The Stanley Cup playoff bandwagon guide to all the NHL teams you could root for

The playoffs are almost here, and while we’re still waiting on a couple of matchups, we know the 16 teams. If you root for one of them, you’re not reading this because you’re curled up in a little ball, twitching and sweating and trying not to puke. Playoffs, baby!

That leaves the rest of you, the fans of the 16 teams that spent the season being big losers strategically retooling for a brighter future. You’ve got to figure out who to root for over the coming weeks and months. You could skip that part entirely, of course, and just enjoy the playoffs as a neutral observer. You could hate-watch your team’s rivals. Or you could pick and choose, dropping in and out of whichever series looks good and cheering on whoever feels like the right choice in the moment.

Those are all valid options. But there’s another, and it’s a somewhat controversial one: You could pick a bandwagon team to ride with all spring. It’s good practice for the real thing, after all, giving you a taste of the ups and downs of following one team for as long as it can last. And when your team gets knocked out, you can feel bad for 10 minutes before shrugging and moving on to someone else.

If you’re considering a bandwagon team, I’ve got you covered. Here’s my annual look at all 16 playoff teams, ranked from the worst bandwagon options to the very best.

Why you should get on board: You’re a contrarian.

Why you shouldn’t: I’ve been doing these lists long enough that “Don’t root for the defending champs” has almost become a trope. It’s classic front-running, after all, and the rarity of repeat champions in the cap era suggests that it’s also usually futile. So yeah, in general, don’t root for the defending champ.

But these particular champs? Come on. Everyone hates the Golden Knights, the too-much-too-soon expansion team that won’t stop trading for All-Stars and skipped to the front of the line, partly by cheating the salary cap.

Bottom line: The Knights were always a fun pick for a specific type of bandwagon fan back when they were the new guys still trying to defy tradition and buck the odds. But now that they’ve won, this may be the easiest ranking in the history of this column.

Why you should get on board: It’s always fun to pick a wild card that goes on a run, and the Lightning look like a reasonable bet to do just that. And the narrative of the former champs trying to get back to the top of the mountain one more time before it all crumbles is one you could get behind.

Why you shouldn’t: Really, what’s the best-case scenario here? The Lightning pull off an upset or two, maybe even go all the way to the final, and … congratulations, you’re bandwagoning a team that’s already been there three times in four years. It’s all the risk of picking a wild-card team, without any of the fun underdog vibes.

Bottom line: There’s also the Nikita Kucherov factor, which will help or hurt depending on how much you like the idea of an MVP-level wizard who can also come across as kind of a jerk sometimes.

Why you should get on board: They’re a potential underdog, one that everyone seems to be forgetting about but that’s been building to this for years now. It’s not unheard of for teams like the Kings to emerge as contenders, and when they do everyone else is usually just a bit too late to figure out what they’re watching. You could be the one who already had their seat on the bandwagon.

Why you shouldn’t: The Kings peaked early, got some attention and then faded in the second half before finishing strong, so they fit the profile of a team that probably deserves more respect than they’re getting. But that doesn’t mean they’re not underdogs, and riding with them in a first-round matchup against a high-flying team in Dallas or Edmonton may not be your idea of fun.

Bottom line: Speaking of not all that fun, there’s also this whole thing. The Kings are going to rank high on this list some year soon, but that year is not this one.

Why you should get on board: One of the longest-suffering fan bases in the league is back in the playoffs yet again, this time with a crazy new coach to go with their crusty old GM. Nobody is picking them to win anything and their fans know it, so if you like a good “us against the world” story then you may have found your temporary home.

Why you shouldn’t: We won’t break out the dreaded “b” word, but we will point out that no playoff team other than Washington scores less than the Islanders, and their ticket to a long run probably involves riding their goaltending to a bunch of low-scoring wins. Choosing this team to bandwagon would feel just a little like having a cheat day on your diet and choosing to spend it at the salad bar.

Bottom line: If they beat the Hurricanes and go on to play the Rangers in Round 2, you have to get a Denis Potvin jersey. Just keep that in mind.

Why you should get on board: They’re a very good team with plenty of star players, including the likely MVP. And after last year’s first-round disaster against the Kraken, they should be motivated.

Why you shouldn’t: Shaky goaltending has led to a tough final stretch, meaning they’ll start the playoffs on the road against a very good Jets team in a series that’s basically a coin flip. And since they won it all in 2022, you don’t even get any underdog points for picking them.

Bottom line: For sheer fun factor, this roster is pretty stacked. But it’s a bit of a front-runner pick combined with a tough first matchup.

Why you should get on board: They were the top pick for the 2022 list, and an awful lot of what we said back then still holds. They’re a fun team, they’ve never won a Cup, and their fans have had to deal with endless negativity over the last few decades. Heck, they’d probably even welcome some bandwagon love. Oh, and they’re really good, having followed up a 2022 Presidents’ Trophy with a run to last year’s final.

Why you shouldn’t: A few weeks ago I tried to sell you on the Panthers as the NHL’s new team you love to hate, with mixed success. But yeah, between Matthew Tkachuk, Nick Cousins, Sam Bennett and others, you’re going to see them do something nasty over the next few weeks that you’ll have to pretend to defend.

Bottom line: They’re also playing the Lightning, the big brother that’s been kicking sand in their face for years. These guys can’t even villain correctly.

10. New York Rangers

Why you should get on board: They’re the best team in the league, at least according to their regular season record, and a roster stacked with talent appears to agree. But with only one Stanley Cup to show for the last 84 years, you’re hardly chasing after recent success here. If you’re looking for a bandwagon, you could do a lot worse than a big market with a great goalie and lots of star power that will get a ton of coverage.

Why you shouldn’t: The Rangers have been a fascinating team to watch this year, with at least some statistical evidence showing that they may not be as good as their record suggests they are, especially at the even strength that makes up most of how crucial playoff games are played. Then again, we’ve been having that argument for years, and they just keep winning.

Bottom line: Hey, do you feel like the first-place team in the league’s biggest U.S. market still somehow doesn’t get enough attention? Guess what: You do now, so don’t think too hard about it.

Why you should get on board: We say it every year, but it remains true — if you can get past the fact that it’s the Leafs, you’ve got a good team with lots of exciting offensive players, trying to snap a historic drought for one of the sports world’s most loyal fan bases. Remember how much fun it was when the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series? It would be kind of like that.

Why you shouldn’t: You can’t get past the fact that it’s the Leafs. (Or you can, but you don’t see a path out of the Atlantic for a team with shaky goaltending and a history of postseason failure, which works too.)

Bottom line: There are three types of hockey fans: Insufferable Leafs fans, insufferable fans of other teams whose brains have been broken by the Leafs and fans who can’t understand what the big deal is. Only that third group is eligible here, but if that’s you, there are worse choices. But also better ones.

Why you should get on board: They’re arguably the league’s best second-half story, somehow turning a canceled team outing to a concert into a playoff push that just never stopped. They’ll be underdogs in every series, but have one of the league’s best goalies so they’ll always have a puncher’s chance. They hired a GM with no front-office experience and let him make a bunch of weird moves, and I think we can all agree this copycat league would be more fun if other teams had to follow that strategy.

And remember, they made their only final appearance in 2017 as a wild-card team, so there’s a recent-ish precedent here.

Why you shouldn’t: The U2 thing is cool now, but check back in the conference final if the Predators are still around and you’re hearing about it for the 400th time.

Bottom line: For the record, if you choose the Predators and they make the final, you pretty much have to take a roadie to Nashville.

Why you should get on board: They’re an excellent team that’s a year removed from a record-breaking season and didn’t take much of a step back this year despite losing their beloved franchise player to retirement. Since last year ended with a shocking first-round loss, they still have plenty to prove and don’t feel like an obvious front-runner pick. And while they’re an Original Six team with all the over-the-top pomp and circumstance that involves, they’ve won one Cup since 1972.

Also, David Pastrnak wears weird clothes to the game sometimes, if that’s your thing.

Why you shouldn’t: Brad Marchand. The Jack Edwards farewell tour, which his fans will love but your mileage may vary. Pat Maroon hogging all the Stanley Cups and never letting anyone else have a turn.

Bottom line: Look, I’m a bitter old man with a heart of stone, and even I love the goalie hugs. With Linus Ullmark probably getting traded in the summer, wouldn’t you love to see one last hug as the Cup is being passed around?

(Check back after the first few games of the Leafs series for my column on why goalie hugs should be banned.)

6. Washington Capitals

Why you should get on board: You like underdogs? You don’t get a bigger underdog than this, at least in the parity era. The Capitals were supposed to be rebuilding, with just about nobody picking them as a playoff team heading into the season, or even heading into April. You only bothered to learn their goalie’s name two weeks ago. They earned the last wild-card spot on their season’s final night, despite losing more games than they won and posting the worst goals differential on any postseason team since 1991. Their reward for all that will be a matchup with the Rangers, in a series nobody will think they can win. MoneyPuck has them with 0 percent Cup odds, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. If you believe in no guts no glory, this is your team. Do it. Do it!

Why you shouldn’t: They’re not good.

Bottom line: Oh settle down, Capitals fans, you know it’s true. And it doesn’t matter because all the regular season is for is getting in. They’re in. Now anything can happen, and that’s the beauty of it. DO IT!

(You can pick a new team when they’re out by next weekend, it’s fine.)

Why you should get on board: They were my top pick last year, and not much has changed since. If anything, the Zach Hyman story might make them even more likable. Other than that, go back and read last year’s piece, all the arguments pretty much still apply.

Why you shouldn’t: They added Corey Perry to a team that already includes Evander Kane, so they’re clearly in “anything goes as long as we win” mode. That’s not necessarily a bad place to be if you’re a die-hard fan, but it might give bandwagoners some pause.

Bottom line: You deserve a little bit of cheering for Connor McDavid instead of being terrified of him, as a treat.

Why you should get on board: They’ve spent all year as one of the best teams in the league, but nobody outside of Vancouver seems to actually think they’re good, meaning you get the rare opportunity to bandwagon a top contender while also playing the “nobody believes in us” card. Beyond that, the Canucks are just a flat-out fun team, with all sorts of firepower and some interesting characters. And at 54 years and counting without a Cup, it’s fair to say they’re due.

Why you shouldn’t: Canucks fans have been waiting forever for a Cup, and they’ve been through some legitimate heartbreak along the way, so if they ever do get there, they may not take kindly to any bandwagon fans trying to crowd in on their glory. That’s reasonable, and part of being a good bandwagon fan is knowing your place, but keep it in mind.

Bottom line: Wait, 54 years without a Cup? Didn’t some other team have a famous drought like that, one that ended against … the Canucks? That team could even be the favorite to be waiting for the Canucks in the final. This feels like fate lining up, right? Oh man, I think I just spoiled this year’s playoffs, sorry everyone …

3. Carolina Hurricanes

Why you should get on board: Because the top of these rankings is really Western Conference heavy, and let’s be honest, nobody really wants to stay up that late.

Oh, and also the Hurricanes are a very good team, quite possibly the best in the conference. They have fun players, are well-coached and have a forward-thinking front office. They also have one of the best Old Guy Without A Cup stories of the year in Brent Burns, and an inspiring comeback from Frederik Andersen.

Why you shouldn’t: At some point, Rod Brind’Amour is going to say something that’s going to make you feel bad about your workout habits.

Bottom line: Also, a Hurricanes championship would make Montreal fans mad, which is a plus.

2. Winnipeg Jets

Why you should get on board: One year ago, we all figured they were done for, an inevitable rebuild starting years too late. Today, they’re finishing off a fantastic season, they have the presumptive Vezina winner in net, they were aggressive at the deadline and their coach is the ultimate OGWAC. And they’re doing it all in front of one of the best fan bases in the league, one that has a super-cool playoff tradition but has never seen their Jets get past the third round, and oh yeah, had no team at all for 16 long years.

Also, and Jets fans might not like me mentioning this but it has to be said: All your favorite players have the Jets on their no-trade list. That means that the Jets are building a contender with one hand tied behind their back. A deep run would be extra impressive under those circumstances, and it might also change a few minds.

Why you shouldn’t: They probably have to go through Colorado and Dallas to get out of the Central, which is quite possibly the ugliest playoff path that any team in the league is facing. There’s a very good chance this ends both badly and quickly.

Bottom line: Oh, and the franchise itself is in danger. But don’t let that guilt you into anything, go ahead and cheer for them to lose their team again, it’s not like it makes you a bad person.

1. Dallas Stars

Why you should get on board: They’re an incredibly skilled and entertaining team, they have a very good shot at winning the Stanley Cup, they haven’t won this century so it’s not quite a front-runner pick, and Joe Pavelski may be the single best OGWAC story in the league. Mix in alternate-OGWAC Ryan Suter, plus Matt Duchene’s comeback season, plus Mason Marchment trying to win the Cup that eluded his late father, plus not one but two fun rookie stories, and the Stars are just about the perfect bandwagon pick.

Why you shouldn’t: They’ve been known to cheat to win the Stanley Cup, or so it has been explained to me. Also, they were my pick to win both in October and earlier this week, so if they do then I’ll be even more insufferable than usual.

Bottom line: The Stars have so much going for them that it’s almost annoying, which I suppose could also be a reason to turn on them. But there’s no reason to overthink this one — in a league with a handful of very solid options, the Stars are the best of the bunch.

(Photo of Mark Stone and Connor McDavid: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)