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7 wonders of Craig: Stanley Cup playoffs edition

Craig Morgan Avatar
April 17, 2023

A Stanley Cup playoffs song.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be much goal-horn blowing
Red lights will be glowing
The playoffs are here
It’s the most wonderful time of the year

I like the MLB playoffs and the later rounds of the NBA playoffs. I really like the NFL playoffs, but I love the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s a war of attrition. A parity-riddled game of chance and bounces. A Romanesque test of players’ will to overcome pain and injury in pursuit of professional sports’ most beautiful and history-rich trophy.

We previewed the Western Conference playoffs on Monday with Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek.

We previewed the Eastern Conference playoffs with ESPN’s Ryan Clark on Sunday; a gauntlet of eight terrific teams that Marek previously labeled “The Eastern Octagon.”

All of the analysis is in place. Most of the lineups have been set (except in Boston) and all of the predictions have been made. But before the Stanley Cup playoffs commence this evening in a nonstop, heart-pounding race to the finish, here are seven things I wonder.

Can the Bruins complete the greatest season in NHL history?

The Boston Bruins were a wire-to-wire act this season, amassing an NHL-record 135 points in the regular season with depth, balanced scoring, elite defense, elite penalty killing and elite goaltending.  It won’t mean a thing if they don’t get those rings.

It would be unfair to call Boston’s season a failure if they fall in the Eastern Conference Final or Cup Final. Injuries, hot goalies, matchups and so many other factors determine playoff success. But if this team doesn’t make a deep run this will be remembered as one of the greatest choke jobs in the game’s annals.

On the flip side, if the Bruins win the Cup, we might just label this the greatest single season in NHL history.

Connor McDavid will be a force in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid is still searching for his first Cup Final appearance. (Getty Images)

Will Connor McDavid finally play for a Stanley Cup?

The game’s greatest active player just completed his eighth regular season. He has yet to sniff the Stanley Cup Final. The Oilers missed the playoffs in three of his first four seasons, they fell in the first round twice and the second round once before finally reaching the Western Conference Final last season, where Colorado promptly swept them away.

Wayne Gretzky made the Stanley Cup Final in his fourth NHL season and won it for the first time in his fifth. Mario Lemieux won his first Cup after his seventh season. Gordie Howe made his first Cup Final after his second season and won his first Cup after his fourth season. Bobby Orr won his first Cup after his fourth season.

Look through the list of the game’s greatest players and you’ll find that none of them had to wait this long to even play in the playoffs’ final series. This is not to suggest that McDavid is failing by any stretch. It’s more a reflection of the growth of the game to include far more teams, and the pervasive parity that makes it much harder to build and sustain a Cup-caliber team.

McDavid just completed the 15th most productive season in NHL history with 153 points. The only guys to finish with more than that are Greztky (10 times), Lemieux (three times) and Steve Yzerman. McDavid has done everything he can to lift this team on his back but deficient rosters have held him back in the past. This may be McDavid’s best chance.

The Oilers roster is deeper than it has ever been since his arrival, teammates Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins both topped 100 points and Stuart Skinner has solidified the Oilers in goal. The West is nowhere near as strong as past seasons, and that includes the depleted defending Cup champion Avalanche. It’s time to watch the game’s greatest player compete for a Cup. It would be good for the sport.

Will the Rangers-Devils be the best Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series?

The Rangers have faced the Devils in the Stanley Cup playoffs six times and have won four of those series. A couple stand out. 

There was Mark Messier’s guarantee of a Game-6 win in New Jersey 1994 that extended the Eastern Conference Final to a seventh game at Madison Square Garden which New York won on its way to its first (and last) Cup since 1940.

The other was 2012 when the sixth-seeded Devils upset the Eastern Conference champion Rangers in six games to advance to the Cup Final where they fell to eighth-seeded Los Angeles, which beat the Coyotes in the Western Conference Final. You can have Lightning-Leafs, even if it would be cool to see the Leafs finally slay the dragon and get out of the first round.

This Devils-Rangers series is the one to watch in the first round. The Rangers loaded up on veteran talent and Cup-winning experience at the trade deadline. The Devils are the young upstarts, finally showing the fruits of a rebuild.

Let’s hope this one goes seven games. The drama will be delicious.

The Leafs and Lightning meet for a third straight Stanley Cup playoffs
Toronto and Tampa will meet for a second straight Stanley Cup playoffs. (Getty Images)

Will the NHL please scrap the current Stanley Cup playoffs format?

Really, NHL? Bolts-Leafs in the first round? We are so overdue for a better playoff format.

League officials say the current format is working because it promotes divisional rivalries. Anybody who has followed the game knows that the NHL has already killed many of its rivalries either through scheduling or realignment (Red Wings-Blackhawks). Besides, rivalries aren’t built in the regular season. They are built in the postseason.

I conducted an informal and anonymous poll of three dozen team executives, coaches, and current and former players. I asked two questions.

Which NHL playoff format do you prefer:
A. The current one
B: Seed the conferences 1-8
C. Seed the entire NHL 1-16

Do you want the play-in round to return?
A. No
B. Yes
If yes, would you add two more teams like the NBA or four more like the NHL did in 2020?

On the first question, one person liked the current format, one person pushed for seeding the playoff teams 1-16, and 30 people preferred seeding the conferences 1-8. It makes so much sense to reward the teams that finish higher in the standings with lower seeded opponents. It also creates new matchups more frequently instead of the same stale matchups.

I suppose the argument can be made that the Leafs and Lightning have forged a genuine rivalry now, but I’m still in favor of rewards over divisional format, and so was nearly everybody whom I asked.

As for the play-in round, I was surprised to see that only four people favored it, with all of them in favor of the NBA’s model. Only one current player supported the play-in round.

What happens if the Leafs lose in the first round?

The Maple Leafs have qualified for the playoffs for a seventh straight season. They are 0-6 in their previous six first-round series and have not won a series since 2004, when they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games before losing in six to the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference semifinals.

Toronto went all in at the trade deadline, acquiring forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty, and defensemen Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson. GM Kyle Dubas is in the final season of his contract while coach Sheldon Keefe has one more year, as does star center Auston Matthews.

The Leafs will be favored to win this rematch with the slumping Lightning, but Tampa has won three straight Eastern Conference titles and has won two Cups in that span. The Bolts ooze playoff experience. If the Leafs finally slay the dragon, they’ll get the honor of meeting Boston in the second round.

If Toronto can’t make a run, however, you have to wonder if wholesale changes will follow.

The Avs are looking for another deep Stanley Cup playoffs run
Nathan MacKinnon lifts the Stanley Cup during the Colorado Avalanche victory parade and rally at Civic Center Park on June 30, 2022 in Denver. (Getty Images)

Can the Avalanche repeat?

On the plus side of the ledger for Colorado:

  • The Western Conference is not as strong as the Eastern Conference.
  • Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanan and Cal Makar are cream-of-the-crop players.
  • Alexandar Georgiev haș performed above expectations with the 12th-best goals saved above expected per Evolving-Hockey.
  • Colorado went 16-3-1 in its final 20 games; the Avs are hot.

On the minus side of the ledger for Colorado:

  • Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky are gone; robbing the Avs of the depth they had last season.
  • Captain Gabe Landeskog will miss the playoffs with a cartilage injury on the bottom of his patella while the health of both Makar and Josh Manson is in question.
  • Colorado’s penalty-killing unit was below average. PK success is a harbinger of playoff success.
  • It’s just so hard to repeat.

Colorado opens defense of its title against the Seattle Kraken, a team that the Avs should still beat. After that, the sledding gets tougher, and if they reach the Cup Final, they will likely run into a more complete team. 

Will the Coyotes keep the Whiteout when they next make the Stanley Cup playoffs?
The Whiteout was in full effect when the Coyotes met the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs at Jobing.com Arena. (Getty Images)

When will we see the next Coyotes Stanley Cup playoffs berth?

One of my favorite parts of dealing with Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong is his transparency. There will always be information that an organization cannot divulge, but Armstrong has been incredible candid about the team’s plans during the rebuild, and he has been candid about the timeline required for building a genuine Cup contender. It can take eight to 10 years.

We all know how many times this project was botched in the past but it really looks as if the current regime will stick to the plan and see it through.  How long will it take for the Coyotes to build a Cup contender? That’s pure guesswork. The Coyotes will need to draft and develop truly elite players — the kind that past Cup winners have found in the No. 1 or No. 2 draft slots that the Coyotes have never occupied.

If they get lucky and win a lottery to draft an elite player, that could speed the timeline a bit. Luck players a bigger role in winning Cups than any successful organization cares to mention. Given the struggles of this franchise, however, most Valley fans would take playoff contention for the time being.

Regardless of where the Coyotes fall in the 2023 draft lottery (they currently own the sixth-best odds for landing Connor Bedard), they will get two, top-12 picks out of this draft unless the Ottawa Senators somehow jump into the No. 2 or No. 3 slot. With one more strong draft after this, Arizona would likely have a promising stockpile of prospects. As they develop, the Coyotes will theoretically look to add some existing NHL pieces with their stockpile of draft and player assets. 

Management and ownership have both said that they hope a move into the new arena in 2025-26 would dovetail with the emergence of a strong playoff contender and eventual Cup contender. A lot of things need to happen for that to occur, including a favorable vote by Tempe citizens on the proposed arena.

It’s still a dream, but imagine opening the new arena with a playoff team. To make the dream a reality will require continued discipline and execution. 

Top photo of the Boston Bruins via Getty Images

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