WHL PLAYOFFS, CONSOLATION BRACKETS UNDERWAY, OVECHKIN HEADS TO THE GREAT WHITE NORTH
BOSTON, MA—You knew it was bound to shake out this way. The World Hockey League's 2014-15 regular season--widely regarded as the most tense and fiercely competitive season in its storied eight-year existence--fittingly took until the final day to lock down playoff seeding for its top eight franchises. As the gates open on the "second season" of twenty-fifteen, all 18 owners are left with a host of burning questions that only time can answer. Can California defend its crown with so many worthy competitors poised to steal it away? Who will win the right to draft Connor McDavid in September? Will Sparta pull off the biggest upset in league history? All riddles whose solutions lie a month beyond our grasp. The WHL playoff and consolation bracket run through the end of the NHL's regular season on Saturday, April 11th.
#1 Beantown Ball Busters vs. #8 Sparta Praha
Tale of the tape: I genuinely wish there was something new to report about Beantown. All they've done since October is compile the most fantasy points from goalies (thats wins, saves, OTL, the works), as well as the second most points from skaters. That's a formidable combination at no mistake, and a daunting mountain for 8th-seeded Sparta Praha to attempt to scale. The Spartans have plenty of pep talk fodder in the form of three league championships, but it will take one hell of a sling shot to spell this giant.
Beantown will win if: Their marquee players show up to play. Some injuries and platoon action have toned things down a shade in the Ball Busters net, but none of that will matter if ironman Braden Holtby can build off his most recent shutout. Sparta will win if: They get some major league help from the schedule, and hey, maybe a win from Mike Smith. Sparta will look to channel some Yukon-esque fortune, thinking back to 2009 when the flu suddenly struck top-seeded Mount Vernon's Henrik Lundqvist during the opening round, allowing 8th place Lokomotiv Yukon to sneak through en route to a league championship.
Keep an eye on: For Beantown--Milan Lucic, Henrik Zetterbeg and Kris Russell. Russell in particular leads the entire league in blocked shots, which could be a difference-maker if this series somehow gets close. For Prague, their hottest skaters, Stamkos and Gabe Landeskog, only play two games apiece this week, so they will have to make every shift count. Subban, Schneider and Hamonic will need to exceed their averages and then some to have a prayer.
#2 Portland Pints vs. #7 Tayutic Team Rasta
Tale of the tape: There isn't a hotter team so far in the month of March than the Portland Pints. Over the last two weeks, 12 Pints skaters have been averaging two points per game or better, compared to seven for Rasta. Portland far and away leads the league in fantasy points generated by skaters (+500 above league average), while Tayutic has posted a respectable 4th-most points from the same skater categories. In addition, Tayutic and Portland are the top two teams in the faceoff circle in terms of net fantasy points won on the dots.
Portland will win if: Nicklas Backstrom keeps doing Backstrom things and Craig Anderson joins the party. Do I really need to mention Crosby, Toews, Bobrovsky and Lehtonen? Guess I just did, but a less obvious key to success for the Pints will be the continued second wave of offensive production from Curtis Glencross, Matt Hoffman, and Mark Stone. Tayutic will win if: Cam Talbot keeps pumping out wins while keeping Lundqvist's throne warm, and Zidlicky, Trouba & Co. elevate their games in the absence of leader Mark Giordano.
Keep an eye on: Dennis Wideman, who "quietly" has been Portland's fourth most valuable skater this season, and Justin Abdelkader, who has been on a nice run since being acquired from Sparta. For Tayutic, look out for Jiri Hudler--easily his team's hottest skater over the past two weeks (averaging a robust 3.4 points per game over that span), and a top four producer on the season.
#3 Altoona Angry Beavers vs. #6 Stuttgart Scorpions
Tale of the tape: Apparently "Beaver Fever" can lead to prolonged fits of aggression and a muted sense of self preservation, as Altoona has racked up the most fantasy points from hits and blocked shots this season. The Scorpions, meanwhile, were the league's most productive team for the week ending March 15th.
Altoona will win if: Rinne and Fleury rebound from a lacklustre end to the WHL regular season (at least, by their standards). The Beavers score their share of goals, and leading in hits and blocks is certainly impressive, but the key to Altoona's success is between the pipes. It's been that way since October and should true even more in the playoffs. Stuttgart will win if: Jonathan Quick, Blake Wheeler and Marian Hossa stay scorching hot. Scorpions fans know that their club doesn't pack the same punch in net as Altoona (hey, Jon Quick is just one man), so GM Josh Deitell will need to lean heavily on his club's depth beyond the blue.
Keep an eye on: Scott Hartnell, who leads all Altoona skaters in goals over the last two weeks, and the Beavers defensive corps as a whole. They don't have one stand out guy--in fact, over the last 14 days, four of their key defenders have all tallied between 11-13 fantasy points. Also, with Patrick Kane sidelined with a fractured clavicle, Wayne Simmonds has become the pulse of this Altoona club. Stuttgart is dealing with some major injuries of its own. With Nathan MacKinnon done for the year and Tyler Seguin effectively playing on one leg, the spotlight grows even larger on Johnny Gaudreau, Only Blake Wheeler has scored more fantasy points for the Scorpions over the last two weeks than Johnny Hockey.
#4 California Kwijibos vs. #5 Northern CHEEFS
Tale of the tape: The defending champion Kwijbos goe toe-to-toe with the Northern CHEEFS--alternatively known as the Chefs because rookie sensation GM Kyle Hamel is always cooking up new trade ideas. Front and center in this one we have Carey Price, a logical (see: obvious) choice for league MVP at this point, pitted against Brian Elliott and Andrew Hammond, who has Hamburglar-ed his way to a 10-1 record at the most opportune time of the season. This series could swing either way, given that both clubs have averaged 140 fantasy points in each of the last two weeks.
California will win if: They score more points than Northern. Heyoo! In all seriousness, the Kwiji King shall emerge victorious if Logan Couture can regain his usual dominant form, and if Brayden Schenn has actually woken up from his long nap. Northern will win if: they can capitalize on Patric Hornqvist's untimely injury, as he's been California's top skater over the last month. Even more pivotal for the Cheefs will be the health of Evgeni Malkin, and continued Norris-caliber production from Kris Letang.
Keep and eye on: Marko Dano, the second most productive Kwijibo skater over the last 14 days. For Northern, watch out for Adam Henrique and Ryan Spooner, who quietly kept pace with the superior Jamie Benn and Ryan Kesler last week.
Meanwhile, in the magical land of consolation, the Porter Pirates, Boston Beernuts, Canadiens de Montreal, NJ Wall Flowers, CSKA Moscow, and West Palm Beach Rangers have earned first round byes after finishing the regular season as the WHL’s six most improved non-playoff teams. All six teams will slot into next week's quarterfinal round, but not before the following four clubs duke it out:
#7 Saginaw Spirit vs. #10 Brooklyn Cyclones
Tale of the tape: This opening round affair has the scale tipped in Saginaw's favor, which can mean a lot or absolutely nothing this time of year (yay, broadcaster speak!). The Spirit have topped 100 points in three of the last four weeks, while the Cyclones have hit that mark just once over the last six weeks. Bigger upsets have happened, but this one is GM Tom Lusty's to lose.
Saginaw will win if: Tuukka Time keeps on ticking for another week. In true money goalie fashion, Rask is strutting his best stuff at the most crucial time of the year, which is why he's one of the greats. Brooklyn will win if: Roberto Luongo fails to return to his opponents lineup and Antti Niemi and Steve Mason can capitalize. Both of Brooklyn's starters have posted a shutout in March, so the potential is there.
Keep an eye on: Saginaw forward Joffrey Lupul, who is searching in earnest for his first goal in the month of March. For Mike Zecca and the Cyclones, keep tabs on Kyle Okposo--a 2+ fantasy point-per-game player fresh who is fresh off the IR just in time for the main event.
#8 Mount Vernon Blades vs. #9 Wolfsburg Vipers
Tale of the tape: The only other consolation meeting this week appears to be a bit closer on paper, Looking at the season as a whole thus far, the Blades have a slight edge over the Vipers in total fantasy points derived from skaters, while the Vipers hold a similar advantage in point generated from goalies. More recently, though, Mount Vernon has scored fewer points in each successive week since netting a team-high 152.4 points in mid February. Mike Greeley's Vipers, on the other hand, have turned things around in a big way since a rough first half of February. As they say, timing is everything in the playoffs.
Mount Vernon will win if: Rick Nash and Vladimir Tarasenko can maintain their elite production into the postseason and if Cam Ward can steal at least two wins over a tough slate of games. Wolfsburg will win if: the stars align and his four backup goalies draw a few starts. Niklas Svedberg and Keith Kinkaid, in particular, look poised to see time against the lowly Sabres, which could pay off handsomely.
Keep an eye on: Bo Horvat, who has produced on par with Wolfsburg teammate Ryan Johansen over the last two weeks. For the Blades, this series could come down to GM Chet Merola and whether or not he continues to play with a short bench or make a few maneuvers on the wire.
Trade Deadline Roundup
Much like the NHL trade deadline, the WHL saw more action leading up to its deadline than on the actual day. Still, the one deal that did go down was monster. In the eleventh hour, les Canadiens de Montreal shipped All-Star Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Kronwall, and a 6th round pick in 2015 to the Northern CHEEFS for up-and-comers Tyler Myers, Brendan Gallagher, a 3rd round selection in 2015, and a 1st round pick in 2016. The move clearly gives Northern some extra teeth in its first round playoff battle, while Montreal is content to slide into the consolation bracket and fight for improved draft position. Northern GM Kyle Hamel continues to turn heads in his debut season. Mere weeks prior to landing Ovie, the Cheefs moved Henrik and Daniel Sedin to the Boston Beernuts for Andrei Vasilevskiy and the 1st rounder that was eventually used to fetch the Great 8. And a handful of weeks before the Sedin trade, Hamel doled out it’s own first round picks in the next two drafts to acquire Chris Kunitz and David Krejci. It’s cup or bust for the New Hampshire greenhorn.
The Boston Beernuts were busy themselves leading up to hour zero. Across four separate transactions between February 27th and Match 2nd, GM Joe Mastrangelo moved Sam Bennett, Brandon Gormley, Sven Baertschi, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Boone Jenner, Nikita Zadorov, as well as 1st, 3rd and 6th round picks for Brett Connolly (oops), Michael Frolik, Cal Clutterbuck, the Sedin Brothers, Tommy Wingels, and Antoine Vermette. Boston had plenty of young assets to trade, and many of their veteran acquisitions should receive keeper consideration in addition to the short-term boost for the consol bracket. Somewhat overshadowed by the monster Ovie deal and the Boston overhaul, Stuttgart and Saginaw pulled off an interesting trade of their own. Josh Deitell sent blue chip prospects Teuvo Teravainen and Adam Larsson plus a 4th round pick in 2015 for Alex Steen, Brent Burns, and a luxury beard grooming kit.
The Road Ahead
This year's playoff and consolation brackets are sure to keep us glued to our computers for the next month, but the action won't stop there. Once a league champion is crowned, owners will enter an important two week stretch before settling into the comforts of the offseason. The first week following playoffs will provide owners with a window to sign their RFA players that did not qualify for in-season signing. After that week is up, all unsigned RFAs will enter a week-long auction where owners will be able to submit offer sheets. Contract signing will be frozen during the auction, and original owners will always receive a chance to match the high bid. Full details are available in the official league rule book below.
Game on, and good luck!