I already did my season projections on my Instagram page, but I decided to take it a step further and split these teams up into tiers for how I think they rank heading into this season.
Tier 1 – Stanley Cup Contenders: Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Edmonton Oilers
Usually, you’d only expect about three teams in this tier, but in my opinion, there are just so many potential championship teams this year that I couldn’t do less than that.
For starters, Colorado and Tampa Bay have to be here, both Stanley Cup finalists from this past postseason and both will definitely be in the hunt for Lord Stanley this year. Tampa Bay has the best goaltender in the world and their core is still all intact, and while Colorado lost some pieces in Kadri, Kuemper, and Burakovsky, they still look like the best team in the West.
The Rangers and Oilers both were the runner-ups in the conference finals, and I expect them to both be contending for a championship this year. The Rangers have Igor Shesterkin, who at worst is the second-best goaltender in the NHL, and improved their second-line centre position as well. The Oilers shed Duncan Keith out of their lineup and replaced Mike Smith with an evident upgrade in Jack Campbell in net.
Carolina had one of the best offseasons, adding Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty for nothing in return. Burns will do well in a market where he doesn’t need to be the go-to defensive guy, playing alongside players like Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin, and while Pacioretty will miss most of the regular season, he’ll be back for the playoffs and will definitely make an impact in Carolina’s offense.
Toronto will get hated on for this, but they are a championship contender, and can make a deep run if they can just get past that damn first round. At worst they stayed the same in net from last season, going from Campbell and Mrazek to Murray and Samsonov. This team with some of the worst goaltending in the league still was second in their division and took the Stanley Cup runner-ups to seven games. There’s a lot of potential in the 6ix.
Tier 2 – Playoffs Competitors: Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames
Next up is Tier 2, which are the teams that I think could be competitive in the playoffs, win a few rounds, but ultimately don’t enough to win the Stanley Cup in my eyes.
Nashville is one that shocked many in my season projections post, but I’m high on this team. They’ve got a nice looking top-nine, their defensive core is one of the best in the league, and they also have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Juuse Saros. Their coaching may not be great, but I do think Nashville could push for 2nd-3rd round in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh hasn’t won a round since 2018, but I think that’s set to change this year. They were one goal away from advancing to the second round this year, but injuries just pummeled them in the key moments. You’re never out of it when you have Sidney Crosby though, and Mike Sullivan remains as one of the best coaches in the league.
Calgary had an odd offseason, losing their two best players, but then replacing them with a top-five winger, second-line centre that just went over point-per-game, and top-20 defenseman. Their team is arguably better this year than last year, and they’ve got the best coach in the league along with them. Nothing can replicate the results their first-line from last season got, but this Flames team will still compete.
Tier 3 – Bloodbath to the playoffs: Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild
In Tier 3, these are the teams that I think will be battling hard all season to make the playoffs, and can maybe win a single round, but won’t be able to go much further than that.
Despite the loss of Robin Lehner for the whole season, and losing Max Pacioretty for nothing, I still think that the Golden Knights can make the playoffs, however at this point, I think they’re a one-and-done more than anything. I don’t think they have enough power to make a run in the postseason, and this could likely be one of the last few seasons we see them making the playoffs.
The Canucks look solid, and a full year of Bruce Boudreau will definitely help as well. It hurts that they didn’t really improve the defensive core, but Thatcher Demko is one of the league’s best goaltenders and I believe he’ll be able to make up for the blue line. Overall, this team isn’t a team that can go far in the playoffs yet, but they have the potential to make it there.
There is finally some hype around the team in the City of Angels again, as the Los Angeles Kings are getting back to being competitive, and were one win away from the second round this year. I still think this young team will go through growing pains with their youth, but they should be able to see themselves back in the postseason again. I don’t think they’ll be able to go far just because of their lack of depth defensively, but this will be a fun team to watch again and should continue to get better every year.
Senators fans, get ready for the most fun season since that playoff run back in 2017. The Senators had an insane offseason, adding Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux, and Cam Talbot. Their top-nine is one of the best in hockey, and their tandem of Talbot and Anton Forsberg should do well. Their defensive core isn’t great, but isn’t bad either, boasting one of the best defensemen in the league in Thomas Chabot. Overall, the Senators won’t be a cup contender, but I expect them to be back in the playoffs and put up a competitive first round against whoever they play.
It seems like this has been a trend for the Capitals since their cup win. Get to the playoffs, glide along, get bounced early. Sadly, I expect the same this year. They’ll be without Nicklas Backstrom for basically the entirety of the season, and age is catching up to the rest of their core. The upgrade from Vanecek and Samsonov to Kuemper and Lindgren is nice, but it isn’t enough to make them drastically better in my eyes.
What a fall from grace for the Panthers. After just one year of being a top team, I project them to fall back to middle of the pack, and at best see them as a first-round exit right now. The team just lacks offensive depth in my eyes, and along with the fact that their coaching has downgraded even worse to Paul Maurice, the Panthers won’t be as scary as they were last year.
The Wild are just there. They’ll be good enough to squeeze into a playoff spot, but only because the Central division doesn’t look great this year. Probably the easiest choice of a first-round exit for me from all of these teams.
Tier 4 – Barely Miss the Playoffs: New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins
This tier is the teams I think will be in the race for most of the season, but won’t be able to make it in the end.
The Devils had a solid season, managed to pick up Ondrej Palat, got Vitek Vanecek in net, added John Marino on their blue line. If Jack Hughes stays healthy, they could maybe push for a final wild card spot, but I have them just barely missing the cut. They’ll be fun to watch though, and good things are on the horizon.
The Blues’ defensive core and bottom-six along with their inconsistent goaltending make it hard for me to rank them in a playoff spot. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were able to do it, but I’m not holding my breath by any means either.
Dallas has too much dead weight on their offense for me to have them making the playoffs this year. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin hold them back from adding important pieces that they could use. At best they’re a second wild card and easy one-and-done, but I don’t think they even get that far.
The Islanders, Red Wings, and Blue Jackets are all teams that will be close enough to a spot where you can call it a “race,” but everyone knows they ultimately won’t get there. Just not enough yet.
The Bruins would be in Tier 2 for me if they were fully healthy, but with Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy expected to miss months of the season, it’s hard for me to have them higher than this. That’s a top-five winger and top-five defenseman that are missing long periods of time for your team. Now if they surprise me and can at least stay .500 while those two are out, I have them as a contender, but I just don’t see it happening,
Tier 5 – Mid: Winnipeg Jets
Tier 6 – Tank Season, Try and Get Bedard: Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, Seattle Kraken, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks
There’s no point in going in-depth for these ones, but these teams are mainly who I project to be bad pretty early on, as we’ll know that their season is over within the first month and a half. These are the teams you can expect to see speculated around getting Connor Bedard up until next June.