Post-deadline contender tiers: Where all 31 NHL teams rank now

NHL News

Sigh, the 2021 NHL trade deadline.

We all sorta knew it was going to be a bust, what with the flat cap and the loss of revenue and the fact that teams didn’t want to overreact to anything happening — good or bad — in this janky, truncated season. We were all hoping someone might get aggressive and pull off an illogical blockbuster in a craven attempt to win the Stanley Cup. Perhaps the general managers are saving all of their ill-fated moves for the expansion draft.

Before the season, we published our NHL Contender Tiers, ranking all 31 teams with regard to how close or far they are from hoisting said Cup. We decided to revisit them again after three-quarters of the season and the trade deadline were over, and found some teams had leveled up … while others have seen their fortunes plummet.

The elite

Tampa Bay Lightning
Colorado Avalanche
Vegas Golden Knights
Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have joined the elite.

The other three teams were in this grouping before the season, and have done nothing to shake our belief in them as primary Stanley Cup contenders. Sure, the Lightning are a discouraging 4-6-0 in their past 10 games, but they’re going to be fine. They also have a healthy Nikita Kucherov coming back for the playoffs, which has half the league crying about cap circumvention and the other half in awe that a team could have Nikita Kucherov in street clothes for the regular season and still probably win its division.

The Avalanche and Golden Knights have continued unabated toward their Kong vs. Godzilla showdown in the West Division, with a combined plus-90 in goal differential. It’s interesting that neither team really made a splash at the deadline — Colorado’s acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk was more about insurance than impact — although it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as both pushed hard for Boston-bound Taylor Hall. It was especially intriguing in the Golden Knights’ case, having made a significant deadline move in every year of their existence. Ugh … we were so close to the dream of having Ryan Getzlaf chasing another Cup as the center Vegas desperately needs.

The Leafs, meanwhile, go from “The Waiting Room” to the elite tier. They can score with the best of them (3.30 goals per game). We knew that. The knock on the Leafs is that they couldn’t defend at a playoff-caliber level and were too easy to play against. Their team defense has shown a significant improvement (2.07 expected goals against per 60) over last season (2.32). GM Kyle Dubas has been doing his best Brian Burke impression, adding truculence and pugnacity in players like T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian and now Nick Foligno, whose leadership and defensive prowess had the Leafs sending a first-rounder to Columbus, and cost many in the analytics community their sanity. But Dubas knows that based on the current league alignment and the success of the current roster, it’s go time for a big Stanley Cup push.


The waiting room

Carolina Hurricanes
Edmonton Oilers
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

All of these teams have championship aspirations and, if you squint hard enough, justifiable arguments that they could win one.

The Hurricanes are the best of the bunch. They’re second only to juggernaut Colorado in expected goals per 60 minutes (2.55), but their even-strength defense has languished a bit (16th in expected goals against). Their special teams have been among the best in the league this season, with the most productive power play (83.3% through 41 games) and seventh-best penalty kill (83.3%). We should note all of these stats have been tallied in a division that was arguably the NHL’s weakest for most of the season, but the Hurricanes are legit. Now they just have to hope that one of the players in their goaltending Hydra — James Reimer, Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek — gets hot when it matters.

I’ve seen members of the hockey punditry list the Jets as their No. 5 team in the league. I don’t see it, despite their depth at forward and goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who could win his second straight Vezina Trophy if the GMs decide Andrei Vasilevskiy has benefitted from a better defense in front of him than Hellebuyck. Which, of course, he has, because the Jets’ blue line is by far the weakest aspect of this team. The Jets are 28th in expected goals against per 60 (2.55), sandwiched between the Sabres and Senators. That GM Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t find a way to add something more significant than Jordie Benn to his defense at the deadline is managerial malfeasance.

The Capitals are a fascinating team. There’s a sizable gap between their expected goals per 60 minutes (2.12) and their actual goals per 60 at 5-on-5 (3.11, best in the NHL). They’re second in overall goals per game (3.49) behind Colorado, and that power play still cranks. Trading for Anthony Mantha at the deadline makes them bigger and, if he’s engaged, more physical than if they’d hung onto Jakub Vrana. (Maybe he can tally a point in the playoffs, too, unlike Vrana.)

The Capitals are a sneaky good defensive team at even strength (seventh in expected goals against) to go along with solid special teams. But it’s hard to put them at that elite level when they have two goaltenders in rookie Vitek Vanecek and 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov who have as many playoff starts combined as I do.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have scored 41% of the Oilers’ goals, which is up from 35% last season. I don’t want to say that the Oilers are a top-heavy team with a ridiculous power play, a middling penalty kill and a goaltending bubble that could pop at any time … wait, no, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

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Emily Kaplan breaks down the NHL trade deadline, including how the Bruins, Islanders and Capitals improved their teams.


The deadline upgraders

Boston Bruins
Florida Panthers
New York Islanders
Pittsburgh Penguins

It’s entirely possible that second-line left wing is a cursed position on the Boston Bruins’ roster, and Taylor Hall becomes the latest big name to get hexed. But considering what they traded to Buffalo for him, they make that trade 100 times out of 100 chances. Center Curtis Lazar, who came over with Hall, and defenseman Mike Reilly were both low-key solid moves at the deadline. They obviously need to get their sick and wounded back in the lineup — Tuukka Rask, Jaroslav Halak, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo among them — but they remain a team you don’t necessarily want to see in the playoffs, even as a diminished contender.

The Islanders were in on Hall. In fact, the players and picks they ended up trading to the Devils for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac could have easily been what they offered the Sabres. Alas, Hall wanted to be a Bruin, so the Islanders “settled” for Palmieri, one of the most dependable offensive wingers in the NHL, who will fit snugly in Barry Trotz’s system and adeptly fills the void left by Anders Lee.

I like what the Panthers did at the deadline. Brandon Montour needs to go through one of those decontamination chambers to get the Sabres stench off him, but he’s a serviceable defenseman with upside that didn’t require a huge trade package going back to Buffalo. The Panthers traded a bit more to the Flames for Sam Bennett — the equivalent of two second-rounders — but I really like the way he competes. A fine player as long as you realize he’s never going to come close to fulfilling the promise of his No. 4 overall draft position. Best of all, they hung on to pending free-agent goalie Chris Driedger, which is as big a signal as any to that dressing room that they’re all-in for a playoff run. The Panthers are legit.

Jeff Carter isn’t completely past his prime. The Penguins wanted a veteran, big-body player who could provide some offense, and Carter fits that description. He can help. But this acquisition is an indictment of the current financial state of the league and the complete lack of picks and prospects for the Penguins. You can’t go shopping for a Maserati when all you can afford is a 2012 Audi.


The Central schmoz

Nashville Predators
Chicago Blackhawks
Dallas Stars

We can quibble about what the Predators should have done at the deadline, because they neither traded players away in a dealer’s market like they should have, nor added significant talent as their status as a playoff contender would seem to warrant.

But there’s no arguing that their 13-3-0 roll is a legitimate one, scoring 3.25 goals per game and giving up just 1.69 in that stretch. They have a 62% chance of making the playoffs, per Money Puck. Having six of your last 12 games against the Blackhawks, Stars and Blue Jackets will do that for a team.

Chicago is four points behind Nashville with a game in hand, and their season hinges on their three-game set with the Predators from April 19-23. This is not a good hockey team. Their expected goals differential (minus-0.35 per 60 minutes) ranks them 26th in the league. Yet after another deadline in which Stan Bowman went fishing for draft picks and prospects that were clogged in other team’s pipelines (including 2016 first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom), Chicago remains in the hunt.

So does Dallas, but Wednesday’s news that Alexander Radulov was done for the season hurts them. I spoke with some general managers who felt that the Stars’ inactivity this past week was potentially related to getting Radulov back as a post-deadline jolt. Instead, they’re seven points out with three games in hand, but they do have eight games against Columbus, Detroit (four) and Chicago left.


The rest in the West

Minnesota Wild
St. Louis Blues
Arizona Coyotes

You have to give credit to the Wild for knowing who they are. As a third-place team with a .637 points percentage, they had every right to augment the roster at the deadline and make a run at it this season. They’re solid defensively, and they’re better than expected offensively thanks to the emergence of rookie Kirill Kaprizov and the fact that Kevin Fiala got his groove back, to the tune of 14 points in 13 recent games. But GM Bill Guerin wasn’t willing to mortgage the future at this point, and that’s the right move for a team that’s going to tap out in the division final at best.

The Blues went through a recent skid in which they were winless in 12 of 14 games, plummeting back to the pack and welcoming the Coyotes back to a playoff race that wouldn’t exist otherwise. St. Louis has shown some signs of righting the ship, to the point that GM Doug Armstrong didn’t do anything — like trading Tyler Bozak or Jaden Schwartz, for example — to indicate a lack of faith in this group.

What a bizarro world we live in that the Coyotes are 11th in team shooting percentage (9.9%) and 21st in team save percentage (.902). But that’s what happens when Phil Kessel is shooting at 18.1% (!) this season, while both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta have missed time to injury. If they make the playoffs … well, they could maybe win a game or two if either of their goalies pops off, but that’s about it.


San Jose Sharks

In every collection of tiers, there’s a team that defies categorization, and at this point it’s the Sharks.

It doesn’t really get discussed enough that the Sharks spent the first 12 games of the season away from home, from Jan. 14 through Feb. 11. They went 5-6-1. Since then … well, every time they take a step forward they seem to take a leap back, yet there’s still around a 17% chance they make the playoffs in the West. They’re a solid offensive team, and a defensive team that’s 24th in expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.44) and 28th in goals against per 60 (2.81).

Imagine if they had goaltending that clicked significantly better than their combined .896 team save percentage. Just imagine …


Not quite there

Los Angeles Kings
Montreal Canadiens
New York Rangers

The consensus among prospect aficionados is that the Kings and Rangers have the two best pipelines in the NHL. In their own ways, they’re ahead of schedule. The Kings contended for most of the season before a 3-8-0 swoon started in late March. The Rangers, meanwhile, are making things a little more interesting in the East with 46 points in 42 games, chasing the Bruins (50 points in 40 games) with two games at Boston to end the season. If you dislike the Rangers, enjoy this while you can: It might be the last time for a while in which they’re outside the playoff picture in the final turn of the season.

Some might say the Canadiens shouldn’t be listed here, and that’s fair. They’re much more a veteran team than either the Kings or Rangers at this point. But they’re also just quite not there as a formidable contender. Maybe it’s another year of seasoning for their young players or hiring “the right coach.” Or maybe just waiting for Cole Caufield to arrive and apply The Kaprizov Effect on this lineup.


The busts

Calgary Flames
Columbus Blue Jackets
Philadelphia Flyers
Vancouver Canucks

The Jackets’ season was disrupted by injuries, a disgruntled star wanting out and a coach who may or may not be actively trying to lose his job.

The Flyers watched franchise goalie Carter Hart inexplicably turn into a pumpkin — so the orange jersey was appropriate, I guess — with an .872 save percentage and a 3.79 goals-against average in 26 games after drawing preseason Vezina hype. And then they decided to basically call it a season.

It turned out good goaltending was, in fact, papering over systemic defensive problems for Vancouver; once they got some from Thatcher Demko, it was too late (and then COVID-19 ravaged the team).

Meanwhile, the Flames fired Geoff Ward, dragged Darryl Sutter off the farm to save the season and have gone 7-9-0 since then.

Disasters all around. But how many will be treated as freaky anomalies in a pandemic season, and how many will cause a massive offseason overreaction?

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Greg Wyshynski defends Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams for what he got from Boston in the Taylor Hall trade.


The rebuilders

Anaheim Ducks
Buffalo Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
New Jersey Devils
Ottawa Senators

Welcome to the basement, where the same teams from the preseason list are still dwelling. The Devils and Sabres were never the same after the COVID-19 interruption of their seasons, while Ottawa and Detroit were terrible by design. Shoutout to the Ducks, whose trade deadline inertia continues to beg the question of whether or not they know they should be rebuilding — because they’re quite bad.

Hopefully by the time we do the next contender tiers, one of these teams have leveled up. But probably not you, Detroit.


Jersey foul of the week

From ‘CKGator42’:

Given what we witnessed at the trade deadline, and the way of the world under the flat cap, this player might be up for the Hart Trophy before too long. (And when it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning, they might hang this from the rafters.)


Three things about the Canucks

1. Anyone who has interviewed J.T. Miller before knows that he lacks a filter. One imagines the Canucks know this too, as they put Miller before the media to go scorched earth on the NHL’s decision to rush Vancouver back from a widespread COVID-19 infection within the team to finish an inconsequential season.

“This isn’t about hockey for our team. This is about the health and safety of our players, their family and their children. This isn’t about making the playoffs,” said Miller, who added, “what we’re being asked to do is not going to be too safe.” Kudos to Miller for speaking out. Someone had to.

2. The Canucks’ situation is the talk of NHL dressing rooms. We’ve seen teams hit by COVID-19 during the season, forcing them to pause their campaigns. We’ve not seen it tear through a team like this, from players to coaches to family members.

A few players I’ve spoken to were squirming about Vancouver’s 19 games in 31 days to end the season. But one of them said the quiet part out loud: Would this reaction from Vancouver players be different were they in a playoff position? I think we know the answer, and I think that speaks volumes about what “hockey culture” does to otherwise rational individuals.

3. As I write this, the NHLPA and the Canucks have had a meeting about their plight. Perhaps by the time you read this, they will have worked with the NHL to adjust the schedule so it’s less arduous. But this could have been avoided if the league had just cut the Canucks’ season short and seeded the North Division standings through points percentage. Yes, there are likely implications for rights deals and sponsorship revenue, the same ones that necessitated the expansion of the playoffs last postseason. But this was also the contingency in case the pandemic made it untenable for a team to cram in postponed games to finish a season.

The NHL knows this. The NHLPA knows this. And the players know this. Coaches across the league have reminded their dressing rooms that every point counts because there was no guarantee the season would run a full 56 games. Don’t risk injury. Don’t endanger the players. Just cut the campaign short for the Canucks.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Artemi Panarin

Panarin played his 100th game with the Rangers this week. With a goal against the Devils, he has 138 points in those 100 games, which broke a tie with Mark Messier for most points in a players’ first 100 games as a Ranger. Congrats on reaching an oddly specific milestone, sir.

Loser: Tony DeAngelo

The exiled Rangers defenseman did not move at the trade deadline, despite his reps coming up with an escape plan: New York places him on irrevocable waivers to terminate his contract, and another team signs him to a multiyear contract. Montreal was interested. Darren Dreger reported that DeAngelo “opted not to accept.” And thus he remains on the taxi squad until this summer’s inevitable buyout.

Winner: Jack Eichel

The star center is expected to be fully recovered from a herniated disk in his neck for the 2021-22 season. And because of that injury, he won’t have to endure another minute of playing for this version of the Buffalo Sabres this season.

Loser: Dallas Stars

When the Stars stood pat at the trade deadline, the thought was that their “trade” would be the return of a healthy Alexander Radulov. Instead, he and Ben Bishop are done for the season. As are the Stars, most likely.

Winner: Marc-Andre Fleury

The Golden Knights star backstopped a win against the Kings on Wednesday and, in the process, passed Ed Belfour for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list with his 485th career win. Up next: Roberto Luongo at 489 wins.

Loser: Memorial Cup fans

For the second straight season, and for only the second time in the 103-year history of the tournament, the Memorial Cup will not be handed out in Canadian junior hockey. Here’s hoping this great event is back up and running in 2022.

Winner: Honesty

Taylor Hall was tremendously candid (as always) in his news conference following the trade to the Bruins, especially about his mindset. I spoke to a few general managers leading up to the deadline, and a couple indicated concern that Taylor Hall wasn’t still Taylor Hall.

The man himself confirmed it: “I’m not the most confident hockey player. Throughout this year, there have been a lot of struggles, and obviously goal scoring has been one of them. I have to find that part of my game back,” he said. You have to love that honesty.

Loser: Old material

Darryl Sutter earned some chuckles when he was asked about Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau generating offense together and said: “They’ve played together on the power play since Christ was a child, so they should be able to do it five-on-five.”

Oh, c’mon. When he was head coach of the Kings, Sutter said of his team: “We’ve still got a lot of guys who haven’t scored a goal since Jesus was a baby, so we’re probably not doing anything different.”

Then again, if you’re hiring Darryl Sutter, it’s not for fresh material.


Puck headlines

  • Auston Matthews has released his first collection of NFTs, raising money for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

  • How the Seattle Kraken impacted the NHL trade deadline. “I think teams are less likely to have that happen again, so I think everyone was a little more cautious of what was coming up at the expansion draft.”

  • Three scenarios for Alex Ovechkin‘s next contract with the Washington Capitals. Could it be a one-year deal?

  • Finally, here’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin talking about hockey terminology:

From your friends at ESPN

In case you missed it, my Q&A with New York Rangers breakout defenseman Adam Fox, including how he feels about being called the next Brian Leetch, considering his dad’s favorite player is Brian Leetch!

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