NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contender tiers as 2021-22 season begins

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a preseason look at the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.

We put all 32 teams into different tiers based on what the level of expectation should be for this season.

Where does your team sit at the start of the season?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Top Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost a lot this offseason but they still have the same core in place. And that core has been the best team in the league for the past seven years and has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can not count them out from winning a third in a row.

2. Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps the most talented team in the NHL on paper. They have to break through the Second Round, but if they stick with it and trust the talent they will get there. Talent eventually wins.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. The big question will be center depth and if Robin Lehner plays at a Stanley Cup level all season as the No. 1 goalie. Great team with huge expectations and a ton of pressure.

4. Carolina Hurricanes. Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts and they have some questions in goal but they should absolutely be one of the best teams in the league. Their time has arrived.

5. New York Islanders. Here is how this is going to go: They will win 10 games in a row at some point, probably as part of a 15-or 16-game point streak, stumble along for the rest of the season, everybody will question how good they actually are, and then they will shut everybody down in the playoffs and be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Just accept it.

It is possible if some things go right

6. Florida Panthers. This might be the first time this team has entered the season with real expectations. The game-changer here could be Spencer Knight. If he overtakes Sergei Bobrovsky and plays to his potential, this team will be tough to beat.

7. Boston Bruins. The goalies are a question right now (maybe Tuukka Rask comes back?) and the second-line center spot is a concern, but that top line and Charlie McAvoy will take them far.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. They should be in this tier. Whether or not they do anything to validate that preseason belief remains to be seen. At some point they have to actually, you know, do something.

9. Minnesota Wild. They have some questions at center, but Marco Rossi could be a game-changer there. They were one of the most exciting teams in the league last year. That is a sentence that has never been said about the Minnesota Wild.

10. St. Louis Blues. A lot of this depends on if the good version of Jordan Binnington makes an appearance and if the defense is a little better.

11. Washington Capitals. A lot of this depends on if Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov bounce back. Not going to bet against them or this core making one more run.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. They need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be healthy come playoff time and for Tristan Jarry to not self destruct. But like the Capitals, am not going to bet against this core making one more run.

13. Dallas Stars. With a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov they make the playoffs a year ago. They should both be healthy this season.

14. Winnipeg Jets. They gave one of the best goalies in the league a little more help defensively. Combined with their top line forwards this could be an interesting team.

The complete wild cards

15. Philadelphia Flyers. If Carter Hart is good this team will be very tough to beat. If Carter Hart is not good this team will struggle again.

16. New York Rangers. You will hear a lot about their offseason moves but the deciding factor in this team will be the progress and development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterin. The pressure is on. But the upside is immense.

17. Edmonton Oilers. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes and as good as they are they should be in the top tier. But the rest of the team is, quite honestly, not great. That defense and goaltending are problems.

18. Calgary Flames. They are not contenders, they are not a clear lottery team. They just exist in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

The mystery teams

19. Seattle Kraken. They should have good goaltending and play in a weak division. Those two things should keep them in it.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They spent a ton of money this offseason and are getting Jonathan Toews back, but nearly every addition carries some risk and the team itself is still not that great on paper.

21. Montreal Canadiens. They lost a lot from last year’s team, Shea Weber is not going to play, and Carey Price‘s situation is unknown. They also do not get to play in the North Division.

22. New Jersey Devils. They made all of the right moves this offseason and Jack Hughes is ready to become a superstar but they play in the wrong division to make a big jump.

23. Vancouver Canucks. They have a great young core of talent, but can their defensive play be trusted? Or their depth? Feels like a team that should be better.

24. Los Angeles Kings. Do not count them out as a potential playoff team. Great center depth and a weak division could help them arrive a year early.

Likely lottery teams

25. Nashville Predators. They will go as far as Juuse Saros can take them. Losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson from an already flawed team is not going to help.

26. Ottawa Senators. The only concern right now is getting the Brady Tkachuk contract situation resolved. There is talent here, but can you trust ownership to take advantage of it and build something? Probably not.

27. Detroit Red Wings. Losing Jakub Vrana for more than half of the season is a loss they could not afford.

28. San Jose Sharks. An aging core, some bad contracts, the Evander Kane situation, and questionable goaltending is going to make for a long season.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The good news is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale might be real long-term building blocks to offer some real hope for the future.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper they look like the worst team in a tough Metropolitan Division. Elvis Merzlikins might be able to keep them competitive on most nights, and Patrik Laine could bounce back, but there are a lot of questions here.

31. Arizona Coyotes. They are clearly building for the future and trying to stockpile as many draft picks and future assets as they can. This will not be a good team this season.

32. Buffalo Sabres. These fans deserve better than this lousy product being thrown at them every year.

The biggest X-factor for every NHL team: Eastern Conference edition

Every team has a handful of players that could significantly alter the course of their season.

They are the X-factors.

Not necessarily the best player, or even a new player, but somebody that could make-or-break how things go based largely on their own individual performance. Maybe they are taking on a new role, or an increased role, or trying to fill a spot vacated by a departing player. Or maybe it is just somebody that is ready to take a significant leap forward in their development or career.

Let’s talk about the biggest such player for each team, including a couple of potential breakout stars, some goalies (always an X-factor), and some returning players that missed significant portions of the 2020-21 season.

We start here with the Eastern Conference teams. You can find the Western Conference X-factors here.

Boston Bruins: Charlie CoyleWith David Krejci now playing in the Czech Republic the Bruins have a major hole on their second line between Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. Coyle will probably get the first crack at that role. If he can handle it, that would give the Bruins the complete second line they need (and seemingly had with Krejci, Hall, and Smith).

Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus DahlinWith Jack Eichel‘s future in doubt and Owen Power still at least a year away Dahlin is now the face of the Sabres franchise. And they still do not fully know what they have in him because he has had three different coaches who have tried to use him three different ways.

Carolina Hurricanes: Frederik Andersen. The Hurricanes completely overhauled their goaltending position with two veterans who have been injured in recent years. Big gamble for a Stanley Cup contender. Could be a good one, though. If it works.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Patrik Laine. Are they going to get the potential 40-goal scorer that puts the fear of God into opposing goalies, or the player that struggled and was benched at times after the trade? They need the former. Desperately.

Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider. If he is as good as the Red Wings think he can be that would be quite the immediate boost to their rebuild. The perception of this pick has rapidly changed in two years.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Florida Panthers: Spencer Knight. The best goalie prospect in hockey and the future of the position in Florida. How much do they really trust Sergei Bobrovsky at this point? The sooner Knight takes over that spot, the better.

Montreal Canadiens: Christian Dvorak. The Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet forced the Canadiens’ hand into making a trade. The funny thing is that Dvorak is probably the better player right now. So it might be an upgrade.

New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes. Hughes took a massive step forward in his second season, and if he can take a similar step this season the Devils will have a superstar on their hands.

New York Islanders: Oliver WahlstromThe Islanders are rock solid from top to bottom, but they could really use another impact forward to make it so all of that pressure does not fall on Mathew Barzal. Wahlstrom is one player that has the potential to be that. He showed flashes of it last year.

New York Rangers: Alexis Lafrenière. Expectations are high in New York and the pressure is on for this entire group. They need Lafreniere to take a Hughes-like step in his second season.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Murray. He counts $6.25 million against the cap for another three seasons. He plays the most important position on the ice. If they want to improve they need more. Way more.

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter HartThere might not be a single player in the NHL that will play a bigger role in determining the success or failure of a team.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Tristan JarryGoaltending is the single biggest reason the Penguins 2020-21 postseason ended in the first round. They are bringing back the same goalies with a thinner roster in front of them. Let’s see how that works out.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Alex Barre-BouletThe Lightning have a non-stop supply of talented players coming through their system that just have a way of fitting in and producing. With the entire line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow moving on they are going to need that internal talent pipeline to keep flowing.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell. He was great last year when he took over the starting job. Was it a fluke? Or something that he can come close to repeating? There is immense pressure on this team this season to do something, and Campbell is going to have to play a big role in that.

Washington Capitals: Anthony Mantha. They paid a steep price for him, but his style fits the Capitals perfectly and he really is an outstanding player. He played better than his box score numbers would indicate after the trade.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Columbus Blue Jackets.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 18-26-12 (48 points); seventh place in Central Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Kent Johnson No. 5 overall
• Offensive leader: Oliver Bjorkstrand (56 games, 18 goals, 26 assists, 44 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Jakub Voracek (trade with Flyers), Adam Boqvist (trade with Blackhawks), Zac Rinaldo, Jake Bean (trade with Hurricanes), Sean Kuraly
• Free Agent Subtractions: Seth Jones (trade with Blackhawks), Cam Atkinson (trade with Flyers), Michael Del Zotto

Biggest Question Facing the Blue Jackets

• What is going to happen with Patrik Laine?

This is a two-part question, really. The first part is the most pressing for this season and is simply, can he bounce back from what was a lousy 2021-22 season?

When he arrived in Columbus there was some obvious excitement because of the type of player he is and the impact he can make as a goal scorer when he is at his best. But there was also the question of how his style would fit with former coach John Tortorella. The answer turned out to be not well. Laine was benched on more than one occasion under Tortorella and never seemed to find his game after the trade, finishing the season with the worst offensive numbers of his career. It was tough to watch at times.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

But the 2021-22 season represents a fresh start, a more normal season, a new coach, and hopefully the return of the 35-40 goal player the Blue Jackets thought they would be getting.

The second question is what exactly is his future going to be with the Blue Jackets? That, too, was an important question when the Blue Jackets initially acquired him in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. He signed a one-year deal this offseason and will again be a restricted free agent after this season. We know the Blue Jackets’ history with retaining higher profile players (it is not great) and at some point they are going to have to make a long-term decision on how to keep him. If they want to keep him.

What’s the salary cap situation?

It is not a bad situation. The two most significant long-term contracts on the roster are the recently acquired Voracek (three more years at more than $8 million) and Zach Werenski‘s brand new, massive contract that will pay him more than $9.5 million per season for six years. That contract begins during the 2022-23 season. Werenski’s deal was seen as maybe a slight overpay, but he is a fantastic player and it was important for the Blue Jackets to retain one of their star players. If you are going to have a slight overpay under the salary cap, that is the type of guy to overpay.

The Blue Jackets have some salary cap flexibility, but they do have the Laine situation to deal with, as well as pending unrestricted free agents Max Domi and both goalies, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins after this season.

Breakout Candidate

• Adam Boqvist

Boqvist is one of the key parts of the Seth Jones trade to Chicago, and he could help make this a big win for the Blue Jackets. While his name may not yet carry the same clout as Jones’ around the league, he does have a chance to be an impact player for the Blue Jackets right now.

He has shown flashes of that over his first two years in the league, and had some of the best underlying numbers of any Blackhawks defender a year ago in terms of shot attempt differential, scoring chances, and expected goals. Entering his third season in the league he should be ready for a step forward and become a key long-term part of the Blue Jackets’ blue line.

Best-Case Scenario

Expectations might be low for the Blue Jackets this season but there is some talent here, and it is a team that has at times over the past few years overachieved. Werenski is a legit top-pairing defender, and with Laine, Voracek, Domi, Oliver Bjorkstrand, the return of a healthy Gustav Nyquist, and some intriguing young players (Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, Eric Robinson) there is some talent here. They also have the potential for a strong goalie duo with Korpisalo and Merzlikins. They are not going to be an easy team to beat on most nights and if the goaltending excels there is a chance they could hang around in the playoff race. The biggest problem is going to be the fact they play in the Metropolitan Division where pretty much everybody is good and competitive. So the best case is Laine scores 40 goals, Nyquist has 60 points, Werenski keeps being a star, Boqvist becomes a star, and the goalies help keep them competitive.

Worst-Case Scenario

The other side of the equation here is if Laine does not bounce back, Boqvist does not take a step forward, and the goaltenders are either average or below average. The latter point and Laine, though, are the keys here. They do not have much of a chance to compete if Korpisalo and Merzlikins are not good, and they need Laine to be the player they thought they were acquiring for a variety of reasons. Ranging from the fact they need an impact goal scorer, to the fact they used their most significant trade chip at the time (Dubois) to acquire him. All of that would not only put them in the draft lottery, but also with some of the best odds.

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