NHL Playoff Eliminated Teams: 1 Thing to Build Upon

The Stanley Cup Final is set. Starting Saturday night, the Vegas Golden Knights will face the Florida Panthers for the right to hoist the most famous trophy in sports. The Golden Knights finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference while the Panthers secured the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference but have put together a remarkable playoff run.

Related: Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov Heating Up at Perfect Time

The other 14 teams that reached the playoffs but were eliminated will see this year as a disappointment and understandably so. Every team’s goal is to win the Cup and they came up short. However, these teams have a lot to look forward to and at least one thing they can build off of to potentially win it next year. Recent winners of the Stanley Cup were able to build with what they had and similarly, the teams that reached the playoffs have the pieces in place to build a winner.

Boston Bruins: This Season’s Best Roster

The Boston Bruins’ historic regular season ended in heartbreak. They went 65-12-5 to easily win the Presidents’ Trophy but were eliminated in the first round by the Panthers in a seven-game series despite holding a 3-1 series lead.

It’s hard to improve on a historic season but the Bruins can look at this year as a reminder that they have a roster built to win the Stanley Cup. They have one of the best offenses, the league’s best defense, and a goaltender that finished the year as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Linus Ullmark. They have all the players in place to not only compete next year but win the Cup as well. Granted, there is uncertainty about some of the veterans, notably Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci who are both considering retirement. However, the key players that led the successful season will return next year with David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall leading the forward unit while Hampus Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy lead the defense. A well-built team will allow them to return next season with minimal turnover and remain one of the best in the Eastern Conference.

David Pastrnak Boston Bruins
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Along with one of the best rosters, the Bruins can also use the first round defeat as fuel for next season’s playoff run. The past two winners of the Presidents’ Trophy were eliminated in the playoffs but then went on to appear in the Stanley Cup Final the next year. The Tampa Bay Lightning used the first round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 to fuel back-to-back Cup runs and similarly, the heartbreak for the Bruins can prepare them for the upcoming season.

Carolina Hurricanes: A Great Defensive Unit & System

The Carolina Hurricanes were willed to the Eastern Conference Final by a great defensive unit. The forward unit dealt with a surplus of injuries while the offense struggled. In goal, Antti Raanta started the first five games of their playoff run while Frederik Andersen started nine of the next 10 games. While the other units had their question marks, the defense was healthy and playing at a high level in all three zones to put the Hurricanes over the top. The question is if Brent Burns, who is coming off a remarkable year but is 38 years old will retire, but otherwise, it looks to have Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Brett Pesce all back and playing at a high level next year.

Jaccob Slavin Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On top of the elite defensive unit, the Hurricanes also have a head coach and system to build off of. Rod Brind’Amour has made the team a disciplined, gap-sound, and possession-oriented one which has made them one of the most competitive in the Eastern Conference. The players have bought into Brind’Amour’s system and the Hurricanes’ ability to win low-scoring defensive battles is reflective of that. While they haven’t reached the Stanley Cup Final, this season was proof that they are on track to do so within the next few seasons led by a disciplined, well-coached, and defensive-minded group.

New Jersey Devils: Elite Young Stars

This season, the long and painful rebuild finally paid off. The New Jersey Devils made the playoffs and won their first round series against the rival New York Rangers in seven games. More importantly, it showed that the young stars are here to stay and look to be dominant players in the league for years to come. Jack Hughes scored 43 goals and 56 assists as he overwhelmed opponents with his speed and playmaking ability. Nico Hischier stood out as one of the best two-way centers in the NHL and finished the season as a Selke Trophy finalist. Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer emerged as valuable forwards and the two young skaters combined for 59 goals and 70 assists.

Jack Hughes New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The bottom line is that the Devils’ young players not only had great seasons but showed that they are ready to compete with the league’s best. Better yet, the team will only add more youth to the lineup with elite prospects Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec starting to make their way to the NHL level. The Devils established themselves as contenders this year and with their core only starting to enter its prime, the championship window will remain open for a long time.

New York Islanders: Elite Goaltending

Ilya Sorokin was a Vezina Trophy finalist and carried the New York Islanders to the playoffs. While there are question marks throughout the roster, he raises the floor of the team and makes them competitive. He gives them a chance to win on a nightly basis and in the playoffs, he’s the type of goaltender that can carry them in a deep playoff run.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders have an aging roster and an offense that is a glaring weakness, scoring only 15 goals in the first round to cost them the series in six games. However, the path to contention is straightforward with Sorokin playing at a high level. Even if the team needs to rebuild, he will make the process easier as he is a building block that is essential to success.

New York Rangers: The Right Pieces in Place

The Rangers were eliminated in the first round in a devastating seven-game series. The series defeat stung not only because they lost to the rival Devils despite winning the first two games, but also because they went all-in this season. They acquired Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane to add playoff experience to their top-six with the hopes of winning the Cup but the disappointing season leaves a lot of uncertainty for the Rangers moving forward.

Patrick Kane New York Rangers
Patrick Kane, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That said, the Rangers have a roster that can remain competitive. Even if they go through a lot of turnover this offseason, they have the right players to make them good next year. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad lead the top six while Adam Fox, who won the Norris Trophy in 2021, leads the defense. Igor Shesterkin, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2022, remains one of the best goaltenders in the game and keeps the team competitive. The Rangers not only have a good core of players but they have elite players in every position, giving them a balanced and formidable roster.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Core is Still Elite

This season was the first time that the Lightning, who have been a model franchise, looked like they lost a step. They struggled defensively throughout the season, and in the playoffs, they were outmatched in the first round and were eliminated early for the first time since 2019. This year was the first time that the exhaustion from multiple Stanley Cup Final appearances showed and they looked like an older, more fatigued team. That said, the star players on the Lightning are still great and in the prime of their careers, making the team far from an aging one.

While Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos are both 32 years old, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Mikhail Sergachev are all 29 or younger. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who remains one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, is only 28 and should bounce back from a rough season and return to his world-class form. The Lightning might have taken a step back in 2022-23, but they still have an elite core to build around and the players to put together another playoff run in 2023-24.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Finally, Playoff Success

At the moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs are going through a lot of uncertainty. The team parted ways with general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas and replaced him with Brad Treliving and a front office change could result in a summer with significant changes to the roster. However, the Maple Leafs did something they haven’t done since 2004, advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs GM
Kyle Dubas former Toronto Maple Leafs GM (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After years of heartbreak, the Maple Leafs finally got over the hump and won a series. For years, they looked like they were their own worst enemy and they couldn’t get the monkey off their back. The first round victory shows that this team is capable of making a run at the Stanley Cup and if they can keep the roster together next year, they will be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference. The series victory might be the first step for the Maple Leafs who are hoping to snap the longest Cup drought in NHL history and win their first title since 1967.

Colorado Avalanche: The Core is Still Elite

Under the same theme as the Lightning, the Colorado Avalanche have proved in recent years that as long as their core is in place, they not only have a chance to make the playoffs but finish the season as one of the league’s best teams. In 2022-23, they started with a 20-20 record and looked like a team destined for disappointment. However, they put together a strong second half, led by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar and secured the best record in the Central Division.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar. Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Avalanche have a fair share of obstacles related to their star players. Captain Gabriel Landeskog will miss next season and his career is in jeopardy with an injury that requires surgery this offseason. Devon Toews, who has been one of their best defensemen since joining the team in 2020, will play in the final year of his contract. Additionally, the Avalanche have questions about their depth and if they can find the right players to build around their stars, especially after their first round exit against the Seattle Kraken, where their roster was exposed.

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The Avalanche remain one of the favorites in the Western Conference. As long as MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Makar are playing at a high level, they will always have a chance to end the season as the top team and compete for the Cup. This season was a bump in the road for an otherwise well-built team. With elite players to build around, they will be a great team once again next season.

Dallas Stars: A Balanced Roster

This season and the playoff run showed that the Dallas Stars can win in a variety of ways. Pete DeBoer, who was in his first year behind the bench with the team, helped turn the offense into one of the best in the league to pair with a great defensive unit and elite goaltender Jake Oettinger. The Stars averaged 3.43 goals per game and allowed only 2.62 goals per game in the regular season and they beat the Minnesota Wild in the first round with their defense while overwhelming the Kraken in the second round with their offense.

Along with having a great offense and defense, they have both star power and depth capable of carrying them in the playoffs. Jason Robertson emerged as one of the elite young skaters this season, scoring 46 goals and 63 assists while Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz also stepped up in the top six. Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell led the defense while Oettinger proved he is one of the best young goaltenders in the game. The playoff run showed the depth of the roster as Ty Dellandrea, Wyatt Johnston, and Thomas Harley – three skaters 22 years old or younger – stepped up in the later lines and pairings.

Jason Robertson Dallas Stars
Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Stars had their remarkable run come to a halt in the Western Conference Final against the Golden Knights but they have a roster capable of contending next season. Joe Pavelski and Ryan Suter are both 38 and at the end of their careers and Max Domi, who scored three goals and 10 assists in the playoffs, is a free agent. However, the rest of the team is young and ready to compete for the Cup next year.

Edmonton Oilers: McDavid & Draisaitl

The story is the same from year to year with the Edmonton Oilers. They have two of the best players in the league, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who carry the team but the duo has yet to lead the team to a Cup. In the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oilers reached the Western Conference Final but were swept by the eventual champion Avalanche. This year, they were eliminated in a hard-fought six-game series by the Golden Knights in the second round. There’s a lot of pressure for them to win when they have two of the best players in the game, two Hart Trophy-caliber skaters, and every year that ends in disappointment only amplifies that pressure.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At the same time, the Oilers’ star power has given them a lot of room for error and will continue to do so moving forward. They might not have the best supporting cast but they have two players that they can build a contender around. They still have a lot of work to do to build a team capable of winning the Cup, but they have two players that will give them a chance every year.

Los Angeles Kings: Offensive Firepower

This season showed that the Los Angeles Kings have an elite offense capable of willing them to a Cup. They averaged 3.34 goals per game and overwhelmed opponents both with speed and great puck movement in the offensive zone. What stands out about their offense is that they have both the stars and depth players that can create scoring chances and find the back of the net. Adrian Kempe scored 41 goals while Anze Kopitar and Kevin Fiala added 51 goals and 95 assists to the top six. By season’s end, the forward unit had 11 skaters with 10 goals or more making the offense one of the deepest in the NHL.

Anze Kopitar Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Kings have a lot of room for improvement, especially after the first round defeat to the Oilers in six games. They have room to improve defensively and they need to find reliable goaltending after the unit was a mess this year. The offense being elite is a great starting point and will make the Kings a competitive team next year as well.

Minnesota Wild: They Found Their Goaltender

For the third year in a row, the Minnesota Wild suffered a first round exit. They built a 2-1 series lead but were outmatched by the Stars who won three consecutive games to take the series. This season was unique in that they weren’t led by their offense despite Kirill Kaprizov, Matt Boldy, and Mats Zuccarello playing at a high level. Instead, they had one of the league’s best defenses, allowing only 2.67 goals per game led by a strong defensive unit and goaltenders Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Filip Gustavsson Minnesota Wild
Filip Gustavsson, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If there’s something the Wild can build on, it’s that they found their starting goaltender for the future. Gustavsson finished the season with a .931 save percentage (SV) and a 2.10 goals-against average (GAA) on 1,173 shots with 31.3 goals saved above average (GSAA). At 24 years old, he looks to be the starter for years to come and provide the Wild with stability in the net. This season was a disappointment for them, but after years of struggling to find a reliable starter, they finally found one to help them contend moving forward.

Seattle Kraken: Strong Depth

After a disappointing inaugural season, the Kraken went 46-28-8 to secure a playoff spot and upset the defending champion Avalanche in the first round. The year showed how deep the roster is with 13 skaters scoring 13 goals or more and the team fielding multiple reliable defensive pairings on a nightly basis. One game, Jared McCann, who scored 40 goals and 30 assists, would step up to lead the Kraken to a victory but the next night, Adam Larsson’s defensive brilliance would carry the team. The depth propelled them to the playoffs and allowed them to push the Stars to the brink in a hard-fought seven-game series in the second round.

Adam Larsson Seattle Kraken
Adam Larsson, Seattle Kraken (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Kraken win with depth and it will be what carries them to a Cup one day. While they don’t have star-caliber players like some of the other teams in the Western Conference, they have multiple great forward lines and defensive pairings that give them an edge.

Winnipeg Jets: Morrissey & The Defense

The Winnipeg Jets are facing an offseason of uncertainty, especially with their core. The veteran players on the roster are starting to decline and there’s speculation about whether Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Blake Wheeler will return next season. Additionally, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who will play in the final year of his contract, might be traded to a team willing to go all-in next season. The Jets have a lot of questions about their roster but one thing they won’t have to worry about is their defensive unit, led by Josh Morrissey who established himself as one of the best two-way players in the game.

Josh Morrissey Winnipeg Jets
Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Morrissey led the Jets on the ice this year and his production helped propel them to the playoffs. He scored 16 goals and 60 assists while contributing 5.0 defensive point shares and 119 blocked shots, making an impact in all three zones. Along with Morrissey, the unit looked great last season under new head coach Rick Bowness with Neal Pionk, Dylan Samberg, and Dylan DeMelo all putting together strong seasons. The Jets might re-tool this offseason but they have a great defensive unit to build around.

Other Things Playoff Teams Can Build Off Of

Playoff experience goes a long way and all 14 teams that made the playoffs but were eliminated will use that loss as fuel for next season. The two teams in the Final, the Panthers, and the Golden Knights, had to suffer multiple tough playoff defeats in recent years before reaching the Final. The Panthers were swept by the Lightning in 2022 in the second round and lost in the first round to them as well in a six-game series in 2021. The Golden Knights missed the playoffs in the 2021-22 season but in 2021 and 2020, they lost in the Western Conference Final while in 2019, they blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round against the San Jose Sharks.

Throughout the history of the game, the teams that won the Cup went through hardship and tough defeats first. Before the Lightning won back-to-back titles they were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round. The Avalanche won the Cup in 2022 but were eliminated in the second round three consecutive years before that. The Oilers dynasty in the 1980s was fueled by their 1983 Stanley Cup Final defeat to the Islanders while the Islanders won four titles in a row because of their playoff defeats in the 1970s.

The teams that made the playoffs this season proved that they are good enough to compete for the Cup. However, only a few of them will be able to use this year’s defeat as fuel for a deep playoff run next year.

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