Stanley Cup playoffs 2024 guide: Key players, teams, storylines

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Sunday, April 21, 2024

As a service to fans who have a general interest in the National Hockey League but have no idea what's happened since the Vegas Golden Knights raised the Stanley Cup by defeating the Florida Panthers in June 2023, we're happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs.

And for you die-hard puckheads: Here is your official refresher before the games begin Saturday. Enjoy!

How intense was the end of the regular season in the Eastern Conference?

It was "four teams, one open playoff spot" intense, filled with desperation and unfortunate amounts of math.

In the end, the Washington Capitals claimed the final wild-card spot in the East in their season finale by defeating the Philadelphia Flyers, who pulled their goalie in a tie game in the third period because only a regulation win would have kept them alive.

The Caps' win eliminated the Flyers, the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, marking the first time Sidney Crosby has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in his legendary career.

For the effort, the Capitals earn a first-round playoff date with the New York Rangers, owners of the NHL's best record this season.

On the 30th anniversary of their 1994 Stanley Cup win, is this finally the year for the Rangers?

After getting eliminated in the first round last postseason in Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils, changes had to be made for the Rangers. They changed their coach, hiring the well-traveled Peter Laviolette to replace Gerard Gallant, who has proved to be an upgrade.

Star forward Artemi Panarin changed his hair, shaving his angelic locks as a symbolic vibe change that resulted in him setting career highs in goals (49) and points (120). What didn't change: terrific special teams and dominant goaltending, the bedrock for the Rangers' 114-point season.

There have been little memorable moments along the way that point to this year being a special one for the Rangers, from their Stadium Series rally against the Islanders to the legend of Matt Rempe.

Rempe, for the uninitiated, is the 6-foot-7 rookie whose chaotic fights made him an instant cult hero for Rangers fans, the likes we haven't seen since the heyday of Sean Avery. The hard-hitting Rempe, who was suspended four games for elbowing in March, has 71 penalty minutes and 95 minutes played. Only Laviolette knows how much we'll see of Rempe in the playoffs. If we do, he could be a conversation changer.

So yes, this could be the year for the Rangers ... if they overcome the Presidents' Trophy curse.

What's the Presidents' Trophy curse?

There have been 37 previous Presidents' Trophy winners for having the league's best record. Only 11 of them advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, and only eight of those teams hoisted the Cup.

Only three teams in the salary cap era (since 2005-06) have won the Presidents' Trophy and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

It's only gotten tougher in recent years. Since the NHL changed to a wild-card format in 2013-14, there hasn't been a single Presidents' Trophy winner that has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Boston Bruins won the Trophy last season -- and set records for regular-season success -- but were shocked in the first round by the Panthers.

Are the Bruins still a Stanley Cup contender?

That stunning loss to the Panthers was devastating on and off the ice. The Bruins said goodbye to centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who both retired, as well as a handful of other impact players in the offseason.

But Boston refused to let its window to contend slam shut. Using a foundation of coach Jim Montgomery's defensive system, strong goaltending and star winger David Pastrnak's 47-goal, 110-point season, the B's amassed 109 points to finish second in the Atlantic and earn a first-round series against their old friends, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Uh-oh, the Leafs drew the Bruins again? Should Toronto stop planning the parade?

The Leafs have had their typical roller-coaster season. The highs were extremely high. Star center Auston Matthews just missed out on the first 70-goal season in the NHL since 1992-93, topping out at 69 goals in 81 games, the most in a single season in Leafs history. William Nylander set a career high with 97 points. But inconsistency, especially in their goaltending, made for some inglorious lows.

And now they draw the Bruins again, a team that has eliminated the Leafs in a first-round Game 7 three times in the last 11 postseasons, in series that all offered their unique flavors of heartbreak for Toronto fans.

This is going to go one of two ways: Toronto sees the Spoked-B, gets in their own heads and loses another heartbreaker; or, the Leafs finally overcome their tormentors in a cathartic series win that launches them into a championship run. Either way, the Leafs have only themselves to blame: Their loss to the Panthers allowed the Cats to leapfrog the Bruins in their final game of the season, setting up more Boston vs. Toronto drama.

Of course, the Panthers earned some drama of their own by setting up the next Battle of Florida.

What can we expect from the Battle of Florida?

This series features two of the best individual performers of the regular season. Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading points earner in the NHL, and he became only the seventh player in NHL history to have a point on at least 50% of his team's goals. Not bad for a guy who was booed for dogging it at the All-Star Game. The Panthers, meanwhile, got a career-high 57 goals from forward Sam Reinhart, who is a free agent this summer. Good timing, sir.

This is the third Battle of Florida in Stanley Cup playoffs history, with the Lightning winning in six games in 2021 and a sweep in 2022. But these teams are in different places now.

  • The Panthers are ascendant after having lost in the Final last season, as playoff hero Matthew Tkachuk and one of the best defensive teams in the league seek the first championship in franchise history.
  • The Lightning are the East's first wild-card team. Their veteran core -- Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy -- is trying to win a third Cup in five seasons.

For added drama: Stamkos is a free agent this summer, and there's a non-zero chance this could be the captain's final postseason with the Lightning.

Are the Panthers the favorite to come out of the East?

Actually, the current favorite to win the conference and the Stanley Cup on ESPN BET is the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Canes are a balanced offensive and defensive team that has been inching toward a championship for the past few seasons under coach Rod Brind'Amour. They bolstered their chances with a pair of significant trade deadline acquisitions: Penguins winger Jake Guentzel and Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Both of them are accomplished scorers in the playoffs, and could be the ones to push the Hurricanes over the hump. The hump in this case being all of those one-goal games Carolina loses, including four in the conference final last season.

Carolina faces the New York Islanders in the first round, having beaten the Isles in six games last season. But there's one huge difference between those Islanders and these Islanders: Patrick Roy, the fiery Hall of Fame goalie who took over as coach and led the Islanders to No. 3 in the Metro Division. Yes, their 16 losses after regulation were the most for a playoff team in the shootout era. But in the past three weeks, no team had a better points percentage than the Isles (.864). They're peaking at the right time.

Besides Guentzel, who are the other old faces in new places that could impact the playoffs?

In the East, the Panthers added winger Vladimir Tarasenko. But the Western Conference was the real arms race at the NHL trade deadline.

Are the Knights engaging in salary cap gymnastics?

Those accusations were unavoidable after the Knights said captain Mark Stone had been cleared for practice just over a week before the playoffs were set to open. Stone suffered a lacerated spleen on Feb. 20, which allowed them to place his $9.5 million salary cap hit on long-term injured reserve ahead of the March 8 trade deadline.

Last season, Stone had back surgery on Jan. 1 and went on long-term injured reserve, allowing the Knights the cap flexibility to add forward Ivan Barbashev (among others) at the trade deadline. Stone didn't play in Game 82, when his return would have risked Vegas's cap compliance, but played in Game 1 of their first-round series against Winnipeg. Stone had 24 points in 22 games to help Vegas win its first Stanley Cup.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon pushed back on any notion that the Golden Knights were working the system, telling Sportsnet that LTIR was "collectively bargained," and called out those who "insinuate" the injuries aren't significant.

"Google 'lacerated spleen' and see if you can tell when a player is going to be back," he said. "It's ridiculous to suggest that these aren't significant injuries. And furthermore, the NHL polices all of this."

From the Knights' success on the ice to their bludgeoning play to their aggressive player acquisitions and the "how do they keep getting away with it?" accusations that accompany them, no team in the NHL is as delightfully divisive as the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Who is the favorite in the West?

The Dallas Stars are favored to win the conference, just slightly ahead of the Edmonton Oilers, and for good reason. If you closed your eyes and were asked to draw a championship roster, it would probably look something like the Stars.

They have one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL, with a balance of savvy veterans (Joe Pavelski, Matt Duchene, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin) combined with in-their-prime standouts (Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz) and impactful young players (Wyatt Johnston). They have an elite defenseman in Miro Heiskanen. While he wasn't up to standards during much of the season, they have a star goalie in Jake Oettinger who is playing his best hockey at the right time.

The Stars were the runners-up in the West last season to Vegas. GM Jim Nill has constructed a roster that's as Cup-ready as you'll find. Now it's up to coach Pete DeBoer and the players to lift it.

To do so, they'll have to overcome the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the playoffs, the team that eliminated them in the conference final last season after a particularly brutal series.

Can Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl finally lift their Cup?

Yes, and it would be a fitting capper for a wild season in Edmonton.

The Oilers fired coach Jay Woodcroft after winning just three times in their first 13 games in favor of Rangers minor league coach Kris Knoblauch, who (probably not) coincidentally coached McDavid back in juniors. Knoblauch went a stellar 46-17-5, thanks in no small part to McDavid recapturing the magic after his own slow start and finishing with 132 points in 76 games. Draisaitl had 106 points, but the bigger offensive star was 31-year-old winger Zach Hyman, who tallied a career-best 54 goals.

As usual, the Oilers' success isn't what Connor and Leon (and Zach) do, but what their supporting cast does. They're third in 5-on-5 average scoring and eighth in 5-on-5 average defense. Replicate those results and the Oilers could go on a run ... if goaltender Stuart Skinner can hold up his end of bargain, which seems to be a running theme during the McDavid years.

The Oilers draw the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, marking the third straight season these two teams will face off in the first round. The Oilers won their first meeting in seven games and last postseason's meeting in six games. The Kings fired head coach Todd McLellan in favor of Jim Hiller at the All-Star break. Hiller's gone 20-12-1 since then, seeking to lead L.A. vets like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty on the Cup run they've been salivating to have for several seasons.

The Oilers didn't even win their division, finishing behind the Vancouver Canucks. How legit are the 'Nucks as a contender?

If they can reclaim their offensive consistency, they can be dangerous. Coach Rick Tocchet is in the coach of the year conversation because he helped turned the Canucks' defensive metrics around this season. Through their past 20 games, they're second in 5-on-5 defense, maintaining the effectiveness they had all season. But their 5-on-5 offense ranked 22nd during that span.

The Canucks have been as top-heavy as a Tootsie Pop this season. After leading scorers J.T. Miller (103 points), Quinn Hughes (91), Elias Pettersson (89) and Brock Boeser (73), there's a 25-point drop to the next-leading scorer,Filip Hronek.

That depth challenge might hurt them more against other opponents than against the Predators, but Nashville is no pushover. They're talented and play with pace under coach Andrew Brunette. Plus, they're one of the NHL's greatest psychological experiments this season: Can depriving a team from seeing a U2 concert at The Sphere in Las Vegas not only lead to regular-season success but also postseason results?

What does U2 have to do with Nashville?

Besides Bono's cowboy hat phase, not a lot -- except for what happened this season.

The Predators were flailing and called out by their coach for a lack of focus. To get their attention again, Brunette cancelled a planned trip to see U2 at The Sphere while Nashville was on a road trip.

The team responded by going 18 games without a regulation loss, a streak that elevated them to a playoff seed they'd never relinquish. (And if they win the Cup, they have to get U2 to play the victory parade down Broadway, right?)

Speaking of elevation: What's up with Colorado?

The Avalanche are seeking their second Stanley Cup in three seasons, and redemption after losing in the first round of last year's playoffs to the Seattle Kraken. But they've earned a tough draw in the opening round in the Winnipeg Jets. To put this in hyperbolic wrestling announcer terms, it's the irresistible force vs. the immovable object.

The Avalanche finished near the top of the NHL in goals per game. The Jets finished near the top of the NHL in preventing goals. Colorado has Nathan MacKinnon, the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP after establishing new career highs in goals (51) and points (138) this season. Winnipeg has Connor Hellebuyck, the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender and someone who might get his share of MVP support, as well.

It's fire vs. water. It's green light vs. red light. It could be the best opening-round series of the playoffs.

You've mentioned more than a few players hitting career highs statistically. What's up with that?

Frankly, it's a great time to be a star offensive player in the NHL. The goals per team per game dropped slightly this season from last season, but those averages remain the highest we've had since the mid-1990s. There are a lot of factors behind this, from the dilution of talent due to expansion, to rule changes that necessitated teams rethinking their roster constructions, to power plays being more efficient than they've been since the late 1980s.

But in the end, it's the players. The NHL has never have a greater assemblage of world-class talent than right now.

There's Auston Matthews flirting with 70 goals. There were 17 players scoring 40 or more goals; just 10 seasons ago, we had three. There's both McDavid and Nikita Kucherov tallying 100 assists in a single season, joining Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr as the only players in NHL history to do so.

Hockey fans used to dream about a time when the name on the back could be as much a draw as the logo on the front, and we're now living that dream.

So who wins the Cup?

Um ... uh ... sorry, we're too busy sketching out potential logos for the new NHL team in Utah now that this incarnation of the Arizona Coyotes just relocated. What about Blizzard? Instant rivalry with the Avalanche. The kids can call them "The Blizzy" for short.

While we can't tell you who wins the Cup, we can say there are a handful of teams seeking their first one ever: the Panthers, Canucks, Jets and Predators. Seeing one of those droughts end would be fun. Of course, there's another drought in Toronto dating back to 1967 that would be fun to see end, too.

Well, fun for Toronto. Maybe not so much the rest of Canada, we imagine.

Enjoy the Stanley Cup playoffs, everyone -- the best postseason in sports.

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