Weekend NHL rankings: 5 teams that should be in the Top 5 but somehow aren’t – The Athletic

By Sean McIndoeFeb 19, 2024

Over the course of my writing career, I’ve been known to produce the occasional ranking or two or several dozen, and I can tell you from experience that there’s a weird thing that happens when you put together any kind of top five or top 10: People get mad.

OK, that’s not the weird part, because these days you lose your internet account if you go a full day without being furious at some random opinion you were exposed to just because you went specifically looking for it. But it’s the way people get mad: They’ll swear a certain player or team or whatever absolutely deserves to be on the list, without making any kind of case for which spot it should take.

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So if you say that the five best players in NHL history are Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard, somebody will show up and be furious that your list doesn’t include Jaromir Jagr or Sidney Crosby or Nicklas Lidstrom. They don’t seem to want you to take anyone off of your list, mind you, they just want their guy there, too.

And I get it. When you hear terms like “top five” or “top 10,” they feel more like labels or tiers, a badge that can be earned for being near the top of the mountain. But the obvious problem here is that’s not how numbers work. There might be eight or nine players who could have a top five case, but the number five doesn’t care. There are five spots, you get five names, and that’s just how it works, even if it means seemingly deserving candidates have to be left off.

All of which is to say this week’s top five was an ordeal because it feels like there are more than five teams in the league that deserve a spot right now. This has been an ongoing theme this year, one that has as many as 14 teams looking like genuine contenders. I’ve only got five spots to work with, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Your favorite team is either in and you’re happy or they’re out and I’m an idiot.

I am an idiot, for the record, but today seemed like a good time to expand the field a bit. Let’s use our bonus five to list teams that are on the outside of this week’s real list but shouldn’t be, because they’re clearly top five teams, you dummy.

Bonus five: Teams that should probably be in the top five but somehow aren’t

5. Carolina Hurricanes — Keep sleeping on them just because it took them a while to get going, since apparently all you do is look at the overall standings and go by that. They’ve only beaten the Bruins, Golden Knights and Avalanche over the last few games, I’m sure they’re not very good.

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4. Vegas Golden Knights — A standings check shows they’re ahead of your precious Oilers, who by the way they just beat to end their historic win streak. I’m sure they’re shaking in their boots about running into Edmonton or Vancouver in the Pacific, since those teams are known for their postseason success and the Knights haven’t had a dominant playoff run in almost a whole year.

3. Winnipeg Jets — They’ve got the best goalie in the league and have already moved past an uncharacteristic losing streak. They’re so good at keeping the puck out of their own net that it’s headline news when they give up more than three in a game, but sure, defense isn’t that important once the playoffs arrive.

2. New York Rangers — So let’s get this straight, the Rangers are in the top five pretty much all through the first half, they get bumped once they hit a mild slump, and now they’re still locked out even though they’ve won seven straight, including yesterday’s thrilling outdoor comeback? This dude clearly has a bias against big-market Original Six teams.

1. Vancouver Canucks — (Prints out a copy of the NHL standings.) (Has that printout tastefully framed.) (Puts a little bow on the top corner of the frame.) (Travels to Ottawa, knocks on Sean’s door.) (Smashes framed standings over this idiot’s head then drives away blaring “No Friends In The Industry” at top volume.)

That was fun, right? On to this week’s top five, which careful readers may have realized has a new entry this week.

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

The outdoor games were fun, in that somewhat predictable way they’ve settled into being — the mascots are silly, there are lots of nods to local culture, and the players dress up for the pregame arrivals if they’re not on a team run by an old man who hates fun. The key, as we’ve learned over the years, is not to overdo them. Two games in one weekend felt like it could be tip-toeing up to that line, but I thought it all worked.

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Well, except for this.

5. Edmonton Oilers (32-18-1, +32 true goals differential*) — They’ve been very hit-and-miss since the streak ended, alternating wins and losses over a two-week span that’s included some legitimate stinkers.

Their top five spot felt wobbly, but then they went out and beat the Stars in Dallas in what could be a conference final preview. That feels like the sort of win that should lock them into a spot for another week, but they’re on notice.

4. Colorado Avalanche (34-18-4, +27) — After three straight weeks holding down the No. 1 spot, I came very close to dropping the Avs off this week’s list entirely. That would have felt weird given our whole “long-range thinking” theme around here. Or maybe it would have just been an admission that I’ve been too high on them for a while now. Either way, they’ve lost five of seven and dropped down to third in the Central in points percentage. One more shaky week will mean it’s time for a timeout.

3. Boston Bruins (32-12-11, +38) — They’ve basically clinched home ice in the first round despite four straight losses. It’s their second four-game losing streak of the season, and the first was immediately followed by five straight wins, so we’ll see where this goes. But the bigger news is that the slump has opened the Atlantic door for …

2. Florida Panthers (36-15-4, +50) — They’re back in, because Saturday night felt like a message.

They’ve won nine of 10, including a streak of five straight where they’ve outscored their opponents 26-6. It’s pretty much all clicking now, from Sam Reinhart’s contract season for the ages to Matthew Tkachuk looking like a megastar again after a slow first half. Honestly, if you wanted to put them in the top spot I’m not sure I could blame you.

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(By the way, for you scorigami nerds out there: Saturday was the first day since Jan. 4, 2007, that two teams scored at least nine goals; the first day since Dec. 5, 1992, that two teams scored exactly nine goals; and the first time since Dec. 29, 1917, that two games ended with 9-2 finals. Personally, I love me a good “first time in 106 years” stat.)

1. Dallas Stars (34-14-7, +40) — They regain the top spot they had in Week 1 and haven’t seen since. Beating the Oilers would have been the punctuation mark on this move, but the OT loss still meant they have points in 10 of their last 11, and they’ve moved into that all-important top spot in the Central. Tonight’s meeting with the Bruins will be a nice heat check, but for now, my preseason Cup pick is back where they belong.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: St. Louis Blues — What a weird season it’s been in St. Louis. They came into the year fresh off a sub-.500 playoff miss, and were an easy enough team to write off. They started slowly, basically alternating wins and losses for most of the first month and making it well into December as barely a .500 team. That spelled the end of Craig Berube, and the new-coach bounce with Drew Bannister didn’t even last a month. On Jan. 19, they were 21-20-2, six points out of the playoffs with four teams to pass, and we were all trying to figure out who’d they sell at the deadline.

Ten games later, they’ve gone 7-3-0 and snuck by everyone into a wild-card spot. They’ve beaten the Oilers and Canucks over that span, so it hasn’t all been empty calories. But they still seem to be long shots, at least according to the numbers. (Dom’s projections have them at just 15 percent, no doubt leading to another round of claims that a mathematical model has gained sentience and decided to use it to randomly hate a hockey team.) Our most recent group rankings were kinder, slotting the Blues into the last playoff spot, but even then the majority of us had them out.

On a certain level, it all makes sense. This is a flawed roster, just like every bubble team in the parity era. There’s not enough secondary scoring, they’re not great at five-on-five, and you never feel like you know what you’re going to get from Jordan Binnington. They need to get better in more than a few ways to feel like a real contender, a path Jeremy lays out here. And even if they can check all those boxes, another Western team getting hot might be enough to shove them aside.

What’s especially fascinating is that given their shaky hold on a spot, this is the part where we should be talking about bringing in reinforcements at the deadline. Drag them over the finish line and then anything can happen in the playoffs, a GM might say, reading straight out of the handbook. But this is Doug Armstrong’s team, and he has a history of selling even when his team is in the playoff mix. He did it with Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017, and again with Paul Stastny in 2018. He turned some of that return into Brayden Schenn, so it’s hard to argue with the results, but it’s certainly not standard operating procedure for today’s GMs.

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I guess we wait and see. It’s worth mentioning that the Blues’ schedule down the stretch is tough; all 10 teams they play between now and the deadline are either holding down a playoff spot or fighting desperately for one. This might all sort itself out between now and March 8 and leave Armstrong with no choice. Or maybe they keep us guessing. Refresh my memory, has this team ever flipped the script on us midway through a season?

The bottom five

The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.

This was easily the coolest thing we saw all weekend:

Rob explains how it came about, while Josh has more on Jagr’s Pittsburgh legacy.

5. Ottawa Senators (22-27-2, -13) — Welp, so much for that long win streak the schedule seemed to be serving up on a platter, as disappointing regulation losses to the Ducks and Hawks snuffed out the momentum they’d been building. The challenge ramps up significantly this week, with the Lightning, Panthers, Stars and Knights all on the schedule.

Meanwhile, I thought the results of Ian’s fan survey were interesting, especially in that almost half of the responses think the team needs to move a core piece.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (17-26-10, -41) — They made the biggest headline of the week with the firing of Jarmo Kekäläinen, a move that was mildly surprising in its specific timing but had felt inevitable since the Mike Babcock debacle, unless the team could pull off a surprise playoff push. That hasn’t happened, to put it mildly, so now the attention turns to the future. Aaron has a look at some candidates for the job, one that should be reasonably attractive given that this is a young team with some strong prospects.

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All eyes are on the future now, including a long-awaited outdoor game.

(Also, we can all agree that the reports of them almost landing Elias Lindholm are weird, right?)

3. Anaheim Ducks (19-33-2, -52) — The less said about Saturday night’s loss the better, so let’s focus on something positive.

That’s Ducks’ goalie coach Sudarshan “Sudsie” Maharaj, who has cancer, surprising the team over the weekend with some inspiring words.

2. San Jose Sharks (15-34-5, -94) — One of my favorite trade deadline traditions: Terrible teams taking a guy who’s been a fourth-liner and/or healthy scratch and moving him up to the first line, apparently hoping they’ll get an offer from some other team that hasn’t been paying attention at all. Even better, it absolutely works sometimes.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (15-37-3, -78) — Connor Bedard has made his return, and based on his first few games we can probably pour one out for the “Brock Faber for Calder” campaign. It was fun while it lasted. The Hawks don’t have much else to play for down the stretch, but as Laz reminds us, you never know which random game will end up mattering a ton.

Not ranked: Calgary Flames — It’s got to be weird to be a Flames fan these days. Your team is generally a likable one, one that few fan bases outside of Edmonton seem to have an issue with. But these days, there’s a distinct anti-Flames vibe out there, for a simple reason: Seeing them fall out of the playoff race might be our best chance at a zesty deadline. It’s nothing personal, you understand, we just need you to take one for the team.

If that sounds like you, then you’ve had a very good week. The Flames lost all three in regulation, including an unforgivable home loss to the Sharks and a 5-0 beating from the Wings on Saturday. That dropped the Flames down to fake .500, five points back of the Blues for the final spot and in the middle of a logjam with the Predators, Wild and Kraken. They’re not out of it, but they’re fading fast.

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If the next few weeks look anything like the last one, that should mean the Chris Tanev watch is back on, and probably Noah Hanifin, too. Jacob Markstrom seems less likely, but it no longer feels unthinkable, and it would certainly shake up the market. The Flames are bad again, the deadline is saved.

Unless it isn’t, because we could have said the same thing back in the first week of January when they’d lost to the lowly Blackhawks to fall under .500, right before they ran off four wins in a row to get back into the race. That was followed by four losses, all in regulation, and that was finally the end of it, except it wasn’t because they immediately won their next four. Now they’ve lost three, and with the schedule serving up the Jets, Bruins and Oilers this week, it’s definitely over. Unless it isn’t. And around and around we go.

A month ago, we said the Flames could be the most intriguing team of the deadline, and they apparently took it as a challenge. We know they’ve won that title. Let’s see if they can win the deadline itself … or maybe a few too many games to give themselves a chance.

(Top photos of Mika Zibanejad and Quinn Hughes: Jared Silber and Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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Sean McIndoe has been a senior NHL writer with The Athletic since 2018. He launched Down Goes Brown in 2008 and has been writing about hockey ever since, with stops including Grantland, Sportsnet and Vice Sports. His book, “The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL,” is available in book stores now. Follow Sean on Twitter @DownGoesBrown

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