With the first round done and over with, the second round swiftly approaches. From 16 teams we shrink to eight. Fewer games to watch, but the intensity grows stronger. Every team that reached this point has battled and earned their shot at the Stanley Cup. And now, I will rank the remaining teams in contention while recognizing each team’s best player.
- Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers defied all odds. They were the David that defeated the mighty Goliath in the Boston Bruins. The Panthers have a solid roster with a decent surrounding cast. Their goaltending was a major question mark but Sergei Bobrovsky has shown up big-time with his Vezina-winning pedigree. Their depth has shown up big time in major scenarios as we saw in the Boston series, but the rest of the stars need to show up for the Panthers if they truly want to contend with the Leafs.
Best Player: Matthew Tkachuk
After the regular season, he had proved he was a star. After the series with Boston, he proved he’s become a superstar. This was a guy who dragged his team to the postseason in style. He had five goals and 11 points against the mighty Bruins. The Panthers outscored them 7-2 at five-on-five when he was on the ice. They had 63.37 percent of the expected goals. He has been the catalyst for everything on the Panthers. Tkachuk truly deserved to be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy if Connor McDavid didn’t exist. That’s how great he’s been.
- Seattle Kraken
The Kraken in their first-ever playoff series fought valiantly and proved they belonged here. Their depth was their strength from their inception, and their winning-by-committee approach is what puts them over Florida in these rankings. Seattle was in the same boat as Florida with their goaltending but Phillip Grubauer really changed the game for the Kraken in this series. Luckily for him, he had scoring support from all over the lineup. They have a nice deep roster going for them, but Dallas just might be the deeper team in this series. They took down the Avalanche and were in the series until the very end, who’s to say they can’t do the same against Dallas?
Best Player: Phillip Grubauer:
Grubauer was nowhere close to this level of play during the regular season. None of Seattle’s goaltender were. But when his team needed him most, he stepped up. And he stepped up big time. There is a reason he is a former Stanley Cup Champion. During the last four games of the series, Grubauer posted a .934 save percentage in the final four contests.
- Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have won all season with a balanced attack and structured defense. Their roster construction with a strong mix of flashy stars and proven veterans has gotten them to where they need to be. Now they must find a way to corral the most dynamic offense in hockey as they look to face the Oilers. Next to only Carolina, Vegas has the best defensive group in the playoffs. Their blueline has contributed to a ton of their success in the regular season and the postseason, but they have a big task ahead of them facing one of, if not the best offense left.
Best Player: Mark Stone
The Captain’s return to this team in the playoffs can not be understated. His presence, two-way play, and resilience have been game-changers for the Golden Knights. His absence put Vegas in a tough spot, and his play was sorely missed. Stone had eight points in the final four games and Vegas outscored Winnipeg 8-1 with him on the ice at five-on-five in the final four games while having more than 61 percent of the expected goals. This guy is a big game player and he’s a huge reason why the Knights are going to be a tough matchup.
- New Jersey Devils
The youngest team in the playoffs looks to play on another day. With the speed and offensive talent to take on anyone, the Devils are not a team to be overlooked. They can beat you on the rush when a team’s not looking and have shown they can step up defensively. Compared to the teams before the Devils, they just have the better offensive and goaltending groups. When you have offensive weapons like Jack Hughes, Timo Meier, and Jesper Bratt, what more could you want? The Rangers were a tough test that they matched up well with, but the Devils will have an even bigger test against Carolina. They were able to go toe-to-toe with them in the Regular Season, but Carolina has been here before and is playoff built. Regardless, New Jersey has the personnel to take this series the distance, and the energy to tire out teams. If their offense is red hot and they shut you down defensively, they can be the scariest team in the playoffs.
Best Player: Nico Hischier
It’s incredibly easy to just put Jack Hughes in this spot due to his elite offensive talent and ability to manipulate the team’s defenses. But Nico Hischier’s two-way dominance is the reason he gets the edge. Nico Hischier had a career year with 80 points while also putting on a Selke finalist showing. He leads the team in assists with five and has been a shutdown player defensively. When matched up against Mika Zibanejad through 35 minutes of play, the Rangers only managed to get five shots on goal and did not notch in a goal when Hischier was on the ice. His playmaking on the power play, puck control at 5v5, and defensive prowess on the penalty kill make him the Devils’ most important skater. Especially when this kind of play comes from your captain.
- Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Their forward group is packed with studs. They have the best defensive corps in the playoffs and had the best defensive group during the regular season. Their goaltending is solid and becomes elite when they settle in. There is a reason they were the second-best team during the regular season. A Swiss Army Knife to a tee, this team can beat you in many different ways. Strength, Skill, Tactics, you name it they can do it. The main concern for the Hurricanes is if their offense can hold up against some of the better offensive teams. This team struggled to score goals at 5v5 against the Islanders, it’s going to get harder especially going against the high-flying Devils.
Best Player: Sebastian Aho
Aho was the best player in the last series and finished the series with 7 points. Aho has been a great two-way player all year and was an offensive dynamo against the Islanders. With a +14 Offensive Rating, he’s been the heart and soul of the Canes’ offense. His playoffs performance, highlighted by four goals, three assists, and an average game score of 1.74 that ranks 10th in the postseason, was game-changing for his team.
- Edmonton Oilers
McDavid and Draisaitl have given themselves the best shot this year to try and finally take it all the way. They dispatched the Kings in 6 games instead of 7 games last year and have shown that their offensive prowess is to be taken seriously. With the two best players in the world on the same team, they’ve proven to be a handful throughout their playoff careers. But now that they’ve properly surrounded them with proper talent, the Oilers have become scarier. With all that talent comes an even scarier power play that has converted at a 56% rate! The X-Factor remains between the pipes in Stuart Skinner. The rookie has shown glimpses of excellence but he will need to be consistent to keep the Oilers rolling. They have another tough test taking on the Golden Knights with their tough defense. They will have to solve their defense and make life hell for Laurent Broissoit if they want to make it to the Western Conference Finals again.
Best Player: Evan Bouchard
McDavid and Draisaitl are clearly the best players in the world. But that would be too easy! Evan Bouchard’s ability to step up as a Number 1 defenseman in the playoffs at the age of 23 has been incredible. He leads defensemen in playoff scoring with 10 points and has been a key generator of offense on the back end. Especially on that lethal Oilers Power Play. His ability to thread passes at a distance, move the puck north-south, and find ways to score on his own make him the Oilers’ best player for the Oilers in the playoffs eight now.
- Dallas Stars
In my opinion, Dallas is the deepest team in the playoffs right now. After Boston was eliminated, Dallas become the team with the most complete roster of any team remaining in the playoffs. They have an excellent balance of young elite talent and strong experienced veterans. Even with the star power they have on their first line, they have contributors on every line. Jake Oettinger has been a legend in these playoffs and has proven to be the best goalie. The only glaring issues from Dallas are their lack of noticeable talent and production from their defenseman and if their roster as a whole can contribute offensively outside of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and either Joe Pavelski or Tyler Seguin.
Best Player: Miro Heiskanen
I think people need to start talking about Miro Heiskanen more. He’s been playing more than 29 minutes per game, producing in big games, and has been shutting down other teams’ best players with ease. He’s the best defenseman that never gets talked about in Norris Trophy conversations. He’s the real deal.
- Toronto Maple Leafs
Hands down the Leafs are the best team remaining in the playoffs. Toronto has been excellent offensively with their transition offense and star power by the dozen to lead the way. The four-headed monster of John Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner has made defenses and goaltenders quiver at the sight of them skating at speed down the ice ready to dangle them to pieces. The Leafs with their offensive ethos are built around an electric core led by an American superstar and augmented by a strong supporting cast. But their upgrades on defense and their overall structure have given the edge over Tampa Bay and now potentially the Florida Panthers. If Toronto has ever had a shot in the Salary Cap Era to make a run to the Stanley Cup, it is now.
Best Player: Mitch Marner
Mitch Marner, just like in the regular season, has been the MVP of the Leafs. His creativity, puck control, and wizardry in the neutral zone have made him one of the league’s scariest players to play against. Marner led the team in points (11), assists (nine), even-strength points (seven), and power-play points (four). And if we really want to talk about his offensive dominance, when Marner was on the ice at five-on-five — the Leafs outscored the Lightning 8-1 last round. Even with three other elite stars on the team, Marner has managed to shine on a level the Leafs haven’t seen yet. He gives them a major edge in the playoffs and has shown he is one of the best wingers in the NHL.
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2023 NHL Playoffs Round One Review