Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The top 16
This is the second half of a two-part series ranking all 32 NHL teams by tiers for the 2022-23 season. Part 1, which addresses the bottom 16 teams, was published Saturday.
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.
Moderately dangerous (Tier 4)
Probable playoff teams unlikely to go on a deep run
I originally had the Predators in Tier 5 but decided to bump them up after further analysis. In short, there aren't any bold question marks with the roster.
Ryan McDonagh's addition is huge for a defense corps already contending for best in the league and is complemented by an elite goalie in Juuse Saros. It's unlikely that Roman Josi, Matt Duchene, and Filip Forsberg all set career highs in points in consecutive years, but they're still young enough that there shouldn't be a big drop-off in production. Free-agent signee Nino Niederreiter will help provide secondary scoring along with Mikael Granlund, Ryan Johansen, Tanner Jeannot, and Phil Tomasino.
So Nashville checks off all the boxes on paper, with Josi and Saros, two superstar talents, being so important to their success. They also play a hard-nosed, physical style under coach John Hynes that can be difficult to match up against in the postseason.
GM David Poile left himself $2.3 million in cap space. That could come in handy near the trade deadline when most other win-now clubs are capped out.
The Bruins are the swing team of the Atlantic Division.
Winning is in the core's DNA, with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Krejci hoisting the Cup in 2011 and making the final in 2013. David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy joined them on the 2019 Cup Final team. However, Bergeron and Krejci are 37 and 36, respectively, and McAvoy, Marchand, and Matt Grzelcyk are injured to start 2022-23.
Bergeron just won his fifth Selke Trophy, but he's bound to decline at some point. Krejci played in the Czechia league last year, so there might be a readjustment period. Behind the bench, Bruce Cassidy is gone, and Jim Montgomery is in. Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have serious potential as a tandem, though neither is Tuukka Rask yet.
In other words, getting a firm handle on the Bruins is difficult. They'll make the playoffs and could theoretically go on a deep run. Yet so much is up in the air.
The Capitals are in a similar spot as the Bruins. They've been in win-now mode for more than a decade with a lot of the same players, and age and injuries are concerns.
Top-six mainstays Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are sidelined for at least the first few months of the season and penalty-killer Carl Hagelin could miss some time. New forwards Connor Brown and Dylan Strome should soften the blow, while Darcy Kuemper's arrival means the club has upgraded in net.
Led by a ninth 50-goal season from Alex Ovechkin, Washington strung together a 100-point season in 2021-22 off a plus-30 goal differential. A similar projection is fair for this campaign as the Capitals are probably the fourth-best team in the Metropolitan Division, just behind the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
Vegas Golden Knights
There's no way around it: The Golden Knights' roster got worse over the offseason.
Vegas traded Max Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan for future considerations. It moved Evgenii Dadonov for Shea Weber's contract. Mattias Janmark left via free agency. And, most crucially, Robin Lehner is expected to miss all of 2022-23 to recover from double hip surgery.
Adin Hill, Logan Thompson, and a currently injured Laurent Brossoit are the three goalies available to new coach Bruce Cassidy. Of all the teams thought to be solid or potential Cup contenders, Vegas ranks last in goaltending confidence.
Despite all of that, the Golden Knights are still a pretty damn good team on paper. Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Alex Pietrangelo are all stars, and the supporting cast is sufficient up front and on the back end. Phil Kessel, for one, was a low-risk, high-reward pickup.
Vegas is primed to challenge for a playoff spot after a one-year hiatus. However, the club's fate rests in goalies whose career-high starts in a single season are 22, 21, and 17.
Los Angeles Kings
It was a little far-fetched when it was proposed to the hockey world, but the Kings have followed through on the plan: They've retooled well enough around aging stars Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick to become highly competitive again.
Seriously, Los Angeles has filled its forward group out quite nicely after some lean years. Look no further than Adrian Kempe's growth, the offseason acquisition of Kevin Fiala, and previous pickups Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson. There's also reason to believe that Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev can reach new heights. Goaltending isn't a weakness, which is another plus, but the blue line remains a work in progress.
Doughty is a player to watch in the early going. He played at a near Norris Trophy-level last campaign before sustaining a season-ending injury 39 games into the schedule. Quick's contract is up next summer, and Kopitar's expires in summer 2024. Doughty's locked into his deal until 2027, so keeping his level of play high is crucial.
If all goes according to plan, the Kings will win a playoff round this season.
Scary at full potential (Tier 3)
Cup win not out of question, though a lot must fall into place
This is the first year of salary-cap hell for the Wild, as the buyout hits for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter combine for a whopping $12.7 million, or 15.4% of the entire payroll.
That financial headache, which GM Bill Guerin signed up for when he issued the buyouts, affected Minnesota's ability to acquire NHL-level players this offseason. Forward Sam Steel is the Wild's only addition, and he won't replace what's been lost by trading Kevin Fiala to clear some money. Minnesota also traded backup goalie Cam Talbot, with Filip Gustavsson returning to become the No. 2 behind Marc-Andre Fleury.
Given the net-negative offseason, it may seem odd the Wild ended up in this tier. But that ignores Kirill Kaprizov's electrifying, game-breaking abilities; the clinical fashion Minnesota plays under coach Dean Evason when they're really clicking as a group; and the expected growth from young studs Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi.
The Wild are closer to a conference final than their offseason might suggest.
Believe it or not, this is Season 17 of the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era. The Penguins' placement in this tier is largely based on respect for those three giants and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the core group, including coach Mike Sullivan.
Until proven otherwise, the Penguins deserve the benefit of the doubt on making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and, potentially, winning a round or two.
The bottom-six forwards could be better, and the defense corps is solid yet unremarkable after essentially swapping Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta, and Ty Smith for John Marino and Mike Matheson. But Tristan Jarry is an above-average goalie, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are somehow still underrated, and Sullivan's arguably the NHL's best coach.
The Penguins aren't perfect. It would also be foolish to dismiss them as has-beens.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues were sneaky good last season, and they're returning a similar squad. They fit the "dark-horse Cup contender" label better than any other team heading into 2022-23.
St. Louis led the league with nine 20-goal scorers in 2021-22. David Perron is the only one of that group not returning, which is unfortunate but not the end of the world. In goal, Thomas Greiss replaces Ville Husso, who joins Perron in Detroit, as Jordan Binnington's partner, which, again, is unfortunate but not insurmountable.
It'll be nice for coach Craig Berube to get a full campaign out of defenseman Torey Krug, while Scott Perunovich, Klim Kostin, and Jake Neighbours are all promising youngsters.
Overall, the Blues, who are excellent on special teams, should have no issue making the playoffs. Does their lack of a truly elite, superstar-level player matter? Will it hold them back from a lengthy run?
Toronto Maple Leafs
Here's my straightforward calculus for placing the Maple Leafs in the third tier. Strike No. 1: No team that loses in the opening round for six straight years deserves to be in the top two tiers in this exercise. Strike No. 2: There is way, way too much riding on a goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. Saving grace: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, regardless of playoff failure, are excellent players in their primes.
Toronto's forward and defense groups changed a decent amount in the offseason, but the net difference seems minimal. Calle Jarnkrok, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Adam Gaudette replacing Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, and Jason Spezza at forward, for example, doesn't move the needle in either direction.
So, in summary, the Leafs enter 2022-23 with immense pressure to finally break through in the postseason. They have the top guns to do it, but it could all be destroyed by a bad goal.
Secondary Cup favorites (Tier 2)
Elite title-contending teams with minor concerns
Ken Holland has been fairly patient since taking over as Oilers GM. He's made a few roster-building mistakes along the way, but he has slowly but surely shepherded Edmonton to a place where Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are well insulated.
McDavid and Draisaitl have never been surrounded with this much support up and down the lineup following the signing of Jack Campbell. Not having to rely on Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen to stop pucks is a huge boon, even though Campbell's resume as an NHL starting goalie isn't long. If he hits, the Oilers are in a position to challenge for Pacific Division and Western Conference supremacy.
Edmonton could still use another impact defenseman and winger, and it has the first-round picks to go all-in before the trade deadline. Even if no splashes are made, the possibility of a deep run is there with Nos. 97 and 29 leading the charge.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are on a steep incline, having built a roster with a world-class goalie in Igor Shesterkin, a world-class defenseman in Adam Fox, and a world-class winger in Artemi Panarin. The collective potential of those three, all 30 or younger, is enormous.
New York now has Vincent Trocheck to slot into the second-line center spot behind Mika Zibanejad. Chris Kreider probably won't score 50 goals again, but he's still a top-line NHL forward. The bottom-six isn't anything to brag about, though the blue line has truly rounded into form of late.
What may tilt the club's fortunes one way or another is the growth, or lack thereof, from recent top-two draft picks Alexis Lafreniere and Kakko Kaapo. Getting at least consistent middle-six contributions from both of them is vital to the Rangers' chances of making the Cup Final.
Count me among the horde of people applauding Flames GM Brad Treliving for his offseason efforts. He was dealt a terrible hand, with Johnny Gaudreau leaving in free agency and Matthew Tkachuk notifying the club he wouldn't be signing a long-term deal. Somehow Calgary escaped OK.
To reel in Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and MacKenzie Weegar is impressive. In fact, the Flames are probably a tiny bit better as an overall unit thanks to Weegar's addition to the blue line, which now has a legitimate case for best-in-the-NHL status. On top of that, Jacob Markstrom is a top-five goalie, and Darryl Sutter is a difference-making coach.
Calgary, then, will be in the running for the Pacific Division title and is a surefire Cup contender. Having said that, I hesitate to grant the club first-tier status because of all the turnover. You just never know how it'll shake out on the ice.
For a reigning Presidents' Trophy team, the Panthers really shuffled the deck during the offseason. Most notably, Matthew Tkachuk arrived as a unique power forward, while top-four defenseman MacKenzie Weegar and franchise icon Jonathan Huberdeau have departed.
Florida also bid farewell to late-season rentals Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot, as well as breakout winger Mason Marchment. Forwards Colin White and Nick Cousins are new, as is coach Paul Maurice, who is tasked with meeting high expectations set last season.
These high-level changes, particularly Tkachuk-for-Huberdeau and behind the bench, aren't necessarily cause for concern. But they aren't guaranteed home runs either.
There may be some growing pains with the transition, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky can be unpredictable, so the safe bet here is to bank on a small step back for the Panthers.
Primary Cup favorites (Tier 1)
Star-studded, deep - simply a cut above the rest
It wouldn't be a surprise in the slightest if the Avalanche repeat as Cup champs. That outcome is very much on the table heading into 2022-23.
However, the amount of talent removed from Colorado's roster this offseason can't be overlooked. Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, the club's third- and fifth-leading scorers last year, left via free agency. Darcy Kuemper did too, and his role has been filled by Alexandar Georgiev. The 26-year-old has the potential to be a quality NHL starting goalie, but he's a bit of an unknown. A Georgiev-Pavel Francouz tandem doesn't scream "elite." Neither did Kuemper-Francouz, mind you, but it was still a better duo on paper.
All of that noted, the Avalanche still boast franchise pillars in Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar. Valeri Nichushkin is a force on the wing. Artturi Lehkonen and J.T. Compher are ready for bigger roles and should replace some of the departed scoring punch. Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram have tremendous potential.
There's plenty to be excited about if you're an Avalanche fan. Sure, there's uncertainty too. But the core of the Cup-winning squad remains intact.
The Hurricanes have so much going for them heading into 2022-23.
Free-wheeling Brent Burns, acquired from the San Jose Sharks, projects to be the perfect partner for stalwart Jaccob Slavin on the top pairing. Paul Stastny was one of the best value signings across the league. Ondrej Kase, if he can stay healthy, could be another stealth addition to coach Rod Brind'Amour's diverse roster, which collected 116 points a year ago.
The cherry on top was Max Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan coming over from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for future considerations. Pacioretty is out until around February with an injury, but you can't quibble with the deal itself. It's an automatic win in the short and long term because GM Don Waddell literally gave up nothing for two everyday NHLers.
On paper, Carolina is deep at every position. The biggest question marks surround youngsters Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Martin Necas. Both players need to take steps forward, especially with Vincent Trocheck leaving for New York.
Most other NHL teams would love for their main roster issue to be that minor. And for that exact reason, Carolina should be on everybody's radar as an authentic Cup threat.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Three straight Cup Final appearances, including two championship victories; the most regular season wins since 2016-17; unquestionable superstars at forward, defense, and goalie; depth that's surely been depleted but not destroyed; a fantastic coach.
There isn't much Tampa Bay is missing, even after subtracting Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, and Jan Rutta in the offseason due to yet another salary-cap jam. Replacements Vlad Namestnikov, Ian Cole, and Philippe Myers won't fill the void entirely, but the Lightning are known for finding a gem or two per year within their development system.
The Lightning's main enemy in the lead-up to 2022-23 is burnout. They haven't hit a wall as a group despite all of the long playoff runs. At some point, they will.
In the meantime, a team with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Brayden Point headlining a deep lineup can't be denied the "Cup favorite" descriptor.
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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