Our NHL experts tackle the pressing questions as we march toward the playoffs, including which No. 1 seed is most vulnerable in the first round, who will be the postseason’s breakout star and which teams will spend big in free agency.
Which current division No. 1 seed is most likely to lose the first round?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Nashville Predators. Yes, this could be me attempting to justify my truly misguided prediction that the Predators would miss the playoffs. Or it could be me saying that a first-round series against someone like Ken Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars or Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings could be problematic for the Preds. It would be an undeniable shock. But hey, Predators fans, if it’s a consolation, I clearly have no read on your team.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Vegas Golden Knights. Two regular-season overachievers (Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson) have a combined 12 games of playoff experience. While Vegas stunned the league with its impressive start, rolling out four even lines, it feels like the rest of the NHL is catching up, especially as they gear up and into playoff mode. Then again, the Golden Knights have been playing with nothing to lose all season, and have a playoff-tested goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, so they’ll probably prove me wrong. Again.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: I’m going with the Golden Knights, too. They’re not exactly a team you’d want to bet against, but among the top seeds I think they’ll probably end up with the toughest overall matchup. Among teams jockeying for wild-card position in the West and among the potential matchups are the battle-tested Kings, the Anaheim Ducks and the St. Louis Blues. The Stars and Calgary Flames present their own challenges as well. The Colorado Avalanche might be the least threatening foe on paper, but the Western Conference is going to be a grind no matter who Vegas draws.
Ben Arledge, NHL Insider editor: I’ll say the Washington Capitals even though we all know they are more likely to fall in the second round. Since Jan. 1, the Caps actually have a minus-3 goal differential, and goalie Braden Holtby remains in some sort of funk. If Washington has to play the Columbus Blue Jackets or Philadelphia Flyers, it might not emerge from the opening set of games.
Which player will become a household name by the end of the playoffs?
Wyshynski: Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point has 57 points in 69 games and is playing in the offensive shadows of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. But the dude has 10 game-winning goals, including four overtime game winners. The 22-year-old has never played on the Stanley Cup playoffs stage before, but something tells us he’s going to shine when he does.
Kaplan: The hockey world has been gushing over Patrik Laine. Get ready for casual observers to jump on the bandwagon, too. Laine has a sniping style quite similar to Alex Ovechkin (the player he grew up idolizing), and no player has scored more goals since the start of the 2016-17 season than the 19-year-old Finn. Laine embodies the young, plucky Winnipeg Jets — one of the NHL’s darlings all season. If nothing else, his scraggly beard will captivate us all; who knows how that thing will manifest in the playoffs.
Peters: The Columbus Blue Jackets might not go on a terribly deep run in the playoffs, but they should face a high-profile enough opponent to get some extra attention. That’s why I’m picking Seth Jones. He’s having his best season as a pro and is even starting to get more mentions as a Norris Trophy candidate. Columbus coach John Tortorella wants Jones to be aggressive offensively and it’s paying off. Jones is averaging nearly 25 minutes a night, has 48 points and is second among all defensemen with 234 shots on goal this season. I think he’s ready to step into stardom.
Arledge: Connor Hellebuyck has been downright excellent in goal for the Jets, posting a .923 save percentage in his first year as their full-time starter. What’s more, he has been even better down the stretch, registering a .937 save percentage in six March starts, all of which included at least 30 saves. With Winnipeg likely to make a run, Hellebuyck will need to be great, and I think he’ll still be a big story come May.
Which player is his playoff-bound team missing the most?
Wyshynski: If the goalie is the most important player on the ice, then logically losing a goalie would be the most critical blow to a team. Except that the Stars have actually gotten solid goaltending from backup Kari Lehtonen in Ben Bishop‘s absence (even if it has been wasted). But the Flyers? Yeah, they miss Brian Elliott. When both he and Michal Neuvirth went down, Philadelphia traded for Detroit Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek. Three of Mrazek’s nine starts for the Flyers qualify as quality. The streak Philly went on after Elliott last played on Feb. 10 has leveled off. Bottom line: Elliott gives the Flyers the best chance to win, and they need him healthy.
Kaplan: The Sharks have coped with Joe Thornton‘s absence thus far — they’re still clinging onto second place in the Pacific Division — but I’m worried about their playoff prospects if the center does not return. Since Thornton’s injury, the Sharks are 11-9-2, averaging 2.9 goals per game. San Jose’s power play scored on 14.8 percent of opportunities, the second-worst mark in the league during that span. That’s no way to roll into the playoffs.
Peters: There are few players in the game today like Auston Matthews, and that shows in how the Toronto Maple Leafs have played without him. A stick-tap to Greg for this fun fact: With Matthews in the lineup, Toronto is averaging 3.45 goals per game and have gone 32-16-5. Without the 20-year-old phenom, whose 82-game pace would put him around 43 goals on the season, it’s down to 2.81 and the Maple Leafs is 8-6-2. Smaller sample size or not, the Leafs are a much better team with No. 34 in the lineup.
Arledge: Yes, the Boston Bruins certainly need their guys back, especially top-pair blueliner Charlie McAvoy, but they are existing just fine without their trio of injured players, rattling off six wins in their past seven games. Like Chris, I’d go with Matthews. The Maple Leafs have lost four of six while Matthews sits, and with very little information about his status and a constantly changing timetable for his return, it’s understandable that Toronto fans might be getting a bit nervous and frustrated.
Who should new Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon hire as his team’s next general manager?
Wyshynski: Julien BriseBois of the Lightning should be handed the keys to the Carolina franchise. He has been groomed for years as GM of Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, which continues to succeed and pump out quality young players. BriseBois helped manage contracts for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who usually gets all the credit for the team’s remarkable salary-ca account-balancing that has afforded the Lightning this two-year window to go all-in. The only problem: He’s too good, and hence will have his pick of jobs. And one assumes the Quebec native would love his shot at the Montreal Canadiens when Marc Bergevin is finally turfed.
Kaplan: Paul Fenton has been with the Predators since the beginning. He is currently their assistant GM. It’s hard to gauge exactly what roles behind-the-scenes guys like Fenton play for their franchises, but there’s no question Fenton is respected within league circles. Dundon has hinted that he wants someone with different qualities than previous Hurricanes GM Ron Francis. If Fenton has had a hand in any of the Predators’ signature, aggressive moves, I think Dundon might find a perfect match in him.
Peters: Fenton’s was the first name that popped in my mind, too, Emily. He’s only 58 and has been in the NHL for nearly 25 years on the administrative side. He also has a deep scouting background, which helps. That said, I think Dundon will go in a different direction. Perhaps he’ll try to pry Kyle Dubas out of Toronto. Dubas is a little outside of the mainstream, which I think might appeal to the new Hurricanes owner. Whomever Dundon hires, it seems like the GM job will require to be a lot of interaction with him. I think Dubas has the right temperament to deal with that, while also having the confidence to implement his own plan going forward.
Arledge: I’ll agree with Greg here. BriseBois is the best option available, and he has nowhere to go within the Tampa Bay organization. Former Kings GM Dean Lombardi’s name has also been thrown around a bit, and he might end up being the guy if Carolina can’t lure BriseBois away from the competition. Sure, Lombardi has a reputation for making the occasional bad deal, but he has two Stanley Cups to his name. There aren’t a ton of home run options available.
Which team(s) should tear it all down this offseason?
Wyshynski: The Vancouver Canucks seem to finally have embraced the concept of rebuilding, which is great news for Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and the rest of the team’s new core. The Sedin twins’ future is a sticky wicket — the Canucks should bring them back, but only on the team’s terms (which should include one-year contracts). But if there’s a way to flip winger Loui Eriksson, defenseman Alexander Edler and potentially defenseman Chris Tanev — who is younger than Edler, and with a more attractive contract — then the Canucks should continue the tear-down. It’ll take some waiving of no-trade and no-move clauses, however.
Kaplan: After the trade deadline, Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill told reporters: “The group that we have right now is not working.” It’s hard to disagree. You could argue that few of the 13 players who will become either restricted or unrestricted free agents this summer are worth bringing back. The Sabres should have a decent amount of cap space and I’d love to see Botterill go on a spending spree and begin shaping a roster he’s more comfortable with.
Peters: I’m with Emily on this one. The big caveat is that Sabres owner Terry Pegula has to stick with whatever the next course of action is and deal with however long it takes. This team has gone through too many personnel changes; Botterill is Buffalo’s third GM and Housley is its fourth coach since 2013. Jack Eichel is obviously the centerpiece and prospect Casey Mittelstadt is looking like another potential cornerstone player for this team to continue to build on. After that, you might say just about everyone is expendable. How much more pain is this owner and this fan base willing to endure?
Arledge: Ottawa has a long rebuild ahead. The Senators overachieved in the playoffs last season, which might have given their brass pause in terms of mixing things up at all in the offseason, but the reality is that this team is going nowhere fast right now. Goalie Craig Anderson is going to be 37 years old next season (and his play is pretty dismal right now), Erik Karlsson is likely out the door in a year if he is not moved before that and the Senators currently roster zero forwards under the age of 25. I’d like to see Ottawa get something worthwhile for Karlsson and to potentially move that Bobby Ryan contract. Time to rip it all up and go full breakdown, a la the New York Rangers.