The Eastern Conference is all settled at the top. Tampa Bay clinching the President’s Trophy has made them the team to beat (+125 Eastern Conference / +229 Stanley Cup Winner). Those are some of the lowest futures seen in years.
Series previews will come once all the teams are settled but this is an early look at what teams are favored and which ones could provide some value. Yes, there is a risk in any pick. However, some franchises can turn the switch come playoff time and some cannot. Anyway, here is a little more on the Eastern Conference.
The Odds-on Favorites – Tampa Bay Lightning
Again, Tampa Bay has been the best team in the NHL all season long. They are on pace for as much as 130 points. The Lightning have a goal differential of +96, have 54 wins already, and have a 19-point lead in their own division. It is a lot like watching a team lap the field. Tampa Bay has the likely Vezina Trophy winner in Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Art Ross winner in Nikita Kucherov, and a good Norris Trophy Candidate in Victor Hedman.
This is a hockey team that converts nearly 30% of their power-play opportunities and scores around four goals a game there. If there is a gaping weakness, it is difficult to honestly find one. Could a team play overtly physical and beat Tampa Bay over a seven-game series? That is possible but they might run out of gas. Teams like Washington and Boston would have a chance but again, could those teams outlast Tampa Bay? That is a tough sell. There is a reason why the Lightning are such huge favorites. They have simply earnt it.
Despite that, there is something to be said about a couple teams which could carry some value going into the playoffs.
The Middle Value – Washington Capitals
The defending champions are positioned at +750 to get out of the Eastern Conference. Their Stanley Cup future has slid back a bit to +1600. There is the real value. Washington is not quite the same team as last year. Washington still has most of the pieces from last year’s Stanley Cup run. Yes, Barry Trotz is gone, and Devante-Smith Pelley is in the minors, but they still have a shot.
The key will be can Braden Holtby play even better this year? He will have to, as the Washington defense is not quite as structurally tight as it was last season. Can Washington recapture the magic when every team is looking to dethrone the champions? That is a question we should have a quick answer to.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and John Carlson were instrumental in pushing Washington to the promised land last year. Now, they must be near perfect to have a chance once more. The Capitals project to wind up playing the first wildcard team come the first round.
The Long Shot Value – Pittsburgh Penguins
Competing for Pittsburgh with this distinction as the long-shot value is the Carolina Hurricanes. But unlike the Canes, the Pens have got an outstanding track record of producing when it counts in the playoffs.
Currently the Penguins are +1100 to come out of the East and +1700 to win the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh won back to back Stanley Cups a few years ago and are not too far off from that team. Are they better than those teams? Certainly not. However, they do have two of the best centers in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That is a heck of a combination. Also, there is Matt Murray, Kris Letang, and Justin Schultz among others. Pittsburgh may be a bit of a wounded team but that is when a team is most dangerous.
If Pittsburgh can get by round one, then look out! They are the type of team that can just get going once they have faced a little adversity. The Penguins can be stingy on the road which bodes well in playoff hockey, but largely their chances will all come down to whether Pittsburgh can hold it together at home.
By Chris Wassel