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  • NHL tier rankings: Top of Atlantic Division heavily featured in upper-echelon

    Tim Rosenthal December 27, 2022

    The 2022-23 NHL season is reaching its halfway point, with the Boston Bruins sitting comfortably at the top of the league standings.

    Indeed, they have some company among the league’s upper-echelon, with a pair of division rivals also creeping up in the rankings. They’ll likely have quite the gauntlet to navigate come playoff time against some fellow Stanley Cup contenders within the Eastern Conference.

    Which teams look like contenders at this stage of the season? And what squads hold the upper hand in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes?

    For our debut, here’s a look at where all 32 clubs stand in Bruins Daily’s NHL tier rankings.

    Jump to: Tier 1Tier 2Tier 3Tier 4Tier 5

    The contending tier:

    Boston Bruins

    Jim Montgomery’s squad encountered some lulls recently, yet the Bruins still find various ways to win. They’ve faced stiffer competition and still wound up tallying at least one point in 29 of their 33 tilts to remain atop the league’s standings.

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    Here come the Lightning…again.

    Given the hot first half from the other top teams on the list, the Bolts have flown under the radar a bit. That’s quite the feat for a team coming off three straight Stanley Cup appearances.

    Playoff Tampa remains a different beast. As long as they stay healthy, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilievisky, and the rest of the high-octane Bolts will once again be a tough out come April.

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Yes, the Leafs have quite the recent history of bitter Game 7 first-round exits. But at some point, they have to exorcise those demons, right?

    For now, Sheldon Keefe’s bunch is showing some signs of defensive progress. Behind a decent goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, the Leafs currently sit second in goals against (82), third in 5v5 goals against (49) and fifth in shots allowed per game (28.4). Will their play on the back end finally complement the Leafs’ uber-talented crop of forwards, including Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Auston Matthews?


    Carolina Hurricanes

    It may have taken a little longer than anticipated for the Canes to arrive among the elite. But they’re back in their usual spot following a torrid December.

    The ‘Canes will enter the trade deadline as one of the more intriguing teams. They should benefit from Max Pacioretty’s impending return but could use another top-six forward and a top-four defenseman to get over the hump.


    Vegas Golden Knights

    Bruce Cassidy’s club recently encountered the injury bug, resulting in a bit of a rough stretch compared to the start of the year. The West has a little more balance at the top, but the Golden Knights have the depth to counter some of the conference’s top squads.

    A healthy Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo will only benefit the squad. Logan Thomspon remains one of the favorites for the Calder Trophy. The Golden Knights could use better results in their friendly T-Mobile Arena confines. They’re barely over .500 at “The Fortress, sporting a 10-9 mark heading into their post-holiday slate.


    The contending doorstep tier:

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    The Penguins had a knack for blowing multi-goal leads earlier in the year. But they’ve cleaned up their defensive mishaps and received more timely offensive production through Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company.

    Behind an inspiring return from Kris Letang following his recovery from a stroke, Boston’s Winter Classic opponents are 8-1-1 in their last 10.

    Given the recent batch of slow starts, the Bruins will want to establish the tempo from the get-go upon touching the Fenway Park ice surface. They overcame a multi-goal deficit earlier this year in Pittsburgh, but I doubt a similar situation will yield the same result come Jan. 2.

    New Jersey Devils

    Their run from late October to the end of November transitioned Devils fans from chanting “Fire Lindy” to “Sorry Lindy.” Amid their recent rut, one has to wonder if the former chants will make their way back to Newark.


    Amid the see-saw season, the Devils witnessed significant progress from a year ago. Jack Hughes is inching closer to bonafide superstar ranks, with Dougie Hamilton, John Marino and Damon Severson anchoring a rising defensive core.

    Lindy Ruff isn’t likely a long-term fixture behind the New Jersey bench. The Devils might still taper off a bit following their impressive November. But they’re not far away from becoming a regular postseason fixture.

    Colorado Avalanche

    Amid a sea of injuries, the defending champs carry a four-game win streak and a 6-3-1 mark in their last 10. They could earn themselves a promotion in the next round of tier rankings, especially with Nathan MacKinnon closer to returning from an upper-body injury.

    Where would the Avalanche be without a healthy Cale Makar? The former UMass-Amherst star and Hobey Baker winner is once again a favorite to win the Norris Trophy. But honestly, the PHWA should just award the Lady Byng Trophy to him right now for the exemplary sportsmanship he displayed for declining a penalty against Islanders forward Mat Barzal.


    New York Rangers

    What’s in the water in the Metropolitan Division currently? Like the Penguins and Hurricanes, the Rangers’ recent ascension has them within striking distance of a top-two spot in the Metro.

    Igor Shesterkin has found his rhythm between the pipes, showcasing flashes of his Vezina Trophy season a year ago. Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibenajad and Adam Fox continue to produce on a point-per-game basis. Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider highlight the secondary scoring contributions.

    Whether they reach the conference finals again this season is anyone’s guess. But I wasn’t sold on the Blueshirts’ decline. Perhaps they’ll become a more formidable bunch with more consistent scoring production from Alexis Lafrennierre, Kappo Kakko and some of the other promising talents in the middle of their lineup.


    Dallas Stars

    The Stars significantly benefitted from Jason Robertson’s emergence, Roope Hintz’s production and Jake Ottengier’s solid play in net. Make no mistake, though; they possess a deep roster.

    A healthy Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the ageless Joe Pavelski provide a healthy mix of secondary scoring options. Miro Heiskanen hasn’t missed a beat since taking over the reins as the team’s defensive anchor following John Klingberg’s departure.

    Peter DeBoer always gets the most out of his clubs during his initial stints. He got the Devils and Sharks to the Cup Final and made a couple of semifinal appearances with Vegas during the two COVID-shortened seasons. Will the trend continue in Dallas?


    Winnipeg Jets

    Just when they appeared on the cusp of chaotic times under Rick Bowness, the Jets appear to remain in the picture for the long haul of the 2022-23 campaign.

    Josh Morrisey established himself as a potential Norris candidate with his stout two-way presence. If it weren’t for Makar’s moment with Barzal. Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois provide a solid 1-2 scoring punch in the top six. Connor Hellebuyck continues to produce at a Vezina Trophy rate.

    Winnipeg’s sticktoitiveness has them atop the Central Division. But they could use a tad more scoring production at 5v5. Their 65 goals at full-strength rank 12th among the current 16-team playoff field, ahead of only the Avalanche (46), Wild (59) and Oilers (67).

    The ‘they could make some noise’ tier:

    New York Islanders

    Lou Lamoriello may remain stuck with his trap-happy system, but there’s no doubt that the legendary GM picks a fine crop of talent to help execute that philosophy.

    This year, the Isles possess a respectable offense to complement their sound defensive structure. They enter the post-Christmas break tied with the Bruins and Stars with the fourth most 5v5 goals (76). Mat Barzal and Brock Nelson remain on pace to average nearly a point per game. Between them, Noah Dobson’s two-way growth and a fine goaltending tandem of Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, the Isles will once again provide a tough playoff matchup for any opponent if they wind up clinching a spot.

    Washington Capitals

    The aging Caps haven’t won a first-round matchup in their four post-championship appearances. But I can’t count any team featuring Alex Ovechkin, now the league’s second-greatest goal-scorer, out for long.


    Nicklas Backstrom is on the cusp of returning after nursing a hip injury in the first few months of the year. Perhaps the Caps can make a little noise when they inch closer to full health, but they’ll have to overcome a long stint without their top blue-liner in John Carlson.

    Minnesota Wild

    This is the most likely of third-tier teams to earn a promotion for the All-Star break rankings. Heck, the Wild nearly made the contending doorstep tier after going on a run toward the tail half of the Christmas break, but just came up short.

    Kirill Kaprizov continues to lead the well-rounded Wild offensively. Minnesota’s defensive game made strides over December, allowing six goals during their recent six-game winning streak.

    Their spells of inconsistent play prevented the Wild from the second tier. But a similar run from their six-game streak in December will likely result in a promotion before the All-Star break.


    Los Angeles Kings

    The Kings are the only bunch of the current 16-team playoff field with a negative goal differential (-7). They’ve received solid offensive production throughout their lineup, with 14 players already notching double-digit point totals. Their 75 5v5 goals rank tie for seventh, but they’ve also allowed the eighth most tallies at full-strength with 74.

    The Kings once possessed one of the league’s shutdown defenses during their two Cup runs. Amid their struggles at even strength and on the penalty kill, the Kings have received a needed goaltending boost with Pheonix Copley recently. The journeyman has a 6-1 mark in seven starts, along with a 2.49 goals against average and .910 save percentage.


    Seattle Kraken

    After an expansion year of growing pains, Dave Hakstol’s club has exceeded some expectations in Year 2.

    Matty Beniers established himself as the Calder favorite. Beyond that, the Kraken possess solid scoring depth from their four lines and three defensive pairs. Their 81 5v5 goals rank second, just one behind the Devils.

    Martin Jones has come back down to earth a bit, and Seattle could use improvements on both the power play and penalty kill. But a solid core of veterans coupled with promising talents has them on the rise.

    Edmonton Oilers

    Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl remain franchise cornerstones. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman have benefitted offensively from that deadly 1-2 punch of McDavid and Draisaitl.

    The Oilers looked prime to take another step forward after reaching the conference final last season. They thought they made an upgrade in net, parting ways with Mike Smith in favor of Jack Campbell. Instead, he’s now in a 1B role at best, with Stuart Skinner receiving most of Edmonton’s starts.

    Edmonton hasn’t received much secondary scoring post-Evander Kane injury. But their ongoing defensive issues remain a significant concern, and will undoubtedly haunt them if they can’t patch that up soon.


    Calgary Flames

    So much for that blockbuster trade, huh?

    A year removed from their first-place finishes in their respective divisions, neither the Flames nor the reigning Presidents Trophy recipients Panthers have yet to benefit from the summer mega deal featuring Matthew Tkachuk and Jonathan Huberdeau. But Calgary has been the more consistent club of the bunch as they remain in the wild-card picture out west in the first year of the post-Johnny Gaudreau era.


    Buffalo Sabres

    Tage Thompson’s ascent to a prolific goal-scorer provided the Sabres with much-needed hope following the Jack Eichel trade. The former UConn star sits second in the league in goals with 26 — four behind likely Hart Trophy winner McDavid (again).


    Thompson remains one of the promising studs on a Buffalo squad loaded with potential. Between Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin anchoring the blue line and Owen Power’s development, the Sabres are closer to a fringe playoff team and a little further away from the league’s basement.

    The Sabres still have some growing pains before making that leap. Even with their defensive and goaltending concerns, the young Buffalo bunch aren’t pushovers anymore.

    Detroit Red Wings

    Like Buffalo, Steve Yzerman has the Wings on track toward a playoff return sooner rather than later.

    Both teams face an uphill climb, with the Bruins, Lightning and Leafs locked into the top three in the Atlantic. They’ll also have to contend with a crowded Metropolitan field with six teams fighting for five playoff spots, including the two wild card positions.

    In any event, the Wings look like they’ll take another step forward behind promising talents like Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. With Dylan Larkin just entering his prime, Detroit has a few foundational pieces.


    The no-mans land tier:

    St. Louis Blues

    Perhaps they’ll earn that promotion to another tier if they go on another second-half run. After all, the Blues provided a painful memory to Bruins fans from their latter-half performance of the 2018-19 season.

    But Craig Berube’s bunch hasn’t replicated that success in the four seasons since. They pummeled the Bruins in that seven-game series but haven’t replaced some of the intensity and physicality from some of the departing names in years past, like Pat Maroon and even Alex Pietrangelo.

    The Blues shouldn’t call on Jordan Binnington to provide an emotional and physical lift. Frankly, they’re even sick of some of his head-scratching hits behind the net too.


    Binnington hasn’t delivered timely saves in pivotal moments. St. Louis’ 5v5 scoring production has dried up since their Cup run. But hey, they can still claim they’re one of the “least penalized teams in the league.” Their 233 penalty minutes are the second-fewest in the NHL, trailing only Vegas.

    Nashville Predators

    Shea Weber and Ryan Suter provided stellar two-way production during their Nashville tenures. But Roman Josi now stands alone as the Preds’ all-time leading scorer.

    Josi will find himself in Toronto when his career ends. He remains one of the few bright spots, along with Juuse Saros and Filip Forsberg, during a transitioning era in the Music City.

    Montreal Canadiens

    Drafting and developing remain front and center in Montreal under Martin St. Louis. And so far, the young Habs appear to heed St. Louis’ message, providing solid efforts for their second-year bench boss more often than not.

    Cole Suzuki and Cole Caufield look like top-six keepers. The jury remains out whether the Habs made the right decision to select Jury Slafkovsky ahead of Shane Wright during the summer.

    Results remain secondary as the Habs continue their rebuild. If the season ended today, they’d end up with two lottery picks following last year’s deadline deal with the Panthers involving Ben Chariot.

    Florida Panthers

    Many pundits likely expected a defensive regression once they added MacKenzie Weegar to the deal involving Tkachuck and Huberdeau. Well, they were correct.

    Granted, very few experts, if any, expected the Cats to replicate their best season in franchise history in 2021-22. But they also thought they’d remain in the discussion among Cup favorites.

    The Panthers right now look anything but contenders. Their once potent man advantage and shorthanded units have become Achilles’ heels. Perhaps a solid run special teams run will get them back on track. After all, they’ve fared well at 5v5, outscoring their opponents 78-69 at full strength.

    Ottawa Senators

    Their search for a new owner continues. And yes, I’d be all for Ryan Reynolds purchasing the franchise.

    On the ice, the Sens haven’t met expectations after landing Alex DeBrincrat and Claude Giroux in the summer. Their young core of talent hasn’t regressed necessarily, but the Sens aren’t looking like a sleeper playoff team. If anything, Thomas Chabot owes Travis Hamonic a steak dinner and a round of drinks — at least — after he nearly accidentally knocked his fellow defenseman’s head off while letting off some steam on the visiting bench during Ottawa’s recent visit to Buffalo.


    Vancouver Canucks

    Kevin Bieksa’s disgust regarding Zdeno Chara’s comments regarding an unconfirmed incident during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final is likely the most notable development in Vancouver through the first half of their 2022-23 campaign.

    At times, Bruce Boudreau’s bunch appears ready to turn the corner. In other instances, like their loss to the Bruins in November, they find themselves teetering into tank territory.

    They sit six points behind Calgary for the final wild-card spot out West. They aren’t down and out, but they’ll need to string together consistent results if they hope to seriously enter the playoff discussion.

    The tank for Connor Bedard tier:

    Philadelphia Flyers

    John Tortorella’s first season in Philadelphia has gone as advertised. At least his abrasive persona still resonates in this skill-based era.

    Cutter Gauthier provides a glimmer of hope. He’ll likely head to Philly after completing his freshman season at Boston College.

    The Flyers also envision Cam York anchoring their blue line in the coming years. But they could use a few more high-end prospects and some lottery luck to fully provide hope after years of limited success following their Cup Final appearance in 2010.

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    The Blue Jackets had higher hopes after signing prized free agent Johnny Gaudreau in the summer.

    With high-tier talents like Gaudreau, Patrik Laine and Zach Werenski, the Blue Jackets appeared poise to take a step forward from last year. But with a few roster holes and in the middle of a prospect development period, Columbus looked more like a fringe playoff team at best.

    Well, the worst-case scenario happened. The Blue Jackets encountered significant injuries throughout the first three months of the season. They currently have eight players on injured reserve, including Werenski, Jakub Voracek, goalie Elvis Merzkilins and team captain Boone Jenner.

    The Blue Jackets sit at the bottom of the East with 22 points, tied for 30th league-wide with the Ducks. The only team behind them currently sits as the odds-on favorite to land the coveted No. 1 pick in June’s Entry Draft.

    Chicago Blackhawks

    Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are among the top names on the open market. It will feel a little strange if-and-or-when Chicago’s dynamic duo dons another sweater — perhaps in different cities — with the Blackhawks rebuild well in effect.


    Anaheim Ducks

    Despite a disappointing second half a year ago, the Ducks witnessed some promising prospects like Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry graduate to full-time NHLers. Both young talents remain on pace to match or surpass their point production from a year ago, yet Anaheim continues to regress.


    Anaheim’s goaltending received little or no support throughout the season. The Ducks sit dead last in goals allowed (144), goal differential (-63) and shots against per game (38.1).

    Cam Fowler and Urho Vaakanien are the only Ducks defensemen under contract for next year. Klingberg remains a prime trade deadline candidate. Regardless, they’ll likely encounter a transition period on the back end next season with Ollen Zwelleger and Pavel Mintyukov waiting in the pipeline.

    Arizona Coyotes

    I’ll give them this: Mullet Arena is quite a unique venue. Yet, Gary Bettman’s never-ending quest to keep the team in Arizona remains a head-scratcher.

    The Coyotes appear closer to finally closing a deal on building that coveted new arena in Tempe. Perhaps they’ll benefit in the long run, but until then, the Desert Dogs continue to search for hope amid instability.

    San Jose Sharks

    Erik Karlsson’s career resurgence has him on pace to notch over 100 points this season. Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture also look like keepers as the team continues its transition period under first-year GM Mike Grier.


    After years of playoff failures, the Sharks are taking a step back and hope to take a stride forward through drafting and development. They need to replenish their pipeline given that their prospect system sits in the bottom third of the league, according to The Athletic.

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    Tim Rosenthal

    Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.


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