Prospective First Round Opponents

Thomas Drance
March 27 2012 02:07PM

It's an odd quirk in the Western Conference Standings at the moment, that nine teams are more than 60% likely to make the playoffs at the moment (according to sportsclubstats.com). In the battle for the final three spots (and those final three spots are 3rd, 7th and 8th because divisional winners earn an automatic top-3 seed regardless of their record), there are four Pacific Division teams that are currently neck and neck (and neck and neck). Those teams are Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Dallas - and it's 88% likely that the Canucks will face on of those four clubs in the first round.

So which of those clubs should you be rooting to see end up in the seventh? Click past the jump for more!

Lots of people woke up on Sunday, checked the standings and decided that the Canucks still had a legitimate shot at finishing first in the Western Conference. While anything can happen in hockey, that's still a long-shot, and I'd remind you that the Canucks aren't two points back, they're three points back since St. Louis owns the tiebreaker. As such, the Canucks are roughly 80% likely to finish second in the Western Conference.

Though we know with relative certainty where the Canucks will finish in the standings, we have no idea who their opponent might be. Again from sportsclubstats, here's the probability numbers forecasting which teams are most likely to finish 7th (and thus, be the Canucks first round playoff opponents).

Team Probability of Finishing 7th
Phoenix 23%
Dallas 23%
Los Angeles 22%
San Jose 20%
Calgary 7%
Colorado 4%

While it would be awesome if Calgary could beat the odds and end up as first round cannon fodder for the Canucks, they have "protection from making the postseason talismans" on their roster in Bouwmeester and Jokinen so that's just not going to happen. Basically it's virtually assured that the Canucks will play one of the Pacific Division Four in their April series. Let's take a look at which team would make for the most formidable opponent:

Phoenix Coyotes (23%)

The Phoenix Coyotes have become Nashville Predators West, no matter whom they lose in the offseason, it's always just a scratch and they continue to be successful. Head Coach Dave Tippet plays a very conservative style, though in the most recent games between the two clubs, there have been an awful lot of scoring chances both ways. 

The big story for the Coyotes this season has been the really quite remarkable play of goaltender Mike Smith, who is stopping .932% of all even-strength shots (better than either Luongo or Schneider). He's an annoyingly good stick-handler, and while his Cinderella season could well turn into a pumpkin when the playoffs begin - he's been lights out and deserves a lot of credit. Most knowledgeable observers didn't see the Coyotes competing for a playoff spot this year, and Smith's play is the main reason that they are.

From a possession stand-point, the Coyotes are okay and they're only marginally under-water in score-tied situations. The main reason they should frighten Canucks fans as a potential first round opponent is the emergence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson who has developed into an absurdly good two-way defender, as well as the duo of Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal (two of the leagues best, and most under-rated defensive centremen). That said, Phoenix has got the 9th best offense in the West, their power-play is incredibly weak and in a series between the two teams, every game would feel like a Canucks home-game. No matter what EA says, Phoenix is a more desirable first round opponent for the Canucks than the likes of San Jose and Los Angeles.

Dallas Stars (23%)

The Stars and Canucks have faced-off three times in the past couple of weeks, with the Canucks winning one of those contests, losing one by a wide margin and losing the other contest in overtime. Like the Coyotes, the Stars have received stellar goaltending from Kari Lehtonen this season which has helped them overcome the fact that they're a weak possession side. 

The Stars have a number of useful possession players in Steve Ott and Stephane Robidas, and several forwards with elite skill who can do significant damage in Jamie Benn and Louie Eriksson in particular, but Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro are pretty good as well. The Stars play physical, mostly disciplined hockey, and have looked like a tough matchup for the Canucks in the recent meetings between the two clubs.

Perhaps their best asset is Vernon Fiddler's Bieksa imitation, which, could distract the Canucks so severely that they lose all focus and get swept. So long as they can ignore Fiddler's antics, however, the Stars like Phoenix remain a significantly less worrisome potential playoff opponent than the two underachieving California based squads.

Los Angeles Kings (22%)

The Kings playoff chances took a 10% hit with their loss to the Canucks last night, and they're currently the team in this group of four who are on the outside looking in. Possession wise, however, they're dominant though they play a conservative system and don't tend to perform very well by the chance data (my hypothesis is that they shoot from everywhere, and don't look to set up quality chances). 

That said, their score adjusted fenwick has been outrageously good since the acquisition of Jeff Carter; and Jonathan Quick has been one of the leagues best netminders all season long. Good possession stats and an elite goaltender is a recipe for making ones team a tough out in the postseason.

While the Kings are offensively challenged, they've scored an awful lot more since the trade deadline and getting rid of Jack Johnson removed the one sieve-like presence they had on their back-end. In Doughty, Scuderi, Voynov, Mitchell, Martinez and Greene - they probably boast the leagues best blueline 1 through 6, and their special teams are outrageously good.

While there are several reasons why the Kings look like a bad matchup for the Canucks (excellent penalty killing, solid shutdown options, physical style), they also have Daryl Sutter and a suspect bottom-6. Alain Vigneault mopped the floor with Sutter last night in the coaching matchup, and the Kings clearly don't trust their bottom-6 forwards in defensive situations. Over the course of a seven game series, the superior reliability of the Canucks bottom-6 is a pretty big edge, and one you can be sure that Vigneault will exploit for all of its value.

All things considered, the Kings are a more imposing prospective opponent than the likes of Phoenix and Dallas, but they're not quite as scary as the talent-laden Sharks. If they do meet in the postseason, with the animosity between the two clubs and their complimentary styles - I'd love to watch that series.

I'd also love to watch a whine-off between Dean Lombardi (the LA Kings GM) and Mike Gillis. They're two of the most outspoken, and entertaining General Managers in the league (non-Brian Burke division) and this series would be sure to produce some humdinger press conference - especially if it went 7 games.

San Jose Sharks (20%)

You just know that the universe is cruel enough to give the Canucks one of the leagues best possession teams as a first round opponent. In fact, forget the 20% chance - this is pretty much guaranteed to occur. 

It's pretty silly how bad the Sharks have been lately, especially when you consider that they control 53% of all shots with the score tied. They're a dominant possession team, and have one of the league's deepest forward groups and defense corps. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers are both under-rated defensive defenseman and puck movers, while Boyle and Burns remain dangerous and Douglas Murray is a punishing presence.

Up front, they often use Joe Pavelski as a defensive centre (at least, they have in the past against the Sedins), which is a testament to how much depth they've got. Couture, Marleau and Thornton are all dominant possession players, Martin Havlat has burned the Canucks in the postseason in the past, and though they lost compulsive Canucks-injurer Jamie McGinn at the deadline, Daniel Winnick and T.J. Galliardi are both excellent additions to fill out their bottom-6. 

Despite their embarrassment of riches, the Sharks achilles heel remains their goaltending (and that one stanchion). Despite the Shark's dominance in score-tied situations, for example, they're getting only .917% goaltending with the score-tied. Antii Niemi is basically the mole, and has undermined much of the Sharks success this season, just as he did in the Western Conference Finals last year. Niemi has been godawful against the Canucks this year (and was worse in the Western Conference Finals) so while he could definitely get hot over the course of a seven game series, Niemi really isn't scaring anybody.

Niemi aside, the Sharks would be a nightmare first round opponent for the Canucks. And if you're familiar at all with the history of the Canucks franchise, that means you might as well go ahead and pencil them in for that seventh spot right now. 

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Cam Charron
March 27 2012, 02:29PM
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"The Phoenix Coyotes have become Nashville Predators West"

I thought the Nashville Predators were the Nashville Predators West.

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#2 German Canuck
March 27 2012, 02:49PM
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I like the analysis and it would be way too much fate if the Canucks face the Sharks again for the Universe to pass on. However, I do believe the Canucks will be able to beat San Jose, Dallas and Phoenix in 6 or less, the team that scares me the most are the LA Kings. Johnathan Quick is looking pretty good and I don't know if the Canucks, with Daniel Sedin possibly gone, will be able to score enough to get past them!

I don't get ''No matter what EA says, Phoenix is a more desirable first round opponent for the Canucks than the likes of San Jose and Los Angeles.'' What do you mean by 'EA says'?

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#3 OldJohnnyCanuck
March 27 2012, 04:01PM
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I find the Kings to be the least threatening match up of the 4 options. To me, they're a lot like the Canucks of a few years ago: talented but immature, with a few locker room issues *cough*Doughty*cough*.

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#4 Scott
March 27 2012, 04:09PM
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Phoenix is west of Nashville.

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#5 DaNucklehead
March 28 2012, 04:32AM
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Out of all these teams I want the Flames simply for the fact I love the rivalry between Vancouver and Calgary and it could use a shot in the arm with a playoff series (So Flames - do your part by beating the Kings tomorrow!)

The only team here I want to avoid is the Kings because of the physical style they play. Any team that has to play the Kings will win but pay a steep price (SJ last year was beat up in the first round and I think it caught up to them in the series against Vancouver) I hope the Kings get the Blues, let them beat each other up for 6 or 7 games!

San Jose vs Chicago and Detroit vs Nashville (of course I would love to see Detroit vs Chicago)

I may want the Flames, but I'm guessing the Canucks will actually get the Stars.

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