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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview

by Noah Cutting

April 20, 2024

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Each year, the fall and spring are among the most packed months of the sports calendar. The NFL, college football, MLB’s postseason, the NBA, March Madness, and other events all take place in the span of about six months. With all of that going on, it would be understandable if you forgot that one of the most exciting tournaments in the sports world is about to take place:

the Stanley Cup playoffs, a grueling tournament to determine the NHL’s champion for the year. This year, the playoffs truly feel more wide open than ever with the top eight teams in the league separated by just seven points in the final standings. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the NHL and are curious about the playoffs or you’re just looking for a refresher before the postseason begins, here is a breakdown of the playoff contenders and my predictions for their playoff run.

Eastern Conference

New York Rangers (Metropolitan #1 Seed)

Behind a career-best season from superstar Artemi Panarin (49 goals, 71 assists) and an excellent defensive system installed by new head coach Peter Laviolette, the Rangers have had their best season in franchise history. Panarin and his linemates Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere have become one of the best lines in hockey and lead an offense that has scored the 6th most goals in the league. Goalie Igor Shesterkin won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender in 2022 and he remains an elite talent. Adam Fox is one of the top defensemen in hockey and provides a big boost offensively as well. New York is full of young talent, including Lafreniere (the #1 overall draft pick in 2020) and defenseman Braden Schneider. It has been a bit of a down season for two other star players, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who will need to step up in the postseason if the Rangers are to fulfill their Stanley Cup dreams. It will be a tough road to the Finals through a brutal Eastern Conference, but the Rangers have everything needed to have a legitimate shot at winning it all.

Team Ceiling: Stanley Cup Champions

Prediction: Lose to Carolina in Eastern Conference 2nd Round

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Florida Panthers (Atlantic #1 Seed)

The Panthers stunned the hockey world in 2023 when they snuck into the playoffs as the last seed in the Eastern Conference and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in 5 games. Florida is back and even better this year, led by their elite offensive trio of Matthew Tkachuk (26 goals, 62 assists), Sam Reinhart (57 goals), and Aleksander Barkov. Sergei Bobrovsky has been one of the top goalies in hockey this season and is among the league leaders in save percentage and goals against average. Star defenseman Aaron Ekblad should be able to return from injury in time for the postseason. The Panthers have been knocking on the door for the last couple of seasons, having the best record in the NHL in 2022 before a playoff disappointment, and losing in the Finals last year. With their deep, talented roster and their hunger to finish the job this year, the Stanley Cup very well could come to the Miami metro area for the first time.

Team Ceiling: Stanley Cup Champions

Prediction: Lose to Carolina in Eastern Conference Finals

Carolina Hurricanes (Metropolitan #2 Seed)

Carolina has been one of the top teams in the league for several years now, but they haven’t yet broken through to the Finals, getting swept twice in the Conference Finals in the last five years. They will look to change that this year after going all-in at the trade deadline by adding former Stanley Cup champions Jake Guentzel and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who bring offensive firepower to a team that largely wins games by playing a suffocating defensive style. Sebastian Aho leads the team with 36 goals and Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns lead the team on the defensive end. Goaltender Frederik Andersen struggles to stay healthy, but is very good when on the ice. If Andersen can’t go, Pyotr Kochetkov is a more-than-capable backup. The Canes are due for a postseason breakthrough and have perhaps the most offensive talent of any team they have had during this run of success, making them top contenders.

Team Ceiling: Stanley Cup Champions

Prediction: Lose to Dallas in Stanley Cup Finals

Boston Bruins (Atlantic #2 Seed)

The Bruins came into the 2023 playoffs with the best record in NHL history before being stunned in a 1st round upset by the Florida Panthers. On top of that, longtime star and captain Patrice Bergeron retired and the team was unable to re-sign other free agents acquired at the 2023 trade deadline. With all of that in mind, expectations were lower for Boston this year, but they have kept on rolling and finished 4th in the East. David Pastrnak leads the offense with 47 goals. Brad Marchand is both a threat to score (29 goals on the year) and to get under your skin (he is nicknamed “the Rat” for his reputation of being a pest on the ice). Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark form one of the best goalie tandems in the league and both have postseason experience. If there’s one knock on Boston, it’s that they haven’t played well in tight games this year, with an astounding 15 losses in overtime. The Bruins probably don’t have enough high-end talent to be a top contender for the Cup, but this is still a team full of veterans who shouldn’t be counted out.

Team Ceiling: Eastern Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Toronto in Eastern Conference 1st Round

Toronto Maple Leafs (Atlantic #3 Seed)

In many ways, the Maple Leafs are the Dallas Cowboys of the NHL. One of the sport’s biggest brands has disappointed time after time in the postseason, especially in the past 20 years. The Leafs finally did break through last year and won a playoff series for the first time since 2004, but didn’t go further. Superstar Auston Matthews is hoping to change that and bring Toronto its first Cup since 1967. Matthews has been the most prolific goal scorer in the NHL this year and scored 69 goals, the most in a season since 1996. The Leafs boast 3 other elite offensive players in William Nylander (40 goals), Mitch Marner (the team assist leader who sets up many of Matthews’ goals), and captain John Tavares. However, those elite offensive players haven’t always shown up in the postseason and that will need to change for Toronto to be serious contenders. Goaltending is Toronto’s biggest concern as Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll are two solid but not elite players who share the net. The Maple Leafs have the talent to go far, but that talent will need to show up when it matters to get through the gauntlet that is the Eastern Conference.

Team Ceiling: Eastern Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Florida in Eastern Conference 2nd Round

New York Islanders (Metropolitan #3 Seed)

The Islanders are another team that got off to a rough start this season, but after firing head coach Lane Lambert at midseason and replacing him with Hall-of-Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, New York has surged into a playoff spot. The Islanders have two very good offensive players in Mathew Barzal, who leads the team with 80 points; and Bo Horvat, the team’s 2nd leading goal scorer with 33. Besides their two offensive stars, the Islanders largely win games on the strength of their defensive play and goaltending. The Russian tandem of Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov are both excellent in goal when they are on their game and Noah Dobson leads the defense. New York will be a pesky opponent thanks to their physical style of play, but they don’t have the offensive talent to go far.

Team Ceiling: Eastern Conference 2nd Round

Prediction: Lose to Carolina in Eastern Conference 1st Round

Tampa Bay Lightning (Wild Card #1)

After three straight trips to the Finals and two titles, Tampa took a step back last year, losing in the 1st round. The team got off to a bit of a slow start this year, but they got hot at the end of the year and look like a serious threat to win it all once more. Nikita Kucherov leads the entire NHL with an absurd 144 points (44 goals, 100 assists) and Brayden Point leads the team with 46 goals. Steven Stamkos has been an elite goal scorer for years and is having another excellent season with 40 goals this year. Winger Anthony Duclair and defenseman Matt Dumba were acquired at the trade deadline and have given the team a big boost. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is having a bit of a down season by his standards, but he has always stepped up his game in the playoffs. The core of the team that led Tampa to back-to-back Stanley Cups is getting older, but there are no signs of decline just yet. There are certainly better teams in the Eastern Conference, but the Lightning’s talent and playoff experience still gives them a shot at a 3rd Cup in 5 years.

Team Ceiling: Eastern Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Florida in Eastern Conference 1st Round

Washington Capitals (Wild Card #2)

The Capitals did just enough to secure the final postseason spot in the East despite having a -37 goal differential on the year, the worst for a playoff team since 1991. Alex Ovechkin is Washington’s best player and is challenging Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record for goals scored in a career. At 38 years old, he has lost a step, but remains a threat to score and is still the team leader in goals. John Carlson is the Caps top defenseman and the team leader in assists. Dylan Strome had a career-best season with 67 points. Tom Wilson, infamous for his physical play and occasionally questionable hits, also can contribute offensively. Charlie Lindgren is Washington’s starter in goal and has played very well down the stretch. The Capitals are an older team and they likely do not have enough offensive talent to match up with the top teams in the East, though their physical style of play will give them a chance to compete. All things considered, a deep run is unlikely.

Team Ceiling: Eastern Conference 2nd Round

Prediction: Lose to NY Rangers in Eastern Conference 1st Round

Western Conference

Dallas Stars (Central #1 Seed)

After losing in the Western Conference Finals last season, Dallas is back and hungry to take the next step and win it all. The Stars are a very balanced offensive team, with ten different players scoring over 40 points. Jason Robertson, a top young player in the league, leads the team with 80 points; and Joe Pavelski continues to produce at a high level in his age 39 season. Miro Heiskanen is a top defenseman in the NHL and leads the power play. Goalie Jake Oettinger burst onto the scene in the 2022 playoffs and nearly led Dallas to a 1st Round upset of top seeded Calgary with an incredible 64-save Game 7 performance. While he has taken a bit of a step back this year, he is still an extremely capable goaltender who can play at a very high level. With a combination of balance throughout the lineup, veteran experience, excellent young players, and rock solid goaltending, it very well could be the Stars year to win their first Cup since 1999.

Team Ceiling: Stanley Cup Champions

Prediction: Win Stanley Cup

Vancouver Canucks (Pacific #1 Seed)

The Canucks are back in the playoffs after a brief four-year drought thanks to a high flying offense led by J.T. Miller (a team-leading 103 points), Quinn Hughes (perhaps the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, 92 points), and Brock Boeser (a team-leading 40 goals). Elias Pettersson is another elite offensive player. The biggest question for the Canucks is the health of Thatcher Demko, their starting goaltender who was the NHL leader in wins before a knee injury sidelined him in March. Demko is expected back for the postseason, but he will need to shake off any rust and find his game quickly. Vancouver has as much talent as anyone, but have shown inconsistency at times this season and they are a team without much playoff experience. Those factors will likely keep them from a deep run this year.

Team Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Edmonton in Western Conference 2nd Round

Winnipeg Jets (Central #2 Seed)

The Jets may depend on their goaltender more than any other team in the playoffs with Connor Hellebuyck as the favorite to win his 2nd Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie. Winnipeg has other All-Star level players, too, including center and team points leader Mark Scheifele, and star wings Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor. Defenseman Josh Morrissey is an offensive threat (69 points on the year) and a punishing defender who isn’t afraid to lay big hits. The Jets are coming on strong at the right time, shutting out fellow Western Conference contenders Dallas and Colorado in April. Winnipeg’s home arena is one of the loudest in the league and the team has one of the best playoff traditions that there is, having all fans wear white for a “whiteout” for home games, making it a tough place for visitors to come into and win. The road will be tough for the Jets, but it has been proven again and again that elite goaltending can take you a long way in the playoffs and Winnipeg has the best that there is in Hellebuyck. If the offensive players show up, there’s no reason that the Jets can’t be the ones to bring Canada its first Cup since 1993.

Team Ceiling: Stanley Cup Finals

Prediction: Lose to Dallas in Western Conference 2nd Round

Colorado Avalanche (Central #3 Seed)

The Avalanche begin their quest for a second Stanley Cup in three years after a disappointing 1st round exit in 2023. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the most dynamic playmakers in hockey and could very well be the MVP of the NHL this season after breaking the Colorado franchise record for points in a season with 140. Cale Makar is a top-3 defenseman in hockey and provides a huge boost offensively and defensively. Mikko Rantanen is another 100-point scorer and an imposing physical presence. Colorado also boasts several very good depth players, including Artturi Lehknonen and Ross Colton. Colorado is loaded with offensive talent, but they have been shaky to end the year (just 4 wins in the last 10 games) and they will go as far as their goaltending will take them. Starter Alexandar Georgiev leads the league in wins this year, but is prone to shaky stretches at times and his .897 save percentage is the 2nd lowest of any playoff team’s starter. 

Team Ceiling: Stanley Cup Champions

Prediction: Lose to Winnipeg in Western Conference 1st Round

Edmonton Oilers (Pacific #2 Seed)

Many had Edmonton as strong title contenders before the season started, but the team got off to a disastrous 3-9-1 start before firing head coach Jay Woodcroft. Woodcroft’s replacement, Kris Knoblauch, has righted the ship in a major way and the team has gone 46-18-5 since his hiring, including a league-best 16 game winning streak. Superstars Connor McDavid (3rd in the NHL with 132 points) and Leon Draisaitl (41 goals, 65 assists) drive the offense and lead one of the most lethal power plays in the NHL. Zach Hyman has had a career year with a team-leading 54 goals. Evan Bouchard and Matias Ekholm lead the defense. The Oilers have a deadly offense, but a lack of defensive depth and a goaltending tandem of Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard that can be shaky at times could derail their postseason. Despite that, McDavid and Draisaitl dragged Edmonton to the Western Conference Finals in 2022 and the two of them are good enough to do it again. If the goaltending holds up and Hyman continues to score at his regular season rate, that could be enough to take Edmonton on a deep run.

Team Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Dallas in Western Conference Finals

Los Angeles Kings (Pacific #3 Seed)

The Kings are making their third straight appearance in the postseason, but they haven’t won a series since their 2014 championship run. This is a team with no real star, but a solid all-around roster makes L.A. competitive in almost any game. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty were cornerstones of two title runs in the early 2010s and while both are past their prime, they remain very solid players. Quinton Byfield is a talented young player who has had a breakout year with 55 points. Adrian Kempe and Kevin Fiala are the team’s top two scorers with a respective 75 and 73 points. Veteran goalie Cam Talbot has had one of the best seasons of his career, with the sixth-lowest goals against average in the NHL. The Kings don’t have the offensive talent that many other teams have, but they play excellent defense and have given up the third-fewest goals in the league, so they will be a difficult opponent. However, their lack of offensive skill compared to other teams in the West likely will keep them from making it very far.

Team Ceiling: Western Conference 2nd Round

Prediction: Lose to Edmonton in Western Conference 1st Round

Nashville Predators (Wild Card #1)

It wasn’t looking good for Nashville to make the playoffs in mid-February, but the team caught fire at the right time to propel themselves into playoff position, going on a 16-0-2 run. Filip Forsberg has been the team’s best offensive player for several years now, and this year is no different as he is 6th in the NHL with 48 goals. Captain Roman Josi is one of the top defensemen in hockey and his lethal slapshot makes him an offensive threat as well. Ryan O’Reilly and Ryan McDonagh provide veteran leadership and a lot of playoff experience with both of them being Stanley Cup champs in the past. Juuse Saros is a very good goaltender and has been named an All-Star in two of the last three years. Most likely, a lot will have to go right for the Preds to win more than a round in the postseason, but the team is playing well at the end of the year. If they can carry that momentum into the playoffs, they could surprise.

Team Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Vancouver in Western Conference 1st Round

Vegas Golden Knights (Wild Card #2)

The defending Stanley Cup champions have had a bit of a down year, putting them as the last seed in the West. However, they return much of their Cup-winning team and are a team that no one wants to deal with. The Knights added All-Star Tomas Hertl and excellent defenseman Noah Hanifin at the trade deadline. Jonathan Marchessault was the playoff MVP last year and has had another great season this year with a team-leading 42 goals. Jack Eichel has missed some time with injuries but is a dangerous offensive threat, with 68 points in 63 games. Captain Mark Stone should return from injury for the postseason and is very good at both offense and defense. Logan Thompson is a very capable goaltender, but if he falters, backup Adin Hill started for Vegas in the Finals last year. This Vegas team has had its struggles at times this season, but with the talent on the roster, they remain a threat to defend their title.

Team Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Prediction: Lose to Dallas in Western Conference 1st Round

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