NHL playoffs preview: First round picks and Stanley Cup futures
Chris Peters assesses the Stanley Cup futures markets and makes his picks for the first round as the NHL playoffs get underway this weekend.
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally upon us. If you’re a hockey fan or an avid bettor, it does not get better than the first round with multiple games every single night with high stakes and the height of NHL competition.
This year’s postseason will differ slightly from others. First off, the teams will play the first two rounds entirely within their own division. That’s not new, but what is, is that once we get to what would normally be the conference final stage of the playoffs, the teams will be reseeded. The team with the best record will play the team with the worst record of the remaining four, with the other two teams playing each other. So, there can be East vs. West matchups before the final, and there may even be East vs. East or West vs. West playing for the Stanley Cup, which makes this season a tad more unique.
It’s important to know that going into the postseason because it may alter your betting plans, especially when it comes to futures and outrights. The new format and realigned divisions the NHL used this year has given us some incredible first-round matchups in terms of both competitiveness and traditional rivalries.
The fact that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs have not met in the postseason since there were only six teams in the league is amazing and also a little sad considering there will be no fans in the building for what could have been one of the hottest tickets in Canadian hockey history. We also have the all-Florida matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers which pits two of the more entertaining teams in the league against each other, and there will be fans in the building for those games.
With the playoffs set to begin, I wanted to take a look at some of the teams I think have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup, plus one long shot that’s worth tracking, and my first-round series picks.
TO WIN THE STANLEY CUP
There are only 16 teams left that have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, but every single one of them will tell you it’s a war to get to the finish line. Anything can happen in the postseason - we’ve seen some of the heaviest favorites go down in the first round. The way this season shook out also makes for a very challenging job predicting where these playoffs will go, but here’s a look at some of the teams I’d consider playing to win the Cup.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The defending champions have one of the toughest first-round series of any team, going head-to-head with their in-state rival, the Florida Panthers. However, the Bolts are getting back two key players including Nikita Kucherov, who did not play at all this season, but is healthy in time to return to the postseason. Steven Stamkos is also expected back in the lineup. Victor Hedman, the team’s top defenseman, is also a bit banged up heading into the postseason but is expected to be ready to go.
When you have that number of stars, a team that has Stanley Cup experience, and a goaltender as good as Andrei Vasilevskiy, you’ve got a chance. I like the value on the Lightning because I don’t think the market has corrected yet for the return of Kucherov, who is a former league MVP and led the playoffs in scoring last season with 34 points. Tampa is as deep as any team and has almost its entire roster back, plus the addition of defenseman David Savard who makes their blue line even better than last year’s. If the Lightning can escape that first-round series with Florida, they’ve got a chance to make a run.
Vegas Golden Knights
Since entering the league, the Knights have been one of the NHL’s most reliable teams. They are deep, they have tremendous goaltending and they’ve got some heaviness to their game that makes it really difficult to play against them this time of year.
Opening the playoffs with a challenging opponent in the Minnesota Wild, I think the Golden Knights are poised to go on a deep run here. They’ll have to also get through the Colorado Avalanche in the divisional playoffs if they want to get there, but I like the way Vegas matches up with Colorado. They can potentially slow the speedy Avs down, while challenging them physically and outlasting them in a grinding series.
Vegas has had great goaltending all season and probably the best tandem with Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, either of whom are capable of backstopping a championship-caliber team. The Golden Knights gave up fewer goals per game than any team in the league, had the best penalty kill in the NHL this season and were third in goals for.
Meanwhile, Vegas won’t have to worry about the salary cap crunch they dealt with during the regular season that occasionally forced them to play shorthanded.
They are the favorites for a reason and just won the Presidents’ Trophy in the last game of the season, beating out Vegas and earning home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs by finishing first overall in the league. The Avs are one of the NHL’s quickest teams and they’ve also developed one of the better defensive corps in the league led by Norris Trophy hopeful Cale Makar and Devon Toews.
The big question mark for the Avs has been the goaltending, but Philipp Grubauer has put together a career year this season. If that is able to continue in the playoffs it makes the Avs more dangerous. The big problem for them, however, is that they’ve got to get through Vegas to advance and I don’t love that matchup for them that much. Even so, they’ve been the league’s best team by record this year, they had the best possession numbers controlling 59 per cent of the shot attempts in their games this season, and they have a tremendous group of forwards that allowed them to be the highest-scoring team in the league. If the goaltending holds, they’re going to be tough to beat, but they have to prove that Vegas can’t push them around in the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
It seems weird to even think about putting any of the teams from the North in a position to win the Cup, but if there’s a team that can do it, it’s the high-scoring Maple Leafs. Auston Matthews appears healthy, Mitch Marner is making an impact and even though they’ve had their inconsistencies as a team this year, there’s a lot to like about this Maple Leafs team.
The biggest concern, however, is goaltending, as Frederik Andersen hasn’t had a lot of time to build up to postseason form. The Leafs could go to Jack Campbell who has had a fine season to date, but faltered a little more down the stretch. We know the Maple Leafs are going to give up goals in these playoffs, maybe a lot of them, but they also have the offense that can score in bunches, averaging 3.35 goals per game.
I like them at the very least to come out of the North Division and once they get out of there, it’s one more series to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Once you get in, anything can happen.
New York Islanders
The Islanders may be a Betway partner, but that’s not the reason I’m giving them this billing as my favorite longshot. It has a lot more to do with being coached by Barry Trotz, who continues to get a lot out of his team. It also has something to do with the Islanders being one of the teams that gave up the second-fewest goals against per game this season at 2.23.
Goal prevention can make all the difference in a playoff series and only Vegas has proven better at that than the Islanders. They have a pair of goalies they can rely on in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. Either can win them games.
The Islanders will start the postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is a very tough draw as the Islanders beat the Pens only twice in eight tries this season and no team in the league had more offensive success against the Isles than the Penguins, which is absolutely a concern. So is the fact the New York doesn’t score a ton of goals themselves.
Those are some of the things that make them a long shot, currently with fifth-worst odds to win the Cup. But they still have a great head coach who will have his team ready, goaltenders that can steal them games and just enough offense to potentially outlast their opponents. No matter who the Islanders play, they’re going to have a really difficult, frustrating series.
FIRST-ROUND SERIES PICKS
Toronto Maple Leafs to beat Montreal Canadiens
Edmonton Oilers to beat Winnipeg Jets
New York Islanders to beat Pittsburgh Penguins
Boston Bruins to beat Washington Capitals
Carolina Hurricanes to beat Nashville Predators
Tampa Bay Lightning to beat Florida Panthers
Colorado Avalanche to beat St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights to beat Minnesota Wild
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