The Stanley Cup playoffs are not that far off. Yeah, the NHL is in something of the dog days of its 82-game season, but spring is starting to feel closer. And that means only one thing: predictions.
The gist of the following conversation between Bleacher Report hockey writers Adrian Dater and Jonathan Willis, however, can be summarized as follows: There are no clear favorites for anything. There is parity among the top teams, and there are horse races for the individual awards.
Dater and Willis do their best at forecasting the winners, but don’t bet the farm on any of it.
Dater: Well, Jonathan, we’re a little more than past the halfway mark, and I feel strongly about who the best team in the league is and who will win the Stanley Cup.
No, wait. I don’t have a clue, man. There are like five or six teams that have all had major winning streaks who keep taking turns at the top of the standings. It’s been a new flavor every week—the Baskin-Robbins of sports. This is what NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants, right? Seriously, I could easily lay 100 bucks on several teams to win it all. But who’s the best?
Willis: Well, let’s not get into what Bettman wants. I’m all set to go off on a 1,000-word tangent on the stupidity of the standings system, and nobody wants that. But you’re right that there isn’t a single dominant team that overshadows its peers; there are (as there usually are) a half-dozen or so clubs that can be considered legitimate contenders. If I have to narrow the focus down to a single team, though, it’s pretty hard to pick against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Dater: I agree. It’s hard to pick against them. The stars are all there and healthy and will only turn up their intensity as the playoffs get closer. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still dominating, even though they’re both starting to get up there in years a little, and the same can’t be said for guys like Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry and Anze Kopitar. But then you look at Pittsburgh and think that they’ve been blown out a few times, the defense isn’t all that deep still and the Cup Hangover has gotten every single team for the last 19 years.
Willis: I wonder a little bit about the Cup Hangover angle and the Penguins. I share the concerns about the back end, which seems like a place they could be vulnerable, but something that should help them is their depth up front. Crosby leads the Pittsburgh forwards in average time on ice, but he’s only played 19:12 per game this season—less than Brandon Sutter pf the Vancouver Canucks, which is really saying something. Coach Mike Sullivan has been able to keep the minutes down for his star players, and that’s the kind of strategy that should get them into the playoffs with gas still in the tank.
Dater: Let’s run down the list of the other contenders, briefly give some reasons they could win it and one or two why they won’t. The Columbus Blue Jackets—love the story, love the win streak, love that they’ll be in the playoffs, but there’s not enough upper-echelon forward talent. And even though I’m a John Tortorella kind of guy, I worry he burns everyone out by Game 3 of the first round with his intensity. And you just know he’ll have done his Bill Belichick routine with the media again by then.
Willis: I like Columbus a ton. They’re a good possession team at 5-on-5, and Sergei Bobrovsky is on, so they have great goaltending too. But they have been heavily dependent on a strong penalty kill and their lethal power play. Come playoff time, you just know we’re going to see officiating standards slip, which undercuts two of their primary strengths.
Dater: So we agree there’ll be no parade in Columbus yet. Next up are the Washington Capitals. I picked them last year, fully convinced it was finally their time and totally sold on Braden Holtby being invulnerable. And they failed again. I still love Washington for all the reasons I did last year: strong defense, enough offense up front and Holtby is putting up beast numbers again.
So I think they should win it. But I would feel as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs laying any real money on them. Because the Capitals never win in the end. They just don’t.
Willis: I know the feeling, but I do think we have to keep the NHL’s wonky divisional playoff format in mind. I know the Tampa Bay Lightning technically took Pittsburgh to seven games last year, but the only series I watched when I legitimately questioned whether the Pens were the better team was that second-round matchup against Washington. It just so happened to be the Capitals’ bad luck that they played the other great team in the playoffs in the second round.
Having said that, Washington has the same issue this year; for all the team’s strengths, it has to make it through the Metropolitan gauntlet to win it all. One key difference is that they’re a little better equipped depthwise than they were last season, when they had to bring in Mike Richards to try and shore up the bottom six.
Dater: Next up: the Montreal Canadiens. Too many health problems, right? Their top forwards can never stay healthy for long. As long as netminder Carey Price is there, there’s a chance—and probably a pretty decent one. And Shea Weber over P.K. Subban all day long so far. But unless they can figure out how to stay healthy, no Cup in Montreal
Willis: Health does seem to be the biggest issue in Montreal this year, but they do have the depth this year to get away with a lot. It wasn’t all that long ago that we could have written off the Penguins for much the same reason. You’re bang on about Price, and playing in the Atlantic Division means that the road to the conference final is a lot less bumpy for Montreal than it is for Washington and Pittsburgh.
I have them a tier below the top teams from the Met, with an asterisk just in case Price pulls a Conn Smythe-level run.
Dater: Let’s talk about the Minnesota Wild. I’m wild about the Wild right now. I love Devan Dubnyk’s game in goal. He’s huge, he’s focused and he’s your likely Vezina winner. I love Bruce Boudreau’s work behind the bench. Yeah, I know he hasn’t won a Cup despite several seemingly can’t-miss teams previously. But I like their forward depth and top-four defense. Could they use another top forward? Maybe. But I think the Wild is my Cup pick, Willis. What say you?
Willis: The West is thin, so anything could happen, but I have to admit that I’m skeptical about the Wild. Dubnyk has made a ton of difference; at 5-on-5, Minnesota’s .938 save percentage is the second-best number in the NHL, and that, combined with a 9.7 shooting percentage (third in the NHL), makes them tough to beat.
They still get outshot more often than not, and over the last 25 games have a 49 per cent score-adjusted Fenwick rating. What we’ve seen in recent years is that a team that rides the percentages like that often has trouble winning four rounds because the numbers are inherently streaky. This is the same team that went 5-6-2 in November. If they hit that kind of bump again, they’re toast.
Dater: Don’t badmouth Fenwick Park, OK? It’s the holy church of baseball parks and…wait, OK, sorry. Look, Willis, I don’t know much about about history. Don’t know much about biology. Don’t know much about a science book and don’t know much about the French I took. And I sure as heck don’t know much about Fenwick. But I do know that the Wild is my Cup pick.
And to briefly discount some others: Chicago Blackhawks (not enough forward depth), New York Rangers (King Henrik is fading fast), St. Louis Blues (too thin up front), Edmonton Oilers (too young, too shallow on defense still) and Anaheim Ducks (too old). So I take it you’re going with the Penguins?
Willis: It kills me to pick a single team, but yes I’ll go with Pittsburgh. I agree with the four teams you’ve dismissed, barring something truly shocking happening at the trade deadline, but there are a couple of other teams that I would mention, both from the Pacific.
I have trouble seeing the San Jose Sharks win it all, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they won the West again. I’m also loath to write-off the Los Angeles Kings, whom I have as a dark horse, especially if netminder Jonathan Quick comes back in top form and they add some help at the trade deadline. If the Nashville Predators had health and a different goalie, I’d toss them into the mix too.
Dater: No chance for the Kings, and San Jose looks a bit stale. Same with the Preds. To finish things up here, let’s do some lightning-round trophy picks. Hart Trophy? I’ll go with Crosby. He’s the best all-around player in the game again. You?
Willis: It depends on whether his shooting percentage holds. If so, it’s going to be impossible to vote for anyone else, and he’d be my pick. If it slows down, it’s going to be difficult to pick anyone other than Connor McDavid.
Dater: OK, I’ll kneel at the pews of the Church of McDavid here. Amazing talent. Amazing. But Crosby’s still better overall. OK, Vezina. I’ve got Dubnyk, but Holtby might post the better numbers again. So too might Price and The Bob in Columbus. It’s a good race here, but I’ll go with Doobie.
Willis: I see it as a three-person race in net between Dubnyk, Holtby and Bobrovsky. Price has slipped a little after a hot start, and his save percentage is probably too far back to recover. I’ll echo your pick of Dubnyk.
Dater: Calder Trophy. Can we quickly agree it’s the pride of Scottsdale, Arizona, Auston Matthews?
Willis: Zach Werenski deserves some love, but yes, Matthews should win it.
Dater: On to the Norris Trophy, then. By the numbers, I’ve gotta go with Brent Burns. But I always feel bad with this pick somehow. Is he the best shutdown D-man in the league? Probably not. But when you consider both ends, I think he deserves top consideration so far.
Willis: Burns isn’t even the top shutdown defenceman on his team, but it’s awfully hard to ignore 19 goals. This is always a tough pick to make off the top of your head, but I’d like to see Ryan McDonagh get some love from voters. Without taking a few hours to dig into the numbers and watch video, I’ll go with Burns, though.
Dater: Lastly, coach of the year. I’ll go with my guy, Torts. It’s pretty amazing considering where the Blue Jackets were at the start of last year and where they are now since he’s taken over. Yeah, he’ll probably burn them right into the ground at some point, but he deserves the Jack Adams. And if you don’t think so? Well, in the spirit of Torts: “Bleep you.”
Willis: I feel like a contrarian saying Mike Sullivan, but the way Pittsburgh played in the early going without Crosby and the manner in which he’s managed his bench leave me incredibly impressed. That’s not to take anything away from Tortorella, who will probably end up winning the award, but I’d put Sullivan 1A and Torts 1B.
Adrian Dater and Jonathan Willis both cover the NHL for Bleacher Report.
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