Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The bottom 16
This is the first installment of a two-part series ranking all 32 NHL teams by tiers for the 2022-23 season. Part 2, which addresses the top 16 teams, can be found here.
This exercise is conducted after the dust has settled on the draft and free agency but before training camp. The tiers are based on personal projections for the 2022-23 season only, not the long-term trajectories of each franchise.
Worst of the worst (Tier 8)
In a league of their own and not in a good way
The Coyotes remain in tank mode; the front office is focused on enhancing its draft-lottery odds for super prospects Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov, and Adam Fantilli.
In 2021-22, Arizona finished with 57 points and a minus-106 goal differential. The Coyotes could somehow be worse this year, with their best player, defenseman Jakob Chychrun, almost certainly being traded at some point during the season.
The best way to wrap your head around how miserable the Coyotes will be is by looking at their forward group. Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz are by far the most dangerous offensive weapons, and on half of the league's other teams, they'd be the fourth- or fifth-best scoring options. The defense corps and goaltending don't stack up well, either.
Among the 32 teams, Arizona is the furthest from winning the Stanley Cup.
I considered giving the Coyotes their own tier. But the more I thought about the Blackhawks, the more it became apparent that not only are there gaping holes throughout the roster, but there's also a lot of chaos surrounding the team.
Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome, and Dominik Kubalik are all gone. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews could be next. That would be six top-nine forwards out the door from last year's team, which put up a measly 68 points and had a minus-72 goal differential. The replacements (Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou, etc.) aren't anything special. The goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock is vulnerable.
It'll be interesting to see how Luke Richardson handles his first NHL head coaching gig. This Blackhawks team is going to stink, and that's exactly what management is shooting for.
Head barely above water (Tier 7)
Rebuilding with the inside track on prime draft-lottery odds
There might not be another team in the NHL that better fits the description of "in transition." There's just so much newness surrounding the Canadiens.
This will be the first full season for the Kent Hughes-Martin St. Louis pair as general manager and head coach. Hughes is fresh off an eventful summer in which he welcomed Juraj Slafkovsky, Kirby Dach, Sean Monahan, Mike Matheson, and Evgenii Dadonov and bid farewell to Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Alexander Romanov, and Ryan Poehling. Carey Price is unlikely to play this year and, like Weber, could be forced into retirement.
Hughes has put his stamp on the team, and he isn't done reshaping the roster. If St. Louis continues to get the most out of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and others, the Canadiens won't be as unwatchable as the Coyotes and Blackhawks are likely to be. But they won't be good.
San Jose Sharks
New GM in Mike Grier. New coach in David Quinn. No more Brent Burns.
The Sharks aren't quite bottoming out. But they're surely not content with the status quo: three straight seasons of points percentages in the .450 range and no playoff games despite paying some veteran players handsomely.
Those veterans, mind you, will keep the Sharks competitive most nights; Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Timo Meier are all above-average NHL forwards. The club's lack of depth up front and its lackluster defense corps are the real issues. Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are now 32 and 35, respectively, and they don't have a ton of help aside from Mario Ferraro. James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen are an OK duo in net, but neither is a world-beater capable of carrying the Sharks to the postseason.
Beyond rookie William Eklund, a dark-horse candidate for the Calder Trophy, there isn't much to be optimistic about in Sharks land.
Notch below the playoffs (Tier 6)
For various reasons, 2022-23 doesn't project to be a banner season
The Flyers are probably the hardest team to peg in this entire exercise. There's a world in which they finish in the bottom five in points and another where they sniff the playoff cutline.
Philadelphia was 29th overall last season, yet ownership and the front office act like they're allergic to a traditional rebuild. New bench boss John Tortorella and his demands for structure should have a positive impact on wins and losses, but how much of one remains to be seen with such an imperfect lineup. Key pieces Joel Farabee and Ryan Ellis are injured to start 2022-23.
Other questions: Will Tony DeAngelo, who was signed in free agency to fix the worst power play in the NHL, clash with Tortorella? Can goalie Carter Hart take a step forward? Will either or both of Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes bounce back after injury-plagued seasons? Will promising winger Owen Tippett find his scoring touch?
It feels as though Philadelphia needs at least one season to recalibrate on and off the ice.
I'm confident the Ducks will finish with a better record than last year's 31-37-14.
On paper, they are a better team with the acquisitions of John Klingberg, Ryan Strome, and Frank Vatrano and the exits of retiring captain Ryan Getzlaf and free agents Sonny Milano and Sam Steel. There's also a very good chance that Trevor Zegras levels up and Jamie Drysdale and Mason McTavish start making an impact in the NHL.
I'm less confident about Troy Terry replicating a breakout 2021-22, given his 19.3 shooting percentage, and that John Gibson can rebound to his peak form. That doesn't mean Terry and Gibson can't enjoy fruitful seasons or play to their ceilings; it's just unlikely.
With $18 million in salary-cap space, it's obvious GM Pat Verbeek isn't expecting to contend this year. Being in a semi-serious playoff race in the spring should be considered a massive win for this group.
Everything went wrong in the Kraken's debut season. There will be a course correction.
Getting league-average goaltending from Philipp Grubauer, Martin Jones, and Chris Driedger would make a world of a difference. Management addressed a lack of scoring this offseason by signing Andre Burakovsky and trading for Oliver Bjorkstrand. Both players have untapped potential and should get plenty of ice time.
Shane Wright and Matty Beniers, the franchise's long-term one-two punch down the middle, can develop into game-breaking stars. But for now, Seattle's biggest weakness is that it needs to generate offense by committee, which didn't work last year.
Expect the growing pains to continue, but management will look to show some progress in 2022-23.
Optimism is sky-high in Western New York ahead of training camp. You can understand why: the Sabres' mighty fan base, which has been tortured by an NHL-record playoff drought of 11 straight seasons, can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
A 26-and-under core of Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, Dylan Cozens, Alex Tuch, Tage Thompson, Peyton Krebs, Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Casey Mittelstadt, Devon Levi, and others is a fantastic foundation. Under GM Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato, the Sabres seem to be building something sustainable.
This should be an encouraging season for improvement in the standings. However, let's not forget how low the bar has been. Making the playoffs is a fair goal. Yet it's hard to envision such a young squad jumping that high yet.
Earning a playoff spot in an Atlantic Division featuring the Panthers, Maple Leafs, Lightning, and Bruins at the top and the Red Wings and Senators in the bubbling middle leaves little room for error, and this is a Sabres team trotting out Eric Comrie and Craig Anderson as its goalie tandem.
Standings purgatory (Tier 5)
Legitimate chance at playoff spot, but the stars must align
The Senators were one of the offseason's biggest winners. GM Pierre Dorion reeled in Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux, and Cam Talbot. Matt Murray and 75% of his hefty cap hit were traded away.
The moves improved the top six at forward in a massive way, with Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle, and Drake Batherson already strong contributors. They also galvanized the goaltending, with Anton Forsberg set to split the load with Talbot. The end product: legitimately one of the best top-two lines in the NHL and a decent tandem.
This team is headed in the right direction. However, the back end isn't ready for prime time. Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Artem Zub, and Jacob Bernard-Docker are key pieces, but the depth is nowhere close to where it needs to be.
Even with the offseason enhancements, making the playoffs will be a tall task for Ottawa. At the same time, it wouldn't be a shocker if the Sens did it. And you couldn't say that with a straight face at any time in the past five years.
The Jets are in a weird position. To put it bluntly, the clock is ticking on a core that is good enough to challenge for a playoff spot but not good enough to win a Cup.
Connor Hellebuyck, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele are all entering the second-last season of their long-term deals. Pierre-Luc Dubois reportedly already told the team he won't re-sign in 2024. Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers are stars whose primes could be wasted.
Winnipeg lost Paul Stastny this summer and added depth forward Sam Gagner and David Rittich to back up Hellebuyck, but the front office didn't do anything else of note beyond bringing in Rick Bowness as head coach.
The Jets have a fairly high floor. There's talent throughout the roster. Their ceiling, however, doesn't appear to be particularly high for 2022-23.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are the most interesting NHL team to monitor this year.
Detroit built up momentum last season with small gains in the win column and brilliant performances from young studs Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. Then GM Steve Yzerman went wild, acquiring everyday NHLers Ville Husso, David Perron, Andrew Copp, Dominik Kubalik, Olli Maatta, and Ben Chiarot in one busy summer.
It's impossible to not be bullish on this squad, both in the short and long terms. They've upgraded by leaps and bounds on paper, while holdovers like Jakub Vrana, who's coming off a major injury, and Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Alex Nedeljkovic, all pending unrestricted free agents, aren't short on motivation.
Along with Seider and Raymond's continued growth, keep tabs on Swedish defenseman Simon Edvinsson and his transition to North America.
Last season, the Wings finished with 74 points, 26 short of the playoff cutline. This year, if the blue line holds up, they're capable of 90-plus and should be playing meaningful games down the stretch under first-time head coach Derek Lalonde.
New York Islanders
The Islanders are intriguing because of what they went through last year: They were forced to play the first 13 games on the road while their new arena was finished, followed shortly by a COVID-19 outbreak that postponed two games.
Despite missing the playoffs by 16 points last season, GM Lou Lamoriello is essentially running back the same group. And he's making no apologies for being mostly inactive in the offseason, adding only Alexander Romanov.
Of course, another major variable here is coaching. Barry Trotz is one of the best hockey coaches on the planet; he undeniably had a significant impact on wins and losses. New Islanders coach Lane Lambert could have a similar effect, but we don't know yet because he's running an NHL bench for the first time.
The Islanders boast a world-class goalie, steady blue line, and bland forward group. Theoretically, they could grind their way into the postseason, though it's no guarantee.
Columbus Blue Jackets
It's tempting to look at Columbus, which landed the offseason's biggest free-agent prize in Johnny Gaudreau, and shoot it up the league's hierarchy. In reality, a single player, even a franchise-changing talent like Gaudreau, can only do so much on his own.
That's why the Blue Jackets project to hang around the postseason cutline in the final weeks of the season but ultimately lose out to a deeper squad. There's still a long list of roster spots to fill around Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, and Zach Werenski.
Locking up Laine was another offseason victory for GM Jarmo Kekalainen. However, Columbus will miss the departed Oliver Bjorkstrand and sidelined Alexandre Texier for their secondary scoring. Adam Boqvist, Cole Sillinger, Yegor Chinakhov, and Kent Johnson are all promising young players, but they're still adjusting to the NHL. While Elvis Merzlikins has shown he can be a reliable starter, the consistency isn't there yet. You get the idea.
New Jersey Devils
Like most teams in this tier, New Jersey's roster could be described as "incomplete."
The Devils have cornerstone players in Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer at forward and Dougie Hamilton and Simon Nemec on defense. GM Tom Fitzgerald is still filling out the supporting cast, though.
This offseason, Fitzgerald added Vitek Vanecek, Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula, John Marino, and Brendan Smith while subtracting Pavel Zacha, P.K. Subban, and Ty Smith. That's a net-positive series of changes, but the upgrade might not be enough to vault the Devils into a playoff spot in a crowded Eastern Conference.
Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, Miles Wood, Haula, Damon Severson, and Ryan Graves are all pending UFAs. Surely some will re-sign in New Jersey, while others will leave and free up cap space for Fitzgerald to continue padding the core with quality role players.
The last few years have been a wild ride for the Stars, who lost the 2020 Cup Final, missed the playoffs in 2021, and were eliminated in Game 7 of the first round in 2022.
Although there wasn't a major roster shakeup in the offseason, the Stars do have a new coach in Pete DeBoer and a new top-nine forward in Mason Marchment. Alexander Radulov left for the KHL, and the John Klingberg era officially ended as the longtime defenseman is now in Anaheim.
It's a dull take, but I just don't see the Stars, as currently constructed, challenging for the Cup in 2022-23. Nor do I see them missing the playoffs. They're smack in the middle.
Until Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin find the fountain of youth or waive their no-move clauses, or the salary cap rises significantly, it's going to be extremely difficult for Stars GM Jim Nill to build a truly elite team. Money's simply too tight right now in Dallas.
President Jim Rutherford and GM Patrik Allvin, aggressive wheelers and dealers back in Pittsburgh, have eased into their tenure with the Canucks. This is a preferable approach to ex-Canucks GM Jim Benning's impulsive decision-making.
However, patience is less useful in this exercise because I don't look at the roster and see a Cup-contending group. The Canucks have enough talent at each position to maybe earn one of the playoff spots in the Western Conference, but that's the limit of their trajectory for this season.
It will be fascinating to see how the Canucks do in their first full season under affable coach Bruce Boudreau, what kind of production J.T. Miller provides after putting up 99 points and then signing a seven-year contract extension, and if Thatcher Demko can reach his Vezina Trophy-caliber potential.
John Matisz is theScore's senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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