Before every new season, hockey fans start mentally separating teams into castes. The ones that could win a Stanley Cup. The ones that won't win anything. The ones for which it isn't love or hate -- just indifference.
The St. Louis Blues were in that "could win" category before the previous season. Then they plummeted to "absolutely can't win" by midseason. And then they won.
"The league is structured now that if you're one of the 16 teams participating in the tournament, you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup," GM Doug Armstrong told me during a training camp visit to St. Louis. "The Kings won it from the eighth spot. Nashville made it from seventh to the finals. So the parity is there. You just need things to happen along the way to reach your ultimate goal."
Which is to say that the annual Stanley Cup Contender Tiers presented here aren't necessarily the teams' lots in life. These tiers don't account for injuries, trades, hirings and/or firings -- or a rookie goaltender playing his way into Calder, Vezina and Conn Smythe consideration to resurrect a moribund team.
Here are the current groupings in the 2019-20 championship tiers:
These are three teams that can taste the Stanley Cup -- or at least whatever they decide to put inside the Stanley Cup after winning it, like breakfast cereal or a puppy.
Despite last season's first-round disaster, the Lightning were a 128-point juggernaut in the regular season. The Vegas Golden Knights were great too, a 54.66 expected goals percentage team (No. 3 in the NHL), and the only thing at Vegas' games that's better than their forward group is that wacky pregame thing they do with the Medieval Times understudy fighting on-ice projections.
The Leafs have bolstered their blue line with Tyson Barrie and have a trinity of offensive players who cost more than the gross national product of some island nations. But it's starting to seem like this edition of the Buds has reached the same divergent paths as other potential champions in their history: One road leads to the Cup, and the other road leads to an unending parade of migraines about "what went wrong" that is compounded by the team's cap crunch. There's no Cup at the end of that road.
These teams have different levels of title droughts -- 1967 vs. "The Stamkos Era" vs. three long years of existence -- but all have what it takes to win the Cup this season.
The return contestants
Like Kenny Omega, both of these teams can make an argument for being the elite. But in the past 20 years, only four teams have gone to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, and two of them had Sidney Crosby. It's hard to reharness the energy of a months-long sprint sparked by a new coach and a rookie goalie. It's hard for a team with several key players north of 30 years old to stay healthy all the way to the finish line again.
This tier is filled with recent champions, such as the Capitals (2018) and Penguins, who defeated the Sharks in 2016 and the Predators in 2017.
Of the four, the Capitals and the Predators seem most primed for a return visit, with Nashville having made the biggest upgrade by landing center Matt Duchene and Alex Ovechkin's team having shaken off what ended up being a two-aspirin Cup hangover.
The Penguins are the closest of the four to falling out of the tier, as GM Jim Rutherford refilled his cupboard with generic products, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with a dearth of forwards and perhaps the lowest skill level for a Penguins team in some time.
The next wave
The Hurricanes finally put it all together last season, riding a storm surge from analytics darlings to Stanley Cup contenders. Was the goofy enthusiasm that fueled the team a one-year vibe, or is that who they are? Because on paper, their defense is outstanding, their forward group has only gotten better, and ... yeah, the goaltending remains the spot where they once again have to outkick their coverage.
The Stars are "next wave" in the sense that Bon Iver was best new artist at the 2011 Grammys: a known commodity but one that hasn't broken through just yet. Joe Pavelski's arrival will help smarten them up about the whole "playoffs success" thing, in that sometimes the margin of victory or defeat is a goal scored off your face.
We'd love to create another tier for the Avalanche called the Nitroglycerin Tier, in the sense that they're an explosive but highly unstable contender. The hype train has left the station thanks to a tremendous offseason for GM Joe Sakic, but we're weary of crowning a conference king before we're sure they're going to be in the throne room. In other words, Colorado might have as much potential to win the Central as it does to be right back on the playoff bubble. But the Avs are very much a threat to win a Cup in the next three to four seasons.
The flawed contenders
The Jets have a few offensive stars, a solid goalie in Connor Hellebuyck and a defense corps that has been raided like a display at Best Buy on Black Friday. Ugh.
We're giving the Islanders the benefit of the doubt on being contenders, even if they seem like a PDO darling (1.022, best in the NHL) that rode some defiant energy to a playoff seed. But if we're buying them as defensively stellar contenders, their offense was below the median for expected goals last season, and there hasn't been much added to the mix. Curse you, Artemi Panarin, for choosing Broadway over Nassau!
The summer specials
These are three teams that arguably made the most noise in the offseason and now have to show what their investments were worth.
The Coyotes found their offensive focal point (and boon to their team shooting percentage) in Phil Kessel.
The Panthers found their goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky and their coach in Dale Tallon's old friend Joel Quenneville.
The Devils found their best defensemen since the Scotts retired in P.K. Subban and drafted Jack Hughes to give them a discernible navigational point as a franchise, with or without Taylor Hall after this season.
I think two of three make the playoffs, none higher than a wild card.
The total mysteries
ESPN's behind-the-scenes editorial maestro, Tim Kavanagh, compelled me to move the Wild from "flawed contenders" to "total mysteries" because he thinks they'll stink, and I think they're so good defensively that they're still a wild-card threat. But this level of disagreement almost begs for Minnesota to be among the conundrums.
The Ducks have an all-world goalie in John Gibson but flaws everywhere else. The Flyers have some interesting parts that could jell under Alain Vigneault and with a star-making run from Carter Hart. The Blackhawks are like the world's worst ice cream sandwich: Some offensive stars at forward, two potentially great goaltenders and the melted goop of a defense corps that managed to unite Brent Seabrook and Olli Maatta like someone was collecting old parts from championship machines.
Then there are the Blue Jackets. Writing them off is a mistake because there's a lot of talent on this roster and more on the way. When you add that to the wounded-animal comportment of a team that just suffered an exodus like "Tavares to the Leafs" to the third power, the Jackets are going to bring some effort. The problem is that effort doesn't replace a point-per-game winger, and effort can't obscure the fact that the goalies (Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins) have played 90 more NHL games than Jack Hughes.
The rapid rebuilds
The Canadiens and Canucks are the teams that have me excited here. Montreal has an interesting collection of forwards in front of Carey Price and Shea Weber, but give them another year before players such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki will be ready to take the leap. The Canucks are further along with their core of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Quinn Hughes. I like them far more than most, but health is the whole ballgame there.
The Rangers are an interesting beast. Adding Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Kaapo Kakko would seem to expedite the rebuilding process, but they have so many players between the ages of 18 and 21 who need some seasoning. They're just too green to trust right now, but they are very much on the right path.
Once again, they defy classification. This tweet from Sean Tierney was brutal in its accuracy:
If you put your thumb in the middle of this tweet, it looks like today's waiver announcements. https://t.co/181Mh7WWp3— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) September 30, 2019
It truly is stunning how little talent surrounds Connor McDavid on this team and how much heavy lifting he's going to have to do to drag the Oilers to respectability -- unless Dave Tippett somehow does what he used to do in Arizona, which is take a middling heap of average and fashion it into something that surpasses the lowest expectations and becomes moderately successful.
Otherwise, we continue to count down the days to the Seal Team Six extraction mission to rescue Connor from non-playoff captivity.
Sigh. We don't want the Sabres here. At all. With Jack Eichel, Ralph Krueger and the potential for above-average goaltending, maybe they won't end up here. But at first blush, this is the tier that makes sense. The one with the three teams whose best interests are served by not being good this season. And also the Sabres.
My official 2019-20 prognostications
In the Eastern Conference, I'm going:
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (A)
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (A)
3. Boston Bruins (A)
1. Washington Capitals (M)
2. Carolina Hurricanes (M)
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (M)
As you'll see, the Leafs winning the division has other implications. The Penguins are diminished, but I can't quite see them falling into that abyss where the decade's other titans -- Blackhawks, Kings -- tumbled into quite yet. The wild card comes down to the Panthers, Devils, Flyers and Canadiens. I'm intrigued by Montreal, as they're going to gobble up points in that division. But I'll take the infusion of defense and structure in Sunrise and the infusion of enthusiasm in Jersey, while also noting that expecting the Panthers to live up to expectations has burned many a prognosticator in the past. (2018 Greg stares longingly into the distance.)
Meanwhile, in the Western Conference ... please be gentle:
1. Nashville Predators (C)
2. St. Louis Blues (C)
3. Dallas Stars (C)
1. Vegas Golden Knights (P)
2. Calgary Flames (P)
3. San Jose Sharks (P)
WC1 - Colorado Avalanche (C)
WC2 - Vancouver Canucks (P)
The Central Division truly is the Group of Death this season. Nashville's good. The Blues are going to be good, even if Jordan Binnington is 70% of what he was last season. Dallas is good, and even better if Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn get going earlier. The Avalanche could be first in the division or on the bubble. And yet as much as I'm underwhelmed, I can't sleep on the Jets, Wild and Blackhawks.
The Pacific sends the same top three, as well as ... Vancouver. I'm sorry. I know. But I'm entranced by the young core, I like the goaltending, I'm hoping Travis Green -- one of the best coaches in hockey -- can make these disparate pieces fit. I don't know, maybe I just want to see Elias Pettersson become a transcendent sophomore and Vancouver fans try to wrap their brains around Jim Benning having built a playoff team. So I'm taking the Canucks over the Wild, Coyotes and Blackhawks for the last wild card. Let's go.
I have literally no words. I told him I love his jersey, but when I saw the name I took it back pic.twitter.com/v70B31p7PS— spooky dave🎃 (@DavidKaca) September 26, 2019
An interesting Wayne Gretzky Foul. Please recall that The Great One coached the Phoenix Coyotes from 2005-09, proving once and for all that the best players never seem to make the best coaches. He was also a minority owner. As Dave noted in a subsequent tweet, Gretzky wasn't with the Coyotes when they wore the Kachina jersey, making this an Era Inappropriate Foul.
Ah, but here's the twist: Readers of this space know that because Gretzky has his number retired by every team in the league -- lamentably including the Calgary Flames -- The Gretzky Exception means his name can appear on any jersey worn during his time in the league. And Gretzky was still playing when the Yotes wore these sweaters. Not a Foul.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Laila Anderson
I had the honor of writing about the relationship between Laila and the St. Louis Blues during their Stanley Cup run, where she served as a source of inspiration for players like Colton Parayko and Alexander Steen. She is battling hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH, a life-threatening immune disease that only 15 other children in the world had been diagnosed with at the time.
The Blues treated her like part of the team, and this week Parayko and Steen made her feel part of a championship team. After the players received their Stanley Cup rings at a ceremony this week, the duo showed up at Laila's house and presented her with one of her own. Grab some tissues, because it's about to get dusty:
What a moment. What a story. What a fan.
Loser: Anyone that tries to follow that with a winners and losers list
What am I, a monster? The puck is dropping for real. We'll be back with the snark next week.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Emily Kaplan and I are back! We have interviews with Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Taylor Hall of the Devils, preview the 2019-20 NHL season and reveal our Stanley Cup Playoff picks. Plus, Phil Kessel Loves Hot Dogs, Puck Headlines and the Rant Line! Listen here.
We mentioned Sean Tierney before. He put together an awesome chart that featured a wide range of points predictions. Good news for Habs fans. Maybe not so much for Wild fans.
An Illinois high-school hockey player talks about coming out and going on to win Homecoming King.
Alex Prewitt on the NHL's inroads in China. "I don't think they have a traditional hockey infrastructure over there. I'm talking about ice, rinks, a hockey culture, tradition, history. So those are all things that have to be developed over time. You do that in a careful, slow and patient way. You do it through working at the grassroots level. One school or school system at a time, just exposing the game to more and more people."
Wild GM Bill Guerin talks hockey philosophy. "Individuals having great seasons don't win championships," he said. "Individuals that have great seasons that are playing like a team will."
Hockey fever hits Palm Springs, thanks to Seattle.
Ed Belfour is now a whiskey distiller. No word if the retail price is a billion dollars.
Finally, this drawing exercise that the Washington Post did with the Capitals in their preview is just ingenious:
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Richard Deitsch polled The Athletic's several thousand writers to get their ideas on how to improve the way hockey is presented in the U.S. Some good stuff here. ($$$)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Check out our 2019-20 NHL preview at ESPN! There are previews of all 31 teams, a refresher on everything that's happened since last season, a primer on rules changes and a betting guide on ESPN+. Thanks for reading and supporting the work we do.