Minnesota Wild: The worst team to make the playoffs. There is absolutely nothing the Wild do really well, unless you count driving their coaches insane, which they do amazingly well. The worst thing for their poor fans is that it’s only going to get worse. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Ryan Suter are all on the wrong side of 30. And on top of an aging core with big money and big term still left on their contracts, they’ve got a very mediocre collection of prospects. Good luck with that.
New York Rangers: There’s nothing wrong with your goalie being your best player, but it’s kind of a problem when your goalie is your best player and he’s playing awful. Henrik Lundqvist’s save percentage was .906 in March and .895 in April. That’s not good. Combine that with the loss of Ryan McDonagh, then add to the equation the Rangers are among the worst puck-possession teams in the league, and you’ve got the formula for a very early exit.
Philadelphia Flyers: A.k.a. this year’s Ottawa Senators, who only lasted six games last year. Look, the Flyers had a great late-season run. They made the playoff race interesting, and for that hockey fans should be thankful. But this remains a seriously flawed roster, especially on the back end where Shayne Gostisbehere can’t do it all. Also remember that the Flyers’ record wasn’t as good as it looked. They only won 27 times in regulation, which is one fewer than Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Arizona managed. Were the Sabres, Jets, or Coyotes good? No, they were not good.
Detroit Red Wings: This team hasn’t been a legitimate contender since Nicklas Lidstrom retired, and it sure isn’t now. The Wings qualified for the playoffs with a minus-13 goal differential. The only other team that qualified with a negative number was the aforementioned Flyers, at minus-4. Newsflash: it wasn’t just the money that convinced Mike Babcock to leave last summer. He saw the future in Detroit, and it wasn’t bright without Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. Yes, Dylan Larkin has franchise-player potential, but he’s the only one, and you need more than one franchise player to win the Cup.
Dallas Stars: It’s too bad, because Stars games are fun to watch. They score lots of goals. They allow quite a few, too. And therein lies the problem. Teams like the Stars don’t win the Cup. It’s like their own coach says — too much “pond hockey.” For all the Stars’ talent, they’re in desperate need of a Selke Trophy-caliber forward. You know, like in 1999, when they had Jere Lehtinen and it was impossible to score on them. Defense wins championships. You might have heard that phrase a billion times or so.
Florida Panthers: Anybody who was surprised that the Panthers made the playoffs wasn’t paying attention to basic roster construction. Aleksander Barkov is a stud center and Aaron Ekblad is a stud d-man. Those are your two most important building blocks, and Florida could easily win the Cup in a few years. But it won’t happen this year, because the young part of the core isn’t ready yet. Truly elite teams dominate all facets of the game, and the Panthers don’t do that on a consistent enough basis. That’s the next step, and this playoff experience will help. (OK, we were way too nice to the Panthers here, so here’s a little joke: What do you call a sellout crowd in Sunrise? Answer: Home-ice advantage for the Habs.)
San Jose Sharks: Another “surprise” playoff team that wasn’t really a surprise. The Sharks have a talented top six and a deep defense. They’ve also got two capable goalies, now that James Reimer is in the mix. The obvious knock on the Sharks is their history of choking in the playoffs. Because if you haven’t heard, they have a real reputation for choking in the playoffs. Like in 2009, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy and choked in the first round. Or in 2010 and 2011, when they made it to the conference finals and choked each time. Or especially 2014, when they had a 3-0 lead on the Kings and choked. It’s almost like this core has proven time and time and time and time again that it doesn’t handle the pressure well.
St. Louis Blues: Speaking of choking. At least the Sharks’ core has managed to win a few rounds. The Blues have been eliminated three straight years in the first round. There are plenty of theories about this team’s postseason failures, but here’s the best one — there’s no elite center. David Backes isn’t one. Paul Stastny isn’t one. Jori Lehtera isn’t one. Alex Steen isn’t one. Those guys are all decent, sure, but when was the last time a team won the Cup without an elite center? On second thought, maybe the Blues are just chokers. Chokers, without an elite center.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Less than a year after nearly winning it all, it’s obvious the Bolts’ problems go beyond the loss of Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. Make no mistake, losing those two guys is huge. But this team hasn’t seemed right all season. Just the absolute stinkers they’ve had. It’s been really bizarre. “We have the guys,” Stamkos said a couple of weeks ago, following their latest no-show. “I believe in them and we’ve got to start believing in ourselves.” A couple of days later came the news that he was done for 1-3 months. The Lightning then finished with just one win out of four. Which wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.
Nashville Predators: Remember when the Preds used to be a good defensive team? Because they’re not really a good defensive team anymore. They don’t check with the same intensity, they’re not as responsible structurally, and the result is a goals-against average that ranks 14th in the NHL. Even teams like the Islanders and Flyers allowed fewer goals than the Preds did this season. Some of that is on Pekka Rinne, who finished with a .908 save percentage, but if the Preds think they’re talented enough to outscore lax defense and/or bad goaltending, they’re seriously mistaken. This franchise needs to find its identity again.
New York Islanders: The problem with the Isles isn’t a lack of good players. They’ve got plenty of good players. The problem with the Isles is a lack of great players. In that category, only John Tavares qualifies. Now compare that to the Blackhawks, who’ve got at least four future Hall of Famers on their roster. Heck, compare that to the Islanders’ Cup-winning teams of the 1980s, who sent five players to the Hall. Oh, and another problem with the Isles is that Thomas Greiss is currently their starting goalie. Yeah, that’s a pretty big problem right there. That problem should’ve gone first.
Anaheim Ducks: A couple of years ago, Ducks GM Bob Murray was asked what was missing from his roster. He replied, “You watch the Kings and you watch how Drew Doughty has emerged as a superstar. Do we have a defenseman who can be that way? When we won the Stanley Cup, we had [Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.] That’s in the back of my mind all the time. Where is that guy, can you find that guy, and can you afford that guy?” Unfortunately for Murray, the answer has been no. The best they’ve got right now is Cam Fowler, and he’s far from Doughty. Or Duncan Keith. Or Zdeno Chara. You know, the kind of number-one defensemen who win Cups. The Ducks should try and find one of those, because they won’t win anything until they’ve got one.
Los Angeles Kings: How much ice time can Drew Doughty handle? We’re about to find out, because the Kings still haven’t replaced Slava Voynov. Assuming Alec Martinez is healthy – and that’s no guarantee for Game 1 – they’ll enter the postseason with just three defensemen that can be trusted: Doughty, Martinez, and Jake Muzzin. In effect, Luke Schenn may have to be their Voynov. Yes, the same Luke Schenn who used to get healthy scratched in Philly. And if it’s not Schenn, the choices are Brayden McNabb, who’s totally unproven in the playoffs, or Rob Scuderi, who’s 37. Bottom line: there is no way Darryl Sutter is confident with the depth of his defense. And he shouldn’t be. It’s not deep at all.
Pittsburgh Penguins: “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” That’s a quote from Mike Tyson, and it perfectly sums up the Pens. Lest we forget, these guys have gone into the postseason feeling good about their chances before. More often than not it ends badly. Like, really badly. Since 2009, no team in hockey has lost its collective mind like Pittsburgh in the playoffs. The Penguins, as they’re keenly aware, were supposed to be a dynasty. Maybe that’s why they’ve had so much trouble maintaining their composure. It’s all those expectations, balled up like a fist, ready to start punching them in the mouth.
Chicago Blackhawks: The easiest team to count out. The ‘Hawks won’t win the Cup because it’s too hard to repeat in the salary-cap era. It hasn’t been done yet, and the salary cap’s been around since 2005. The ‘Hawks know this. They’ve tried and failed twice. The closest they got was in 2014, when they still had some gas left in the tank after their lockout-shortened title in 2013. But their tanks are empty now, and their play down the stretch was proof of that. After peaking in January, they finished the season 11-10-5. Defensively, they were plain bad at times. Expect an early exit for the defending champs.
Washington Capitals: The Caps have everything going for them right now. After running away with the Presidents’ Trophy, they’re locked and loaded for their first Cup in franchise history. Just like in 2009-10, when they were locked and loaded and lost in the first round. The year before that, it was the Sharks who ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy, only to lose in the first round. The year after, it was the Canucks, who made it all the way to the finals before running into injuries and a hot goalie. The Caps are 4/1 betting favorites to win the Cup. That’s encouraging in a way, but it also means there’s a significantly better chance that they won’t win. For the majority of Presidents’ Trophy winners, the playoffs have only led to heartbreak.