NHL playoff fantasy competition is its own brand of compact, focused fun. A limited if intense calendar, combined with the reality of losing players every round, and a simpler scoring system set the stage for fast-paced fantasy drama. The set-it-and-forget-it approach to assembling a roster also sports additional appeal for those who feel overwhelmed by the season-long game. (To each their own, I suppose.)
We’re now wading into a fresh fantasy field in which the quantity of games played often rivals quality of individual performance. Alex Ovechkin can do only so much damage if his Washington Capitals are disposed of in five contests at the hands of the Florida Panthers.
So, my advice: Pick a handful of teams you project to reach the conference finals, then target the best players involved, with specific scoring guidelines in mind (i.e., is an assist worth the same as a goal?). And feel free to stack away. If you flame out after the first round, so be it. The go-big/home approach, usually including some fantasy wild cards, is best, as there’s little to no satisfaction in finishing mid-tier.
With that, here’s my rundown of playoff fantasy performers by team, ranked in order of shortest to longest odds of winning the Stanley Cup, as recently determined by our partners at Caesars Sportsbook.
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Colorado Avalanche (+350) vs. Nashville Predators: Managing without their captain for nearly eight weeks, the Avalanche appear optimistic about welcoming Gabriel Landeskog (leg) back into the lineup for Game 1 against the Predators. But while punching out 30 goals and 30 assists in 51 healthy games, Landeskog still ranks lower than elite fantasy performers Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Nazem Kadri. That’s how rich this club — one favored by many to win the whole shebang — is in fantasy heavyweights up front. Barring injury or a serious unravelling, goalie Darcy Kuemper should serve as the netminder to help get them there.
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Potential sleeper: J.T. Compher is on a nice roll, charging into the playoffs with four goals and four assists in eight games. The third-line center also looks to inherit a shuffled-out top-six forward (a rather hot Artturi Lehkonen, perhaps) once Landeskog carves his way back into a prominent role up front. See also: Valeri Nichushkin.
Potential bust: Since returning from a lower-body injury, defenseman Samuel Girard has all of one assist in 11 games. Fantasy firecracker Cale Makar heads Colorado’s (and perhaps every other) blue line as an elite commodity, followed by Devon Toews, then rookie Bowen Byram. Don’t overrate Girard among this extra-talented gaggle.
Florida Panthers (+550) vs. Washington Capitals: This goal-happy Panthers squad is just teeming with rich, stackable fantasy talent. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and newbie Claude Giroux lead an offense that’s dangerous at every turn. A favorite to advance to the conference finals, Florida is also rich in valuable secondary scoring in the form of Sam Bennett and others. Plus, out since the third week of March, top puck-moving defenseman Aaron Ekblad is expected back in the lineup as early as Game 1.
Potential sleeper: Forward Anthony Duclair
Potential bust: The Panthers won’t hesitate in offering backup Spencer Knight a shot if No. 1 Sergei Bobrovsky struggles in the slightest.
Toronto Maple Leafs (+900) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: While getting past the defending Stanley Cup champs (x2) will be no easy task, the Maple Leafs possess the scoring talent to give it a good go. Only the Panthers have more regular-season goals than Toronto, led by Auston Matthews and his record-breaking 60. Equally determined to help the Leafs advance to the second round for the first time since 2004 are top wingers Mitchell Marner — extra resolved after falling pancake-flat last summer — and William Nylander. These three, along with center John Tavares and 67-point defenseman Morgan Rielly, are the club’s ride-or-die. There will be no mid-May play if the Leafs end up relying on David Kampf to score.
Potential sleeper: Forward Michael Bunting is loosely expected to rejoin Matthews and Marner on Toronto’s top line once the series gets underway.
Potential bust: I’m concerned about Jack Campbell. The residual effects of a recent rib injury, the pressure of almost flying solo as Toronto’s go-to, and his limited experience and accompanying lack of success in the postseason add up to a big ball of worry.
Auston Matthews becomes the first Maple Leaf to reach 60 goals in a season.
Calgary Flames (+900) vs. Dallas Stars: The most potent line in hockey features three 40-goal scorers, if you can believe it. In fact, the top combo of Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm combined for 124 goals and 177 assists in 2021-22. Do we really believe Dallas will be able to shut this unit down through not one, not two, not three, but a string of several contests? I, for one, do not. Beyond the first round, Calgary sits second only to Colorado in perceived odds of emerging from the West. If buying in on Calgary, a Flames stack including Gaudreau and/or Tkachuk should be a leading priority for any fantasy manager.
Potential sleeper: Forward Tyler Toffoli
Potential bust: If the Flames somehow manage to fall apart at the hands of the Stars, sub-mediocre play from goalie Jacob Markstrom will likely be to blame. Calgary’s No. 1 hasn’t enjoyed the best luck against Dallas these past few months.
Carolina Hurricanes (+1100) vs. Boston Bruins: Whether they’re skating together or not, Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen rank, in order, as the Hurricanes’ top-three fantasy performers up front. Not only for their respective raw numbers, but consistency. These three are reliable. Oh, and they’ve combined for a whopping total of 18 points in three games with the Bruins in 2021-22. On the blue line, Tony DeAngelo is enjoying a strong year with 51 points in 64 matches, including 20 with the extra skater. DeAngelo remains the club’s top choice to anchor the No. 1 power play through the postseason.
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Potential sleeper: Boasting four goals and six assists in his past 10 contests, rookie Seth Jarvis is now skating on a No. 1 forward line with Aho and Svechnikov. That’s a good gig.
Potential bust: Will Frederik Andersen be fit and ready to compete when the puck drops in Game 1? Knowing Carolina’s No. 1 remains sidelined with an undisclosed injury, and has yet to skate, my early guess is no. Will he play at all in the next couple of weeks, especially if Antti Raanta and/or 22-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov — a perfect 3-0 through his only three NHL appearances — gets the job done? Impossible to guess. So, despite his superior play these past few months, Andersen’s current health status is shrouded in too much mystery for my fantasy taste.
Tampa Bay Lightning (+1100) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: From a Lightning fantasy scoring perspective, there’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, and then there’s everyone else. The team’s top center and winger combined for 29 goals and 47 assists through the 20 final games of the season. That’s bananas. If the Maple Leafs can’t effectively slow down this explosive pair, Toronto’s long run of playoff failure might very well extend another year. Also of note, defenseman Victor Hedman concluded 2021-22 with one goal and 16 assists in eight contests. Managers on board with Team Tampa will also want to a form a fantasy allegiance with elite netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Potential sleeper: Forward Alex Killorn
Potential bust: Brayden Point hasn’t appeared his usual productive self since early April. Something’s off.
Minnesota Wild (+1600) vs. St. Louis Blues: Kevin Fiala has 10 goals and 14 assists in his most recent span of 13 games. Hard to find fault with that total. Even more impressive is the 108 points accumulated by Kirill Kaprizov through 81 contests. Kaprizov’s linemates, Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman, are also enjoying exceptionally productive seasons, the best of their respective careers. With a view to continued success this spring, many invested fantasy managers will want to choose who to back in this banger of an opening series. Those siding with Minnesota should target those aforementioned, beginning with Kaprizov.
Potential sleeper: Rookie forward Matt Boldy
Potential bust: Cam Talbot’s regular-season record against the Blues isn’t good: 0-1-2, 5.92 GAA, .814 SV%. Former Stanley Cup Champion Marc-Andre Fleury fared better.
The Wild outlast the Flames 3-2 after Kirill Kaprizov’s slap shot finds the top corner in overtime.
Boston Bruins (+1600) vs. Carolina Hurricanes: Having allowed 16 goals (and scored only one) in three regular-season games with the Metro-leading Hurricanes, the Bruins are clear underdogs in this series. But if you believe they can pull off the initial upset, and subsequently challenge the next quality opponent in the East, top performers Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are your fantasy go-tos. Second-tier performers include Jake DeBrusk, who’s enjoyed more scoring success since hooking up with Marchand and Bergeron, and second-line winger Taylor Hall. Defender Charlie McAvoy earned 10 goals and 46 assists, including 21 points on the power play, in 78 games with the B’s this season, which merits a healthy dose of fantasy respect.
Potential sleeper: If Boston is to hold any real hope of beating the Hurricanes and others, it’ll need contributions from other supporting cast members. Such as Erik Haula, who’s centering a scoring line with Pastrnak and Hall.
Potential bust: Goalie Linus Ullmark has looked good of late. He also surrendered six goals in his only full meeting with Carolina this season. No chance that doesn’t filter into the netminder’s head a little bit, at least to start.
New York Rangers (+1600) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: If yearning for even more incentive to invest in a 52-goal scorer this fantasy postseason, you’ll be happy to learn that Chris Kreider averaged 1.1 points/game against Eastern Conference opponents altogether, and 1.5 through four earlier tilts with the Penguins. Artemi Panarin (and his 74 assists) presents as another gem, especially in fantasy competition that rewards helpers equally to goals. Kreider’s linemate Mika Zibanejad rounds out the team’s top trio of fantasy stars up front, while defenseman Adam Fox — with his own brag-worthy collection of 74 points — is a no-brain acquisition for managers who believe the Rangers have a legit shot at reaching the conference finals. Same applies to Vezina favorite Igor Shesterkin.
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Potential sleeper: Does Andrew Copp still count as a sleeper even though he has potted more than a point/game since leaving Winnipeg in late March? A little banged up to conclude the regular season, the top-six winger is expected to rejoin the Rangers’ lineup for Game 1 versus Pittsburgh.
Potential bust: Forward Frank Vatrano
Pittsburgh Penguins (+1800) vs. New York Rangers: This is a big ask for Casey DeSmith. After serving as Tristan Jarry’s trusty backup most of the season, the career part-timer is now being tasked with shouldering the load through the playoff grind, beginning in the Big Apple on Tuesday. To maintain any aspirations of surviving New York and beyond, DeSmith will need significant help from his more prominent colleagues out front, led by Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and second-line center Evgeni Malkin. Just keep in mind, Rangers netminder Igor Shesterkin allowed only four total goals through four meetings with the Penguins this season.
Potential sleeper: Forward Rickard Rakell
Potential bust: Forward Bryan Rust
Edmonton Oilers (+1800) vs. Los Angeles Kings: After Connor McDavid — a top fantasy choice for anyone who believes the Oilers will win at least one round — Evander Kane rates in step with Leon Draisaitl as an ultra-attractive selection ahead of the team’s series with the Kings. Playing quality minutes alongside McDavid at even strength and with the extra skater, the shot-happy winger is rocketing into the postseason with a recent run of six goals in five games. After spending the first few months battling injuries and/or performing poorly, goalie Mike Smith is a perfect 9-0-0 with a .951 SV% and 1.66 GAA in April. Can the 40-year-old extend that streak into May? Against the Kings, quite possibly. Eventually versus Colorado or Calgary? Maybe not.
Potential sleeper: Following a rather pedestrian first half of the month, defenseman Evan Bouchard is back in scoring tune. The 22-year-old sophomore will also continue to see a boost in minutes as long as Darnell Nurse remains out — which could still be a bit.
Potential bust: Unlike Kane, fellow forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is only shuffling his way into next week’s opener with Los Angeles. RNH’s two points earned through four earlier games against the Kings don’t inspire much extra fantasy confidence either.
Connor McDavid sneaks one in for the score as the Oilers lead 4-1 vs. the Penguins.
St. Louis Blues (+2000) vs. Minnesota Wild: Blues newbie Pavel Buchnevich has been an absolute delight in rounding out one of the most dangerous forward lines in this year’s NHL, especially of late. Alongside a blossoming Robert Thomas and fully reinvigorated Vladimir Tarasenko, the former Ranger failed to register a single point in only two matches through all of April. After scoring the opener in a 4-3 OT victory over Minnesota on April 8, he potted a goal and two assists in beating the Wild eight days later. St. Louis will need much of the same from Buchnevich and his linemates if they’re to sport a healthy shot at getting past Kirill and friends. For Blues believers, all three are worth a fantasy roll of the dice.
Potential sleeper: Forward Ivan Barbashev isn’t ready to wrap up the best year of his still-young career year quite yet.
Potential bust: Relatively terrible most of the season, Jordan Binnington appeared to have semi-figured it out this spring, at least until falling to the Avalanche 5-3 on Tuesday. Even then, the Blues goalie had only been better than his otherwise dreadfully inconsistent self. Coach Craig Berube won’t hesitate to swap in Ville Husso at the first real sign of trouble, nor should he. As a fantasy performer, Binnington can’t be trusted.
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Washington Capitals (+3000) vs. Florida Panthers: A series victory over this year’s Presidents Trophy winner in Florida would qualify as a significant upset. Aside from Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and defender John Carlson, the Capitals aren’t scoring, and their netminding duo isn’t performing consistently. The Panthers averaged 4.14 goals/game this season. This opening set may not last long.
Potential sleeper: Anthony Mantha has the potential to perform as a minor thorn in the Panthers’ side.
Potential bust: Forward Tom Wilson
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Dallas Stars (+4000) vs. Calgary Flames: The top line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski serves as the scoring engine Dallas, accounting for 44% of the team’s total goals in 2021-22. Unless they get support from further down the lineup, the Stars project to burn out fast against the West’s second best. But, if they somehow manage to scrape through a series or two, production from that top trio will also be a big reason why.
Potential sleeper: Defenseman Miro Heiskanen was a star in the postseason two years ago, leading his club with 26 points in 27 playoff games. And fellow blueliner John Klingberg is said to be dealing with a lower-body issue, which could pave the way for Heiskanen to see top power-play minutes. Still, the Stars have to be considered the much weaker party in this series.
Potential bust: Goalie Jake Oettinger lost both of his meetings with the Flames this season, allowing seven goals total. Plus, the fresh-faced 23-year-old has only two playoff games to his career credit, dating to 2020. Calgary is ready to challenge for the Cup right now. It could get ugly for Oettinger in a hurry
Nashville Predators (+4000) vs. Colorado Avalanche: The Predators face a difficult challenge in battling the Avs, especially with Vezina contender Juuse Saros hurt and out indefinitely. Before barely surviving a lesser-inspired side this Thursday 5-4 in the shootout, No. 2 David Rittich surrendered six goals in his only other appearance versus the Avalanche this year. AHL call-up Connor Ingram has all of three NHL games to his professional credit, including Friday’s 5-4 loss to Arizona. But if you still think Nashville, admittedly one of the league’s tougher opponents, can pull off this unanticipated first-round triumph, by all means, grab fantasy favorites Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg and former Colorado skater Matt Duchene — who has scored in every game against his old squad this season.
Potential sleeper: The Preds aren’t getting past the Avalanche without Mikael Granlund performing to his top playmaking abilities.
Potential bust: Expectations aren’t high enough for anyone other than Josi, Forsberg and Duchene to qualify as a true bust.
Los Angeles Kings: (+5000) vs. Edmonton Oilers: Not everyone is convinced the Oilers will easily blow through their set with the neutral-zone-suffocating Kings. As such, those fantasy managers belonging to the pro-Los Angeles-upset camp should know that Phillip Danault — who wrapped up 2021-22 with six goals and one assist in seven games — accumulated three points in four contests against the Kings this regular season. One of the best two-way centers in the league could be a game-changer this series, in several facets. Danault’s linemate Viktor Arvidsson, along with Adrian Kempe and Anze Kopitar, round out L.A.’s gaggle of solid forward commodities in most playoff fantasy pools. Goalie Jonathan Quick will also have to be his stingiest self if the Kings are to harbor much hope of besting McDavid & Co. just to get going. Fortunately, the 2012/2014 Stanley Cup champ has won six of his past seven starts. But again, all of these options best suit managers interested in the outlying fantasy path. Beating the favored Oilers will be no easy task.
Potential sleeper: Veteran Alexander Edler shines as an under-radar, experienced fantasy performer in this series. Seeing top-pair minutes, the longtime Canuck collected eight points in his final 11 regular-season games and scored a goal and assists in his most recent meeting with Edmonton (March 30).
Potential bust: The 2021-22 season saw defenseman Sean Durzi emerge as an unexpected savior on the Kings’ otherwise badly banged-up blue line. But the playoffs are a different circus altogether. And the 23-year-old has yet to participate in the postseason at any pro level, including the AHL. That’s concerning.