NHL tier rankings: Who's elite, who's happy to lose entering 2023-24 season?

From the elite to the bottom of the barrel, here's how all 32 NHL teams slot in ahead of the new season.

The 2023-24 NHL season gets underway with a tripleheader on Tuesday, which means it’s time to size up the league with our annual tier rankings.

Who sits at the top of the hierarchy entering the 82-game grind, and who figures to be looking toward the draft lottery? Let's take a look.

Note: Order within tiers does not matter.

The Avalanche and Oilers are two of the NHL's elite. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Avalanche and Oilers are two of the NHL's elite. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

1. The Elite

Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs

Three teams in the West, three teams in the East.

In the West, Vegas is gunning for a repeat and is basically running it back save for one player (Reilly Smith). They get the benefit of the doubt until they show otherwise.

The Avalanche battled all sorts of issues last season and still managed to win their division. They made real improvements in the summer with Ryan Johansen, Jonathan Drouin, Colton Ross and Miles Wood. Last season, it looked like Colorado had a bit of a Cup hangover. That won’t happen again.

As for the Oilers, they have the best player in the game and one of the best goal scorers in the game to ride shotgun with him. They are deep at forward and defense. The only real question is goaltending, which is a big one.

In the East, Carolina and Toronto have been mainstays in this category for years now. Over the past three seasons combined, they are third and fourth, respectively, in total points in the league. Both teams have some question marks in net but both boast deep forward groups. Carolina has a better defense on paper, the Leafs have more firepower up front.

The real new entrant is the Devils, who had an excellent offseason, adding Tyler Toffoli, retaining Erik Haula, acquiring Colin Miller and creating space for Luke Hughes. They were a top-five scoring team last season and their young guys are still improving. This team has a nice mix of youth and established, productive veterans and finished a single point behind Carolina last season. They look like they have arrived.

2. Solid playoff teams that will be a problem (West)

Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings

The Stars have a fair argument for being considered an elite team. They were top 10 in goals per game, goals against per game and top-five on the penalty kill and power play last season. They have a young nucleus spanning their entire roster, including Jake Oettinger, Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen, Wyatt Johnston and Roope Hintz. So, why not?

Much of the rest of their core is quite old. Is Joe Pavelski side-stepping Father Time yet again? Jamie Benn just had a monster season at 33 (he turned 34 this summer). Ryan Suter is 38. Their two notable moves of the summer were signing a 32-year-old Matt Duchene and 34-year-old Evgenii Dadonov. Tyler Seguin has shown notable signs of decline already. A lot of things went right last season and Colorado still won the division.

The Kings made a big trade this summer yet again and are returning the core of a very good team. Can Quinton Byfield take a step? Will their goaltending be good enough? This is clearly a playoff roster but they need to prove they are great.

3. Solid playoff teams that will be a problem (East)

New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Rangers have one of the best goalies and one of the best defensemen in the league. Artemi Panarin is an elite winger. Mika Zibanejad is a legit top-line center. They had the fourth-best goals against last season. But this season they are looking to give Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko bigger roles. If they both emerge then they will likely move up a tier. If they struggle, the Rangers will have some notable holes.

Boston had a historic season last year but bid farewell to two franchise legends and its top two centers in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Tight on cap space, the Bruins signed players like James van Riemsdyk, Milan Lucic, Morgan Geekie and Kevin Shattenkirk, which doesn’t exactly replace the quality they lost. There are still a number of excellent players on this team and it’s one of the better defense cores in the league that helped pave the way for the Bruins to receive the NHL's best goaltending last season. But losing your top two centers is a tough pill to swallow and they will need to prove that they are still a top-tier team.

Is this the beginning of the decline for the Lightning or do they have more left in the tank? Andrei Vasilevskiy is out to start the season. Steven Stamkos is being vocal about his contract. They lost Alex Killorn and Ross Colton this summer. Last trade deadline, Tampa Bay paid up for Tanner Jeannot, and he will need to prove worthy of that investment this season. At 5-on-5 last season, they were outside the top 10 in possession and expected goals. Their third-ranked power play really masked a lot of other issues. If they do well in Vasilevskiy’s absence, and then he returns not only healthy, but rested, they will be a scary team. But let’s see if they can actually do that.

4. Wild-card contenders with higher ambitions (West)

Seattle Kraken, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames

The Kraken made the playoffs in their second-ever season then knocked off the defending Cup champs. Why aren’t they higher? In the offseason they waved goodbye to a number of players that gave them good minutes in Daniel Sprong, Ryan Donato and Morgan Geekie. Not to mention Carson Soucy was excellent on the third pairing and while Brian Dumoulin should be somewhat decent at first blink, his play has declined in recent years. They got the worst goaltending of any playoff team last year, which might mean they can only go up from here, or that any sort of dip in that depth scoring will be felt twofold.

The Wild missed the playoffs and also find themselves in this boat. They had an addition by subtraction type of offseason, saying goodbye to all of Sam Steel, Mason Shaw, Ryan Reaves, Matt Dumba, John Klingberg, Oskar Sundqvist and Gustav Nyquist, and adding Patrick Maroon. Kirill Kaprizov and Ryan Hartman missed 15 and 23 games, respectively, in 2022-23. They will hope for better health but they also just came off having the second-best 5-on-5 save percentage in the league. If that drops back at all, have they done anything to mitigate that?

For Calgary, the story will also largely be about goaltending. If Jacob Markstrom returns to form, they are almost certainly a playoff team. Last season they barely missed the playoffs despite being 31st in 5-on-5 save percentage. They might not have a Matthew Tkachuk type of superstar but they have quality and quantity up and down their lineup. If Jonathan Huberdeau even remotely bounces back to go along with Markstrom, they will easily move up a tier.

5. Wild-card contenders with higher ambitions (East)

New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Islanders probably don’t get enough respect. They made a huge trade and then in short order lost their top forward in Mat Barzal to injury, yet they still made the playoffs. Now they get a full season with the Barzal-Bo Horvat tandem, have arguably the best goalie in the league and an emerging star on defense in Noah Dobson. They are also basically returning the exact same roster that was slightly below water in 5-on-5 possession and expected goals. There are nice pieces here but it needs to come together better.

The Panthers go from Cup finalist to the wild-card contenders tier. It is difficult to get a read on a team that had the lowest point total of any playoff team but then proceeded to go on a Cinderella run. They did have excellent possession numbers last season and they have a legitimate three-line attack, so there were some signs, but which Sergei Bobrovsky is showing up this year? Is Carter Verhaeghe suddenly a perennial 40-goal scorer? Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad are hurt to start the season. If they hang around, they can get hot at the right time, clearly, but they will have some real obstacles to overcome.

The team the Panthers just barely made it over is the Penguins. On one hand, they were a top-five team in 5-on-5 expected goals and a top-10 5-on-5 possession team. They also still have a collection of top-end players and added the reigning Norris Trophy winner. On the other hand, 28-year-old Jake Guentzel aside, their top players are 36-year-old Sidney Crosby, 37-year-old Evgeni Malkin, 33-year-old Erik Karlsson and 36-year-old Kris Letang. Whether they can stay healthy and continue producing are two massive question marks.

6. Grasping for a wild-card spot (West)

Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues

You can squint at a playoff path for any of these teams. Elias Pettersson had a massive season and if Thatcher Demko rebounds, that will give the Canucks a legit 1C, 1D and 1G. There are questions on defense but there is forward depth. A healthy Ilya Mikheyev and Filip Hronek would make a difference. For as much name value as they have, they were also a bottom-10 team in 5-on-5 possession and expected goals. A lot of things need to go right here.

The Jets made the playoffs last season but lost Pierre Luc-Dubois. Even still, if you have Connor Hellebuyck, you have a chance. They were a legitimately solid team last season before falling off a cliff down the stretch, much to the dismay of their coach.

Similar sentiments apply to Nashville when it comes to goaltending with Juuse Saros. Unlike the Jets, they didn’t make the playoffs last season and they actively bought in the summer, adding veterans like Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn. Can players like Luke Evangelista and Thomas Novak replicate their late-season success? It’s one thing to finish a season well, it’s another to do it for 82 games from the start.

Which brings us to the Blues, who do have a number of good players, headlined by Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, and a number of players that have been good before but need to rebound, headlined by Colton Parayko, Jordan Binnington and Torey Krug. There is enough quality here on paper but a minus-38 goal differential, poor special teams (21st on the power play, 30th on the penalty kill) and a changing of the guard is a lot to sort through.

The Jets and Canucks are in the same tier to begin the new NHL season. (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Jets and Canucks are in the same tier to begin the new NHL season. (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

7. Grasping for a wild-card spot (East)

Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators

Depending who you ask, any three of these teams are being celebrated as teams that are finally about to turn the corner and make the playoffs. They will need to prove it before I can elevate any of them higher. For starters, they all play in the same division and the other four division rivals have been entrenched in the playoffs the past few seasons and still fancy themselves as contenders. Even if Boston and Tampa Bay have gotten worse, they are not easy outs.

All these teams need a lot to go right. Can Jakob Chychrun stay healthy? Or Josh Norris? Can the Senators sign Shane Pinto sooner than later? Do the Sabres have enough scoring depth and will Devon Levi be a legitimate starter as a rookie? The foundation is there for Buffalo now but can it seize the moment?

The Red Wings added depth throughout the lineup but can you make the playoffs with Dylan Larkin and Alex DeBrincat as your top two forwards? Do they have enough quality on defense behind Moritz Seider and Jake Walman? Buffalo and Ottawa at least had good, playoff-caliber possession numbers (just outside the top 10), but the Red Wings were nowhere close to that (26th).

8. Stuck in purgatory with possible good times ahead

Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s hard to see the path to a playoff spot for pretty well all of these teams but there are better times coming in short order.

The Habs continue to collect draft picks and prospects, which will eventually pan out. For now, the NHL roster is laden with veteran deals they’d probably like to move on from (Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Josh Anderson, Christian Dvorak), and adding Alex Newhook and getting some injured players back from last season likely isn’t enough to push them forward in the meantime.

The Coyotes are adding Logan Cooley and had an exciting finish to their season. If Barrett Hayton continues to emerge, they can bump up a tier.

The Blackhawks drafted Connor Bedard, the Ducks drafted Leo Carlsson and the Blue Jackets drafted Adam Fantilli. Those are three very exciting players and all three teams already have a number of good/highly touted players to support them. The cupboards aren’t bare but when it comes to winning right now, all three have question marks.

The Flyers are likely equally as thrilled with Matvei Michkov. If they get a healthy Sean Couturier in form, they probably will be moving up a tier.

9. Stuck in purgatory but it might be getting worse

Washington Capitals

To be clear, the Capitals are reasonably capable of making the playoffs. They have a collection of still-productive veterans, a solid goalie and a reasonable group of players in their mid-20s that can produce, including Dylan Strome, Sonny Milano, Rasmus Sandin and Martin Fehérváry.

But they were 12 points back of a playoff spot last year, their big additions were 30-year-old Joel Edmundson and a still-hurt Max Pacioretty and everyone is another year older. They are signing veterans in an effort to remain competitive but that eventually catches up to you, keeping you just competitive enough to hang around rather than bottoming out and selecting elite players at the top of the draft.

If they don’t make the playoffs yet again, it’s another year spent on an aging core instead of building a new one.

10. Happy to lose

San Jose Sharks

This was the second summer in a row the Sharks traded a top-pairing defenseman. While Anthony Duclair was a nice little addition and they have good young players that will break through shortly, this is still very much a rebuild and a team that is by and large not trying to seriously compete for a playoff spot.