The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the NHL Playoffs: Volume I

It’s official, folks. There are just three Stanley Cups remaining that Seattle can’t win. When 2021 comes, we will all be decked out in our Seattle Totems/Kraken/Sockeye/whatever jerseys, cheering on the best expansion team to arrive since 2017.

Until then, there may be some newer hockey fans trying to decide who to root for or pay attention to during these playoffs. To help them out, I have broken down every team in the playoffs in three categories:

  • Storyline
  • Player to watch
  • Connection to the city of Seattle or the Pacific Northwest in general

After gathering all this information and infusing it with as little of my own personal bias as I could manage, teams were graded on a scale of 1-12, a scale many Seahawks fans can understand.

First up in this series, let’s look at the teams that probably won’t win the Stanley Cup.  Coincidentally, these are also the squads most of us will decide to root for because we are all conditioned to welcome pain and misery into our sports fandom.

Tier 4: The Underdogs

St. Louis Blues

Storyline: On December 5th, the Blues were the second worst team in the league by record, sitting at 9-13-4 with a goal differential of -12. But then, the most important addition of their season arrived.

The Blues adopted a puppy.

After the arrival of Barclay, the Blues finished the season with a 36-15-5 stretch and pawed their way back into third place in the Central Division and into the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko

Tarasenko is the Blues’ best goal scorer, and he’s got some sweet hands as well.  Just check this out:

Oh sorry, that was just another Barclay update, but let’s be honest, that’s what we all really wanted.

Seattle Connection:

One of the best parts of our local sports radio has to be Lydia Cruz.  She keeps Brock and Salk in line every morning, and she also happens to be a Blues fan.  You can see for yourself by checking out her twitter avi.

The St. Louis Blues were also the team that drafted Everett native T.J. Oshie in the first round of the 2005 NHL draft.

Cheer Grade: 9/12

Carolina Hurricanes

Storyline:

“That bunch of jerks with the fun celebrations,” as their twitter bio says, has made headlines across the sports world this season. The Hurricanes decided having fun was a good thing to do, which made old sports men very angry.  Whenever Carolina wins a game on home ice, the team salutes the crowd with a “skol” clap a la the Minnesota Vikings, and then performs some sort of silly team celebration.  The Hurricanes have good reason to celebrate, as they are on the verge of ending the longest active playoff drought in the NHL (9 seasons).

Carolina is also a team that has embraced analytics, and if they were Seattle’s team you can bet that there would be a few “Corsi Champs” banners hung in their honor.  Come to think of it, I think Seahawks twitter would fit in well with ‘Canes twitter.  One big caveat though, before you jump on the bandwagon: The Hurricanes used to be the Hartford Whalers, before being moved by their owner in 1997 after assurances that he would do everything in his power to avoid relocation.  That might hit a bit too close to home for some Seattle fans. If that doesn’t bother you then definitely jump on board.

Player to Watch: Sebastian Aho

First of all, it needs to be pointed out how strange it is that last year there were two players named Sebastian Aho in the NHL.  Luckily for us, one of them wasn’t super great and is now in the minors, while the other is lighting it up for the Hurricanes.  Aho leads the team in points, and he’s just a genuinely fun player to watch.

Seattle Connection:

Nino Niederreiter played two years of junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks, the longtime rivals of the Seattle Thunderbirds.  He’s been stuck, until this year, on a Minnesota Wild team that has been a perennial playoff club, but with very little playoff success.  Nino is an easy guy to root for.

Cheer Grade: 10/12

Dallas Stars

Storyline:

The Stars haven’t been great this year, nor have they been bad.  They’re just sort of… there.  And according to their CEO, that’s due to the play of their two biggest stars.  In a December report from the Athletic, CEO Jim Lites referred to the play of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as “fucking horse-shit.”  He carried on for a while and I highly recommend reading the whole article if you’ve got a subscription because it is delightful.

Player to Watch: Tyler Seguin

Despite what his CEO says, Seguin is still a very good player playing to his full abilities.  His points per game this season are actually slightly higher than his career average.  But then again, he also missed an empty net from about two feet away this year:

Seattle Connection:

Jamie Benn played for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL before making it to the NHL.  Kelowna isn’t exactly close to Seattle, but the Rockets were eliinated by the Thunderbirds in the 2008 WHL playoffs, Benn’s first year in the league.  In 2009, though, he was a part of the Rockets team that beat both the Tri-City Americans and the Vancouver Giants on their way to the WHL Championship.

Cheer Grade: 4/12

Columbus Blue Jackets

Storyline:

The Blue Jackets have been very bad for the majority of their franchise’s history.  I’m not saying it’s due to their close proximity to the city of Cleveland, but I’m also not not saying that.  This year though, things have turned around.  Heading into the season, most analysts projected them to be a top ten team, with the Athletic’s Dom Luszcyszyn putting them as high as fourth.

However, because Ohio-based sports teams are doomed to suffer, there was one enormous caveat: their two best players (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) made it clear they would not be re-signing next year and would instead test free agency.  This left the Jackets in a unique situation: they could trade away the two superstars so as to regain something from their departure (which would drop their projection from fourth to 23rd in the league according to Luszczyszyn) or they could keep them and make a run at a Stanley Cup this year.  They chose the latter, going even further and trading away all but two of their 2019 draft picks to go for it all.

Much like the Seahawks, the Jackets are a circus. They will probably suck again for the next few years, but they’ve got a real chance this season.  Well, they do if they can get past the Lightning in the first round (more to come on them later).

Player to Watch: Artemi Panarin

The Breadman will be the hottest name (and nickname) on the free agent market next season.  His story, however, might be even more impressive than his skills on the ice. In an interview with the Athletic last summer, he talked about his journey from a tiny Russian mining town to the NHL.  His first pair of hockey skates were so big that he had to wear shoes inside of them. It’s an incredibly unlikely and inspiring story, and once you’ve read it you just can’t help but root for him.

Seattle Connection:

Ryan Murray was a stud defenseman for the Everett Silvertips for four years.  He is also the highest NHL draft selection to come from the Silvertips, going second overall in the 2012 draft.  He hasn’t made a big splash on the stat sheet in his short career, but has quietly improved his defensive play and earned a regular spot as a starting D-man.

Cheer Grade: 11/12

Colorado Avalanche

Storyline:

The Aves are a playoff team that also happens to have the best shot at getting the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.  They acquired the Ottawa Senators’ 2019 first rounder in 2017 and watched in awe as the Senators collapsed into the garbage heap of the league in the two years since.  The Senators finished the season with the worst record in the league, giving them (or rather Colorado) the best odds in the draft lottery to land projected top pick Jack Hughes.  The Aves are a playoff team that is about to add an incredibly talented forward.  It’s just too bad he won’t be there until next season.

Player to Watch: Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon finished second in MVP voting last year and trailed only Connor McDavid in points per game.  He was the biggest reason the Aves made it to the playoffs last time around and is doing it again this season.  His good hands and quick release have helped him to the first 40-goal season in his career.  At just 23 years old, he will likely be scoring goals like this for quite some time:

Seattle Connection:

Tyson Barrie is the franchise leader in points by a defenseman for both the Avalanche and the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.  In the 4+ years he spent in Kelowna, he played in playoff series against Portland, Everett, Tri-Cities (twice), and Seattle.  Though he may not have played for a Seattle-area team, he still found his way down here quite often in his junior hockey days.

Cheer Grade: 5/12

Final Scores: Tier 4

Columbus Blue Jackets: 11/12
Carolina Hurricanes: 10/12
St. Louis Blues: 9/12
Colorado Avalanche: 5/12
Dallas Stars: 4/12

The St. Louis Blues are a decent choice here because dogs, but lose a point for playing in the West, which will be Seattle’s eventual conference.

If you want a plucky underdog, I highly recommend either of the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Carolina Hurricanes.

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