Another year, another spring without playoff hockey at Madison Square Garden. For the second consecutive season, the New York Rangers will be watching the playoffs from the outside looking in, marking the first time the team has missed the playoffs consecutively since the pre-lockout era. While the end of the Blueshirts’ season marks the end of hockey season for some fans, the Stanley Cup Playoffs offer up one of the most entertaining tournament’s in all of sports, and any hockey fan would be remiss to deprive themselves of the best the sport has to offer.
Much like last year, the Rangers have some draft pick incentives tied to how well some of the playoff teams perform. Unlike last year, the bulk of their pick incentives come from teams out West. Couple that with the lack of animosity towards the eight playoff teams out west, and Rangers fans shouldn’t have a hard time enjoying the on-ice product the best of the west are able to put out. With that said, let’s take a look at this year’s participants:
Just as everyone thought would happen back in October, the powerhouse Flames emerged from the grind of the 82 game schedule, survived a brutal Pacific Division featuring arguably the Western Conference’s top two teams, and won their first division title since 2005-06 en route to claiming the top seed out west.
After missing the playoffs last season, Calgary recorded the league’s quietest 50+ win season in recent memory. While the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks were expected to be in a season long war of attrition to lay claim to the division crown, the Flames’ core of young stars all experienced career seasons en route to leading their team to a division title.
Johnny Gaudreau came within spitting distance of the 100 point mark, posting a 36-63-99 stat line. Offseason trade acquisition Elias Lindholm broke 45 points for the first time in his career, exploding for 78 points. Team captain Mark Giordano nearly doubled his point totals from last season, jumping from 38 points to 74. Head coach Bill Peters ”resigned” in the same manner Tom Coughlin did after four solid seasons in Carolina, and he’s helped the Flames rise out of the depths of mediocrity into the pantheon of the NHL’s elite. They may not be a Cindarella story in the most literal sense, but nobody saw the Flames rise to the top coming. And it could keep on going all the way through June.
San Jose Sharks
It’s a point I used in last year’s bandwagon guide, but Rangers fans have one major reason to root for the Sharks. After collapsing against the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 and missing the playoffs altogether in 2015, San Jose looked to be in for a full scale rebuild three and a half years ago. Rather than blow up their core of very good players in the minute hopes of finding better players to compete five years down the road, the Sharks opted to re-tool on the fly.
That decision making has been rewarded with three consecutive trips back to the playoffs, a Western Conference Championship in 2016, and another legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup this year. The Rangers have the ability to follow a similar path if they choose to commit to it, so another deep run from the Sharks demonstrates the viability of a swift reload as opposed to.......whatever the Rangers have been doing since the 2017 Entry Draft.
After adding Erik Karlsson to their blue line corps just before training camp opened, the Sharks cemented their group of 18 skaters, led by Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, and Blueshirt Banter folk hero Logan Couture, as the best the Western Conference has to offer. Unfortunately, the best 18 skaters in the conference have been submarined by the worst goaltending tandem in the NHL. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have combined for a league worst 88.93 adjusted 5-on-5 SV%, and an unfathomably bad -26.92 Goals Saved Above Average. San Jose’s goaltending is the reason they ceded the division crown to Calgary, and it’ll probably be the reason their bid for the Stanley Cup falls short.
After last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winning effort, the Predators found themselves in the thick of the battle for playoff seeding within the Central Division bracket all season. Along with the Jets, St. Louis Blues, and Dallas Stars, the Predators have been comfortably in playoff position for the majority of the season, but needed to scratch and claw their way to their second consecutive division title. Similar to the Jets, the Predators returned a majority of the same players from last year’s 117 point team, but they haven’t been able to pull away from their division foes as they did a year ago.
P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis headline a blueline with star power and depth rivaled only by San Jose’s. Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and former Washington Capitals’ prospect Filip Forsberg are the main drivers of Nashville’s high-octane attack under Peter Laviolette. A late season run to steal the division away from the Winnipeg Jets has set up an opening round bout withe the Dallas Stars, another defensively staunch team with a handful of offensive weapons up front. If the Predators can run the gauntlet and emerge out of the Western Conference bracket, most of the hockey world will be pulling for them to win Nashville’s first professional sports championship.
Years of stockpiling picks and prospects in favor of making splashy moves has began paying dividends for the Jets, as they’ll be making their second consecutive playoff appearance for the first time in the Thrashers/Jets franchise history. Winnipeg retained most of their talent from last year’s run to the Conference Finals, but they’ve been a shadow of the 52 win, 114 point team that stormed through the 2017-18 campaign.
Patrik Laine posted career lows in goals, assists, and points. Dustin Byfuglien missed nearly half of his team’s games. Acquiring Kevin Hayes from the Rangers at the deadline has helped mitigate the loss of Paul Stastny from last year’s stretch run, but he hasn’t been able to elevate the Jets to the level they were playing at last year. In spite of all of that, Winnipeg managed to capture home ice in their first round series against St. Louis thanks to an uncharacteristically weak cast of teams around them.
I mentioned this just now but last 25-games for Winnipeg:— Travis Yost (@travisyost) April 2, 2019
46.6% Corsi (26th)
45.4% Chance (28th)
49.5% Goal (20th)
If you believe more recent data is more reflective of true talent, especially heading into the playoffs .. this is a major red flag.
As for Rangers fans, they have reasons to root for a another deep postseason run in Winnipeg, as well as reasons to see these Jets go the way of their New York counterparts. The carrot of a 4th round pick in the 2022 Entry Draft is what’s enticing them to root for Winnipeg to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993. Jeff Gorton’s decision to request a 15 year old as part of the return for Kevin Hayes is a bit of an amusing one, but even with that pick in the balance, there’s a greater prize to be had.
Due to losing out on the Central Division title, there are no restrictions on how high the first round selection Winnipeg owes the Rangers can be. Whereas a division title would have locked Winnipeg’s pick as no higher than 24th, their 2nd place finish means that the pick has the potential to be closer to the border of the late teens and early 20s. Given the other draft picks currently owed to the Rangers, Winnipeg bowing out before the Conference Finals would be a boon for New York.
St. Louis Blues
After a summer blockbuster that saw the Blues ship out a 1st round pick along with spare parts to land star forward Ryan O’Reilly, they were a hot pick to jostle with Nashville and Winnipeg for the Central Division crown. The stretch run saw that battle come to fruition, but it took the best single stretch of play by any team this season for the Blues to even qualify for the playoffs.
On January 2nd, the Blues sat dead last in the NHL. Trade rumors were swirling around franchise pillar Vladimir Tarasenko, and the team had already fired head coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with former Philadelphia Flyers bench boss Craig Berube. They sat 18 and 16 points back of Winnipeg and Nashville respectively, and appeared primed to spend the next three months playing meaningless hockey. In a season that saw the team’s playoff chances dip below 4% in December, the Blues rose from the depths of the league on the back of an Andrew Hammond-esque run from ECHL alumnus Jordan Binnington and will look to capture the first Stanley Cup in their 52 year history.
Gone are the days of the league’s most dangerous offense and most porous defense being based in Dallas. Lindy Ruff has taken his talents to Broadway, and in his place stands former Denver Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery. Although they don’t boast the offensive depth Ruff’s squads had, the Stars still have enough upper echelon talent to keep up with the NHL’s elite. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin still anchor the team’s top six, but Alexander Radulov and Mats Zuccarello have joined them as another dynamic offensive duo. The nightmarish goaltending duo of Kari
Let A Ton In Lehtonen and Antti Niemi has been supplanted by a less volatile combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.
The main attraction here for Rangers fans is obviously Zuccarello. He was one of the Blueshirts heart and soul players throughout his time in New York, and seeing him become another casualty of #TheVision is the toughest pill the fanbase has swallowed since the rebuild began. Aside from just wanting to see him succeed, the Rangers and Stars have draft capital hanging in the balance this spring.
Should the Stars advance to the Conference Finals with Zuccarello skating in at least half of their games, the 2nd round pick the Stars owe the Blueshirts (which is slated to be pick #49 barring runs from Colorado or Vegas) would become a 1st round selection. As unlikely as a deep postseason run in Dallas might be, Rangers fans have all the motivation in the world to root for the Stars to succeed.
Vegas Golden Knights
After last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the magic in Vegas had appeared to run out this season. This year’s iteration of the NHL’s 31st team is much closer to what pundits had pegged the team to be after joining the league in 2017. Marc-Andre Fleury has provided solid goaltending in the Sin City, but he hasn’t been able to replicate last year’s Vezina-caliber play. The team’s top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault has been effective, but all three failed to replicate the career years they experienced last season. The team has lacked the explosive scoring they had last season, but incredible depth has propelled them back to the playoffs.
In spite of their shortcomings, this Golden Knights squad is arguably a better, more complete team than the one that knocked off Los Angeles, San Jose, and Winnipeg en route to hosting Game One of the Finals last season. David Perron, James Neal, and Tomas Tatar have been upgraded to Mark Stone, Paul Stastny, and Max Pacioretty, giving Vegas enough star power to match up with any team in the league.
They posted the 2nd-best adjusted Corsi For% (trailing only San Jose) and the best Expected Goals For% among Western Conference teams after sitting 7th and 8th in those categories last season. The standings may not reflect it, but the Golden Knights are one of the most dangerous teams in the West, and have the offensive firepower, defensive depth, and stable goaltending necessary to end Vegas’s professional sports championship drought.
Of all the things that have changed in the NHL over the last 12 months, the story of the Colorado Avalanche is more or less the same. Last year, the Avalanche rode career years from their top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Nathan MacKinnon into a Wild Card spot, and gave the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators a run for their money in the opening round of the playoffs.
This season, that same trio of players all recorded over a point per game en route to dragging the Avalanche back into the same Wild Card spot they occupied last season. Although they don’t have the defensive depth to match Calgary, I feel this series is primed to be one of the best the divisional semifinals have to offer.
Both teams are led by dynamic young stars that ooze individual talent and puck skills. Both teams have solid enough goaltending, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see all four goalies on the active rosters earn starts this series. Former Rangers Derick Brassard and Ryan Graves have carved out roles for themselves down the stretch, and will look to emerge as difference makers to help these plucky underdog Avs push past the Flames.
Off the eight Western Conference qualifiers, there isn’t much for Rangers fans to actively root against. Whoever emerges from the San Jose-Vegas matchup will likely be my team of choice throughout the playoffs, as well as rooting for Dallas to find a way to emerge out of the Central Division bracket. Stay tuned for the Eastern Conference Guide tomorrow morning.