As the adage goes: there’s nothing like playoff hockey.
The NHL playoffs are (almost) here, and despite the format, timings, and basically everything else being a bit strange, it’s nice to be back. We know the 16 teams who’re in, so I’ve compiled my favorite playoff futures and broken them up into three sections: team futures, Conn Smythe futures, and series winners.
Before we get started, a quick reminder on the revamped playoff format:
All series, regardless of round, will be best of seven. The first two playoff rounds will be played within the division, as was the entirety of the regular season. The top seed will play the fourth seed, and two will play three. The winners will square off for the division crown and a trip to the NHL’s version of the Final Four. The remaining four teams will be re-seeded by regular-season point totals, and the winners will face off in the Stanley Cup. And yes, there’s a chance two teams who play in the same division during a normal year will meet in the Cup Final. Things could get weird.
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This group of bets is pretty simple. Who’s poised to make a run to the Stanley Cup Final, and who’s built to hoist it?
Boston Bruins To Reach The Finals (+450) & To Win The Stanley Cup (+1000)
Taylor Hall has completely rejuvenated the Bruins. Boston is 12-3-1 in games Hall has suited up for since the trade from Buffalo, a points percentage of .781. Compare that to a .615 points percentage before the former MVP got to town, and that pretty much tells the full story of Hall’s impact on the Bruins.
Boston is scoring more (3.6 goals per game since the trade compared to just 2.8 per game prior), Hall’s linemates – Nick Ritchie and David Krejci – have elevated their play, and the Perfection Line up top is playing as well as they have all year. Plus, the Bruins are also welcoming Ondrej Kase back from injury. They traded for defenseman Mike Reilly at the deadline, which was completely overshadowed by the Hall acquisition but has paid incredible dividends.
Reilly is the sixth-highest graded Bruin in terms of GameScore (per HockeyStatCards) since he arrived, behind only the aforementioned Hall, all three members of the Perfection Line – Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand – and star defenseman Charlie McAvoy.
The Bruins are scoring, they have superb goaltending (contrary to what you may hear in Boston), and they’re peaking at just the right time. I firmly believe they’re a true candidate to win the Cup, so I obviously love them at 10-to-1 odds, and I’m also taking them at +450 to reach the Final.
Vegas Golden Knights To Win The Stanley Cup (+550)
Vegas is the most complete team in the NHL. Goaltending? Their tandem just won the Jennings Trophy. Defense? It already was solid, and they added a former Cup champion and team captain to the mix. Scoring? They’ve scored the second-most goals in the league.
I also love that the Golden Knights played hard right through the end of the season. They battled not only for the President’s Trophy but also for the West Division crown, a number-one seed, and home-ice advantage. They lost out to Colorado in the end, but their run has already started, and they’re already in playoff mode.
Vegas is third in the NHL in terms of goal differential and goals for per 60 minutes; they’re sixth in shots on goal and CF%, and perhaps most importantly come playoff time: they stay out of the penalty box. The Golden Knights have taken the fifth-fewest penalties of any playoff team, so they aren’t going to hurt themselves.
Florida Panthers To Reach The Finals (+650)
If you’ve watched this team play at all this year, you know how good they are. Aleksander Barkov is the best player in the NHL that gets absolutely none of the spotlight. For context: Barkov has the 11th-highest GameScore average in the NHL, sandwiched between Mitch Marner and Leon Draisaitl. And their acquisition of Sam Bennett at the trade deadline has proved to be exactly what this team needed.
Since coming over from Calgary, Bennett has the best GameScore average in the entire NHL (2.22 per game average) – 0.30 points ahead of second-place Connor McDavid. For context, McDavid leads third-place Nathan MacKinnon by 0.05 GameScore points per game. Bennett has tallied 15 points – six goals and nine assists – in just 10 games with Florida.
Sam Bennett has the most points by any #FlaPanthers player in team history in 10 games with the team…goal and assist tonight.
He passes Pavel Bure.
— Steve Goldstein (@goldieonice) May 9, 2021
Many are shying away from the Panthers because of the inconsistency of Sergei Bobrovsky in net, which I won’t argue. But Joel Quenneville has been here before; he’s a three-time Cup champion. So if Chris Driedger is playing better of the two goaltenders, we can trust Quenneville won’t hesitate to make the move that gives his team the best chance to win.
Conn Smythe Award Winners
The Conn Smythe Award is given to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Generally, I’ve got two loose guidelines to follow when wagering on this award.
Stay away from goalies. Since Mike Vernon won in 1997, there have only been four more goalies to win the award. Andrei Vasilevskiy was dominant in the playoffs last year with an 18-7 record, a .927 save percentage, and a 1.90 goals-against average. And he still didn’t win.
Focus on players who play on a team you think has a legitimate shot at winning the Cup. Only five times has a player won the award without winning the Stanley Cup, and it hasn’t happened since 2003.
Mark Stone (+1400)
He’s got the third-shortest odds of any player in the playoffs, and rightfully so. He’s the captain and best player on the team many around the league consider to be the best.
Stone does it all. He’s got 61 points – 20 goals and 41 assists – in 54 games, he’s 20th in the NHL in GameScore, and he’s one of the best defensive forwards in the game. If the Knights end up winning it all, their captain will play the largest role. Despite being the third-heaviest favorite for the Conn Smythe, 14-to-1 odds still look great.
David Pastrnak (+3000)
This is a bit of a longshot, but I think the Bruins have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup, as I mentioned in the above section. And David Pastrnak is the best offensive player on the team, so of the three or four Conn Smythe candidates the Bruins have, Pastrnak’s potential numbers will stand out most.
David Pastrnak is just the third active player in the NHL to score 200 regular-season goals and 20 playoff goals before the age of 25.
The other two active players? Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) May 8, 2021
He’s scored 34 or more goals in each of the last four seasons before this one, including 48 in just 70 games last year. When Pastrnak gets hot, few can slow him down, and goals come in bunches. At 30-to-1 odds, it’s worth rolling the dice hoping he catches fire.
Auston Matthews (+1100)
I’m not entirely sure the Leafs are strong enough on defense and in net to win the Stanley Cup, but it’ll take a massive effort from their best player if they do. Auston Matthews has been incredible this year, scoring 41 goals in just 51 games. Matthews is first among all players in iXg, second among forwards in xGF and third in the league in average GameScore among players who’ve played at least 20 games.
NHL goal leaders since the start of last season:
1. Auston Matthews: 87
2. Alex Ovechkin: 72
3. Leon Draisaitl: 71
4. David Pastrnak: 67
5. Connor McDavid: 65
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) May 7, 2021
He’s solidified himself as an elite player in this league, and if he keeps scoring at the rate he’s been all season, the Maple Leafs will keep winning, and he’ll be firmly planted in the Conn Smythe discussion.
Series futures are simple; which team is going to win the best-of-seven playoff series? It doesn’t matter how many games it takes – it could be a sweep, or it could go the distance – it only matters who wins the series.
New York Islanders (+125)
The Islanders are limping into the playoffs, but if there’s one team you can trust will throw recent struggles out the window and bring their best when it matters most, it’s Barry Trotz’s Islanders.
New York is built for a long, grueling playoff run, and this series profiles as one that’s going to go to six or seven games. Advantage: Islanders. They’re heavy, physical, and they absolutely wear you down with defense, shot-blocking, and relentless forechecking. They basically play the complete opposite type of game that the Penguins want to play, and whenever that happens, I’ll take the team that’s good at preventing goals over the team that may be a bit more adept at scoring them.
What this comes down to for me is the goaltending. I know I can trust the Islanders’ goaltenders, but despite really strong play down the stretch Penguins’ Penguins netminders, I’m not sure if that’ll hold up in the playoffs. The Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov finished fifth in the NHL in goals-against average (2.04), and his understudy, Ilya Sorokin, finished 11th (2.17). The Penguins’ goalies finished 24th (DeSmith, 2.54 GAA) and 42nd (Jarry, 2.75 GAA).
Don’t forget, nobody gave the Islanders a chance in 2019, but they swept the Penguins in the first round. I’m happy to take advantage of these plus-money odds in hopes that happens again in 2021.
Florida Panthers (+120)
I listed Florida above as a darkhorse Cup contender, so at plus-money odds in the opening round, I’ll take a shot. They’ve got their work cut out for them; they’ll battle the defending champion Lightning in round one, who will be welcoming back arguably their two best players – Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Scary for sure, but despite these guys being long-time members of the Lightning, I don’t think it’s easy to jump back into a lineup in the playoffs seamlessly.
The Panthers also matchup up well with Tampa Bay. They finished 5-2-1 against the Lightning this year, including three wins in a row to finish out the season series, and they scored 31 goals in just eight games. I also mentioned the strong play of Aleksander Barkov and new addition Sam Bennett in the above section, and I think those two will play crucial roles in this series.
Remember, the Lightning played longer than any other 2021 playoff team last year. There’s a distinct possibility they tire out quickly this year, and the high-flying Panthers love to play fast-paced hockey. That could be a real disadvantage for the Lightning and a big reason why I think the Panthers can pull off the upset.
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