After an extended break due to COVID-19’s ambush on the National Hockey League, let’s take a moment to see where all 32 teams stand with 2022 at the doorstep:
The Tampa Bay Lighting tier
Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point have missed significant time, but the Lightning haven’t missed a beat. Since losing Point, Tampa Bay is 11-2-1 and currently sit atop the NHL standings with 44 points. The Lightning are as dominant as ever and will only get better with the return of its stars. To me, they remain the Stanley Cup favorites.
The true contenders’ tier
When the year started, the Carolina Hurricanes looked as good as anybody. Newly acquired defenseman Tony DeAngelo has 21 points in 22 games, and as a result, the loss of Dougie Hamilton has not impacted the ‘Canes nearly as much as expected. After a second-round exit last year in which they lost in 5 games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, Carolina is ready to get past the second round and compete for a Stanley Cup in 2022.
The Florida Panthers are another of Tampa Bay’s victims in last year’s playoffs; however, Aaron Ekblad is now healthy and is playing Vezina trophy-caliber hockey. The Panthers are 14-3 at home. Perhaps their 25th ranked powerplay is an area for concern, but after all, it’s only December, and Florida is still managing 3.6 goals per game which is third in the entire league. The Panthers can turn their powerplay around in 2022 and become even more of a threat come playoff time.
At age 36, Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin is 3rd in the NHL in points and second in goals. In spite of Ovechkin’s stellar play, the Washington power play has struggled but like Florida, that hasn’t hindered their ability to score, with the team averaging 3.4 goals per game which is good for fifth in all of hockey. With the team’s core players aging, the hockey world has been expecting some sort of decline from the Caps but Washington looks far from any sort of decline. With Ovi dominating, the Caps are near the top of the league and certainly can win their second cup in 5 seasons.
The last of the teams in this tier are in a similar boat. Both teams have been plagued by injuries but at full strength, they are undisputedly two of the best in hockey. The Colorado Avalanche went 6-2-1 in December before being hit with a COVID pause. Vegas was 8-3 in December before Christmas. Both teams are getting healthier and playing at elite levels. To me, these are the two best teams in the Western Conference and after neither of them reached the cup last year, I expect these two teams to play in the Western Conference Final and possibly have one of them win the Stanley Cup.
The Toronto Maple Leafs tier
If this list was based solely on regular-season production, they’d be in the top tier, but year after year, they’ve failed to capitalize come playoff time. This season, Toronto has played good hockey after a lackluster start. The Leafs are practically a lock to make the playoffs but we all know about their playoff blunders of years past and that makes it impossible to place them amongst the true Cup contenders.
The likely playoff teams tier
This group of teams is unique in the fact that they are all very good teams but the overarching question surrounding each of them is ‘can they be great’?
The New York Rangers were expected to take a leap forward this season but few expected them to be this good. This team can certainly jump into the true contender tier but it’s too early to label them in that category. If the Rangers continue to play at this level through January, it might be time to move them up a tier but time will tell. Additionally, Igor Shesterkin has been out with a lower-body injury and in order for the Rangers to contend, they need him to be at full health. The month of January will tell us a lot more about the Rangers and if they are truly ready to contend.
Kirill Kaprizov is one of the best players in hockey and he plays for one of the best teams in hockey in the Minnesota Wild. Kaprizov has been electric in his sophomore season with 36 points in 30 games. After taking Vegas to 7 games in the playoffs last year, the expectations were high in Minnesota and the Wild have exceeded those expectations. Similar to the Rangers, the Wild are off to a hotter start than most expected, and like the Rangers, we need to see more from the Wild. Can this high level of play be sustained? Will Kaprizov continue producing at such a high rate? If the answer to both of those questions is ‘yes’ as we head into the new year, then the Wild will be among the true contenders come playoff time.
When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both ruled out to start the season, many ruled the Pittsburgh Penguins out as well. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are now both on IR but the Penguins have continued to play well. This team will only get better as its key players return to the lineup in the new year. Will the returns of Guentzel, Malkin, and Rust be enough to catapult Pittsburgh into the true contender tier?
A month ago, the Edmonton Oilers would’ve been in the top tier on this list but after going 3-6 in December before the Christmas break, some questions have arisen surrounding this team’s ability to contend. Goaltending remains a serious question with Mike Smith out and Miko Koskinen sporting just a .902 save percentage while giving up 3.16 goals per game. If Edmonton wants to have any chance at winning the Cup, they’ll need to get solid goaltending and find scoring from somewhere besides just Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaital. As good as the two are, they can’t do it all, especially come playoff time.
Before being slammed with a COVID outbreak, the Calgary Flames were just 2-3-1 in December. Head coach Daryl Sutter has Calgary back in the playoff chase but a recent COVID outbreak along with lackluster play has many pumping the breaks on Calgary after their hot start. The Flames will have to rebound after a massive COVID outbreak and once again show the hockey world that they are a playoff team. Last season, the Flyers were hit with a COVID outbreak after their hot start and they fell apart after returning from the outbreak. Perhaps Calgary’s fortune will be different and they’ll be able to solidify themselves as a playoff team in the new year.
The Boston Bruins tier
The Bruins have been a playoff regular over the last decade. This season, COVID has hit the Bruins and they have only played 26 games as a result. I expect this team to return to form in the new year and earn a wild card spot in the new year. The top of the Atlantic division is elite and it will be tough for Boston to earn one of the top three spots in that division.
The playoff hopefuls tier
Aside from the Anaheim Ducks, all of the teams in this tier have made recent appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Dallas Stars went to the Cup in 2020 and the St. Louis Blues won it in 2019. The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators both made it last season. For those four teams, it could be a race to the finish between them to determine wild card spots and top-three finishes in the Central division. There might not be room for all of them in the playoffs but it will be fun to see who makes it when it’s all said and done.
Now for Anaheim. The Ducks have been one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season. They have the best record out of any team in this tier and currently sit second in the Pacific division. Trevor Zegras has been sensational for Anaheim along with another breakout player in Troy Terry. It’s still too early to label them amongst the likely playoff teams, but a strong start to the new year could bump them up on this list.
The on the outside looking in tier
The Red Wings’ rebuild is ahead of schedule. Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider have been elite players for Detroit in their rookie seasons. Captain Dylan Larkin is playing the best hockey of his career with 29 points in 27 games. The depth on this team is seriously lacking and I think it will keep them out of the playoffs when it’s all said and done but after seeing how this team has started in 2021, 2022 should be exciting nonetheless for Detroit fans as they can continue to watch their young studs and see what the future holds.
Pacific division foes the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks are in similar boats. Neither team was very good last season and neither was expected to be very good this season. While they’ve both hung around a wild card spot to start this season, I expect both of them to miss the playoffs. If I had to pick one of them to get in though, I’d go with LA because they are a more balanced team with a goalie in Jonathan Quick that I believe will play better down the stretch than James Reimer of the Sharks.
Bruce Boudreau is now at the helm for the Vancouver Canucks and has his squad on a 6 game winning streak since he took over. If Vancouver continues to play like this to start 2022, a playoff berth is by no means out of the picture. The task is still tall for Boudreau but his group has certainly started making up ground.
When Philadelphia Flyers’ general manager Chuck Fletcher traded for Ryan Ellis, the hope was that he would ascend into the role of the top defenseman in Philly. So far in 2021, he’s played just 4 games. For Philly, the hope is he can return early in 2022. Currently, the Flyers have points in 5 straight under interim head coach Mike Yeo. If the Flyers can get healthy, perhaps they can climb back into the playoff hunt but this only happens if they get off to a good start in 2022.
The New York Islanders tier
After losing to the Lightning in 7 games in last year’s Eastern Conference Final, it had many believing that this could be the Islanders’ year. Well, COVID and injuries have the Islanders near the bottom of the Eastern Conference and far from their preseason expectations. The hole might just be too big to climb out of for the Islanders but who knows, maybe 2022 will bring the Islanders back into the playoff hunt. Head coach Barry Trotz has a lot of work to do to get his team back into form.
The fighting to stay alive tier
Going into the season, the Chicago Blackhawks were viewed as a fringe playoff team that could go either way. They certainly went the wrong way to start the year but they’ve started to right the ship slightly. They beat Washington twice in December and they’ll need to rack up more wins against good teams as they face Colorado three times and Minnesota twice in January. I think 2022 will bring doom for Chicago and they’ll miss the playoffs for the third time in 4 seasons.
The Seattle Kraken were the hot topic of the hockey world to start the year. There was certainly some buzz around this team as a potential playoff contender but the early results have revealed that that probably won’t be the case. 2022 will bring Seattle a top ten pick in next year’s draft and have them looking to next season to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Jack Hughes has returned for the New Jersey Devils but the team continues to struggle. Before Christmas, New Jersey was 1-8-1 in December and appears to be falling towards the bottom tier of this list. If 2022 has anything in store for them, it’s a top 5 pick in the 2022 draft as I expect them to fall into the bottom tier of this list in the new year.
The Shane Wright sweepstakes tier
First, did anyone expect Montreal to be this bad at the start of the year? The Canadiens made the Stanley Cup Finals last year and now have their eyes on Shane Wright, the potential number one pick in the 2022 draft. For all of these teams, getting to draft Wright will be a very good compensation for the dreadful seasons they’re having. Whoever gets to draft Wright will gain a key piece in building towards their franchise’s future.
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