PLAYOFF PRIMER

The way-too-in-depth preview of the NHL playoffs for a city that does not have a team (with some betting angles)

Starting Wednesday, the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup begins Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Perhaps the best postseason in all of sports kicks off Wednesday night when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. There is no shortage of storylines. The Pittsburgh Penguins will going for their third consecutive Stanley Cup, unprecedented in the salary cap era. The Nashville Predators, who fell to the Penguins in the finals last season, are looking for their first Cup and won the Presidents Trophy as the best regular season team. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be pushing for their first Cup in 51 years.

The way the playoffs are set up, we might see the best matchups of the entire postseason in Round 2. Nashville-Winnipeg, Tampa-Boston and Pittsburgh-Washington could all be second round matchups, and all six are legitimate Cup contenders.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know this is limited interest, so you don’t have to read it, but several people asked me to do it. I try to put a gambling spin on it for those seeking action. And for those of you who do love hockey, before you drop your “you didn’t pick my team” bit...I didn’t pick MY team to get out of the first round. Or my second favorite team. The are projections based on a hopefully non-biased approach.

When it comes to winning the Cup, most champs have three things: Strong play and depth at the center position, a strong top two defensive pairings with at least one elite, high minute defensemen, and a goalie who might not necessarily be elite but is capable of playing at an elite level for a long enough stretch to win the Cup. Playoff pedigree is important, too. We will reference these traits throughout.

Regardless, let’s take a look at the first round matchups:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Tampa (No. 1 seed) vs. New Jersey (second wild card)

The breakdown: Early in the season, the Lightning looked unstoppable. They had four forward lines performing at a high level, were strong on defense and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was a shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy as best goalie. But the Lightning struggled down the stretch and the Devils played great, making them a trendy pick.

Players to watch: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa: He scored 100 points with 39 goals, one of just three players in the league to reach the century mark. If he plays at a high level, the Lightning will be tough. Taylor Hall, New Jersey: Hall scored 93 points himself with 39 goals. Only one other player on the team topped 50 points, so he was pretty much a one-man show.

Prediction: The Devils are getting a lot of attention, but the Lightning have too much depth and talent throughout the lineup.

The betting perspective: There is no real value on the Lightning at the series price of -330. But look at the individual game overs.

ATLANTIC

Boston (2) vs. Toronto (3)

The breakdown: The Leafs are one of the most intriguing teams in the league, and could easily make a run, but the Bruins are a tough matchup for Toronto and serious Cup contenders. The Bruins are better on defense, while Toronto has a slight edge at forward. It could be a simple as which goalie -- Boston’s Tukka Rask or Toronto’s Frederik Andersen -- plays the best. Both are capable of playing at an elite level.

Players to watch: Auston Matthews, Leafs: One of the most exciting young players in the game, Matthews produced 63 points in just 62 games. When he is on his game, he is simply dominant. He has lots of scoring help throughout the lineup and is already a star. Brad Marchand, Bruins: One of the best (and most irritating) in the game, Marchand is not afraid to push the envelope. He was amazing when healthy, with 85 points in just 68 games.  

Prediction: The Leafs won the season series 3-1 but the Bruins might be better suited for the grind of a playoff series. At times the Leafs have had issues closing out games and that could come back to haunt them against a good Bruins squad. As much as I would love to pick the Leafs, the Bruins will be tough and will likely do it in 7.

The betting perspective: Both teams are decent prices to win the series, Boston at -145 and the Leafs are +125. Fair prices for both teams, whichever direction you go.

PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Tampa Bay vs. Boston

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Washington (No. 1 seed) vs. Columbus (first wild card)

The breakdown: This one is about playoff demons; the Caps have never gotten past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Jackets have never won a playoff series. They play a tough style that should keep them in games, and if they get elite goaltending, they can upset the Caps, who lost a lot of talent off last year’s team.

Players to watch: Ovechkin, Capitals. Simply the best goal scorer in the game and one of the best of all-time. He was one goal short of yet another 50-goal campaign. Capable of carrying the team. Sergey Bobrovsky, Jackets. The goalie has been healthy the last two seasons and the Jackets have made the playoffs in both. He is capable of stealing games. His numbers were solid, with 37 wins, a 2.42 GAA and a solid .921 save percentage. If he brings his best, the Jackets can win this.

Prediction: Expectations are not as high in Washington this year after they went all in last year. Braden Holtby, their star goalie, struggled down the stretch but backup Phillipp Grubauer has been really good. Washington is much stronger up the middle, and that is a weakness for the Jackets. Could go either way, but this is likely a long series with the Caps pulling it off in seven. Really wanted to pick Columbus here but they seem to be one center away from making a deep run.

The betting perspective: Another with fair series prices for both teams. While I think Washington wins, Columbus at +115 offers better value. Also will lean toward unders in the games at Columbus, over in Washington.

Pittsburgh (2) vs. Philadelphia (3)

The breakdown: The Pens are chasing history, and after struggling early in the season, they got better as the year went on. They did that each of the last two years as well and it ended in titles. Both teams have struggled in goal at times this year, but at least Matt Murray has a pair of Stanley Cups. Big year for Philly with a Super Bowl, an NCAA title and playoff appearances for the Flyers and Sixers. Can the Flyers be next?

Players to watch: Murray, Penguins. He battled injury problems as well as ineffectiveness issues. He was 38th in the league in GAA. His .907 save percentage was 44th. Claude Giroux, Flyers: He had a career year with 102 points and 34 goals. He has been magnificent and if the Flyers are to win, he will have to be at his best.

Prediction: While Murray has not been good, the Flyers goalies have not been much better. Murray does have postseason success, however, and if he pulls it together, the Pens should move on.

The betting perspective: There is no value in the Pens at -225. Lean toward the single game overs until one of the goalies shows he can step up.

PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Washington vs. Pittsburgh

WESTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION

Nashville (1) vs. Colorado (wild card 2)

The breakdown: Nashville might be the most complete team in hockey and there is a reason the Preds won the President’s Trophy. They are made for the playoffs, are well-tested in the postseason and poised to make a deep run. The Avs are a great story and Nathan MacKinnon emerged as a superstar, with 97 points in just 74 games. But the Preds are on another level. Remember, last season they were the lowest seed and went on a remarkable run. Now they are the top dog, have added some key pieces and are favorites to win it all. Remember the elite defenders we taked about? The Preds have perhaps four guys who would be No. 1s on a lot of teams. They don't have that true No. 1 center -- Ryan Johansen is close -- but they have incredible depth at the position. If you are stabbing for potential weaknesses, it is a stretch, but that would be it.

Players to watch: Pekka Rinne, Predators. He posted top five numbers this season and can still carry a team at age 35. But he is capable of occasional struggles. The defense is so good in front of him it might not matter. The only way the Preds lose is if he has a bad stretch. MacKinnon, Avs: One of the best players you have probably never heard of. The 22-year-old always had promise, and he emerged this season and carried his team tean to the postseason. If not for a late injury he would be taking home a lot of postseason hardware.

Prediction: The Avs probably win a game, maybe two. But the Preds are too good and will move on.

The betting perspective: No value in the Preds here at -500. The price to win the Cup is low as well at +375, plus +150 to win the conference. Not really anything worth playing.

Winnipeg (2) vs. Minnesota (3)

The breakdown: The Jets quietly put together an outstanding season. They are loaded with young talent and have huge home-ice edge. What they don’t have is playoff success or experience. The Wild are fun to watch, but Bruce Boudreau’s teams notoriously struggle in the playoffs. This will be his 10th trip to the postseason. He has one trip to the conference finals despite having eight division winners in that time.

Players to watch: Connor Hellebuyck, Jets. On a team that features three 30-goal scorers -- Patrik Laine (40 goals), Nikolaj Ehlers (32) and Kyle Connor (31), plus a 91-point producer in Blake Wheeler, Hellebuyck might be the biggest reason for the Jets turnaround, setting a record for wins by an American born goalie. Devyn Dubnyk, Wild. He did not have a dominant regular season, but Dubnyk at his best can win games on his own. He will have to do that and hope the playoff jitters get to the Jets for the Wild to have a shot.

Prediction: The Wild will be missing stud defenseman Ryan Sutter, and that will be too much to overcome against an explosive Jets team.

The betting perspective: The Jets at 8-1 to win the Stanley Cup? Why not? Bold prediction time -- the winner of Nashville-Winnipeg wins the Stanley Cup.

PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Winnipeg vs. Nashville

PACIFIC DIVISION

Las Vegas (1) vs. Los Angeles (wild card 1)

The breakdown: The Golden Knights are one of the best stories in sports, making it to the playoffs in their first year of existence. The Kings have playoff pedigree and a goalie in Jonathan Quick who can carry a team by himself.

Players to watch: William Karlsson, Vegas: He was simply amazing in his first year with the Knights, with 43 goals. He thrived with the move to the desert, and will be a big factor. Jeff Carter, Kings: He was injured and played just 27 games, but had 22 points in those and the Kings have been a different team since his return.

Prediction: It’s hard not to root for the Knights, but this Kings team knows how to win once it gets to the postseason and will be a tough matchup for the Knights. Should be close, but LA pulls off the upset..

The betting perspective: It’s not much of an upset; the Kings are only +105. But there is good value in that.

Anaheim (2) vs. San Jose (3)

The breakdown: The Sharks quietly overcame some rough patches and still have much of the roster that made it to the Cup two years ago. Anaheim is always solid and got steady goaltending from John Gibson down the stretch to finish strongly.

Players to watch: Joe Thornton, Sharks: He is not expected to play Game 1, but should return from a knee injury at some point. If he does and plays at a high level, the Sharks could win this. Rickard Rickell, Ducks: He emerged as a really good goal scorer this season with 35 to go with 69 points and he will be a big key for the Ducks.

Prediction: The Ducks are the safest pick, but the Sharks are capable of raising their game in the postseason and a lot of these players have been there before. Thornton comes back, makes an impact and the Sharks surprise in 7.

The betting perspective: San Jose at +105 is the play.

PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: LA vs. San Jose

 

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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