NHL Power Rankings: Ordering the top 24 Stanley Cup contenders

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston weighs in on the NHL’s current draft system with what occurred on Friday night, as well as the potential hub city locations, and how much longer the NHL can afford to wait to decide on them.

As the MLB and NBA finalize their plans to play, we’re still waiting on the last steps from the NHL two weeks from the hopeful opening of training camps.

Once we get there, we could be looking at the play-in round beginning in early August.

As with anything else these days, this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs stand to be much different than any we’ve seen. Not just because there are 24 teams involved this time, but also because we have no idea what effect having nearly four months between games will have on teams and individuals.

Who would benefit most from the layoff? Would it be young teams that rely on their skill, who hypothetically could have more to give? Or would it be veteran-laden teams who know generally what to expect from the post-season grind, and now should be (mostly) healed from any bumps and bruises picked up in the regular season?

Does momentum count for anything?

While we can look at the regular season standings as a guide, all these factors make picking one Stanley Cup favourite a difficult task in 2020. With that in mind, this week’s power rankings are an attempt to rank all 24 of the returning teams from the top contender to those teams just happy to be playing again.

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1. Boston Bruins
Had the best points percentage at the pause, loaded with veteran experience, two-way play, strong goaltending, and they’ve proven to be a team that steps up in crucial moments plenty of times. If the Bruins don’t top your list of contenders, they should be near it.

2. St. Louis Blues
We often hear about a Stanley Cup hangover the season after a team wins the championship. They usually pile up injuries through the playoffs (which are often played through), have less time to recover and prepare for a new season, not to mention the summer-long celebrations. The Blues were 8-2-0 in their last 10 before the pause so they didn’t look like a team that would struggle to meet last season’s heights again, and now they will have had nearly four months of downtime before the playoffs to further recover with.

3. Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen, Philipp Grubauer, Andrei Burakovsky — these are some of the names that were on Colorado’s injured list at the time of the pause. It’s believed all will be ready when the puck drops to resume the 2020 season, plus the Avs get a bye through the play-in round to give them even more time. The team was a powerhouse anyway and should be in great shape to go on a long run.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Winners of just three of their last 10 games before the pause, the Lightning didn’t run away with the East this season as they did last, but maybe that’s a good thing. With a high-level of scoring skill in the lineup, excellent goaltending, and a solid blue line, there’s not a lot of weaknesses to this Lightning team. And if it’s true you have to lose before you can win, well, Tampa Bay should be through that challenge as well after last year’s defeat to Columbus.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins
Though the Penguins are the first team to show up on our list that didn’t get a bye through the play-ins, they had the seventh-best points percentage in the league. A proven winner with loads of experience, the Penguins strike us as one of those teams that will hit the ground running upon a return, and it may even be favourable to play some truly meaningful games in a best-of-five against Montreal before the official Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

6. Dallas Stars
If defence still wins championships then the Stars have to be considered among the top contenders. Heck, they came less than an inch from knocking St. Louis out of last year’s playoffs. Dallas has big-name players you think could put up a lot of points, but the team’s structure is all about defence and goaltending. They’re a hard team to play against, can grind you down, and added a few key veterans last summer who should help in these unique times.

7. Vegas Golden Knights
They acquired Robin Lehner at the deadline, presumably to allow Marc-Andre Fleury some rest prior to the playoffs, and now have a 1A/1B situation that will be advantageous should one netminder go down. Even before the deadline, though, Vegas was looking like a contender. A good mix of offensive pop with players who are more defensively inclined, the Golden Knights were in great position to go on another deep playoff run last season until an unfortunate end to their series against San Jose. A mid-season coaching change to Peter DeBoer has altered the chemistry here somewhat from the expansion season, but every move that’s been made from Day 1 has been designed to make this roster a top-tier unit.

8. Philadelphia Flyers
It’s hard to get a read on the Flyers, who have been alternating playoff seasons with lottery seasons for nearly a decade now. Expectations were tempered for this group, but the Flyers were on a solid streak before the pause and had won nine of their last 10. They may have preferred to ride that wave right into the playoffs, but it likely gave the group a confidence that should be able to carry over to the summer. While there are some quality veteran players, parts of this lineup are still rather youthful, including in net, where Carter Hart is itching for his first Stanley Cup Playoffs experience. When he’s on, he has the potential to steal games.

9. Washington Capitals
It feels a bit weird having the 2019 champs so far down here, but their goaltending has been such a sore spot all season that we don’t know what to expect. UFA-to-be Braden Holtby was struggling through his worst statistical season, but would the team hand the reins to rookie Ilya Samsonov right now? That may be determined by the three games Washington will play before the playoffs. There are just so many well-put-together teams that could challenge this season, so the Capitals’ concerns in net bumped them down some.

10. Winnipeg Jets
It’s true that the Jets’ blue line was a major weakness this season and that no help will be on the way yet. But at the pause, they also had a plus-13 goals differential that trailed only seven of the eight bye teams, Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Jets can score and few teams can effectively handle the size and skill lines Paul Maurice can put on the ice. And for all the warts on defence, goalie Connor Hellebuyck played like a Vezina winner this season and if he continues that this summer, the Jets could be something of a sleeper.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs
If you believe that the younger, faster teams will be better equipped to handle an unorthodox return to play in the middle of summer then the Maple Leafs have to rank highly among the contenders for you. This team had concerns of its own: Frederik Andersen wasn’t quite as good or consistent this season; a lack of depth in the blue line became an issue; overall team defence was a little lacking; and the fishbowl existence of the Toronto market was even moreso in a season where the head coach was fired, and the team sat outside the playoff picture for a time, among other developments. But if they come back fresh, a youthful team like Toronto could look much different than when we left them.

12. Edmonton Oilers
They have arguably the best player in the world, plus this year’s Art Ross winner, on different lines. Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were showing well before the pause. Maybe James Neal can catch lightning for another few weeks, as he did at the start of the season? Could a veteran coach in Dave Tippett be just what a team needs right now as they prepare to start up again? Edmonton’s goalies played above expectations this season as well and that will need to continue for a run to be at all possible.

13. Carolina Hurricanes
Will there be a Storm Surge when there are no home games, or fans in attendance? The Hurricanes had the best average shot differential this season, which led to a strong goal differential as well. Sebastian Aho continues to show as a rising star, while Andrei Svechnikov took a major step in his production, giving the Canes a level of offence they didn’t have before. If the goaltending holds up, Carolina has good enough underlying numbers to make you consider them as a dark horse.

14. Calgary Flames
They meet the Jets in the play-in round, and while Winnipeg has already appeared on this list, the fact is whichever team wins that best-of-five could be a good pick to win a few more rounds. Before the pause, David Rittich was seemingly losing his hold on the starter’s job as Cam Talbot was outperforming him, though we’d wager Rittich will get the first call against Winnipeg. If either of them finds a groove, remember that the Flames are just one year removed from being the top seed in the Western Conference. They have skill and a deep blue line. They came together as a team through some tumultuous times earlier in the season. The Flames underperformed overall this regular season, but don’t sleep on them.

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15. Minnesota Wild
If having momentum is key to playoff success then the Wild are one of the biggest losers from the pause. Stuck in the NHL’s “mushy middle,” not good enough to win it all but not bad enough to finish at the bottom of the standings, the Wild changed coaches and then found some life. Over the last two months of games, the Wild had the seventh-best record in the league. They’re a weird team. While they are caught in the middle, they undoubtedly have a collection of individual players who would gain more acclaim by being on a contender. Think Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Kevin Fiala or Ryan Suter. No one will be picking the Wild to win the Cup, but more than a few are favouring them over the Canucks. And if any of their momentum is somehow carried over, Minnesota could be sneaky good.

16. Vancouver Canucks
The biggest positive development for the Canucks is that Jacob Markstrom appears ready to go after a mid-season injury. He’s arguably been the team’s MVP this season and is playing for a contract, either with Vancouver or elsewhere, ahead of free agency in what should be a different kind of off-season. The Canucks are certainly interesting, in that they have youth, vets, skill, grit, and goaltending. This is still a team building towards brighter days, but that window of opportunity is beginning to open. It’s not often these teams bust right through in their first playoff attempt, so it’s hard to say the Canucks would fail if they lose out in the play-in round. But there is a path for this team — if everything goes right and key players stay healthy — to pull off at least a couple of series wins.

17. New York Islanders
Never underestimate a team coached by Barry Trotz. This year’s Islanders were not performing like the 2018-19 version — they had a minus-1 goal differential and were struggling in the lead-up to the pause — but since momentum (good or bad) is likely out the window, preparation is what’s most important. Trotz’s system has proven effective with this team before and, after a couple weeks of training camp to get up to speed again, the Islanders could possibly find last season’s magic again.

18. Columbus Blue Jackets
Wade through Maple Leafs Twitter and you’ll hear whispers of worry that Columbus is a bad draw for Toronto. This was supposed to be a throw-away year for the Blue Jackets after going all-in on last year’s roster, but they’ve rallied around each other and coach John Tortorella for one of the most impressive seasons this year. Seth Jones is back healthy after a mid-season injury, and the team found goalie Elvis Merzlikins (who is flying way under the Calder radar) to go with Joonas Korpisalo in making up a good tandem. This team is defined by the sum of its parts rather than any individual and there’s still a sense they’re playing with house money. This season is all gravy. A year after upsetting Tampa Bay, what a story it’d be if they did the same to Toronto, and put the Leafs in the running for the first-overall pick.

19. Nashville Predators
The Predators were 11-6-1 in their last stretch of games, but overall this season was a little uninspiring for them. They were inconsistent, some of their top players (Arvidsson, Duchene to name two) just didn’t score as much as planned, and it looked as though the transition from Pekka Rinne to Juuse Saros was happening in net. In fact, don’t be surprised if we see the latter in more post-season games. But they also have a Norris candidate in Roman Josi, a stellar blue line, and are three years removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance. This is a team the break may have been good for to charge batteries and clear heads. But, boy, where before you knew Nashville would be a tough out, nowadays a shakeup seems almost necessary.

20. Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes didn’t get the boost they hoped after acquiring Taylor Hall, but if you don’t think the pending UFA will be highly motivated to perform in what would be his second playoff appearance ever, think again. The Coyotes remain really hard to score against and, in Nashville, they may have come through with a favourable draw. We’ll see.

21. Florida Panthers
After spending a $10 million AAV on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky last free agency, the Panthers hoped for more than a .900 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average. And who knows, perhaps Bobrovsky will return with a clearer head and a return to form. But defence remained a concern all year as well for the Panthers, and trading away Vincent Trocheck at the deadline was at best a sideways move in the present, and at worst a downgrade all around. They are capable enough of beating the Islanders, but does anyone feel great about this year’s biggest underperforming team suddenly finding “it” and having all prior concerns wash away? Not I.

22. New York Rangers
I’ll say this: the Rangers are going to be an interesting team to watch one way or another. How good, really, is Igor Shesterkin? He was incredible in the short 12-game window we saw before the pause and injury interrupted his debut. Can he steal series for the Rangers? Will No. 2-overall pick Kaapo Kakko come back with a fresh outlook and new confidence to give the Rangers more than he had been? Can Adam Fox continue his great play on the blue line in high pressure games? Can Artemi Panarin carry the team any length? There may be no bigger wild card than the Rangers, who seem to have the pieces for a potential Cinderella run, but are early enough in their build-up as an organization that a first round sweep could also be in the cards.

23. Chicago Blackhawks
They can’t defend very well, and they traded away their better goalie at the deadline because at the time playoff games were not going to happen for them. But, the Hawks also meet Edmonton in the play-in round, a team green enough that perhaps a declining veteran unit can find a way through. Because of that upset potential the Blackhawks won’t sit last in our rankings, though if they do get through the Oilers we wouldn’t expect a run to carry on longer than that.

24. Montreal Canadiens
They can’t complain because in mid-March the Canadiens had a negligible chance at reaching the post-season, but getting Pittsburgh in the play-in round is a tough draw for a young team. At least they’ll learn something here. The Habs do have Carey Price in their corner, however, who players still vote as the best netminder in hockey today. It’s not inconceivable that he could find his game for a couple weeks and lead the Canadiens on a wild run. Absent that minor miracle, though, this will just be a short learning experience for the team. And the silver lining, of course, is that a loss would lead directly into a 12.5 per cent chance at drafting Quebec-born Alexis Lafreniere.

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