Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.
Note: Order within tiers does not matter.
1 – The Elite
Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs
The first few teams here were easy.
The Stanley Cup champions return the main pieces of their core, including the best defenseman in the league. Losing Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Darcy Kuemper is significant and they added nobody of note at forward to fill the holes. Certain players will have to step up, and Artturi Lehkonen — perhaps the most underrated player in the league — getting paid indicates he’s one of the players they are counting on. Until proven otherwise, they are the elite of the elite.
Tampa Bay is in a similar boat. Losing Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh hurts. Vladislav Namestnikov was a nice little signing and a good fit, but he’s not a needle-mover. When you go to three straight Stanley Cups, winning two, you earn the benefit of the doubt and will have to actively play your way out of this tier.
The New York Rangers are loaded with needle-movers and have arguably the best goalie in the world, which will get you far as it did for them last season. It will be up for debate throughout the season whether Vincent Trocheck was an upgrade on Ryan Strome, but the betting money here is that he is. Losing Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp hurts, as each fit in well with the Rangers last year, but it’s likely they will look to add yet again at the deadline because they look a forward or two away.
The Carolina Hurricanes finished third in the league last season. They can’t get over that second-round hump and made some notable changes this summer to try to get there. Brent Burns is a difference-maker and if Max Pacioretty can return, he gives Carolina another established goal-scorer. They are as deep as anyone in the league.
The Leafs will be a controversial choice here and it’s a fair debate. They haven’t been able to get past the first round and their goaltending is suspect. They were 27th in 5v5 save percentage last season and still finished fourth. The Leafs have the structure and offense to outplay bad goaltending, but that’s a dangerous game. These tiers are not just about playoff success, the regular season matters and they are a strong bet to finish top five. So here they are, in the top five.
2 – Solid playoff teams that will be a problem (West)
St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers
Fans of a number of these teams will have a problem with being left out of the the elite club, and that’s fair.
The St. Louis Blues arguably gave the Avs their toughest playoff series last year. They lost David Perron and Ville Husso, who led them in starts last year, and didn’t readily replace either. If they kept both I’d probably bump them up a tier, but we have to see how their goaltending in particular holds up.
The Calgary Flames are in a similar boat. If they returned last year’s team they would be up a tier even after that Round 2 debacle. I would argue on paper they are actually better this season, but they have to prove it with so many new faces. We’ll revisit this midseason and they could easily slide up.
Minnesota and Dallas have a lot more to prove. The Wild are rock solid but it’s very difficult to win in this league without a star offensive center, so we’ll wait and see with Marco Rossi. The Stars are strong at the top of the roster but face depth issues. Their forwards fall off after the seventh forward and the defense falls off after the third defenseman. It makes them a problem in the playoffs when teams lean harder on their stars, but the depth over 82 keeps them in this tier.
Oilers fans might have the biggest problem being here after the team went to the conference final last year. But they did struggle last season and most new coaches give a spark to their clubs. Jay Woodcroft was no different, but now this is a normal 82. Connor McDavid alone arguably puts you in the elite club, let alone adding Leon Draisaitl to that mix. I need to see it over a full season, though. Last season felt too up and down and their goal differential was middling among playoff teams.
3 – Solid playoff teams that will be a problem (East)
Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals
The Florida Panthers go from Presidents’ Trophy winners to a third-tier club. Going into last season they would have started here and bumped up to Tier 2 by midseason. Matthew Tkachuk is a star but their defense is an eyesore and I just can’t get past that. Anthony Duclair being out to start the season is also a bigger deal than it’s getting credit for.
A healthy Bruins team could join the elite club before too long, but for now they aren’t healthy and so it will be interesting to see how the first few months go for them. Will they be playing catchup? Their team is as deep as anyone and has star talent, but there are legitimate questions in net. Nobody will want to play them in the playoffs.
The Penguins looked primed to go on a run last season until Sidney Crosby got hurt. They have the oldest team in the league, but they are still good. Jeff Petry should rebound and has gas left in the tank. Tristan Jarry emerged last season. But it’s fair to wonder how the oldest team in the league holds up over 82.
Washington is in a similar boat as the second oldest team. But they upgraded in net, which was a huge sore spot for them, and they have all the pieces for a long run. Losing Nick Backstrom is sad on so many levels, and they probably need to add a defenseman as well. They are good, without question, but are they great? They’ll need to prove that.
4 – Wild-card contenders with higher ambitions (West)
Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Vegas Golden Knights
There are three teams here that fans will surely think should be a tier higher. L.A. made the playoffs without Drew Doughty down the stretch and added Kevin Fiala in the offseason. There is a good core here but the West is tough. I can’t say they are a lock in good faith. They had a few players have career years or revivals last season. Will that carry over? They will be in a battle to make it.
Nashville also made the playoffs and had a number of players go off for career seasons. Similarly, is adding Nino Niederreiter and Ryan McDonagh enough to account for any drop off? Juuse Saros is a stud but I worry they are riding him into the ground. It’s a bummer he didn’t play in the playoffs last season after carrying them all year. They appear to be going for it with this core, but I’m not sure those player can repeat their career seasons.
Vegas is very good on paper, and Logan Thompson has shown a ton of promise in net. Simply put, they have to earn anything higher than this. They were a mess off the ice last season, battling injuries, the salary cap and inconsistent play. They have the pieces in place to easily bump up a spot, or even two, but they will need to show they can come together as a team to get there. A healthy Mark Stone alone might move them up a tier.
4 – Wild-card contenders with higher ambitions (East)
Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders
Columbus shocked the hockey world by winning the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes and he’ll help them win games. They had 81 points last season. The gap between them and the playoff cutoff was not as big as some of the teams Columbus is ranked ahead of here. There are legitimate holes at center and defense, but they are strong in net and should be able to score. Cole Sillinger is an emerging difference-maker, too.
The Islanders have the opposite of shiny new toy syndrome, but there is substance here. They started with a 13-game road trip last season and a number of injuries. Even still, they finished with 84 points and only a minus-6 goal differential. Their defense is good when healthy. They have arguably the best goalie tandem in the league. While their forwards lack pop, it’s a collection of solid players with a few goal-scorers sprinkled in.
It might be a hot take but I think people are sleeping on them. They looked like a tired team last season coming off back-to-back Eastern Conference final appearances. That won’t be the case this season. They have a lot of good NHLers with pride and the type of goaltending to make them a problem.
5 – Grasping for a wild-card spot (West)
Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets
The Canucks made a late push last season and Bruce Boudreau is legit. He finds ways to win. They also have talent. Thatcher Demko is a star, as is Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson. But they need more than that in their own zone. They banked too much on Oliver Ekman-Larsson last season and it didn’t pay off — and it likely won’t again this season. They added no other real players of substance on defense, and top free agent signing Ilya Mikheyev is already hurt to start the season. They will compete, but it will be an uphill battle to get into the playoffs.
The Jets are in a similar spot and did even less in the offseason. Blake Wheeler being stripped of the captaincy does not constitute as a big move. They have enough good pieces to win games and be in the hunt, but why should this season be any different from their 89-point season a year ago?
6 – Grasping for a wild-card spot (East)
New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators
Both of these teams think they are ready for the playoffs. But both will need to prove it. The New Jersey Devils have talent in spades and pairing Palat’s experience with some of their youth will benefit them. Goaltending is a massive question mark and their team scored at a middle-of-the-pack clip last year. Going from 63 points to a playoff spot is a huge ask. I think they were better than their 63-point campaign suggested — which was the case when their defense was healthy — but whether they can take a huge jump will depend largely on their goaltending coming through in a tough division.
The Senators are in a similar boat. They had 73 points last season and made some major moves in the offseason, but they are counting on rookie Jake Sanderson to help anchor their defense, which is something playoff teams don’t usually do. Maybe he emerges, but it’s a big ask. The forwards are skilled but will they do enough to control play at 5v5? There are legitimate questions around a number of their top six forwards in that regard. You need a strong defense and 5v5 play to make the playoffs.
7 – Stuck in purgatory with possible good times ahead
Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, Seattle Kraken, Detroit Red Wings
The Sabres hold the longest playoff drought in the league and while it will likely continue this season, they are starting to build a foundation. They have promise at every position and just need some time to gel and develop — in goal in particular. They have some game-breakers coming at forward and Owen Power is the real deal on the back end.
The Anaheim Ducks flirted with a playoff spot in the first half of last season before falling off and selling at the deadline. They added three “plus” NHLers in the offseason in John Klingberg, Strome and Vatrano. Will the real John Gibson please standup? If he does, the Ducks could surprise.
Seattle had a tough first season followed by a solid offseason (Oliver Bjorkstrand is really good!). They are deep on paper. Phillip Grubauer rediscovering his game would go a long way. At this point they have to prove they are more than the 60-point team they were last season.
The Red Wings have a number of young pillars and added a bunch of NHLers over the summer. If Husso is the real deal that will bump them up, but you could have said the same thing with Alex Nedeljkovic last year. Perron and Copp are legit. Mo Seider is a stud. But the defense and goaltending have too many question marks for me still.
8 – Stuck in purgatory but it might be getting worse
San Jose Sharks, Philadelphia Flyers
The Sharks are bottoming out. They made no real swings in the offseason and simply traded away Brent Burns for little in return. They are lacking star power but have too many good players to completely hit the basement. The team might actually have to sell off more to help compile draft picks.
The Flyers might not have to sell anything to bottom out. It’s unfortunate because with a healthy Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis — a legit 1C and top pairing defenseman — they would be reasonably competitive. Those are huge positions to fill and on paper they had them. With neither healthy, with questions in net, and the domino effect on defense, it could get ugly.
9 – Happy to lose
Arizona Coyotes, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks
This was perhaps the easiest group to make. The Coyotes have been tanking ever since new management came on board and have done nothing to prove otherwise. Will they finally just trade Jakob Chychrun?
The Canadiens have made a series of moves to situate themselves for the future: selling off Jeff Petry, buying Sean Monahan for a draft pick before presumably pumping and dumping him, and absorbing Evgenii Dadonov to move Shea Weber’s contract. They are doing the right things while icing a weak roster in the process.
The Chicago Blackhawks started the fire sale last season but the main show will be this season with Patrick Kane and possibly Jonathan Toews getting shipped out. Arguably no team in the league needs Connor Bedard more than them, and they will do their part to tilt the odds in their favor to get him.
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