Storylines to watch during the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox get us set for Game 1 between the Maple Leafs and Bruins, and with serious lineup gamesmanship going on by the head coaches, it’s the Maple Leafs’ forward depth that could push them over the hump vs. rival Bruins.

With our eight first-round series set, the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be off and running on Saturday, beginning a two-month stretch of high-intensity hockey that will bring its share of twists and turns, upsets, controversy and drama.

And we can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

With the post-season upon us, there are several interesting storylines we’re eager to see play out.

Is this Steven Stamkos‘ last run with the Lightning?

It was an inauspicious beginning to the season when Steven Stamkos walked out to the media at training camp and expressed his disappointment over a lack of contract extension talks last summer. The first-overall pick in 2008 and a face of the franchise ever since is in the last year of his contract, eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. But with much of the core signed, Andrei Vasilevskiy up for an extension after next season and so many cap casualties shaved from the roster in recent seasons, it sounded like a Stamkos extension maybe wasn’t such a slam dunk.

“Steven and I share a common goal of bringing the Cup back to Tampa — that’s our objective,” GM Julien BriseBois said before the season. “In order for us to do that in future years, we’re going to need to spend our cap dollars as wisely as possible. In order for me to do that, I feel like I need to gather more information.”

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Stamkos is now 34, so age is certainly an understandable factor here. But the good thing, at least, is that his next deal won’t be a 35-plus contract, meaning if he were to retire before the end of his extension, the Lightning wouldn’t be penalized.

Since the March 8 trade deadline, the Lightning have been one of the top NHL teams, surging with an 12-4-2 record and pulling well ahead of the wild-card race behind them. And in those 18 games, Stamkos had a league-leading 16 goals. He is among the leaders of Tampa’s strong finish — will this be his last playoff run with them?

Can Jake Oettinger sustain an extended run of playoff excellence?

The Dallas Stars pulled away in the race to the top of the Western Conference down the stretch, a strong finish by a team heralded for its depth, two-way ability, elite special teams on both sides, and an explosive group of younger players who were still being added into the lineup in April (with Mavrik Bourque’s call-up). Basically, they have it all — even goaltending.

Two years ago, Jake Oettinger fully took over Dallas’ net and first arrived on the national scene with a stellar showing against the Calgary Flames in Round 1 of the playoffs. The Flames won the Pacific that season and finished 13 points clear of wild-card Dallas, but with a streak of unbelievable performances, Oettinger carried the Stars to a Game 7 they lost. Oettinger had games in the series where he made 50 and 64 saves, lost them both, and finished with a .954 save percentage against Calgary.

So, Oettinger didn’t catch anyone by surprise last season when he finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting, but one question following him into the playoffs was if his workload had been too heavy during the season. Oettinger’s 58 games played (between the AHL and NHL) in 2021-22 was by far the most he’d played in his career, and in 2022-23 he was one of just four NHL netminders to get more than 60 starts.

Oettinger allowed 10 goals in his first three playoff games last season, then went on a three-game heater to eliminate Minnesota. In Round 2, Oettinger allowed four or more goals in three of seven starts, was pulled twice and finished the series with an .877 save percentage, but came out on top again. Against Vegas in the conference final, he allowed three goals or more in four of six games, all Dallas losses. He wasn’t the same, consistent difference-maker that we saw in the Flames series.

This season, Oettinger started rocky and was forced to miss a month with an injury in December, but since returning in January he’s picked up the same heavy workload he had. Overall, his numbers haven’t been as outstanding through the season, and he won’t be any sort of Vezina factor, but it’s worth pointing out that since March 20, Oettinger is one of the league’s hottest goalies, with a 10-1-0 record, 1.54 GAA and .941 save percentage.

The Stars will be a popular Stanley Cup pick because of all the roster strengths mentioned above. And if Oettinger can continue running hot and sustain a level of play close to what we saw in that Flames series two years ago, the Stars will surely be in a great spot to win it all.

Speaking of goalies, which backups might be a factor?

In a lot of playoff seasons, you’ll find a goalie who maybe wasn’t Plan A forced into action after an injury or in a moment of desperation by a trailing team, who then finds a little magic. The Vegas Golden Knights, remember, did not start the playoffs with Adin Hill in net last year, but turned to him in Round 2 after Laurent Brossoit (now Winnipeg’s backup) led Round 1’s victory. By the end, Hill was getting attention for Conn Smythe consideration.

Who might be this year’s best Plan B?

Right away, if Semyon Varlamov is the Islanders’ presumed Game 1 starter, that will leave 2023 Vezina finalist Ilya Sorokin on the bench and a great candidate to, eventually, get called back into the lead role. And no one would be surprised if Sorokin got hot. Heck, in Boston you might have another 2023 Vezina finalist on the bench if it decides to start Jeremy Swayman over Linus Ullmark. Both those two situations aren’t really what we’re looking for here.

If you dig a little deeper, you see other potential backups who could be a factor. While Alexandar Georgiev has handled a heavy workload all season in Colorado’s net, he’s had a soft landing to finish. He was Colorado’s netminder in last year’s Round 1 upset loss to Seattle, but it wasn’t because he underperformed. Still, this year’s first-round opponent in Winnipeg will be a bigger challenge and the Jets certainly have no questions about their own goalie. If Georgiev continues his cold spell and Winnipeg jumps out early in the series, would the Avs turn to 24-year-old Justus Annunen?

Toronto’s crease has been all over the map this season, and just when you thought Ilya Samsonov was taking the job back, he allowed 11 goals against in his last two regular-season games. Joseph Woll is on the radar here because, at one point this season, he probably was the favourite to be the playoff starter. This could easily turn into a hot-hand tandem, but if they have to dig any deeper into the depth chart (Martin Jones or, eek, Matt Murray), something has probably gone terribly wrong.

And how about Carolina? There is no doubting who its starter is for Game 1, as Frederik Andersen has come back from injury and been on point, looking every bit a No. 1 goalie who could backstop a Cup run. But he has a concerning injury history, and the universe seems to want Carolina to use three or four goalies every playoff season, so don’t forget about Pyotr Kochetkov or Spencer Martin here.

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Who is Canada’s best hope to break the curse?

There is no clear super team — or super teams — in this year’s playoff bracket and you can make a case for how several teams could get through four rounds. Every contender has its strengths, of course, but they each also have a characteristic that could end up being a crushing weakness.

In this year of great contender parity, the four Canadian teams that all finished top 10 in the NHL by points have as good a chance as any other. So, who has the best shot at breaking the now 30-year Cup drought for the country?

How about the Edmonton Oilers? They turned around a horrifying start and after making a coaching change in November, played the rest of the season at a .703 points percentage clip that ranked first in the league.

Why not the Vancouver Canucks? They outlasted Edmonton’s pursuit of the Pacific Division crown, had a few key players post career years, and are being led by a coach who may win the Jack Adams Award.

The Winnipeg Jets? One of the more cursed Canadian cities in Stanley Cup Playoff history, this group got back on track and posted its first 100-point season since 2018, when they went to the Western Conference Final.

And, oh yes, what of the Maple Leafs? This core enters the post-season on a four-game losing skid with several demons to slay, but are a defensively capable and offensively dangerous group.

When will we see Mark Stone, and how effective will he?

Well, it happened. Mark Stone, out since just before the trade deadline with a spleen injury, returned to Vegas’ practice in a non-contact jersey in the last week of the regular season.

A two-way force who scored 24 points in 22 games in last year’s Cup run, Stone’s timely LTIR placement is what gave the Knights the cap space they needed to trade for Tomas Hertl, who himself recently returned from injury and notched two goals and four points in six games with Vegas. It also attracted a lot of conspiracy theories that will certainly be fuelled by his return to practice and set alight if he’s in the Game 1 lineup against Dallas looking good as new.

Weird awards curses

At this time of year, we always talk about the Presidents’ Trophy curse, and this weird pattern of the best regular season teams bowing out of the playoffs early. Three of the past four winners were knocked out in Round 1 and none of the past eight reached Round 3. The last time a Presidents’ Trophy winner claimed the Stanley Cup in the same season was in 2013 by the Chicago Blackhawks. Good luck, then, to the New York Rangers.

The most recent trend here is juicy: The past three Presidents’ Trophy winners all went to the Stanley Cup Final the year after claiming the trophy, and two of them won it all. So if you’re a Boston Bruins fan, hang your hat on that hope.

Meantime, if you’re a fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche or Edmonton Oilers feeling confident about your team’s playoff chances and also your player’s MVP claim: Five of the past six Hart Trophy winners were eliminated in the first round in the year they won the award — Connor McDavid broke the five-year streak by reaching the second round last season. And not a single player who went on to win the Hart Trophy has won the Stanley Cup in the same season during the entire cap era. The last to do so was Martin St. Louis, with Tampa Bay in 2004.

And for how important it is to have elite goaltending at this time of year, it’s also interesting to note that the goalie (or goalie tandem) that claims the William M. Jennings Trophy for the fewest regular season goals against hasn’t recently gone on a playoff run.

The last time a Jennings winner got past the second round was Jonathan Quick all the way back in 2014, when he and the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup. The Jennings winners have mostly been able to get past Round 1 since then (though Ullmark and Swayman failed to do so last year), but none have even reached the conference final in that time. This year’s Jennings winner: Connor Hellebuyck.

Is this the year for an ‘out of left field’ champ?

With how wide open the field appears to be, is this season bound to be one where we get an unexpected champion?

This year’s set-up is reminding some (and Justin Bourne has discussed this on his radio show) of 2019, when every wild-card team won its first round series. And, especially after the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning were shockingly eliminated in Round 1, there weren’t really any teams left that year that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

What resulted was the St. Louis Blues’ first Stanley Cup championship after they famously sat at the bottom of the league standings on Jan. 1 and caught fire for several months.

For what it’s worth, the best teams in the NHL by points percentage since Jan. 1 this season are Carolina (.744), Edmonton (.698), Florida (.696) and Dallas (.691).

If you’re looking for that one team that turned it on late, just as the ’19 Blues did, the Nashville Predators could be this year’s version — though Nashville has cooled from the 18-game point streak that got them here.

Or, you might look to a team that really felt on the fringe of being out of it early before mounting a furious comeback with one of the NHL’s best second halves. That would be the Edmonton Oilers this season, though that wouldn’t exactly come out of left field.

Or maybe this year’s champion won’t be “unexpected” in the sense that no one could have seen it coming, but rather because they’ve fallen short so many times before we’ve come to expect a result like that. In this season’s wide-open bracket, might Carolina finally put it together over four rounds? Or, dare we say, might this be what the Toronto Maple Leafs have waited 57 years for?

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