The NHL’s 2021-22 season hit the quarter mark last weekend. While that means we have a long way to go, it also means we have some insight into which teams are thriving, which teams are spiraling and which teams have just left us baffled.
Here are the Stanley Cup contender tiers — from “Tasting the Cup” to “The (Shane) Wright Stuff” — at the quarter mark:
Tasting the Cup tier
These six teams have impressed me the most. They’re not perfect. They’re not sure things. But any of them could lift the Stanley Cup in a few months and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.
(OK, I would still be surprised if it were the Maple Leafs. Because unless they’ve changed the format, the Stanley Cup is awarded for achievement after the first round.)
The only thing middling about the Hurricanes has been their power play (15th), but otherwise they’re a deep, talented team that can flat out shut down opponents when necessary: Ten of their 15 wins have seen Carolina give up one goal or less. It’s a Rod Brind’Amour team. It’s going to outwork you.
The Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl Show — or does Draisaitl get top billing? — carried the Oilers to the top of the NHL in points percentage (.750) through 20 games, but they’re more than a two-man team this season. I still think they add a goaltender at some point, and probably a little more: GM Ken Holland knows he’s got a contender here, and it’s time to push the chips in.
Many of us assumed the Florida Panthers were going to fall apart after Joel Quenneville resigned in the fallout of the Blackhawks’ sexual assault investigation. Instead they’ve gone 8-4-3 under interim coach Andrew Brunette and continue to roll offensively (3.73 goals per game) playing the systems Quenneville installed there. They also have Sergei Bobrovsky playing at a .930 save percentage clip after two seasons of being a financial boondoggle. GM Bill Zito has built a deep and talented team, the first true Cup contender in the franchise’s history.
We have our fun with the Leafs, but they’re a fabulous defensive team under Sheldon Keefe, with a goalie in Jack Campbell who might have played himself onto the U.S. Olympic team. Yes, their postseason success remains the only thing the locals are going to ultimately care about, making the Auston Matthews Leafs a bit like the pre-Cup Alex Ovechkin Capitals in that regard. But remember when the pundits were saying that Toronto was a “mess” and that trading away one of its significant players was a likely solution? Yeah, that was Oct. 24.
I’m including the Avalanche here because … well, because they’re the Avalanche. They posted a .639 points percentage with Nathan MacKinnon (eight games) and defenseman Devon Toews (nine games) missing most of the first quarter of the season. I’m still not in love with this team’s forward depth after losing a few key names from last season. I’m still not sold on the goaltending as being at a championship level. But, again, it’s still the Avalanche. They’re a Cup favorite, until they’re not.
On the cusp tier
Our next NHL Awards Watch runs on Friday, and it’s hard to imagine Darryl Sutter isn’t going to be a front-runner for the Jack Adams Award, given how he has transformed the Flames. They’re the best defensive team in the NHL (1.95 goals against per game), a possession monster (55.1% Corsi for percentage) and a productive offensive team (3.23 goals per game). Just in case the comparisons to Sutter’s Kings championship teams weren’t completely on the nose, here’s Jacob Markstrom putting up Jonathan Quick circa 2012 numbers (.938 save percentage, 1.75 goals-against average).
Do the Wild, leading the Central Division, belong in the highest tier? I can’t go there yet. They have the 23rd-ranked goaltending in the league via save percentage (.903). They’re falling into the same rut they did last season when their defensive metrics (fifth in expected goals against at 5-on-5) are outkicking their traditional defensive stats (19th in goals against per game). Not a great formula.
I’ve had Rangers fans tell me that they’re more than just the goaltending of Igor Shesterkin. It’s a weird defensiveness about getting carried by a goalie from a franchise that was carried by one for the better part of a decade. They’re possessing the puck less than last season, giving up more shots than last season and giving up more scoring chances at 5-on-5 than last season. But they’re winning, and they have three absolute difference-makers in Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Shesterkin.
The Jets have been an excellent 5-on-5 team in comparison to their special teams. They’re 10th in expected goals percentage (52.5%) and are sixth in the NHL in percentage of shot attempts (52.65) at 5-on-5. But their power play is 21st (16.9%) and their penalty kill is 30th (68.9%) through 22 games. I briefly thought about placing them in a lower tier, but that’s a bit of recency bias. They have Connor Hellebuyck. They’ll be fine.
Waiting for reinforcements tier
All four of these teams could contend for a championship this season — or in the case of the Lightning, a third straight one — and are waiting for significant reinforcements to arrive. The Penguins are getting Evgeni Malkin back fairly soon after he missed the first quarter of the season after knee surgery. The Lightning have been without Nikita Kucherov since Oct. 16 and are missing Brayden Point at the moment, too. The Golden Knights, of course, are waiting for Jack Eichel to rehab from his disk replacement surgery and make his debut for the franchise. They have shirts ready and everything.
As for the Bruins … Tuukka Rask‘s rehab from offseason hip surgery is ahead of schedule. Some Boston fans are clamoring for his return. He’s an unrestricted free agent but has said he’d play for “$250,000 and tons of Bud Lights.” Not sure about the salary cap implications there. His return could help, but Boston has proven to be a team with more lineup challenges than who’s in goal.
Dethroned champions tier
The 2019 Stanley Cup champions have a .614 points percentage and are sixth in goals per game (3.32) after being 13th last season (2.98). GM Doug Armstrong has gotta love the fact that his offensive leaders are two prospects he refused to part with (Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas), a veteran star who wanted out but didn’t go (Vladimir Tarasenko) and someone else’s salary-cap casualty (Pavel Buchnevich). St. Louis is a great story, but it’s on Jordan Binnington to write the final chapters in the playoffs, where he’s lost his last nine games.
Alex Ovechkin has 19 goals in 23 games for the 2018 Stanley Cup champs, putting him on pace for 68 goals, in case you were wondering how much he wants that Wayne Gretzky record. The Capitals currently have the best odds to make the playoffs (96.7%) despite having played this season without center Nicklas Backstrom, out with an injured hip. Peter Laviolette has his own Jack Adams case this season with the way Washington has come out of the gate.
Contenders or pretenders tier
When was the last time the Ducks were this fun? Against Iceland in the 1994 Junior Goodwill Games? Troy Terry has 14 goals, Trevor Zegras is out there making circus passes and their games are averaging a total score of six goals. They had a six-game winless streak followed by an eight-game winning streak. I have no idea what this eventually adds up to for Anaheim, but in the first quarter of the season they’ve been the team to get their young players and veterans all pulling the rope in the same direction.
Former Blue Jackets center turned season-ticket holder Brandon Dubinsky believes that the team’s stunning early success is due to the players finding their smiles after John Tortorella apparently kept them in a safe under his desk. It’s undeniable that something has changed offensively for this team, as it has gone from 30th in offense last season (2.39 goals per game) to seventh (3.25) this season. Acquiring Jakub Voracek and letting Zach Werenski fly his offensive freak flag are two reasons. Maybe Torts moving on is another. Or maybe this is how a team plays when there are less-than-no expectations placed on them by anyone inside or outside of the organization heading into the season.
We’re trying to stay away from recency bias here as much as we can … but hoo-boy, have the Stars been on a heater. Five wins in a row after getting shellacked in Minnesota on Nov. 18, and the wins have come against four teams ranked more highly here. The Stars gave up six goals in those wins while averaging 3.6 goals per game. At their best, that’s what the Stars can do to you; and at their best, they’re a playoff team this season.
What’s more surprising: That the Nashville Predators have a 72% chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the moment or that Matt Duchene is their leading goal-scorer on one of the best lines in hockey? Duchene has 13 goals, skating with leading point getter Mikael Granlund (25 in 22 games) and Filip Forsberg (15 points in 13 games). The Preds have looked really good for stretches, and Juuse Saros built off his run last season with a .922 save percentage so far.
Logan Couture told me earlier this season that the Sharks’ defensive game was leaps and bounds better than it was in 2020-21, when it acted like a welcome mat for shot attempts against porous goaltending. He’s right: San Jose went from 25th in expected goals against last season to ninth so far this season. They’re healthy, they’re getting resurgent performances from players like Timo Meier, and the goaltending’s not bad, either.
The Flyers are their own tier. They can’t score, with a powerless power play. Their defense and puck possession has absolutely fallen apart in the course of a seven-game winless streak. Should Alain Vigneault be let go, with his contract that runs through 2023-24? Would it matter with the team at 8-9-4 and flailing in the Metro Division? What a weird team.
Delusions of grandeur tier
The Chicago Sun-Times recently had a headline that read “Blackhawks’ path to playoff contention looks plausible but difficult,” which falls squarely into “I’m not saying Ana de Armas would date me, but …” territory. In fairness, they’ve gone 6-2-0 since Derek King became their interim coach, but Dennis Rodman never had a rebound in Chicago like the one the Blackhawks would need to rally from a 1-9-2 start to make the postseason.
The Kraken’s tentacles are finally wiggling with life after tripping over them out of the inaugural starting gate. Their scoring and their defense have finally synced up in a couple of games. Injuries continue to be an issue, but their goaltending is certainly better than the NHL-worst .874 save percentage they posted in 22 games. They have a 12.7% chance of making the playoffs. They also have a real “let’s see who this team really is” stretch of seven home games in nine games — including playing the Oilers twice.
The Canucks either believe they have the talent to rally in the Pacific Division or they’ve been stunned to the point of petrification, because Travis Green is still the coach, Jim Benning is the general manager and the team has made one trade since July. Whatever the case, they have a 6.7% chance of making the playoffs as of Wednesday, via MoneyPuck.
The New York Islanders have the same percentage chance as the Canucks, and yet if anyone’s delusions are justifiable it might be them. The Isles have played 17 games and amassed a paltry .353 points percentage. But what if they get healthy? What if they reclaim their identity as a defensive juggernaut rather than a team with a minus-20 goal differential? What if they break off a winning streak or two within their 37 remaining home games? What if the guy who picked them to win the Stanley Cup didn’t end up looking slightly dumber than a speed bump in the arena parking lot?
A little more time to cook tier
The Red Wings added Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider and Alex Nedeljkovic to their roster and were like, “welp, time to start winning again.” Granted, a .457 points percentage isn’t exactly “cancel the rebuild!” material, but it would be their highest since the 2016-17 season, when their current leading scorer was 15 years old.
The Kings’ first quarter has reflected their youth movement, in that they’re the moodiest team in the league. Winless in six games. Undefeated in seven games. Winless in five games. They have a 24.3% chance of making the playoffs and finally got Drew Doughty back in their lineup. While the Oilers and Flames are on their own sandbar in the Pacific, that third slot and potential wild-card berths in the West aren’t out of reach for the Kings.
The Devils’ season can be encapsulated by their recent game against the Sharks. It was at home. It was after a huge victory over the Flyers. It was the return of Jack Hughes to the lineup, on the day of his eight-year contract extension … annnnd the Sharks had a 4-0 lead after 40 minutes en route to a 5-2 win. One step forward, one stagger back, but on the right path — and one that could still lead to a playoff berth this season.
The Wright stuff tier
The Canadiens cleared out their front office and hired former Rangers GM Jeff Gorton as the new head of the table. Carey Price is on the way back, but not even their star goalie can turn them around. (Especially because Carey Price would be returning to play in the regular season, rather than the playoffs.) Owner Geoff Molson said he was open to a rebuild, in case you were wondering where this was all headed. The best news for Montreal is that the 2022 first-round pick they traded for Christian Dvorak (11 points in 24 games) was lottery protected in a draft in which Shane Wright could be the center they’ve been chasing since Saku Koivu retired.
The Coyotes were meticulously constructed to be the worst team in the NHL this season, but those plans have been thrown into chaos thanks to two new developments: unexpectedly decent goaltending from rookie Karel Vejmelka and veteran Scott Wedgewood, and the Senators managing to out-awful them to the tune of a .237 points percentage through 19 games.
The Sabres are a tough one to rank here, because they’ve been competitive for most of their 22 games. But they’ve won once in their past seven games, getting outscored 19-33. At least they make it exciting.
What will these tiers look like at the halfway mark? Stay tuned …
Jersey Foul of the week
— Matt Porter (@mattyports) November 29, 2021
Many believe this is an automatic Foul. However, there’s a little-known Jersey Foul bylaw called the Cross-Sport Infiltration Exemption, in which hockey fans can put the names and numbers of NHL players on other sports’ jerseys, for the purposes of stealth marketing.
As far as this being an NFL Jersey Foul … well, we’ll leave that up to the football columnists.
Three things about supplemental discipline
1. I agree with what Brad Marchand said after he was handed a three-game suspension by the NHL: That he’s worked hard to shed his rodentesque reputation from his early NHL years. “I understand completely the history that I have, but I was just hoping they’d see past that, and obviously that wasn’t the case,” he said.
The problem is that history repeated itself with his slew foot on Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It’s literally the same play, in the same vicinity, as when he slew-footed Derick Brassard in 2015. He’s been fined for slew-footing. He’s been suspended and fined for dangerous trips. According to the Department of Player Safety, he’s been warned about these particular actions, too. Since 2015, no left wing has scored more points than Marchand (511). But that doesn’t exonerate him from repeated behavior that puts opponents at risk of injury.
2. After Marchand was suspended, there was a lot of “Why not P.K. Subban?” what-about-ism being peddled online. It’s true that Subban uses his skate and his leg to send opponents to the ice — witness this move on Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras that earned him a $15,000 fine for tripping. He was also fined $5,000 for a dangerous trip on Milan Lucic.
Here is the likely play in question with Devils defeseman P.K. Subban and Ducks forward Trevor Zegras from last night. Subban has a hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety. pic.twitter.com/uVFPBuG4L0
— Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) November 3, 2021
Marchand used his upper body to send Ekman-Larsson over his leg. That’s a slew foot. What Subban does isn’t the same thing, at least in the eyes of the league. Now, if he keeps doing it …
3. Biting is one of those things that makes it hard for hockey fans to convince their casual sports friends that the NHL isn’t a complete freakshow. Like, we’re a billion-dollar industry with multiple TV contracts, and yet we have people like Brendan Lemieux using opponents as chew toys?
That said … it’s also one of those things that makes being a hockey fan kind of hilarious. Like Ottawa coach D.J. Smith talking about if Brady Tkachuk needed a tetanus shot. Like Brendan and Claude Lemieux becoming the first father and son in history to have high-profile biting incidents. Like this Player Safety video that included the now-iconic line: “This is not a hockey play.”
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Lucas Raymond
How good is the Red Wings rookie? The Swedes initially left him off their 55-player list of potential Olympic team members. The realized their mistake. According to Aftonbladet, they’re petitioning the IIHF for an exemption to add him.
Losers: NHL at the Olympics
The positive COVID-19 tests are rising. The NHL is up to five postponed games. We know the owners don’t want players to go to Beijing because they don’t want their season interrupted. Increasingly, we’re hearing players grumbling about the restrictions that they’ll face at the Olympics, and they’re worrying about the quarantine implications for a positive test in China. I remain optimistic about NHL participation in the 2022 Olympics, but I’m an optimist by nature, despite growing up in New Jersey.
Winner: Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews scored with an INCREDIBLE move 🤯 pic.twitter.com/aaHJ6MGMeb
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 2, 2021
Matthews is a winner for his hat trick against the Avalanche. He’s a winner for this move. Mostly, he’s a winner because of his temporary powers of invisibility, which is the only justification for the greatest goal scorer of his generation being left that wide-open on the doorstep.
Losers: Mustache lovers
Just so I’m understanding the sequence here: the mustache was actually a large dog this entire time? https://t.co/K2FvClFVof
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) December 1, 2021
Farewell, old friend. Until next Movember.
Winner: Jack Hughes
Jack Hughes hasn’t earned an eight-year contract worth $8 million annually. I think even he’d say that, with 55 points in 120 games over three seasons. But he’s the franchise. The Devils need their first overall pick in 2019 to be a star on the ice. They need him to be the guy who recruits new generations of fans to the Devils off the ice. They’re all-in on him, to the point of drafting his brother Luke. What he’s “earned” doesn’t matter. What he means to their future does. For their sake, hopefully Jack Hughes is that guy.
Loser: Jake DeBrusk
The Bruins winger was compelled to ask for a trade after his ice time dropped for the second straight season in Boston. You have to feel for the guy: His name was mentioned in trade rumors on an annual basis but was never dealt. Now he’s asking out, and his future is in the hands of the Bruins. Some fans booed him this week after his trade request was made public. Frustrating times for a good player.
After making a jersey that read “JERSEY,” the Devils took our suggestion and made a hat that said “HAT.” It remains sold out.
Loser: Zach Hyman’s hat trick
Zach Hyman was *this* close to his first NHL hat trick. 😭 pic.twitter.com/88B6QHev4N
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 2, 2021
Oh man, what a bummer: Hyman thought he had his first NHL hat trick against the Penguins on Wednesday night, but it was taken away by an offside video review. Then Connor McDavid had a chance to pass the puck to Hyman with the Pittsburgh net empty, but Hyman was defended. “He had no chance to get it to me, I told him to put it in, finish the game, and we’ll get another one another time,” Hyman said.
Good essay here on the Montreal Canadiens and their bilingual mandate for coach and GM hires. “You do not simply dismiss the need for communication in a given language just because it’s inconvenient; you accept it as a necessary part of your team and build from there.”
Brent Seabrook joins the Vancouver Giants, and I really thought this said “intern.”
Peter Baugh caught up with Jett Alexander, the EBUG for the Colorado Avalanche in Toronto. “Obviously that’s a crazy circumstance if that did happen, but I’m not rooting for anyone to get hurt of course.”
Brandt Clarke is quite an omission for Team Canada’s world juniors squad.
Justin Bourne with a look at what is and is not a scoring chance in the NHL. “Statisticians don’t want the subjectivity of the human eye on this sort of thing (with good reason), but the definition of ‘scoring chances’ leaves us wanting better too.”
Halifax hockey association bars teams from playing in P.E.I. after alleged racist act.
Matt Murray on being waived by the Ottawa Senators: “They said it was a management decision, that’s about all I got, so I’m down here and I’m going to try and make the most of my time here.”
Evander Kane speaks (and speaks and speaks) after being demoted to the AHL. “But they investigated me heavily, interviewed a bunch of different people and found what they found, which is nothing.”
From your friends at ESPN
Erin Vail’s ranking of NHL team dogs is essential reading.