- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The NHL’s 2021-22 season hit the quarter mark last weekend. While that means we have a long way to go, it also means we have some insight into which teams are thriving, which teams are spiraling and which teams have just left us baffled.
Here are the Stanley Cup contender tiers — from “Tasting the Cup” to “The (Shane) Wright Stuff” — at the quarter mark:
Tasting the Cup tier
Toronto Maple Leafs
These teams have impressed me the most. They’re not perfect. They’re not sure things. But any of them could lift the Stanley Cup in a few months and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.
(OK, I would still be surprised if it were the Maple Leafs. Because unless they’ve changed the format, the Stanley Cup is awarded for achievement after the first round.)
The only thing middling about the Hurricanes has been their power play (15th), but otherwise they’re a deep, talented team that can flat out shut down opponents when necessary: Ten of their 15 wins have seen Carolina give up one goal or less. It’s a Rod Brind’Amour team. It’s going to outwork you.
The Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl Show — or does Draisaitl get top billing? — carried the Oilers to the top of the NHL in points percentage (.750) through 20 games, but they’re more than a two-man team this season. I still think they add a goaltender at some point, and probably a little more: GM Ken Holland knows he’s got a contender here, and it’s time to push the chips in.
Many of us assumed the Florida Panthers were going to fall apart after Joel Quenneville resigned in the fallout of the Blackhawks’ sexual assault investigation. Instead they’ve gone 8-4-3 under interim coach Andrew Brunette and continue to roll offensively (3.73 goals per game) playing the systems Quenneville installed there. They also have Sergei Bobrovsky playing at a .930 save percentage clip after two seasons of being a financial boondoggle. GM Bill Zito has built a deep and talented team, the first true Cup contender in the franchise’s history.
We have our fun with the Leafs, but they’re a fabulous defensive team under Sheldon Keefe, with a goalie in Jack Campbell who might have played himself onto the U.S. Olympic team. Yes, their postseason success remains the only thing the locals are going to ultimately care about, making the Auston Matthews Leafs a bit like the pre-Cup Alex Ovechkin Capitals in that regard. But remember when the pundits were saying that Toronto was a “mess” and that trading away one of its significant players was a likely solution? Yeah, that was Oct. 24.
I’m including the Avalanche here because … well, because they’re the Avalanche. They posted a .639 points percentage with Nathan MacKinnon (eight games) and defenseman Devon Toews (nine games) missing most of the first quarter of the season. I’m still not in love with this team’s forward depth after losing a few key names from last season. I’m still not sold on the goaltending as being at a championship level. But, again, it’s still the Avalanche. They’re a Cup favorite, until they’re not.
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