It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for sports. We don’t want to take anything away from Christmas because we can’t disrespect Jesus on his special day and we can’t disappoint children – they will be plenty disappointed when they get older. The big golf tournaments are coming up and courses are ready to be destroyed by amateurs like myself, March Madness is coming to an end and fans are getting over the fact their bracket was busted and their bank account balance is less than normal, the NBA postseason is approaching, but more importantly, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to begin.
It’s hard for a sports fan from March to June. You have to make sure your superstitions are in order, that your favorite seat in the living room or bar hasn’t been tampered with or occupied, your fridge is stocked with beer, your pantry is full of salty snacks and sugary treats, and the pizza delivery guy knows the route to your house like the back of their hand so you’re not disturbed come game time. Life is tough. So is hockey.
Lord Stanley’s Cup is the greatest trophy in all of sports, and the great thing about the NHL is that there’s a lot of parody from year to year. Every team is beginning with a clean slate, an eight-seed can beat a one-seed at any time, average contributors become stars, the youth rises, legends add to their resume, and a team's momentum can be a giant killer. So switch your inventory to light beer so you can drink more, grow your beard, and get ready for the some serious excitement. It’s playoff time.
15 Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl: 10 (5G, 5A)
This duo are about to be a part of the most amazing and unfortunate first round matchup of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s the most amazing because it pairs two of the West’s best and more entertaining teams: The Edmonton Oilers and the San Jose Sharks. It’s unfortunate for Oilers’ fans because they have to play the Sharks though. The defending conference champions will show their experience, but the youthful Oilers are going to push them to the limits led by Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Both these players are in the top 10 for points for the regular season, McDavid claiming the one spot at the moment. They will leave their playoff mark during the seven-game series against the Sharks, but sadly their run will probably end. Don’t worry, Edmonton, this is the start of years of success. However, the bar was set pretty high in the '80s. That’s your own fault.
14 Johnny Gaudreau: 10 (4G, 6A)
I’m going to say this in the most non-pun way possible. The Flames are hot. Damn, still a pun. Considering we’re assuming that Calgary will earn the seventh-seed in the Western Conference and the Anaheim Ducks will hold on and win their division, then the mighty may fall in the first round (get it, Mighty Ducks). I had to slip that one in. If the Flames don’t have to play the Chicago Blackhawks or San Jose Sharks then they could take down Anaheim and move into the second round. Johnny Hockey is back! Calgary has been playing great since the All-Star break – the Ducks have as well, don’t get me wrong – but Gaudreau is kind of being overlooked at the moment. He hasn't had the best season of his career, but remember his breakout postseason appearance in 2015? Well, he’s back.
13 Erik Karlsson: 10 (5G, 5A)
If the Toronto Maple Leafs hold off the Boston Bruins and earn a third seed then the Ottawa Senators are going to be pushed in their first round matchup. If I were a team – which is impossible because I am one person and a team consists of many a person – then I would be a little worried about the Maple Leafs. Like the Edmonton Oilers, they’re young and entertaining, and want to prove something. Hockey superiority will soon return to Canada it seems! Not this year though, but one thing is for certain, a Canadian team will be moving on to the second round after this series, and it will most likely be Ottawa, and it will most likely be because of their leader, Erik Karlsson. The defenseman is great from the point and can score and pass with the best of them. His point total is down from a year ago, but his +/- is up and he still leads the team in scoring. He’s going to have to be great, and he will be.
12 Filip Forsberg: 11 (6G, 5A)
There was another dude with the surname of Forsberg that was pretty decent come playoff time... come any time really. Filip Forsberg is of no relation to Peter Forsberg, but he’s beginning to play like his countryman. The Nashville Predators are one of the league’s hottest teams, and momentum is crucial going into the playoffs. On the other side of the ice, the Minnesota Wild have been struggling down the stretch. Watch for the Predators to take advantage of this matchup, and it should be behind the talent of Forsberg. Though Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson are above Forsberg in points, the rising star is ready to have a playoff breakthrough. This is a very dangerous team, however, and Johansen or Arvidsson could very well be in this spot as well. They are very balanced, but their run may end in the second round against the favored Chicago Blackhawks. Who knows what their respective point totals would be if that weren’t the case.
11 Evgeni Malkin: 11 (7G, 4A)
Superstar Evgeni Malkin is once again ranked in the top ten for points this season. He is a matchup nightmare which teams have learned throughout the course of his illustrious career. The Pittsburgh Penguins first-round matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets will prove two things: not many markets knew how good the Blue Jackets were, and the playoff system in the NHL needs to be revamped (argument one of three – stay tuned). These two teams have the second and third best records in the league by far, and one of them is guaranteed to not reach the second round. It’s pathetic, and it’s more disappointing for Columbus as Pittsburgh should advance in part to Malkin’s great play and experience – I guess the rest of the team isn’t bad either. Next up, time for him to do what he likes to do against the Washington Capitals: keep scoring. Surprisingly, this prediction is on the low end for him.
10 Alexander Ovechkin: 13 (8G, 5A)
Playoff Argument Two: The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will meet in the second round, guaranteeing one will not be in the conference finals. No one wants to see this be a conference semi-final match; they want the rivalry on the biggest stage possible which would be the Eastern Conference Finals. This is kind of a tease having both Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin toward the bottom of this list because which skater will be the one not to advance and which will just have a quiet postseason? Ovechkin will have the quiet postseason, and it’s not because he’s declining, but because the Capitals are a different team and he’s matured to the point where he realizes he doesn’t have to do everything on his own. I mean, he’s battling T.J. Oshie for the most goals on the team this year when even the thought of his team-leading tallies being contested used to be absurd. I truly believe this is the year Washington gets by Pittsburgh.
9 Artemi Panarin: 14 (7G, 7A)
Artemi Panarin has had a great sophomore campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks, nearly as good as his rookie season last year. He not only fit in with the system right away, he became a playoff contributor in his first postseason tallying seven points in seven games played. Let’s go ahead and double that this year because he’s going to be playing a lot more matches. The 25-year-old can make plays happen; he’s a facilitator and a goal scorer. It certainly helps having Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on your team as well (spoiler alert: we’ll get to them). The Blackhawks are primed to make another Stanley Cup run – great, here we go again – after Minnesota has faltered and it appears their game is working on all cylinders which should put the rest of the contenders on high alert. Word to the wise: don’t take your eyes off Panarin or he’s going to hurt you at probably the worst possible time.
8 Sidney Crosby: 14 (8G, 6A)
Sidney Crosby is once again having an MVP-caliber season. However, his point total is in the 80s this year which is pretty pathetic to his standards, but better than many others. The difference in 2016-2017 is that the superstar is scoring more goals, recording the second most for a season in his career. He’s not slowing down is essentially what I’m saying, and continuing to use the momentum of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup run last year. During the 2016 playoffs, he accumulated 19 points on six goals and 13 assists, but this year he’s going to put more in the net rather than setting up his teammates. Well, he will still set them up, it’s their responsibility to finish. However, as stated before, this may just be the Washington Capitals’ year and since the stupid playoff bracket (still on Argument Two) is designed for these two teams to meet in the second round rather than the Conference Finals, Crosby may not have a chance to meet or surpass last season’s playoff point total.
7 Mats Zucarello: 17 (6G, 11A)
Playoff Argument Three: The New York Rangers have no business being a seven-seed. The team this affects the most is the Montreal Canadians. You almost want to blow the division lead so the Ottawa Senators have to go up against the Rangers. They have the fourth best record in the conference which includes having more points than both the Canadians and Senators. Due to this playoff debacle, the Rangers won’t have to face the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, or Pittsburgh Penguins unless it’s in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it will just be one of those teams. I wouldn’t say it’s an easy road because there is no easy road during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the matchups are favorable. The scary thing about the Rangers is that everyone contributes. There’s not a player in the league’s top 40 for points, but they have four 50+ point players, and six 40+ point players which could be more by the end of the regular season. Leading the way is Mats Zucarello who will help the Rangers reach the conference finals, but don’t be surprised if a few others are close to his projected 17-point mark. He had 13 points back in 2013-2014 when they reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
6 Joe Pavelski: 17 (9G, 8A)
Is it just me or are the San Jose Sharks just quietly going about their business like they did last year? That’s not good for the rest of the league. If the standings stay as they are, the Sharks will face a great Edmonton Oilers team in the first round; it will be fast, physical, and tiring, but they should squeeze by in Game 7. The next round they could face-off (excuse yet another pun) against a hot Calgary Flames team (there’s another) that will be carrying over some serious momentum after an upset of the Anaheim Ducks. No problem, Joe Pavelski has this covered. It won’t be as challenging as the first round series against the Oilers, and the Sharks will return to the Western Conference Finals looking to repeat and get back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Pavelski ranks in the top 25 for points this season which is nothing to get super excited about, but come playoff time he will once again be a great performer. It will be hard to match his 23 postseason points from a year ago though; especially if they meet the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals.
5 Justin Williams: 19 (8G, 11A)
In order to go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs, role players need to come up huge on a consistent basis. Luckily for the Washington Capitals, they have a second line that is as good as most first lines in the NHL, featuring 50+ point scorers Evgeni Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson. However, come playoff time, the true difference maker on that line is Justin Williams. The veteran has won the Stanley Cup before and that was why he was brought to Washington, his first full season being last year. He’s a contributor and can score goals as much as he distributes the puck. The Capitals are deep this year, very deep, which makes for a deep run (okay, we can stop using the word deep already). This team is maturing and it has to continue to do so because the window for the first Cup in franchise history is closing. Williams will bring his game to another level in the postseason like he did in 2012 and 2014 for the Los Angeles Kings.
4 Brent Burns: 20 (8G, 12A)
Let’s take a vote: Who thinks Brent Burns needs to shave his beard? Since I can’t see through the computer screen and am not present while you’re reading this I’m going to say the final count was in favor to keep the disheveled look. He’s the best defenseman in the game, he has the most points in the league amongst back-liners, and he’s the San Jose Sharks’ leader so who cares if he looks like a hobo. He tallied 24 points during the Sharks run to the finals last year, but fell short of lifting the Cup as he watched the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate on his home ice. Unfortunately, redemption will have to wait because the Chicago Blackhawks are playing too good right now and the Sharks will struggle in the Western Conference Finals because their first two series against Edmonton and Calgary will simply wear them out. Maybe he’s growing the beard until he wins the Stanley Cup. It’s flirting with ZZ Top length.
3 Jonathan Toews: 22 (8G, 14A)
Jonathan Toews is a postseason performer, and he has three Stanley Cup rings to back that statement. Frankly, he’s never really amongst the leaders in points during the regular season, rarely in discussion for MVP, but he’s a great player and a great leader… and has a super-hot girlfriend. Essentially, he’s a winner – not in a Charlie Sheen way, but in a more normal way – and he’s going to lead the Chicago Blackhawks back to the Stanley Cup Finals once again. During their three championships (2010, 2013, and 2015), Toews has racked up 69 points – 29 in 2010 alone, the year he won the Conn Smythe. The Blackhawks can cruise through the West to earn yet another finals appearance, and sadly for the East, they’re 3-0 during Toews’ tenure. Who will take down these fabulous Blackhawks? Can the East retain the Cup or will the West steal it back and start another stranglehold on glory?
2 Nicklas Backstrom: 23 (8G, 15A)
The Washington Capitals will be stand in the way of the Chicago Blackhawks, attempting to prevent the Stanley Cup veterans from going 4-0. If the Capitals are going to win the Cup, then it will be because of Nicklas Backstrom. Quite frankly, they win a lot of games because of Backstrom, which begs the question, why is this guy not an All-Star every year? He’s probably they quietest superstar, and maybe the most underappreciated and overlooked player in the NHL. That’s why he had to settle for GEICO commercials – poorly-acted ones at that, but he made them his own. He has hall-of-fame like numbers and wasn’t selected to his first All-Star game until last season. Did anyone even know he was tied for third for the NHL points lead with Sidney Crosby? Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t, but it doesn’t matter because he wants to lift the Cup, no matter how quiet he is about the fact. He’s what makes this Capitals’ team move, he’s the driver, and if they want to make history, it will be because of him.
1 Patrick Kane: 25 (12G, 13A)
Above Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom in the points race sits Patrick Kane. He’s so skillful, he’s so talented with the puck, but the strange thing is that when you watch him play you don’t even realize how amazing he is because it just comes easy for him. He’s smooth, intelligent, and confident – who cares what the ladies publicly claim to sully his name. Okay, we won’t go there, we’ll save it for a Law & Order: SVU episode. During the Chicago Blackhawks three championships, Kane has 70 combined points, one more than his teammate, Jonathan Toews, and also has a Conn Smythe for his 2013 performance. Oh, and he also earned the Hart trophy last year which is pretty good I guess. So the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Washington Capitals in the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals then, right? Well… just because a team has the leading point-getter, it doesn’t guarantee a championship. Sorry, Patrick, I’m all in on the Capitals this year… everyone kind of has to be or it may never happen.