This is the time of year where the common question is: Who do you think will win the Stanley Cup playoffs? I think most fans and hockey writers alike would agree that trying to predict the outcome is something of a fool’s errand because every team that advances to the postseason has a real shot of winning it all in the salary cap era.
Certainly though there are teams that look stronger than others and this season, it seems like the two favorites are the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference and the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference. They’re boring picks because they’re also the two teams that hold the best records in their respective conferences, but they’re there for a reason.
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Tampa Bay just has an immense amount of star power at their disposal. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Yanni Gourde gives them plenty of high-end offensive weapons and their backed by a strong defense that’s headlined by Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and the newly acquired Ryan McDonagh.
The X-Factor here is Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was so good at the beginning of the season, but has posted a 3.43 GAA and .902 save percentage in 20 games since the All-Star break. Ultimately, fatigue on his part might end up costing the Lightning in the playoffs.
With Nashville, the strength is depth. This is a team with Mike Fisher and Scott Hartnell on the fourth line. Granted, those veterans are far off from their prime, but having that kind of experience and talent rounding out their lineup just highlights how deep this team is. Meanwhile, they have an amazing core of four defensemen in Roman Josi, PK Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis, combined with an elite goaltendr Pekka Rinne. Now they’ve added KHL star Eeli Tolvanen to the team for the playoff push…there’s just so much to like about this team.
Tolvanen in particular should be interesting. He’s probably the biggest X-Factor on any team going into the playoffs. The 18-year-old proved his worth with Jokerit Helsinki, but he’s going to need to adapt to North American hockey on the fly, which is a tall task at this time of year. The Predators will likely be somewhat conservative with his playing time, but that doesn’t mean he won’t see minutes with the man advantage right out of the gate. He’s not a bad gamble in playoff leagues if he can be had in the mid-to-late rounds, especially given that Nashville has a good shot of having a lengthy run.
While teams like Nashville and Tampa Bay get ready for the playoffs though, the debate on the Hart Trophy is far from reaching a consensus. Connor McDavid has been red hot lately and has likely secured the Art Ross Trophy as a result. His 40 goals and 102 points in 77 games puts him six points ahead of Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov.
The question though is if McDavid should receive his second straight Hart Trophy even though Edmonton won’t be going to the playoffs. A lot of people feel that, given that the Hart Trophy goes to the player most valuable to his team, that it should be handed to a player on a playoff-bound team. After all, how valuable could a player have really been if he couldn’t push his team to the postseason? The flip side of that though is that it turns an individual trophy into a team one. How does it make McDavid any less valuable that the team around him sucked? What more was he expected to do?
It’s getting even more complicated now because the Colorado Avalanche might miss the playoffs too. Nathan MacKinnon was looking like the best alternative to McDavid with his 38 goals and 92 points in 69 games this season. If the Avalanche miss the playoffs though, then shouldn’t MacKinnon be penalized alongside McDavid for being a member of a non-playoff team? And if that’s the case, then who do you give it to?
There are other worthy candidates of course. Nikita Kucherov, Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, and Taylor Hall are all fine choices for the Hart Trophy. Really you can’t go wrong with given it to any of them. If you want to highlight a player that helped carry his team to the playoffs, then Giroux, Kopitar, and Hall in particular strike me as good options, should the Avalanche ultimately miss the playoffs.
It will be pretty interesting to see who ends up getting the Hart Trophy. This really does feel like a year where there isn’t a consensus pick even as the season winds to a close.
With the season winding to a close, we’re going to find out who will finish in the basement soon too. While players hate the idea of tanking, there are certainly fans who would rather see their team lose at this point for better lottery odds at winning the top overall pick and therefore Rasmus Dahlin.
Right now it looks like the Buffalo Sabres will finish with the worst record as they have 60 points in 76 games, but Ottawa (63 points in 76 games), Arizona (65 points in 77 games), and Vancouver (65 points in 77 games) are all still in that race too. Ottawa is doing the “best” right now after dropping six straight games.
There was talk of trading Erik Karlsson before the deadline and that still might happen over the summer. If Karlsson’s tenure with Ottawa really is drawing to a close, then it would be a decent consolation for the franchise to get Dahlin, who is a young defenseman with a huge amount of potential. You also have to wonder if winning the draft lottery might be enough to make Karlsson more inclined to stay with Ottawa.