We are quite a ways away from the Stanley Cup playoffs as we sit about 13-17 games into the regular season, but it’s never too early to lay down a few bets. While we covered some value plays in our conference predictions, we will pick a favorite, a value play and a team to avoid for our Stanley Cup predictions, just like we did for our division predictions.
Without any hesitation, let’s get right to it!
Favorite: Tampa Bay Lightning (+790)
We have seen the Tampa Bay Lightning make deep playoff runs before, even with a wealth of injuries including one to Steven Stamkos, so it’s exciting to imagine where this team could go with their leader healthy and firing this season. Stamkos’ Lightning are off to a mammoth start with a 12-2-2 record across their first 16 games as the team is getting it done on all fronts. They lead the NHL with 3.94 goals per game, rank sixth with 2.63 goals against per game, check it at second with a 28.6% power play clip and their 83% penalty kill currently sits in ninth spot. They have no shortage of star power as the aforementioned Stamkos currently leads the league with a whopping 28 points in 16 games while his right winger Nikita Kucherov paces the NHL with 15 goals on the campaign. Secondary scoring hasn’t been an issue either as sophomore pivot Brayden Point has 17 points in 16 games while wingers Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn have combined to tally 20 points in 32 games. Despite averaging just under 14 minutes per game on the Lightning blueline, rookie Mikhail Sergachev is off to a torrid start to his NHL career with 12 points across 16 contests, making GM Steve Yzerman look brilliant yet again. In his first full season as Tampa’s number one goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been up to the task with a .928 Sv% and a 2.41 GAA in 14 games. It’s quite amazing to realize that this guy is just 23 years of age and posted a .918 Sv% in 16 NHL games as a 20-year-old rookie back in ’14/’15. Victor Hedman continues to anchor a solid set of Lightning defenders, a group that includes the aforementioned Sergachev and veteran stalwarts such as Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi. With a lethal forward group, a steady defensive corps and a young stellar goaltender, it appears the Lightning are fully set to take a serious run at their second Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
Value Play: Winnipeg Jets (+3300)
Do not sleep on the Jets if they continue to get quality goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck has taken over as the clear cut number one netminder in Winnipeg by producing a .936 Sv% and 2.12 GAA across 11 games on the season. It’s early to be sure, but if Winnipeg can continue to get similar production from Hellebuyck the rest of the way this is a team you aren’t going to want to face in the postseason. Led by a young core of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, the Jets offense is not going to be an issue moving forward. Throw in Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little and you have an extremely well-rounded top six forward group. This version of the Jets’ offense checks in at 11th league-wide with 3.29 goals per game on the season, a year after ranking seventh with an even three goals per game. Perhaps surprising to some, the Jets actually have an admirable group of defenders as well, led by Dustin Byfuglien. It’s not only Big Buff getting the job done on the back end, but Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and even Josh Morrissey are quietly doing yeoman’s work on the Jets’ blueline. At the time of this writing, the Jets rank 12th with 2.87 goals against per game, but with less of Steve Mason and his .872 Sv% moving forward will have them creep up the rankings in this category. Last but not least is the arena factor in Winnipeg. At just 15,294 seats, Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg sports the smallest seating capacity in the NHL. However, it continually sells out, and when it does, this is one of the loudest and most impactful atmospheres in hockey. This was on full display in the ’14/’15 postseason when the Jets hosted the Anaheim Ducks for a pair of playoff games. While the Jets ended up on the losing end and were swept by Anaheim, the venue was as rowdy as you will find in the NHL. Combine that with a quality on ice product and you do not want be a visitor in Winnipeg in the postseason. If you’re looking for value, the Jets boast plenty of it at these odds.
Avoid: Chicago Blackhawks (+2200)
It’s really hard to forget the glory days of the Blackhawks that are just a couple of years removed, but this team no longer boasts the championship-type feel. While Jonathan Toews remains one of the top leaders in the sport, Chicago is thin at both forward and especially defense, something that can be exposed in this league and will certainly be exposed if they qualify for the postseason. After being swept by the future Western Conference champion Nashville Predators in the first round last year, the Blackhawks didn’t exactly address many needs in the offseason thanks to cap issues. They lost Marion Hossa to a skin disorder of all things, traded stalwart rear guard Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona and lost up-and-coming defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk to the expansion draft. They also traded third line center and penalty kill specialist Marcus Kruger to the Golden Knights and dealt backup goaltender Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes. Of course the big blockbuster was dealing Artemi Panarin to the Blue Jackets for Brandon Saad before Panarin was set to command big dollars in free agency. Additions like veteran Patrick Sharp as well as Lance Bouma, Jan Rutta, Cody Franson, Tommy Wingels and Connor Murphy certainly don’t look like upgrades but rather affordable players who fit under the cap. The result up front has been 2.87 goals per game (18th) and a power play clicking at 13.6% (27th). Defensively, the Blackhawks actually rank fourth with just 2.40 goals against per game, but that is largely due to the play of Corey Crawford who paces all goalies with a 1.77 GAA and .945 Sv% so far this season. Crawford isn’t going to be able to keep up this pace all season long, especially if he continues to see 33.9 shots per game, the sixth most in the league. The Blackhawks are a middling possession team and with their offensive struggles and thin defensive group, it’s really hard to envision them advancing past the first round of the playoffs, if they even get there. Avoid the Hawks and pick another target for your Stanley Cup futures selection.