Scott Cullen looks at the 2014 playoff picture, including his Top 160 skaters, plus goaltenders, based on projections for this year's playoffs.
This year's playoffs bring a new format, which means no re-seeding after the first round and that allows for picking by bracket, perhaps making things a little more predictable at least in terms of knowing future matchups.
Every year it seems that injuries play a major role and that's certainly the case coming into this year's playoffs. Henrik Zetterberg, Ben Bishop, Matt Duchene, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, Nathan Horton, Alex Galchenyuk, Jonathan Ericsson and Chris Kreider aren't expected to be ready for the start of the postseason.
On top of that list, the following notable players are listed as questionable: Patrice Bergeron, Drew Doughty, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Mikael Granlund, Jan Hejda, Nick Foligno, Ray Whitney and Darcy Kuemper. Winning in the playoffs depends in, some measure, on luck and perhaps nowhere more than when it comes to injuries.
If some of these players aren't ready to go right off the bat, that would make a significant difference in their chances, so my expectation is that the players on the second list (the questionables) are likely to play, even if they aren't 100% totally and completely healthy.
So, make your own picks (sign up for the Playoff Hockey Challenge), watch the playoffs and enjoy. Good luck and have fun!
For more information, please check out the following:
The Playoff Payoff - A more detailed stats breakdown, with strategy, likely line combinations and deep sleepers for each team.
Fantasy Hockey Update - My preferred sleepers.
NHL Power Rankings - You'll have some idea how good I think a team is based on their finish here.
Series-by-Series Forecast - Based on shot differentials and save percentages
BOSTON BRUINS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
The Pick: Bruins in six.
Why?: The Bruins are the better team and have been playoff battle-tested, so they aren't going to be surprised by what the Red Wings can offer as resistance. If the game gets physical, it's an overwhelming advantage for Boston and, with better possession stats and better goaltending, something will have to really go awry for the Bruins to get overtaken by Detroit. At the same time, if the Red Wings can keep the series focused on speed and puck possession, that would likely play more favourably.
Detroit is a decent possession team in their own right and, since turning over their roster to give young players a prominent role, they have more options. If not for the play of Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco and more, the Wings wouldn't have a shot, but those players have greatly improved the Wings' depth and provide viable complementary pieces around veterans Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson and David Legwand.
Maybe those young guys will get loose and use their speed to put pressure on Boston's defence -- that would seem to be the best approach -- but even with those plans, the fact remains that the Bruins are stronger and deeper, so if it's not David Krejci's line, then maybe it's Patrice Bergeron's unit and if it's not them, then the third line, featuring Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson, could be the one doing the damage. at some point, the Wings are going to be hard-pressed to turn back all of the Bruins' top three lines.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The Pick: Penguins in seven.
Why?: If the Jackets were healthier, they might get more consideration for an upset pick. They still could pull it off, with a balanced attack and strong goaltending, but there's also the possibility that Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury won't completely lay an egg in the postseason and if he is merely average, that could be enough.
Thing is, the Penguins are vulnerable, though perhaps less so with Evgeni Malkin
expected to return for Game One. Pittsburgh has a top-heavy lineup, so they're fine when Crosby and Malkin are on the ice; the challenge will be what happens when the third and fourth lines get on the ice because that's been a problem area for the Penguins this year. On the plus side, the Penguins defence should move the puck better with Paul Martin
and Kris Letang
back in the lineup after missing substantial time.
If the Blue Jackets can somehow limit Crosby's effectiveness (no small task against the best player in the world), that could make for a more balanced matchup, one in which goaltending could rule the day. While it would be no fun to see another Marc-Andre Fleury playoff collapse, he wouldn't have to play poorly to get outdueled by Sergei Bobrovsky.
For these reasons, the Blue Jackets might have a chance but, in the end, talent wins out and, as long as No. 87 is involved, the Penguins have more.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Pick: Canadiens in six.
Why?: Under normal circumstances, this series could be a virtual toss-up, as one might expect when a 100-point team meets a 101-point team, but the wrinkle in that plan comes in the status of Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop, who is out with an arm injury.
There is a such a massive drop in play from Bishop to Anders Lindback, that the edge has to go to the Canadiens. Of course, basing a team's edge in a short series on goaltending is a risky proposition indeed, because those percentages fluctuate wildly even in much larger samples than seven games, but as a confidence play, it's easier to believe in Carey Price backstopping the Habs than it is to buy Lindback backstopping the Bolts.
The series isn't only about goaltending, as Tampa Bay's youth brigade -- which includes Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and others -- has provided ample support for Steven Stamkos, so the Lightning have enough firepower to get into a run-and-gun game and there's probably a reasonable argument to be made that neither team has the kind of defence that should fare well in a high-level playoff series. Montreal has high-end talent on the back-end, led by P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, but the level drops after that and, if the games open up, there could be some higher scoring results.
Montreal doesn't have great scoring depth, particularly with second-year winger Alex Galchenyuk out, but their top line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek is dangerous and gives the Canadiens an attack that can keep pace.
NEW YORK RANGERS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
The Pick: Rangers in six.
Why?: The Rangers are a good possession team with one of the game's best goalies. That's not enough to assure a win, particularly against a Flyers team that has both high-end scoring and depth up front, but if the Blueshirts can sick defenceman Ryan McDonagh on Claude Giroux, and at least limit Giroux's productivity, then there is a fair chance for the Rangers to win other battles throughout the lineup.
The Rangers' ceiling in this year's playoffs may be determined by some veterans that haven't been the most productive this year. Brad Richards, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis have all struggled at times. St. Louis has one goal and eight points in 19 games with the Rangers, Nash (39 points in 65 games) scored at his lowest rate since his rookie season, and Richards' 51 points in 82 games was the lowest per-game scoring rate of his career. Even with those numbers, those are players that have to rise to the occasion for the Rangers, unless they are counting on Derick Brassard to put up a point-per-game like he did in last year's playoffs.
Philadelphia's supporting cast might be a touch more reliable, though Vincent Lecavalier has endured a season that would lump him in quite easily with his former Lightning teammates.
Both teams are interesting enough to think that they could make some noise in the postseason and given the choice between Henrik Lundqvist and Steve Mason, even after Mason posted a career-best .917 save percentage, the edge goes to the Rangers.
ANAHEIM DUCKS vs. DALLAS STARS
The Pick: Stars in seven.
Why?: Because I can't stick with chalk all the way through the first round? Figuring that there will likely be an upset somewhere plays a part in this pick, but there is also a very small difference in my rankings values between Anaheim and Dallas, even though they are effectively the first and eighth seeds in the Western Conference.
Both teams have an elite pair of forwards on the top line but, after that, the scoring is done by committee, so it's not inconceivable that the Stars' might be able to grind out a few extra goals from the supporting cast.
The Stars also have more stability in net, with veteran Kari Lehtonen. The Ducks sure appear to be leaning towards their rookie non-Jonas Hiller options, with rookie Frederik Andersen having the edge over John Gibson and while Andersen and Gibson have played well when given the chance, neither has the track record to suggest they couldn't possibly run into problems in an NHL playoff series.
Finally, the Stars are a Top 10 possession team and the Ducks' success this season has largely been predicated on an unsustainably-high shooting percentage (10.7% at 5-on-5, score close). Maybe that shooting percentage continues through the first round of the playoffs (or longer), or maybe the Stars could benefit from some regression that is overdue at this point.
COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. MINNESOTA WILD
The Pick: Avalanche in six.
Why?: In many circumstances, the Avalanche would be ripe to picked against for an upset, and maybe the Wild can pull it off, because injuries to centre Matt Duchene and defenceman Tyson Barrie are potential problems for a team that already ranks 27th in Fenwick Close. It works in Colorado's favour that Minnesota hasn't been a great possession team, either, ranking 21st in Fenwick Close, but somebody is going to have to play with the puck, right?
The Avalanche owe a lot of their success this season to goaltender Semyon Varlamov and he'll likely have to be a difference-maker in Round One against Minnesota. The Wild have a solid lineup, and it's getting better all the time as young players like Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula (filling in for Mikael Granlund as the second-line centre late in the year) take on bigger roles. As complements to veterans Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville, that gives the Wild enough firepower to keep up with the Avs, particularly the Avs without Duchene.
However, picking the Wild means casting your lot with Ilya Bryzgalov in net and, while Bryz has had some good starts for Minnesota, his recent track record makes him difficult to back, even against a potentially depleted Colorado lineup.
SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Pick: Kings in seven.
Why?: Seven games because this is the coin-flip of all first-round coin flips. Two quality teams, two teams that have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, and one of them will be done after the first round.
The Sharks are getting healthier, with Tomas Hertl back in the lineup and Raffi Torres nearing a return, but the Kings are a generally healthy lot, as long as Drew Doughty isn't suffering any lingering effects from the shoulder injury he suffered late in the season.
With a series expected to be as close as this one, it's easy to side with the goaltender and Jonathan Quick inspires a little more confidence than Antti Niemi right now; enough to give the Kings the edge in a seven-game series.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS vs. ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Pick: Blackhawks in six.
Why?: For a long time, it looked like Colorado and Chicago were destined to meet in the first round, but then the Blues lost six straight to finish the year and fell into second place in the Central and while this would normally be a matchup on par with the Sharks and Kings, with two viable Cup contenders, the Blues are hitting a bad run of injuries at the worst possible time.
At the very least, it appears that Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund are out for the Blues, but David Backes and T.J. Oshie missed time in the final week and, even if they do play in Game One, it's fair to wonder if they're actually 100% healthy. With Alexander Steen just recently returning from injury too, the Blues are in a tough spot with a banged-up first line, particularly when injuries further limit the supporting cast.
Chicago is healthier, perhaps in part because Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews suffered their recent injuries early enough to allow for some recovery. It's also legitimate to wonder if Kane and Toews are 100%, but if they are good enough to go, then Chicago still has enough support to push back the Blues.
Add in the recent track records of these franchises -- two Stanley Cups in the past four years for the Blackhawks while the Blues have advanced past the first round once in the past eight years -- and the edge goes to the defending champs.
Future Series Picks
Chicago over Colorado
Los Angeles over Dallas
Chicago over Los Angeles
Boston over Montreal
Pittsburgh over N.Y. Rangers
Boston over Pittsburgh
Boston over Chicago
Here is my list of playoff projections, obviously influenced by my team picks. For the first time I can recall, I've hedged, because I'm so uncertain on the Los Angeles-San Jose winner, yet think whichever teams wins has a very good chance to reach the Western Conference Final, so I've projected both teams to play 12 games rather than one at six and one at 18. If you have different picks -- and I'm sure many of you do -- do not follow my player picks to the letter; perhaps use the Playoff Payoff to find value on the teams you like best this spring.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.