Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The bottom 14

Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

This is the first installment of a two-part series ranking all 31 NHL teams by tiers for the 2020-21 season. Part 2, which addresses the top 17 teams, will be published Tuesday.

This is an annual exercise conducted after the dust has settled on the draft and free agency. The tiers are based on projections for the 2020-21 season only, not the long-term trajectories of each franchise. Lastly, keep in mind the timing. We're all awaiting word on the 2020-21 NHL season, which means there's runway for teams before rosters need to be finalized.

Worst of the worst (8th tier)

In a league of their own in a not-so-nice way

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings' offseason has been undeniably productive, which is a step in the right direction for a franchise looking to regain respectability. Up front, Vladislav Namestnikov, Bobby Ryan, Sam Gagner, and Adam Erne were brought in on short-term deals. Troy Stecher, Jon Merrill, and Marc Staal are all also under contract for a year or two and were added to the blue line. And inking goalie Thomas Greiss at $3.6 million per season for two years was a tidy piece of business from general manager Steve Yzerman.

These acquisitions improved Detroit, yet the offseason work will only slightly move the needle because the bar was set so laughably low last campaign. The 2019-20 Wings lost 54 of 71 games while finishing with a minus-122 goal differential. Among 31 teams, they're still the furthest away from a Stanley Cup in 2020-21.

Trendline: Still murky 2019 2018
Previous tiers 7th 8th

Head barely above water (7th tier)

Rebuilding with the inside track on prime draft-lottery odds

Anaheim Ducks

Where are the goals going to come from? That's the biggest question tied to the Ducks right now, with Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Adam Henrique, Jakob Silfverberg, Sonny Milano, and Danton Heinen probably making up the team's top six.

Getzlaf, who's 35 years old and on an expiring contract, could be trade bait as the deadline approaches. Anaheim's blue line is solid, especially with Kevin Shattenkirk arriving on a three-year deal, and John Gibson is a premier goalie, so there's a glimmer of hope for this capped-out franchise in transition. But the Ducks will be a bottom-five team in 2020-21, and they'll benefit from finally committing to a full-scale rebuild.

Trendline: Nearing bottom 2019 2018
Previous tiers 6th 3rd
Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Los Angeles Kings

Of the four teams in the seventh tier, Los Angeles' fan base has the least to gripe about. GM Rob Blake has been honest about trudging through a weighty rebuild while aging stars Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty remain under contract. So far, so good, with Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Rasmus Kupari, Arthur Kaliyev, Akil Thomas, Samuel Fagemo, and Tobias Bjornfot headlining an impressively deep and talented prospect pipeline.

The club also holds nine picks in the 2021 draft and plenty of cap space to weaponize. The Kings' future looks bright, but don't expect anything beyond minor gains this season.

Trendline: On the rebound 2019 2018
Previous tiers 7th 4th

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks are one of the trickiest teams to gauge. In 2018-19, they lost in the conference finals. Then while struggling through injuries and poor performances this past campaign, they ranked 29th in points percentage, missing the 24-team postseason. Most of their top players are 30 or older, and GM Doug Wilson didn't accomplish much this offseason.

Notable new faces include top-six forward Ryan Donato and goalie Devan Dubnyk, both of whom were acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Wild. On paper, Dubnyk and Martin Jones are far from a reliable goaltending tandem, which is why San Jose lands in this lower tier. Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and other key contributors could bounce back during Bob Boughner's first full year behind the bench, but the Sharks' roster probably isn't strong enough to mask the deficiencies in net.

Trendline: Lacks clarity 2019 2018
Previous tiers 4th 3rd

Ottawa Senators

The Senators are on a similar trajectory to the Wings, though they're a bit further ahead in the rebuilding process. They're not ready to contend for a playoff spot despite graduating from the painful bottoming-out phase. Picking up two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray in a trade should solidify the goaltending position in Ottawa, while former Panthers winger Evgenii Dadonov is set to inject some much-needed offensive punch.

Still, this team's record will largely rest with the growth of core youngsters like Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Brady Tkachuk, Colin White, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, and Alex Formenton. Really, it's in the Sens' best long-term interest to enter the draft lottery again before transitioning into a new, more competitive phase in 2021-22. The wait continues in Canada's capital city.

Trendline: The climb begins 2019 2018
Previous tiers 8th 8th

Notch below the playoffs (6th tier)

For various reasons, 2020-21 doesn't project to be a banner season

Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes have been a hot mess lately, and that's putting it mildly. The team's effort in the postseason was uninspiring, and Arizona forfeited two high draft picks due to scouting violations. The club then attempted but failed to trade captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and it renounced the rights to draft pick Mitchell Miller following a public outcry.

That series of events has left Arizona with a dire outlook over the next few years. The Coyotes should be fine in 2020-21, largely due to stellar netminders and Rick Tocchet's coaching. However, Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel leading an attack isn't intimidating anyone.

Trendline: A drying well 2019 2018
Previous tiers 6th 7th
NHL Images / Getty Images

Minnesota Wild

There are simply too many unknowns with the Wild. The club's center depth leaves plenty to be desired. Who knows how impactful highly touted Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov will be as an NHL rookie. First-round pick Marco Rossi may or may not make the team. Top-four defenseman Matt Dumba has been mentioned in the trade-rumor mill all offseason. Three longtime leaders - Dubnyk, Mikko Koivu, and Eric Staal - are gone. Cam Talbot is the new starting goalie. And much more.

Toss in the fact that GM Bill Guerin, who's been on the job for a year, isn't done turning over the roster, and Minnesota is in an awkward, ho-hum position for 2020-21.

Trendline: Direction TBD 2019 2018
Previous tiers 6th 5th

New Jersey Devils

Tom Fitzgerald is quickly putting his stamp on this team, and the GM's first offseason in charge has been sharp. Signing Corey Crawford makes a ton of sense, as the move gives goalie-of-the-future Mackenzie Blackwood veteran support. The acquisitions of Andreas Johnsson and Ryan Murray were shrewd, and Lindy Ruff appears to be a solid head coach hire.

However, the Devils - an organization with just two playoff appearances over the past decade - will be chasing the seven other Metropolitan Division teams even after all of their moves. With Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier green still, is New Jersey as good as or better than Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, or the two New York teams in 2020? Probably not.

It's an optimistic time for the Devils, but they're only starting an upward trajectory.

Trendline: A good start 2019 2018
Previous tiers 6th 5th

Chicago Blackhawks

Like the Kings, the Blackhawks are trying to rebuild without tearing down the entire championship foundation, which, in this case, includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. Longtime starting goalie Crawford wasn't re-signed, creating a dangerous dynamic in the crease. Chicago is porous defensively, and now Malcolm Subban and Colin Delia will be tasked with bailing out that unit? Good luck.

On the flip side, Kane is an elite player, Toews experienced a resurgent 2019-20, and Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Adam Boqvist, and Ian Mitchell are all promising young talents. The Blackhawks finished last year with a .514 points percentage. Just above .500 is a fair prediction for 2020-21.

Trendline: Treading water 2019 2018
Previous tiers 5th 5th

Florida Panthers

No NHL franchise is spinning its wheels more than the Panthers. Jonathan Huberdeau is 27 years old, Aleksander Barkov is 25, and Aaron Ekblad is 24, and the team has accomplished basically nothing over the trio's six seasons together (zero playoff series wins in two appearances).

Now there's been a huge turnover, with the club bidding farewell to Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Matheson, Colton Sceviour, Josh Brown, Erik Haula, Brian Boyle, Lucas Wallmark, and Mark Pysyk while welcoming Patric Hornqvist, Alex Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara, Radko Gudas, Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe, and Ryan Lomberg. The acquisitions were cost-effective and carry little risk, yet Florida has become worse.

Down the road, Bill Zito and Joel Quenneville - a pretty good GM-head coach tandem - could turn the ship around. In the present, though, prepare for more mediocrity.

Trendline: Slipping back 2019 2018
Previous tiers 4th 4th

Standings purgatory (5th tier)

Playoff potential, but the stars must align perfectly

New York Rangers

Putting the Rangers in the "purgatory" section may seem negative. But it's actually a compliment to the fine job management has done while rebuilding the Original Six franchise.

A playoff spot in 2020-21 isn't out of the question. Then again, even after adding first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and continuing to develop sophomores Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko, New York is still in a transition zone. The club's rise has been fast and virtually mistake-free. However, we don't know how good the goaltending tandem of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev will be in the short term. Nor do we know if the defense corps, as currently constructed, is strong enough to protect one-goal leads against high-octane offensive squads.

Trendline: Future forward 2019 2018
Previous tiers 6th 5th
Andy Devlin / Getty Images

Nashville Predators

It's almost unfair to slot the Predators into any tier right now, as they appear far from finished with their offseason maneuvering. There's $12.9 million in cap space for GM David Poile to work with, and two unsigned free-agent forwards - snipers Mike Hoffman and Anthony Duclair - are obvious fits.

The Preds disappointed in the postseason, losing to the Coyotes in the qualifying round. Despite boasting an elite blue line and quality goaltending, Nashville has generally failed to build off a trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Unless something drastic happens soon, the franchise could be entrenched in the NHL's mushy middle as an annual toss-up while good but not nearly good enough to win a championship.

Trendline: In decline 2019 2018
Previous tiers 3rd 1st

Buffalo Sabres

The Jack Eichel-era Sabres will finally challenge for a playoff spot this year. Whether they make the postseason is another question. Either way, there's no denying first-time GM Kevyn Adams has upgraded the club's forward group substantially.

The top six now features Eichel, former MVP Taylor Hall, veteran two-way center Eric Staal, former 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner, young sniper Victor Olofsson, and reliable producer Sam Reinhart, with hot-shot rookie Dylan Cozens also in the mix. There are question marks on the back end and between the pipes, but the Sabres' offense should keep them competitive every night.

Trendline: Slowly upward 2019 2018
Previous tiers 6th 7th

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets land in the fifth tier because there's a lot of variance in their possible outcomes for 2020-21. If everything goes according to plan, they can make some noise in the Western Conference. If the season's bumpy, they're likely not a playoff team.

Reacquiring Paul Stastny to fill the vacant second-line center role has been Winnipeg's lone notable transaction this offseason. The team's defense, which was atrocious last year, is essentially the same. And while he's among the league's best goalies, there's no guarantee Connor Hellebuyck produces another Vezina Trophy-caliber season.

However, Winnipeg's attack remains scary with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nik Ehlers, and Patrik Laine (if he doesn't get traded) leading the charge. And head coach Paul Maurice is a difference-maker himself.

Trendline: Hold steady 2019 2018
Previous tiers 4th 1st

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer.

Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The bottom 14
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