Today, ESPN NHL analysts Mark Messier, Ray Ferraro, AJ Mleczko and Kevin Weekes were joined by media for a preview discussion on the upcoming 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which begin Monday, April 17, on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC and ESPN+.
A transcript of the conversation is below:
MODERATOR: Thanks everyone for joining us today. We have ESPN NHL analysts, Ray Ferraro, Mark Messier, AJ Mleczko and Kevin Weekes, to discuss the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs coming up this Monday on ESPN platforms.
KEVIN WEEKES: Hope everybody is doing well, your families are healthy and safe.
I would say from last year’s playoffs, specifically in the Eastern Conference, all eight teams had a hundred points or better and we knew who those teams were; so that certainly allowed us to dive into the story lines a lot earlier in advance of the puck dropping and the Stanley Cup playoffs even started. All that said it was still compelling and very exciting. It was super entertaining. We know Tampa came out of the East, but we had more of a concrete idea ahead of time as to who those teams were.
This year, with the East being very different and three teams in, if I’m not mistaken, the 90-plus point range it literally came down to last night with the Islanders clinching that wild card spot behind the Panthers and of course the Panthers clinching the night before.
So, some different story lines not to mention that the fact that Crosby and Ovechkin, two of the best players in the league are not in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, so that’s also changed things going forward as we embark on this coverage here in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.
AJ MLECZKO: It’s exciting. I feel like we’ve been watching playoff hockey for a little bit now, as it did come down to this final week and so many intriguing story lines, in both conferences and very different, very different story lines.
It is, you know, you have the Islanders, you mentioned clinching in their 82nd game of the season. You have Nashville who had an emotional roller coaster, winning the shootout against Calgary to stay alive and lose passively while sitting at home last night or two nights ago.
But in terms of me going into this, a year under our belt with ESPN, I won’t approach it any differently. I think that it’s exciting and the same excitement holds every year that I’ve been able to cover the NHL, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I think that knowing — this is a very strange time. We were just talking about this before that we have no idea — we’re all going to hop on planes in 72 hours and we have no idea where we are going, but you know, you can’t go wrong.
All of these games are going to be incredible, and I’m really looking forward to some continued fantastic hockey. I’ve got my last regular season game here in Dallas tonight versus St. Louis. We’ve got one team trying to clinch the top of the central, one team who’s out but building for the future. So, I’m hoping for a compelling matchup here in Dallas tonight.
RAY FERRARO: For me, every year is kind of the same. You think you know who are the best teams, who has got the best opportunities, what are the main story lines, and then once the puck hits the ice on the first day of the playoffs, it’s all different. So, I have been lucky enough to do them for a while. And I think that the one consistency is the inconsistency of what is going to happen year to year, playoff to playoff.
And, you know, like last year — like last year would be a great example of there was a team that seemed head and shoulders above everybody and they won, and that’s Colorado. And this year it seems like it’s Boston and we’ll find out if they can win. But there’s so many times you think you know what’s going to happen and it just doesn’t. That’s why, for me, I just love it. I love these games and I love that we get to do them.
MARK MESSIER: I agree with Ray, as a fan myself, working with ESPN reminded me how incredible the playoffs are from so many different perspectives. Ray is completely right about Colorado. They seem to be the best team in the league, and they went on and won the Stanley Cup.
I just think in the playoffs, anything can happen because teams that have seemingly good regular seasons and make the playoffs aren’t necessarily really equipped for a two-month grind of the playoffs. And I think the playoffs can really expose teams’ weaknesses. Can expose their strengths, but it can also expose their weaknesses.
Ultimately, you have to have the power and the horsepower to play four seven-game series and have the depth in order to do that because you know injuries will play a big part in this, and of course, upsets. That’s a lot of upsets or seemingly upsets because of that fact.
I don’t think this year will be any different. Some good teams are going to be, you know, outed in that first round, which is going to be high-stakes drama for teams that had great years. But that first round often times is the toughest one to win, especially as a team that’s favored.
So we’ll wait and see. Like I said, anything can happen in the playoffs, but I know it’s going to be compelling TV and it’s going to be a lot of drama. And there’s a lot at stake or a lot of teams and a lot of players, but no more so with Edmonton, with McDavid trying to win his first Stanley Cup, so we’ll see what happens.
Q: Obviously all four of you have various ties to various New York area hockey teams. I just wanted to get all your thoughts on the first time in a long time having all three teams in the playoffs, and you know what that means for hockey in the New York area and also what you think of these teams’ chances going in.
KEVIN WEEKES: I think it’s awesome. It’s great for the sport and the biggest market in our league, I think it’s incredible to have all three teams. Having played for all three of them, they’re all very different and all unique, different experience, different fans, different history. But one thing is for sure, in metro New York, it’s a very unique market unlike any other one in the world. And for all three of the teams to earn their right to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is huge.
As AJ alluded to, for the Islanders to get in the way they did last night is incredible. You want to talk good drama, I’m getting goosebumps talking about it and none of us are even on the ice, so props to them. They have an amazing goalie in Sorokin. He is everything everybody thought he would be and more, talking to people back in the KHL when he was playing there. He’s been the backbone of their team. We know they’re not the most dynamic offensive team but they play as a collective unit, props to them.
In terms of the Devils, great. Jack Hughes, I think he would have hit 110 points if he wasn’t injured and certainly up there for the league MVP behind Connor McDavid and David Pastrnák. Amazing year for Jack Hughes among others. The Devils are the most up-tempo and fastest team, and Vitek Vanecek has played very well for them in the net as they went through seven goalies last year.
In the case of the Blue Shirts, everything started to gel for them at the right time within their internal group, and another huge year for Panarin and Zibanejad that have become stars on Broadway. Fox, of course as well, Shesterkin, the reigning Vezina trophy guy. And, lastly, when you have playoff hockey at the world’s most famous arena, you can’t put a price on that. For eyeballs and for fan engagement, for our corporate partners, I think it’s great for everybody involved.
AJ MLECZKO: If I’m a hockey fan, not even necessarily a fan of one of these teams, but if I’m a hockey fan and I’m living in that area, you could go in person to watch incredible hockey every night for the next ten days or whatever it is. You’ve got, right now the way it stands, New York, New Jersey playing against each other, and the Islanders will start on the road but come on back.
It’s really exciting for the Islanders, the franchise and fans that they will have playoff hockey at that beautiful new UBS arena. I wasn’t there, I was here in Dallas, but I heard last night, it was loud and electric. And knowing that even though it’s a tall task, right. You go in, you think that they are — it’s going to be an easy one point to get against Montréal, but you look at what happened with Pittsburgh the night before that, set it up for the Islanders to do that, and you don’t know what can happen.
The addition of Hughes to New Jersey is such a fun story line, the first family of hockey, the Hughes, seeing them out there together. Seeing Luke towering over his big brother and referring to Jack in interviews. So many fun family story lines, but obviously he’s a tremendous talent that has such a bright future and I love seeing him together.
And for Chris Drury and the Rangers, he went all in at the deadline, pulled in big names, big scorers. Took a little bit of time to gel, but talk about dynamic power play, things they were going to be able to do with — all three goals are great.
To your point I think it’s fantastic for the sport but also just for the area, a huge marketplace and I’m looking forward to decompress it.
RAY FERRARO: For me, I think Jersey is probably a sign of the ball starting to turn over from some of the older teams to the younger teams. You saw Buffalo come up to the cusp of the playoffs, and I think they will be in the mix of it next year. You have the older teams that are missed this year, Pittsburgh and Washington, I think they will take a step back.
I think Jersey is like the head of these young teams that are really interesting. Experience always seems to matter in the playoffs, and I think that’s something that they are going to have to work around. I think they are the fastest — the fastest team in the East, like physically the fastest team. I think that will be a challenge for the Rangers if they do play, the speed of the Devils.
The Rangers are either, it’s going to work or it’s not. Like bringing in the players they did who need the puck and the way that they need it, whether if fits or not, at that of the year, is their experience going to be something that helps shoot them over the top or is it not going to work. I think the Rangers are, as always, they are super fascinating as to what may or may not happen. I hope the Devils and Rangers play, I think that would be awesome.
I think the Islanders are going to be a colossal pain for whatever ends up playing them. They don’t give up much, they are big, they play physically and have a great goalie. Can they score enough? Clearly that’s been the question all year or most of the year, and it will be in the first round. But all three teams in, it draws eyes, it draws interest, and it’s really good for the NHL.
MARK MESSIER: I don’t have much to add other than I agree with everything Ray just said. It’s all going to be about the changing of the nucleus of the core group in New York and if they can bring it together. And, of course, Devils inexperience, and the Islanders scoring, those are going to be the talking points for those three teams.
Q: Do you feel Edmonton has all the pieces in place for McDavid to maybe celebrate his first Cup this year? And the second for AJ and Ray, have the Avalanche, do you think, proven enough to each of you down the stretch here that they are capable of making a serious run for a second straight title?
MARK MESSIER: Well, I’ll start with the first question.
Edmonton made it to the Conference Finals last year with a much weaker team than they are this year. They are much more — they are much improved. They are deeper. They are bigger. They are heavier. You know, the addition of Desharnais and Ekholm are huge pieces that were really needed, and to fortify the defense, give them some power. I keep getting back to two months of playoff hockey; you’ve got to have a big, strong, solid team to sustain that kind of play for two months.
And you know, Kostin up front, they are just better. If I’m not mistaken, I think they are the hottest team going into the playoffs, which is always a great sign.
I think the only competition for them this year — in my opinion, not the only competition, but I think the strongest competition will be Colorado this year who again has made a lot of changes from the team they were last year. They are not the same team. They made huge changes. Are they as good as last year? I guess it remains to be seen. Didn’t seem like it during the regular season, and Edmonton has improved.
So if they do meet again in the Conference Finals, I think it’s going to be a lot different story as far as how Edmonton can compete with them this year. Whether they beat them or not remains to be seen, but I do think Edmonton is a much better, improved team from what they were last year.
KEVIN WEEKES: I agree with that. Half of our family from and lives in Alberta, so I’m getting this question all the time. Half of them are celebrating with the Oil and half are crying because the Flames didn’t get in.
As far as the Oilers go, they are a lot deeper and harder to play against and they are less perimeter-driven and they don’t necessarily have to score and attack off the rush now. They have players, not just named Draisaitl or McDavid, but that can generate offense in the offensive zone. It doesn’t have to be off the rush or stay on the attack. They are harder to play against.
Kostin has been a nice piece for them to add to that. Of course, Evander Kane being healthy is an X-factor for them because he can do things nobody else on their team can do in terms of bringing the game into the alley, being physical, fighting whatever it takes. So you fear his speed and his skill. And listen, when Connor McDavid want you on his team and goes to the ownership and wants you to re-sign with the team after they trade for you, it tells you a lot.
But Ekholm and Desharnais add a lot of strength in their back end and Stuart Skinner was in the All-Star Game this year. Young Alberta kid that made the All-Star Game, taken over the No. 1 spot from Jack Campbell. I like the way the Oil look coming down the stretch. They could very much go on a deeper run even than getting into the conference final. They are much improved. Kenny Holland has done a nice job there.
AJ MLECZKO: As for the Avalanche, it’s interesting, I think it was you, Mess in the original comments saying, are these teams built for the two-month grind for these playoffs. You look back at the Lightning in 2019 rolling through and then getting bounced in that four-game series with Columbus, so you just never know.
I don’t think that with — Makar is supposed to be back, I think that’s huge for them. He should be back. Not having Landeskog has been really tough for them. They just don’t have the depth that they had last year, in my opinion. I never want to rule out the defending champions. It’s theirs until somebody knocks them off. To me I don’t see the pieces. I don’t think Georgiev has been as good as they expected him to be or as consistent.
I don’t think that they found somebody to replace what Nazem Kadri brought to their lineup last year in that playoff run. I think certainly the way they have come on the second half, right, the way they built themselves to come back and be within one point of the central division lead has been impressive and it shows that they have that championship pedigree and that drive to repeat. But I don’t see them going on as deep a run as they did last year.
RAY FERRARO: I was in Denver on Tuesday for the Oilers game there. It was really kind of cool because it felt different than a bunch of regular season games you do. You know, like you’ve got these two teams that have pretty clear aspirations. I mean, they are not happy to be in, they think of themselves in the last teams that are going to be there. So we got to talk to Jared Bednar before the game. And, you know, to AJ’s point he was talking about the guys that are out or in, and some of them they don’t know, like Landeskog has a couple of doctor’s points this week but he has not played all year and it would be really hard to imagine that he could jump back into a playoff series and play 20 minutes and feel good and all those sorts of things.
Makar should be back, Lehkonen will be back. They didn’t replace their second center in Kadri, and I think that’s a hole for them. So what has happened is they have — in my watch, anyway, is that they play a little different. They play tighter and they play, I would say, a less reckless style. Maybe it’s a more experienced style. Because eventually if you’re going to win, you have to check and grind and play games that may be are not that much fun to play, and Colorado found that last year, right.
I do think — I maybe think of them a little more highly than AJ does in that I think they are going to get out of their division. I just think they are — they have got the high-end players that not many teams can compete with, and I think Georgiev will be good enough. He left New York. He kicked up a fuss and said hey, I think I am a number one goalie. And he was stuck behind Henrik Lundqvist and then of course Igor Shesterkin. Like good luck to you. He gets his chance in Colorado, and I don’t know, he’s more than done the job for them.
I still believe that — I think Colorado is not as good as last year, but I still think they are the best in the central.
Q: You have the Penguins and Capitals that are missing the playoffs this year; we know the NHL is a little bit different from the NBA when it comes to the stars and not quite as star driven. Do you believe that the Bruins and their dominant season this year, and obviously having McDavid and Edmonton, can make up for the absence of two of the biggest stars the league has had in recent years, or will there be a little bit of a hit from ago those guys out?
RAY FERRARO: Interesting. Pittsburgh is a big market for sure. I don’t have the exact numbers, but they are always rated as one of the top viewing markets there. So that will — that will hurt, of course it will. You’re right, in that the league has always been more team driven. The people watch for the stars, sure, but man, you buy your jersey or your team and you’re following that team whether the name on the back changes on the back or not.
So I don’t think — personally, I don’t think there’s a hit here because Washington and Pittsburgh aren’t in the playoffs. I think the interest is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the first round is like the — I always equate it to like the opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. There’s games everywhere or there’s wild upsets all over the place, and people watch because they are interested and they are interested in the various story lines, and I don’t think this playoff will be any different.
AJ MLECZKO: I would echo that quickly, what you said, Ray, about the Devils, an up-and-coming team, too. Obviously everybody wants to see Ovechkin continue to dominate on that right circle that he does in the power play, or see what Crosby can do on both ends of the ice. I’m disappointed as a fan that those guys are not in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
But it also leaves room for some of these teams and these up-and-comers, whether it’s a Jack Hughes or — obviously Connor McDavid is not an up-and-comer. But these other people that have space. See a little bit more of what Cale Makar is made of, and you still have Nathan MacKinnon and you have some of these guys.
So I don’t know, I think that’s — personally I would say that’s above my pay grade. I am very happy to watch hockey and talk about it and — I’ll leave it to the higher-ups at ESPN to worry about the numbers.
MARK MESSIER: I look at it as competition and the marketing campaign around the NBA, and Isaiah Thomas came in and then Michael Jordan. The NHL has done the same thing with Crosby and Ovechkin and have been the face of the league for 15 years and deservedly so, and they have delivered on every expectation they had coming into the league.
Then you have other great players that have come in and we have amazing superstars. And to Ray’s point, of course, we are going to miss not seeing them, but there are so many compelling stories and so many incredible story lines that are in the playoffs this year that it’s going to be disappointing not to see them in there. But the league is in good lands with so many different great players across the board, and all teams in the playoffs this year.
Many years now, we always say, you make your money during the regular season but you make your name in the playoffs. And I have a feeling this year we are going to see some players that more people are going to stand up and pay attention to because of what they do in this year’s playoffs.
KEVIN WEEKES: I couldn’t agree more. I look at so much superstar power in the league, but we have to start with Connor McDavid. I dare anybody to name an athlete in any sport right now that’s that much better than the other amazing players that they play with and against, in any sport. Not NBA, not NFL, not MLB — maybe MLB. Maybe it’s Shohei Ohtani/Mike Trout/Judge.
But Connor McDavid definitively is better than anybody in the league, and we have so many great players.
Another great story line is how about Jason Robertson, Asian-American kid out of California that second all time this season in terms of points scored with the Dallas Stars in the regular season to Bobby Smith, who is having an incredible year. He’s going to be a fixture on any international scene going forward for Team USA.
There’s just so many compelling story lines and so many other great players in the league that have taken their game to the next level, David Pastrnák in Boston, of course, another Czech-born superstar.
It’s been a really awesome year in spite of the fact that both the great Sid and the great Ovi won’t be in the postseason. There’s a lot of other incredible players in the league that are going to really pull and I think open a lot of eyes for a lot of the viewers.
Q: I’m interested in your thoughts on the lessons in team building we’re learning from the Devils this year, going from 63 points to where they are. Secondly, you made a lot of comments a couple weeks ago about the Sabres on the show in the studio. Can the Sabres kind of be in some ways in your mind next year’s Devils, and were some of the comments you said about the Sabres rooted in the building of their defense?
MARK MESSIER: Yeah, I think Buffalo is in a great position. I love the core nucleus of their team. They are all great, big, strong, athletic players that are really starting to emerge as stars, if not superstars, in the league. And I think about when you look at a team that is built to withstand the two months of the playoff rigors, Buffalo looks like they might have that with their nucleus.
Certainly, with some of the depth players that they have on the team, and then goaltending where you have to start, always, when you’re looking at a team and its future successes, you know what do they have on goal. And Levi seems to be — in the small sample size that we have of him, seems to be the right age for that team and they can grow together and experience the hard times. And then of course, the small successes along the way. So I’m really bullish on Buffalo in the future.
The Devils, I think they kind of exceeded all expectations this year. They certainly did not get off to a good start and looked like it was going to be another rough year for them as they were rebuilding. But whatever happened there through the coaching staff and the culture and the players that they brought in and then the young guys emerging as great players like Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, they just caught wind in their sails this year and never looked back.
I think everybody was looking for them to stumble at some point and come back to earth and they just never did. They just kept going. They have got a dynamic player in Jack Hughes there, there’s no question, and he is in my opinion a very underrated player. He does so many things well on the ice, a 200-foot player. In the end, we’ll see if they have the size and the strength. We know they have got the quickness and we know they have got the skill and we know they have got the talent. But are they strong enough and powerful enough up front to withstand that two-month grind that we know is going to happen. I know their defense is strong enough and then of course, you know, their goaltenders are inexperienced there.
There’s a lot of question marks there. I guess you could say there’s a lot of question marks on every team going into the playoffs, and certainly no more than New Jersey, after having a great year, will that translate into playoff hockey, and we’re about to find out.
Q: Obviously I’m with the Toronto Star so my question is Maple Leafs-oriented. I wonder if the Leafs have what it takes this year, they are battling ghosts as much as the Tampa Bay Lightning. I will throw one on top, Kevin, being from the market: What would it mean for this team to go on a run for the fans in this city?
KEVIN WEEKES: So I would say, do they have what it takes? They certainly have — I think they do now. They have added some dimensions that they have missed, no question. They have added more jam to their group. They have added more size, more presence, players that get to the interior.
Again, not just living off the rush offensively. We all know that it’s a very different game in the postseason. The rink shrinks from 200 by 80 to what feels like 150 by 50, just based on the increased intensity, competition, fierceness and rivalry you develop playing against that team.
They are certainly more poised to go on a run this year because I like the sandpaper that they have added to the group to complement the great players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, etc., Will Nylander having a tremendous year.
Samsonov has been a pleasant surprise for them which has been great. My worry, which I said at the trade deadline, and not because I’ve been a fan of Joseph Woll since he played at Boston College, but it’s injuries at the backup position that are a little bit worrisome.
But as you know, Samsonov has played really well this year. When the opportunity came the other night against Tampa, Woll went in and he played well; Sawchuk (ph) played well. I think that they have the best version of their team yet, the most complete version of their team, and then to answer you what it would mean for the market, everything.
Same thing, then I can get my side of the family and everybody and all my friends and buddies that I grew up with to stop asking me what I think about the Leafs because they will actually — they would actually end up winning a round, which would mean everything to the city quite frankly, their fan base, and everything to the League because you want to showcase those amazing talented players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and Nylander and those players, you want to showcase them at the brightest — under the brightest light.
So, I think it would be huge for the sport if they can pull through and this is the best version of their team to give them their best chance at this point.
AJ MLECZKO: I will appreciate that you say your question is Toronto-centric, Sunday I was listening to the SIRIUS XM Radio show, and one of the guys asked, “Did you watch the game last night?”
And if anybody remembers Saturday, there were 16 games. Every team played. But everybody knew he was talking about the Maple Leafs game and it was hilarious. I know they are based in Toronto, but it was funny on this show with 16 games the day before, everybody — did you watch the game last night, talking about the Leafs — side note, sorry.
KEVIN WEEKES: Good point, that’s true.
RAY FERRARO: I will agree with Weeksy, I think it’s the best version of the Leafs, and I think it’s the least strong version of the Lightning that we’ve seen over the last four years.
The wear and tear on these guys over the last three years, in particular, don’t forget the first two Stanley Cups were jammed tight together because there was — through COVID, those years were jammed in. They played late. They had short off-season, shorter than normal.
I mean, Mess would know better than all of us about the short off-season, and all of a sudden you think you’re on vacation, and then probably, oh, my God, I’ve got to get back in the gym because the season is starting in four weeks.
They are banged up, Tampa is. You know, you can — I think Vasilevskiy, until somebody knocks the crown off, he’s the best guy in the game. But I think the biggest threat to Toronto in this series is that Tampa drags the series into the mud, and the Leafs spend half the series trying to prove to everybody how tough they are, and they don’t play their game.
Like Tampa is going to play hard and they are going to be mean, and they are going to be as physical as they can be. I think if Toronto just plays, they have got enough scars on them now through their losses over the past few years; I think they can handle a lot more than they have in the past.
And Samsonov has had a really good year. They were talking late in the year, at some point, Matt Murray, Samsonov, Matt Murray, Samsonov. I must be missing something because I think Samsonov is their clear No. 1 guy.
Q: I had a TV question for Ray. Last year before the finals, we did one of these calls and Sean was pretty blunt about the learning curve the first year, for him, for you guys not sitting next to each other, all that stuff. How do you feel like that evolved in year two?
RAY FERRARO: There’s no substitution for repetition. Last year, heck, when we started the playoffs, I’m going to guess that we had done 25 games together. You know, because that’s all — that’s what we had. Sean generally starts right after the new year when college football wraps up, and so we had our regular season then and started the playoffs then. And unfortunately got COVID and missed much of the first round or second half of the first round.
This year feels far different to me. I think he’s got a general idea of when he wants to talk and I have a general idea of when he’s going to talk. And more importantly, he knows when I’m going to stop and I know when he’s going to stop. Because the greatest challenge of up and down is you can’t, like, give a hand signal and say, hey, I’ve got something to add, of course, because you’re that far apart.
Far more, far more comfortable for me and I think Sean would say the same. I mean, it’s repetition is — is the tonic, for sure.