Every NHL team likes to begin the season thinking it has playoff hopes and compete for the Stanley Cup. But the harsh reality is that every team is starting with a different set of realistic expectations. At least when viewed externally. We tend to define a team’s success or failure by how they do in meeting those preseason expectations.
We expect some teams to be a playoff team and compete for the Cup. Maybe even win it. We look at other teams and expect them to be competing for the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery. Other teams stumble around somewhere in the middle ground between those two levels.
Now that most (but not all, given postponements and games that still need to be played) teams in the league have started to reach the halfway point we are going to take a quick look around the league and assess how every team is doing in meeting their expectations.
Important to note: This is not ranking. This is not looking at which teams are the best and worst. We are simply looking at which teams are exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, and failing to meet expectations. That is it.
Florida Panthers. The Panthers being good is not a surprise. The Panthers being this good and an absolute holy terror offensively is a little bit of a surprise.
Pittsburgh Penguins. The expectation for the Penguins seemed to be that they would start slowing down, maybe be a fringe playoff team, or maybe even miss the playoffs. They have been one of the best teams in the league.
New York Rangers. There was a ton of pressure on the Rangers to win this season, but not sure there was a realistic expectation for them to take this big of a step. There is still some question as to how good they really are right now, but an elite goalie, a Norris Trophy winning defenseman, and some superstar forwards can mask a lot and elevate any rebuilding team.
Nashville Predators. At the halfway point of the 2020-21 season this looked like a team in desperate need of a rebuild. They have a great goalie and a lot of their big-money players have bounced back.
Los Angeles Kings. The farm system is strong and their real window to contend is still probably a couple of years away, but they are very much alive in the playoff race this season. That is progress.
San Jose Sharks. Given the age of their core players, some of the contracts here, and the way they played the past two seasons this looked like a bad situation. Maybe it still is. But at the halfway point they are still fighting for a playoff spot and that might be more than anybody outside of San Jose realistically expected.
Anaheim Ducks. They are fading recently, but this is another team that looked like a likely bottom-feeder at the start of the season. But the young core, a bounce back from John Gibson, and a breakout season from Troy Terry have them in the playoff race.
Meeting expectations (because they are good and competitive)
Colorado Avalanche. The expectation here is to be one of the best teams in the league and a Cup contender. That is exactly what they are.
Tampa Bay Lightning. They are the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and have a legitimate chance to be the first three-peat team in over 40 years.
Carolina Hurricanes. If their goaltending gamble paid off they were going to be a force. The goaltending gamble is paying off.
Toronto Maple Leafs. Sheldon Keefe has not been happy with some aspects of their play of late, but after a slow start they are back near the top of the league. Meeting expectations in the playoffs is the only thing Toronto cares about at this point, though.
Minnesota Wild. When they are fully healthy (they have not been lately) this is a sneaky contender. Still amazed at how much Kirill Kaprizov has completely changed the outlook and dynamic of this team and its playing style.
Washington Capitals. Given their season long injury situation you might be able to make an argument they have somewhat exceeded expectations, but the Capitals were always going to be a good team with this roster. Might still need a goalie upgrade.
Vegas Golden Knights. Injuries crushed them early on, but when they are healthy (and Jack Eichel will soon arrive!) this is a top-tier team.
Boston Bruins. Get carried by the top line? Great season from Charlie McAvoy? Need some additional scoring depth? Make the playoffs? Check, check, check, and (most likely) check. Exactly what they looked like they would be.
Winnipeg Jets. This seems like the right spot for the Jets, right? Fringe playoff team with some high level players at forward, a great goalie, and some question marks in the middle of the roster.
St. Louis Blues. They should thank their lucky stars they held on to Vladimir Tarasenko and that he bounced back. The Jordan Binnington question is still one that will make or break their season, but the Blues have been in this position as a playoff team and contender for years. Business as usual here.
Calgary Flames. Darryl Sutter and some strong goaltending have turned them into a strong defensive team and Johnny Gaudreau is still electrifying. In the end they are still a fringe playoff team with some flaws. Not a surprise or a disappointment.
Meeting expectations (because they are not competitive)
Arizona Coyotes. They gutted their roster over the offseason and went full scale rebuild. That means a lot of losing.
Ottawa Senators. They play hard, have been very competitive lately, and there is some definite young talent here. Just need more time and more help.
Buffalo Sabres. They are doing what Sabres fans have been used to for more than a decade now. New season, same results.
Columbus Blue Jackets. Not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but also not really a playoff team in a tough Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. One of those middle ground teams. The Seth Jones trade could be a franchise-changer, though.
Detroit Red Wings. You could make an argument this team is exceeding expectations to a degree, but the best hope here was simply to see progress and young cornerstones develop. Both have happened. The future is strong here.
New Jersey Devils. Maybe you would like to see more progress at this point, especially after some of the recent offseason moves and top picks, but this is probably where everybody expected the Devils to be in this division.
Failing to meet expectations
Edmonton Oilers. In a micro outlook this team is exactly what it should be. A couple of superstars with no depth, no defense, and no goaltending. This is exactly what we should have expected from this team. But in a macro outlook it is a complete organizational failing that in year seven of the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era this is where they are as a team. Just a complete failure.
New York Islanders. Injuries and an early season COVID-19 issue really put this team in a hole.
Philadelphia Flyers. Whether or not you expected them to be good, you probably did not expect them to have two different 10-game losing streaks by the halfway point of the season.
Chicago Blackhawks. When you spend the money they spent this offseason you intend to be good, as misguided as that attempt may have been. They are not good.
Montreal Canadiens. Not even sure what a realistic expectation here should have been. Everybody knew they were going to take at least somewhat of a step backwards given the return to a normal division and playoff format. Then they had the free agency departures, then they lost Shea Weber and Carey Price, and then the bottom just fell out. Nobody expected worst team in the league levels of bad. New GM Kent Hughes has a lot of work ahead.
Seattle Kraken. Nobody should have expected them to repeat Vegas’ initial success. But this still seems like a team that missed some opportunities in building its roster and has been crushed by goaltending.