.
Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting teams that fit each description:
While it may have slid under the radar as a rather innocuous-looking move at the time, the effect Carl Hagelin has had on the Washington Capitals since they acquired him has proven to be as impactful as any trade deadline deal this side of Mark Stone. He’s finally healthy after a rather uninspiring brief stint in Los Angeles, and once again flying around with his trademark wheels since the moment he arrived in Washington. Most importantly, he’s provided the reigning champions that were sleepwalking their way through the regular season with a much needed shot in the arm, which is a big reason why no team has seen a bigger improvement in underlying performance than they have.
The fit on the third line for him has been a seamless one. Playing alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, the three of them have been dominant in the 100 or so minutes they’ve gotten together thus far at five-on-five. With that trio out on the ice, the Capitals are controlling a staggering 62.3 percent of the shot attempts, 64.6 percent of the shots on goal, 62.6 percent of the high-danger chances and are outscoring opponents 8-3. Hagelin’s speed and ability to retrieve pucks has truly been a perfect complement to Eller’s more methodical dogged possession game and Connolly’s finishing ability once they’re in the offensive zone.
Washington may still not be the favorite because it’s brutally difficult to repeat in today’s NHL and the Tampa Bay Lightning are just that good, but they have a proven formula that’ll once again be awfully difficult to match up against in a playoff series. With a prolific power play and arguably the best goalie in postseason history, the baseline level they need to hit at five-on-five to get by is theoretically lower than your typical contender. Still, even with that in mind there was an argument to be made that their performance in the early going wasn’t hitting that threshold. That no longer appears to be a concern, which is shaping up to be a major problem for everyone else out East.
Injuries tend to throw a monkey wrench into things this time of year, and that’s especially true out West. Because of some notable absences recently, it’s difficult to know what to make of some of the teams we would’ve normally considered to be legitimate contenders based on name value, reputation, and expectations heading into the season.
The situation for the San Jose Sharks seems most cut-and-dried of the bunch. If Erik Karlsson can come back in time for round one and immediately resume being something approaching his usual self, then there’s a legitimate argument to be made that they’re the best team in the entire conference. There are very few players that have that type of impact, but as we’ve seen in the 52 games he’s played in a Sharks uniform, his impact on the game is in rarefied air.
How fair it is to expect him to be that player after missing this much time remains to be seen. It’s been over six weeks now since we’ve seen him at full health, and it’d be foolish to underestimate the impact of a groin injury for a player that relies on mobility as much as Karlsson does.
While the Sharks are an absolutely stacked offensive group even without Karlsson, they’ve backed themselves into a corner with their recent struggles. By giving away any chance at the No. 1 seed and Pacific Division crown with their recent 1-8-1 skid, they now have to play a Vegas Golden Knights team in round one that’s going in the complete opposite direction.
With the Knights playing as well as anyone since acquiring Mark Stone at the deadline (hence their appearance in the ‘risers’ chart), it’s shaping up to be a heavyweight matchup that’s honestly fit for a conference final. It seems crazy that one of those two teams will be watching from home in the second round. It seems even crazier that it could be the Sharks who will be eliminated early, but the combination of Karlsson’s health concerns, highly suspect goaltending, and the opponent are enough to at least raise the possibility.
Things aren’t quite as simple out in the Central Division, where there’s still a number of balls up in the air. The elephant in the room that we’ve collectively been avoiding for much of the season is that both the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets don’t look quite the same as they did last year, when they were indisputably the class of the entire conference. Their unexpected vulnerability has opened the door for the competition, which makes the seeding that’s still yet to be determined of even more importance. That’ll play a deciding role in confidence levels heading into opening-round matchups, both because of home-ice advantage and because there appears to be a rather sizeable gap between having to play the Dallas Stars or the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
While Dallas has the goaltending and top-line talent to raise some concerns about having to play them in a series, the Blues have been among the top handful of five-on-five teams for long enough now that we need to start taking them seriously as a real Stanley Cup threat. Especially for a team like the Predators, who seemingly match up quite poorly with them on paper. We’ve seen frequently that playoff matchups are often just as much about how the strengths and weaknesses of teams line up against each other as they are about who is actually better overall.
In this case, the reason why the Blues make for a particularly hellish opponent is because they have the horses to make life absolutely miserable for Nashville’s top line. The Predators have been alarmingly dependent on Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen this season, which becomes an even bigger issue if they’re being blanketed by Selke Trophy candidate Ryan O’Reilly and his crew. Especially if they don’t have home-ice advantage, in which case they’ll have an even tougher time finding minutes away from each other due to the home team getting last change. Even if those two are playing each other to a draw, the question of where else the Predators will be able to draw sustainable offense becomes a critical one.
For the Jets, it’s more about sorting out their own issues internally. It’s unfair to completely bury them for this stretch of jarringly lackluster play, because most of it came without both Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey in the lineup. The former is now back after his extended absence, and the latter figures to hopefully follow suit at some point soon.
Having them both back is obviously a game changer, but even still there’s some red flags that persist about this team’s five-on-five woes. Even before the injuries piled up, there was a certain level of mediocrity in their performance, at least relative to the sky-high expectations people had for them after they took their much anticipated leap last season. And yet for all of those completely valid concerns that persist, there’s so much raw talent on this team that it still feels like their peak game is right up there with anyone else’s. It remains to be seen whether they’ll ever be able to get there however, or whether that very tantalizing potential was just blinding us from the warning signs that were there all along.
They say that experience is particularly important this time of year, when the games begin to tighten up and the difference between reaching your goals and falling short becomes razor-thin. You need to have players that have been there before, so that they know what it’ll take to get the job done. If that’s true, then that helps explain what’s going on in Buffalo because this has been a performance for the ages — and not in a good way.
To say that the bottom has fallen out from under the Buffalo Sabres over the past couple of weeks wouldn’t be doing their struggles justice. While things have really been progressively unraveling ever since that magical 10-game winning streak blew expectations out of the water, it’s officially reached a fever pitch here in the closing weeks. They’re 2-15-2 since the deadline, don’t have a single victory in regulation, have been shut out five different times, and outscored by a whopping 78-37 margin overall.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that their plummet down the standings has given them an outside chance at finishing with either the second- or third-best lottery chances. It’ll be tough to finish there, considering one of their last two contests is a home game against an Ottawa Senators team playing the second leg of a back-to-back, but only two points separate them from the 29th-ranked New Jersey Devils and three points separate them from the 30th-ranked Los Angeles Kings. Even though the difference between each slot doesn’t seem that large, every little bit of increased probability helps. It also ensures that you can only drop so far, with the team that finishes 30th being guaranteed a top-5 pick at the very worst.
That’ll hardly be of any solace to their fans however, who have surely been through this same nauseating song and dance one too many times at this point. It’s a loyal, ravenous fan base that’s been starved for long enough, and is understandably hungry for a product that finally generates more wins than zingers at their expense. While the Sabres undoubtedly have some interesting young building blocks in place already, there are far too many holes throughout the lineup, and questions left unanswered about how or when they’ll be filled.
With all of that being said, if you’re not going to sniff the postseason, you’re ultimately better off salvaging something from the season by giving yourself the best chance possible to get an impact player at the top of the draft. It’s such a polarizing topic that a couple of words here likely won’t do much to assuage any remaining skeptics, but it seems silly to even debate the merits of high draft picks. For every Buffalo or Edmonton that doesn’t have anything of substance to show for all their years of drafting at the top, there’s a Pittsburgh or Chicago or Tampa Bay that built the foundation for years of winning by nailing their top-5 draft picks.
The draft is an inexact science. It’s true that picking high doesn’t ensure a home run selection and it’s still possible to uncover hidden gems later on. But it’s also still a numbers game that has an element of probability to it, and history has shown that there’s a direct correlation between quality of draft slot and quality of player available to be taken.
That’s why teams like the Devils and New York Rangers have played their cards quite shrewdly in the waning weeks. The Rangers made no bones about what this season was going to be for them, and they’ve stuck to the plan flawlessly. By executing their yard sale at the deadline, they not only stripped their team down for the remainder of the season but they’ll now have 10 picks at this year’s draft for the second straight summer. Most importantly, they could reasonably pick three times in the first round, which would give them seven such picks in the past three drafts, after having gone from 2013 to 2016 without a single one.
New Jersey has taken it one step further, shelving players that presumably could’ve possibly played through their injuries given different circumstances. Considering the skeleton crew they’ve been using for the majority of these games — many of whom skated much of this season in the AHL — the fact that they’ve actually managed to scrape together as many points as they have since the deadline is actually remarkable.
Conversely, teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings are ending their respective seasons on something of a high note. While it makes for a nice story right now and gives each of them something to point to as reasons for optimism this summer, it’s equally possible that these late wins don’t serve as much more than a red herring. Especially if it winds up costing them a chance at an elite prospect on June 21st.
The Canucks know that all too well at this point. Hitting home runs on Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes in back-to-back drafts certainly makes it an easier pill to swallow, but these late-season exploits have now become a meddlesome annual tradition in Vancouver. Despite the fact that only the Sabres have a worse point percentage than them since the start of the 2014-15 season, they’ve only had the 5th, 5th, and 7th overall selections to show for all of that losing.