Fantasy hockey playoff pool guide: Stars, sleepers, and busts

The Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins enter their first round matchup each featuring a star studded cast. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

NHL playoff fantasy competition is good, concentrated fun. The pool of players from which to choose is smaller, the games more heated and meaningful, and the fantasy contest itself is often pared down to a simpler approach encompassing basic scoring and goaltending. I'm acquainted with several hockey fans who remain lukewarm on full-season fantasy competition (ridiculous, I know, I know) yet quickly reach for their manager's cap when the best-of-sevens unfold.

It's a different game, without question. Managers must weigh an individual's projected productivity with their respective team's chances at surviving one round after another. Connor McDavid's proclivity for putting up points will only go so far if the Winnipeg Jets sweep the Edmonton Oilers in four (this won't happen). Ideally, fantasy competitors want to invest in dynamic players from teams that win series - ideally not too quickly, preferably in six or seven contests - to eventually reach the Stanley Cup Final. As a formula, straightforward enough. It's the execution that's tough.

With that, here's my rundown of fantasy performers by team, ranked by odds of advancing out of their respective divisions. This bit is heavily subjective. Those who believe Nashville will trip up Carolina in the first round - hardly out of the question for anyone who witnessed Columbus smoke Tampa two years ago - can adjust accordingly.

East Division

Pittsburgh Penguins (vs. New York Islanders): Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel combined for four goals and 12 assists through eight games with the Islanders in 2020-21. Pittsburgh will need similar numbers from their top-two forwards if they're to survive a tough test against New York's formidable team defense. Top-line third banana Bryan Rust has five goals and three assists versus Barry Trotz' squad. Defenseman Kris Letang is an elite fantasy icon when healthy, which he has been this campaign. No. 1 netminder Tristan Jarry is 5-1-0 against the Isles, boasting a 2.41 goals-against average. That's promising.

Potential sleeper: Alongside second-line center Evgeni Malkin and winger Jason Zucker, Kasperi Kapanen is appealing as a dark-horse asset.

Potential bust: The four goals scored against Buffalo in the Penguins' penultimate regular-season game were impressive indeed. Unfortunately for Jeff Carter, the Islanders boast the second stingiest defense in the league - 27 spots above the Sabres.

Boston Bruins (vs. Washington Capitals): This first-rounder is going to be a doozy. The "Perfection Line" versus Ovi and Backstrom. Old Man Rask versus the Capitals kids. Tom Wilson versus the Department of Player Safety. A coin-flip of a series otherwise, Boston perhaps sports the initial edge based only on goaltending experience. Fantasy managers in agreement may then want to side with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak as tip-top assets, along with Bruins newbie Taylor Hall. Marchand collected more points (29 goals, 40 assists) to date than any other NHLer not named McDavid or Draisaitl. No. 1 Tuukka Rask is appealing as a been-there-done-that playoff commodity.

Potential sleeper: The perennially underrated David Krejci in centering a line with Hall and Craig Smith.

Potential bust: Charlie McAvoy, from a goals/assists view. Fellow defenseman Matt Grzelcyk has been the more productive of the two of late and anchors the B's top power play.

Washington Capitals (vs. Boston Bruins): The Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom forward duo should be high on fantasy wish lists belonging to those who believe the Capitals will beat out the Bruins. These two have been around the playoff block too many times to ignore. Fantasy heavyweight John Carlson is set to return to Washington's blue line after missing time with a lower-body injury. The club's most prominent wild card is Vitek Vanecek, who projects to serve as their starter while Ilya Samsonov remains out, in step with the league's COVID-19 protocol. Vanecek has started a career total of 36 NHL games, all this season, but he's been good more often than not through seven head-to-heads with Boston. Wild-card city.

Potential sleeper: Anthony Mantha, if he sticks on a top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Potential bust: Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov

New York Islanders (vs. Pittsburgh Penguins): Center Mathew Barzal is my one stand-out skater on a team that doesn't score a ton altogether. Goalie Semyon Varlamov - one of the NHL's finest - will have to be his best self if his team is to emerge victorious from a best-of-seven with Crosby and company. New York's top netminder was 1-3-2 against Pittsburgh this winter/spring. So.

Potential sleeper: Brock Nelson enjoys playoff hockey, as judged by the nine goals and nine assists he registered in 22 games last tour.

Potential bust: Riding a seven-game point-less streak, Jean-Gabriel Pageau has one goal (zero assists) since April 20th.

Central Division

Carolina Hurricanes (vs. Nashville Predators): Forward Sebastian Aho projects as a legitimate goal-scoring fantasy star, particularly with a healthy Teuvo Teravainen back on his wing. The top unit of Teravainen, Aho, and Andrei Svechnikov could rack up some serious numbers if able to first best Nashville, then whoever scraps their way out of the first-round tilt between Tampa and Florida. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton (and his rapidly expiring contract) is the Hurricanes' go-to anchor on the power play. Hamilton finished tied for seventh in overall blue-line scoring this season, and fifth in power-play production.

Potential sleeper: Over the years, forward Nino Niederreiter has built himself a solid reputation of running hot and cold to excess. If he gets on a postseason heater alongside center Vincent Trocheck - who ranks right up there with those on the top unit as a fantasy asset - and winger Martin Necas, Niederreiter could serve as a rich, less-conventional commodity.

Potential bust: Goalie Petr Mrazek. His ongoing health issues worry me. Plus, his allowing five goals to the Predators in the season finale didn't serve as a great look. Carolina may end up turning to backup Alex Nedeljkovic more often than currently planned.

Florida Panthers (vs. Tampa Bay Lightning): Fantasy competitors who believe the Panthers stand a solid chance of beating up on Vasilevskiy enough to slide into the second round shouldn't hesitate in selecting Aleksander Barkov. The Panthers' captain has been the picture of consistency all season long in hammering out 26 goals and 32 assists in 50 contests. He failed to register a single point in two-straight games only once all season (early February). Winger Jonathan Huberdeau, if healthy, is a fantasy star in any competition that values assists equal to goals. Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar has recently done his darndest in trying to compensate for the loss of an injured Aaron Ekblad in collecting three goals and eight assists in his final eight games.

Potential sleeper: Forward Sam Bennett

Potential bust: The Panthers won't hesitate in turning to their top backup if Sergei Bobrovsky struggles at all. In pleading his case as an attractive alternative, Chris Driedger pitched a 30-save shutout of the Lightning to close out matters earlier this week.

Tampa Bay Lightning (vs. Florida Panthers): While their series with a quality Panthers squad presents as no gimme, the return of Nikita Kucherov helps to pad the odds in the Lightning's favor. The top-line forward duo of Kucherov and Brayden Point should provide invested fantasy competitors with a vicious one-two productive punch. While there's plenty of speculation about how Kucherov will fare after watching the entire regular season unfold from the sidelines, I believe he's felt ready for ages and emerges like a bat out of a 400 degree oven. Elite netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy managed worse, and substantially so, against Florida than any other opponent this campaign, wrapping up with a disagreeable head-to-head 3.36 goals-against average. But the guy is also the best in the biz and a reigning Stanley Cup champion. Fantasy competitors who feel the Lightning will squeeze by Florida should consider investing in Vasilevskiy for the long haul. Defenseman Victor Hedman is a top-notch blue-line fantasy asset with few equals.

Potential sleeper: Forward Alex Killorn

Potential bust: Forward Steven Stamkos. His game availability can't be counted on, unfortunately.

Nashville Predators (vs. Carolina Hurricanes): No doubt, the Predators are in tough facing a strong, balanced Hurricanes squad in the first round. Goalie Juuse Saros would emerge as an immediate star fantasy performer if able to back-stop his club through to Round Two. Those endeavouring to bank on such an upset, should also consider Filip Forsberg the team's sole take-it-to-the-fantasy-bank asset up front, while defenseman Roman Josi sports his own wealth of fantasy charm.

Potential sleeper: Eeli Tolvanen

Potential bust: Outside of Forsberg, Saros, and Josi, there isn't another Predators player that commands expectations heavy enough to fall truly short. Matt Duchene has been a bust (when healthy) all season long. Ryan Johansen has underwhelmed since February 2019.

West Division

Colorado Avalanche (vs. St. Louis Blues): No guarantees of course, but the Avalanche are most probably going to beat the Blues. As such, fantasy heavyweights like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and defenseman Cale Makar should serve as hot commodities, at least through the first round. Beyond that, there's no easy path to the Cup semifinals, regardless of division. Any fantasy manager who can envision Colorado through to the final four should feel highly interested in goalie Philipp Grubauer. Colorado's No. 1 has been largely fantastic, when healthy, all season long. The Avs won't turn to Jonas Johansson unless forced.

Potential sleeper: Nazem Kadri hasn't been his productive best of late, but that changes once he settles into a playoff rhythm.

Potential bust: Defenseman Ryan Graves

Vegas Golden Knights (vs. Minnesota Wild): I'll say this much, getting past the Wild will be no walk in the park for a team that would otherwise shine as the favorite against most postseason participants. Vegas is the better team in almost every category and yet they finished 3-4-1 against Minnesota. Still, fresh playoff slate and all that. Plus, this Knights squad feels too heavily stacked to fall in the first round. Right? If so, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty (if healthy) sparkle as rewarding fantasy assets up front, while Shea Theodore - a little dry of late, mind you - is the top blue-line selection. Theodore was a breakout star for Vegas in last summer's bubble, leading his team with 19 points in 20 contests.

Potential sleeper: Forward Reilly Smith. Call it an informed hunch.

Potential bust: Goalie Robin Lehner as ride-along to Marc-Andre Fleury, at least to start. Lehner didn't win either of his games against Minnesota this campaign while Fleury fared better. From a fantasy perspective, there's less to like about any member of a full-fledged tandem team, no matter how individually strong.

Minnesota Wild (vs. Vegas Golden Knights): There's Kirill Kaprizov and then there's everyone else when it comes to Wild fantasy assets worth the gamble against the mighty Golden Knights. The Calder Trophy favourite scored six goals and two assists against Vegas in eight contests his rookie season. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon has been on a relative tear of late, accumulating nine points in his final 10 games, including a pair of helpers versus Vegas on May 3.

Potential sleeper: Forward Mats Zuccarello could be a bit of fun riding shotgun to Kaprizov. The diminutive veteran had a productive playoff run with the Stars two years back.

Potential bust: Cam Talbot has been much too generous in net of late for my taste. After mostly dominating since mid-March, Minnesota's No. 1 fell apart some these past couple of weeks, allowing 24 total goals through six contests (four of them losses). For the record, backup Kaapo Kahkonen hasn't been any better.

St. Louis Blues (vs. Colorado Avalanche): The Blues aren't going to beat the Avalanche this spring. Very probably not, anyway. However, those outlying fantasy managers who care to disagree should turn their attention to top-liners Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron. O'Reilly, in particular. A healthy-again Torey Krug has five assists to show for eight contests against the Avs this year. Fellow defenseman Justin Faulk has eight points in his past seven games altogether. Perhaps most promisingly for the most Pollyanna of St. Louis fans, No. 1 netminder Jordan Binnington has been not-terrible (3-4-0) against the scarier team from Colorado.

Potential sleeper: Forward Jaden Schwartz

Potential bust: Forward Vladimir Tarasenko

North Division

Toronto Maple Leafs (vs. Montreal Canadiens): The Maple Leafs have to beat the Canadiens and win their first playoff series in forever. They truly must. And they likely will. Meaning fantasy managers invested in Auston Matthews and/or Mitchell Marner should get at least a couple of playoff rounds out of these elite performers. Maybe more. Apart from the machine in Edmonton, I'm not sure any fantasy commodity appeals to me more than Toronto's 41-goal fella (and counting). Also, captain John Tavares is a point-per-game player versus Montreal this year, while linemate William Nylander has really turned it on of late.

Potential sleeper: Forward Alex Galchenyuk

Potential bust: As great as he's been these past few weeks, Jack Campbell has never played an NHL playoff game. And Frederik Andersen is finally healthy and ready to sub in, should the former Kings' netminder falter. Campbell isn't near a slam-dunk fantasy asset to me.

Edmonton Oilers (vs. Winnipeg Jets): Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have a combined 14 goals and 20 assists in nine games against the Jets this year. I'm not sure we have to dig any deeper than that. Even if McDavid only lasts a couple of playoff rounds - the follow-up projected match-up with Toronto could be tough - he still likely finishes near top of the fantasy scoring table. And while no defenseman logged more points than Edmonton's Tyson Barrie (48) this season, goalie Mike Smith has a .936 save-percentage and 2.06 goals-against average through five appearances versus Winnipeg (zero losses).

Potential sleeper: Forward Jesse Puljujarvi

Potential bust: Forward Kailer Yamamoto

Winnipeg Jets: (vs. Edmonton Oilers): Forward Nikolaj Ehlers is the only member of the Jets who enjoyed any tangible success against this year's Oilers, scoring four goals and five assists in eight games. This Winnipeg club needs their prolific scorer back if they're to enjoy any shot at advancing.

Potential sleeper: Pardon the mild nostalgia, but Paul Stastny in the playoffs still appeals to me.

Potential bust: Connor Hellebuyck is an elite goaltender with a Vezina Trophy (figuratively) resting on his mantle. He's also 2-5-0 against the Oilers, sporting a 3.96 goals-against average and .876 save-percentage.

Montreal Canadiens (vs. Toronto Maple Leafs): Here's how the Canadiens beat the Leafs: A fully-recovered Carey Price (concussion) puts in a performance similar to last postseason where he cobbled together a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save-percentage in 10 bubbled games. Brendan Gallagher and his healed thumb incites frustration at his agitating best (worst). The team as a whole manages to clog up the middle enough to prevent Matthews and Marner (and Tavares and Nylander) from scoring at will. That's a start. Then they'll need scoring of their own from Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar, and Gallagher himself. Along with defenseman Jeff Petry, that gaggle makes up Montreal's corps of intriguing fantasy assets should they somehow pull this off.

Potential sleeper: Rookie Cole Caufield, obviously.

Potential bust: Josh Anderson hasn't dinged the scoresheet in 11 games, but playoff hockey could bring out the best in the power forward.