Tiers of the NHL: Looking at every team and where expectations belong

TAMPA, FL - MAY 11: Lars Eller #20 of the Washington Capitals scores a second period goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Amalie Arena on May 11, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. The Capitals defeated the Lightning 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - MAY 11: Lars Eller #20 of the Washington Capitals scores a second period goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Amalie Arena on May 11, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. The Capitals defeated the Lightning 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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A preview of all 31 NHL teams, splitting them into seven distinct tiers.

A trend started by Zach Lowe at ESPN, ranking teams and things in general by tiers is a popular evaluation tool. It contains just the right amount of vagueness to function as a method of preseason previewing, discarding the restrictiveness of pure power rankings.

So, to preview the upcoming NHL season, we’re dividing NHL teams into seven tiers. The tiers are determined by the unique classes of hockey clubs, not the other way around. Order within tiers does not matter. Here we go:

Tier 7: The Rebuilders

One of the widest tiers, there are seven clear rebuilders. These are the teams leading the race for highly-touted draft prospect Jack Hughes. They are purely focused on the future.

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks don’t have much goaltending yet, or top-end defenseman. They are a year or two away from serious playoff contention. But there is star potential on this team, a core tenet of rebuilding and something that’s proven difficult to find; Brock Boeser looks like the real deal, and the Canucks will hinge their hopes on him.

Boeser’s 0.89 points-per-game last year, including 29 goals, put him in contention for the Calder Trophy. Vancouver hope his linemate Bo Horvat can be a legitimate first-line center and continue to develop chemistry with Boeser. 19-year-old Elias Pettersson, projected to play center on the second-line, adds to a promising, if small, young core.

Signing fourth-line grinders Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle to mysteriously expensive four-year deals in free agency raised questions about the aptitude of the front office. The Canucks need youth to emerge alongside Horvat and Boeser.

They won’t win many games with a duo of Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson playing in goal, though Markstrom’s solid .912 save percentage last year provides some hope.

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa’s offseason was about as bad as an offseason can get, though the the New York Islanders give them fairly significant competition in that category. The Senators dealt cornerstone Erik Karlsson to San Jose less than a month before the season, failing to recoup any promising plug-and-play NHLers, and fan trust in ownership is hitting all-time lows.

They still have Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, who could fetch fairly significant returns at the trade deadline or earlier. But their first round pick is in the hands of the Colorado Avalanche as a result of last year’s Duchene trade, and they are still hamstrung by the albatross Bobby Ryan contract.

Hope rests in fourth-overall pick Brady Tkachuk and 21-year-old center Colin White. There isn’t much anywhere else.

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit are rebuilding. They have a nice young core of assets — including the ultra-fun first line of Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin, plus first-round draft pick Filip Zadina. The Red Wings saw the official retirement of longtime star Henrik Zetterberg due to persisting back issues, further opening doors for the likes of 24-year-old Andreas Athanasiou.

Fans would hope the front office will be a bit more self aware. They made some curious signings that will cost them cap room and make little sense to a team looking towards the future. Thomas Vanek and Mike Green were surprising moves, particularly the 32-year-old d-man Green, who will cost $10.5 million over two years.

But the Red Wings have intriguing pieces and the Vanek deal is tradeable, at one-year, $3 million. They are not in a bad position; their shaky defensive core looks likely to find them at the bottom of the standings at the end of the year, right in the mix for Hughes.

For now, they’ll want someone to take a star leap. Larkin looks the likeliest.

Montreal Canadiens

By finally trading Max Pacioretty, Montreal removed a cloud that could have floated over their heads for most of the season. Their goalscoring will suffer as a result; the Jonathan Drouin-is-a-center experiment may or may not continue, and Brendan Gallagher is the only forward approaching elite on this team.

Per usual, everything will come down to Carey Price for the Habs. Price could revert back to Tier 1 Goalie form and puck-stop the Canadiens to a random wild-card spot, or he could continue his declining, injury-riddled performances from last season, which would likely send Montreal spiralling into the 60-point range.

That wouldn’t be the worst thing, considering the Canadiens’ need for top-end talent. They won’t find that talent making lopsided one-for-one trades and trying to convert second-line right wingers into their center of the future. But a rock-bottom season featuring more Price struggles would raise concerns about the elite goalie’s longevity and whether the Canadiens have made effective use of his prime.

New York Rangers

The Rangers didn’t do anything this offseason, and that’s a good thing. They have an intriguing young core whom they know is at least a couple years away, and they approached the offseason accordingly; they didn’t sign any overpaid 32-year-old fourth-liners who have Big Game Experience, or pointless investments on win-now types of players.

They know who they are. There’s a real, promising young core at MSG this year, and New York is willing to let them develop. 24-year-old Brady Skjei could play with veteran Kevin Shattenkirk on the first defensive pairing. Filip Chytil, Pavel Buchnevich, and Neal Pionk also could get significant time at the NHL level. Mika Zibanejad, still just 25, is a centerpiece.

Their actual on-ice results will come down to the 36-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, similar to Price in Montreal. This is a low-stakes season for the Rangers, though. They want their good young players to take tangible steps forward, they’d like to keep some cap space open if there are any major free agents who want to go to New York next summer, and they wouldn’t mind a nice draft pick.

New York Islanders

It was not a fun offseason for the poor Islanders. Franchise superstar John Tavares, a generational superstar, bolted in free agency, something NHL stars almost never do. He played just one season with super-rookie Matthew Barzal, with the Isles struggling to find any significant playoff success in Tavares’s eight years.

Now, it’s Barzal’s team. There are a couple other good pieces on the team, including Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and 21-year-old Anthony Beauvillier. Goaltending is a major question, a constant on the non-Lundqvist side of New York; Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner will get the majority of starts.

Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz were hired from the Maple Leafs and Capitals to lead the Islanders into a new, post-Tavares era. They’ll have some work to do.