Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The bottom 16

Ranking NHL teams by tiers: The bottom 16

This is part one of a two-part series ranking all 32 NHL teams by tiers for the 2023-24 season. Part two, which addresses the top 16 teams, will be published Wednesday.

Keep in mind this exercise is rolling out roughly 10 days before training camps open, and the tiers are based on personal projections for the 2023-24 season only, not the long-term trajectories of each franchise.

Worst of the worst (Tier 8)

In a league of their own – and not in a good way

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks, who recently traded Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, will miss the playoffs for a fifth straight year. Heck, they’re tracking toward a miserable 50 points and a minus-100 goal differential.

It seems harsh, but the bleakness comes after taking one look at the goaltending tandem (Kaapo Kahkonen and Mackenzie Blackwood) and a blue line devoid of top-pair talent.

The Sharks’ fall from grace also sent Timo Meier and Brent Burns out of town – and the teardown is unfinished. For one, veteran forwards Kevin Labanc, Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Alexander Barabanov, and Oskar Lindblom all enter the season on expiring contracts.

General manager Mike Grier and head coach David Quinn have both been on the job for just over a year. There’s zero pressure, internally or externally, to switch gears and skip steps in the rebuild.

Instead, one of the most competitive teams of the past quarter century set itself up to tank for the 2024 draft prize, Macklin Celebrini. The next generation of Sharks, led by 2021 and 2023 picks William Eklund and Will Smith, has potential. But the team lacks a franchise-altering prospect – someone like Celebrini.

Head barely above water (Tier 7)

Rebuilding with the inside track on prime draft-lottery odds

Anaheim Ducks

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The hockey world didn’t talk enough last season about how atrocious the Ducks were. They ranked 32nd in points, 32nd in goals against, 31st in goals for, 31st in power play percentage, 31st in penalty kill percentage, and – here’s the kicker – allowed the most shots on goal per game ever.

The Ducks landed here for two reasons. First, it’s reasonable to expect all three of the team’s young leaders – Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish, and Jamie Drysdale – will reach new heights. (We’ll see if second overall pick Leo Carlsson sticks around for the full year.) Second, it’s highly unlikely the Ducks perform worse defensively under rookie head coach Greg Cronin, who took over for Dallas Eakins.

Forward Alex Killorn and defenseman Radko Gudas count as notable offseason additions. The duo will help elevate the Ducks’ floor, as will bounce-back years from wingers Ryan Strome and Jakob Silfverberg. Speaking of Silfverberg, the pending UFA could be a desirable midseason trade chip. The same goes for defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and forward Adam Henrique.

Arizona Coyotes

Arizona’s still very much in the brick-by-brick stage of the rebuild process. Its roster features a handful of longtime Coyotes (Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, etc.), a bunch of hired guns (Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba, etc.), and a few stud youngsters (Logan Cooley, Dylan Guenther, etc.).

As a group, the Coyotes aren’t particularly dangerous offensively or scary defensively. Even if less heralded 20-somethings Matias Maccelli and Karel Vejmelka build on strong 2022-23 showings, the team won’t be overly competitive in the Central Division. Think 80 points – about 15 from the playoff cutline, but still a nice bump from last year’s 70 points.

While arena issues continue to dominate headlines, Cooley’s arrival is a welcome distraction. A top-six center role awaits the 19-year-old highlight machine, and many believe he possesses the offensive firepower to challenge for the Calder Trophy.

Squint hard and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel for the NHL’s laughingstock franchise.

Chicago Blackhawks

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Bedard. Bedard. Bedard.

Everything the Blackhawks are doing right now revolves around making Connor Bedard’s transition to the NHL as seamless as possible – while simultaneously keeping the roster substandard in order to increase draft lottery odds. It’s a delicate balance but, at least on paper, general manager Kyle Davidson has threaded the needle so far. Case in point: savvy vets Corey Perry, Nick Foligno, and Taylor Hall were signed to short-term deals in the offseason, yet the gaping hole between the pipes went unaddressed.

Chicago already owns two first-round picks in both 2024 and 2025. The team’s books are relatively clean, with $12.9 million available in cap space and only Seth Jones under contract past 2025-26. So, despite the infusion of a once-in-a-generation phenom, plus blue-chip prospects Lukas Reichel and Kevin Korchinski, the Blackhawks remain firmly in rebuild mode.

Philadelphia Flyers

Now that Keith Jones, Daniel Briere, and John Tortorella have settled in as president, general manager, and head coach, the Flyers organization appears to be embracing a show-me-whatcha-got phase.

Owen Tippett, Joel Farabee, Noah Cates, Morgan Frost, and Wade Allison are all between 23 and 25 years old and should be given ample opportunity to take the next step in their careers. Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson, two former All-Stars coming off injuries, need to prove themselves all over again. Goalies Carter Hart and Cal Petersen fall into this category, too.

It was a smart long-term play to bid farewell to defensemen Ivan Provorov and Tony DeAngelo in the offseason. Still, there’s no doubt Philadelphia’s thinner on the back end year over year. Meanwhile, the biggest addition up front was Matvei Michkov, who won’t be playing in North America for a few seasons.

That last sentence alone says a lot about the current state of the team.

Notch below playoffs (Tier 6)

2023-24 doesn’t project to be a banner season, for various reasons

Columbus Blue Jackets

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There’s nowhere to go but up for the Blue Jackets. Last season’s 59-point output was the byproduct of countless injuries and absences, underwhelming performances, and poor coaching.

Patrik Laine and Zach Werenski, who played a combined 68 games in 2022-23, are now healthy. The promising Alexandre Texier is returning to Columbus after dealing with an injury and taking a family-related leave of absence. Provorov and Damon Severson were added to the defense corps. Longtime head coach Mike Babcock is ready to redeem himself.

Adding to the intrigue: Third overall pick Adam Fantilli turned pro, and the University of Michigan product might find a season-long home on a line with star Johnny Gaudreau.

In short, there’s a ton to be excited about in Columbus. That said, the positivity is countered by a deep Eastern Conference, unreliable goaltending, and special teams in dire need of an overhaul. A step forward, yes, but the playoffs are probably out of reach in Babcock’s debut season.

Montreal Canadiens

In January 2022, Kent Hughes inherited a middling Canadiens roster with far too many onerous contracts from Marc Bergevin. The new general manager has done an admirable job of ridding the club of some poor deals. That middling roster, meanwhile, is still under construction.

That’s not to say Montreal will be a walkover. They’ll be competitive most nights and should definitely improve upon last year’s 68 points. The question is, which players see the end of the rebuild? Who’s a long-term core piece beyond Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and a few others?

The Canadiens have made a habit of giving second chances to young players who aren’t performing to their full potential elsewhere. Kirby Dach is the biggest success story to date, while Alex Newhook, fresh off signing a four-year extension, is the next developmental case study.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the club’s sophomores – Juraj Slafkovsky and Arber Xhekaj, for starters – fare under the tutelage of Martin St. Louis and his coaching staff.

Nashville Predators

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The Predators are a difficult team to gauge at the moment.

On one hand, new general manager Barry Trotz made it known that the status quo will not be tolerated after Nashville’s playoff streak ended at eight seasons. Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen were jettisoned in the offseason while Stanley Cup winners Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn were welcomed into the fold.

On the other hand, a team that boasts Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, and Juuse Saros – three surefire NHL stars – won’t bottom out anytime soon. Trotz may opt to cut deeper, triggering a full-fledged rebuild. Or he may attempt to retool around the stars.

Time will also tell if Andrew Brunette is an upgrade from John Hynes behind the bench, though young forwards Cody Glass, Juuso Parssinen, Phil Tomasino, and Luke Evangelista should benefit from a new voice. Elsewhere on the roster, pending unrestricted free agents Tyson Barrie, Thomas Novak, Yakov Trenin, Alexandre Carrier, and Kevin Lankinen are all potential trade bait.

Standings purgatory (Tier 5)

Legitimate chance at playoff spot, but stars must align

Boston Bruins

This is the least confident I feel about a team’s slot. The Bruins compiled a record 135 points last season. How could I possibly place them in Tier 5 with the rest of the borderline playoff teams?

It comes down to center depth. With Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci gone, Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha are Boston’s top-six centers. No offense to either player, but it’s hard to envision a scenario in which they can replace the value lost by those retirements.

Also gone in the offseason: wingers Taylor Hall and Tyler Bertuzzi, and defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Connor Clifton. That’s a ton of talent sucked out of the 2022-23 roster. And let’s not gloss over the fact that goalie Linus Ullmark’s chances of once again dominating the regular season are slim.

On a sunnier note, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, and Ullmark still make up a stellar core. The blue line, in general, remains a real strength. So Boston hasn’t become irrelevant since we last saw them. They’re just less relevant to the Cup conversation – for now, anyway.

Detroit Red Wings

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The Red Wings went on a spending spree in the offseason, acquiring Alex DeBrincat and Jeff Petry via trade, and signing free agents J.T. Compher, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Justin Holl, among others. General manager Steve Yzerman was similarly busy in the summer of 2022.

All of this activity raised Detroit’s floor. They are no longer the club trying to move on from the glory years of a 25-year playoff run.

The Red Wings still need at least two more offensive drivers, as the drop-off from catalysts Dylan Larkin and DeBrincat to Lucas Raymond, Compher, Andrew Copp, and David Perron is, frankly, too steep. Meanwhile, the efficacy of the blue line is still to be determined. Moritz Seider and Jake Walman should be terrific again, but none of the others – Gostisbehere, Petry, Holl, Ben Chiarot, and Olli Maatta – instill a ton of confidence. As for the tandem behind them, well, Ville Husso with James Reimer is fine but nothing special.

Detroit will continue to climb the standings but it likely won’t be enough for the playoffs.

New York Islanders

The Islanders are, in a word, solid. Their floor is relatively high thanks to a stable of veteran skaters and high-end goaltending. But a lack of game-breaking talent keeps their ceiling relatively low.

This dynamic leaves the Isles somewhere in the middle of the league. It wouldn’t be shocking if they earned a spot in the postseason. However, the depth of the East guarantees absolutely nothing.

What’s interesting about New York: General manager Lou Lamoriello doubled down on his well-tenured group in the offseason, handing Ilya Sorokin, Scott Mayfield, and Pierre Engvall long-term extensions. The most loyal executive in the NHL wisely locked up Sorokin, one of the three best goalies on the planet. The commitment to Mayfield and Engvall is dicier, given their on-ice values and ages.

Last season, the Islanders finished 22nd in goals and 30th in power play percentage. It’s critical Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat, who’s entering his first full season on Long Island, produce at first-line levels. Burgeoning star defenseman Noah Dobson must continue to level up.

Ottawa Senators

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With Jake Sanderson re-signing last week, the Senators have five difference-making under-27 players locked up for five seasons or more at a combined $40.6-million cap hit. The upper limit is expected to rise significantly over the next few years, so Ottawa’s in fantastic shape financially.

But those good vibes don’t necessarily lead to massive gains in the standings.

I thought about slotting the Sens in the fourth tier, reserved for probable playoff teams. But, given the competition in the Atlantic Division, a ton needs to go Ottawa’s way for them to break a six-year playoff drought, starting with the bet on Joonas Korpisalo in net.

Nevertheless, new owner Michael Andlauer made a shrewd investment. The Sens lineup is beginning to look formidable. The top half of the forward group, led by Tim Stutzle and Brady Tkachuk, is frightening, and the left side of the blue line, led by Sanderson and Thomas Chabot, is enviable.

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis is coming off a disappointing season, but things could get worse.

The main issue is a lack of high-end talent. Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou – forwards on matching contracts running through 2030-31 – have played elite hockey for stretches of their young careers. But neither seems destined for superstardom. The next candidate is 2023 first-rounder Dalibor Dvorsky, who’s still a work in progress.

All of that said, this version of the Blues, who have a hard-driving coach in Craig Berube, could sneak into the playoffs because of their abundance of B-level players. Kevin Hayes, Brayden Schenn, Justin Faulk, and Torey Krug are all proud veterans who should have enough left in the tank to avoid a freefall in the standings.

If the season goes south early on in the year, though, general manager Doug Armstrong would be smart to embark on a more aggressive reshaping of the roster. Krug, Marco Scandella, Robert Bortuzzo, Jakub Vrana, Sammy Blais, and Oskar Sundqvist could all help playoff teams at the trade deadline.

Vancouver Canucks

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In a perfect world, the Canucks find stability in 2023-24.

Right now, there are layers of instability surrounding the club, ranging from Elias Pettersson’s contract extension to goalie Thatcher Demko’s ability to bounce back from an injury-plagued year to the talent level and cohesiveness of a revamped blue line.

Vancouver won’t win a division title. It won’t lose 50 games, either. The roster, even after marginal upgrades in the offseason, is very much mid-level, beyond offensive catalyst J.T. Miller, captain and top defenseman Quinn Hughes, and Pettersson, who’s a legitimate two-way superstar.

It wouldn’t be a miracle if the Canucks earned a playoff spot for the first time since 2019-20. But there are more than a handful of teams in the West who look better on paper.

Washington Capitals

The 2022-23 trade deadline was a turning point for the Capitals, who were obvious sellers before the team missed the playoffs for just the second time in 16 years.

Fast forward and Spencer Carbery, not Peter Laviolette, is running the bench. Carbery’s main objective is as straightforward as it is daunting: Get this team back in the postseason so Alex Ovechkin and his contemporaries – Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Tom Wilson, among others – can chase a second Stanley Cup before it’s too late. The awkward thing is that, based on the average age of the core, it may already be too late.

If newcomer Max Pacioretty can stay healthy, if Evgeny Kuznetsov can rediscover his championship form from 2018, and if Anthony Mantha can finally reach his 30-goal potential, the Caps’ offense should be in a pretty good spot. Their blue line and goaltending are both average.

Winnipeg Jets

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The Jets won’t challenge for the Central Division title, let alone the Stanley Cup. Nor will they challenge for favorable draft lottery odds. As currently constructed, they’re in the Western Conference’s murky middle, having only partially turned the page on an old core of players.

The conversation changes if Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck leave Winnipeg midseason. Depending on the return for the two pending unrestricted free agents, the Jets could shift toward either a lengthy rebuild or a quick-fix retool. Either way, the club will look and feel markedly different.

For what it’s worth, I loved Kevin Cheveldayoff’s work on the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. The package of Gabe Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Alex Iafallo, and a second-round pick is more than enough for a guy who was unwilling to re-sign. Vilardi’s trajectory is the key – can he blossom into a No. 1 center?

It’ll also be fun to watch how blue-liner Josh Morrissey follows up his brilliant 2022-23 season.

John Matisz is theScore’s senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (john.matisz@thescore.com).

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