Archive for the ‘Hockey’ Category

Common sense says that if you put together a team full of players that their last teams didn’t want, then add a bunch of young draft picks, the results won’t be good. Usually, winning teams have a combination of talent and low roster turnover. The LeBron-led Heat and the Spurs are good examples of the extremes within that continuum, but the Heat couldn’t win before their stars became familiar with each other, while the Spurs couldn’t have won without having Hall-of-Fame talent. Expansion teams have none of that. As I alluded to before, they’re a mishmash of the best unwanted players from each existing team. Each league does its expansion drafts differently, but in the NHL, each team was allowed to protect approximately seven forwards, four defensemen, and a goalie for the 2017 expansion draft. That means that the new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, ended up with mainly third and fourth line players, third pair defensemen, and talented but overpriced players who were left unprotected for cap reasons. They did get an above average goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury, because the Penguins had two good goalies under team contract and decided to protect Matt Murray, the younger one (and also the established #1 goalie. It was a no-brainer). During and after the draft, the Knights made it clear that their immediate goal was to get as much draft capital as possible. They got a couple of first round picks and future third and fourth rounders in exchange for not selecting players that other teams wanted to keep. After the expansion draft, they traded five of their 30 selections for two second rounders, a third rounder, a fifth rounder, and a sixth rounder, most in future drafts. The result was that they made three picks in the top-15 of the 2017 NHL draft and 12 total, making it clear to everyone that they were trying to build a team that could contend three or four years down the road.

That was reflected in the preseason odds. Their over/under win total was set at 26.5, lowest in the league by three games. Their point total was set at 68.5, lowest by four points. They were +900 to make the playoffs and -1600 to miss the playoffs. And they were +3300 to win the Pacific Division. I’ve waited a long time to write this post, waiting and waiting and waiting some more for what I thought was the inevitable collapse. But 58 games into the season, the collapse hasn’t come, and it’s become clear that it isn’t coming. The Knights have 82 points, most in the NHL. They lead their division by 10 points and have been nearly unbeatable (22-4-2) on their home ice. At the beginning of the year, they were underdogs at home. Now, it’s a steal to get them at odds below -200 in Las Vegas. Most shockingly of all, they’re +600 to win the Stanley Cup, making them joint-favorites with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Do I think they’re going to win the Cup? No, I don’t, and there are a handful of other teams I think are more likely to do it. But the fact is that, two-thirds of the way through the season, the Knights have been the best team in hockey. And they’re a near shoo-in to win their division, which they supposedly had a 2.9% chance of doing (that’s the implied probability of the +3300). This is the biggest shock in a regular season in American sports in years. But to get a clearer grasp on just how improbable it is, let’s go through the history of previous expansion teams.

Since 1980, the NHL has added 10 teams, the NBA eight, the NFL three, and MLB four. That’s 24 teams who have had an expansion draft and then a full first year. It’s clear from this sample that it’s been easiest for NHL teams to achieve immediate success. Before Vegas, the 1993-94 Florida Panthers were the expansion team that played best in its first year. They went 33-34 with 17 ties, good for 83 points. In a league with 26 teams, they had the 16th-most points. Two years later, they made the Stanley Cup Finals, but they were swept by the Avalanche and have had very little success since. Those Panthers were the only expansion team that didn’t have a bottom-10 record in their initial season. The same year, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks went 33-46-5, good for 71 points (tied for 20th in the league). In 2000-01, the Columbus Blue Jackets went 28-39-9 (ties)-6 (overtime losses), good for 71 points (tied for 22nd in a 30 team league). And in the 1995 NFL season, the Carolina Panthers, riding a surprisingly good defense and suffering through some horrible performances by rookie QB Kerry Collins (sub-50% completion, 14 TDs, 19 INTs), went 7-9. These are the success stories of professional teams in their first years after expansion. These four somehow managed to lift themselves above the bottom tier of teams in their leagues. The other 20 teams ended their initial year in the bottom-five. In total, the 24 teams won 28.5% of their games. And there were some truly horrendous seasons. The Senators went 10-70-4, the Sharks went 17-58-5, the Thrashers went 14-57-7-4, all eight basketball teams won between 15 and 22 games, the two NFL expansion teams not named the Panthers went 4-12, and all four baseball teams lost between 95 and 99 games. It goes without saying that not a single one of those 24 teams was close to making the playoffs.

It was with this history in mind that I kept expecting the bottom to fall out of Vegas’s inaugural season. I thought their 15-9-1 start was a mirage. It turns out that it was, just not in the way I thought — they’re 24-6-3 since. This team started the year as just a cute feel-good story, with a powerful home opener that came a little more than a week after the Vegas shooting. It’s become far more, a force off the ice that has pulled the Las Vegas community together and on it that has dominated its own division to a tune of a 14-1-1 record. Fleury has become the team’s leader, and he’s putting up stats to match his stature. His .932 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average are easily the best marks of his career, and he’s 19-6-2. But the fact that the team barely lost a beat when Fleury got hurt early in the year (and the fact that they are where they are despite playing five goalies on the season) shows how resilient this team is. And some of the individual stories are incredible. The Blue Jackets gave the Knights a first round pick and a second round pick just to make them take William Karlsson, a forward coming off 20 and 25 point seasons, in the expansion draft. Karlsson has responded by scoring 30 goals in 58 games, catapulting him into a tie for fourth in the NHL. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith to the Knights in exchange for Vegas selecting Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft. Marchessault and Smith are Karlsson’s wingers on the first line and are first and third on the team in points with 58 and 51 respectively. Oh, and that unheralded line has been the most dominant in hockey by a longshot. Karlsson leads the NHL in plus-minus at +34, Smith is second at +29, and Marchessault is third at +27. Their line has 40 goals together (most in the NHL by four, with Toronto’s Auston Matthews line in second). And this is all without any help from Vegas’s many draft picks.

I’m still skeptical about how good this early success is for the franchise in the long-term. The Panthers showed that initial success doesn’t guarantee long-term health for an expansion team. The Vegas fans are learning how it feels to win at a time when most fans start learning how it feels to lose. And it would be a mistake for the Knights to sacrifice the assets they’ve built up to try to win the Cup this year. But they’ve shown no evidence that they’re going to do that, and for now I think it’s best to let this remain what it has been all year: the biggest and best story in the NHL and the best Cinderella story in professional sports in a long time.


I’m going to be away for the next month, so I thought it would be fun to predict the headlines that I’ll be unable to write about. Hopefully sports aren’t as hard to predict as everybody thinks…

After All That, Fultz-Ball-Jackson go 1-2-3: It’s NBA Draft rumor season, which means that all kinds of rumors are being leaked by teams and bandied about by the media. Are the Celtics going to take Josh Jackson #1? Have the Lakers cooled on Lonzo Ball? Will the Kings trade up to draft De’Aaron Fox? Do the Sixers love Malik Monk’s fit enough to draft him #3? In the end, I think the top of the draft will go just as most thought it would a month ago. Fultz should be the slam dunk #1 pick, Ball should go #2, and Jackson should go #3.

Mike Trout Returns Ahead of Schedule: Trout underwent surgery on May 31st to repair a torn UCL in his left thumb and was given a 6-8 week timetable that all but guaranteed that he’d be out through the All-Star break. But because he’s Mike Trout, he’ll return before the break and reinsert himself into the AL MVP conversation (sorry, Aaron Judge). Maybe I’m just trying to will this into existence, because baseball without Mike Trout is nowhere near as fun as baseball with Mike Trout. The guy was hitting .337/.461/.742 with 16 homers and 10 steals in 206 plate appearances before he went down.

Aaron Judge Slumps: Speaking of AL MVP candidates, this has to happen at some point, doesn’t it? Judge has been nothing short of spectacular in his first full season. He’s hitting .335/.441/.692 with 22 homers and currently is lapping the field (excluding Trout, of course) with a 196 wRC+ (96% better than the average hitter). But he strikes out a ton, and his BABIP is an absurd .425 right now. That number’s going to come way down, and I think Judge will hit around .270 going forward, although he’ll still provide great value through his walks and homers. But I think a slump sometime over the next month is inevitable.

Devils take Nolan Patrick, Flyers take Nico Hischier: There have been reports that the Devils might look past the clear top two prospects in the draft and draft a defenseman instead, but those reports are clearly bogus (sorry in advance if they turn out to be true). It’s between Patrick and Hischier for the Devils, with the Flyers picking the leftover center. I happen to think that the Devils are going to take Patrick first, because he’s the bigger player with more two-way upside. But they can’t go wrong (as long as they take one of those two!).

Vegas takes Marc-Andre Fleury in Expansion Draft, Then Trades Him: The first part is a slam dunk. Since the Pittsburgh Penguins have to protect stud young netminder Matt Murray in the expansion draft, they’ll leave Fleury unprotected. Fleury dropped the no-movement clause that would have prevented the Penguins from protecting him, and since he’ll be the best goalie on the market at a good price, he’ll be going to Vegas. But then I think the Vegas Golden Knights (terrible name, by the way) will trade Fleury to a goalie-needy for picks. In fact, I think we’re going to see a lot of picks flowing to Vegas as they look to build for the future.

Gordon Hayward Returns to the Jazz: Hayward, probably the best player on the market right now, has been linked to Boston for years. It makes sense. The Celtics’ coach is Brad Stevens, who recruited and coached Hayward at Butler. And Boston has the advantage of being in the Eastern Conference, which would give Hayward a better shot at the NBA Finals (no facing the Warriors until the Finals). There’s no doubt that he would fit exceptionally well in Boston. Now there are reports coming out that the Heat will join the Celtics in the pursuit of Hayward, and Miami should always be taken seriously in free agency. But in the end, the Jazz can offer more money to Hayward than anything else, and they also offer continuity and a pretty good young team. Generally, I like to bet on guys re-signing unless there’s clearly a superior alternative.

Red Sox Take AL East Lead: I guess this kind of goes hand-in-hand with my Judge prediction, but I think that the Red Sox will make up their two game deficit and have a better record than the Yankees heading into the All-Star break. With the exceptions of Chris Sale, Mitch Moreland, and Craig Kimbrel, their team has been underperforming. Their studs haven’t been horrible (Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez are all putting up solid stats), but none of them has exploded yet. That should change over the next month as the Red Sox capitalize on a soft schedule (after their three game series in Houston, of course) and enter the break on a hot streak despite closing the first half of the season on a 10-game road trip.

Rafa Knocked Out of Wimbledon Early, While Murray Retains Title: Rafael Nadal will be heading into Wimbledon on a high, having just won his record 10th French Open. And he shouldn’t be counted out at Wimbledon, as he has won it twice. But he hasn’t made it out of the fourth round since 2011, and while he’s playing better tennis now than he has at any point in the last three years, I expect him to be knocked out in the first few rounds. Meanwhile, Andy Murray always excels on the grass, making at least the quarterfinals nine times in a row. I think he’s the clear favorite to win his second consecutive Wimbledon title, although Roger Federer is of course worthy competition on the grass. I’m hoping that we get a Murray-Federer championship. It happened in 2012, when Federer won in four sets.

Raimel Tapia Earns Everyday Role, Helps Rockies Stay Hot: The Colorado Rockies shockingly have the best record in the National League at 43-26. They’ve gotten tremendous performances from Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, but their hitting hasn’t actually been as good as in recent years. The reason they’ve been so good is that they’ve gotten tremendous performances from young pitchers. Jeff Hoffman has a 2.25 ERA through five starts, Antonio Senzatela has a 3.84 ERA in his rookie year (super impressive at Coors Field), and rookie Kyle Freeland has a 3.57 ERA. Given that they’re about to get Jon Gray back from injury, they have to be more bullish about their rotation now than they have been in recent memory. With that being said, they need more production out of their offense. They’re being very careful with top prospect Brendan Rodgers, holding him in high-A ball even though he’s hitting .404 and is clearly ready for AA or even AAA. More likely to get more playing time is Raimel Tapia, who has already gotten the call-up and who has played 15 games for the Rockies and generally impressed. Tapia hit .359 in AAA, and he’s starting to take playing time from Carlos Gonzalez, who’s been one of the worst players in baseball this year. I expect Tapia to continue to earn playing time and to help offset any potential drop-off from the starting pitching.

Chris Paul Courts Other Suitors, Then Stays With LA: Basically the same thing as Hayward. Paul would be leaving a LOT of money on the table if he were to leave LA, and I don’t see that happening, especially since he helped negotiate the CBA that allowed him to receive so much money to stay. I think he’ll court the Spurs and the Rockets but eventually return to the Clippers for a max contract.

Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/29/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Can the Nashville Predators stop the Pittsburgh Penguins in their quest to repeat? In a Cup Final that’s been largely flying under the radar, that’s probably the top storyline. But it’s not my favorite storyline. As someone who’s gotten rather sick of Pittsburgh’s sustained success over the last decade, I’d rather focus on their opponents. How about those Predators fans?? They have sooo many great, famous fans (read: bandwagon celebrity fans)! There’s Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ offensive line… The Predators are getting their highest ratings ever and are playing in an arena that’s the loudest in the NHL, at least according to a Ducks player. They’re 7-1 at home in the playoffs. And they play in Nashville! This is quite the success story for commissioner Gary Bettman, which means I’m not really a fan of this storyline, either. Let’s get on to the actual hockey.

The Predators are 12-4 in the playoffs, and they’re 9-1 when they score at least three goals. That’s because they’ve been getting outstanding performance after outstanding performance from Pekka Rinne, who was a mediocre goaltender during the regular season. Rinne leads postseason goalies with a 1.70 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. He has to be the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. And yet, I keep expecting him to regress to his regular season numbers. If that happens in this series, the Predators are toast. They need their goalie to keep standing on his head for them, because they have a lot less room for error than the Penguins. That’s especially true given that they’re going to be without their top center, Ryan Johansen, for the entire series. Johansen may have been Nashville’s most crucial player through the first three rounds outside of Rinne. His loss would hurt against anyone, but it could prove especially costly against a team with two good centers (Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen) and two otherworldly ones (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Nobody can replace Johansen, but at least Nashville’s second line center, captain Mike Fisher, is a capable, stout player. With that being said, he’s far from the chance producer that Johansen is. Fisher has been held pointless through 14 playoff games despite logging 17 minutes of ice time per game. Nashville’s likely going to have to find its scoring from other sources. It’ll be interesting to see how Johansen’s former line mates, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, play without their center. Nashville’s top line was one of the best and most productive in the NHL all season (and especially in the playoffs. Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Johansen are +17, +13, and +12 respectively), which is why it’s such a heartbreaker that Johansen’s going to be out. Forsberg and Arvidsson are good enough to produce even without Johansen, and they’re certainly going to have to be firing on all cylinders against the Penguins and their multitude of scoring options.

The Predators could also seek more scoring from their talented defensemen. I expect Nashville’s blueliners to be aggressive early and often, with Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm looking for shooting lanes and springing odd man rushes. You get the feeling that it’s going to be pretty tough for the Predators to create much in settled situations, so look for them to try to fling shots on net and get in the head of goalie Matt Murray. One thing’s for sure: this Nashville team isn’t likely to rally from two or three goals down. They’re best suited to play low scoring games.

The problem is that I’m not sure Pittsburgh’s forwards are going to let the games be low scoring. The Penguins lead the NHL with 3.05 goals per postseason game, and they led the NHL with 3.44 goals per game in the regular season. Whereas last year they got huge performances out of a lot of complimentary players, this year they’ve largely been powered by their star players. Malkin leads the NHL with 24 playoff points; Crosby is second with 20. Nashville’s as capable of slowing those guys down as anyone, as the four defensemen I mentioned earlier are great puck possessors and are also solid in their own zone. The challenge is that — and this is especially true now that Patric Hornqvist is back — there are still so many other weapons to be worried about. Phil Kessel is producing a point per game (seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs). After being elevated to the top line, Chris Kunitz scored two goals and assisted on a third in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 Game 7 win over Ottawa. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are very capable of scoring in bunches. On the surface, it seems like this is a mismatch. But it’s worth noting that, with the exception of Game 5 (a 7-0 Pittsburgh win), the Senators did a pretty good job against Pittsburgh’s talent. They gave up just 10 goals in the other six games, with goalie Craig Anderson often standing on his head to keep the puck out of the net (those 10 goals came on 206 shots, an average of more than 34 per game). Pekka Rinne is perfectly capable of keeping the Preds in the series, just as Anderson kept the Senators in the series. A double-overtime Game 7 loss is about as close to a win as I can imagine. But anyone watching that game knows what I mean when I say that it always seemed like the Penguins were going to be the team that broke the deadlock. I think this series could be very similar. The Predators are a tough team, and they’re a very good defensive team. They’ll keep things close. But the Penguins will be the aggressors late in close games, and it’ll seem like a matter of time until they put games away. Sometimes, the team that’s driving the play late ends up losing. More often, though, what seems inevitable does in fact come to fruition. We’ll never know what this series would have looked like with Johansen, but I’m pretty sure I would have picked Nashville to win. Unfortunately, I now don’t think the Predators will produce enough against a hot goalie (Murray was tremendous after replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in the middle of the last round) to win four games. Pekka Rinne will have some huge moments, and it’ll be a tight series, but I like the Penguins to win it in 6.

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/12/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Two rounds into the NHL playoffs, we’re left with a question we have had to ask a lot recently: can anyone stop the Pittsburgh Penguins? I really believed that this would be the year that the Capitals would finally exorcize their black and yellow demons and advance to the third round (and eventually all the way to the Stanley Cup). But it wasn’t to be. The Capitals dropped three of the first four games, saw the pressure on them drop substantially, and then win two straight to set up Game 7. With the pressure back on, they came out all guns blazing in the first period but failed to score, and they eventually fell quietly, losing 2-0 and showing very little fight in the third period. I don’t usually subscribe to this type of theory, but it really felt like the moment was again too big for the Caps. Facing a team with a ton of playoff experience (they won the Cup last year, after all), the pressure got to them. This quote from Nick Backstrom speaks volumes: “We didn’t lose the series tonight, we lost it in the first three games, four games.” Sure, the Caps were down 3-1 in the series. But they fought back and had a Game 7 ON THEIR HOME ICE! The Backstrom quote fits in with the general theme of the Capitals lacking postseason confidence. I’d bet that Capitals fans are very torn about their team right now. They’ve won consecutive President’s Trophies, but they always flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. Could we see the Caps blow it up this summer with a trade of Alex Ovechkin and others? After 13 years of consistent playoff disappointments, I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Penguins have now beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets (+54 GD, 108 points) and Capitals (+81, 118) in the first two rounds. Of the other three teams left in the playoffs, the Ducks were easily the best regular season team (+23, 105 points). The Penguins also have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, good secondary scoring, and a scorching hot Marc-Andre Fleury. The narrative should be about the Penguins. But this Penguins team isn’t that great! Fleury is going to cool off because he’s not that good, and the Penguins are missing Kris Letang, their top defenseman. The return of Matt Murray gives the Penguins insurance for Fleury, but the point is that this is a very beatable team that’s really thin at the blue line. Let’s get into the two matchups.

Penguins over Senators in 6:

The Senators have done very well to get this far. This feels like a long time ago, but the Senators lost 10 of their final 15 regular season games and entered the playoffs with a -2 goal differential, making them the only playoff team who allowed more goals than they scored. Thanks to the heroics of Erik Karlsson, an explosion from defensive-minded forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau (seven goals in the playoffs, including four in one game), and some timely goals (5-1 in overtime), the Sens have squeaked through to the third round. They’re just a +1 in the playoffs, but they have a 7-2 record in one goal games. That’s a fluke, but some things don’t have time to correct themselves in the playoffs. Hopefully for Ottawa, the Sens’ performance in one goal games is one of those things.

It’d better be, because the Penguins have a pretty clear talent advantage in this series. With Crosby fully recovered from the concussion he suffered against the Capitals, they have their full allotment of offensive firepower. Malkin has 18 points in 12 playoff games, making him a favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy (given to the best playoff performer). Crosby has 14 points in 11 games, and Jake Guentzel has nine goals. The fact that I haven’t even talked about the immensely talented Phil Kessel yet says it all. The Penguins have 41 goals in the playoffs, good for 3.42 per game. Now, the Senators are fairly stingy defensively, thanks in large part to Craig Anderson, who’s a solid goalie. I think they’ll get under Crosby’s skin a little bit and make things difficult for the Penguins. But Anderson is going to have to steal a couple of games for the Senators to win this series. Ottawa’s a gritty team, and Karlsson’s an outstanding player, but this is probably the right time for the Senators to be sent home.

Predators over Ducks in 6:

Aside from the Penguins, the Ducks have been the best offensive team in the playoffs. They also rank first of remaining teams in playoff Fenwick (shots+missed shots for over total shots, 54.68%). I can’t say I watched a lot of the Ducks in the regular season, so I don’t know if they’re playing a lot better than they did in the regular season, but their puck possession numbers suggest that they are. Going from below-average in the regular season to tops in the playoffs is a heck of a swing. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that neither Calgary nor Edmonton is a great defensive team. The Nashville Predators have been great defensively in the playoffs. They’ve given up 14 goals in 10 games. Pekka Rinne has a .951 save percentage and has looked unbeatable at times. As I wrote about before the second round, the Preds have four tremendous defensemen (great now, maybe problematic come the expansion draft). Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all averaging upwards of 23 minutes per game. Subban and Ekholm have been much more effective than Josi and Ellis so far in the playoffs, but all four are capable of slowing down the hot Anaheim attack. That’s the matchup to look out for in this game: can Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler keep up their barrage of shots at the net against Nashville’s defense? Can they get those shots past the red-hot Rinne?

Nashville’s offensive attack is much more balanced than Anaheim’s. While the Ducks rely on skilled forwards Getzlaf and Silfverberg (15 combined goals in 11 games), the Predators have been getting a lot of scoring from defensemen. Ellis leads the team with nine points, and Josi and Subban have eight and seven apiece. I wrote about Nashville’s great first line before the last round, and Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson have continued to drive play when on the ice (all three have FF% of 54%+). But the goals dried up for them against St. Louis, as the first line tallied just two goals in the second round. Forsberg and Arvidsson were both 30 goal scorers, and they’re going to have to light the lamp more often. Luckily, they’re now facing a goalie who gave up three goals on six shots in Anaheim’s 7-1 loss to Edmonton in Game 6. That game obviously inflates his save percentage, but even excluding it he had just a .909 save percentage against the Oilers. Gibson’s just 23-years-old, and this is his first playoffs as the full-time starter. It’s worth wondering whether fatigue is getting to him. If it is, and Gibson continues to give up three goals per game, the Ducks are going to have a tough time winning this series. He gave up 3+ goals in five of the seven games this series, and the Ducks went 3-2 in those games. But give the Predators three goals and they’re probably going to win. That’s why I’m taking Nashville in six games, setting up a pretty intriguing Stanley Cup Final (for neutral fans, probably the Final we should be rooting for if we want a good, long series).

NHL Round 2 Preview

Posted: 04/27/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs was.. bizarre. On the one hand, it was the closest first round in NHL history. A record-setting 18 games went into overtime, meaning that an incredible 43% of first round games went to at least one overtime (another record). And yet… not a single series went the distance, and only four of the eight first round matchups went to six games. That means that four first round matchups were over in a blink, including the two I thought may be the best first round series’ (Blackhawks-Predators and Blues-Wild). I’m hoping we get a Game Seven or two in Round Two. It feels like all four matchups are near-coin flips, and that’s not just because there’s a lot of parity in the NHL. In the Western Conference, we get perhaps the two most impressive first round teams (Nashville and St. Louis) against each other and Anaheim and Edmonton, who finished just two points apart in the Pacific Conference, on the other side of the bracket. In the Eastern Conference, the two best teams in the NHL are pitted against each other for the second consecutive year, meaning that neither the Capitals nor the Penguins will be large second round matchups and that both Ottawa and the Rangers have a legitimate shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Penguins beat the Capitals in six tough games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Anything can happen in the latter rounds of the NHL playoffs, so I won’t guarantee that the winner of this series wins it all again this year, but I will say that the odds of that happening are pretty darn good. The Penguins were electric in the first round, while the Capitals have been the deepest, most talented team in hockey all season. Regardless of what happens, I can assure you that it’ll be entertaining. The NHL playoffs always are.

I know I’m posting this a day late (as far as the Western Conference in concerned), but I don’t think home ice advantage means much in hockey (both road teams won last night, for example) and a lot can change quickly in a best of seven series. Anyway, both losers arguably outplayed their opponents last night, so I think it’s fair to continue to call both matchups near tossups. Let’s start in middle America with Music City vs. the Gateway City.

Predators over Blues in six:

The Nashville Predators are coming off a dominant sweep of the Blackhawks (composite score: 13-3), and it’s safe to say that they’re the hottest team in hockey. If you haven’t watched the Predators yet this year, you may be surprised to find out that this isn’t the Nashville of old, the team that relied on Pekka Rinne to pull wins out of thin air. Actually, while you wouldn’t have guessed it from the first round (Rinne saved 123 of the 126 shots that came his way), the goaltender position is arguably one of the Predators’ few weak spots. Rinne had a .918 save percentage this year, still solid but middle-of-the-pack-solid and certainly not the world beater type numbers Rinne used to regularly post. The Predators have transitioned away from their reliance on Rinne and are now a much younger and more balanced team. Before last season, the Predators hadn’t had a 30-goal scorer since 2009-2010, despite generally having good-to-great teams in that span. Now, they’ve had two 30-goal scorers in two straight seasons. This year, those two were 22-year-old sniper Filip Forsberg and 24-year-old Viktor Arvidsson, who had a breakout season alongside Forsberg and 24-year-old Ryan Johansen on Nashville’s excellent top line. The top line accounts for a lot of the scoring, and it’s also a tremendous puck-possessing unit. Nashville’s philosophy is clear: play fast, move the puck, and make controlled entries into the offensive zone. That’s why trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban last offseason was such a good move for the Predators to make. Weber’s a great player, but Subban has made a clear difference for the Predators in 5-on-5 situations (whereas Weber is a superior power play point man). Among the 197 defenseman who played at least 500 minutes this season, Subban ranked eighth in Corsi For % (that’s total shots for over total shots for and against, not just shots on goal) at 55.02%. CF% is generally regarded as the best way of measuring puck possession, so it’s telling that Subban ranked eighth (ninth if we’re talking about Corsi relative to team) while Weber ranked 55th (142nd relative to his team). The Predators have a big four of defensemen between 26 and 28 years old in whom they have supreme confidence. This may prove to be an issue come expansion draft time, when the Preds may be forced to deal one or leave one unprotected, but right now it’s a huge luxury to feel totally comfortable about giving four defensemen 24 minutes+ per game. Subban is Subban, Roman Josi has been really good for awhile, Ryan Ellis led the team in plus-minus, and Mattias Ekholm is developing into a shutdown defenseman. As I said, that’s a pretty good foursome to be relying on. Outside of the first line, the Predators have a proven goal scorer in James Neal and a bunch of other solid pieces (although the loss of Kevin Fiala, who broke his leg in the Game One win over the Blues, is big. Fiala had the best CF% outside of the first line). This is a good team, one whose title hopes hinge on Pekka Rinne. If Rinne is who he was in Round One, the Predators have a good shot to win it all. If he’s not, the Blues are more than capable of disposing of them, Game One loss aside.

The Blues were also very impressive in the first round, as they quickly beat a Minnesota Wild team that I actually really liked and thought had a chance to win it all. In fairness, the Wild dominated the series from a pace and shooting standpoint, but the Blues got outstanding performance after outstanding performance from young goalie Jake Allen. Unfortunately, Allen probably isn’t going to keep winning games by himself, so the rest of the Blues are going to have to improve a lot for St. Louis to have a chance against a rolling Nashville team. This is a familiar St. Louis team, with defensive stalwarts Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko putting up huge minutes (the one difference: Kevin Shattenkirk is gone) and a huge portion of the scoring punch coming from the dynamic Vladimir Tarasenko (116 goals in the last three seasons). I’m not going to spend much time writing about the Blues, because this feels very familiar: it’s a solid team that always posts good-but-not-great puck possession numbers and, for one reason or another, can’t get over the hump in the postseason. They came close last year, when they pushed the Sharks to six games in the Western Conference Finals. I don’t think they’ll get as close this year because, Tarasenko aside, they’re not nearly as talented as Nashville is.

Oilers over Ducks in seven:

Everyone who isn’t a Ducks fan should want the Oilers to win. They’re young and exciting. They have the best young player in the world in Connor McDavid. I can’t tell you just how good McDavid already is. He scored 100 points this year, and he hasn’t even scratched the surface. He turned 20 a few months ago. Also, the Ducks are kind of brutish and nasty. They ranked second in the league in hits, and they commit a lot of penalties (but are rarely punished for them because they have a great penalty kill). Corey Perry is the jerkiest good player in the NHL. But the biggest thing is that the Ducks have won their division for five straight seasons and aren’t going away. Yeah, I dislike the Ducks because they’re good. Sue me.

Anaheim finished with 105 points this year despite finishing 19th in Corsi For% (49.68%, a spot behind Edmonton). Something’s got to give, right? Well, against Calgary (10th in Corsi) in the first round, the Corsi gave and the Ducks romped to a sweep even though talented goalie John Gibson was inconsistent. Ryan Getzlaf is hitting on all cylinders (11 goals and 30 assists in his last 30 games), Corey Perry is annoyingly good, and Patrick Eaves, who scored 11 goals in 20 games after being acquired from Dallas, continued to play super well on the first line. But I wonder how this aging forward group would do in a longer, more competitive series. Getzlaf is 32, Eaves is 33, Kesler is 32, and Perry is 31. But Anaheim’s forward group makes up for what they may lack for in youthfulness and stamina with tremendous smarts and confidence. If I were an Anaheim fan, I’d be more worried about my goalie than Perry, Getzlaf, or Kesler, who’ve all been producing for the Ducks for so long.

You know a really good way to measure someone’s impact? Look at how much better the veterans around him are than they were before. The veteran on Connor McDavid’s line is Patrick Maroon, who’s in his sixth season and who never had more than 12 goals in a season before this year. Guess how many goals he scored this season? 27. That’s the Connor effect. The problem with the Oilers is that they only go two lines deep offensively. Nobody outside of the top six scored more than 35 points this season or provided much in the way of puck-possession help. But guess what? That’s also Anaheim’s problem! This is why I don’t think either of these teams is actually very good! This is why I think the winner of this series will be underdogs next round! Anyway, I digress.

It’s not quite as simple as experience vs. youth, because Anaheim’s defense is young and good. But in a fairly even series between two teams heading in different directions (I hope. It’s time, Anaheim), give me Connor McDavid.

Capitals over Penguins in six:

I’m pretty sure that the Capitals are better than the Penguins. But can they finally vanquish their playoff bugaboos? Nobody has a deeper group of 12 forwards and six defensemen. Nobody has a better goalie than Braden Holtby (and especially the playoff version of Braden Holtby). 13 guys put up 25+ points. The team had easily the best goal differential in hockey. This is the best team in the NHL, and there isn’t much else to say… except that they’ve never made the third round with Alex Ovechkin, who’s been on the Capitals since 2005-06. That’s pretty incredible, and if the streak is ever going to end, it’ll end this year. But Washington’s opponents are pretty good, too…

The Columbus Blue Jackets are a good hockey team. They were one of the best teams in the NHL this year, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. It just didn’t seem like it in the first round, when the Penguins scored 21 goals in five games against the Jackets. They just have so much offensive firepower. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had great seasons, Phil Kessel scored 70 points and has continued to provide elite playoff production, and five others added 15+ goal seasons. The Penguins easily led the NHL in goals this season and are a tough matchup for any defense.

The Penguins will be able to score, but can they stop the Capitals? Matt Murray is injured, which didn’t matter much against Columbus but could against the Capitals. Marc-Andre Fleury is obviously a great backup to have, but the Penguins would obviously much rather have Murray and Fleury at their disposal than just Fleury. They also don’t have top defenseman Kris Letang. Again, they were able to survive their flaws against Columbus, but I don’t think they’ll be able to survive against the Capitals. Washington is so much deeper, and their defense is so much better. This is the year.

Rangers over Senators in seven:

Neither of these teams is very good. The winner will probably get blasted by the Capitals or Penguins. I’m not going to waste a lot of words on this series. It’s obviously a cop out to say it’ll come down to the goaltending, but both the Senators and the Rangers rely heavily upon their goalies. We all know what King Henrik can do, but Craig Anderson might be even better at this point. He had the second best save percentage in the NHL this season (behind only Bobrovsky), and he’ll be heavily leaned on again this round. The Senators have the least firepower of any remaining team, and it isn’t particularly close. They scored just 212 goals this year, 22nd in the NHL. Their best offensive threat is Erik Karlsson, who is awesome and all but just so happens to be a defenseman. I just finished talking about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, and names like Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris just don’t quite match those names. Of course, neither do names like Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, and Derek Stepan. Can the Senators slow the speedy Rangers down? Can they make the series as physical as they made their series with Boston? Can Karlsson pull them to the Eastern Conference Finals? It’s entirely possible, but that’s probably more because the Rangers aren’t very good than because the Senators deserve to be one of the final four teams standing. I’ll take the Rangers, because they’re better at scoring the puck.

I was going to write a bunch of words about the first round of the hockey playoffs and the first round of the basketball playoffs. But I decided not to, at first because the fact that they start within a few days of each other made the previews super daunting. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that going super deep into all of the first round matchups is not only time-consuming but also probably isn’t the right way to approach the first round. How often does a great team struggle early in the playoffs only to right things when they have to and go on a run? It happens to LeBron’s team almost every year (last year was an exception, as the Cavaliers destroyed playoff opponents from the get-go). I seem to remember a couple of bad games against the Grizzlies for the Warriors in their championship season after which many analysts (I’m talking to you, Charles Barkley) declared that this is why a jump-shooting will never win a championship.

To a lesser extent, the same is true in hockey. Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks had two of the top four goal differentials in the NHL and ended up making the Stanley Cup Final. In the first round, though, the Lightning went down 3-2 while the Blackhawks lost twice by at least three goals before closing out the Predators.

My point is that usually, when you think a great team’s fatal flaw has been exposed in the first round, you’re probably overthinking things. This is certainly the case in basketball, where elite regular season teams almost never get upset in the first round. Since 1984 (when the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams), a top seed has been upset by a #8 seed just five times. Once, that only happened because Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of a Bulls-Sixers series. Of course, not all elite teams are #1 seeds and not all elite teams are #1 seeds. This year, for example, I would call the Cleveland Cavaliers — defensive issues and all — an elite team, while top seeded Boston is probably the fourth best team in its conference. I would be stunned if the Cavaliers lose their first round series but I think the Bulls have a pretty good chance to knock off the Celtics, so take that #1 seed stat with a grain of salt.

I’m not saying that elite basketball teams are flawless and unbeatable. It’s just that they aren’t likely to be beaten or even pushed by the teams they play in the first round. This is one of the consequences of having more than half the league make the playoffs — a lot of mediocre teams are played up a lot more than they should be just because they won one more game than a lottery team.

This is all a lot less true in hockey, where there’s a lot more parity than in basketball. If the rule is that great teams never lose in the first round, there are a lot more exceptions to that rule in hockey than in basketball. And because the best teams aren’t as dominant, there are more real title contenders and thus more consequential first round series’. With that being said, people still overreact wayyy too much. Sorry, Leafs, but winning one game in Washington doesn’t convince me that you’re a serious threat to defeat the Capitals. The first round of the hockey playoffs is also super exciting, so on a scale from “What does this win by the Leafs mean??” to “Wow, the Leafs just won in double overtime! That was cool,” you know which end I would advise you to lean towards.

Again, I’m not advocating that you ignore the first round. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m saying that you should watch the first round and enjoy the close games. When the Pacers are trading blows with the Cavs or the Maple Leafs are going to consecutive overtimes against the mighty Capitals, watch the game and root for the underdog. Just don’t overreact.

So when is the time to start looking closely at every individual matchup in each hockey and basketball series in order to try to figure out who’s eventually going to win the championship? That’s easy: next round. There’s a big difference between 16 teams and eight teams. There are never 16 good teams in the NHL or the NBA. There are almost always eight good teams who are at least capable of making the best teams try their hardest.

Consider this a general guide to playoff viewing. Unfortunately, it won’t really work in basketball this year, because instead of the usual four or five teams that have a legitimate chance of winning it all, this season there’s only one. I’ll be totally stunned if the Warriors fail to win the title (assuming they stay healthy). Maybe I’ll be shocked, but I think most would agree that Golden State is at the very least a heavy favorite to win it all. That sucks, because it removes the intrigue from rounds two, three, and four, the ones I’ve told you to pay attention to when trying to predict a winner. If you want intrigue this year, you’ll have to settle for rooting for some minor first round upsets. Or you can just tune into the hockey playoffs, because I think there are seven or eight teams who could legitimately win it all (Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, New York, San Jose, Nashville, St. Louis).

To end this, here are a couple of lists regarding the thoughts I have about the first round (because I can’t resist):

In order, the most likely NBA upsets (seed-wise):

  • Jazz over Clippers
  • Bulls over Celtics
  • Hawks over Wizards
  • Bucks over Raptors

* For the record, I’d pick all of the favorites.

We’re too deep into the hockey playoffs for me to do this for NHL upsets. Duh, the Blues are likely to upset the Wild and the Predators are likely to upset the Blackhawks.

Best teams in basketball:

  • Warriors
  • Cavaliers
  • Raptors
  • Spurs
  • Wizards

Best teams in hockey:

  • Capitals
  • Penguins
  • Predators
  • Blackhawks
  • Canadiens

And finally, the second round matchups I’d be most excited for:

  • Raptors-Cavaliers
  • Penguins-Capitals
  • Ducks-Oilers (I love Edmonton!)
  • Senators-Canadiens (go Canada!)

Around this time last year, I compared the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and Washington Capitals, ultimately determining that the Capitals (who were 45-12-4 with 11 more points than the next best team and a +60 goal differential) were more dominant compared to the rest of their league than the Warriors (who were 53-5 with a +11.3 point differential). Of course, the rest of the season didn’t go the way either team wanted. The Warriors went 73-9 and took a 3-1 series lead against the Cavaliers, but we all know what happened next. Meanwhile, the Caps slumped down the stretch, finishing the regular season 11-6-4 after I published the post and losing in the second round. But both teams have predictably come back strong this year. The Caps brought back every single one of their important pieces (the goalie, the top six scorers, and all of the top six defensemen), while the Warriors added Kevin Durant to an already record-setting team. Washington is 39-11-6, good for a 1.5 point per game total that is slightly worse than last year’s 1.54 when I wrote my post but slightly better than the 1.46 they ended up with. Their goal differential is +71, 11 goals better than it was when I wrote last season. Meanwhile, the Warriors are “just” 46-9 and boast a +12.6 point differential. So even though neither team has as good of a record as they had last year, they’re arguably both performing better than they were when I wrote about them last season. This all begs the question (again): who’s more dominant?

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when I looked at the standings today and saw just how well the Capitals are doing. That’s because they started relatively slowly — 13-7-3. They’ve turned things around… and then some. Since December 31st, they’re 19-2-1 with a +53 goal differential. That’s +2.4 goals per game, which is unbelievable. Washington has scored at least five (5!) goals in 11 consecutive home games. They’re being led by all of the familiar faces. Alex Ovechkin is unlikely to get to the 50 goal mark, but he’s scoring nearly a point per game and is on pace to assist more goals than he has in six years. Nicklas Backstrom ranks third in the NHL with 60 points. Evgeni Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer last year, has 44 points. The most impressive thing is that, advanced-stats wise, the Caps’ third line (Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky) has been its strongest. It’s worth noting that the Capitals have been incredibly lucky to this point, at least in 5-on-5 situations. They’re blowing teams out, but that’s largely because of the puck luck they’ve gotten. The numbers are astounding: they’ve scored 65% of the goals in their games at even strength, but they’ve only taken 51.3% of the shots (that is, shots on goal + shot attempts that missed the net or were blocked). To put that in perspective, the Flyers and Flames have also taken 51.3% of 5-on-5 shots. So this is by no means a dominant full-strength team, which could mean that they will regress going forward. But I’m not asking which team will be more dominant going forward, because I think that’s pretty clearly the Warriors. Rather, I’m asking who’s been more dominant so far. And if we take the Capitals’ record and goal differential at face value, which I’m willing to do for this exercise, they have a real argument.

The one thing the Warriors haven’t had this year is a dominant stretch like the Capitals are currently in the midst of. Sure, they’re 46-9 with a +12.6 point differential, so you could argue that the whole season has been a dominant stretch. But their longest winning streak was “just” 12 games, and they were “just” +18 per game in that stretch, which is obviously amazing but isn’t quite “22 game stretch with +2.4 goals per game difference” level awesome. Their starting lineup (Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant-Draymond Green-Zaza Pachulia) has played 508 minutes together this year and has a +23 net rating (120.2 points scored per 100 possessions, 97.2 allowed). They lead the league in points, assists, assist percentage, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, fast break points, field goal percentage on drives, catch and shoot points per game, and deflections per game. The only reason they don’t have the record they had last season is that they’ve gotten much less lucky in close games.

So both teams have been incredible. The Warriors seem more incredible, with a four game lead over everyone else and a tidy 46-9 record. But we thought that’s the way it would turn out last year, and yet the Capitals’ season (up to the day I wrote, at least) was actually more remarkable compared to the rest of the NHL than Golden State’s was compared to the rest of the NBA.

Just like last year, I calculated standard deviations (a mathematical way to compare a number to a mean and see just how exceptional that number is) for the NBA by winning percentage and point differential and for the NHL by points per game and goal differential per game, and here are the results:

Warriors Capitals
Winning % / PPG .836 1.50
Standard Deviations From Mean – Winning % / PPG 2.27 (last yr when I wrote: 2.39) 1.99 (last yr: 2.58)
Point/Goal Differential +12.6 +1.27
Standard Dev From mean – Point/Goal Differential 2.72 (last yr: 2.13) 2.29 (last yr: 2.55)

This year, the results are different: the Warriors are clearly the more dominant team, even though the Capitals have had the more dominant hottest stretch. Washington’s season doesn’t match up to where they were last year at this point. Heck, the Caps aren’t even the most remarkable team in the NHL. The Colorado Avalanche have 32 points through 54 games and own a -75 goal differential. Their two standard deviation numbers are 2.8 and 2.48 standard deviations below the mean. The Warriors’ point differential is something else. 2.72 standard deviations above the mean is the 99.67th percentile. The Avalanche’s 32 points, by the way, put them in the .0026th percentile.

For now, the Warriors are the more dominant team. But if the Capitals can keep up their torrid hot streak and continue to thumb their noses at the advanced stats, I’ll have to revisit this at the end of the year.