NHL Power Rankings: Taking a leap of faith for all 32 teams

Chicago Blackhawks' Connor Bedard celebrates after scoring during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Sports is no stranger to four-year rhythms.

That’s how long winter and summer Olympic cycles are and, of course, we see a World Cup of soccer every four years, with the same cadence for soccer’s European championship.

(Except, of course, when world-altering pandemics take hold.)

Believe it or not, that brings us to this week’s edition of the Power Rankings because we’re going to use Feb. 29 as an excuse to zoom out on every NHL franchise and ask, where was this team on the last leap year, in 2020 … and where can we reasonably expect it to be four years from now, on Feb. 29, 2028?

None of you likely need reminding that it was basically four years ago to the day we were all starting to learn way too much about COVID-19 in advance of the sports world — and many other far more significant things — coming to a complete halt.

That means, for the purpose of this exercise, we’ll be looking at where each NHL team was shortly before we were introduced to the concept of a “bubble playoffs” and where they might be four years from now.

1. Florida Panthers (39-16-4) The Panthers were at the start of an upswing in 2019-20, though in some ways that ascent feels completely disconnected from their current success. Joel Quenneville was in his first year as coach and, obviously, his past transgressions in Chicago forced him to step away from the team in 2021. Aleksander Barkov is a constant, but the really central figures on the team now — coach Paul Maurice, co-franchise face Matthew Tkachuk, soon-to-be 50-goal man Sam Reinhart — were nowhere to be found in South Florida in 2020. As for where the Cats are headed, you could see them still in the midst of a contention window in 2028 with a 32-year-old Barkov and a 30-year-old Tkachuk driving the bus.

2. New York Rangers (40-17-3) The Rangers were two years into a rebuild that started with ‘The Letter’ in 2018. It seemed like the Blueshirts struck oil by winning the 2020 NHL Draft lottery and ultimately selecting Alexis Lafreniere. Four years later, it would be impossible to say Lafreniere has become the player the Rangers hoped for, even if he is on pace for a career-best season. Still, New York is a real contender today and there’s no reason to look at the roster and expect it will stop being a quality squad any time soon.

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3. Winnipeg Jets (37-15-5) Boy, this would have been a painful exercise to do with Winnipeg before the season. In 2020, the Jets could still very much tell themselves the best was yet to come, even if the squad had been devastated by the simultaneous blue line departures of Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in 2019. As of September 2023, it felt like a chapter could really be ending in Winnipeg, with Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck hurtling toward free agency in 2025. Today, Jets fans can dream on positive results, both in 2024 and 2028, not only because those key guys re-upped, but because the squad has really good prospects Rutger McGroarty and Colby Barlow in the pipeline who could be very good NHLers at a point where the team’s current core is still doing its thing. (And, it goes without saying, we all hope and expect the Jets will be simply playing in Winnipeg for a long, long time.)

4. Boston Bruins (34-12-14) On Feb. 29, 2020, the Bruins were the top team in the NHL with a .712 points percentage and were less than a year removed from losing Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup final on home ice to the St. Louis Blues. Four years on, even with the retirement of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, the B’s will enter the 2024 dance as Eastern Conference contenders. And maybe it’s just because a few of us have gone broke betting against this squad in recent years, but can you say with absolute certainty Boston will fall off a cliff by 2028? Brad Marchand will likely be gone and at some point they’ll need to find a top-end centre, but a core of goalie Jeremy Swayman, defenceman Charlie McAvoy and winger David Pastrnak will still be 29, 30 and 31, respectively. For what it’s worth, Elias Lindholm will be 33 in 2028. (Yes, we mean Elias, not Hampus … who knows what the summer will bring!)

5. Carolina Hurricanes (35-18-6) Carolina was in its second year under Rod Brind’Amour in 2019-20 and many of the guys driving the team today were already in place with the Canes. If, four years from now, Carolina hasn’t punched through to at least a Cup final, it will be a major disappointment. All we know for sure is Brind’Amour will still be the team coach and franchise face.

6. Colorado Avalanche (36-19-5) By 2020, Colorado was really starting to bang its head against the wall because of annual playoff disappointments. That changed, of course, in 2022. Nathan MacKinnon is the oldest of the Avs top gunners (excluding injured captain Gabriel Landeskog) and he’ll still be just 32 in 2028. Still, it feels like Colorado will need to fill in around the margins a bit to retain top contender status that many years out.

7. Dallas Stars (35-17-9) Four years ago, the Stars were about to, if not shock, at least surprise much of the hockey world with a run to the bubble final. It’s easy to envision Dallas in the 2024 final, and the same can be said for 2028, when current stars Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Jake Oettinger and Miro Heiskanen will be strongly supported by emerging players Thomas Harley, Wyatt Johnston and the newest intriguing face in the organization, Logan Stankoven.

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8. Toronto Maple Leafs (33-17-8) The Leafs were in their early days under coach Sheldon Keefe in 2020. Yes, they’d exited the playoffs in the first round over three straight springs, but that seemed forgivable for a very young squad bumping up against the Bruins all the time. That changed when Toronto lost its next two playoff series to Columbus and Montreal. If Toronto is still using the phrase “run it back” in 2028, it better because it ended the Stanley Cup drought on its 60th anniversary, in 2027.

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9. Edmonton Oilers (35-20-2) 2019-20 was an important year in Edmonton as that’s the season the Oilers essentially established themselves as a perennial playoff participant after missing the big dance in three of Connor McDavid’s first four years in the league. The rubber is going to hit the road well before 2028 in Northern Alberta, as Leon Draisaitl’s contract runs out in 2025, followed by McDavid’s in 2026. If those guys are still Oilers in ’28, chances are Edmonton will still be in the championship conversation.

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10. Vancouver Canucks (38-16-7) The Canucks were a team on the rise in 2019-20 — it just took them four years to really start rising. Listen, I get Canucks diehards might be a little jumpy when it comes to an Elias Pettersson extension, but if that does come to pass, you’re looking at a team with a sparkling top-line centre, an incredible D-man and captain in Quinn Hughes, and a stellar goalie in Thatcher Demko. Pettersson and Hughes still won’t have hit their 30th birthdays by Feb. 29, 2028, and Demko will be the senior citizen at the creaky old age of 32.

11. Detroit Red Wings (33-20-6) On Feb. 29, 2020, Detroit had a .261 points percentage — worst in the league by some distance — with 67 games in the books. The fact the Wings — who basically have a completely different roster from four years ago — are closing in on their first playoff berth since 2016 speaks to the progress made in the Motor City. With a strong prospect pipeline, the Wings should be true contenders by 2028.

12. Vegas Golden Knights (33-19-7) Vegas has been good since it entered the league in 2017, it was good in 2020 when it made the final four in the bubble and it was really good when it won the Cup in 2024. Do you want to bet against the Knights being good in 2028? Even with an old roster, it’s hard to forcefully say Vegas is about to nosedive.

13. Los Angeles Kings (29-19-10) Four years ago, the Kings were in the midst of what turned out to be one of the best franchise resets you could hope for. L.A. drafted Quinton Byfield in 2020 and his showing this year is a good reminder it takes time for prospects — even really good ones — to develop. Still, 36-year-old Anze Kopitar and 34-year-old Drew Doughty remain absolutely integral figures on this squad, so the likes of Byfield and defenceman Brandt Clarke have big shoes to fill in 2028. 

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14. Nashville Predators (33-25-2) Nashville was, naturally, a competitive team in 2020, but it changed coaches that year and moved off the coach it hired four years ago — John Hynes — this past summer after a number of disappointing seasons. The Preds are in the midst of a competitive retool right now and, while you could see the club remaining scrappy, it’s still hard to peer four years down the road and expect Nashville to be a true contender. Then again, maybe the squad will swing a Juuse Saros trade that brings in the stud forward it has seemingly been after forever.

15. Philadelphia Flyers (31-22-7) 2020 was the only time in the past five seasons Philly made the playoffs. Everything that’s happened since has led the club to embrace a full rebuild in the past 12 months … which has, of course, resulted in the Flyers looking like they’ll somehow make the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This will be an absolutely fascinating team to watch over the next couple off-seasons because, despite its surprising success, the Flyers remain committed to a long-term build. So who stays and who goes? One thing we know for sure: Philly hopes Matvei Michkov will be establishing himself as an NHL scoring star during what could be his sophomore season in 2027-28.

16. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-24-5) 2020 was the breakthrough for Tampa, as it finally won the Stanley Cup it had been legit chasing for half a decade. You could convince me this iteration of the Bolts still has one more big run left in it in 2025 or even 2026. By 2028, it might be time to till the soil.

17. Pittsburgh Penguins (27-21-8) Four years ago, Pittsburgh was in the beginning of a stretch that saw it lose first-round series for four straight years. Today, it’s in the midst of missing the post-season for the second straight year. Honestly, if the Pens are blindly committed to never trading any of their franchise faces, the plane might still be in the final stages of a long, slow descent in ’28.

18. New Jersey Devils (30-25-4) The Devils canned both coach John Hynes and GM Ray Shero during the 2019-20 season, but the framework of a good squad was in place. This year is extremely disappointing for Jersey, but it’s more likely than not the Devils are a major contender for the 2028 Cup.

19. Washington Capitals (27-22-9) The Caps were just two years removed from a title in 2020, but haven’t won a playoff series since hoisting the Cup. Washington is likely to miss the playoffs in 2024 and, by 2028, another first-overall pick could be playing under the retired No. 8 of Alex Ovechkin.

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20. Calgary Flames (29-25-5) Calgary’s top point-getters in 2020 were 22-year-old Matthew Tkachuk, 26-year-old Johnny Gaudreau and 25-year-old Elias Lindholm. Not one of those guys wears a Flames uniform today. Where will the Flames be in 2028? A lot of that will be determined by the work GM Craig Conroy has already done in the past 10 months dealing away Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli and Chris Tanev, and the return he ultimately gets for Noah Hanifin and, possibly, Jacob Markstrom.

21. Minnesota Wild (28-25-6) The Wild axed coach Bruce Boudreau in 2020 and proceeded to lose in the first round (technically the qualifying round) of the playoffs, just as they’ve done seven times since last winning a post-season round in 2015. Can Minny be the type of team that wins multiple rounds in 2028? Yes. Brock Faber is an incredible find on the blue line, Marco Rossi is rounding into form, Kirill Kaprizov will still be just 30 and Jesper Wallstedt might be a Vezina candidate by then.

22. Seattle Kraken (25-22-11) Four years ago, the Seattle NHL team was $650-million twinkle in the commissioner’s eye. Four years from now, there’s still a solid chance a 1-2 down the middle of Matty Beniers and Shane Wright has the Kraken among the top three teams in the Pacific.

23. New York Islanders (24-20-14) Four years ago, this iteration of the Islanders was peaking as a squad that made the final four in 2020 and ’21. Ilya Sorokin should keep the Islanders competitive, but this team has an old roster and pretty barren prospect cupboard.

24. St. Louis Blues (30-26-3) In 2020, St. Louis was still living in the glow of the first Cup in franchise history arriving in 2019. It’s probably too harsh to call the Blues rudderless in 2024, but it’s also difficult to make a strong case they’ll be chasing a championship in 2028.

25. Buffalo Sabres (27-28-4) Oh, boy. I don’t know what’s worse, talking about Buffalo’s ugly past or continuing to tell Western New Yorkers to hang in because things are bound to improve. Listen, Buffalo is loaded with great prospects, so why not just go ahead and believe 2028 will be the Sabres’ year?

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26. Ottawa Senators (25-29-3) Four years ago, Ottawa was in the early stages of embracing a rebuild that basically went according to plan except for the fact all this wonderful talent it has accumulated has yet to get the team in the playoffs. As long as Ottawa can uncover a goalie between now and 2028, the Sens should be a strong squad.

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27. Montreal Canadiens (23-28-8) Four years ago, the Canadiens were the team of Carey Price and Shea Weber. That era ended much, much more abruptly than anyone could have guessed. Where Montreal will be in four years is one of the more intriguing questions at the bottom of this board. It doesn’t seem like a true high-end stud will be drafted by the club during its rebuild, but there’s a texture to the Canadiens roster and prospect crew that makes it very possible Montreal will be a quality outfit in 2028.

28. Columbus Blue Jackets (19-29-10) The Jackets were coming off the first playoff series win in franchise history in 2020 and added another by knocking off the Leafs that summer in the bubble. Four years on, Columbus is a team in transition, but one that could conceivably be extremely good in 2028 — especially if the Jackets get some lottery luck this spring.

29. Anaheim Ducks (20-35-3) The Ducks were only slightly removed from being a very good team in 2020, but were spiraling fast. Make the list of teams that are bad now but will be good in ’28 as short as you want and Anaheim is still on it — possibly at the top.

30. San Jose Sharks (15-37-5) San Jose fired coach Pete DeBoer during the 2019-20 season and missed the post-season for just the second time in 20 years. The Sharks haven’t been back since and still have a lot of work to do. But if San Jose can get its hands on former Jr. Shark Macklin Celebrini at the 2024 draft, there’s enough in the cupboard already to start dreaming of a much brighter future by 2028.

31. Chicago Blackhawks (15-39-5) 2020 was the last time Chicago played a playoff game, and the next time it plays one surely won’t be before 2026. By 2028, though, Connor Bedard could be the reigning Hart Trophy winner on a club trying to hang a banner.

32. Arizona Coyotes (23-30-5) We saved the biggest shoulder shrug for last. Four years ago, the Coyotes made their only post-season appearance of the past dozen years. Today, they’re on a 13-game losing streak. By 2028, they could have a pretty competitive team in a new Arizona-based arena — or be playing in Utah or Houston.

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