Stanley Cup tiers: Contenders and pretenders

Championship tiers, baby.

The 2021-22 NHL season is upon us, so it’s time to slot teams in an inflexible position through a totally arbitrary tier system.

Remember: these positions are binding, people.

The standard

By any other measure, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a disastrous offseason. They not only lost three incredibly important players, but each piece from a line that did something for the team that no other combination could. Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow were a problem for opponents, bringing a measure of completeness to a roster that was only then prepared to achieve its potential: back-to-back Stanley Cups.

It won’t be easy to re-imagine that third line, or the sort of mix throughout the depths of the lineup that will allow Jon Cooper to create and take advantage of mismatches. But if any organization is up to the task — which is to sustain from within — it is the Lightning.

Even so, it seems implausible in the modern era to bag a third consecutive championship. The expectation should be that they falter, but for now we have to give the Lightning the recognition, and seeding, they deserve.

Championship or bust

We could fast-forward to the Western Conference Final between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche right now, couldn’t we? These teams are a clear cut above in their respective divisions and should feel as much pressure as any to win a championship this season, having each repeatedly knocked on the door without stepping through.

Interestingly, the roles have somewhat reversed between these two teams, as each went through dramatic offseason changes. Vegas’s decision to burn the bridge with Marc-Andre Fleury opened up some valuable financial flexibility to (somewhat questionably) add to the roster, while the Avalanche finally experienced the cost of having too many tremendous assets, taking the brunt of expansion with Philipp Grubauer and Joonas Donskoi landing in Seattle, while also losing Brandon Saad. Another tug-o-war for the Presidents’ Trophy seems destined for these teams, who will hopefully rematch in the postseason after the Golden Knights’ impressive comeback last spring.

Those sizing up Tampa

The two teams with the best chance of knocking off the Lightning in a postseason series are two that succumbed to the champions last spring. The New York Islanders and Florida Panthers took their best shots and should each feel somewhat bullish about their chances of reversing the outcome after catering their offseason to one thing: beating the Bolts. Both the Islanders and Panthers were able to add to their rosters while the Lightning, as we mentioned, took a serious hit. If Tampa is to lose, it seems likely that one of these two teams, who are obsessing over the same thing, is responsible for it.

The fringe elite

Okay, we’re entering the mud now. Big things are expected from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins — at least when speaking to the regular season with both targeted for campaigns of 100-plus points. For both, however, there’s reason to be skeptical about their postseason chances. It’s obvious for the Leafs: they’re allergic to this stuff. Not a single bout of adversity they can say they’ve overcome, and for that reason alone no one should be confidently predicting that this is the year — especially when they’re worse on paper.

Boston, meanwhile, just hasn’t looked like the same dominant team in the postseason the last several years. Management managed to add quite a bit to supplement the core, but this is a group with serious tread on the tires.

The Edmonton Oilers are in a similar boat. We should expect a really strong regular season from Connor McDavid and a revamped offence, even with the major concerns about keeping the puck out of their own net. But this team has shown no ability to shift gears from spring to summer, and only appear more vulnerable in a postseason scenario. 

The team most likely to sustain itself from this tier is the Minnesota Wild. They are coming off a tremendous season, and a hard-fought first-round loss to the Golden Knights. The performance seemed to really inspire management, which showed every intention of pushing their chips into the middle of the table this season after buying out Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. Strangely, though, they spent the rest of the summer sitting on their hands. Intense pressure should be on this team to compete with colossal cap penalties looming. It should be interesting to see how they respond to that. 

ST PAUL, MN - MAY 26: Mats Zuccarello #36 and Joel Eriksson Ek #14 of the Minnesota Wild react after Kevin Fiala , scores a goal during the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game Six of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Xcel Energy Center on May 26, 2021 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images)
The Minnesota Wild could be a sneaky contender this season. (Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images)

We could be jumping the gun a bit on the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets, but I consider the two Central Division teams to be fringe elite heading into the season. Healthy, Dallas has steadied the ship after its Stanley Cup Final appearance two summers back. The strength is in its defence, but underrated forwards like Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz are primed for big seasons. That leaves the Jets, who finally (finally!) addressed their biggest need, adding two capable top-four defenders in Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt to round out a strong blue line. If Pierre-Luc Dubois is Pierre Luc-Dubois again, this team can do some damage behind Connor Hellebuyck.

Finally, the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a louder offseason than it was a productive one, in all honestly. Making an example of Marc Bergevin was probably a mistake, but not one that changes the fact that the Hurricanes are still wildly talented up front. But when you do reserve most of the offseason budget for one incredibly unproven player and some laughs in the ownership suite, it means you have neglected other areas. This team is still highly susceptible to seeing the all the good undone by the bad after moving on from two goaltenders perceived to be unreliable with two goaltenders who have proven to be unreliable. Also, the Hurricanes stuck their neck out for Tony DeAngelo; let’s see how the karmic forces address that matter.

Metro Mush

The Metropolitan Division is a puzzle I am not prepared to solve. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers seem like the four teams with the widest range of outcomes, and yet each will likely finish with between 90 and 100 points.

Is there a legitimate Stanley Cup contender among this group? I’m not convinced. Pittsburgh and Washington are rife with question marks on the heels of their decade-plus of dominance. New York has to make the postseason before it can be labeled a true contender. Who knows what to make of the Flyers on the heels of a contentious and disastrous season, and offseason spent following up smart decisions with questionable ones.

One of these teams will surprise. One will colossally fail. Each will likely falter in the postseason and succumb to that one true and unchanging entity in the division, Lou Lamoriello’s Islanders.

Non-literal wild cards

Here are five teams who could be a thing or very much not be a thing. Let’s start with the Seattle Kraken, who sort of encapsulate that perfectly as a team that is without a sample to draw from. Ambition seemed to be lacking in some respects after a relatively safe and reserved expansion draft. They should keep the puck out of the net at a relatively positive rate, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Grubauer was highly sheltered in his time with Colorado. It might have been smarter to stick with Chris Driedger. This smells like a high-floor, low-ceiling situation, which I suppose doesn’t make them a “wild card” unless they are a wild card. 

Sep 29, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Seattle Kraken defenseman Mark Giordano (5) during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
The Kraken will be looking to make their first NHL season a successful one. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames are also in this category. Vancouver had an objectively positive offseason, if only for the fact that it was able to scrap a ton of horrible contracts. The top nine looks tremendous. The defence looks decent, although highly over-valued. Thatcher Demko could win a Vezina Trophy in the near future. The Canucks are seriously interesting this season.

Also buyers, the Flames are the opposite in terms of watchability, but they could potentially compete just the same. As it is with any Darryl Sutter team, the buy-in needs to be there. If the Flames are willing to beat the puck to death, which is something they are clearly aiming for with the additions of Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson, they could frustrate teams all the way to the playoffs.

The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are also higher range of outcome teams. Chicago will be cashing overs all season long if Fleury is unable to repeat his Vezina Trophy form. In a complete reversal of fortune, it’s one of the worst defences in the NHL propped up by one of the most potent attacks — one which will be bolstered again by captain Jonathan Toews. St. Louis, meanwhile, managed to add some legitimate top-six players, acquiring Pavel Buchnevich and signing Saad. Let’s see if it’s enough to interrupt what appears to be a gradual descent from their championship peak in 2019.

Playoffs, maybe?

The Montreal Canadiens are certainly the headliner of this group. While the Habs were playing at the extreme end of their outcome last time we saw them and took some serious blows over the offseason, last year’s Stanley Cup finalists are unlikely postseason returnees for the sheer fact that they seem totally out-gunned in their division.

The door is open for the Los Angeles Kings in the weakest division in the NHL, but even with one of the more productive summers the ask might be too much to make the playoffs. The New Jersey Devils are receiving a reasonable amount of respect in the betting market after signing the No. 1 free agent on the board, Dougie Hamilton, but everything would have to go right for them to squeak into the playoffs. The Nashville Predators are not a strong team on paper, and likely need to take a massive step back, but always seem to be in the mix.

The unequipped

The Ottawa Senators are the best team in this group and will not be an easy out, but can’t possibly be expected to break through yet in the Atlantic Division. Same goes with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who made some productive moves while embracing the teardown. The Detroit Red Wings aren’t ready to compete with or without a healthy Jakub Vrana. The San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks have a glimmer of hope, but look like the worst teams in the worst division in hockey.

‘Whoops, we don’t have a goalie’

The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes are complete train wrecks. Arizona gets credit for reaching this point deliberately and stacking up futures in maybe the single-most productive offseason league-wide. The Sabres do not.

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