With the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks officially kicking off the NHL season in Prague on Friday, the preseason is officially almost over.
Every team is going to have some level of expectation headed into the year. The Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning have lost key contributors, but they will both look to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final. The Florida Panthers were the President’s Trophy winner last season, but they will be hoping that new acquisition Matthew Tkachuk will take them to the next level. Teams that missed the playoffs last year like the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and Columbus Blue Jackets all made high-profile moves this offseason, but will it be enough to knock some of their competitors out of the playoff hunt?
Meanwhile, other teams will face a fair amount of questions coming into the year. The bottom four teams are in varying stages of their rebuilds, but all are expected to be on Connor Bedard watch all season long. The Vegas Golden Knights lost some key pieces due to their cap woes, and another disappointing campaign could see another summer of bloody transformation. The Boston Bruins are dealing with significant losses on the injury front; will that cost them going forward?
1. Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche lost several key pieces to their Cup run (Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Darcy Kuemper), and injuries to the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin could pose problems in the early going. This team still has some of the best talent available, however, and the defending champs deserve the top spot until further notice.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning: Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh became cap casualties, but this is still a deep team led by all-world talent and a capable power structure. They are still firmly on dynasty watch until a team is capable of consistently bringing them down.
3. Carolina Hurricanes: Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty (when the latter is healthy) will add recognizable talent to a team that’s been quietly building itself up over the past few seasons. They are now where Colorado was: a team more than capable of winning the Cup, but another disappointing postseason could raise some red flags.
4. Florida Panthers: Matthew Tkachuk is the type of player that Florida lacked in their postseason run last year, and the Panthers committed heavily to him in the blockbuster trade. The aggression in the front office could cost them in the near-future, but none of that will matter if the Panthers finally get one on their in-state rival and win a Cup of their own.
5. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers made it all the way to the Western Conference Final last season, and they brought in Jack Campbell to hopefully give them some stability in net. Last season’s finish cannot be the exception in the McDavid-Draisaitl era: it should be the new standard.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs: This roster has a ton of talent on it, but Toronto’s gamble on a Matt Murray-Ilya Samsonov goaltending tandem will be the tipping point on their season. Ownership has been patient with the Dubas-Keefe regime despite continued postseason struggles, but how long can that reasonably last?
7. Calgary Flames: It’s rare to see a team that lose its two top players be this high on any rankings list, but the Flames did a great job acquiring the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and Mackenzie Weegar to give the team a facelift. They got a lot of career years last season; can Calgary build on that?
8. Minnesota Wild: Despite the cap crunch that cost the Wild Kevin Fiala, there’s still a lot to like in Minnesota. Kirill Kaprizov proved he was worth his large extension last season, the depth and young players should provide some excitement, and the goaltending duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and (Sports Nerd favorite) Filip Gustavsson is a sleeper for the Jennings Trophy.
9. New York Rangers: The Rangers did make it to the Eastern Conference Final, but they relied heavily on Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin to make it that far. If Vincent Trocheck jells with his new team quickly and/or some of the younger players take the next step up in their development, they can ensure that they can make it back to that level and beyond.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins: While we can debate the long-term merits of the Penguins keeping Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for one final crack at glory, it essentially guarantees the Penguins will remain at least competitive. They were one win away from knocking out the Rangers with their third-string goaltender. so better health could be the difference for them.
11. St. Louis Blues: The Blues locking up Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou long-term were some of the best moves of the offseason, but they’ll still be hoping to rely on internal replacements for the pieces they lost. The key question: are we going to see the Jordan Binnington who lost his starting job in the regular season, or the one who regained it in the playoffs?
12. Nashville Predators: The Predators re-signing Filip Forsberg was a huge victory, while bringing in Nino Niederreiter and Ryan McDonagh suggests that they can see a playoff contender with this group. They’ll need some help to get there, but Nashville might not be ready to go quietly just yet.
13. Washington Capitals: These next few teams are all interchangeable due to their similar outlooks: good enough to make the playoffs, but not a guarantee to make it there. Alex Ovechkin’s still hunting Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record and Darcy Kuemper should be an improvement in net, but injuries to leaders like Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson won’t help them.
14. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings’ strong showing against the Oilers in the playoffs helped their long-term outlook, and adding Kevin Fiala and a healthy Drew Doughty should help them out immensely. They need the prospects to start taking the next steps, and the goaltending can’t let up after a better-than-expected campaign.
15. Vegas Golden Knights: Despite losing Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov, the Knights still have more than enough talent to push them over the top and remain competitive. That said, they have a Robin Lehner-sized question mark in net, and the front office’s devil-may-care attitude with asset management could be their downfall just as easily as it could be their saving grace.
16. Boston Bruins: Boston being in a deep division, dealing with injuries to key players, and getting older in the offseason are some major red flags to keep in mind to their potential. Keep an eye on them in the early going; how they weather the early storms could be indicative of their ultimate fate.
17. Dallas Stars: The Stars’ offseason is still incomplete until they can finally bring back Jason Robertson. If he gets signed, Dallas is a firm middle-of-the-road team; if they have to deal him, they will drop dramatically.
18. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks locked up their core by re-signing JT Miller, made a couple of underrated moves by signing Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko, and have a front office that knows how to win games. Still, the defense is a massive work in progress outside of Quinn Hughes, and Bruce Boudreau’s playoff record…leaves a little bit to be desired.
19. Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings already had a promising young core in the works, and they bolstered it with several veteran free agents this offseason. There are very few teams in greater position to make the jump to the playoffs this season, which would be huge for a young team trying to find its way.
20. Ottawa Senators: The Senators looked to be in position to return to the playoffs by adding Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux to create a devastating top six, but Cam Talbot’s injury means the Senators will have uncertainty in net again to start the season. With the defense already a question mark, they have the potential to make the playoffs or fall apart based on their early record.
21. New York Islanders: The Islanders had a lot of thing go wrong last season, but they did nothing to fix what has long been a mediocre offense. It doesn’t matter how good the defense or goaltending is if the Islanders don’t have any consistent scoring threats, so they need something to break their way on that end of the ice.
22. Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus shocked the hockey world by landing Johnny Gaudreau, and he and Patrik Laine will create one of the more exciting duos on the ice. That said, there are still some questions as far as center and defensive depth are concerned, so those will have to be addressed for the Blue Jackets to make any significant noise.
23. Anaheim Ducks: Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish lead an exciting group of players, and adding free agents like Ryan Strome and John Klingberg can only help their chances to make noise in a wide-open Pacific Division. They’ll need a bounce-back campaign from John Gibson, however, to live up to the potential they have.
24. New Jersey Devils: Adding Ondrej Palat and Vitek Vanecek to a younger team will help in a deep Metropolitan Division, and Jack Hughes has all the potential to become one of the league’s superstars. The problem is that they’re in a deep division and conference, which might lower their ceiling below what it could and should be.
25. Winnipeg Jets: While Connor Hellebuyck and a strong offense could keep the Jets competitive, the drama surrounding this team has reached a fever pitch. This is a pivotal season for a team once considered a Cup contender, and a bad year on the ice could create irreparable damage off of it.
26. Seattle Kraken: An interesting one-two punch of Matty Beniers and Shane Wright should set the Kraken up for years at center, while Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand should give them some much-needed punch. They’re certainly a more traditional expansion experience compared to Vegas, but that might not be a bad thing.
27. Buffalo Sabres: There’s a lot of young talent in Buffalo right now, which should put them in nice position for the future. However, goaltending and the fact that the teams near them in the Atlantic got better likely means another year without a postseason.
28. Montreal Canadiens: You can essentially copy-paste Buffalo’s statement here. I like the young talent pool and coaching they have, but they don’t have the defense and goaltending to make much noise compared to their counterparts.
29. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks traded Brent Burns, but they’re still locked in to some awful contracts and can’t seem to commit to a rebuild just yet. The David Quinn-Mike Grier regime has their work cut out for them, and this will not be a quick fix.
30. Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on their roster for now, but once one or both are traded out? This has potential to be the worst team in the league.
31. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers chose to bring in Tony DeAngelo and Nicolas Deslauriers over Johnny Gaudreau, have already lost to Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis to injury, and the roster has clear signs of a lack of direction in its construction. I feel bad for Carter Hart, who could be the scapegoat for John Tortorella’s postgame press conference…honesty, shall we say?
32. Arizona Coyotes: What can we say about the Coyotes? They are the team most built to tank, but is that a good idea with a long-term relationship with Tempe still hanging in the balance?