NHL Power Rankings: Contenders and pretenders for 2020-21 NHL season

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we are going to take a look at the the three different tiers of teams in the league this season. The contenders, the pretenders, and the lottery teams.

While it can be difficult, and maybe even impossible, to know exactly which teams are going to end in the Stanley Cup Final we should at least have a pretty good idea as to which teams fit into which category. At least to a point.

How are we defining each tier? The contenders are the teams that should have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup. Teams that as of right now you could conceivably see winning it all. The Pretenders are teams that could be good, could easily make the playoffs, but may not quite be at a Stanley Cup level. The lottery teams are teams that seem destined to miss the playoffs entirely.

So let’s take a look.

Which tier is your team in?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. Even without Nikita Kucherov for the regular season the defending Stanley Cup champions still have an absolutely loaded roster.

2. Colorado Avalanche. An already great team managed to get even stronger this offseason with the additions of Brandon Saad and Devon Toews.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. They have two starting caliber goalies, two legit top-pairing defensemen, and an excellent group of forwards. A third trip to the NHL’s semifinals in the first four years of their existence seems possible.

4. St. Louis Blues. Losing Alex Pietrangelo hurts, but Torey Krug is a more than capable replacement and the rest of the team is outstanding. Which version of Jordan Binnington they get in goal will play a big role in how far they go.

5. Boston Bruins. There is every reason to be concerned about the state of the defense following the losses of Krug and Zdeno Chara (and not replacing them from outside of the organization) but the forwards and goalies are good enough to make them a force.

6. Washington Capitals. Back-to-back First Round exits is a concern, but they have finished in first place in their division five years in a row, are consistently near the top of the league standings, and still have an excellent roster. The window is still open.

7. Dallas Stars. Surprising fact: No team in the NHL has won more playoff games than the Stars over the past two seasons. The offense is not great, but the goaltending and defense are both great.

8. Carolina Hurricanes. Stop me if you have heard this one before, but if they can get the goaltending the sky is the limit for this team.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins. Do you remember the end of the Dan Bylsma/Ray Shero era when the Penguins had two great forward lines built around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that could carry them to the playoffs, and then the rest of the team looked severely flawed? This team looks similar to that on paper.

[MORE: Bold predictions for NHL season]

10. Philadelphia Flyers. There is some question as to how good they really are, but if Carter Hart is the goalie they think he is (and he should be) they could be dangerous.

11. New York Islanders. Islanders fans will not like this ranking, and I get it. They were in the Eastern Conference Final just a year ago and now in 11th in the preseason rankings? But it was such a weird season. They started great for 18 games. Then they were awful for the next 50 games and may have even missed the playoffs in a normal season. Then they got white hot in the bubble. Which team are they? They have enough flaws to make me question them, but enough strengths that I also do not want to bet against them.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs. On one hand, this team has to actually do something when it matters for anyone to take them seriously. On the other hand, they are in probably the most winnable division in the league this season and could easily end up in the semifinals. But again, the time has come to do something. Finish higher than third in the division. Finish in the top-five of the league standings. Win a playoff round. Give me something.

13. Edmonton Oilers. A lot of really good, under-the-radar free agent signings this offseason, but is that enough help for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

The Pretenders

14. Calgary Flames. They are not as good as they looked two years ago, but they might be a little better than they showed a year ago. Jacob Markstrom will dictate which direction this thing goes.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets. They have two outstanding defensemen and some underrated forwards that can keep them competitive. They desperate need the goaltending to repeat its performance from a year ago.

16. Vancouver Canucks. The top of the lineup is a championship core. The bottom of the lineup is going to be a liability. The goaltending is a question.

17. Montreal Canadiens. They had great underlying numbers a year ago and needed some finishing ability at forward. I think they found some in Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, and watch out for Nick Suzuki to have a breakout season.

18. Nashville Predators. When things stay at even-strength they are pretty good. When it turns into a special teams game they are as bad as it gets. That has to change.

19. New York Rangers. The forwards and the goalies are cause for a lot of optimism, perhaps as soon as this season. The defense after Adam Fox is a big concern.

20. Florida Panthers. They need the Columbus version of Sergei Bobrovsky or another busy offseason will be rendered pointless.

[MORE: Award picks, coaches, and free agents]

21. Winnipeg Jets. Connor Hellebuyck gives them a chance every night. I still think that defense is going to be too much to overcome.

22. Minnesota Wild. I could see them making the playoffs as the fourth-team in a top-heavy West Division. But I do not see them getting through two of Colorado, Vegas, or St. Louis if they get there.

23. San Jose Sharks. Take the entry above about the Wild and repeat the same thing here.

24. Arizona Coyotes. Love the goalies, but where is the offense going to come from?

The Lottery Teams

25. Buffalo Sabres. All of the offseason excitement that came with adding Taylor Hall and Eric Staal, only to do nothing about the goalies and then be placed in a division with Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the New York Islanders, and New York Rangers.

26. New Jersey Devils. The reason for optimism here was the potential of Mackenzie Blackwood and Corey Crawford goalie duo. Now it is just down to Blackwood. They need more offense, and that division is going to be brutal.


27. Ottawa Senators. The roster definitely looks like more of an NHL roster this season, and the cupboard is being restocked. Still a long way to go in this rebuild.

28. Los Angeles Kings. Within two years they will be a playoff team again. Within three years they will be a contender. Their time is coming. It is just not right now.

29. Chicago Blackhawks. An already thin roster is already being impacted by injuries and the season has not even started yet. The goaltending question could really make this season a challenge.

30. Anaheim Ducks. Some intriguing young players here, but they need to get the memo that they need to pick a new direction and follow it.

31. Detroit Red Wings. Some really smart offseason signings and a lot of cap space to spend after this season, but this is going to be another tough season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.


Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.