I’m glad to see at least one story of absolutely critical importance get the attention it merits. To draw out a lesson of importance to non-hockey fans, however, I do want to say that this is a little bit misleading:
This time, though, seems different. Like their provincial neighbors in Edmonton, the Flames are reaping the benefits of picking near the top of the draft year in and year out. But unlike the Oilers, Calgary has managed to surround their tentpole forwards—Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk—with a reliable supporting cast. This season, under first-year head coach Bill Peters, the Flames finished with 107 points and 289 goals scored, both tied for second in the NHL behind the super-juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning. The Flames’ first-round opponent, the Colorado Avalanche, has the worst record of any playoff team, and barring a 2004 Stanley Cup final rematch with the Lightning, Calgary will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
This implies that the Oilers and Flames similarly tanked, and the Flames just did a better job filling out the roster, but really the contexts are very different. Famously, the Oilers have had four #1 overall picks in the last decade, in addition to a number 3 and a 4. The Flames have gotten only one top 5 pick, and the player they got with it (Sam Bennett) is a solid but disappointing 3rd-line winger as of now. Tkachuk and Monahan were both taken 6th, the kind result of the kind of poor-but-not-disastrous season Silicon Valley Tanking Theory suggests can’t be used to build a team. More importantly, the two best players on the team were taken with the 104th pick (Gaudreau) and signed as an undrafted free agent (Giordano). The other core pieces are Backlund (24th), Frolik (UFA), Lindholm (trade), Brodie (114th), and Hamonic (trade). The Giordano point is particularly important — one limitation to tanking in the NFL is that elite defensemen are rarely taken with ultrapremium draft picks because they’re harder to project. The Flames — like the Sharks and Knights — are actually an example that you don’t have to strip a team down to the studs to build a contender, while the Oilers remain awful after having backed into the best player to enter the league in more than a decade.
Neither Michael Berube or I had time for a full-blown preview this year. But let me recommend Dom Luszczyszyn’s comprehensive breakdowns before sharing some thoughts about the series and appending some of Michael’s:
Your Western Conference Champion Calgary Flames (P1) vs. Colorado (WC 2) The Flames have been an elite possession team all year, but nonetheless have evolved — after a first half relying on superlative performances from the top 6, they won the division despite slumps by several forward stars in part by getting much better performances from what on paper was a much-improved bottom 6 (Ryan and Mangiapane in particular.) The latter is more sustainable, although I have concerns about Monahan in particular. I have doubts about the Flames getting to the finals with their goaltending, but they should survive this round. It should be noted that while the attention he gets has been limited as a consensus #1 who was supplanted by the best player to come into the league in more than a decade and a player of similar quality who landed in Toronto, MacKinnon is a monster, and means the Avs can’t be dismissed entirely. FLAMES IN 6
San Jose (P2) v. Vegas (P3) I would have picked San Jose to win the West after the Karlsson heist, and the 18-man roster pretty much did its job, despite some injury issues. But their goaltending has been so bad that it’s hard to pick them against the Knights, who were an already excellent team themselves and added a genuinely elite talent in Stone at the deadline. One of the two best and most equally-matched series of the first round, but until Jones shows something in net I think you have to side with Vegas, who remain a remarkable story, genuinely one of the best teams in the league in Year 2. KNIGHTS IN 7.
Nashville (C1) v. Dallas (WC1) Nashville would be my darkhorse pick to come out of the rest; they’re taken for granted now and didn’t have their best season, but they’re still awfully good, and unless Bishop is incredible (which is possible) they should get through the first round without much trouble. PREDATORS IN 5
Winnipeg (C2) v. St. Louis (C3) St. Louis becoming trendy pick is…not something I would have anticipated in December, but you can’t argue with the results (or the underlying play) since (the other) Berube took over. Picking this series is a classic example of whether you prefer body of work or more recent play level. I’m more of a body of work guy, and between that and the Jets getting some of their key defensemen back I think the Jets move on for a rematch with the Preds. JETS IN 7
Tampa Bay (A1) v. Columbus (WC 2) I’m a flags-fly-forever partisan and applaud the Blue Jackets for going all-in this year, but drawing the best NHL team in at least two decades can’t feel like much of a reward. The Lightning are less likely to win the Stanley Cup than not because that’s the reality of the sport, but they’re certainly by far the most likely champion. Excellent forward group, excellent defensemen, Vezina-quality goaltending, superb coaching — there’s nothing missing. Columbus is good but they’re walking into a buzzsaw. LIGHTNING IN 5
Boston (A2) v. Toronto (A3) As Dom shows, the sheer dominance of the Bergeron line remains astounding; despite a lot of heavy competition they remain the best line in the NHL by a considerable margin. I do think, however, that people are underrating Toronto because of their last month plus. They actually did a pretty decent job against B/M/P last year and they’ve added Tavares; I don’t like to say this but I think they get over the top this year. LEAFS IN 7
Washington (M1) v. Carolina (WC1) The sneaky-good series of the first round, the defending champion against an analytics darling that got the goaltending and two crucial additions to finally get over the hump. I don’t think the Carolina’s performance since getting Niederreiter is a fluke; I think they’re that good. I do worry about Washington’s edge in net but I think Carolina keeps the magic going for at least another couple weeks. CANES IN 7
Islanders (M2) v. Penguins (M3) Another reason I slightly favor the Canes is that the Capitals no longer have Barry Trotz, who proved once again to be a defensive coach nonpareil. The Islanders have a great story, and with Barzal and Eberle helping to overcome the loss of Tavares Peter Chiarelli is the best GM the Islanders have had since Torrey left. But while what they’ve accomplished is impressive they’re not as good as their record, while the Pens are better. Admittedly, the Pens have started doing some weird stuff; adding Gudbranson alongside Jack Johnson gives Pittsburgh two expensive-yet-awful defensemen who are major vulnerabilities when they step up in class. But Crosby, man — 31 and has a perfectly reasonable Hart case, and it’s not like there isn’t plenty of talent around him. PENGUINS IN 5.
And now Michael’s Eastern picks:
Lightning in 5, and let them not meet the fate of the 95-96 Wings in the second round; yay Isles in 7, and I can’t believe, as an almost-lifelong Rangers fan, that I am typing those words; yay Leafs in 6, because it is good to see professional hockey return to that long-neglected city; and meh Caps in 6, because Carolina’s home wins have set a new standard for postgame inventitveness wtf.