Top 5 Dangerous Underdog Teams Going into the 2014 NHL Playoffs

With the NHL playoffs fast approaching and the trade deadline even closer, it’s worth taking a look at who will be doing what in the next few weeks and who could be dangerous in the 2014 playoff picture.  Some teams are going to be doing all they can to free up space to make moves for next year, while others will be making some last minute moves to strengthen their rosters for the home stretch of the 2013-2014 season.

The playoff race for both sides of the NHL is pretty close as it currently stands.  The Western Conference has a close battle for the 8th spot with the sliding Vancouver Canucks making way for whoever wants to take it away from them.  The story in the Eastern Conference is even closer.  There are fewer points at the top than in the West and are eight teams within six points of each other, stretching from 3rd down to 11th.

The break for the Winter Olympics in Sochi will be welcomed by teams like Anaheim who, although they lead the entire NHL, have lost their last three in a row.  The Canucks will certainly be looking forward to a break to regroup after what has been a terrible run of form, as they find themselves on the back of a six-game losing skid.  Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins, who are 7-2-1 and 7-1-2 respectively in their last ten games, would probably prefer to skip the Olympic break and keep their form going.

With things still wide open in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the Ottawa Senators and the Washington Capitals still have plenty of time to pick up their form and put the pressure on playoff regulars like the Detroit Red Wings.  On the Western side, if Vancouver continues to slide, things could open up for the Dallas Stars, and even the re-vamped Winnipeg Jets could make a late charge for the playoffs.

This list is a collection of 5 teams – who do not all currently sit in playoff contention and none of whom have absolutely clinched playoff berth yet – who could be a dangerous force in the 2014 playoffs if they make it.  This list focuses on the teams who can turn heads and surprise the playoff veterans, like Chicago and Boston.  With the league and conferences having been shifted around, thanks to the realignment changes over the summer, things could shape up rather differently in the 2014 playoffs.

5 Minnesota Wild – Projected Cap Space at Deadline: $4.9 Million

The Wild currently sit in 6th place in the Western Conference with a buffer of five points between them and a playoff berth.  They’ve gone 6-2-2 in their last ten games and have proven this season that they can take down some of the bigger teams with ease after beating the Blackhawks on several occasions and recently handing the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks a 4-2 loss.  With a little cap space left before the deadline, the Wild may choose to make a few moves, but their biggest concern financially is likely the future of Dany Heatley, who currently makes $7.5 million per year, and thankfully becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Heatley has not produced for the better part of two years and could use a change of scenery.  Zach Parise currently holds the top spot for salaries in Minnesota as he takes home just a little more than $7.5 million per year and will do so until he becomes a free agent – but that’s not until 2025.

While Minnesota’s forwards haven’t necessarily been lighting it up statistically – Parise has 19 goals and 17 assists, Jason Pominville has 40 points – they have still been putting together some great results and this is reflected in their league position.  This is largely helped by the goaltending of Josh Harding who leads the league with a GAA of 1.66 and has 18 wins in 29 appearances.  If the Wild can keep up the good goaltending and boost their PK and PP up from the middle ranks, they have the depth on their roster to be a real thorn in the side of the big playoff contenders of 2014.

4 New York Rangers – Projected Cap Space at Deadline: $8.5 Million

The Rangers currently sit in 6th in the Eastern Conference which is about where they finished at the end of the shortened season in 2012-2013.  This means that if things stay roughly as they are, the Rangers will be facing one of the top teams like Boston or Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs this year.  It is however, not said and done that the Rangers will even make it to the playoffs as they only find themselves a few points inside a playoff berth.  They are 7-3-0 in their last ten outings and have PK and PP statistics that put them in the top ten in the league for both.

The positive play for the Rangers this season has come from several different areas.  Henrik Lundqvist’s performance in net has been somewhat steady with a 2.43 GAA but he still finds himself in the losing column having only 21 wins in 43 appearances.  What the Rangers do have, is a solid group of players like Mats Zuccarello (42 points in 57 games), Rick Nash (18 goals in 41 games, plus-8 Rating) and Chris Kreider (plus-13, 30 points in 51 games), who have been putting in consistent performances over the course of the season.  The Rangers will likely be one of the teams making some moves to strengthen their roster before the deadline to help their chances in the playoffs.  They are currently not a very top heavy club as only three players are taking home more than $5 million per year (Lundqvist $6.875, Richards $6.66, Nash $7.8).  If the Rangers make a few important moves, they could really make things difficult for their first round opposition in the playoffs this spring.

3 St. Louis Blues – Projected Cap Space at Deadline: $1.4 Million

St. Louis are the team on this list who finished the highest in last year's short season.  They have continued their form into this season and find themselves sitting comfortably in third place in the Western Conference, with three games in hand against the Hawks and the Ducks ahead of them.

Over the last ten games the Blues are 6-3-1, their PP is second in the league and their PK is 4th in the league.  The Blues owe a lot of their success to the work of Alexander Steen who not only has 28 goals and 18 assists in just 45 games, but also boasts an impressive plus-15 status.  The Blues are likely not a team who will be making too many major moves when the trade deadline arrives.  Having only $1.4 million left in cap space and already showing good results, is a good indication that things should stay the same.  The Blues are also not a top heavy team as they only have two players making more than $5 million per year (Jay Bouwmeester $6.68 million, Alex Pietrangelo $6.5 million) and as they prefer to keep their salary cap funds spread evenly across a core of strong players. The depth of quality that the Blues have, combined with the great goaltending of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, makes St. Louis a great playoff contender this year if they can keep things going the same way.

2 Toronto Maple Leafs – Projected Cap Space at Deadline: $1.6 Million

It has certainly not been long enough yet for the wounds to heal after Toronto`s brief stint in the playoffs last year.  There are still plenty of people saying that the Leafs are only a fast-starting team and that the only reason they made the playoffs last year was because the season was only 48 games long.  This year, the Leafs are trying to prove that they belong in the playoffs, and that they can be a legitimate contender.  After winning the Winter Classic against Detroit earlier this year, the Leafs have gone back and forth with winning and losing streaks.  They currently find themselves in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, right in the midst of the close battle for the last five playoff spaces.  Having taken down the Lightning in a recent outing, the Leafs are proving that they can be a contender in the games that mean the most, and they recently even got some revenge against the Bruins after last year's debacle.

Toronto is always a team who seem to be moving players around, sometimes for no reason at all, so despite their lack of cap space, they will likely make a few moves to try to strengthen various areas of the team.  One area they don’t need to spend too much on is the offense, as Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk seem to be holding up the fort nicely.  Kessel, who currently takes home $5.4 million (up to $8 million next year), was the second star of the NHL for February and sits 4th in the league with 63 points overall and 2nd in the league with 30 goals behind Alex Ovechkin, who has an amazing tally of 40.  The Leafs goaltending duo has also had plenty to do with the success, especially after they finally starting using Jonathan Bernier exclusively.  Toronto certainly has something to prove in the playoffs, and their PP ranking of 3rd in the NHL makes them a dangerous team to find yourself up against.

1 Phoenix Coyotes – Projected Cap Space at Deadline: $12.1 Million 

Phoenix tops this list for several reasons.  First of all, they are hovering around the 8th spot in the Western Conference but they are certainly moving in the opposite direction as compared to the sliding Vancouver Canucks.  Secondly, they have an alarming amount of cap space, and the deadline in March could mean that there are some serious reinforcements heading to Phoenix from teams that need to offload and make changes.  Part of the reason for this huge gap of cap space in Phoenix, is the lack of highly-paid players, with no one on the team making more than $6 million (Mike Smith is the highest paid with $5.6 million per year, while Mike Ribiero and Oliver Ekman-Larsonn both take home $5.5 million).

The top goal scorer and producer this year has been Antoine Vermette, who has 21 goals and 15 assists in his 57 games. Other than that, the team has presented consistency across the board as opposed to any individual player really lighting it up.  This however, can be a good indication of team strength and depth heading into the playoffs, as teams like Toronto have found out how quickly things can go bad when their star players go on a cold streak.  Perhaps the brightest light this year for the Coyotes is their fantastic PP record which has them at 5th in the NHL.  If they can work harder at improving their PK and keep their consistent play going, they could upset some of the big teams in the playoffs this season.

Obviously teams like Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh cannot be ignored in the playoff picture as they go in as favorites, but the teams on this list are the ones which can cause an upset when it matters.  The 2014 playoffs are fast approaching and plenty of teams are making last minute preparations as we enter the final quarter of the regular season.  Will it be one of these underdogs taking home the glory or will the cup end up in the hands of one of the favorites.

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