NHL contender tiers – where all 31 teams rank heading into 2019-20


Before every new season, hockey fans start mentally separating teams into castes. The ones that could win a Stanley Cup. The ones that won’t win anything. The ones for which it isn’t love or hate — just indifference.

The St. Louis Blues were in that “could win” category before the previous season. Then they plummeted to “absolutely can’t win” by midseason. And then they won.

“The league is structured now that if you’re one of the 16 teams participating in the tournament, you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” GM Doug Armstrong told me during a training camp visit to St. Louis. “The Kings won it from the eighth spot. Nashville made it from seventh to the finals. So the parity is there. You just need things to happen along the way to reach your ultimate goal.”

Which is to say that the annual Stanley Cup Contender Tiers presented here aren’t necessarily the teams’ lots in life. These tiers don’t account for injuries, trades, hirings and/or firings — or a rookie goaltender playing his way into Calder, Vezina and Conn Smythe consideration to resurrect a moribund team.

Here are the current groupings in the 2019-20 championship tiers:

The elite

These are three teams that can taste the Stanley Cup — or at least whatever they decide to put inside the Stanley Cup after winning it, like breakfast cereal or a puppy.

Despite last season’s first-round disaster, the Lightning were a 128-point juggernaut in the regular season. The Vegas Golden Knights were great too, a 54.66 expected goals percentage team (No. 3 in the NHL), and the only thing at Vegas games that’s better than their forward group is that wacky pregame thing they do with the Medieval Times understudy fighting on-ice projections.

The Leafs have bolstered their blue line with Tyson Barrie and have a holy trinity of offensive players who cost more than the gross national product of some island nations. But it’s starting to seem like this edition of the Buds has reached the same divergent paths as other potential champions in their history: One road leads to the Cup, and the other road leads to an unending parade of migraines about “what went wrong” that is compounded by the team’s cap crunch. There’s no Cup at the end of that road.

These teams have different levels of title droughts — 1967 vs. “The Stamkos Era” vs. three long years of existence — but all have what it takes to win the Cup this season.

The return contestants

Like Kenny Omega, both of these teams can make an argument for being the elite. But in the past 20 years, only four teams have gone to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, and two of them had Sidney Crosby. It’s hard to reharness the energy of a months-long sprint sparked by a new coach and a rookie goalie. It’s hard for a team with several key players north of 30 years old to stay healthy all the way to the finish line again.

Would seeing either Alex Pietrangelo or Zdeno Chara taking the Cup from Gary Bettman surprise us? Absolutely not. But the odds are against it.

The sequels

This tier is filled with recent champions, such as the Capitals (2018) and Penguins, who defeated the Sharks in 2016 and the Predators in 2017.

Of the four, the Capitals and the Predators seem most primed for a return visit, with Nashville having made the biggest upgrade by landing center Matt Duchene and Alex Ovechkin‘s team having shaken off what ended up being a two-aspirin Cup hangover.

The Sharks remain a uniquely talented team with Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson devouring minutes, but flawed goaltending and the hole left by Joe Pavelski‘s exit are significant.

The Penguins are the closest of the four to falling out of the tier, as GM Jim Rutherford refilled his cupboard with generic products, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with a dearth of forwards and perhaps the lowest skill level for a Penguins team in some time.

The next wave

The Hurricanes finally put it all together last season, riding a storm surge from analytics darlings to Stanley Cup contenders. Was the goofy enthusiasm that fueled the team a one-year vibe, or is that who they are? Because on paper, their defense is outstanding, their forward group has only gotten better, and … yeah, the goaltending remains the spot where they once again have to outkick their coverage.


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