Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The bandwagon-hopper’s guide to the 2021 playoffs

It’s always a weird time to be an NHL fan when your team misses the postseason, he said, speaking from decades of personal experience. The playoffs are when the most exciting hockey of the year is played, when every moment is high-stakes and every game matters more than any that came before it. If your team is still alive, it’s all-consuming. But if they don’t make it… now what?

You really have two options. The first is to just stay neutral, maybe hope for the worst for a few hated rivals, and otherwise just root for lots of overtime and a few seventh games. But for some, there’s another possibility: a short-term fling with another team, one you’ll temporarily adopt for as long as their run lasts. They won’t really be your team, but if all goes well, they’ll be close enough to get you through the next two months.

Yes, we’re talking about the dreaded bandwagon hop. For some fans, it’s unacceptable, and if that’s you then you can tag out now and check back with my next column later this week, which will have something more your speed.

But if you’re willing to consider finding a bandwagon team for this year’s playoffs, you’ll at least want to make sure you choose wisely. An ideal bandwagon team will be good, because you want them to win it all. But they won’t be too good, because that would make you a shameless front-runner and they’re the worst. In a perfect world, they’ll play an exciting style, preferably with some elite stars, and an intriguing sub-plot or two. Ideally, they’ll have an existing fan base that’s paid their dues and that you’d want to see good things for, or at least one you don’t already hate. And it helps if they’re not going to get swept in round one.

So which of this year’s 16 candidates offers the best bandwagon experience? Let’s figure it out, with my annual attempt to rank the bandwagon potential of each of this year’s playoff teams from worst to best.

16. Tampa Bay Lightning

Why you should get on board: They’re really good, but over the last month of the season, they went from consensus Cup favorites to something a little less, so you wouldn’t just be picking the best possible team. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos should be returning from injury, and a good comeback story is always nice. And while the NHL’s marketing department loves parity more than you’ve every loved anything in your life, there’s something to be said for a mini-dynasty.

Why you shouldn’t: They won the Cup last year, and we almost always rank the reigning champ at 16, because there’s nothing worse than showing up to a party one year after all the cool kids did.

Bottom line: The Lightning are all sorts of fun to watch and to root for. Here’s hoping you did that last year, because this year it’s too late.

15. Washington Capitals

Why you should get on board: When they won in 2018, they had just about the best summer of Cup celebrations we’ve ever seen. If the sequel is even half as good as the original, that’s worth rooting for. Plus you’d get to cheer for Alexander Ovechkin, which is always fun, and for T.J. Oshie, who might be one of the best stories out there these days.

Also, they have Zdeno Chara, meaning if they win the Stanley Cup there’s a good chance we’ll get to hear him go “YAAAY” again.

Why you shouldn’t: Oh, you like the Capitals? Cool, you’re a Tom Wilson fan now. Enjoy spending the next few weeks using low-quality screen caps to yell at random strangers on twitter.

Bottom line: There’s definitely something to work with here, but Wilson combined with a recent Cup, some injuries and a difficult path out of the division make this one a tough sell. And that’s before we mention that a Caps win would be kind of weird for Henrik Lundqvist’s OGWAC status. Pass.

14. Montreal Canadiens

Why you should get on board: They’ll be underdogs, but the North isn’t exactly a murderer’s row, so they’ll have a shot. And the roster is a nice mix of veterans you’ve heard of and kids you’d fall in love with. Honestly, it’s worth considering for the Cole Caufield factor alone.

Also, you’ll probably get to root against the Leafs in the first round, which tends to work out well.

Why you shouldn’t: I mention this every year, but Montreal might be the least bandwagon-friendly market in the league. They’ve got such a large fan base and so much history that there isn’t a ton of room for newcomers, and you’re not going to be able to convincingly fake it. Some years, it’s worth the effort to fit in. Is a year where you’re probably going to go from facing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl really the year to try? Maybe, especially if you’ve got a bit of a contrarian streak, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Bottom line: Hey at least they finished strong, right? (Checks notes.) Yeah, you have better options.

13. St. Louis Blues

Why you should get on board: Their 2019 journey from dead last to the franchise’s first Cup was one of the all-time great bandwagon runs, one that we told you to get on board for. If you did, maybe you’ve got some loyalty here. If you didn’t, maybe this is your chance to make up for your mistake.

Why you shouldn’t: There may not be a team with a tougher path out of their division than the Blues, who’ll have to go through the heavily favored Golden Knights and then face whoever wins the Avalanche/Wild series. For a team that wasn’t all that good for long stretches this year, it feels like you’re just signing yourself up for disappointment.

Bottom line: They’re big underdogs this year but won a Cup recently enough that they can’t really claim any scrappy underdog street cred. For a bandwagon-hopper, it’s the worst of both worlds.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

Why you should get on board: They have Sidney Crosby, and you’re running out of chances to cheer for the biggest star of his generation. They also have Brian Burke, and if you’ve never had the experience of following a team that he’s prominently involved with, you need to treat yourself. And of course, they’re a very good team that’s been hot down the stretch, so there’s a solid chance you’ll be able to root for a Cup winner.

Why you shouldn’t: Oh good, another Cup run for the Penguins, so nice to see this franchise finally get a break. Maybe long-suffering Pens fans can enjoy another championship or two before the hockey gods gift them with yet another generational franchise player in a few years.

Bottom line: You’ll get hammered by other fans for making this pick, but if you can handle that, you’ll at least enjoy the run. Unless they run into a hot goalie.

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