Playoff hockey is getting closer, and the races are heating up.
As of this writing, a quarter of the sixteen playoff spots have already been filled up, with three of those coming from the West Division. Toronto is opening up a decent margin on the rest of the North, while the Central and East are looking to be dogfights. There’s even drama involving the bottom spots, as the West seems to be without a clear favorite and defending Western Conference Champion Dallas looking to claim a spot despite a slow start.
In other big news, it’s looking like hockey will be a lot different from this point forward. Hockey will be returning to ESPN shortly, while Turner Media has beaten NBC for the second block. It will be very interesting to see how that all unfolds, especially with ESPN and Turner’s strong ties to basketball. With the NHL and NBA having their seasons and playoffs start around the same time, what logistical issues will arise for both networks as they accommodate two sports simultaneously? It’s definitely a situation worth monitoring going into this offseason.
For now, though, let’s focus on this season. By now, we have an idea where everyone is going to be and we can safely evaluate how each team’s season went, so I decided to run an interesting exercise for this week’s rankings. For this week, I’ll grade each team’s season from A to F, taking not only performance, but where the team was expected to be at the beginning of the season into account. Don’t be too surprised to see a few bottom-feeders pick up positive receptions, while teams in the middle get marked down.
Has your team passed the test, or flunked out entirely? And where do the teams rank after last week? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: These rankings are based on games played and statistics recorded as of April 25.
1. Vegas Golden Knights (+2): A. Considered a Stanley Cup contender at the start of the year, the Golden Knights have done everything to cement themselves as just that. Alex Pietrangelo is finally starting to heat up, which could prove devastating to opponents at this stage of the season.
2. Colorado Avalanche (-1): A. A couple of inconsistent stretches here and there, but they’re still a powerhouse when completely healthy. A second-round series against Vegas will be must-see TV.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (-1): A. It took a few tries, but the Hurricanes have finally clinched a spot in the playoffs. With no goaltending issues to set them back, they’re ready to prove they belong in the category of the NHL’s elite.
4. Florida Panthers (+3): A. If there was ever a team that defined the term ‘post-hype breakout’, this is it. A year after a disappointing start to the Quenneville-Bobrovsky era, picking up spare parts like Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair have helped to unlock this team’s potential.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning (-1): B-. They’re still a strong team, but they haven’t dominated as expected. Getting Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos will be critical for a playoff run, but repeating as Stanley Cup champions will not be easy.
6. Washington Capitals (-1): A-. Not as impressive as the heads of the class, but they’ve still been strong enough to put up a fight in the East. Alex Ovechkin’s injury definitely complicates matters, however, and a poor stretch could mean drawing a playoff pest in the Islanders for the First Round.
7. Minnesota Wild (+1): A. The Wild have long been considered a bland team, stuck between high lottery pick and first-round cannon fodder. Not anymore, has the stellar play of young players like Kirill Kaprizov and Kaapo Kahkonen gives them championship upside for the first time since 2012.
8. Boston Bruins (+1): B+. It hasn’t always been easy for the Bruins, but they’ve managed to stay with the big dogs in the East. A key component to their latest success: the second line of Taylor Hall, David Krejci, and Craig Smith have been the complement to the Perfection Line they’ve desperately needed.
9. New York Islanders (+2): A-. They’ve been exactly what you would expect: average on offense, but nearly lights-out on defense and goaltending. Their records against Washington and Pittsburgh have me concerned, but Barry Trotz is undefeated in the First Round, so something has to give there.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins (Even): A-. Games like the one they played against Boston on Sunday are exactly the type of performances you need in the postseason. It’s a good look for a team I thought could be the odd man out in a stacked East Division going into the season.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs (-5): B+. I’d give the Leafs an A for their work atop the North, but this recent stretch of play has provided more than enough concern. If they somehow lose in the First Round again, it might be the most embarrassing playoff exit Toronto has seen in the last ten years (yes, even worse than the 2013 Game 7 choke against Boston).
12. Edmonton Oilers (+1): B. Connor McDavid may be the only player to hit the 100-point plateau this season, and Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie have done their part on the back end. Too bad most of the key contributors remain inconsistent, and how much gas does Mike Smith have left in the tank?
13. Winnipeg Jets (-1): B+. This team would be a dark-horse contender, if they had worked harder to improve the defense at the trade deadline. The playoffs don’t exactly favor teams that require high-octane offense to win…
14. New York Rangers (Even): C+. The Rangers haven’t had that big push just yet, but that might be more a product of the division they play in. If they had a young forward break out, this team would be in the playoffs, and their grade would be much higher.
15. Nashville Predators (Even): C. If the Predators miss the playoffs, their decision to not sell at the deadline could come back to haunt them. That grade has room to drop quickly.
16. Dallas Stars (Even): C-. Unlike the Predators, the Stars have the chance to have their grade rise if they’re able to chase them down and sneak into the playoffs. It’s still been an up-and-down year for a team that nearly made it all the way last time, but the destination may end up being a lot more valuable than the journey.
17. Montreal Canadiens (Even): C. Another team whose grade could fall dramatically if they miss the postseason. They have a slightly larger margin of error than Nashville, but they can’t get too confident.
18. St. Louis Blues (+1): D+. The Blues were expected to be one of the big guns in the West, but they have been relegated to holding off Arizona for the final playoff spot. If they can hold on despite their difficult schedule, they will have earned it.
19. Philadelphia Flyers (+2): D. It’s hard to believe this is largely the same group that dominated the second half of last season. Expect a coaching change, a minor overhaul to the defensive corps, and praying to the deities of Broad Street that Carter Hart can regain his confidence.
20. Vancouver Canucks (+3): D+. Their post-COVID success has been a nice story, but it comes too late for this season. The big moves this offseason have done little to move the needle, and GM Jim Benning is looking like a decent bet for termination.
21. Chicago Blackhawks (-3): C-. This season has been a gut punch for Blackhawks fans, with Andrew Shaw joining Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford into retirement. That said, Alex DeBrincat’s bounce back and the emergence of young stars have this group closer than they expected to be.
22. Arizona Coyotes (-2): D+. They have a golden opportunity to make the playoffs, but they’ve picked a terrible time for a slump. Success against some of the weaker teams in their division is crucial if they want to play deep into May.
23. Calgary Flames (-1): D. They’re trying to make a playoff push, but I just don’t think they have the tenacity required to see it through. It’s been an unfortunate black mark against Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, who have developed poor tendencies to disappear in critical situations.
24. San Jose Sharks (Even): C-. Father Time hasn’t come to claim Brent Burns or Evander Kane yet, so that’s good. The bad news is Timo Meier and Kevin LaBanc haven’t shaken off the inconsistency, and goaltending is still shoddy as ever.
25. Los Angeles Kings (Even): C. It’s unlikely they make the playoffs, but they could at least make things interesting. With nothing to lose, now might be an excellent time to get Quinton Byfield and/or Alex Turcotte in the lineup to see how they handle the NHL game.
26. Detroit Red Wings (Even): B-. Yep, the Red Wings actually get a decent grade. They’ve improved dramatically over last season, younger players are beginning to emerge, and Jakub Vrana looks like he’ll be a core contributor for a long time.
27. Ottawa Senators (+1): D-. Nothing much to say here, as the Senators seem locked into the basement of the North Division. I will keep pounding the table on Filip Gustavsson, especially with Matt Murray likely finished for the season.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets (-1): F. A lackluster season that ended up with key pieces traded and a white flag raised since the end of March. John Tortorella is a near-certainty to be fired, as his style of play no longer seems to match what the Blue Jackets are aiming for.
29. Anaheim Ducks (Even): D-. Offense still isn’t there consistently, John Gibson cannot carry this team on his back, and the prospect core of Sam Steel, Max Jones, and company seem to have hit the ceiling for the most part. At least Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale will be useful in the near-future.
30. Buffalo Sabres (+1): F. Don Granato has the Sabres playing better, and it might be enough for him to shed the interim label and be at the helm next season. Still, the taste of 18 straight losses lingers.
31. New Jersey Devils (-1): F. They’ve knocked the Sabres out of dead last, which is enough to call this season a failure. They are in a decent position to get better this offseason, however, so they need to take advantage.