Fact or Fiction: Which NHL teams are contenders and which are pretenders?

  • All, Sport

As we approach the holiday season we’re all getting a pretty good idea if our pre-season predictions are going to pay off or look silly.

The top of the pack has separated from the bottom. Tampa Bay, the defending back-to-back champs, are inside the league’s top five teams as expected. Joining them are the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, all of which were in the pre-season “contender” category (And a hello to the old Southeast Division).

The other team in the top five right now are the New York Rangers, and they looked to be on the rise before the games started. But were they expected to be this good already? Not really.

At the bottom of the league we have the expected Arizona and Ottawa, Buffalo and Seattle, but the Montreal Canadiens are there too, thanks in large part to the vast amounts of man-games they’ve lost to injury and otherwise. Those teams are already looking to the draft lottery.

In between those blocks of teams is a vast middle ground, where some are over-performing and others are underwhelming. There may be some legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in there somewhere and that’s what we’re exploring today.

Who is a contender and who is a pretender in mid-December, two months into the season? For the exercise we consider all the pre-season favourites to still be contenders right now: Florida, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Colorado and Vegas.

But then there is a collection of eight teams that have either showed us something this season to believe in, or are running on past precedent and, perhaps, slipping a little. Who from this group of eight is contending and who is pretending? Let’s take a look…

Edmonton Oilers

Contender?: The timing of this article isn’t great for the Oilers, who are in the midst of a six-game losing streak and holding on to the West’s second wild card spot at the moment. But, there is a reason why they’re being made a part of this group. The Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl duo will always leave you wondering about the team’s potential and, in the playoffs where having a game-breaking talent can be so crucial, the Oilers have two of them to use on separate lines if they want. And that power play is frightening, still tops in the league at 31 per cent though, it should be noted, it’s going through a cold spell in December (13 per cent). Had we done this exercise two weeks ago maybe the general feeling around the Oilers would have been much better — they had the league’s best points percentage on Dec. 1 after all. But now…

Pretender?: Before the season started, and again on After Hours Saturday night, Oilers GM Ken Holland said whatever approach he took at the trade deadline would be determined by the team’s play. Be in position to push and he’ll buy. Disappoint and maybe this, again, isn’t the year to push chips in. But, boy, is the pressure ever on to not waste another year of the McDavid-Draisaitl combo. “I’m not convinced they’re trading an Evan Bouchard or a Broberg or anything,” Elliotte Friedman said on the 32 Thoughts podcast. “If they do I assume we’ll see the trade and understand why. I haven’t heard anything about top prospects, but I have heard about first rounders.”

Edmonton’s top pick is almost definitely what they’ll use to seek an upgrade, but what will they make a priority because there is more than just one need here. Left side defence, third line centre, depth scoring and even a goalie are all areas they’ll need to upgrade. Right now, Edmonton has been outscored by 12 goals at 5-on-5 and ranks 25th in goals for percentage. They’re also 20th in shots for percentage and 28th in team save percentage. This doesn’t scream contender but, we have to acknowledge, this is not the final form of this team right now.

Ultimately, how we view the Oilers on the contender-pretender scale will be greatly influenced by what Holland chooses to do on the trade market.

Verdict: Two years ago Edmonton looked fantastic in stretches and had a great qualifying round matchup in the bubble against a Chicago Blackhawks team that wouldn’t have sniffed the playoffs if only eight Western Conference teams made it. The Oilers were eliminated 3-1. Last year they again had a promising season, finishing second in the North Division, and this time they were swept aside by the Winnipeg Jets. Since all the same issues remain, it’s hard to buy into them as a true contender until those are addressed. Pretender!

New York Rangers

Contender?: The Rangers own the fourth-best points percentage in the NHL right now and aren’t really slowing down with eight wins in their past 11 games. They have a top 10 power play, Artemi Panarin is tied for fifth in league scoring, Adam Fox leads all defencemen in scoring and will be challenging for back-to-back Norrises and, crucially, goalie Igor Shesterkin is among the best goalies in every measure. Why is that last one so important?…

Pretender?: Some of the underlying numbers here do not reflect a true contender. At 5-on-5, here is where the Rangers rank in shot attempts percentage, shots for percentage, goals for percentage, expected goals for percentage, and high danger chances for percentage.

Just two forwards (Dryden Hunt and Ryan Strome) on the Rangers have been on the ice for more shots for than against. While the Rangers have great leading options at each position there are weaknesses here still.

Verdict: The Rangers are no doubt on the rise and this is the positive start they were looking for — it could get them to the playoffs even if they slow down at all in the second half. They have a huge head start now. But it still feels a year, or maybe two, early labelling them a contender. More is still needed from top draft picks Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko — that’ll come and when it does the team will be in better position to take off. If you have a goalie as good as Shesterkin it’s always possible he gets hot at the right time and carries you a few rounds, perhaps even as far as the final. But that doesn’t necessarily make you a contender. It’s still early. Pretender!

Minnesota Wild

Contender?: Don’t sleep on the Wild. They exceeded expectations last season by finishing third in the West Division and having the ninth-best points percentage league-wide. By now, we shouldn’t be thinking of this team as slow and defensive anymore. Led by Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild have become an exciting team to watch the past two seasons but he’s not the only reason why. Four of their top five scorers last season were under 25 years of age and those players (Kaprizov, Jordan Greenway, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek) are spread out across three lines right now. Mats Zuccarello is chugging at a point per game pace and Ryan Hartman has a solid 13 goals in 28 games to lead the team. They’re not a thin lineup. Cam Talbot is still playing solid for them in net and now it appears Kaapo Kahkonen is coming around, too. The Wild have the fifth-best actual goal differential right now and rank 13th in shots for percentage (all situations).

Pretender?: The Wild haven’t been standing out on special teams, where they have the 23rd-ranked PP and 13th-ranked PK. But that’s not reason enough to rule them out as a contender. But there is some level of shooting luck that will come down a little. Hartman, for one, is scoring with a career-high 13.5 shooting percentage that probably drops a bit and Marcus Foligno, known for his defensive game, has 13 goals on 30.2 shooting percentage.

Verdict: Minnesota’s rise has been consistent for two years now and though they were eliminated in Round 1 of last season’s playoffs, they gave the contending Golden Knights a heck of a series over seven games. Sometimes it takes a loss or two before a team breaks through in the playoffs and the Wild are a great candidate to do that this year. To me, this one is easy. Contender!

Calgary Flames

Contender?: Last season was a difficult one for the Flames, but that followed a 2019-20 season that actually turned around quite well for them from December through the March pause — they were Canada’s second-best team in that stretch. So the Flames have shown a wide range of possible outcomes. Plenty has changed since March 2020: Darryl Sutter is now the head coach and working wonders; Oliver Kylington is having a breakout season after Mark Giordano was picked by Seattle; Jacob Markstrom is the stabalizing force in net; Andrew Mangiapane has taken another step as an impact player. Under Sutter, the Flames have been one of the league’s best transition offences, comfortably control shots at 5-on-5 and have a top 10 PP and PK.

Pretender?: Before their COVID outbreak, Calgary was on a four-game losing streak for their first bit of turbulence of the season. And now we have to wonder how long their pause goes on for (next scheduled game is currently Dec. 21), how long it takes them to get back up to speed, and what effects this could have on their team in the long run. The Flames were just 4-3-4 at home and you’d like for that record to improve.

Verdict: Calgary is ninth in the league by points percentage, have strong underlying numbers, good goaltending, and so you have to wonder if they’re just better than we suspected. The Pacific Division is a difficult one to gauge because the two teams expected to lead the way haven’t asserted themselves quite yet — Edmonton is on a six-game losing streak and Vegas is maybe just starting to come around now, with Jack Eichel’s return on the horizon. Calgary joins Anaheim as surprise leaders here early, but both have real questions about sustainability. GM Brad Treliving probably will need to add another scorer, but even if he doesn’t Markstrom has the capacity to elevate them. Can’t deny the early success the Flames have had, though we recognize there’s a long road ahead and the outlook could change. Contender!

Nashville Predators

Contender?: Don’t forget how this team did an about-face last season after it seemed they could go all scorched earth on the roster and change over a lot of things. And there has been change, with Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Ellis being traded over the summer. But Nashville’s start has more to do with the carry-over players. Juuse Saros, who got a little MVP love in some corners last season, is picking up from where he left off and performing as one of the league’s best goalies. Matt Duchene has found the fountain of youth apparently and pacing towards one of his best seasons ever. Ryan Johansen is in a similar boat and now two anchor contracts have turned into productive players.

Pretender?: In terms of goal differential there is a huge divide between the top three teams in the Central Division and Nashville. Where Minnesota (plus-24), St. Louis (plus-20) and Colorado (plus-27) show dominance, the Preds have a plus-6 goal differential that is much closer to league average. While the power play has been fine, the penalty kill ranks 24th in the league and needs work. To me, there are a couple of concerns here: will the unexpected level of contributions from the likes of Johansen and Duchene continue and, if not, do they have the depth to make up for it?

Verdict: The Preds are one of the hottest teams right now, running a five-game winning streak. They’re also facing a COVID situation themselves, with six players and four coaches in protocol at the moment. Given their underlying shot metrics indicate more of a middle-of-the-pack team than a contender, we have to see more. How the Predators perform against the Central’s top teams will do a lot to form our opinion here. Right now they are 2-1-0 against St. Louis, Minnesota and Colorado, with the only loss coming against the Avalanche who they face next on Thursday night (assuming the game isn’t postponed). Pretender!

Anaheim Ducks

Contender?: I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out of this team and it’s just not happening. Mostly that has to do with goal scoring. The Ducks were the worst offensive team last season and not much better the year before that. Now, with youngsters like Trevor Zegras dazzling the league the Ducks have a lot more to throw at you on offence and, it should be noted, it’s helping Ryan Getzlaf out — he’s already surpassed his point total from all of last season. The Ducks sit atop the Pacific right now and are the only NHL team across the league with both a top five PP and top five PK. The key to staying afloat is that offence to keep going. John Gibson can hold down the fort in net and even elevate a team, but the Ducks’ rapid evolution into a top 12 offence is the biggest reason for their success.

Pretender?: It really just comes down to if you believe the fast start for the offence is sustainable or not. Though they beat the Seattle Kraken 4-1 Wednesday night, the Ducks just wrapped a road trip over which they averaged just two goals per game. We’re going to find out shortly if the goals will taper off or not. Based on the number and quality of shots for and against at 5-on-5, the Ducks are expected to be outscored by about three goals to this point, but have outscored the competition by 16.

Verdict: It can be hard to fully buy into a team that has seemingly turned it around so rapidly. The Ducks were only expected to compete for a top draft spot again and now here they are among the league’s best and leading their division (though trailing Pacific rival Calgary in points percentage). But they are a top 10 team at creating high danger chances and with the league’s 19th-ranked shooting percentage right now it’s not like they’re getting a ton of puck luck. I may regret this later, but until Vegas takes control of this division Anaheim is the team to beat right now and may have more staying power than we realize. Contender!

St. Louis Blues

Contender?: Two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the two COVID years (bubble playoffs and shortened season) haven’t been kind to St. Louis but they sure look to be back. The depth here is incredible. The Blues stole Pavel Buchnevich — their leading goal scorer — from the Rangers for Sammy Blais, and he’s been on the third line when everyone is healthy. Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou are excelling in elevated roles. The Blues have a solid mix of skill and grit and are proving to be a tough beat — they have a league-best 9-4-1 record when the other team scores first.

Pretender?: Some of their underlying numbers at 5-on-5 are alarming. Their shots for percentage (48.85) ranks 19th, expected goals for percentage (47.41) is 24th (though they are outscoring opponents) and their high danger chances for percentage (44.44) is 31st and better than only Philadelphia. The Blues are fourth in PDO (aka the luck stat) and so there may be some course correcting in the future.

Verdict: The depth is just too much to ignore here. The Blues find ways to win and are third by points percentage in a Central Division that houses a few tough teams. That they just won a Stanley Cup so recently helps the outlook here, too. Contender!

Boston Bruins

Contender?: I mean, they’re supposed to be, right? The Bruins still have one of the top lines in the league, still lack secondary scoring, still have strong goaltending (and maybe Tuukka Rask comes back into the picture in 2022) and still have a strong team defence (sixth-best at suppressing shots against at 5-on-5). Special teams aren’t really an issue. But they already have a 10-12 point deficit on division rivals Toronto, Florida and Tampa, so don’t appear to be as dominant as before — at least not yet.

Pretender?: If you want to push for a Stanley Cup, productive depth is always so key and that’s what the Bruins lack. They have been in win-now mode for so long you wonder when it catches up to them. In the past five drafts, Boston has made three first-round picks and only one selection, in any round, from those years is a regular on this year’s team — goalie Jeremy Swayman. The 2015 draft, when the Bruins selected 13th, 14th and 15th overall, has not helped at all and the most impactful player from those three picks, Jack DeBrusk, has now asked for a trade out.

Verdict: The Bruins are one of those teams that we can give a pass to for a slow start, or a troubling stretch, because they have earned the benefit of the doubt after so many years. If they get to the playoffs and face, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are you ruling out an upset? (Some may not even call that an upset!) You can bet that GM Don Sweeney will be looking to add to this lineup and has one clear trade piece in BeDrusk, but the organization is nearing a crossroads, if they haven’t arrived already. “They’re trending to being good. What do they do with that is ultimately my question,” Jeff Marek said on Monday’s 32 Thoughts Podcast. “Is there enough there right now that they can become great again or do they either have to draft/develop or go the free agency route to be great?” It’d be foolhardy to bet against the Bruins being a playoff factor again — and besides, they reached back-to-back third rounds and then lost to the contending Islanders in Round 2 last playoff season. Contender!

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