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The regular season is done and the playoff seeds are set, but the fantasy season is far from over. Jason Chen looks at the best bets for every Eastern Conference team and which players will help you win your playoff pool.
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The regular season is done and the playoff seeds are set, but the fantasy season is far from over. It’s time now to shift our focus to playoff pools, where the strategies are completely different. Sure, the best teams still offer up the best options, but the biggest determining factor of playoff pools is number of games played – the further your players and teams go, the better chances you have of winning.
Keeping that in mind, let’s break down the Eastern Conference teams and their outlook for fantasy purposes, using BetMGM’s Stanley Cup winning odds to determine the best bang for your buck.
Florida Panthers (6.50)
There has to be a breakthrough after three straight early playoff exits, right? The Panthers’ offense has to be feared, but their offense may also depend on how the playoffs are played and called by the refs. If there are fewer penalties – the Panthers finished first in GF/GP and fifth in PP% – and defense becomes a winning strategy yet again, that does not bode well because Aaron Ekblad’s status is still TBD and Radko Gudas was forced to sit the last two games due to a lower-body injury. The first round should be easy, but then it’s either the Leafs or Lightning next, and both teams have elite offensive talent.
Best Path: Make quick work of the Caps, though the games could be closer than anticipated since all three meetings during the season were decided by one goal, then hope for the Leafs in the second round because the matchup will be easier than facing the Lightning, who have better defense and goaltending, then hope for the Canes because if the Rangers make it that far it means Igor Shesterkin has been nearly unbeatable.
Sneaky playoff pick: Sam Bennett, who has a very strong track record of elevating his game in the playoffs. Mason Marchment’s style also seems tailor-made for the playoffs.
Top playoff picks: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Claude Giroux, Aaron Ekblad
Depth playoff picks: Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, Mac Weegar, Sergei Bobrovsky, Spencer Knight
Only if they go far: Mason Marchment, Anton Lundell, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Montour
Carolina Hurricanes (11.00)
If Frederik Andersen isn’t ready, they might be in trouble. For the second straight season, the Canes’ playoff hopes could be dashed because there’s so much uncertainty in net. Their committee approach will be tested without an elite superstar – Sebastian Aho comes closest – but they might also have one of the most underrated and well-rounded groups on defense. The Canes’ issue hasn’t been getting out of their first elimination matchup; it’s advancing to the conference final that has been the problem. This is the third time in four seasons the Canes will play the Bruins in the playoffs having lost both of their previous meetings – is the third time the charm?
Best Path: The Canes outscored the B’s 16-1 during the season, and despite some uncertainty should still have the edge. An upset by the Pens will help the Canes avoid Igor Shesterkin in the second round and face a far lesser goalie in Casey DeSmith (or Tristan Jarry, if he returns), but note the Canes were 3-1-0 against the Rangers during the season.
Sneaky playoff pick: Martin Nečas, whose point per game production during the season dipped from last season but has proven to be a reliable playoff scorer with nine points in 19 career games. Seth Jarvis has lined up on the first line with Aho and Andrei Svechnikov a lot this season, but that may change in the playoffs where veterans are leaned on more heavily than rookies. Look for Rod Brind’Amour to juggle his lines, but Nečas has played plenty with Svechnikov this past season.
Top playoff picks: Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov
Depth playoff picks: Vincent Trocheck, Teuvo Teravainen, Martin Nečas, Nino Niederreiter, Tony DeAngelo, Jaccob Slavin, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta
Only if they go far: Jordan Staal, Brady Skjei
Toronto Maple Leafs (11.00)
The Leafs had a very strong season, but their only barometer of success is measured in the playoffs, and as luck would have it, they’re matched up against the two-time defending champs in the opening round. Another first-round ouster will be their sixth straight, and quite remarkably against their fifth different opponent. The Leafs’ 11:1 odds do seem high considering their playoff record and with so much uncertainty in net – what will they do if Jack Campbell falters? Even if the Leafs advance – note they are the favorites – it’s a very, very tough road to the Finals, making them less than ideal for playoff poolies.
Best Path: The Lightning won’t go away easy, and it’s unlikely the Caps will upset, so the Leafs’ “best path” is really out of their hands. That also means the Leafs will likely face the East’s two best teams even before reaching the conference final, which might end up being their easiest matchup.
Sneaky playoff pick: William Nylander, who has been much maligned but ranks first on the Leafs with 20 even-strength points in 32 playoff games and the most likely to exceed expectations since Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares will be held to (probably) unrealistic standards.
Top playoff picks: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares
Depth playoff picks: William Nylander, Alex Kerfoot, Morgan Rielly, Jack Campbell
Only if they go far: Ilya Mikheyev, TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin
Tampa Bay Lightning (12.00)
In the words of Rodney Dangerfield: “I don’t get no respect.” The reigning two-time champs rank sixth based on odds with an implied probability of just 8.3 percent. Sure, they lost their entire third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, but they essentially ran it back by acquiring Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel instead, and also added Corey Perry after he finished fourth in playoff scoring on the Habs last season. If there’s one glaring weakness it’s their right-side defense with Jan Rutta, Erik Černák and Zach Bogosian, three big defenders who aren’t known to be particularly mobile and lean a lot on their left-side defensive partners, and they could have trouble keeping up with speedier left wings such as Alex Kerfoot and an elite scorer in Jonathan Huberdeau in the second round.
Best Path: In a similar vein to the Leafs – which is probably why their odds are so similar – the path through the Atlantic will be very tough, though it’s interesting to note the Lightning have fared better against the Leafs and Panthers than against the Rangers, whom they’re 0-2-1 against during the season, or the Canes, who split three games at 1-1-1. What works against the Lightning is past history; not since the ‘80s Islanders has a team won three straight, and both the Wings’ and Pens’ bids for a three-peat in 1999 and 2018, respectively, ended in the second round. Even when the Hawks and Kings combined for five Cups in six seasons, neither managed to win back-to-back.
Sneaky playoff pick: Anthony Cirelli, who has been a clutch player throughout his career and counted on to be one of the players whose contributions should increase following the departure of key players over the summer. His strong two-way game doesn’t translate well to fantasy, but he will be on the ice a lot and that will lead to scoring opportunities over a, hopefully, month-long playoff run.
Top playoff picks: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy
Depth playoff picks: Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, Mikhail Sergachev
Only if they go far: Corey Perry, Nick Paul, Pat Maroon, Ryan McDonagh
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Boston Bruins (17.00)
The Bruins have a huge historical edge in the series, having ousted the Canes twice before in consecutive seasons in 2019 (4-0) and 2020 (4-1). The biggest difference this time is that Tuukka Rask will not be tending the net and the B’s Perfection Line keeps getting older, and they were outscored during their season series, 16-1. Depth will be a big question mark for the B’s even after shoring up their defense, and Nick Foligno is coming off a career-worst season with just two goals (!) in 64 games. The B’s are one of the most likely teams to feature at least one goaltending change during the series, no matter if Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark starts Game 1.
Best Path: If they can finish off the Canes, the dreaded matchup in the next round will be Shesterkin. Their record against the Rangers (1-1-1) is only slightly better than their record against the Penguins (1-2-0), but facing DeSmith/Jarry is the easier path. On the other side of the bracket, the B’s have fared best against the Lightning with a 3-0-1 record and (somewhat ironically) the worst against the Leafs at 0-3-0, but in most cases should hope the Atlantic Division teams beat each other into a pulp and have little to no gas remaining in the conference finals.
Sneaky playoff pick: Jake DeBrusk, who finished the season tied for third on the team with 25 goals and emerged as a legitimate top-six player despite a very public trade request that stemmed from not getting quality top-six ice time. A strong showing will boost his stock even further, which bodes well for both him and the B’s, should they end up trading him.
Top playoff picks: Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrňák
Depth playoff picks: Taylor Hall, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy
Only if they go far: Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle, Craig Smith, Hampus Lindholm, Jeremy Swayman, Linus Ullmark
New York Rangers (17.00)
It’s interesting the Rangers have the same odds as the Bruins despite being favored in their first-round matchup, but the truth is, the Rangers will only go as far as Igor Shesterkin can take them. He is the biggest difference-maker in their lineup, and if the playoffs are reffed as they’ve been in the past, then their fourth-ranked power play won’t nearly play as big of a role, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Chris Kreider’s production take a step back. The Rangers have defied expectations all season because they routinely get crushed in possession numbers, and ever since the eighth-seed Kings won the Cup in 2012, it’s been noted that the eventual champions tend to boast strong possession numbers. Note speedy winger Tyler Motte looks like he might be done for the season, and both Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp are also nursing injuries.
Best Path: Shesterkin was brilliant against the Pens during the season (3-1-0, .960 Sv%, 1.01 GAA), and hoping for the B’s (2-1-0, .942 Sv%, 1.99 GAA) rather than the Canes (0-2-0, .883 Sv%, 3.63 GAA) in the second round. However, note the two losses against the Canes came within a span of two weeks when a few Rangers regulars were injured and their performances were very subpar.
Sneaky playoff pick: Alexis Lafrenière, because I’ve seen enough over the final two months (15 points in 28 games) to think that we might be close to seeing a breakout performance. He holds the edge over Kaapo Kakko, who just recently returned from injury. If Panarin and Copp miss time, look for Lafrenière and Kakko to play bigger roles.
Top playoff picks: Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox, Igor Shesterkin
Depth playoff picks: Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp, Jacob Trouba
Only if they go far: Frank Vatrano, Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko, Barclay Goodrow
Pittsburgh Penguins (21.00)
The Pens get dealt a tough hand with uncertainty in net and then facing the league’s presumptive Vezina winner. They will try to avoid their fourth straight opening-round exit even though Mike Sullivan did a great job during the season just to get them there. Unfortunately, Sidney Crosby cannot play goalie, and none of their other centers – Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter and Brian Boyle – are under the age of 34. Their wingers should all still be in their prime, but they’ll need Evan Rodrigues and Kasperi Kapanen to contribute.
Best Path: It’s hard to believe the Pens will go deep with Casey DeSmith. Asides from the Caps, the Pens have the worst odds among East teams to win, and should they get past the Rangers, note they’ve fared better against the Bruins (2-1-0) than the Canes (1-1-1).
Sneaky playoff pick: Rickard Rakell, who is slated to play next to Malkin and scored 13 points in 19 games with the Pens. It’s been four seasons since Rakell has seen playoff action, but he’s managed to contribute 14 points in 19 games in his past two playoff runs.
Top playoff picks: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang
Depth playoff picks: Rickard Rakell, Jeff Carter
Only if they go far: Jason Zucker, Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, Kasperi Kapanen, Tristan Jarry, Casey DeSmith
Washington Capitals (31.00)
Alex Ovechkin has consistently been their best scorer in the playoffs but he was nursing an upper-body injury at the end of the season. The Caps are coming closer and closer to the end of the Ovechkin era, and their history of success has cost them the ability to get high draft picks and keep the momentum going. Their top players are aging and their young players are still too inexperienced to play a big role, including both of their goaltenders and top prospect Connor McMichael.
Best Path: Even if the Caps pull off the monumental upset against the Panthers, who scored 13 goals in three games against the Caps, it’s an incredibly tough second-round matchup against the winner of the Leafs and Lightning. They’ve beaten both teams just once during the season, and that was a one-goal game against the Lightning where Andrei Vasilevskiy was uncharacteristically poor. Curiously enough, the Caps might have the easiest time in the conference final if they face the Pens or Canes, who went a combined 2-4-2 against the Caps during the season.
Sneaky playoff pick: Anthony Mantha, who is the Caps’ most dangerous scorer not named Ovechkin, though there’s no real sneaky pick for teams expected to get ousted in the opening round.
Top playoff picks: Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson
Depth playoff picks: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Bäckström, Anthony Mantha
Only if they go far: Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Conor Sheary, Dmitry Orlov, Vitek Vaněček
– Feedspot Hockey News Fantasy