2022 Stanley Cup playoffs – Answering the biggest questions heading into conference finals round

The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs are down to their final four teams, as the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning battle it out in the East, while the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers match up in the West — and if Game 1 of that series is any indication, we’re in for a wild series.

Of course, the first two rounds have been fantastic as well. Some of the game’s biggest stars have shined brightest, some pending free agents have made themselves some money, and new postseason heroes have been revealed.

As the penultimate round of the tournament gets rolling, we’re answering the biggest lingering questions out there — and looking ahead to the Stanley Cup Final and the offseason beyond.

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Why are the Lightning so good in the playoffs? Are they just destined to win three straight Cups?

If you sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winner — and do it without one of your best players (Brayden Point) — then yeah, you’re destined for something special. A huge part of the Lightning’s success has stemmed from their past failures. In 2019, they were the top regular-season team that got swept out of the playoffs by the team they’d least expected (Columbus Blue Jackets). And they figured out a way to not let that happen again.

Tampa Bay is as well-constructed as it is well-coached. Production comes from everywhere, but the roster is dotted with big-time players who know how to make big-time plays in big-time games. The biggest being their goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who can get into a scary-stingy groove this time of year.

Now that the Lightning have won, and won again, they don’t carry the burdens that teams yearning for that first Cup as a core struggle with. The Lightning have had their battles — some of them internal. It hasn’t been uncommon in Tampa for players to call out each other, or even the coaching staff. But all of that leads to a level of trust and confidence that they can get through any opponent. The Lightning’s will to win is tangible. You see it when their best players sacrifice their bodies blocking shots, heading back to the bench, always finding a way to come back out to battle for each other.

Is Igor Shesterkin back to being the guy who can carry the Rangers on a nightly basis?

Short answer: Yes. Toward the end of the regular season, when I was working a Rangers-Lightning game, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper agreed that Shesterkin was the best goalie this season. But then he pointed to a mural in the hallway of Vasilevskiy celebrating the Stanley Cup with teammates. “But until he does that,” Cooper said, “my guy is the best.”

Though it was an inauspicious start for Shesterkin in the postseason, the likely Vezina winner has rebounded in a big way, posting a .949 save percentage against Carolina in the past round. The Rangers often gave up too many high-quality chances in front of him, but Shesterkin steadied the ship.

One important thing to remember about Shesterkin is that despite being 26 and having a decent amount of pro and high-level experience, he was not the predominant starter on any of his KHL teams or with the Russia national team. He often has had to share the net. So perhaps the playoffs required a mental adjustment.

One thing I’ve appreciated about the Rangers is coach Gerard Gallant’s candor. After winning the Carolina series, Gallant admitted that while he brushed aside the question of “experience” for his team in the first round against Pittsburgh, privately he actually was worried about it. That’s no longer a problem.

Gallant also admitted that he pulled Shesterkin in two straight games against the Penguins because he wanted to keep him confident and preserve him mentally. That decision has paid off, as Shesterkin looks as confident and competent as ever entering what should be a thrilling showdown with Vasilevskiy.

Any on-ice trends you’ve seen in this postseason?

Though we’ve seen a handful of standout goaltending performances, this postseason feels all about the offense. And you’re about to see a lot more of it in the Western Conference finals between the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers — Game 1 was obviously on trend there.

The Battle of Alberta definitely helped skew the numbers. It had been 34 years since there was a series with 45 goals scored that lasted only five games.

Another trend is that no team is out of it until it’s really out of it, which seems to be the Rangers’ mantra, as they’ve gone 5-0 in elimination games this spring. Nearly 40% of games played so far (28 of 73) have featured a team coming back from a deficit to win.

What about the officiating?

Everyone is going to find complaints about officiating. It’s the NHL. It’s the playoffs. One thing that’s been apparent: The refs haven’t been putting the whistle away. That’s been a trend recently. In eight of the past 10 seasons, there have been more power-play opportunities per game in the playoffs than in the regular season. We’re seeing plenty of penalties called, and in big games. Consider there were four penalties called (two for each team) in Game 7 between the Hurricanes and Rangers on Monday … just in the first period.

One thing that hasn’t been over-disciplined: high hits that aren’t directly targeting the head. The most frequent hitter in these situations has been Jacob Trouba. The Rangers defenseman levied hits against Sidney Crosby, which sidelined the Penguins captain for Game 6 of the first round, and Seth Jarvis, which knocked the Canes rookie out of Game 7 in the second round.

Both Crosby and Jarvis sustained upper-body injuries, and sources tell ESPN both players entered concussion protocol. One trend picked up by ScoutingtheRefs, a website that tracks officials, is that Wes McCauley was the referee for both of those games, as well as for Trouba’s big hit on Max Domi in Game 4. McCauley, considered one of the best referees in the NHL, did not call penalties on any of those plays. It’s also worth noting that Trouba did not receive supplemental discipline for the hits.

Any other hot topics?

Well, there’s the “kick or no kick” controversy in the deciding game of the Battle of Alberta. In the days following Blake Coleman‘s disallowed goal, that’s all anyone wanted to talk about — or, really, opine about — at the rink.

Most players and coaches I talked to believe the goal should have counted, especially since Coleman never lifted his skate off the ice in a “distinct kicking motion.” I have heard a few people who thought it was the right call (and yes, people outside of Edmonton). That just shows how subjective it was, and perhaps something we need to revisit this offseason. It really reminds me of the “catch or no catch” conundrum from my time as an NFL beat writer. And for the record, the ultimate call on the goal was made by the NHL’s centralized situation room, not the on-ice officials.

One thing multiple coaches have commented to our broadcasting crew about is goaltender interference. They don’t like the way the rules are set, where the onus falls on the coaching staff to call a challenge, especially on something that is as subjective as goaltender interference. Most coaches don’t mind being penalized for calling a challenge for offsides that is unsuccessful. That’s clear-cut. But to go on a penalty kill because of a difference of opinion on what is a murky topic anyway? That seems wrong.

How do you describe what we’ve seen from Connor McDavid so far?

Brilliance. Dominance. Unreal.

McDavid is the purest talent in the game today, full stop. The greatest players all do something that nobody else can replicate. It’s their signature aspect of dominance. McDavid’s is making top skill plays at top speeds. We’ve never seen anything like it.

And of course, the production has followed. I sometimes feel bad for Leon Draisaitl, who dazzles in McDavid’s shadow. They truly are one of the best duos in league history. Draisaitl and McDavid combined for 52 points through the first two playoff rounds. What they’re both doing is historic. They became the fifth and sixth players in league history to record at least 26 points in 12 playoff games, following Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Rick Middleton.

Aside from McDavid, who are some other players who have “wowed” you?

When Seth Jarvis arrived at Hurricanes training camp this season, the team didn’t expect him to compete for a roster spot. But the then-teenager was so impressive, the team faced a conundrum. He was too good for juniors, where he would dominate the competition and therefore not gain much from a development perspective. But he also wasn’t AHL-eligible. So he started in the NHL, and has proved, especially in these playoffs, that he belongs. He’s fearless, plays an aggressive game that suits the Canes’ style and also has a scoring touch. He leads all rookies with three goals and eight points; no other rookie has more than one goal this postseason.

In terms of goalies, the Stars’ Jake Oettinger was the first-round star (more on him in a bit). Meanwhile Jordan Binnington of the Blues wrote another chapter in his incredible story of resilience and triumph. Binnington’s career has been a roller coaster to this point, which uniquely prepared him to step in midway through the first round and close out the series against the Wild. He played extremely well until he was knocked out of the Colorado series with a knee injury. Binnington has confidence in himself, no matter the circumstance. When I sat down with him a few weeks before the playoffs, I asked if he ever feared losing his starting job. “No, never,” he said without hesitation, even though, at the time, he had lost his starting job to Ville Husso.

Looking at the teams still alive, there were times in the first round against Pittsburgh, and early in the Carolina series, when people began questioning the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad, who at times seemed a bit too quiet. Each time, Zibanejad answered those questions, playing an assured game while also scoring in the clutch. But the player who has stood out most to me on the Rangers, especially watching him at ice level, is Ryan Lindgren. He’s clearly battling through a lower-body injury — and seems to be having issues most nights, often having to leave the bench — but is ultracompetitive every shift. You can literally see the determination on his face.

The Lightning were aggressive at the trade deadline, and that seems to have paid off big-time. Nick Paul, especially, fits the Tampa Bay mold so well. Corey Perry, at age 37, is still the guy to score those greasy goals when the Lightning need him.

And Nathan MacKinnon — I can’t help but think of the Colorado forward’s dejection during his elimination news conference last year, when he lamented that he would be entering his ninth year in the league and “hasn’t won s—.” MacKinnon has channeled that frustration into a gutsy, highly productive postseason so far. And teammate Cale Makar seems to dazzle every night too. So many times we’ve seen Makar do something so hard and make it look so easy.

Which pending free agents have made themselves some money this postseason?

Oettinger became a household name in one night. That’s what a 64-save Game 7 performance will do for you. The Stars have been trying to find their goaltending solution over the past several offseasons and they began this season with three NHL goalies, which meant they really had zero. This summer they won’t face that question. They can pay the 23-year-old Oettinger, who is coming off a three-year deal that paid him less than $1 million annually, and feel confident he’s the long-term answer in net.

Dallas has transitioned quickly to a new core, consisting of Oettinger, Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz. If the Stars can figure out how to shed some of their bloated veteran contracts, they should be competitive for the foreseeable future.

Evander Kane is going to have an interesting free agency. Given all of his baggage this season, Kane easily could have been looking at another one-year, prove-it deal for the veterans minimum. But we know the NHL is a performance-based league. The fact that Kane has 12 goals in 11 games so far for the Oilers in the playoffs, and hasn’t been a distraction off the ice, likely means there will be a general manager willing to pay him closer to the level dictated by his play this summer, and should get him an extra year or two of assurance tacked onto the contract.

No team hit on its pre-trade deadline moves quite like the Rangers. Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, Frank Vatrano and Justin Braun have all been so important to New York, that coach Gerard Gallant told me, “I’m not sure how we won in our first 50 games without them.” Out of the group, I think Copp earns the biggest contract this summer, and has a good chance to stay in New York.

What are your picks for the two conference finals?

The Avalanche-Oilers series is going to be a doozy offensively, and we know it has the star juice. MacKinnon and McDavid will steal the headlines, but it’s going to come down to the supporting cast for both teams. The Avs, I believe, are deeper. And while both teams have journeyman goaltenders leading the way, I trust Darcy Kuemper more than Mike Smith at this point.

The Lightning and Rangers have plenty of history, especially with so many players over the years swapping New York for Tampa Bay. The Rangers have a very important former Lightning player on their roster: glue guy Barclay Goodrow, who made a miraculous recovery from a broken bone in his foot or ankle to be available in Game 6 of the second round. The Rangers’ kids have shown up, but the Lightning’s experience will win out.

And what about the Stanley Cup Final?

It’s never wise to take a premature victory lap, but alas, here we go. Ahead of the season I picked Colorado over Tampa Bay in the Final, and I’m thinking my prediction still looks quite sound.

The trend we’ve seen with recent Cup winners is that they have been great regular-season teams for a while, but had to go through some playoff heartbreak before getting over the hump. That was Washington. That was St. Louis. That was Tampa Bay before the Lightning won back-to-back titles. While I’m not counting out the Lightning to win a third straight — which would qualify as a dynastic run, especially in the salary cap era, and especially since two of the seasons were impacted by the pandemic, making it arguably even harder given the uncertainty and adversity — it feels like Colorado’s time.

After consecutive second-round exits, the Avalanche have learned their playoff lessons. They’re due. MacKinnon and Makar are going to will them there.

What’s going on with the coaching market?

Every year, there’s a particular name that all teams go gaga over. This year, it’s Barry Trotz, who surprisingly was let go by the Islanders. For the record, I am told there’s nothing nefarious to the Trotz-Lou Lamoriello divorce. It was just a clash of philosophies … and egos.

Trotz would be the top name on most teams’ lists, and you’ll see his name floated for interviews and as a candidate for several vacancies. However, several people in the league have suggested to me they wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a side deal already in place for Trotz to coach in Vegas. That’s just the way the Golden Knights do business.

I think that would be a smart move by the Golden Knights, who need some serious repair work in their locker room morale. A big issue at the end of last season was a distrust between Robin Lehner and the coaching staff, and I know Lehner didn’t feel comfortable with the way he was treated. The Golden Knights have made a huge investment in Lehner, who’s making $5 million per year through the 2024-25 season. Lehner had one of his best seasons when Trotz coached him in Long Island. Trotz is the type of coach who can empower and bring out the best in his players, a lot of it via empathy.

Most teams are waiting for the dominoes to fall on Trotz, but it’s early in the coaching cycle. Typically first interviews and meetings get done at the scouting combine in Buffalo, which is going on right now.

Two coaches who everyone believes will be behind a bench next season: Rick Tocchet and John Tortorella. For Tortorella especially, the fit needs to make sense, as I believe his preference is to stay on the East Coast. Tocchet was close to taking over Dallas midseason when management considered a change from Rick Bowness. I was told Tocchet and the Stars were in advanced talks but could not agree on contract terms.

Any other names to keep an eye on?

Quite a few. Now that the Blues are eliminated, I wouldn’t be surprised if assistant coach Jim Montgomery gets a few calls. Montgomery, whose time in Dallas ended because of “unprofessional conduct,” has gone to rehab and is in a much different place than he was 2½ years ago. I’m not sure if he’ll get a head-coaching job this round, but I do think there will be interest.

Calgary’s elimination also opens the door for Kirk Mueller to get some looks. Mike Vellucci, a well-respected assistant in Pittsburgh, has already proved he can win as a head coach in the OHL and is starting to generate buzz. An up-and-coming name that’s been out there for a while is Spencer Carbery, who spent last year as an assistant in Toronto. And I wouldn’t discount this being the summer that general managers and owners are more willing to look outside the box, and bring in women or minority candidates who wouldn’t previously have been considered. Call it the Jim Rutherford effect.

Has Jay Woodcroft or Andrew Brunette earned a permanent head-coaching gig?

Taking Connor McDavid to his first conference finals in seven years? That alone earns Woodcroft a new contract. I believe Woodcroft might have already sealed the job before that with how he restructured the Oilers’ defense — to actually have structure — and maximized the talent around McDavid and Draisaitl. The fact the Oilers have done it all with subpar goaltending, which is usually a dagger for coaches, proves Woodcroft is the right person for Edmonton.

As for Brunette? I’d like to see him get the permanent head-coaching job in Florida. No doubt a second-round exit for a Presidents’ Trophy-winning team is disappointing — especially when Florida’s offense, the most prolific since the 1990s Penguins, inexplicably dried up at the wrong time. But Brunette took over under challenging circumstances — the sudden departure of future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville, while the team was off to a 7-0 start — and managed to maintain the trajectory and elevate the team to new heights.

I got the sense players respected Brunette and responded well to his coaching style. That said, I don’t know if anyone — Brunette included — knows how this is going to play out. Perhaps ownership looks to take a big swing for an experienced coach, or even petitions the league to allow Quenneville to return. This past season was the time for Florida to go all-in, with extensions to Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe about to kick in. So this summer will be one for big decisions, all around.

Let’s talk about some of the teams that have been eliminated. What’s going to happen with the Penguins this summer?

To me, the Penguins are the biggest story simmering in the NHL right now. Pittsburgh had been trying all spring to fend off the storyline of this being its core’s “last dance.” But the truth is, I believe it was.

Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin hit free agency on July 13, and initial talks between both players’ camps and Penguins management have felt fractured. They are not aligned on money, nor term, and there’s a decent chance both players walk away this summer. There’s going to be a ripple effect for Sidney Crosby, who is under contract for three more years. According to sources, Crosby isn’t pleased if his friends are being disrespected, and who knows how that could affect the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins did make an important move, re-signing Bryan Rust on very amenable terms for both sides: six years, with an average annual value of $5.125 million. Rust could have received a higher cap hit on the open market, but he clearly wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins are happy to keep around a hardworking player who overachieved on his previous contract. Rust has been a great linemate for Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

With the potential cap savings from Letang and Malkin, the Penguins might be able to retool on the fly. Mike Sullivan is one of the best coaches in the game, and has perfected a next-man-up mentality with that group (which, I should mention, has weathered unrelenting injury woes over the past few seasons). But the Penguins will look different next season.

And the Leafs?

There was some surprise in the hockey world that the Leafs opted for leadership stability after yet another first-round playoff loss. They are now 0-9 in elimination games over the past five years and haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. However there’s no shame in the way they lost this year, in Game 7 of a hard-fought series with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. And that is why it was announced both GM Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe are returning. But make no mistake, there is little room for error next season.

So what happens between now and then? Change has to happen. A third of the team is on expiring contracts. Jason Spezza, a beloved veteran who made an indelible impact in the locker room, announced his retirement and will join the front office in an advisory role. Ilya Mikheyev, who scored 21 goals in 53 games, probably priced his way out of Toronto. The Leafs have already inked Mark Giordano to an affordable extension, but the most important UFA is Jack Campbell. The Leafs need to decide if they want to keep the 27-year-old goaltender, but the bigger question is, for how much?

Ideally the Leafs want to fill some roster holes with young players within the organization, which is helpful salarywise and smart for long-term development. That also could clear the way to bring in free agents, but since the team is up against the salary cap, there’s still maneuvering to be done. Does Toronto explore a trade market for William Nylander? Do the Leafs clear $3.5 million by parting with the uber-versatile Alexander Kerfoot? Can they find any solution for their Petr Mrazek conundrum?

Nobody is quite sure what Toronto will do, but the team can’t run it back with the exact same roster, that’s for sure.

What about the Bruins?

Boston had one of the more perplexing season-end availabilities that I’ve watched this year. It’s hard to fault the Bruins on their first-round, seven-game exit to the Canes. Boston played hard, but Carolina was just a little better in the end. Cam Neely seemed to suggest Bruce Cassidy’s job status wasn’t certain, which shocked a lot of people in hockey, who view Cassidy as one of the best coaches in the game.

“I think we have to look at making some changes as far as how we play and the way we do some of the things,” Neely said at his season-end session with reporters. “I think Bruce is a fantastic coach. He’s brought a lot of success to this organization. I like him as a coach. We’ll see where it goes. But I do think we need to make some changes.”

Some of those changes will be dictated by necessity. Captain Patrice Bergeron has yet to decide his future and very well could retire. If Bergeron retires — and even if he doesn’t — the Bruins need to address center depth organizationally. Boston has sacrificed draft picks for short-term success recently, as the Bruins don’t have a first-rounder in 2022 or a second-rounder in 2023 or 2024.

Brad Marchand underwent surgeries to both hips that will sideline him for the first two months of the regular season. Defenseman Matt Grzelcyk underwent shoulder surgery that could also keep him out for the start of 2022-23. While I was told the Bruins had a very positive exit meeting with Jake DeBrusk, the winger is still going to take some time to decide whether he wants to stay in Boston or maintain his request to be traded.

The Bruins have been retooling on the fly, with slow departures of their Cup-winning core (Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Torey Krug, Tuukka Rask), but even more changes appear on the horizon.

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