Welcome to the third installment of our NHL playoff rooting guide! We’ve already covered both the underdogs and the regular dogs, and, if you’ve stuck with it this long I thank you.
It is now time to look at the cream of the crop; the favorites; the teams that will cause the most anguish and disappointment if they don’t at least get to the conference finals.
Tier 2: The Contenders
The Flames came out of nowhere this year and grabbed the top seed in the Western Conference after missing the playoffs entirely last season. Third year forward Matthew Tkachuk made a huge leap into becoming a point per game player while also annoying the hell out of his opponents. The real decision on whether or not to watch this team come playoff time comes down to what you think of the jerseys they intend to wear throughout. Eyesore, or fun?
Player to Watch: Johnny Gaudreau
Johnny Hockey is the best player in the league that will perpetually look 12 years old. He set career highs in both goals and points this season with 36 and 98, respectively. He’s being rewarded with home ice advantage in the playoffs and with his own personal water bottle holder.
Derek Ryan was born and raised in Spokane and spent three years with the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL. He missed overlapping with fellow Spokane native Tyler Johnson of the Lightning by just one year. Johnson was able to crack the NHL quickly though, while Ryan went through four years of college and four more of European hockey before finally making it to the big leagues.
Cheer grade: 8/12 — if the jerseys don’t burn your eyes out, of course
The Bruins are looking to end the painful 3-month long draught of no pro sports championships in the city of Boston. Fine, I guess that’s not totally fair. The long suffering hockey fans of Boston have waited a whole 8 years since their last Stanley Cup. The point is, fuck all Boston sports franchises.
Player to Watch: Brad Marchand
Marchand is undeniably one of the most talented forwards in the league. He is also, by some lists, the dirtiest player in the NHL. I won’t go into too much detail because I’ll just get myself all worked up, so here’s what fellow player (and awkwardly enough, current teammate) Marcus Johanssen had to say after Marchand gave him a concussion.
Brandon Carlo, a 6’5” defenseman, spent three seasons with the Tri-City Americans, who play in the same division in the WHL as the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips. Now he’s only the second tallest player on his team thanks to Zdeno Chara. Carlo is only in his third season in the NHL and doesn’t put up a lot of points, but his puck possession metrics are above average, which is more what people generally need from defensemen.
Cheer grade: 1/12
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are a team full of regular season accolades with no Stanley Cups to show for it. They have only missed the playoffs once in the past 15 seasons. Their big splash coming into the year was acquiring star defenseman Erik Karlsson from the walking dumpster fire that is the Ottawa Senators. He had the lowest goal total of the year this season, but he’s still a top 5 defenseman by both Manny Perry’s player ratings and Evolving Hockey’s GAR ratings.
Player to Watch: Joe Thornton
Jumbo Joe is a future Hall of Famer currently playing in his 21st season in the NHL. He won the Hart trophy as the league MVP in 2006 and ranks 8th all time in career assists. He was also responsible for the most exciting 20 minutes of hockey this season, when he scored the fifth hat trick of his career and came so damn close to scoring a fourth goal (which he personally has never done in the NHL). If you’d like to know why the prospect of Thornton scoring four goals in a game had the entire hockey twitter community tweeting about #🐓watch, here’s his comments in 2013 on what kind of celly we might see from him after four goals:
Maybe he’ll finally notch that four goal game in the Stanley Cup Finals so we can all see just how jumbo Joe really is.
Brenden Dillon played the fourth most games in a Seattle Thunderbirds sweater of any defenseman in franchise history. He was a mainstay on the blue line for four years, but was never a huge goal scorer or even a highly touted defensive prospect. He went undrafted, but worked his way into the league with the Dallas Stars before finding a real home in San Jose.
Cheer grade: 9/12
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are probably the closest comparison in the NHL to the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. They have a storied history with fans all across the country (continent?), and won all their championships before most of their fans were born. The Leafs made quite a splash in the offseason when they hired
9-year old 32-year old Kyle Dubas to be their next general manager. Dubas is one of the most well-known proponents of utilizing advanced statistics in roster-building, and this year it looks like it’s worked. Dubas has me totally torn between my love of analytics and my love of laughing at the Leafs.
Player to Watch: Auston Matthews
Matthews played his youth hockey in the thriving hockey scene that is the deserts of Arizona. After spending a year playing professionally in Switzerland at just 18 years old, Matthews was selected 1st overall in 2016 by the (at the time) bottom dwelling Leafs. He scored 4 goals in his very first game in the NHL and has remained one of the top scorers in the league ever since. He also paid tribute to current teammate and former long-time Shark Patrick Marleau at the All-Star game in San Jose this year in a pretty cool way.
Patrick Marleau is a future Hall of Famer currently playing in his 21st season in the NHL, and his career all started right here in Seattle. He played for the Seattle Thunderbirds for two seasons and scored 199 points in 143 games. He then spent 19 years with the San Jose Sharks, where they enjoyed immense regular season success with no Stanley Cups to show for it. He is the player most deserving of a Cup win on his team and arguably in the entire league right now.
Cheer grade: 3/12 — but Marleau gets a solid 12/12
The Jets had a proud Canadian franchise from the early 70’s until 1996, when they were sold and moved to Phoenix, a city known for hockey. Sound familiar?
The Jets were reborn in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg. By last season, they had not only built a playoff team, but a contender, with one of the most raucous home crowds in the NHL.
Player to Watch: Patrik Laine
Laine is one of the best young goal scorers in the NHL with one of the ugliest/most perfect playoff beards.
He’s had a down season, scoring a career low 30 goals (still impressive) in a year where some predicted he would lead the league in scoring. He may not end up as one of the best all around forwards in the NHL, but he has proven that he is always a goal-scoring threat when on the ice.
The closest I can find is defenseman Joe Morrow, who spent four years with the Portland Winterhawks, but instead I’m picking Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced BUFF-lin) because he’s way more fun. Big Buff spent three years with the WHL’s Prince George Cougars, where he terrorized the US Division. Video evidence is tough to come by for major-junior hockey circa 2003, but we can still get a glimpse of what he did in the area in his hockeyfights.com profile. He once had a gross misconduct (ejected from the game + the following game for extreme unsportsmanlike conduct) in Portland, a match penalty for intent to injure in Spokane, and a good old fashioned game misconduct against Portland after a fight with current Blue Jacket Brandon Dubinsky. My favorite highlight of his from the NHL has to be when he yanked two Vegas players from a pile during last year’s playoffs like an angry mother about to ground her two children for fighting in the playground.
Cheer grade: 7/12
Final Scores: Tier 2
San Jose Sharks: 9/12
Calgary Flames: 8/12
Winnipeg Jets: 7/12
Toronto Maple Leafs: 3/12
Boston Bruins: 1/12
This tier was tough because all the most likable teams also play in the West. The Jets aren’t a bad choice, as they’ve got a great home crowd and entice us with the real-life story of a team returning home after relocation. The Flames are great if you embrace the cockiness of Brady Tkachuk. The Sharks should be the clear winner here though, with a long-time Seattle Thunderbird on the roster as well as the whole Joe Thornton thing.
But wait, Dan, that’s 15 teams already. Aren’t there only 16 in the playoffs? And just one tier left?
That is correct! Someone has been keeping their spreadsheet updated. We are going to knock out the last tier right here, right now, because it’s pretty short.
Tier 1: The Tampa Bay Lighting
The Lightning are so good in every way and so far ahead of the pack that they deserve to be in an echelon of their own. They tied the record for the most wins in an 82-game season this year with 62.
Tampa Bay has been one of the best teams of the last five years, but they haven’t been able to bring home the Cup during that span. The Lightning clinched the Presidents Trophy (best regular season record) with nine games remaining in the season, before any other Eastern Conference team even clinched a playoff spot. Their +100 goal differential is nearly double that of second place Calgary and the first time a team finished the year with a goal differential above +100 since 2006. They’ve got the most goals, the best power play, the second best penalty kill, they’re in the top 5 for fewest goals allowed… They’re really fucking good.
Player to Watch: Nikita Kucherov
Kucherov finished with 128 points, the most in a single season since Mario Lemieux put up 161 in 1995-96. He’s the best player on the best team, and he’s got the most unique dangles too.
Spokane native Tyler Johnson started in the WHL playing for his hometown Chiefs. He was signed by Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2011, and in 2013 he played his first full season in the NHL. He has played with the Lightning his entire professional career. He finished 3rd in the Calder trophy voting after a 50-point rookie season in 2013-14.
Cheer grade: 10/12
Great team, great star player, great local name on the roster. The only real drawback is that they did win a Cup as recently as 2004. And people generally enjoy rooting for underdogs, which Tampa will never be in these playoffs.
New York Islanders: 12
Columbus Blue Jackets: 11
Carolina Hurricanes: 10
Washington Capitals: 10
St. Louis Blues: 9
San Jose Sharks: 9
Tampa Bay Lightning: 9
Calgary Flames: 8
Winnipeg Jets: 7
Nashville Predators: 6
Colorado Avalanche: 5
Dallas Stars: 4
Toronto Maple Leafs: 3
Vegas Golden Knights: 2
Pittsburgh Penguins: 1
Boston Bruins: 1
There is no shortage of fun teams to root for this year. Do you want that close local connection? The Islanders, Capitals, and Sharks are all great choices. Just want to root for a winner? Go with the Lightning, it’s okay to root for the top dog this year. Do you just like puppies? Team up with Lydia Cruz and cheer on those Blues. There’s even an argument to be made to back those Golden Knights, just as long as you promise to jump ship by 2021.
Now lean back, tune in to the networks of NBC, and let’s do that hockey.