Wyshynski’s NHL playoff hope tiers: Projections for all 32 teams


The NHL season is nearing its midpoint, which means teams separating out into the hopeful and the hopeless.

Here are the Stanley Cup Hope Tiers as they are currently constituted. The projected points and playoff probabilities are through Monday’s games and provided by FiveThirtyEight. The Stanley Cup champion probabilities are via Money Puck.

We begin with the highest of hopes:

Tier 1: True Stanley Cup contenders

Projected points: 122
Playoff probability: >99%
Stanley Cup win probability: 8.2%

Their hopes get higher if: Can they get much higher? The league-leading Bruins feel like they’ve hit on that rare combination of championship-caliber roster, ideal coach and unshakable sense of confidence and mission. An all-in push for the Cup this season could bring another defenseman to bolster the back end — perhaps the thinnest part of the roster, comparatively — or a swing for the fences for a star center or right wing.

Their hopes get lower if: One of three key players gets injured: Patrice Bergeron, Hampus Lindholm or Linus Ullmark. Bergeron gives them that sense of purpose. Lindholm has been their best defenseman and a primary reason they thrived when Charlie McAvoy was out of the lineup. Ullmark is in the conversation for the season’s top goaltender; due respect to Jeremy Swayman, but his crease-mate makes them a Cup favorite.

Projected points: 115
Playoff probability: >99%
Stanley Cup win probability: 13.8%

Their hopes get higher if: Max Pacioretty finally makes his Hurricanes debut in the near future, bolstering an offense and a power play that are in the bottom third of the league this season. But the reason the Hurricanes acquired the winger from the Vegas Golden Knights for pocket lint is so Pacioretty could provide those postseason goals that win Carolina those tight playoff games they haven’t been winning, and get them over the hump to a championship round again.

Their hopes get lower if: Their goaltending gets botched. The emergence of Pyotr Kochetkov as a rookie sensation has been a welcome development, as Frederik Andersen works his way back from injury. Speculation is that Antti Raanta, who had moments of playoff heroism last season, could be traded. Injuries, ineffectiveness and Kochetkov turning back into a pumpkin are all back-of-the-mind concerns. One false move can turn a blessing of riches into postseason bankruptcy.

Projected points: 107
Playoff probability: 98%
Stanley Cup win probability: 4.4%

Their hopes get higher if: Their depth and goaltending remain this good. The Stars’ mix of solid veterans and impact young players has led them to the top of the Central Division. It’s allowed them to pepper their depth chart with familiar names in unfamiliar roles: Jamie Benn on the third line, Esa Lindell on the third defensive pairing. As one NHL insider put it: “When you can play Benn and [Tyler] Seguin down the lineup, you have depth that cannot be argued with.”

Their hopes get lower if: Their team defense can’t improve in front of their goaltending. The Stars have a lower actual goals-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than their expected goals-against. That’s because they’re seventh in team save percentage at even strength (.925). We’ve seen what Jake Oettinger can do in the postseason. Not asking him to do it for four rounds would be the ideal path to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win since 1999.

Projected points: 110
Playoff probability: 99%
Stanley Cup win probability: 8.5%

Their hopes get higher if: They find another strong veteran center to go with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. The name of currently injured St. Louis star Ryan O’Reilly has been mentioned, and that almost makes too much sense: a win-at-all-costs two-way center with a Conn Smythe legacy who would thrive not having to carry a top scoring line.

Their hopes get lower if: They’re still possessed by those “demons in their heads,” as coach Paul MacLean so eloquently put it a few years ago, when the playoffs arrive. The Leafs are their own toughest opponent in the postseason. They blew a 3-2 lead to the Lightning last season. They’re almost assuredly going to see them again this postseason. Cue the spooky music.

Projected points: 104
Playoff probability: 95%
Stanley Cup win probability: 3%

Their hopes get higher if: They remain healthy. That’s the whole ballgame for the Golden Knights. At full strength, they’re potentially as good as any team in the NHL, especially now that coach Bruce Cassidy has improved their 5-on-5 defensive game. But as we saw in their crestfallen limp to the finish line last season, a key injury or three can change their fortunes in a hurry.

Their hopes get lower if: Logan Thompson isn’t a postseason goalie. The rookie hasn’t always been dominant (.915 save percentage, 2.61 goals-against average) but has been good enough to win 18 of his 28 decisions. Stanley Cup runs require goalies to steal a few games along the way. Thompson has played as many playoff games as the Seattle Kraken. We’re hopeful about him, but we just don’t know.

Tier 2: Playoff locks

Projected points: 97
Playoff probability: 65%
Stanley Cup win probability: 7.1%

Their hopes get higher if: Money Puck’s probabilities are more accurate than FiveThirtyEight’s. Not to get into some kind of “War of the Nerds” here, but Money Puck has the Devils’ playoff qualification probability at 95.4%, which seems more in line with a team that has a .662 points percentage through 37 games. Their recent stumble (2-6-2 in the Devils’ last 10 games) was disheartening and the air has drained from their points cushion, but there’s enough still going right for New Jersey that the playoffs should remain in the offering.

Their hopes get lower if: The goaltending fails them again. The Devils’ 5-on-5 save percentage is .919 after 37 games, which is pretty great in comparison to recent seasons but more than .010 lower than it was about a month ago. If Vitek Vanecek can continue to be dependable, if Akira Schmid can continue to surprise in spot work and if Mackenzie Blackwood can remain above replacement, they should be OK. If not … maybe FiveThirtyEight is on to something.

Projected points: 107
Playoff probability: 96%
Stanley Cup win probability: 7.2%

Their hopes get higher if: They’re still the Lightning. Still the collection of veterans who rise to the occasion of the postseason, having won two Stanley Cups and three conference titles in the last three seasons. Still the team that has a lineup inefficiency, fills it with someone named “Nick Perbix” and suddenly signs this person to cap-friendly, multi-year contract. Still the team that every other team needs to worry about.

Their hopes get lower if: The supporting cast remains just shy of Stanley Cup-worthy. The Lightning are an extraordinarily talented team with a few players that can rightfully claim to be the best at their respective positions in the NHL — Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. But the slow trickle of role players out of that lineup, like Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, impacted them last postseason. Now Ryan McDonagh‘s clutch play won’t be there either. At some point, the dish just tastes different when that many essential ingredients are changed.

Projected points: 101
Playoff probability: 88%
Stanley Cup win probability: 6.2%

Their hopes get higher if: The buy-in continues. Rounds of applause for coach Rick Bowness, who shut up his naysayers — as I glance forlornly in the mirror — by making a largely unchanged Jets roster better than it was last season. He’s activated the defense and helped turn Josh Morrissey into a Norris Trophy contender. He’s forced the players to take accountability. But most of all, he’s found a way to get defensive buy-in from players who previously had refused to play much of it.

Their hopes get lower if: Anything happens to Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets goalie has bounced back to Vezina Trophy form, not only in effectiveness but in work rate. His .928 save percentage was second to Ullmark for goalies that have at least 20 appearances. If he’s healthy, the Jets are contenders. If he’s not, they’re a team with David Rittich in goal. We’ve seen that movie before, and it’s scarier than that robot doll in “M3GAN.”

Tier 3: Playoff likely

Projected points: 100
Playoff probability: 87%
Stanley Cup win probability: 7%

Their hopes get higher if: The slow march of reinforcements is enough to get the Avalanche back into the playoffs. Nathan MacKinnon returned on New Year’s Eve. Josh Manson and Evan Rodrigues are nearly back. Valeri Nichushkin could follow. Gabriel Landeskog and Bowen Byram are going to play at some point this season, according to coach Jared Bednar. The Presidents’ Trophy stopped being the goal a while ago. Now it’s maintain, scratch, claw and get in it to maybe win the Stanley Cup again.

Their hopes get lower if: They get healthy but can’t solve their lineup deficiencies. The Avalanche are loaded on the blue line. Their goaltending is strong on most nights. But their forward depth took a hit in the offseason, in particular with the departure of Nazem Kadri as second-line center. There are remedies to be found at the trade deadline, however — and a nice player on an expiring contract or two could certainly plug those leaks.

Projected points: 95
Playoff probability: 65%
Stanley Cup win probability: 3.9%

Their hopes get higher if: Kevin Fiala plays a complete game. After 40 games, the Kings trust that Fiala is the real offensive deal after trading a first-rounder and defenseman Brock Faber to the Minnesota Wild last summer to acquire him. He has 37 points in 40 games … although his goal-scoring isn’t anywhere near the 1.4 goals per 60 minutes he’s posted in each of the last four seasons. Of bigger concern is that coach Todd McLellan doesn’t have total confidence in putting one of his best forwards out there in pressure situations. As Zach Dooley of L.A. Kings Insider put it: “The Kings have to adapt for Fiala, considering his high-level gifts, and he’ll have to continue to adapt to the Kings.”

Their hopes get lower if: Their goaltending doesn’t improve. The Kings are another team whose expected goals against are better than their actual goals against at even strength, thanks to goaltending that’s played below expectation this season. Pheonix Copley has stopped the bleeding, but he’s temporary stitches on a gaping wound. There’s a reason both FiveThirtyEight and Money Puck have the Calgary Flames with a better probability of making the playoffs than the Kings, and it starts in the crease. Yet we’re more confident in L.A. making the cut than Calgary, despite that goaltending situation.

Projected points: 99
Playoff probability: 85%
Stanley Cup win probability: 6.5%

Their hopes get higher if: General manager Bill Guerin finds his center. Due respect to Sam Steel, Joel Eriksson Ek and Frederick Gaudreau, but the Wild need to find themselves a Bo Horvat or some other impact center at the trade deadline to truly making noise in the Western Conference this season. (Should have been you, Marco Rossi.)

Their hopes get lower if: The trendline on defense doesn’t continue to climb. Five of the Wild’s best defensive efforts this season in expected goals have all come after Thanksgiving. ‘Twas a time when playing that kind of hard-checking, gritty game was known as “playing to their identity” in Minny. They need to embody that to qualify for the playoffs in the West.

Projected points: 98
Playoff probability: 73%
Stanley Cup win probability: 1.1%

Their hopes get higher if: They can close out games better. The Penguins were 29th in the league after 37 games in closing out opponents when leading after two periods. They’ve had the lead 18 times after two; they’ve lost two games — including the Winter Classic — and suffered four overtime losses (.667 winning percentage). That puts them in the same neighborhood as teams like Vancouver, Arizona and Chicago, which is not where a team with Stanley Cup aspirations wants to reside.

Their hopes get lower if: The Penguins remain too top-heavy. I went to Pittsburgh’s training camp. They had more forwards vying for spots in their bottom six than they have men in the house on the season premiere of “The Bachelorette.” The ones they settled on haven’t given the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines the support they need. Sid and Geno’s trios are, again, driving almost all of the offense: Their combinations have accounted for 42 of the team’s 64 goals at 5-on-5. The Pens need better balance to make the postseason and make noise in it.

Projected points: 99
Playoff probability: 78%
Stanley Cup win probability: 4.2%

Their hopes get higher if: They level up when Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson finally arrive. Give the Capitals credit for contending in the Metropolitan Division with two of their key veterans out of action this season. Both Wilson and Backstrom are skating and nearing a return to the lineup. The Capitals are going to have to perform some cap gymnastics to make it happen, but the singular charms of Wilson and a healthier Backstrom could make a huge impact. One NHL insider said on Backstrom, who had his hip resurfaced: “He’ll surprise people.”

Their hopes get lower if: Old habits creep back into their game. The Capitals’ 11-1-1 roll through the end of calendar 2022 was fueled by a change in their system by coach Peter Laviolette. It was much less reliant on trying to outhit opponents and an aggressive forecheck, which put too much stress on their defense and goaltending, and more emphasis on controlling pace of play. The results speak for themselves. Continued commitment to this, and a team many thought could miss the playoffs will make a ninth straight appearance.

Tier 4: On the bubble

Projected points: 95
Playoff probability: 69%
Stanley Cup win probability: 8%

Their hopes get higher if: Andrew Mangiapane relocates his scoring touch. The Flames saw 43 goals leave last summer in the form of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, but they still had some players on their roster who could pop the puck in the net. One of them was Mangiapane, who had 35 goals and an 18.9% shooting rate last season. Uh-oh. This season, he had seven goals in his first 38 games and dropped 10 percentage points in shooting. His four-season average prior to this was a 16.7% shooting rate, so his numbers should jump; hopefully, for the Flames’ offensive sake, they do.

Their hopes get lower if: GM Brad Treliving’s hasty fix wasn’t good enough. He did his best to keep a contender contending, but a projected 16-point drop in the standings is indicative of the Flames’ overall dip in efficiency. Maybe there’s still chemistry to be found and sparks to fly. Or maybe this is just a team that can’t match last season’s offense, doesn’t defend as well, either, and falls short of the playoffs.

Projected points: 96
Playoff probability: 75%
Stanley Cup win probability: 2.5%

Their hopes get higher if: They actually didn’t make a titanic blunder with Jack Campbell. I asked one NHL executive which current playoff team they believed would be on the outside looking in at season’s end. They said, without hesitation, the Edmonton Oilers, because of their defense and, in particular, their goaltending. That starts with Campbell, the free-agent signee who was supposed to solidify their goaltending and has done anything but. He has been as bad (minus-15.6 goals saved above average) as Stuart Skinner has been good (16.6 goals saved above average).

Their hopes get lower if: It’s actually more the defense than the goaltending. The Oilers aren’t exactly the Zdeno Chara/Patrice Bergeron-led Bruins when it comes to defensive prowess. We know this: They’re a team that is flirting with the bottom third of the league in 5-on-5 defending. The question is whether they can be more than that. Can Brett Kulak have a strong second half? Can GM Ken Holland find another veteran D-man to solidify the back end? And perhaps more importantly: Do the Oilers’ top offensive stars have maybe a little more to give on the defensive end (and is Jay Woodcroft the coach to get that out of them)?

Projected points: 95
Playoff probability: 55%
Stanley Cup win probability: 1.1%

Their hopes get higher if: They locate a functioning power play. The Islanders were 27th in the NHL on the man advantage through 38 games (18.4%), including a recent 1 for 30 streak over a 10-game span. Injuries have played a part in that — getting a healthy Kyle Palmieri back could help, for example — but the Isles’ offense could use that extra bit of scoring a power play should provide.

Their hopes get lower if: First-year coach Lane Lambert’s squad is defined by its inconsistency. There are games against elite opponents in which New York matches their levels. There also are games against the dregs of the NHL during which New York unfortunately matches their levels. There was that recent stretch when the Isles gave up one goal or less in four of five games. There was that other stretch when they gave up four goals or more in four of five games. Please pick a lane, and make sure it’s the one headed to the playoffs.

Projected points: 99
Playoff probability: 75%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.9%

Their hopes get higher if: The Kakko-ssance is real. Kaapo Kakko‘s career with the Rangers seemed like it was in doubt when he was a healthy scratch for their playoff elimination at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Instead, this regular season saw Alexis Lafreniere get scratched, while Kakko was elevated to a line with Mika Zibanejad. The Rangers have waited for the 21-year-old to find an offensive groove. It’s very early, but Kakko has clicked well in a bigger role, and that could be huge for New York.

Their hopes get lower if: The Gerard Gallant naysayers are right. The Rangers coach has gone from the guy who helped lead them to the Eastern Conference finals in his first year with the franchise to the guy whose every button push has been criticized by some fans. Is he an average coach whose fortunes were inflated by an all-world season by Igor Shesterkin? Or is Gallant the coach to lead the Rangers to Stanley Cup contention? It might not matter if team owner James Dolan needs a scapegoat one day …

Projected points: 92
Playoff probability: 53%
Stanley Cup win probability: 3.5%

Their hopes get higher if: They continue to produce offensively like they are now. The Kraken were a solid defensive team in their inaugural season, ranking fourth in the NHL in expected goals per 60 minutes. But their offense couldn’t keep pace, with 2.60 goals per game. One campaign and a few key offseason additions later and the Kraken are averaging 3.46 goals through their first 35 games. Finally, fireworks worthy of a team co-owned by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Their hopes get lower if: The goaltending continues to subvert everything they do. The defense is great … and yet the Kraken are 18th in goals against per game. Thanks to Martin Jones, it’s not nearly as bad as last season’s “one step forward, three stumbles back” because of bad goaltending, but it’s still not great. And they don’t need great. They need adequate, as one NHL executive told ESPN recently: “If they [get the goaltending] and injuries don’t hurt them, I don’t see how they are not a playoff team.”

Tier 5: A new hope

Projected points: 89
Playoff probability: 24%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.5%

Their hopes get higher if: They can play any semblance of playoff-caliber defense. Thanks to the Tage Thompson Show, the Sabres can score with anyone this season. It’s stopping their opponents that has been the issue. Goaltending has been a problem — the Sabres have the 18th-ranked save percentage in the NHL this season — but so has shot suppression and the penalty kill (Buffalo is 25th in both).

Their hopes get lower if: Thompson hits a scoring slump. Granted, this feels impossible at the moment, with the season’s breakout star not having gone more than two games without a point this season. Heck, since Oct. 29, Thompson hasn’t gone more than two games without a goal. As he showed against Washington on Tuesday night, he can win games on his own. If he hits a prolonged funk, the Sabres’ hopes are toast. But when he’s going goal-for-goal with Alex Ovechkin, the chances of that are slim.

Projected points: 85
Playoff probability: 11%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.1%

Their hopes get higher if: Moritz Seider has a strong second half after a rough start to Year 2 in his first 35 games. He averaged 0.9 points per 60 minutes, well off his mark from last season, when he won the Calder Trophy. That Detroit has been this good while arguably their best player in 2021-22 has one point in his past 14 games is nothing short of remarkable.

Their hopes get lower if: Their starts don’t improve. Detroit has been outscored 39-25 in the first period this season. In 35 games, they’ve had the lead only six times after the opening 20 minutes — the same number of times as the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that was designed in a lab to be terrible this season.

Projected points: 83
Playoff probability: 7%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.6%

Their hopes get higher if: They slather some offense on their roll. The Senators are 8-3-1 in their past 12 games, the 10th-best points percentage since Dec. 10. They’ve compiled the record despite averaging 1.48 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which is 29th during that stretch, thanks to a dismal shooting percentage of 5.2%. Their goaltending has been good. They’re finding ways to pick up wins and points. But they need more consistent scoring to rally for a playoff spot.

Their hopes get lower if: The hole they’ve dug is too deep. Many pundits had the Senators as a playoff team after their shopping spree in the summer. But they’re a good distance from the final wild-card spot with teams ahead of them having games in hand. That 2-10-1 stretch in November needs a reciprocation in the second half if they’re going to make the cut.

Tier 6: In trouble

Projected points: 87
Playoff probability: 16%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.6%

Their hopes get higher if: They conjure up last year’s chaos energy. One NHL analyst we spoke with held out hope that the Panthers could be a Stanley Cup contender, even if they’ve fallen well short of their points pace from last season. “They’d need a big turn in the second half but have the pieces,” the analyst said. Part of that turn would be to resemble last season’s Cats. The team that never met a lead it couldn’t take … and then give up … but ultimately regain. Simply put, it’s a team that needs to relocate its swagger, which isn’t something you normally associate with a Matthew Tkachuk team.

Their hopes get lower if: They’re just this season’s anomaly. Evolving Hockey looked at the numbers and can’t figure out why the Panthers aren’t better — while noting how many fans have their own theory: new coach Paul Maurice. It was plausible that after the offseason’s upheaval, a step back this season before a leap forward could happen. But a step back into the lottery without a first-round pick would be an embarrassment for Florida.

Projected points: 87
Playoff probability: 25%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.4%

Their hopes get higher if: Some of those one-goal games go their way. Through Dec. 31, the Predators have played 18 one-goal games. They won nine of them. They lost two of them in regulation. They lost six more in overtime or a shootout. Pick up a few more points in the close games, and it could make a dent in the standings. But that would require scoring some goals.

Their hopes get lower if: Their offense craters again. The good news for the Predators is that their moribund goalscoring has seen a recent uptick, as Nashville has scored three or more goals in five of its past seven games. But for the season, their goals for per game is still deep in the bottom third of the league. That’s a recipe for losing close games and squandering good goaltending from Juuse Saros.

Projected points: 89
Playoff probability: 37%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.2%

Their hopes get higher if: They can stay within striking distance with Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly out of the lineup. No, it’s not going to be easy, considering those two players were important parts of their top two scoring lines. But it’s not like the Blues haven’t uncorked a stunning second half before under coach Craig Berube … although O’Reilly played a slightly more important role in the previous one that led to their Stanley Cup win.

Their hopes get lower if: GM Doug Armstrong signals that it’s retool time for this group. He has never shied away from making that call for a team he didn’t feel could contend, and given the distance between the Blues and the 3-seed in the Central, this might be one of those seasons.

Projected points: 86
Playoff probability: 20%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.1%

Their hopes get higher if: Everyone but Vegas fades in the Pacific. None of these teams are juggernauts. Vancouver hasn’t exactly shown an ability to put together a massive winning streak — the Canucks’ longest this season is three games — but even if they did, they’d need their rivals to stop collecting points like they were Pokémon.

Their hopes get lower if: They remain the messiest franchise in the NHL. If it’s not the team president shading his own coach, it’s J.T. Miller creating controversies and inspiring headlines like “J.T. Miller’s lack of self-awareness casts doubt on his ability to fix flaws in his game.” Drama makes for a nice sideshow during a lost season, but it’s not a virtue found on a lot of second-half-surge playoff qualifiers.

Tier 7: Maximizing their Connor Bedard chances

Congratulations are in order for these seven teams that have drained nearly all the hope for this season in order to create some for the future.

Incredibly, the team with the highest percentage chance of making the playoffs from this collection of franchises are the Coyotes at 5%, according to FiveThirtyEight — no doubt factoring in the “Mullett Magic” yet to come in the second half of the season. The Flyers are also a team that could leave this grouping, since John Tortorella seems like the last coach who would oversee a half-hearted second-half swoon for lottery odds.

To the team that lands Connor Bedard: Your stay in this tier will be brief but meaningful. See you next tier, er, year …

Jersey Foul of the week

From the Fenway Winter Classic, via Ashley as well as Pete Blackburn:

The superfluous “E” in “Pastrnak” stands for “error,” one imagines.

Video of the week

No Winners and Losers this week, but I did want to shout out this clip from the Fenway Park Winter Classic that manages to incorporate a few of each.

Winners: Those Bruins jerseys, the Green Monster seats, Zdeno Chara, the continuing ingenuity of NHL outdoor games that play up local icons while incorporating zany ideas like the “first puck pitch” at the Winter Classic.

Losers: Those Penguins jerseys, the fact that it was 51 degrees, Jason Varitek not getting into a catcher’s squat, the NHL’s fake news headline claiming that this bouncing sinker from Bobby Orr was a “pitch-perfect strike.”

Puck headlines

Watch ‘The Drop’

Check out our best and worst of the Winter Classic episode. New episodes of “The Drop” are available on the NHL on ESPN YouTube channel every Thursday.

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