Stanley Cup playoff pools: Top picks, sleepers and busts

Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking for their fourth straight Stanley Cup Final appearance. Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Ready for some NHL playoff fantasy fun? This brand of dense competition boasts its own charm in combining a compact calendar, simpler scoring system, drama of losing players every round, and a set-it-and-forget-it approach that should appeal to you more low-maintenance types. One burst of lineup-building effort and you're done. Except for the churn of emotional labor by way of riding an inevitably volatile rollercoaster that doesn't cease to offer new twists and turns with each fresh round. Except for that.

So strap in. Again, this is fresh fantasy territory where the quantity of games played often matters as much as individual performance. Auston Matthews can't score you valuable fantasy goals if relegated (back) to the golf course by the Tampa Bay Lightning (again). So, I'll re-offer the tried/tested/true advice that's carried many a fantasy manager to glory over the years: Pick a handful of clubs you believe have the best shot of reaching the Conference Finals, target the finest fantasy players on those particular teams, with specific scoring guidelines in mind, then stack away. Hedging with a well-balanced lineup will not help you here. There's less shame in flaming out in the first round than settling for a lineup destined to finish mid-tier. It's a sprint, not a marathon. Go big or go home.

With that, here's my rundown of playoff fantasy performers by team, once again ranked in order of shortest to longest odds of winning the Stanley Cup, as recently determined (April 14) by our partners at Caesars.

Boston Bruins (+280) vs. Florida Panthers:

The best team in NHL history by several measuring rods is, rationally, the clear-cut favorite to win it all come mid-June. Do we really need a deep dive here? David Pastrnak has 61 goals and can't stop scoring. Brad Marchand is a playoff beast. Patrice Bergeron remains amazing in all facets. Jake DeBrusk is more than just along for the ride. Oh, and underrated top-six glue stick David Krejci is expected back for Game 1 after missing a half-dozen contests with a lower-body injury. Blueliners Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm are both potential fantasy gamechangers. Head-of-the-class fantasy choices, all of them, for those who don't care to overthink matters.

Potential sleeper: Forward Tyler Bertuzzi

Potential bust: Goalie Jeremy Swayman may not see much action if Jim Montgomery runs with Linus Ullmark from the start, as expected. Sharing the net between two goalies, no matter how dually competent, is far less common in postseason play.

Colorado Avalanche (+600) vs. Minnesota Wild/Seattle Kraken:

As of Friday morning, the Avalanche remain one win away from clinching top spot in the Central, leapfrogging the Stars and securing a first-round date with the Kraken. On the flipside, a final regular-season loss to the Predators would instead cement a tete-a-tete with the Wild -- a perceivably less-attractive scenario for Jared Bednar's charges. One way or the other, Gabriel Landeskog isn't playing this spring, unfortunately, after failing to recover well from knee surgery. That's been confirmed. In much better news, defenseman Cale Makar is expected back for the Avs' playoff run after sitting out six contests with a head issue. The reigning Conn Smythe winner's influence looms large in Colorado's quest to repeat, along with prominent fantasy forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Valeri Nichushkin.

Potential sleeper: After busting his finger in mid-March, Artturi Lehkonen returned to the ice with gusto, scoring a goal (empty-netter, but still counts) and assist in Thursday's victory over the Jets. The 27-year-old has enjoyed a career year, his first full campaign with Colorado, with 21 goals and 30 assists in 63 games altogether.

Potential bust: J.T. Compher

Edmonton Oilers (+800) vs. Los Angeles Kings:

Without question, the hottest offense in the NHL could go all the way. Averaging 4.47 goals/game, the Oilers are 14-0-1 since March 14, which works out to a ridiculous success rate of .967%. Beyond the club's two elite performers - Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have an LOL-inducing 281 combined points on the year - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins deserves his due for amassing 104, good enough for eighth place in the league. Forwards Evander Kane and Zach Hyman serve as a valuable supporting cast members. But McDavid and Draisaitl project as this playoff crop's cream, even above Boston's Pastrnak, for any manager that believes Edmonton can muscle through the Avs and others on route to the Stanley Cup Final.

Potential sleeper: Defenseman Evan Bouchard

Potential bust: If the Oilers have an Achilles heel in this series, it's between the pipes. Stuart Skinner has zero/zilch/nil NHL playoff experience. If Edmonton's go-to flounders early for whatever reason, Jay Woodcroft may have little choice but to turn to Jack Campbell, who has two full series' worth with Toronto to his credit. For record, I can't see matters unfolding this way, at least not in Round 1, but the possibility still merits mentioning.

New York Rangers (+900) vs. New Jersey Devils:

This series sets up to be a doozy. Unhampered by the burden of arduous travel, the regional rivals are also closest in odds. Fantasy managers on Team Big Apple are looking at stars Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin up front, and Adam Fox to provide sparkling numbers on the blue line. Forward Chris Kreider is likewise built for playoff competition. Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin will likely play every single game.

Potential sleeper: The Kid Line could be the difference-maker in helping the Rangers squeeze past the Devils into Round 2. So, looking at you, Kaapo Kakko and your recent goal-scoring run.

Potential bust: Forward Patrick Kane

Carolina Hurricanes (+1000) vs. New York Islanders:

The Hurricanes better hope their goaltending shows up large in what portends to be a rather low-scoring affair with Ilya Sorokin and the New York Islanders. Without Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina is 9-8-1, while averaging a seventh-worst 2.72 goals/game since Mar. 12. If nevertheless committed to padding your fantasy playoff team with 'Canes scorers, start with defenseman Brent Burns, and follow up with forwards Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas. Maybe blueliner Brady Skjei.

Potential sleeper: Jesperi Kotkaniemi is scoring. More than anyone else up front these past couple of weeks.

Potential bust: Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere

Vegas Golden Knights (+1000) versus Winnipeg Jets:

The Golden Knights beat up on the Jets with relative ease this season 3-0, averaging 4.33 goals/game while surrendering only 2.67. This is a team that's managed to find ways to win through the ups and downs of missing key figures in the lineup all season long. Now Jack Eichel is back from injury, as is prominent defenseman Shea Theodore. The goalies are healing. Mark Stone is practicing in a non-contact sweater, which is big. I'm all over Eichel, Chandler Stephenson, defender Alex Pietrangelo, and Stone - if indeed healthy - if you're convinced Vegas can survive another round in addition to beating Winnipeg.

Potential sleeper: The hottest goalie in April, Laurent Brossoit more than deserves a shot at starting Game 1, at minimum, after winning five straight for the Knights while rocking a .946 SV% and 1.59 GAA. Pressure's on though, with Jonathan Quick, Logan Thompson, and Adin Hill all possibly lying in wait, breathing down the 30-year-old's neck.

Potential bust: Defenseman Alec Martinez

Toronto Maple Leafs (+1000) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning:

As a postseason fantasy manager, you have to ask yourself: Can the Maple Leafs, considered the slightly superior team, overcome the supposed mental and emotional adversity of blowing a series lead to these same Lightning a year ago, and win their first playoff series since 2004? If your answer is "yes," then load up on some combination of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and defender Morgan Rielly. Plus, don't forget, playoff performer extraordinaire Ryan O'Reilly has 56 points in 64 career postseason games. Unless he's more banged up than we know, Ilya Samsonov is the projected Leafs' go-to in net, beginning Tuesday. Toronto's No. 1 was outstanding in wrapping up 2022-23 before taking off the final two games.

Potential sleeper: Rookie Matthew Knies serves as an endearing, outlying fantasy asset if offered the chance to again compete on a scoring line with O'Reilly and Nylander.

Potential bust: Mark Giordano

New Jersey Devils (+1100) vs. New York Rangers:

Fantasy managers on Team Garden State might go all-in on Devils stars Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, blueliner Dougie Hamilton and San Jose export Timo Meier, who, unlike many other members of the Devils, has some actual playoff experience. It helps.

Potential sleeper: Ondrej Palat all day long. This is a guy who shows up when needed most. After helping the Lightning take the Avalanche as far as they did last year, the clutch performer will be tasked to show up in a similar manner for his new squad. He'll need to, if the Devils hope to claw past the Rangers and beyond.

Potential bust: Vitek Vanecek only because this match-up with New York is such a tough one and New Jersey's No. 1 has very little playoff experience. Which isn't fair, since Vanecek has played so well, but neither is life.

Tampa Bay Lightning (+1500) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs:

From a Lightning fantasy scoring perspective, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov lead the way, along with a quietly hot Brayden Point. If you believe the Leafs are due to get the first-round boot once more, Andrei Vasilevskiy tempts as a strong fantasy choice in net, along with Mikhail Sergachev on Tampa's blue line.

Potential sleeper: Forward Alex Killorn - playoff darling for the Lightning two years ago - is absolutely sizzling right now.

Potential bust: Defenseman Victor Hedman

Dallas Stars (+1800) vs. Seattle Kraken/Minnesota Wild:

The Stars' big three -- Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski - with a side serving of Jamie Benn and blueliner Miro Heiskanen, are in prime position to put up excellent scoring numbers against Seattle's suspect goaltending. Less so against the Wild, if that's how the Western Conference cookie crumbles, but they're still favored to move on. In fact, backstopped by Jake Oettinger, this red-hot Dallas club - winners of six-straight and nine of their past 11 - boasts the greatest perceived chance of eventually dispatching the Avalanche and/or Oilers. Honestly, they could do it.

Potential sleeper: Tyler Seguin is riding in toasty, with four goals and four assists in 10 contests. That third line, also including Max Domi and Mason Marchment, sports a brand of spunk and sandpaper that often makes a tangible difference in the postseason.

Potential bust: I'm worried rookie Wyatt Johnston could feel a bit overwhelmed, resulting in his ultimate replacement on the Stars' second scoring unit.

Minnesota Wild (+2000) vs. Colorado Avalanche/Dallas Stars:

If you believe the Wild have more than a legitimate shot at eliminating the Avalanche or Stars - however it shakes out after Friday night - Kirill Kaprizov should garner heavy consideration as a potentially explosive postseason fantasy asset, along with Ryan Hartman and Matt Boldy. Hey, upsets happen. A few pundits are suggesting this might be one of them. However, not having Joel Eriksson Ek in the lineup, at least to start, doesn't help.

Potential sleeper: Special teams will play into matters if Minnesota is to enjoy any chance of moving on. Which means power play quarterback John Klingberg could figure in as a valuable factor.

Potential bust: Marc-Andre Fleury. Of the Wild's goaltending tandem, Filip Gustavsson is the hotter of the two right now.

L.A. Kings (+2500) vs. Edmonton Oilers:

The Kings face a significant challenge in battling Connor McDavid and Co. in what strikes as one of this postseason's more lopsided matchups on paper. L.A. will need a superior effort from their best up front, including Anze Kopitar, Adrian Kempe, and Kevin Fiala - if he's good to go for Game 1 - along with ample scoring support from the likes of Phillip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson and Alex Iafallo, even for this series to go six or seven. Never mind asking the club's defenders and goaltending to stifle the strongest offense in the league. Oh boy.

Potential sleeper: Splitting time between Columbus and Los Angeles, Joonas Korpisalo is 2-1 with a .924 SV% and 3.01 GAA against the Oilers this season. That's something, I suppose.

Potential bust: While Drew Doughty has enjoyed a fairly productive 2022-23, the veteran defenseman can't make much fantasy noise if his club is knocked out in the first two weeks.

Florida Panthers (+3300) vs. Boston Bruins:

They still have to play the games, right? That's something. It's also the most Pollyanna offering I've got ahead of the Panthers' opening round with the most successful team in NHL history. It's going to be tough. But if somehow, some way, Florida is able to pull off an upset of historical proportions, you can bank on Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, and defenseman Brandon Montour having a lot to do with it. Combining for 83 points in 20 games since Mar. 1, those three deserve hefty credit for the Panthers clawing their way into the playoff conversation in the first place. Even if it ends up a relatively short chat.

Potential sleeper: Again, if the Panthers manage to beat a team that's lost only 12 games in regulation all year four times in two weeks or less, goalie Alex Lyon might play a factor in pulling off that miracle. Although Lyon wasn't quite as sharp in the season's final loss to Carolina.

Potential bust: Defenseman Aaron Ekblad

New York Islanders (+5000) vs. Carolina Hurricanes:

Goalie Ilya Sorokin. There's your fantasy star, if the Islanders manage to muck their way past the Hurricanes. Outside of the crease, anticipate a case of scoring by committee, modestly led by Bo Horvat and Brock Nelson. At least until Mathew Barzal returns, which has yet to be determined.

Potential sleeper: Forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau

Potential bust: Forward Anders Lee

Winnipeg Jets (+5000) vs. Vegas Golden Knights:

As mentioned, the Jets couldn't beat Vegas in three tries this season. That's discouraging. I also wonder if this team isn't a bit spent, especially mentally, after laying it all out in battling just to be here. Oddsmakers certainly seem to think so. Yet, Connor Hellebuyck remains one of the best in the goaltending business, and that top-six - hopefully getting a healthy Cole Perfetti back sooner than later - still sports plenty of scoring appeal. Stranger upsets have unfolded, for sure.

Potential sleeper: Forward Nikolaj Ehlers

Potential bust: Forward Blake Wheeler

Seattle Kraken (+5000) vs. Colorado Avalanche/Dallas Stars:

Whether they face the Avalanche or Stars, the Sophomore Kraken seem destined to chalk up this postseason run to earning valuable experience ahead of next year. However, those who strongly disagree should definitely stock up on the likes of Jared McCann, Jordan Eberle, Matty Beniers, and defenseman Vince Dunn. Go big or go home, right? For what it's worth, the Kraken are 1-1-1 versus Dallas, and 2-0-1 against the Colorado this season.

Potential sleeper: Forward Daniel Sprong has 11 points in his last 13 games and 21 goals on the year.

Potential bust: Goalie Martin Jones