2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs

David+Backes+%28left%29+and+Jonathan+Toews%27+%28right%29+teams+face+off+in+one+of+the+most+anticipated+matchups+of+the+first+round+of+the+2016+Stanley+Cup+Playoffs.

photos courtesy under the Creative Commons license

David Backes (left) and Jonathan Toews' (right) teams face off in one of the most anticipated matchups of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Dom Palombo, sports writer

Top Preseason Storylines:

  • McDavid vs. Eichel: Centers Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, and Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres, were the top picks of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Touted as the best kids since Gretzky, they will look to meet high expectations in their rookie campaigns.

Live up to the Hype? Absolutely. Sadly, McDavid only played 45 games, but he scored 48 points for a 1.07 pts. per game rate – third to only Art Ross winner Patrick Kane (1.29) and Jamie Benn (1.09). At just the age of 19, Writers and players see McDavid as one of the best players in the NHL. Eichel, who totaled 56 points in 81 games, proved to be a player who can light it up on several occasions and showed incredible strength, speed and skill for a 19-year-old in the world’s greatest league. The 2015-16 NHL rookie class as a whole was incredible and featured many first-year players playing meaningful minutes for contending teams: forwards Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Robby Fabbri, Dylan Larkin and Artemi Panarin, defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere (Ghost) and Colton Parayko, and goalie John Gibson.

 

  • Stamkos and Kopitar contracts: Centers Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, head into the 2015-16 season with one year remaining on their respective deals. They are franchise players worth more than $10 million per year, and if nothing is figured out soon, it could become a season-long story.

Did they get signed? Kopitar signed a monster deal $80 million over 8 years on Jan. 16, while Stamkos has not signed and played to his caliber this season, as he only had 37 goals and 64 points in 77 games – his lowest totals playing an entire season since his 2008-09 rookie season. Stamkos enters the playoffs without a new deal and likely a lower market value than before after another down year statistically (72 pts. in 2014-15), unless a team with a lot of cap space (Toronto homecoming?) puts a big deal on the table. In that case or not, Tampa Bay will have a difficult time signing him long-term while keeping their top youngsters who need new deals in the near future (Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin).

 

  • Patrick Kane’s legal battle: Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks has been under the spotlight since early August while being investigated for rape. Kane was in training camp and played in preseason games. He plans on playing in the regular season, but the case is still up in the air.

Did the summer distraction weigh on Kane and his play? The charges on Kane were dropped Nov. 5, and he didn’t look back, as the Buffalo native won the Art Ross Trophy (highest scorer) with 106 points and is the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy as League MVP. Kane’s second line anchored a Blackhawks team that struggled out of the gate, and he put together the longest point streak in 23 years of 26 games (30 games in 1992-93 by Mats Sundin). The dynamic duo Kane formed with his opposite winger, Panarin, has the 24-year-old rookie in position to win the Calder Memorial Trophy after a 30-goal and 77-point season (led rookies in scoring by 21 pts.).

 

  • Phil Kessel and Brandon Saad trades: Kessel, an elite right winger formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins July 1 as part of a six-player deal. Kessel plans on playing on the first line next to Sidney Crosby. Saad, a young winger with star potential, was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of an eight-player trade July 1. Saad’s asking price as a restricted free agent led the Chicago Blackhawks to deal him, although he was a large reason for their 2015 Stanley Cup win.

Worth the trades? It’s fair to say the Penguins did not get the play from Kessel they hoped for as he had a poor season by his standards (26 goals and 59 pts.) playing alongside Evgeni Malkin for most of his time on the second line. Kessel, though, did have a good finish to the season with 12 pts. in his last nine games, despite Malkin’s absence.

For the Blue Jackets and Saad, the trade is looking like a strong long-term addition as Columbus is hoping to get lucky in the draft lottery rather than the postseason. Saad, who won two Stanley Cups with Chicago, will be a cornerstone player for rebuilding the franchise for years to come.

 

  • Seven teams with new coaches: Dan Bylsma, Buffalo Sabres, Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings, Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers, John Hynes, New Jersey Devils, Dave Hakstol, Philadelphia Flyers, Peter Deboer, San Jose Sharks and Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs. Blashill, Hynes and Hakstol are new coaches with no prior NHL head coaching experience.

Did any coaches impact their new clubs in any way? The answer is quite easy: Yes, yes, yes. Mike Babcock, 2008 Stanley Cup winner with the Red Wings, took over Toronto, and the standings did not reflect his effort, but the Maple Leaf prospect pool and future is a lot brighter with Babcock at the helm. Dan Bylsma, former Pittsburgh Penguins and new Buffalo Sabres head coach, led his team to 81 points, a 29-point improvement from last saeson. Jeff Blashill, new Red Wings coach, helped detroit reach their 25th consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Peter Deboer, new Sharks coach, brought a hungry and veteran-laden San Jose squad back into the playoffs with a meeting against bitter rival Los Angeles. John Hynes, Devils, kept a New Jersey team low on talent in the race for the second wild card spot into March against all odds. Hakstol’s new Flyers club was not supposed to be in a position to contend for a playoff spot, but behind rookie sensation Gostisbehere and a rejuvenated Claude Giroux, the Flyers secured the second wild card spot in the final weekend of the season.  Lastly, former San Jose head coach Todd McLellan, Oilers, struggled to motivate his group and found his team in second to last place at season’s end.

Preseason Stanley Cup Prediction: St. Louis defeating Pittsburgh

 

Stanley Cup Playoffs series analysis and predictions:

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.43.28 AMvia NHL.com

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE METROPOLITAN DIVISION

  1. Washington Capitals vs WC2. Philadelphia Flyers
  • The Capitals finished the regular season with the Presidents Trophy (best record in NHL) and have starpower at offense, defense and goalie. Philadelphia has seemingly been playing playoff hockey for the last few months trying to just get in, so the team could either run out of gas or keep the train moving and upset the best in the NHL. My guess is they will have trouble keeping up with a fast Capitals team and pay for their lack of a true number one goalie. Capitals in 5
  1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 3. New York Rangers
  • These two teams have faced each other three straight years in the playoffs, with the Rangers coming out on top in the past two. This Pittsburgh team is fast and could end the series fairly quick if the Rangers are unable to keep up. But with playoff success in recent years, their regular season performance is not telling of what the Rangers are capable of, especially with Henrik Lundqvist in net. Rangers in 7

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE ATLANTIC DIVISION

  1. Florida Panthers vs WC1. New York Islanders
  • Not a very flashy series, and with two teams who are not predicted to go far, the winner of this under-the-radar series could gain some momentum and have a chance to beat a depleted Tampa Bay team or weaker Detroit team from past seasons. Islander captain and all-around superstar, John Tavares, will lead New York while ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr and young superstar Aaron Ekblad will do the same for Florida. Florida in 7
  1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 3. Detroit Red Wings
  • This series is up for grabs with Stamkos and Anton Stralman hurt, but the season-long struggles of Detroit keep the odds in the Lightning’s side. Rookie phenom, Larkin, along with veteran presence in Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk, will make this an exciting rematch of last year’s first round. I think with their captain and number two defenseman out, Tampa Bay will struggle and the Red Wings could try to make a run in what is likely Datsyuk’s final season. Red Wings in 7

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE PACIFIC DIVISION

  1. Anaheim Ducks vs WC1. Nashville Predators
  • This matchup has my Stanley Cup pick, the Ducks, but the Predators will make it a heck of a series. After each losing to the Blackhawks last spring, both enter this postseason arguably more dangerous and ready to take the next step. With Nashville’s strong defense and improved offense led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and James Neal, they are a true contender. But Anaheim has a great duo in goal, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler up the middle and good offensive depth. I think the Ducks’ physicality and advantage in goal makes the difference. Ducks in 7
  1. Los Angeles Kings vs 3. San Jose Sharks
  • This might be the hardest series to predict, along with Blues-Blackhawks, because of the little differences between the teams. Los Angeles is led by all-world defenseman Drew Doughty, two-time Cup-winning goalie Jonathan Quick and two-way center Kopitar. San Jose has a rejuvenated Joe Thornton, goal-scoring machine Joe Pavelski and beast defenseman Brent Burns leading the charge. The Sharks  looked great all year, especially of late, and the Kings have not looked to be of the caliber from their Cup winning seasons. Goaltending and pure hate will likely decide this one, and something tells me San Jose’s netminder, Martin Jones, former Kings backup, will be motivated to take down his former team. Sharks in 7

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE CENTRAL DIVISION

  1. Dallas Stars vs WC2. Minnesota Wild
  • Dallas is a high-flying group led by superstars Benn and Tyler Seguin, scoring a league-high 265 goals to compensate their defense that finished 19th in goals allowed during the season. The Wild have previous playoff success, winning their first round series two straight years, but find themselves without Team USA captain, Zach Parise indefinitely. The Stars should get Seguin back from injury Game 1, and can use their speed to out-gun the Parise and Vanekless Wild early on, and potentially end this series quickly. Stars in 5
  1. St. Louis Blues vs 3. Chicago Blackhawks
  • I might have saved the best and most exciting one for last. The Blues finished the season at 3rd and the Blackhawks at 5th in the overall standings. This is the Blackhawks’ favorite time of year and subsequently the Blues’ least favorite in recent years. With Duncan Keith returning from suspension in Game 2 and both teams fully healthy, the series will be as even as it could be after a rash of injuries hurt the Blues all season and the ‘Hawks late. St. Louis has lost in the first round three straight seasons while Chicago has won two of the last three Cups (2013 and 2015), while losing in OT of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in 2014. With no love lost between either side, and the Blues’ desire to finally get over the hump against the best, the series will be extremely competitive. But in the end, the ‘Hawks have the Hall of Fame pieces (Marian Hossa, Kane, Keith and Jonathan Toews) to make a run at a repeat and their fourth Cup in seven years. Hawks in 6