Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The preseason top 16
Welcome to theScore's ranking of all 31 NHL teams for the 2019-20 season, sorted by tiers.
This is the second installment of the two-part series. Part 1, which addresses the bottom 15 teams, can be found here.
Playoff troublemakers (4th tier)
These teams should make the playoffs, and could go on a deep run
After a whirlwind year of Storm Surges and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final, the Hurricanes report to training camp looking relatively different. Jake Gardiner, Erik Haula, Brian Gibbons, Ryan Dzingel, and James Reimer enter the fold while Justin Williams, Micheal Ferland, Calvin de Haan, and Curtis McElhinney depart - and perhaps Justin Faulk, too. All of this leads back to Carolina once again being a shaker in the East.
Give it two years and the Avalanche will be in the second or first tier. Yes, they are on that kind of trajectory as Cale Makar, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Joonas Donskoi join a group headlined by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen (restricted free agent), Gabriel Landeskog, Sam Girard, and Phillip Grubauer. As for the coming season, Colorado hasn't leaped into serious-contender territory, but it could conceivably win a playoff round or two.
The Panthers checked off some crucial boxes this offseason: they added a world-class coach and a world-class goalie while making some nice depth signings. Already a decent outfit, Florida now has given the hockey world no reason to believe it won't take a big step forward. Led by superstar Aleksander Barkov, Joel Quenneville's squad should be hanging with the NHL's big boys in 2019-20. The Cats seem destined for a wild-card playoff spot.
The general manager-coach duo of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz has been a boon for this franchise. Mat Barzal is an absolute stud. The blue line is underrated. The Isles may have switched goalies - Semyon Varlamov for Robin Lehner - but the meat of their roster is returning. Therefore, it would be foolish to cast them aside for a second straight season. New York isn't an obvious Stanley Cup contender, but it deserves our first attention from Day 1.
For whatever reason, the Sharks instill eternal confidence. Maybe it's GM Doug Wilson's diligent retooling, coach Pete DeBoer's demeanor, Joe Thornton's calming presence, or some combination of the three. Even now - with Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist, and Donskoi all gone - there's no panic. Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Logan Couture are set to lead while Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl continue to grow.
There's plenty to be skeptical about with the 2019-20 Jets. Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remain unsigned, and Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers are elsewhere. Also, can goalie Connor Hellebuyck return to his peak form? The optimist's take: Winnipeg is still strong enough to snatch a playoff spot. It has a perfect mix of young and old, star and role players. And the sting of last year's first-round exit will be fueling the Jets' engines.
Fringe Cup contenders (3rd tier)
Elite, but for one reason or another not quite the cream of the crop
The Flames, who finished with a Western Conference-high 107 points last year, have undergone only minor personnel changes and, overall, GM Brad Treliving has done an admirable job surrounding his studs with solid complementary players. Sure, there are some question marks - David Rittich's repeatability as a No. 1 goalie, for instance - but Calgary simply brings it on so many levels that it's difficult to ignore its potential.
After flailing in the wind for several years as a top-heavy club which would make the playoffs but produce little noise, Dallas has graduated to big-fish status. The addition of Pavelski is huge, while Corey Perry is a low-risk/high-reward bet and Miro Heiskanen is on the verge of stardom. Package all of that with Ben Bishop's excellence between the pipes and a motivated Tyler Seguin-Jamie Benn combo, and the Stars look scary-good.
The 2018-19 Predators were a little discombobulated; something seemed off. Well, the offseason has yielded Matt Duchene and dispelled of P.K. Subban. Will addressing a need while shipping out a former Norris Trophy winner make a big difference? It's hard to say. What's clear, though, is that GM David Poile's roster should be an absolute handful every night. Nashville now has marquee names and depth at every position.
Plain and simple, as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are starring in the NHL, the Penguins have a fighting chance. Pittsburgh is far from a perfectly constructed team, but with Crosby and Malkin only 32 and 33, respectively, there's still time to squeeze out one or two long playoff runs before pivoting to a new era. Matt Murray's performance is immensely important, too, and it'll be interesting to see how much Phil Kessel is missed.
The shine has worn off in Vegas in regard to the novelty aspect of the Golden Knights. Still, at a purely competitive level, GM George McPhee has managed to keep up with the Joneses. Three main storylines to monitor: The effect that full seasons from Mark Stone and Nate Schmidt has; Alex Tuch's ceiling; and, if he makes the NHL roster, the impact of Cody Glass. This team is deep, dynamic, and battle-tested.
Aside from the off-ice news about Evgeny Kuznetsov, the offseason has been fairly quiet for the Capitals. Brett Connolly, Matt Niskanen, and Burakovsky moved on, while Radko Gudas and Richard Panik are new to the roster. Washington has been near the top of the NHL's standings for a decade and, as Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom play out the final year of their respective contracts, you should expect much of the same.
Serious Cup contenders (2nd tier)
On paper, only one other NHL team has a stronger Cup case
Ignore the RFA negotiations; Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will get paid soon enough. The Bruins, who flew under the radar for much of last season due to injury trouble, are a force of nature when everybody is healthy. Coach Bruce Cassidy pushes all the right buttons, Patrice Bergeron between David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand is the best line in hockey, and the tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak is special.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are running it back; Pat Maroon is the only meaningful piece missing from last spring's roster, and he's ultimately replaceable. Now, while it might be easy to label the Blues a one-off, seeing as they sat dead-last in the NHL in January, remember that many were pegging St. Louis as a serious contender ahead of the 2018-19 season. They should be feared, again, even with a target on their backs.
Unable to win a playoff series three years running, the Maple Leafs haven't necessarily earned a spot in this tier. However, given the raw talent level of this group - elite forwards, an improved blue line, and a top-five goalie - Toronto deserves a boatload of respect. If the Big 5 of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner (assuming he signs soon), Morgan Rielly, and Frederik Andersen can avoid injury, the NHL is in trouble.
Clear-cut favorite (1st tier)
All things equal, this team is in a league of its own
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they got swept. But have you seen their lineup? GM Julien Brisebois kept a 62-win club on a similar plane by essentially replacing J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, and Louis Domingue with Maroon, McElhinney, and Kevin Shattenkirk. This exercise of tiering all 31 teams centers around what every club looks like on paper, and there's no denying the Lightning are stacked from top to bottom and, really, a cut above the rest.
John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer.