NHL Playoff Picture

I haven’t been this revved up about an NHL season in my entire life. There are several good teams, and as divisional and wild card races start to heat up, I am growing increasingly certain that we will enter the first round of the playoffs with 16 legitimate contenders to be hoisting the cup come June. With all that in mind, here is my official prediction as of this date (2/18/2020) for the seeding of the playoffs, starting with the Eastern Conference:

Atlantic:

  1. Tampa
  2. B’s (reverse jinx?)
  3. Leafs

Look familiar? This playoff format is the single most infuriating rule in sports right now.

Metropolitan:

  1. Penguins
  2. Capitals
  3. Islanders

Wild Card:

  1. Blue Jackets
  2. Panthers

I want so badly to be a homer and say that Pasta’s Hart Trophy-caliber season that has him tied with Auston Matthews atop the league at 42 goals will give the Bruins the one-seed in this playoffs, and a chance to defend their Eastern Conference title with home ice. I just don’t see them fending off the Bolts. Tuukka is crushing it, might even win the Vezina (leads the league in both GAA and SV%), their team is firing on all cylinders, injuries haven’t been much of an issue and they’ve won nine of their last ten games — only losing to the last place Red Wings in a wonky road matinee matchup that came at the tail end of a long road trip. All of that is great, but what’s going on down south is scary to say the least.

Tampa started off the season colder than the ice they skate on and for a while was absent in the Atlantic playoff picture, replaced by teams like Buffalo and Montreal. Then water found its level, the world got back on its axes and the Lightning’s stacked roster started playing true to their talent level; Andrei Vasilevskiy’s net is impenetrable as the Chicken Box over Figawi, and they just added Blake Coleman and his 21 goals so far this season. Bottom line is this team is a problem and they’re gonna be tough to stop, but then again we all remember what happened last year with Columbus.

The Leafs’ acquisition of Kyle Clifford will make the battle between the three hegemonic powers in the Atlantic all the more interesting this April. Auston Matthews can’t stop scoring and these guys look like they might just be able to get the monkey off the franchise’s back and win their first playoff series since Mats Sundin was their captain.

The Met is less exciting. The Pens and Caps both look great, and Ovi’s quest for 700 adds to the buzz in our nation’s capital, but I think that, bolstered by their recent trade for Jason Zucker that prioritized offense over defense, the Penguins will be able to snatch the one seed from the Caps. The Islanders and Blue Jackets will battle it out right up to game eighty-two for the last spot in the Met, but I think that Seth Jones’ injury tips the scale in favor of the ‘Ders and the Jackets will claim the top wild card spot.

Barring anything crazy at the deadline, which is a week away, the final spot in the wild card will be between Carolina, Philly and (hear me out) Florida. The Panthers are currently five points out of the wild card, trailing both the Canes and Flyers. The Hurricanes are hungry after making a run to the ECF last year, only to be swept by the B’s in decisive fashion, but they haven’t really shown up this year the way a lot of people were expecting. Their scoring has been there, but their goaltending is a major cause for concern. The Flyers have looked very solid at times and really impressed throughout the season, but they have a similar situation in net. Neither one of these teams makes me think they can make a run.

The Panthers seem to have the tools necessary to pull it together down the stretch and sneak into the eight seed for a few reasons. Number one: Joel Quenneville, who was fired by Chicago last season after bringing the Hawks on a mini dynasty that featured nine playoff appearances and three Stanley Cups. Q’s experience brings an x-factor that the Panthers have lacked throughout recent years. Their potent offense boasts three twenty-goal scorers, they have a solid back end and their goalie situation is good as any. I know that Bob hasn’t quite lived up to his contract, as their games have tended to be high scoring affairs, but I know that the goalie, who made circus saves against Tampa and Boston last playoffs and was a nonstop highlight reel, can figure it out and elevate his team’s performance. They’ve shown that they can score with just about anybody in this league, so once their goaltending gets figured out, you better watch out for these guys.

Now onto the West:

Central:

  1. Avs
  2. Stars
  3. Blues

Pacific:

  1. Oilers
  2. Knights
  3. Canucks

Wild Card:

  1. Flames
  2. Jets

The Avs appear to have finally put all the pieces together and have their long-term plan in place. Their top line is as good as any, led by Hart Trophy candidate Nate MacKinnon. The Blues have been awesome, but losing Bouwmeester is significant. I know emotional moments like that can give a team a little fire, especially if he returns to the ice, but I think the Stars will edge them out.

The Pacific is incredibly tight at the moment and a lot can change but I’m penciling Calgary into the wild card spot to try to will the Battle of Alberta playoff series into existence. That rivalry has been an awesome storyline this year in the league and I would love to see them play seven games against each other. I think that the Knights are in a good spot and making strides since hiring DeBour from San Jose. They’ll be right there with the Canucks battling for home ice in their series, and I expect that to be an entertaining stretch of hockey games.

The final wild card spot will ultimately, in my view, fall to the Jets. The Coyotes and Predators don’t have rosters nearly as complete or deep as Winnipeg, and their size and physicality give them an edge late in the season when injuries start to pile up. With their offensive arsenal and solid goaltending, they could make a run in the Western Conference that is a very level playing field.

As it stands, the Eastern Conference looks head and shoulders better than the West, and that may be the case. This supremacy can come at a cost, however, as it can lead to longer, more taxing playoff series that hamper the teams durability in the Cup. I think the winner this year will be whoever comes out of the gauntlet that is the Atlantic division, but then again that’s coming from a lifelong B’s fan. Either way, there’s no better time to tune into the NHL in a season that I think is more interesting than many of the years past.

Stanley Cup Prediction: Bruins v. Blues. Same teams, new winner.

A New Jameis?

One of the best career moves I have ever seen took place this week. Entering contract negotiations, and potentially free agency, Jameis Winston has announced that he got lasik eye surgery. Let me repeat that — lasik eye surgery. This is a guy who threw for a league-leading 5,109 yards and 33 TDs. Of course, he also threw 30 INTs (the lone member of the 30/30 club), but c’mon. The guy was blind, he deserves a little slack.

I am certainly no eye doctor and I will not even pretend to know the severity of his surgery, nor how bad his vision has been throughout his career but for me, and I imagine many others, this headline inspires a little hope. I remember the 2013 Florida State undefeated championship season where Famous Jameis won virtually every award he was eligible for, including Heisman, Davey O’Brien and many more. He then led his Seminoles to an undefeated ACC Championship and a birth in the first ever CFP only to fall to that year’s Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota. He left Florida State with a 27-1 record as a two sport athlete (his baseball career is pretty impressive as well) and was the number one draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His resume lands him among the greats in college football history.

Since coming to the pros Jameis hasn’t been that bad. He made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season after smashing virtually all of the Bucs’ rookie passing records (4,042 yards, 22 TDs) and coming a mere 23 yards shy of Josh Freeman’s franchise record — love hearing that name again. If you look at his volume-based production stats (he has the record for most TDs before age 24), he is on pace to beat out virtually all of the arms currently enshrined in Canton. Now I know the game has changed so much and that evolution has completely distorted the way that you compare passing statistics, but the numbers Jameis has put up are undeniably impressive. 

The one blemish, and I will admit it is a MASSIVE blemish, is the plethora of interceptions. In addition to the 30/30 Club, Jameis set the record this past year for most pick-sixes in a season with seven. His 50 fumbles are the most of any player in the NFL over the five year span of his career (2015-present). His turnover antics that are often visually fantastic have inspired countless jokes, including Pardon My Take’s customized prop bet that Jameis would record a touchdown, interception and fumble in his game. 

Jameis has not turned the Buccaneers franchise around like they hoped when they drafted him with the number one pick, far from it. His record of 28-42 has never landed his team in the playoffs, but how much of that is to blame on him? He entered the league under the leadership of Lovie Smith, who now coaches an Illinois team that doesn’t even pretend to compete in the B1G, nonetheless be in the picture for college football. Then he had three seasons with Dirk Koetter, only to have him fired and replaced by Bruce Arians, who I actually love. Bruce is looking to revive his career after a brief hiatus and after a spat of early season growing pains between coach and QB, they finished the season on a 6-2 run, after stringing together a six game winning streak. 

Winston has not proven himself to be a reliable franchise quarterback in the NFL, and he’s had more than enough time to show that. At the same time, though, if you’re Burce Arians, Jason Licht, or any of the GMs or coaches in the league do you not have to pause and take a longer look at this guy after getting his vision fixed? He’s thrown for nearly 20,000 yards and 121 TDs in five seasons, and he did all that without being able to see properly. Maybe I’m too much of a believer, but I think he deserves a shot with his improved vision. As the saying goes, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Jameis’ clear eyes won’t solve all his problems, primarily the fumble issue, but it just might turn enough of those interceptions into touchdowns for us to talk very differently about the Heisman winning, first overall draft pick out of Florida State. Will a team give this guy big money betting on the surgery?

Watching Jameis Winston play football is a unique experience that very few athletes bring to sports. He makes you think that quite literally anything could happen on any given play. He could get under center and toss Mike Evans a sixty yard dart in stride on his way to the endzone. He is also equally likely to scramble aimlessly in the pocket, strip sack himself and have a D-Lineman take it for six, but you love the ride either way. He makes me feel an excitement that very few other players provide, and for that reason I choose to root for him. All I can say is that with his impressive production over his early career, it’d be hard for me to  not at least entertain the idea of signing him as my franchise QB, but then again that might be why I’m watching from my couch.