2022 NHL Playoffs Tiers: Where Do All 16 Teams Land?

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor IMay 3, 2022

Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog, left, becomes entangled with Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Sixteen teams have a chance to win the 2022 Stanley Cup. Some are more likely to pull it off than others. We grouped them into five tiers to evaluate their likelihoods of ending the season on top.


Tier 1: Favorites

Colorado Avalanche

For the second straight season, the Avalanche are the Stanley Cup favorites. It didn't work out last season because the Avs threw away a second-round series lead against the Vegas Golden Knights. General Manager Joe Sakic, to his credit, did not panic and more or less returned the same group, only it's better.

There are simply no holes on this team. The Avs have star power up front with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and two-way unsung hero Valeri Nichushkin making up a dominant top line and Nazem Kadri (87 points) and Andre Burakovsky (61 points) had career years. On defense, Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard form an overwhelming trio. Philipp Grubauer's shocking move to the Seattle Kraken was a blessing in disguise, as Darcy Kuemper has proved to be an upgrade while costing much less.

Earlier in the season, the Avs were relying on that star power to compensate for a lack of depth. That is no longer necessary. Artturi Lehkonen, Nico Sturm and Andrew Cogliano were savvy additions, particularly for defensive protection. On the blue line, Josh Manson came over from the Anaheim Ducks and Bowen Byram, a potential star in the making, has returned from long-term injuries.

Few teams can come close to matching the star talent plus depth at all positions and the ones that can have much more difficult paths to the Stanley Cup Final. The salary cap will force roster turnover in the summer, so this might be Colorado's best chance to win a Stanley Cup for a few years.


Florida Panthers

Most people expected the Panthers to be good this season and perhaps even a strong playoff contender. I'm not sure how many earmarked them to win the Presidents' Trophy.

This team is borderline dominant in almost every facet of the game. Their 406 goals marks the most by any team since the implementation of the salary cap in 2005. Their 56.4 expected goals percentage at five-on-five ranks ninth since 2007-08. Their power play is among the best in the league and their penalty kill holds its own.

Florida has a bevy of star talent. Some are conventional names: Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and Aaron Ekblad. Others are less heralded but have been intrinsic to the Panthers' success over the last two seasons: forwards Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe and defensemen MacKenzie Weegar and Gustav Forsling. Claude Giroux gives the team an embarrassment of riches and four complete forward lines.

Most reassuring is that Sergei Bobrovsky has rebounded after two straight disastrous seasons. He gave up roughly 12 fewer goals than expected this season.

There are a few weak points on the roster—at least compared to Colorado. Ben Chiarot is not an ideal sixth defenseman, and Bobrovsky is still far removed from his past Vezina Trophy form. It might not matter, as the rest of the team is just that good. The Panthers clinched the title of Eastern Conference favorites because they are the only team that avoided a tough first-round matchup, as the Washington Capitals are a significantly inferior opponent.


Tier 2: Bona Fide Contenders

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs arguably belong in the first tier. They in some ways mimic the Panthers, with only a few holes for which they could easily make up with their overwhelming star power. Auston Matthews is the best skater in the league, and Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares are high-end talents. Michael Bunting has been a perfect replacement for Zach Hyman at a fraction of the cost. The defensive group is one of the deepest in the league, largely thanks to the brilliant addition of veteran Mark Giordano at the deadline.

The Leafs finished with a league-best 56.9 percent share of expected goals, the best power play and a top-10 penalty kill.

Where could things go wrong? As deep as the defense is, it lacks a high-end No. 1 who mirrors Ekblad, Adam Fox or Victor Hedman. Head coach Sheldon Keefe still hasn't found a fourth line he likes.

But the big dilemma is in goal. There have been times when Jack Campbell has looked like an All-Star, but he struggled immensely during the second half of the regular season. The Leafs need him only to be average to get to where they want to be, but they can hardly rely on that, as neither Petr Mrazek nor Erik Kallgren provide reliable insurance.

And then there's the mental aspect. This group has lost five straight first-round series. The Toronto spotlight shines bright, and the media and fanbase will be ready to pile on the minute anything goes wrong. A tough first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning won't help, though the Leafs won Game 1 5-0 on Monday. If they can get over that initial hump, maybe the locker room will have a weight off its shoulders. Then they're as likely as any team to win the East.


Calgary Flames

Head coach Darryl Sutter took a talented but flawed team, changed tactics and made roster decisions to ignite his top players.

The foundation of the Flames is their defense. Sutter has turned Noah Hanifin's long-standing potential into output, as he had a career year. Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson took on increased responsibilities and ran with them, developing into two-way, top-four defensemen. Christopher Tanev continued his ways as a top shutdown defenseman, while Erik Gudbranson, long maligned as a favorite of hockey dinosaurs for his size rather than play, has turned into a positive contributor. And Jacob Markstrom is a top-five goaltender.

Offensively, the Flames were a one-line show for much of the season. Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and Johnny Gaudreau were about as good as any line in the NHL, but after them, it got ugly quickly. Calgary made moves to address that at the deadline, adding Calle Jarnkrok, Tyler Toffoli and Ryan Carpenter. It still lacks the depth at forward that other teams have, but few can match its combination of defense and goaltending.

The Flames are a strong team on their own merit, but what pushes them into a top contender is their path. The Pacific Division is by far the weakest, and only the Edmonton Oilers can offer a real test. Anything less than an appearance in the conference final would be a massive disappointment.


Carolina Hurricanes

The impact of a head coach is often grossly overstated. Often, they hurt the team more than help. This makes it all the more impressive that Rod Brind'Amour is possibly the most important person in the Hurricanes organization. He commands respect and has strategic wherewithal to boot.

Carolina is the strongest tactical team in the NHL. It has the league's best forecheck, often sending two forwards below the goal line and relying on the defensemen to aggressively pinch along the walls to keep pucks in the offensive zone and force turnovers. Despite that, the Canes are difficult to penetrate in the neutral zone thanks to their defensemen's mobility and awareness.

This teamwide strength is accentuated by Carolina's top players. On defense, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have removed the "underrated" tag; everyone is now well aware of how tremendous they are. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov form a great one-two punch on offense. After them, the Hurricanes roster a number of good players who fit the systems.

This is a great team that could absolutely win the Stanley Cup. There are a few identifiable problems, though. First, Carolina is a few star players short in comparison to Florida, Colorado and Toronto. Second, goaltending is a potential issue. Frederik Andersen is hurt and will miss at least the start of the series against the Boston Bruins. While backup Antti Raanta is capable of getting the job done, he is nonetheless a downgrade from the likely Vezina finalist.

Finally, despite winning the Metropolitan Division, the Canes got a brutal early matchup. They routed the Bruins in Game 1 on Monday, but you should expect a long series against Boston and a tricky second-round matchup versus the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins.


Tier 3: Wouldn't Be a Surprise

Tampa Bay Lightning

Of all these rankings, I imagine this one will be most criticized. The Lightning are the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, retained all their top players and won 51 games despite their injuries.

This team is good because of its incredible top players, including Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is leaps and bounds better than any other Eastern Conference goaltender aside from the Rangers' Igor Shesterkin. Tampa Bay has proved it has what it takes to survive the grind of a long, emotional playoff run.

There are evident problems that could result in a premature end for the Lightning, though. Center Brayden Point, who was their best player during the 2021 Cup run, had an off season with 58 points in 66 games, his worst rate of production since 2017-18.

Though GM Julien BriseBois has done an admirable job replacing the team's depth, which was gutted by cap constraints and the expansion draft, the current group is a major downgrade. Brandon Hagel, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the deadline for two first-round picks, has struggled with just seven points in 22 games. The defense lacks depth, with Ryan McDonagh noticeably dropping off. One also has to wonder how two long playoff runs might affect the group's endurance. These are all minor issues individually. It's the collective that worries me.

This team is close to the second tier. What dropped it down was a miserable playoff draw. The first-round matchup against Toronto is rough, and the Leafs have home ice.


Boston Bruins

Thanks to the stacked Atlantic Division, the Bruins are probably the best wild-card team since the format's inception in 2014. Their 107 points would have ranked second in the Pacific Division.

Few if any teams have a better starting lineup than Boston. The top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand is probably the best in the NHL. On defense, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk form the perfect complement of a puck-moving No. 1 and shutdown No. 2.

The Bruins simply lack depth. Taylor Hall and Jake DeBrusk are good. Erik Haula is a fine player to have in the bottom six but is being extended well beyond his means as a second-line center. The bottom six is underwhelming.

The defense has the potential to be a massive strength, in large part because of the blockbuster acquisition of Hampus Lindholm. For whatever reasons, the Bruins have self-sabotaged. Mike Reilly would be a top-four defenseman for most teams, but head coach Bruce Cassidy has decided otherwise, inexplicably making him a healthy scratch in favor of Derek Forbort, who is a limited depth defender.

In goal, Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman make a solid tandem in an 82-game season. Neither is a great option for a best-of-seven series.

The path is there for the Bruins to win the Cup if their top players dominate, they utilize their defensive depth correctly and Ullmark or Swagman gets hot. It's a realistic scenario but not one that makes them a bona fide contender.


New York Rangers

The Rangers are tough to figure out. For much of the season they won games despite themselves. The underlying numbers were ugly. Prior to the trade deadline, the Rangers ranked 26th in five-on-five expected goals. They nonetheless won plenty of games on the strength of their top players, an elite power play and Shesterkin's historic season.

Then the trade deadline came. The Rangers, whose bottom-six was barren, reinforced the ranks. Andrew Copp (18 points in 16 games) and Frank Vatrano (eight goals in 22 games) were possibly the two best deals of the deadline. Tyler Motte, who got hurt, plugged a massive fourth-line hole in his nine games. Rookie defensemen Braden Schneider came into his own.

From March 21 until the end of the regular season, the Rangers ranked ninth in five-on-five expected goals. They dominated their first-round opponent, the Penguins, multiple times.

Now Kaapo Kakko is finally healthy and Motte will possibly be available by the end of the first round. New York still falls behind Florida and Toronto in terms of driving play at even strength, but it has closed the gap. From there, their special teams prowess, the individual skill of their top six plus Fox and the far-and-away best goaltender in the league could be enough to carry it to a Stanley Cup.


Minnesota Wild

The Wild used to be a well-rounded but boring team. They've flipped the script this season. Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala, Mats Zuccarello and Matt Boldy have played exciting, creative offensive hockey. Their flair is complemented fairly well down the lineup with meat-and-potatoes types, Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman and Jordan Greenway among them.

Jared Spurgeon, one of the most underappreciated two-way defensemen in the league, has the perfect shutdown partner in Jonas Brodin, and there is depth all the way to the bottom pairing, as Jon Merrill and Dmitry Kulikov provide stability. The acquisition of Jacob Middleton from the San Jose Sharks was massive.

One of the best things the Wild have going for them is their goaltending tandem. Cam Talbot and Marc-Andre Fleury have had some rough moments this season but are quality veterans who have experienced deep playoff runs and are character guys who can share the crease.

The Wild don't have the face value or star power of other teams, but they've hung with the best all season. They ranked seventh in expected five-on-five goals percentage. There are other teams below this tier that are better, but Minnesota got here with home ice and a first-round playoff matchup against the St. Louis Blues that it should win, despite a 4-0 Game 1 loss.

If Colorado or Calgary gets eliminated before a potential matchup with the Wild, Minnesota will be in a great position. It is not a Stanley Cup favorite, but it will be an extremely tough out for any opponent.


Tier 4: If the Stars Align

Edmonton Oilers

The talents of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl speak for themselves. They've almost singlehandedly dragged otherwise horrible Oilers groups to the playoffs before. Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are strong complements, Evander Kane has provided needed scoring from the wing, and Jesse Puljujarvi has been a strong driver of play.

On defense, Tyson Barrie provides the offense, Duncan Keith has rebounded in a reduced role, and top prospect Evan Bouchard is coming into his own. The head coaching change from Dave Tippett to Jay Woodcroft has been a big success, and Edmonton ranks eighth in expected goals percentage since the trade deadline.

Its issues are the same ones that have been around for years. The Oilers lack depth at forward and defense and not in the way that other teams could use a fourth-liner or two. After their top handful of identifiable talents, the roster is terrible.

The goaltending is a huge question mark at best. Mike Smith has played better of late, but he's inconsistent, 40 years old and can't stay healthy. Mikko Koskinen is a good teammate but hasn't played to the NHL standard and only remains because of his unmovable contract.

Could the Oilers win the Stanley Cup? Yes, it's possible. When Smith is hot (and healthy), he's great. Edmonton has multiple generational talents at forward who put up video-game numbers. The Pacific Division is weak, and its first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Kings minus Drew Doughty would be practically a warm-up for any team with a serious claim to the Stanley Cup.

It could happen, but the Oilers will need a few guys to play over their heads to compensate for the deficiencies that plague the roster.


Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins deserve a lot of credit. Every season they have to make do with bargain-bin players while also dealing with major injuries. Every season they manage to thrive.

Head coach Mike Sullivan is the NHL's king of making the most out of what he has. Yes, there's the name-brand talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel has developed into a top player himself, scoring 40 goals and adding 44 assists in 76 games. Bryan Rust continues his ascent as one of the game's late bloomers, nearly reaching point-per-game status.

Their forward group otherwise looks like a list of made-up names, as the joke goes. Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen, thrifted on a clearance rack, nearly had 20-goal seasons. Mike Matheson, whom the Panthers basically dumped, is undergoing a renaissance and has become a top-pairing defenseman. Radim Zohorna, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman—these undrafted or minor league signings have excelled for a team that finished sixth in the league in five-on-five expected goals.

Pittsburgh is greater than the sum of its parts. How far can that get the Pens? Likely not very. Malkin is still very good but no longer resembles the generational talent of the past. Their depth and structure might be enough to outlast the Rangers, but they'd have a tough time getting past Florida, Tampa Bay or Toronto, all of which have tactical prowess and bundles of talent.

Goaltender Tristan Jarry, who has played well, is injured and will miss at least some of the playoffs. The Penguins played some of their worst hockey to close the season. They could make a run if Malkin finds the fountain of youth, Jarry gets healthy quickly and their teamwide discipline grinds games to a halt.


St. Louis Blues

No doubt, the Blues are a better team than last season, when they barely made the playoffs before getting wiped off the map by the Avalanche. Pavel Buchnevich, acquired from the Rangers for the low price of Sammy Blais and a second-round pick, had a 30-goal season and was their best player. Vladimir Tarasenko had a comeback season, leading the team in goals and points. Goaltender Ville Husso stole the starting job from Jordan Binnington. They finished third in the Central Division and fourth in the Western Conference with 109 points.

The Blues envisioned themselves as a contender this season. They overpaid for defenseman Nick Leddy at the trade deadline and were reportedly swinging for Giroux. I don't see what they see. St. Louis finished the season with a 14-2-2 streak, but it was playing above its means. It ranked 11th in expected goals percentage after the trade deadline and 16th overall.

The Blues' top players are very good but hardly match up with the top teams, and their depth is severely lacking. The bottom half of the defense is underwhelming, to say the least. And while Husso has been great, the 27-year-old played only 40 games this season and has 57 appearances in his entire career.

The playoffs are about timing. The Blues have a foundation of talent that, if they got hot, could make a lot of teams nervous. But they will need those players at their best to even have a fighting chance. Sure, St. Louis won Game 1, but I see Minnesota prevailing. And while the Blues could win it, it's harder to imagine success against Colorado or Calgary.


Tier 5: Long Shots

Washington Capitals

For years, the Capitals were classified as a highly talented team that would fall apart once the playoffs came around. Then they won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Now, they're in unfamiliar territory as the worst team among the Eastern Conference's entrants and a major underdog.

There is not much to cite as things the Capitals have or do better than other teams. Evgeny Kuznetsov has found his form. The trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson is still great but no longer matches up with the league's elite. T.J. Oshie had the worst season of his career, scoring just 11 goals in 44 games. The supporting cast is weak.

In goal, Ilya Samsonov has failed to reach his potential as a first-round pick and is lucky to be on backup duty, while Vitek Vanecek is average on his best days.

They ranked in the middle of the road by expected goals, and their once lethal power play is ineffective. If you scrape the bottom of the bottle, there is enough talent for Washington to maybe make a run. Maybe with Oshie and Backstrom healthy, the power play will find its form. But it seems like a long shot that the Capitals will even get past the Panthers in Round 1, let alone achieve anything beyond that.


Dallas Stars

The Stars are an average team that can thank its top handful of players for its success. Jason Roberton, a rookie of the year finalist last season, ascended to star status by scoring 41 goals in 74 games. At the other end is Joe Pavelski, who is defying aging curves and had one of the best seasons of his career at age 37. Roope Hintz has also established himself as a first-line forward.

After them, it goes downhill fast. Miro Heiskanen is a good defenseman, but his reputation outweighs his performance. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin had the worst seasons of their careers by wide margins; neither broke the 50-point mark.

Braden Holtby is a great backup, and there are far worse choices for a must-win playoff game. The 23-year-old Jake Oettinger looks like Dallas' starting goaltender of the future, but it seems premature to expect playoff fireworks.

If Seguin and Benn return to their All-Star form and Heiskanen peaks at the right time, maybe Dallas will have a fighting chance, but even that likely won't be enough to win four games against Calgary. That the Stars even made the playoffs was a gift from the Vegas Golden Knights.


Los Angeles Kings

The Kings are in a good spot. They reached the playoffs a season earlier than expected. Their top veterans haven't fallen off. They've begun to integrate some of their wealth of young talent. Among them are defensemen Mikey Anderson and Sean Durzi as well as forward Arthur Kaliyev. Phillip Danault, signed to a questionable contract in free agency, outperformed expectations with 27 goals.

The defense is strong as well even without Doughty, who is out for the season because of an injury. Many of the team's top prospects have yet to establish themselves. Once they do, and with a big move or two in the summer, the Kings could be a threat to make some noise.

This season, they're playing with house money. They were considered underdogs against the Oilers, but a dramatic Game 1 win shows the Kings can compete. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, two great playoff leaders, can milk the most out of the group and, if Edmonton's goaltending falls apart like it did Monday, L.A. will advance. Winning the Stanley Cup would be highly improbable, though Los Angeles has made tangible progress toward that future goal.


Nashville Predators

Poor Nashville. The expectation was that the Preds would rebuild this season or at least that the playoffs were not the primary focus. Other Western Conference teams' underachievements plus a lot going their way led to an unlikely playoff berth.

Goaltender Juuse Saros played outstandingly in his first season as the full-time starter. Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, whom the Kraken wouldn't even take for free in the expansion draft, rediscovered themselves with major comeback seasons. Defenseman Roman Josi scored an absurd 23 goals and 106 points. Rookie Tanner Jeannot, who played games in the third-tier ECHL last season, came out of nowhere to score 24 goals.

That's probably as good as it's going to get. The Predators were a borderline playoff team, and their first-round matchup against the Avalanche feels like a formality more than anything. That was true even before Saros got hurt. His ability to steal a series was the one glimmer of hope for Nashville. That's now gone. The Montreal Canadians somehow came within three games of winning the Stanley Cup last season, so anything could happen, but Nashville is the longest of long shots.


All statistics via Evolving Hockey unless noted otherwise.