Today, ESPN NHL analystsMark Messier,ferraro stripe,AJ MleczkoIKevin WeekesThe media gathered to watch the discussion of the upcoming 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs starting Monday, April 17 on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC and ESPN+.
The recording of the conversation is presented below:
MODERATOR:Thank you to everyone who was with us today. Our ESPN NHL analysts Ray Ferraro, Mark Messier, AJ Mleczko and Kevin Weekes discuss the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, which will take place on ESPN platforms this Monday.
KEVIN WEEKS:I hope everyone is doing well and that your families are healthy and safe.
I'd say last year's playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference, all eight teams had 100 or more points, and we knew which teams they were; It certainly allowed us to make history much earlier, before the puck dropped and the Stanley Cup playoffs even started. All in all, it was still convincing and very exciting. It was great fun. We know that Tampa came from the east, but before that we had a more concrete idea of who these teams were.
Since the East was completely different this year and if I'm not mistaken three teams in the 90+ point range, last night it was all about the Islanders getting behind this wild place, literally the Panthers and of course the Panthers secured the win the night before.
So some other stories not to mention that the fact that Crosby and Ovechkin, two of the league's top players, missed the playoffs for the first time in 17 years also turned things around as we start reporting here for the cup playoffs Stanley this year.
AJ MLECZKO:It is exciting. I feel like we've been watching playoff hockey for a while, because it comes down to last week and a lot of interesting stories, both conferences, and very different, very different stories.
The Islanders you mentioned are winning their 82nd game of the season. We've got Nashville going through an emotional rollercoaster, winning a penalty kick over Calgary and staying alive and losing passively at home yesterday or two nights ago.
But as far as I'm concerned, after completing a year at ESPN, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think it's exciting and the same excitement every year that I've had the honor of covering the NHL, the Stanley Cup playoffs. I think it's a very strange time. We just talked about it earlier, but we have no idea - in 72 hours we'll all be on planes and we have no idea where we're going, but you know, you can't go wrong with that.
All of these games will be amazing and I'm really looking forward to the next amazing hockey game. Tonight I have my last regular season game here in Dallas against St. Louis. We have a team that is trying to conquer the top of central defence, a team that is outside but preparing for the future. So I'm hoping for an exciting start tonight here in Dallas.
RAY FERRARO:Every year is the same for me. You think you know which teams are the best, who has the best odds, what the main stories are, and when the puck hits the ice on day one of the playoffs, everything is different. So I was lucky to be able to do them for a while. And I think the only consistency is the inconsistency of what happens from year to year, playoff to playoff.
And you know, like last year - last year would be a great example of there being one team that seemed to beat everyone and won, and that was Colorado. And this year it looks like it's going to be Boston and we'll see if they can win. But it happens so often that you think you know what's going to happen, and you just don't. That's why I just love him. I love these games and I love what we can do with them.
MAREK MESSIER:I agree with Ray, as a fan, working with ESPN has reminded me how amazing the playoffs are from so many different perspectives. Ray is absolutely right about Colorado. They seem to be the best team in the league and have won the Stanley Cup.
I just think anything can happen in the playoffs, because teams that seem to have strong seasons and make the playoffs are not necessarily really prepared for the two-month playoff round. And I think the playoffs can really expose a team's weaknesses. They can reveal their strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately, you need to have the strength and power to go through four seven-game series and the depth to do so, knowing that injuries and of course losses will play a big role in that. It is a great excitement or seeming excitement about this fact.
I don't think this year will be any different. Some good teams will be eliminated in this first round, which will be high stakes drama for teams that have had great years. But the first round is often the hardest to win, especially as the favored team.
So we'll wait and see. Like I said, anything can happen in the playoffs, but I know it's going to be exciting TV and a lot of drama. The stakes are high, lots of teams and lots of players, but not in Edmonton where McDavid is trying to win his first Stanley Cup, so we'll see what happens.
P: Apparently you all have four different affiliations with different hockey teams in the New York area. I just wanted to get your thoughts on all three teams making the playoffs for the first time in a long time and what that means for NYC hockey and what you think about these teams' chances.
KEVIN WEEKS:I think it's great. It's great for sports and the biggest market in our league. I think it's amazing that we have all three teams. Playing for all three, they are all very different and unique, with different experiences, different fans, different stories. One thing is for sure though, the New York metropolitan area is a unique market like no other in the world. And getting all three teams to the Stanley Cup playoffs is amazing.
As mentioned by AJ, it's amazing that the Islanders did as well as they did last night. You want to talk about good drama, I get chills when I talk about it, and none of us are even on the ice, so congratulations to them. They have a great bouncer in Sorokin. He's exactly what everyone expected of him, and what's more, he talked to people in the KHL while playing there. He was the backbone of their team. We know they are not the most dynamic attacking team, but they play as a team, they know that.
As for the devil, great. Jack Hughes, I think he would have scored 110 if he hadn't been injured and would certainly have been the MVP of the league behind Connor McDavid and David Pastrnák. Incredible year for Jack Hughes among others. The Devils are the quickest and fastest team and Vitek Vanecek played very well at the net for them as they needed seven defenders last year.
For The Blueshirts, things started to fall into place at the right time within their own group, and it was another great year for Panarin and Zibanejad to become Broadway stars. Fox also, of course, Shesterkin, the reigning Vez trophy guy. Finally, when playoff hockey takes place in the most famous arena in the world, there is no price for it. In terms of fan attention and engagement with our corporate partners, I think it's a great deal for everyone involved.
AJ MLECZKO:If I'm a hockey fan, not necessarily a fan of either team, but if I'm a hockey fan and live in the area, I could personally go there every night and watch amazing hockey for ten days or whatever. With the current situation, New York and New Jersey are playing each other and the Islanders will go on tour but will be back.
It's really exciting for Islanders, franchises and fans to experience playoff hockey in this beautiful new UBS Arena. I wasn't there, I was here in Dallas, but I heard it was loud and electrifying last night. And knowing that, even if it's a big task, right. Going in you think yes - it will be easy to score against Montréal but when you look at what happened the night before against Pittsburgh you set up the Islanders to make this creation and you didn't mind. I don't know what could happen.
The Hughes' move to New Jersey is such a funny story that the first hockey family, the Hughes, sees them there together. Seeing Luke tower over his older brother and mentioning Jack in interviews. So many funny family stories, but he's clearly an amazing talent, has a great future ahead of him, and I love watching them together.
And for Chris Drury and the Rangers, he moved all-in on time, picking up big names and big scorers. It took a while but let's talk about the dynamic power play, the things they scored - all three goals are great.
What do you want to say: I think it's fantastic for the sport and just for this area, a huge market, and I can't wait to unleash it.
RAY FERRARO:For me, the shirt is probably a sign that the ball is passing from one of the older teams to the younger one. They watched Buffalo on the brink of the playoffs, and I think they'll be there next year. The senior teams, Pittsburgh and Washington, are missing this year. I think they will take a step back.
I think Jersey is the leader of these young teams that are really interesting. Experience always seems to come into play in the playoffs and I think that's something they need to work on. I think they are the fastest - the fastest team in the East, physically and the fastest team. I think the speed of the Devils will be a challenge for the Rangers as they play.
The Rangers are either: they will be or they won't be. Let's say if you bring in players who need it and they do it right whether they pass or fail, their experience this year will help them get over the top or is it impossible? Work. I think the Rangers, as always, are very intriguing about what they can and can't do. I hope Devils and Rangers play, I think it would be great.
I think the Islanders will be a huge burden for anyone who ends up playing with them. They don't give up too much, they're big, they're physical and they have a great goalkeeper. Will I earn enough points? Of course, it's been a question all year or almost all year and it will be in the first round as well. But all three teams are there, attract attention, generate interest, and that's really good for the NHL.
MAREK MESSIER:I don't have much to add except that I agree with everything Ray said. There will be talk of changing the core of the core group in New York and if they can pull it off. And of course, the Devils' inexperience and the Islanders' goals will be the topic of conversation between these three teams.
P: Do you think Edmonton has what it takes for McDavid to win his first trophy of the year? And one more point for AJ and Ray, do you think the Avalanches have proven themselves enough for any of you to seriously challenge for a second title in a row?
MAREK MESSIER:Well, I'll start with the first question.
Edmonton reached the conference finals last year with a much weaker team than this year. They are much more - they are much improved. They are deeper. you are bigger They are heavier. You know, the addition of Desharnais and Ekholm are big units that were really needed and to boost the defense we're giving them some power. I keep going back to two months of ice hockey; It takes a big, strong, solid team to play a game like this for two months.
And you know, with Kostin at the helm they are simply better. If I'm not mistaken, I think they're the hottest team in the playoffs, which is always a good sign.
I think their only competition this year - not the only one in my opinion, but I think the strongest contender this year will be Colorado, which has again made a lot of changes compared to the team it was last year. It's not the same team. You've made big changes. Are they as good as last year? I think that remains to be seen. It wasn't like that in the regular season, and Edmonton improved.
So if they meet again in the conference finals, I think it will be a different story in terms of how Edmonton can match them this year. Whether they beat them or not remains to be seen, but I think Edmonton is a much better and improved team compared to last year.
KEVIN WEEKS:I agree with it. Half of our family is from and lives in Alberta, so I hear this question all the time. Half of them are celebrating with Olje and the other half are crying because the Firemen couldn't get in.
As for the Oilers, they play much deeper and harder, they are less peripheral and they don't necessarily have to score and attack point guard now. They have players who are not only named Draisaitl or McDavid, but who can also attack in the offensive zone. He doesn't necessarily have to come out of the rush or stay in attack. Playing against them is more difficult.
Kostin was a nice addition to her. Of course, Evander Kane's health is a key factor for them as he can do things that no one else on their team can, which is to go out, be physically active and fight at all costs. So be afraid of his speed and skill. And listen, if Connor McDavid wants you on his team and he goes to the owner and wants you to re-sign with the team after they traded you, that says a lot to you.
But Ekholm and Desharnais add a lot of power to their backline, and Stuart Skinner was an All-Star this year. A young Albertan who made an All-Star appearance replacing Jack Campbell in first place. I like how the oil looks on the track. They could have an even better result than reaching the conference finals. They are much improved. Kenny Holland did a good job there.
AJ MLECZKO:As for Avalanche, that's interesting. I think Mess said in the original comments that these teams are ready for a two month grind in this playoff. When you look back at Lightning in 2019, how they went through that four-game series with Columbus and then came back, you never know.
I don't think Makar should come back, I think it's big for her. you should come back. The fact that they didn't have Landeskog was really hard for them. In my opinion, they just don't have as much depth as last year. I never want to rule out defending champions. It's there until someone knocks it down. I don't see a part for myself. I don't think Georgiev is as good as expected or as consistent.
I don't think they'll find anyone to replace what Nazem Kadri brought to their roster in last year's playoffs. I think the way they worked in the second half, the way they came back to come back and get closer to the point in the middle class, was impressive and shows that they have a championship heritage and a desire to repeat. But I don't think they will be as strong as last year.
RAY FERRARO:I was in Denver on Tuesday for an Oilers game. It was really cool because it felt different than the series of regular season games you play. You know, there are these two teams that have pretty clear goals. I mean, they're not happy to be there, they think they're one of the last teams to be there. So we talked to Jared Bednar before the game. And you know about AJ, he was talking about guys who come in or out and some of them he doesn't know, like Lanski, who has a few PhD points this week but hasn't played all year and will. It's really hard to imagine that he could come back in a playoff series and play 20 minutes and feel good and so on.
Even if he should come back, Lehkonen will come back. They didn't replace the second resort in Kadri and I think it's a hole for them. So it happened that they sound - at least in my opinion - a bit different. They play tighter and I would say less reckless. Maybe it's a more seasoned style. After all, if you want to win, you have to check, grind and play games that might not be that much fun, and Colorado figured that out last year.
I think so - maybe I value them a bit more than AJ because I think he will leave his department. I just think they are - they have the best players that few teams can match and I think Georgiev will be good enough. Left New York. He made a fuss and said, "Hey, I think I'm number one goalkeeper." And he stuck behind Henrik Lundqvist, and then of course Igor Shesterkin. I wish you luck. He gets his chance in Colorado and I don't know more than he did the job for them.
I still believe that - I don't think Colorado is as good as last year, but I still think they're the best in the middle.
P: The Penguins and Capitals will not be in the playoffs this year; We know the NHL is a little different from the NBA when it comes to stars, and it's not as star-centric. Do you think the Bruins, with a dominant season this year and of course McDavid and Edmonton, can make up for the gap between the league's two biggest stars in recent years, or will it be a bit of a setback? How long were the boys away from home?
RAY FERRARO:Interesting. Pittsburgh is certainly a big market. I don't have exact numbers, but it's always one of the most watched markets. It will - of course it will hurt. You're right, the league has always been more team-oriented. People pay attention to the stars, but man, you buy your jersey or your team and follow that team whether the name on the back changes or not.
So I don't think - I personally don't think there's a win here because Washington and Pittsburgh aren't in the playoffs. I think the interest in the Stanley Cup playoffs, first round is like - I always equate it with the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. There's a game going on everywhere, there's wild excitement everywhere, and people watch because they're interested in different stories, and I don't think this playoff will be any different.
AJ MLECZKO:I'll quickly reiterate what you said about the Devils, Ray, who are also a team that's going from strength to strength. Of course, everyone wants to see Ovechkin continue to dominate the right circle he performs in the power play, or see what Crosby can do on either end of the ice. As a fan, I'm disappointed that these guys didn't make the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
But it also leaves room for some of these teams and these youngsters, be it Jack Hughes or - of course Connor McDavid is not a young man. But those other people who take place. Take a closer look at what Cale Makar is made of and you still have Nathan MacKinnon and some of these guys.
I don't know, I think it's - personally I'd say it's above my pay grade. I love watching and talking about hockey and -- I'll let ESPN management do the numbers.
MAREK MESSIER:I see it as a rivalry and marketing campaign around the NBA and Isaiah Thomas came along and then Michael Jordan. The NHL did the same with Crosby and Ovechkin and they've been the face of the league for 15 years - and rightly so, and they've lived up to every expectation they had of the league.
Then other great players came along and we have great superstars. As for Ray, we're obviously going to miss not seeing her, but there are so many compelling stories and so many amazing stories going into the playoffs this year that it's going to be disappointing if we don't see her there. But the league is in good shape with so many great players from all sides and all the teams in the playoffs this year.
We have always said for many years: you make money in the regular season, but you made a name for yourself in the playoffs. And I have a feeling some players will get more attention this year because of their playoff performances this year.
KEVIN WEEKS:I can only agree. I see the power of superstars in the league, but we have to start with Connor McDavid. I challenge anyone to name an athlete in any sport who is significantly better than the other great players they play with or against in any sport. Not NBA, not NFL, not MLB - maybe MLB. Maybe it's Shohei Ohtani/Mike Trout/Judge.
But Connor McDavid is definitely better than anyone in the league and we have so many great players.
Another great story asks what about Jason Robertson, an Asian American kid from California who is the second all-time regular season scorer with the Dallas Stars this season versus Bobby Smith who is having an amazing year. Going forward, he will be an integral part of any international Team USA scene.
There are so many fascinating stories and so many other great players in the league who have taken their game to the next level, obviously David Pastrnák in Boston, another Czech born superstar.
It's been a really great year, even though both great Sid and great Ovi will be leaving for the post-season. There are a lot of other amazing players in the league who are really going up and I think a lot of viewers will open their eyes.
P: I'm interested in your thoughts on the team building lessons we're learning from the Devils this year as we move from 63 points to where we are now. Secondly, a few weeks ago you made a lot of comments about the Sabers on a studio show. Somehow, do you imagine the Sabers will be devils next year, and are some of the comments you've made about the Sabers the result of building up their defenses?
MAREK MESSIER:Yes, I think Buffalo is in a great position. I love the core of their team. They are all great, tall, strong, athletic players who are really starting to become stars, if not superstars of the league. And I think if you look at a team built for a two-month playoff streak, Buffalo looks like they could have it with their core.
When you look at the team and their future achievements, you certainly always know what they are aiming for, considering they have some such strong players in the team and the goalkeeper is where you need to start. And Levi seems to be - in the small sample we have, he seems to be the right age for this team and they can grow up together and go through tough times together. And then, of course, small successes along the way. So I'm very optimistic about Buffalo.
I think the Devils exceeded all expectations this year. They certainly didn't get off to a good start and it looked like they were in for another tough year of recovery. But whatever happened there because of the coaching staff, the culture and the players they brought in and then the youth who developed into great players like Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt just took the wind out of their sails this year and never looked back for myself.
I think everyone was hoping that at some point they would stumble and come back down to earth, but that just didn't happen. They just kept going. No doubt they have a dynamic player in Jack Hughes and I think he is a very underrated player. He does so many things well on the ice, 200 feet. In the end, we'll see if they have the size and strength. We know they have speed, we know they have skill and we know they have talent. But are they naturally strong and strong enough to withstand the two-month stress we know is about to happen? I know their defense is strong enough and of course their goalkeepers are inexperienced there.
There are many question marks. I think it's fair to say that any team going to the playoffs has a lot of question marks, and certainly after a great year in New Jersey that won't be carried over to hockey in the playoffs and we'll find out.
P: Of course, I'm from the Toronto Star, so my question is about the Maple Leafs. I wonder if the Leafs have what it takes this year or if they'll face ghosts like the Tampa Bay Lightning. One more thing Kevin, coming from the market: What would it mean for this team to run for the fans in this city?
KEVIN WEEKS:So I would say: do they have what it takes? They certainly are - I think they are now. No doubt they added some dimensions that they lacked. They added more jam to their group. They've added more size, more presence, and players coming in.
It's not just about attacking life in a hurry either. We all know that after the season the game is completely different. The area shrinks from 200 x 80 to 150 x 50 simply because of the increased intensity, competition, ferocity and rivalry you develop by playing against this team.
They are definitely more poised for success this year as I like the sandpaper they have added to the group to complement great players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner etc. Will Nylander has had a great year.
Samsonov was a pleasant surprise for her, which was great. The concern I expressed at the end isn't because I've been a fan of Joseph Woll since he played for college in Boston, but the bench injuries are a bit of a concern.
But as you know, Samsonov played very well this year. When the opportunity presented itself against Tampa one night, Woll stepped in and played well; Sawchuk (ph) played well. I think they have the best version of their team yet, the most complete version of their team, and let me tell you what that would mean for the market, everything.
Same, then I can make my family and all my friends and friends I grew up with stop wondering what I think about the Leaves because really -- they would actually win the round, which would actually mean something to the city, their fans and the entire league, because you want to show those incredibly talented players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nylander, and those players at their best - in the brightest possible light.
So I think it would be huge for the sport if they could beat it, and that's the best version of their team that gives them the best odds at the moment.
AJ MLECZKO:I would appreciate it if you could say your question is about Toronto. I was listening to the SIRIUS XM radio show on Sunday and one of the guys asked, "Did you watch the game last night?"
And if anyone remembers Saturday, it was 16 games. Every team played. But everyone knew he was talking about the Maple Leafs game and it was funny. I know they're based in Toronto but it was fun that Game 16 the day before everyone - did you watch the game last night and talk about the Leafs - sorry for the comparison.
KEVIN WEEKS:Good point, that's true.
RAY FERRARO:I agree with Weeksy, I think this is the best version of the Leafs and the weakest version of Lightning we've seen in the last four years.
Especially with these guys dropping in the last three years, let's not forget that the first two Stanley Cups were tightly packed because - with COVID, they were tightly packed in those years. They played until late. They had a short off-season, shorter than usual.
I mean, Mess would know better than any of us about the short term off-season and suddenly you think you're on vacation and then oh my god I'll probably have to go back to the gym because the season starts in four weeks.
They're broke, and so is Tampa. You know, you can - I think Wasilewski is the best guy in the game until someone takes the crown off him. But I think the biggest threat to Toronto in this series is that Tampa drags the series down the drain and the Leafs spend half of the series showing everyone how tough they are and not following their game.
Tampa will play hard and be as mean and physical as possible. I think just playing in Toronto will have enough scars from losing the last few years; I think I am capable of much more than in the past.
And Samsonov had a really good year. They were talking sometime towards the end of the year, Matt Murray, Samsonov, Matt Murray, Samsonov. I must have missed something because I think Samson is the clear #1.
P: I have a TV question for Ray. Last year, before the Finals, we had one of those conversations and Sean was pretty open about the learning curve in the first year, for him, for you guys who aren't sitting next to each other, all that stuff. How do you think it developed in the second year?
RAY FERRARO:Nothing can replace repetition. Last year, hell, when we went into the playoffs, we must have played 25 games together. You know, because that's all - that's all we had. Sean usually starts right after the new year when college football ends, so then we had the regular season and then we started the playoffs. And unfortunately I got COVID and missed most of the first round or the second half of the first round.
This year seems quite different to me. I think he has a general idea of when he wants to talk, and I have a general idea of when he's going to talk. More importantly, he knows when I'll stop, and I know when he'll stop. Because the biggest challenge with pacing is that you can't just wave and say, "Hey, I have to add one more thing of course because you're so far away."
Much, much more comfortable for me and I think Sean would say the same. My point is that repetition is definitely the tonic.
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