It took 82 games, but the Colorado Avalanche secured their first playoff berth in four years with a thrilling 5-2 victory over St. Louis Saturday.
Thus ended a surprising NHL season that saw an expansion team enter the playoffs as a top seed (Vegas) and several teams take major steps backward after showing promise (Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa).
With first round match-ups set, hard core playoff pool warriors will be scouring the list of available players to see just who they’ll want to front their “teams.”
As it is, half will be eliminated every round, so luck will have more to do with it than armchair GM smarts.
Of the top 40 scorers in the NHL this season, 13 won’t be making an appearance in the post-season, most notably Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who won the scoring race with 108 points (six more than Philly’s Claude Giroux).
We have combed each team’s roster and come up with one player that poolies may want to highlight for selection, as well as one honorable mention (in italics with brief anecdotal information). From top overall team to team with fewest points.
16. Nashville Predators – D P.K. Subban
The Preds positioned themselves well for a repeat return to the Stanley Cup final by winning the Presidents Trophy with 117 points. While the mug can be a curse, we believe Smashville has the horses to run the table in the Western Conference. They have not relied heavily on any one player to do all the scoring (Filip Forsberg led the team with a modest 64 points) and they have the Vezina Trophy front-runner Pekka Rinne in net (more on him later). Front and center to any Preds charge to the Stanley Cup will be defenceman P.K. Subban. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner became more defensively responsible this year, eschewing some of his Riverboat Gambler tendencies to turn a -8 from 2016-17 to a +18 this season. He also came within a point of his all time high in points (60 in 2014-15) and scored his most goals (16). The Toronto native averaged over 24 minutes of playing time and anchored the first powerplay unit, figuring in on 25 of Nashville’s 58 PP goals this season. Honorable Mention: G Pekka Rinne – He led the NHL in shutouts this season and was top 10 in most categories. Rinne was also solid in the playoffs last year, going 14-8 and posting a 1.96 goals against average.
15. Winnipeg Jets – RW Patrik Laine
After 155 regular season NHL games, it is Patrik Laine’s chance to showcase his considerable wares in games that matter most. Despite having zero experience in the NHL post-season, we picked Laine because of a couple of factors. First, he led the NHL in powerplay goals with 20 on the man advantage (nearly half his 44 on the season) and for team’s to succeed in the post-season, scoring on the powerplay is huge (Winnipeg was fifth this season at 23.4 percent efficiency). That shot of his from the off-wing is lethal and made even more so by his linemate and 1st powerplay member, veteran Paul Stastny. Second, Laine has pedigree scoring against men in a playoff scenario. He did that as a 17-year-old with Tappara Tampere of the Finnish League in 2016, scoring a team high 10 goals in 18 games. Honorable Mention: G Connor Hellebuyck – We can’t mention enough how surprising it was that netminder Hellebuyck lifted the starting job from veteran Steve Mason. He tied for the NHL lead in wins (44) and was first overall in Goalie Point Shares with 14. He’ll be key to a lengthy post-season foray by the Jets.
14. Tampa Bay Lightning – C Steven Stamkos
Nikita Kucherov may have been Tampa’s leading scorer by a wide margin (he had 100 points), but the player to watch — and pick in a draft — is Stamkos. After some injury woes and a couple of long, but ultimately unsatisfying runs at the Stanley Cup, he’ll have extra motivation to take his team to the next level. And make no mistake, this is Stamkos’ club. While he didn’t score at as prolific a rate as usual, Stamkos did fire 15 of his 27 goals on Tampa’s third-ranked powerplay, along with 18 of his 59 assists. Not only did he record an admirable 86 points this season, but he also logged a career best +18, along with 52.2 percent efficiency on the face-off dot. Historically, Stamkos has 35 points (15 goals) in 49 playoff games, but none since 2015, so he should be hungry. Honorable Mention: RW Nikita Kucherov – The team’s leading scored had seven points in his last 10 games, but two of them were against a terrible Buffalo club. He had 11 goals during last year’s 17-game run, so the Bolts will be counting on him to show up when it counts most.
13. Boston Bruins – D Zdeno Chara
This isn’t as sexy a pick as say, leading scorer Brad Marchand or his linemates David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron. However, the Big Z, newly signed to a contract extension, still played nearly 23 minutes a game. He has plenty of playoff experience and with a new contract in hand, Chara has the peace of mind to go and tear it up in the playoffs. We think he can come closer to the 15 points he scored in 22 playoff games in 2013, given his shot and the amount of time he still gets on the first pair with Charlie McAvoy. Playoffs is smashmouth hockey and the giant Slovak is well suited to its punishing, grinding game. Honorable Mention: C Patrice Bergeron – He’s Mr. Reliable come pretty much every April he’s spent in a Bruins uniform. He scores at a clip just slightly below his .76 points per game average in the regular season, with 70 points in 101 playoff games (.69 PPG). He also positions his team well to hold the puck, winning a stellar 58.7 percent of his playoff draws.
12. Vegas Golden Knights – G Marc-Andre Fleury
As a team, the Vegas Golden Knights are entering uncharted NHL waters — that is, an expansion team making the playoffs and being seeded as a division winner. With a first round date coming against a veteran laden L.A. Kings squad that knows what it takes to win a championship, goaltender and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury will be invaluable to the Knights chances. Yes, there are others on the team with playoff experience like James Neal and David Perron, but Fleury will have to be on his game for this team to advance. They are deep up front and capable defensively, but this mish-mash of players have never gone through a post-season together. And with the adage that a team is built from the net out, Fleury’s experience and leadership will be needed. Honorable Mention: RW James Neal – It wasn’t a banner offensive year for veteran James Neal, however, he has 80 games of post-season experience, most recently the 22-game march to the finals last year with Nashville. In 80 games, he has 25 goals and 19 assists. Look for him to be a catalyst for this young club.
11. Washington Capitals – G Braden Holtby
Sorry, Ovechkin fans, but the long-awaited road to any Capitals’ Stanley Cup glory still goes through the blue paint underneath Braden Holtby. He wasn’t as sharp this year in the regular season, with a career worst goals against average (2.99) and save percentage (.907) and no shutouts. But that may be a good thing. He was fairly hot down the stretch, not allowing more than three goals in any one game in his last eight and beating teams like Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis and New Jersey. Having played nine fewer games than he did in 2017-18, a chastened Holtby might also be extra motivated to quiet a chorus of naysayers this year. While he doesn’t own a winning record in 59 playoff games (29-30), the Lloydminster, SK native owns a collective .932 save percentage, 2.00 GAA and four shutouts. Honorable Mention: LW Alex Ovechkin – The Great 8 won his seventh Rocket Richard trophy this season, firing a league high 49 goals, adding 38 assists for 87 points. He will also be intrinsic to shaking a King Kong sized monkey off his and his team’s back by finally going on a run beyond the second round. He has 46 goals and 90 points in 97 playoff contests and will be counted on.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs – G Frederik Andersen
There weren’t many players as valuable to their team this season than Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen. The team was able to record a franchise high 105 points, due in no small part to the Danish goaltender’s heroics. If the Leafs are to extend themselves past the first round — they’ll tangle with nemesis Boston again — for the first time since 2004. The 28-year-old fifth-year veteran was second in games played at 66 and posted a career high 38 wins and five shutouts. He faced the most shots in the NHL at 2,211 and saved 2,029 of them for a .918 save percentage. To say he was a calming influence on a team that likes to play fast and loose at times would be a gargantuan understatement. Post-season wise, he owns a 19-13 record in 34 starts, along with a 2.41 GAA, two shutouts and a .915 save percentage. Honorable Mention: LW Patrick Marleau – For a guy his age (38), Marleau still keeps putting up admirable numbers. He scored 27 goals for the second straight year and over 20 for the 15th time. The old man among a group of very dynamic forwards, Marleau has considerable post-season experience that can be counted upon, with 120 points in 177 total games.
9. Minnesota Wild – C Eric Staal
Of all the veterans on Minnesota’s roster, Eric Staal will have the biggest say in the Wild’s post-season success — or lack thereof. A Stanley Cup winner in 2006 with Carolina, Staal has played but 28 playoff games since and after being the Wild’s surprise leading scorer this season, still has something left to prove. The big pivot fired over 40 goals (42 to be exact) for the first time since 2008-09 and scored in all facets, including 11 powerplay markers, two shorties and four game-winners. He also won 51.2 percent of his draws and recorded a career best shooting percentage of 17.4 percent. Staal, who had just one point in five playoff games with the Wild in 2017, has 44 points overall in 53 games. Honorable Mention: D Mathew Dumba – With veteran defenceman Ryan Suter sidelined for the playoffs, the pressure will be on dynamic puck-mover Mathew Dumba to pick up the slack and produce. We think he’s up to the task, having registered career highs in goals (14), assists (36), points (50) and ice time (just under 24 minutes per game).
8. Anaheim Ducks – C Ryan Getzlaf
The San Jose Sharks ought to beware, because their first round opponents, the Anaheim Ducks, were one of the hottest teams down the stretch, going 8-1-1 in their last 10. Ryan Getzlaf, who played just 56 games this year, was good in that period, scoring a goal and eight assists in nine of those 10. He finished his injury-marred season with a very respectable 61 points (11 goals). One of the few holdovers along with teammate Corey Perry from the 2007 Stanley Cup winning Ducks, Getzlaf will be huge for this club in the post-season. Last year he put together a great run, scoring 19 points in 17 games as Anaheim went to the Western Conference finals. Overall, the 32-year-old Regina native has 118 points in 121 playoff games, all with Anaheim. Honorable Mention: D Josh Manson – The fourth year man asserted himself offensively this season, scoring a career high 37 points, in just over 20 minutes average ice time. More importantly, Manson scored all of his points even strength. Anaheim had the 23rd ranked powerplay this year, so scoring 5-v-5 is key to their fortunes.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins – C Sidney Crosby
There are many contenders to the throne of best player in the NHL, but Sid the Kid is still holding the crown. No, he didn’t lead the NHL in scoring this season and yes he and the Penguins struggled early but Crosby is still king. Having played an essential role in two straight Stanley Cups and three overall, Crosby enters the 2018 post-season on a high. In his last 10 games, he had six goals and six assists, finishing with 89 points. The Penguins are well set up on three very good lines, with leading scorer Evgeni Malkin on the second line and no. 2 man Phil Kessel on the third. Crosby, who has 164 points in 148 playoff games, scored eight goals and a NHL best 19 assists in 24 games during last year’s championship run. He’s still the man. Honorable Mention: G Matt Murray – The Pens playoff hero two years in a row returns to the fray after an up-and-down 2017-18 campaign punctuated by games missed due to concussion issues. After returning for good on Mar. 23, he posted a 4-2-1 record, with wins over Philadelphia, New Jersey and Columbus. He’ll face the Flyers in the first round, too.
6. San Jose Sharks – D Brent Burns
For the second straight season, Brent Burns led the Sharks in scoring — which is no mean feat considering the team employs shooters like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. Even though it was a down year on the plus-minus side (he was a career worst -16, Burns still piled up 67 points, 27 of them on the Sharks 16th ranked powerplay. And he finished the season strongly, scoring two goals and 10 assists over his final 10 games, along with a +2. He will lead a Sharks team that will be in tough against Pacific Division foe Anaheim in the first round. They are probably hoping he can repeat the success he had during the Sharks run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2016, when Burns notched 24 points in 24 games. The Sharks do have many leaders, including Couture and Pavelski, but they aren’t quite as dynamic as Burns. Honorable Mention: C Logan Couture – At 29, the time is now for one of the Sharks big leaders to put it all out there for the Cup. He scored a career best 34 goals this season and topped 60 points for the third time in his career. He led all playoff scorers with 30 points in 2016, so the faithful may have their fingers crossed he is due for another big spring.
5. Los Angeles Kings – D Drew Doughty
The Vegas Golden Knights are in for the fight of their young lives in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. They draw a big, tough L.A. Kings team with many players left from the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup winning teams. Chief among them is 2016 Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty. The durable two-way defender, like some of his veteran confreres, is no doubt hungry for post-season action, as the Kings missed the Big Dance in 2017. Doughty, who hasn’t missed a game since the 2013-14 season, recorded a career high 60 points this season, including 50 assists and 20 powerplay points. He played a shade under 27 minutes per game, killing penalties and registering an excellent +23 (second highest of his career). In the two years L.A. won the Stanley Cup, Doughty had 34 points in 46 games. Honorable Mention: G Jonathan Quick – The L.A. Kings superstar had a nice rebound season after playing just 17 games during the 2016-17 campaign. He started 63 of 64 games and went 33-28-3 with a 2.40 GAA, .921 save percentage and five shutouts. In 81 playoff games he has 46 wins, a .921 save percentage, 2.27 GAA and nine shutouts.
4. Philadelphia Flyers – LW Claude Giroux
The Flyers will have to get through the defending champs and hated rival Pittsburgh if they want to take a serious stab at a title. What will be different in this iteration of the Flyers/Penguins is the fact that Claude Giroux has recently moved to the wing and won’t be in charge of covering Sidney Crosby. Giroux, now a left winger, had his best NHL season by far, leading all scorers in assists with 68 and finishing second only to Connor McDavid in points with a career best 102 points. Giroux was valuable in all facets of his breakthrough game this season, as he also registered a +28 and 36 powerplay points. When he was taking face-offs, Giroux won 58.6 percent of them, too. In his only extended foray into the playoffs in 2010, Giroux had 21 points in 23 games and has recorded 62 points in 63 total post-season contests. Honorable Mention: G Brian Elliott – The window of playoff success is getting smaller for birthday boy Brian Elliott (he turned 33 Monday). He is tasked with beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, too. Elliott, who missed nearly two months due to injury, just returned on Apr. 5 and in two games against Pittsburgh they have torched him for nine goals on 67 shots. He can redeem himself with a performance close to the one he put in for St. Louis in 2016.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets – G Sergei Bobrovsky
In our estimation, the Blue Jackets will only go as far as two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky takes them. And he’ll likely see a ton of rubber thrown his way in a first round match-up with Metropolitan Division leading Washington. “Bob” was his usual wall-like self in 2017-18, playing in 65 games, winning 37 and recording a 2.42 goals against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts. In his last 15 games he lost just twice in regulation, beating the likes of Washington, San Jose, Philadelphia and Florida. Where things have gotten dicey for the defending Vezina winner is in the post-season. In 14 career starts, he has a 3-10 record, with sub-par numbers like a 3.63 goals against average and .887 save percentage. If he wants to be among the greats, the time is now for him to prove it. Honorable Mention: LW Artemi Panarin – The Jackets big ticket off-season acquisition has much to prove after leading his team in scoring (82 points, a career high). Panarin, who has 233 points in 243 regular season games, has been nearly as pedestrian as his Russian colleague Bobrovsky, scoring two goals and eight points in 11 playoff games, all with Chicago. Step up, Artemi.
2. New Jersey Devils – LW Taylor Hall
After 529 NHL regular season games, Taylor Hall will finally get to skate in a playoff contest. Hall, acquired by the Devils in 2016, had a breakout year, registering career bests in goals (39), assists (54), points (93), plus-minus (+14), powerplay goals (13) and powerplay assists (24). He leads a sound Devils hockey club into a playoff cauldron, as Jersey tangles with Eastern Conference no. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning. If the regular season means anything for Hall and the Devils, he had an assist in each of three matches he played against the Bolts, all wins. In his last eight games of the season, with New Jersey fighting tooth and nail for the last playoff spot, Hall had an astounding seven goals and eight assists, including three points in a huge win over Pittsburgh. Honorable Mention: G Keith Kinkaid – Undrafted and until 2017-18 largely unknown, Keith Kinkaid might turn out to be very Matt Murray like in this year’s playoffs. He usurped starting duties from Corey Schneider and over his last eight starts was 7-0-1. He, like Taylor Hall, has never appeared in the NHL post-season.
1. Colorado Avalanche – C Nathan MacKinnon
If there was a better time for Nathan MacKinnon to put his team on his back and show the hockey world just how good he really is, the time is now. MacKinnon, who led the Avs in scoring with a career high 97 points, fired the eventual winner and added an assist as the Avalanche qualified for the post-season with a massive 5-2 victory over St. Louis on Saturday. That win put the Avs into a first round series against Nashville and ended the Blues season rather abruptly (they led Colorado by a point for the last playoff spot entering the 82nd game). When his team needed him most over the last month of the season, MacKinnon scored eight goals and 12 assists in 17 games. If past performance is an indicator, MacKinnon had 10 points in the seven playoff games he’s been in to date. Honorable Mention: Colorado’s Goalies – We aren’t sure if Jonathan Bernier, Saturday’s hero, or season-long starter Semyon Varlamov will be between the pipes in Nashville later this week. But, rest assured any success the Avalanche have will be due to solid netminding. Judging by Bernier’s cool performance against St. Louis — two goals allowed on 34 shots — we think he may get the nod.