NHL Playoff Odds 2014: Handicapping Every Team's Championship Hopes
The Sweet 16 is set.
Spring means playoff hockey, and this year's battle for the Stanley Cup is going to be grueling, especially in the Western Conference, where six teams finished with 100 points or more.
Making this year special is that it's the first in the new format that pits divisional rivals against each other at every opportunity and sets up some great first-round rivalries, new and old.
Some teams have spectacular offenses with weaknesses in goal or on defense. Others are stellar in their own end but lack the same kind of firepower the top teams have.
A few are blessed with strength in every area—but even they will have trouble making it through four rounds of best-of-seven series unscathed.
Get ready to enjoy weeks worth of the fastest game on ice. Click ahead to see what we think the odds are for some of these teams to come out on top.
Statistics are courtesy of NHL.com, Shrpsports.com and ExtraSkater.com unless otherwise noted.
Best Asset: Experience
Not only do the Bruins boast a deep lineup of forwards who can all chip in offensively, arguably the best goaltender in the game today and a strong group of defensemen led by one of the greatest at shutting down the opposition's biggest weapon, but they've done it all in the playoffs before. The 2011 Stanley Cup winners were also finalists last season and know exactly what it takes to be successful in the postseason.
The Bruins are the biggest threat in the Eastern Conference and, because of the way they've played down the stretch, are the odds-on favorite to win the Cup.
Potential Downfall: Overconfidence
One of the team's greatest attributes is how hard it works in spite of the overall talent advantage it has over opponents. But if the Bruins take one of their opponents for granted, they offer ample opportunity for an upset. We all saw what happened against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round last spring, and the Bruins were fortunate to rally late in Game 7.
Stanley Cup odds: 10-2
Best Asset: Scoring power
The Blackhawks were the second-best scoring squad in the regular season thanks to arguably the most impressive set of top-six forwards in the league. Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith has also been spectacular this season, putting up more than 60 points from the back end for his best campaign since 2010 when he claimed the title of best defenseman.
They will be able to match every Western Conference opponent on the scoresheet.
Potential Downfall: Jonathan Toews' health
In the playoffs, the Hawks' most important player is unquestionably their captain, and he's been on the shelf with an upper-body injury since the end of March after absorbing a hard hit from Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik.
The Selke Trophy hopeful is key because of his shutdown abilities as well as his offensive production, and the Blackhawks are unlikely to make it deep into the playoffs if there are lingering issues or a re-injury of any kind.
Stanley Cup odds: 7-1
Best Asset: Deadly offensive abilities
The incredible tandem of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry propelled the Ducks to the top of the league in goals scored per game. They have plenty of backup, too, with Teemu Selanne capable of contributing at key times, and guys like Andrew Cogliano and Nick Bonino stepping up this season. Matt Beleskey and Jakob Silfverberg have also shown promise when healthy.
There aren't many teams that can keep the Ducks off the scoresheet for too long, although many of those capable of doing so do happen to play in the tight Western Conference.
Potential Downfall: Goaltender carousel
Jonas Hiller has looked anything but a franchise goaltender in his last few starts, and backup Frederik Andersen returned from a minor injury to win the Ducks' final game in a shootout. On top of that dilemma of who to start, 20-year-old American Hockey League goalie John Gibson earned a shutout in his NHL debut last week.
It might seem like a nice problem to have when there is a lot of goalie depth, but in the playoffs, you want to ride one netminder to ensure the team is playing in front of him with complete confidence.
Stanley Cup odds: 8-1
San Jose Sharks
Best Asset: Balance
The Sharks have every element necessary for a deep run in the playoffs. Best of all, they have a collection of forwards with serious teeth.
With rookie phenom Tomas Hertl back in the lineup after major knee surgery sidetracked his promising season after 35 games, the forward ranks are more than just a couple of lines deep with scorers. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Martin Havlat, Hertl and Tommy Wingels can spread out the scoring.
On defense, the Sharks may possess the most underrated group of six, which can chip in points as well as defend its own end. Marc-Edouard Vlasic was worthy of Team Canada's Sochi Olympic team, a spot Dan Boyle is familiar with. Veteran Brad Stuart and youngsters Matt Irwin, Justin Braun and Jason Demers could all play pivotal roles with Scott Hannan injured late in the season.
Potential Downfall: Inconsistent goaltending
Antti Niemi is a good goaltender. But he's not a great goaltender. He doesn't win you a series, but he could lose you a series with a few bad goals. The former Stanley Cup champion goalie has to be better than he was throughout the regular season. His save percentage is lower than it has been since that championship season with the Blackhawks in 2010. Back then, the Hawks won in spite of Niemi's average play. Can the Sharks do the same?
Stanley Cup odds: 10-1
Los Angeles Kings
Best Asset: Team defense
No team allowed fewer goals against this season. Only the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins were close. The Kings were also the top possession team, according to the advanced stats folks.
One of the main reasons for it is how dedicated the forwards are to supporting the defensemen and goaltender. The Kings have a front-runner for the Selke in Anze Kopitar, and a defenseman who, in spite of his second-tier offensive contributions, should earn plenty of Norris votes in Drew Doughty.
But they're not alone. The back end is bolstered by rugged rearguards , Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, and youngsters Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez.
Four of the top five skaters and seven of the 16 skaters were Kings in five-on-five possession numbers, according to ExtraSkater.com.
Potential Downfall: Offensive output
Despite their stellar possession numbers and the fact they have plenty of firepower in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Kopitar and Doughty, the Kings do not score very much. Their 2.42 goals-per-game average was the fourth lowest in the league and the worst of any of the playoff teams.
When you're winning games 2-1 all the time, that doesn't matter much, but there's a reason the Kings decided to bring in Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline—the team knows goals will be even harder to come by in the playoffs and that its production needs to improve this spring.
Stanley Cup odds: 10-1
St. Louis Blues
Best Asset: Depth at every position
There may not be a more formidable team in the NHL at rolling four lines and wearing opponents down. The Blues, when healthy, can pound you, score on you, defend you and outmatch you three out of every four lines.
And the defense is equally strong—arguably the best in the entire league—with a top three of Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester backed up by Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, Roman Polak, Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian Cole. Impressive.
In goal, after adding Ryan Miller at the trade deadline, they've still got a reliable backup in Brian Elliott as well.
If every player is healthy, this might be the team to beat in the playoffs.
Potential Downfall: Injuries
Well, not everyone is healthy. And the rash of injuries has come at the worst possible time for the Blues. They were without six of their top 12 forwards at the end of the season, including David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy. Leopold is also nursing an ankle injury.
The team overcame top sniper Alex Steen's concussion earlier this season. But losing one star is one thing; losing half your forwards could mean an early exit.
Stanley Cup odds: 12-1
Best Asset: The world's best player
Sidney Crosby is the only player to crack 100 points this season and will almost certainly win the Hart Trophy for his efforts after leading the Penguins to the inaugural Metropolitan Division title in spite of a rash of injuries to key players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Paul Martin.
But now Crosby has to prove to be equally as valuable to his team in the playoffs if he's going to help them get back to the Stanley Cup final series for the first time since claiming the Cup in 2009.
Potential Downfall: Goaltending implosion
There may not be a more polarizing playoff player than Marc-Andre Fleury, who has a sullied past when it comes to playing in pressure situations. That pressure mounts every spring and The Flower seemingly wilts rather than blossoms at the most inopportune times.
He lost the starting job to Tomas Vokoun in last year's playoffs after his save percentage dipped to .883—a trend every spring that has seen his save percentage dip under 90 percent since 2009. The switch didn't harm the Pens because Vokoun was solid, but this year he is just working his way back from a blood clot and the Penguins have an untested and unproven Jeff Zatkoff as the backup.
The Pens hired goaltending coach Mike Bales to try to tone down Fleury's aggressiveness and keep him more focused on positioning to avoid the ugly goals that get him into trouble. We'll find out how well that works when the pressure is on.
Stanley Cup odds: 15-1
Best Asset: Youthful exuberance and team speed
With a cast of young characters leading the way in Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Paul Stastny, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie, there's a contagious feeling of possibility in Denver. And these guys can put up points. They scored more goals per game than the Pittsburgh Penguins, and all but three other teams in the NHL this season.
The scary thing is they did it with just the 20th-best shots-per-game average, fewer than all but three other playoff teams. That means these guys were either super accurate or a little bit lucky. Maybe it was a bit of both, but they'll need to sustain that in the playoffs, when things tighten up even more and opponents are able to make adjustments and try new tactics over a seven-game series.
Potential Downfall: Lean too heavily on goaltending
As we mentioned, the Avalanche score a lot but don't take a great deal of shots. As you might expect, that means their possession numbers are extremely low—fourth-lowest in the league in fact—and that the result is they rely a lot on goalie Semyon Varlamov to bail them out of tough situations.
Varlamov was amazing this season under the tutelage of head coach Patrick Roy. He might even garner a few votes for the Hart Trophy because, by definition, he had to be the most valuable player to any team in the NHL, right? Varlamov was the only netminder to face more than 2,000 shots this season. His save percentage was second only to Tuukka Rask among goalies who started at least 30 games, and Varlamov faced nearly 400 more shots.
But can he keep it up through the playoffs?
Stanley Cup odds: 18-1
New York Rangers
Best Asset: Henrik Lundqvist
The play of the 32-year-old netminder over the second half of the season is the biggest reason the Rangers were able to lock up a playoff spot and, maybe more importantly, secure home ice for at least the first round. Lundqvist started slowly, putting together a 12-15-2 record through December. In 16 of those, he allowed at least three goals against. In 14 of those contests, his save percentage was sub-.900—well below his career average of .920.
The Rangers weren't afraid, inking him to a seven-year extension worth $59.5 million. He's rewarded them with improved play since the calendar flipped to January, earning a 21-9-3 record to help the Rangers climb from fourth place in the Metropolitan Division up to the second spot. Only a dozen of those saw him allow three or more goals, and he was under .900 just nine times in that span. Three were shutouts, and he let in just a single goal in 11 more of them.
Lundqvist is the driving force of the Rangers.
Potential Downfall: Do they have enough grit?
One man might not make the difference in the playoffs, but losing former captain Ryan Callahan took a big chunk of leadership and grit away from the Rangers team. Bringing Martin St. Louis, another captain at the time, over from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the deal helps with the leadership aspect, but not in the same way as Callahan's 'lead-by-example' style. Callahan was among the league leaders in hits per game and can wear down opponents in a best-of-seven series.
The Rangers will miss that. Although they have guys like Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett who can throw some weight around, it's not often directed at top players.
Stanley Cup odds: 20-1
Detroit Red Wings
Best Asset: Coaching
Mike Babcock led a squad decimated by injuries all season into the playoffs. For that, he'll receive plenty of votes for the Jack Adams Award.
The job isn't done, though. The team is getting healthier and could get Henrik Zetterberg back at some point in the postseason. Sounds great, but Babcock's challenge is to get the youngsters who stepped up so well when the stars went down to continue to play well when their roles are decreased.
Potential Downfall: Health issues
Chemistry could be affected as guys get healthy. It sounds like backward logic, but roles will change and some will have to adapt when there is a full complement of players again.
There's also a chance Zetterberg won't be able to overcome the back troubles that eventually led to surgery, and Pavel Datsyuk's knee problem could flare up again when the playoff intensity picks up.
Stanley Cup odds: 25-1
Best Asset: Calm presence in goal
Carey Price has won a gold medal, now he'd like to add a Stanley Cup to make this an even more unforgettable year. When he's on his game, the team is able to compete with the elite. When he's off, it looks horrible.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, Price has been on his game more often than not this season. The cool-as-a-cucumber netminder has a lot to prove, though. He hasn't won a playoff round since his rookie season.
Potential Downfall: Does size matter?
It may not necessarily show in the first round, but over the course of the playoffs, the smaller stature of the Habs could succumb to injury or exhaustion.
Or at least that's what critics of the Canadiens might lead you to believe.
We'll find out over the course of the next month or so what the general lack of size will mean in the playoffs for the Canadiens. They did add a little beef to the forward lineup with Thomas Vanek—who doesn't play like a power forward but is capable of making his presence felt in front of the net and in the corners.
Stanley Cup odds: 25-1
Tampa Bay Lightning
Best Asset: Big Ben (Bishop)
You could make an argument for the kids this team has leaned on throughout the season, especially in the absence of Steven Stamkos for four months. Rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat could both be finalists for the Calder Trophy, and Alex Killorn had a breakout sophomore season for the Bolts.
But it was the 6'7" goaltender Bishop who got the Lightning through the toughest times with his incredible athleticism and technique that complement his notable size. Bishop will be in the running for the Vezina Trophy for his outstanding numbers, which include the fourth-most wins, fourth-best goals-against average among those who started 40 or more and fourth-best save percentage.
Bishop is the kind of goaltender who can steal a series or four.
Potential Downfall: Special teams
With every goal so meaningful in the playoffs, special teams become magnified. Unfortunately for the Lightning, their power play and penalty kill were middle of the pack and bottom third, respectively, at 18.5 percent and 80.7 percent.
They'll need to click at a better rate than that to make it an advantage rather than a detriment to their playoff run.
Stanley Cup odds: 30-1
Best Asset: Strong and tough group of forwards who can score
It's hard to believe the Flyers were so bad to start the season. Not only do they have one of the premier forwards in the game in captain Claude Giroux—a Hart Trophy candidate—they have toughness and scoring potential throughout the lineup.
From Wayne Simmonds to Vincent Lecavalier, the Flyers boast as good a top nine as there is in the playoffs.
Potential Downfall: Goaltending
Steve Mason was hurt late in the season, but that's not the concern here. The worry is that Mason is not what he appears to be.
He looks like a legitimate top goaltender this year—something he hasn't been since his rookie season five seasons ago. His numbers in Philly have been quality, with 33 wins, a 2.50 goals-against average and .917 save percentage strong enough to match or improve career bests.
He's only 25, so it's possible he's developing into a significant puck stopper with time and experience. There are plenty of skeptics, though, who will need to see a strong playoff performance to believe it.
Stanley Cup odds: 35-1
Columbus Blue Jackets
Best Asset: Having no pressure
Seriously, does anybody expect the Blue Jackets to upset the Pittsburgh Penguins? Even if Marc-Andre Fleury has a total meltdown in net for the Pens, it will be hard for the Jackets to keep pace offensively with Sidney Crosby and Co.
That gives the underdogs one advantage, though—no pressure. If they're able to catch or create a few fortunate breaks early on, you never know what might happen and how much momentum and positivity they could build. It's the opposite for the Penguins and any future opponent the Jackets could meet. A bad bounce here or there could have the Penguins panicking early, and that just leads to more mistakes.
Potential Downfall: Overmatched defense
Jack Johnson is not the solid two-way player some thought he was or would become. Ryan Murray looks like a future franchise player, but he's raw and inexperienced. James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin have experience, but both also struggle to stay healthy at times, and neither is considered fleet of foot.
Any team with two or three really good lines will be able to expose the Blue Jackets' blue line and get to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky frequently.
Bobrovsky had a great second half—again—but doesn't get enough help to make an upset or two in the playoffs very realistic.
Stanley Cup odds: 40-1
Best Asset: Killer top line
Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin. Those are names that you're likely to hear about a lot in the coming years. They are young, extremely talented and get plenty of ice time and opportunity to embarrass opponents.
For the Stars to move ahead in the postseason, they'll have to be the best line on any team right now, because the Stars don't boast the kind of depth up front or on the blue line that many of the other 15 playoff teams do.
Potential Downfall: The thin blue line
In retrospect, maybe they shouldn't have traded their best veteran defenseman to the Anaheim Ducks, who just happen to be their first-round opponent. Stephane Robidas hasn't played most of the year, and with the Stars unsure of their playoff fate, they decided to move him at the deadline.
He'd be a great complement to a relatively meek group that includes the aged Sergei Gonchar, inconsistent Alex Goligoski, Jamie Benn's lesser-known brother Jordie, Aaron Rome and prospects Kevin Connauton and Patrick Nemeth.
Stanley Cup odds: 50-1
Best Asset: Defensive play
The Wild have a reputation of being responsible, and the numbers back that up. They don't take bad penalties, don't give the puck away frequently and were top seven at keeping the puck out of the net during the regular season.
They have the NHL's top minute-logger in defenseman Ryan Suter and a young but growing defensive corps that is assisted by forwards who commit to playing hard in their own end as well. They'll all need those trends to continue if they want to have any luck in the playoffs.
Potential Downfall: Lack of scoring and goaltending questions
With Zach Parise, Matt Moulson, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu, there are a number of guys who have a reputation for putting the puck in the net. They just didn't do it with a lot of regularity this year.
The Wild scored the seventh-fewest goals per game this season, and only Pominville (30) and Parise (29) cracked the 15-goal mark. They'll need that support to help out the goaltender.
That's another story altogether, with Ilya Bryzgalov playing very well since joining the Wild at the deadline but having a reputation of being a ticking time bomb for either making an oddly timed terrible play or just generally stinking it up.
Stanley Cup odds: 100-1
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