You think there’s variety in season-long fantasy hockey formats? Just wait until you encounter the plethora of playoff pools available. From salary cap leagues to GAP formats to player pool picks to straight drafts or auctions, there are more quirky playoff fantasy pools available than we could dare list. But while the formats vary, there are some hard and fast rules that will apply.
In short, you’re going to want to pick the scorers from the winning teams. It may sound easy, but it’s not always that simple.
2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Central: Schedule, scores, highlights
From the first round all the way through the Stanley Cup Final, ESPN has you covered. Check out the full picture and coverage on each team.
Experts’ predictions: First-round playoff picks, Stanley Cup winner
Our NHL experts, including John Buccigross, Linda Cohn, Emily Kaplan, Steve Levy, Barry Melrose and Greg Wyshynski, forecast the first-round playoff series and predict who will lift Lord Stanley’s Cup this year. (Hint: It won’t be the Penguins.)
Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel were the most obvious choices from the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, so if you liked the Penguins to repeat, they would have been no-brainer selections for your squad. Like clockwork, they finished one, two and three in scoring, and that was that.
But that was about the only predictable aspect. The run by the Ottawa Senators was impressive and pushed Erik Karlsson to finish as the top-scoring defenseman. Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne scored the most fantasy points for goaltenders, with Ottawa’s Craig Anderson coming second. Leon Draisaitl matched Filip Forsberg for points, despite the Edmonton Oilers not getting out of the second round. Jake Guentzel‘s 13 goals to lead the playoffs didn’t come out of nowhere, but he also wasn’t anyone’s pick for top scorer. Anything can happen.
But there is strategy to fall back on.
You want players from the teams that will advance the furthest. This is pretty obvious, as more games played equals more points. Of the 29 players who scored more than 10 points during last season’s playoffs, only four weren’t on teams that made the conference finals.
In most formats, goaltenders will get the most points. Of course, this is assuming most teams will ride one goaltender through the playoffs. In the end, the Cup-winning goalie will get 16 wins and a couple of shutouts sprinkled in. If your league awards two points per win, that’s already more points than the top scorer of the playoffs is probably going to get. Malkin’s 36 points in 2008-09 is the only example from the past 10 years of a player eclipsing 32 points.
If there’s no limit to how many players you can take from each team, all your eggs should be in a minimal number of baskets. Pick your teams that you think will go far and take players from those teams. Sean Monahan and Alexander Radulov both scored better than a point per game during the playoffs last year, but that doesn’t help you much if they don’t get out of the first round.
The bigger your pool, the more contrarian you need to be. If you are in a pool with 10 of your co-workers, go ahead and stack the top teams and pick all the superstars. There should be enough variety among only 10 teams. But if your friend runs a playoff pool with 50-plus entries, all of a sudden you need to zig a little while everyone else is zagging to have a chance at winning. You don’t want to go completely contrarian, but a couple of sleeper picks will be needed to separate you from the pack. Playing a pool online with thousands of entries? You might need to pick a rematch of the 2001 Cup finals between the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche. OK, maybe don’t go that far.
We’ve filled out our brackets, and what follows is a quick team breakdown heading into the postseason to remind you of the top lines, power plays and goaltending situations. The teams are listed by conference in order of how far we think they’ll go, pointing to some players we like from each squad.
Sean Allen’s look at the Eastern Conference
It’s been a magical season for Alex Ovechkin, winning another Maurice Richard Trophy with 49 goals and scoring his 600th along the way. The postseason ghosts that have haunted this team are well known, but the Capitals are positioned to finally get the monkey off their back. Ovechkin goes into the postseason on a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, while Nicklas Backstrom is holding down the second line with T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky. With six points and a plus-10 in his past eight games, Burakovsky could be a sneaky sleeper if you agree that the Caps can make a run. Of the six forwards on the top lines, Wilson and Burakovsky are the ones left out on the power play. John Carlson led the league in scoring from the blue line and could very well do that again in the playoffs.
The goaltending situation here is a bit tricky, as Philipp Grubauer has easily been the better choice for the latter half of the season, but Braden Holtby has the experience and pedigree. Further complicating the matter, Holtby has looked a little better over the past two weeks. Grubauer will start Game 1, but the starter going forward is hardly written in pen. This may be a goaltending duo to avoid even if you think the Capitals are going to win the Cup.
Steven Stamkos sat for the end of the regular season, but should be fine for the playoffs. J.T. Miller has proved to be a welcome addition to the Bolts’ top line with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. He has 18 points in 19 games as a member of the Lightning, including six power-play points on the top unit. There has been some trading on the second line throughout the season, with the most effective pair on the line being Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde have traded in and out of the other spot, making them somewhat risky for a playoff pool. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the best goaltender in the NHL for the first half of the season, but tired down the stretch. We’ll see if he left anything in the tank for the postseason. But if you like the Lightning to succeed, he’s an easy pick. As tired as he may be, the Lightning have no choice but to ride him.
The addition of Derick Brassard has allowed the Penguins to comfortably go three lines deep. As the season wound down, it was a top line of Crosby, Guentzel and Bryan Rust, with a second line of Malkin, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist, and a third line of Brassard, Kessel and Conor Sheary. The power play always drives a lot of the Penguins’ success, so there’s bonus points available in the form of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Hornqvist. Interestingly, Justin Schultz has been leading the Penguins’ defensemen in power-play ice time for a couple of weeks now, despite Kris Letang being healthy. Whether that continues into the playoffs is unclear, but it muddies the potential of Letang and makes Schultz a potential sleeper.
Matt Murray heads into his first postseason as the unquestioned starter, but it hasn’t been a pretty entry. In eight starts since February, Murray has allowed three or more goals seven times. Still, when you play behind the Pittsburgh offense, you can allow three or four goals and still win. That said, this is just his third NHL season, and he already owns a 22-9 record in the playoffs with a 1.95 goals-against average (second-best to Chris Osgood for the past 10 years among goalies with at least 30 playoff games).
Auston Matthews is heating up at just the right time, especially on the power play, an area where he wasn’t effective for the whole season. William Nylander is the stack with Matthews on and off the power play, while Zach Hyman can be ignored as the third member of the top line. Patrick Marleau is the veteran of the bunch and plays a role on the power play with Matthews, while connecting with Mitch Marner and Nazem Kadri at even strength. He could be a sleeper for the playoffs. Then the team has 36-goal scorer James van Riemsdyk on a third line with Tyler Bozak and Connor Brown. In net, Frederik Andersen has been in the postseason for five consecutive years now and should maintain his steady play from the regular season.
The Leafs are a sleeper pick for the playoffs overall. If they get by Boston, the conference finals are a possibility, and Matthews is the type of player who could be top five for scoring even if they don’t make it all the way.
If you are in on the Bruins, the choices are obvious. The trio of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand is a formidable one, with Torey Krug a dominant choice on defense. For secondary scoring, David Krejci is always a playoff threat, having twice already led the league in scoring for the playoffs. That makes Ryan Donato an especially good sleeper, as he gets the best of both worlds. Donato plays with Krejci at even strength and on the power play with that top line. In the crease, Tuukka Rask is always a good choice in the playoffs when the Bruins are primed for a run; he has 53 games of playoff experience with a .928 save percentage.
The Blue Jackets have a tough road, with a first-round matchup against the conference champions and a potential second-round match against the defending Stanley Cup champs. Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson have been connecting well in the second half, and Seth Jones has put together a breakout on the blue line. If the Blue Jackets do make a deep run, it will be because the second line is also contributing. Boone Jenner, Thomas Vanek and Alexander Wennberg have all certainly looked a lot better over the final weeks of the season after being almost nonexistent in fantasy for a long stretch. Sergei Bobrovsky has an ugly playoff history, but is as likely as any goaltender to get hot and carry a team on his back.
New Jersey Devils
Interestingly, the Devils beat the Lightning in all three meetings between the clubs this season. But can you really get behind an offense that has only one main threat and has been riding its backup goaltender into the playoffs because the starter has been ineffective? If you are going Devils in your pool, there is only one line to pick from. Taylor Hall has been playing more often than not with Kyle Palmieri and Nico Hischier of late, with Palmieri being the stronger choice of the two. After Sami Vatanen took over power-play duties when March rolled around, Will Butcher spent the final weeks of the season wrestling them back in time for the playoffs. Butcher is the better choice on defense. In net, I guess it has to be Keith Kinkaid if you must pick one. It doesn’t feel good by any means, but something isn’t right with Cory Schneider. For better or worse, the team will roll with Kinkaid to start the playoffs. But really, you’re avoiding the goaltending situation altogether and really considering only Hall or his linemates.
It doesn’t feel good putting a team with so many great pieces on offense at the bottom of the pecking order, but the Penguins have owned their cross-state rivals this season to the tune of a 4-0 record while outscoring them 20-11. Goaltender Brian Elliott has only just returned from surgery, and though the shutout was encouraging, beating the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers in the final days of the season is not a true test. If you are betting on the Flyers, remember that Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds are not on the first line and also not on a line together. In an effort to spread out the offense, Voracek is playing on a second line with rookie Nolan Patrick, while Simmonds is down on a third line with Valtteri Filppula. Both players are still a part of the power play, but can’t be relied on for results at even strength. Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny are the stack on offense. Both Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov are dangerous on the blue line, with Gostisbehere getting the edge as the quarterback on the power play.
Victoria Matiash’s look at the Western Conference
It’s difficult to wager against the best team in the NHL advancing to the conference final in light of what the Predators have accomplished all season long. In fact, matching up against a Avalanche club that they’ve bested in all four earlier meetings, the Preds actually lose some fantasy shine as a threat to beat Colorado in four straight. Still, it’s difficult to argue against investing in Nashville’s top one-two forward punch of Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, particularly in light of their recent combination for 19 points in nine recent games, capped off by Forsberg’s hat trick in the season closer against Columbus. With four goals and three assists in six games, forward Craig Smith sports sleeper appeal, while P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis all merit some degree of fantasy consideration on the club’s stacked defense. And after coming oh-so-close with his dominant play last spring, goalie Rinne presents as the West’s top fantasy netminder with a real shot at hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup this June.
Yes, we believe the Kings have a decent shot at beating the Vegas Golden Knights, despite the latter squad’s dreamy season and higher position in the standings. Fantasy managers who agree should be all over L.A.’s forward duo of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown — who hasn’t shown any sign of letting up in his impressive Renaissance campaign — along with red-hot center Jeff Carter, 60-point defenseman Drew Doughty and Stanley Cup-winning netminder Jonathan Quick. Having won it all twice in the past six years, this experienced squad is a serious threat to meet up with the Predators in the Western final.
Frankly, if the path to the Western final didn’t run through Nashville, we’d be even higher on this skilled Winnipeg squad. The forward pairing of Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele is proven fantasy money, while Patrik Laine shines as a goal-scoring asset despite his brief cold spell. Rookie Kyle Connor continues to serve as an underrated sleeper on a top line with Wheeler and Scheifele, while trade-deadline acquisition Paul Stastny boasts dark-horse appeal in deeper fantasy competition as a postseason veteran with the St. Louis Blues.
Outside of San Jose’s Brent Burns, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien might loom as the West’s most dominant fantasy blueliner. We’re just a little concerned about the young fella between the pipes. No question, Connor Hellebuyck has been outstanding for the Jets in recent play and all season long, but he completely lacks in NHL playoff experience. There’s no guarantee the 24-year-old isn’t overwhelmed by the pressure.
Losing five of their past six games, the Sharks aren’t exactly charging into the postseason. Still, we’re giving Peter DeBoer’s squad a slight edge over the Anaheim Ducks, based on their averaging 3.56 goals per game since March 1. As such, the forward duo of Joe Pavelski and San Jose newbie Evander Kane packs a solid fantasy punch, along with power-play-mate Logan Couture. Running hot, Pavelski appeals in particular as a proven playoff performer following his 14 goals and nine assists in 24 games two years ago. Once healthy enough, Joe Thornton (knee) sets up as a wild-card asset with rich fantasy potential, as well. Unlikely to suit up for Game 1, the veteran top-liner remains a possibility to make his first appearance since late January at some stage in this series. On defense, Burns projects as a top fantasy defender if the Sharks manage to scrap their way into the conference final. Goalie Martin Jones can also grade out as a top contributor in fantasy pools if San Jose jumps through a few rounds. He brought his club to within a game of winning it all in 2016.
Again, there’s no ruling out the Ducks in what should be a highly competitive first-round battle with their in-state mates. So, fantasy competitors who side with Anaheim over San Jose should certainly give serious consideration to the club’s top trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. Getzlaf and Perry sport extra appeal in the been-there, done-that sense as proven playoff veterans. Third-line center Adam Henrique serves as an outside-the-box dark horse with two goals and three assists in his past four games. Defensemen Brandon Montour and Hampus Lindholm project limited value as power-play commodities with Cam Fowler (shoulder) likely shelved through the first round.
Out since the start of April with an upper-body injury, No. 1 goalie John Gibson is loosely expected to return for Game 1. If not, veteran Ryan Miller will look to build off this past weekend’s 31-save shutout in Arizona. Honestly, despite Gibson’s solid play all season, the injury remains a worry. There appear to be surer bets in net elsewhere.
Vegas Golden Knights
It’s been a great story and all, but matched up with the playoff-experienced Kings — a team that emerged victorious in the last two contests between the clubs — the Golden Knights’ storybook season could abruptly conclude in the first round. If not, forward William Karlsson and his 43 goals (35 assists) on the season project as a valuable commodity, along with linemates Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. On the blue line, young Shea Theodore stands tall in amassing nine points on 38 shots in his final 10 games.
Barring injury or meltdown, Marc-Andre Fleury will start every postseason game for Vegas. Altogether terrific since returning from injury in mid-December, Fleury wrapped up 2017-18 in ugly fashion, surrendering six goals on 18 shots through 40 minutes of play against the Calgary Flames on Saturday.
If Minnesota manages to beat the odds after losing three of four to the Jets this season, Devan Dubnyk is likely to be one prominent reason why. The Wild goalie has been dominant of late, rocking a .937 save percentage and 1.70 goals-against average in his past seven contests. Up front, a healthy-again Zach Parise skates on a dangerous line with Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund and is turning heads with a dozen goals in 18 games since March 1.
With Ryan Suter (ankle surgery) shelved until next fall, Matt Dumba sits head and shoulders above his fellow blueliners as top power-play anchor. The 23-year-old defenseman has been especially productive these past few weeks with 16 points since March 1.
Dragging his overachieving club into the postseason with this season’s Hart Trophy-worthy play, Nathan MacKinnon shines as a long-shot fantasy gem on a team with little chance of advancing past the first round. However, those more audacious fantasy managers willing to go all-in on an Avalanche upset may as well also pick up MacKinnon’s linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Defenseman Tyson Barrie collected 57 points in 68 games this season, including 30 with the man advantage, and stands as the lone attractive blue-line asset. In net, backup Jonathan Bernier has been outstandingly mediocre in relief of No. 1 Semyon Varlamov, who’s projected to miss the entire first round with an enduring knee injury.