(Photo Credit: @GoldenKnights/ Twitter).

Regular season performance and finish, potential playoff matchups, injuries, depth and current form are all taking into consideration to evaluate rankings.

1. Colorado Avalanche

I would have been hard pressed to not put the President trophy winning Avalanche at the first spot. Their recent dominance over the Kings has propelled them into the all important one seed in the West and the league, which will result in home-ice throughout the playoffs. With so much skill, speed, and depth, they will be extremely hard to stop. I still question whether Philipp Grubauer is the the type of guy to lead you to the Stanley Cup Final, but everything else considered, they have the pieces. They also possess the highest goals for per game at 3.52 and the third lowest goals against per game. They’re the favorite to win it all right now.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

Originally going to be in the number one spot until the Avalanche took control of their fate and won three straight. That doesn’t make the Knights any less dangerous, though. They have the best goalie tandem in the playoffs paired with a solid defensive core and four lines that play responsibly and can score. The Knights also have more wins than any other team. Furthermore, the Knights have the best PK in the league, killing 86.8% of opponent power plays. They’re also allowing the least goals against per game at 2.18. They are going to have a tough first and second-round matchup, but if you can get past (presumably) the Avalanche, you should be able to beat almost anyone.

3.  Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes were quietly at the top of the league for a good stretch of the season despite injuries on the blueline, in net, and up front. Its their depth, especially on the blue line with Jakob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Brent Pesce, and Brady Skjei. However, they’ve gotten solid contributions from all four lines with boosted production from Jordan Staal, Martin Necas, and Vincent Trocheck. They play a solid disciplined game under Rod Brind’Amour, which is why I believe they are so hard to play against.

Despite no true sniper or power play specialist, the Canes have the second best power play in the league. I know for many they are hard to trust, especially after last years embarrassment to the Bruins, but it’s hard to look beyond what they did in a pretty difficult Central division that contains two legitimate contenders. Not to mention the fact that they should have a light first round before getting a Tampa or Florida team that will be coming off a difficult series.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning

The defending Stanley Cup champions had a bit of an underwhelming regular season by their standards, but should only be getting more reinforcements come playoffs. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are coming back, which is a big plus. However, their playing ability is going to determine a lot. Kucherov hasn’t played over a year and Stamkos has always had trouble staying healthy.

With that said, if the former and the latter are unable to regain their top form, the Bolts won’t be quite the force they were last year. Furthermore, Hedman’s injury, which is rumored to require off-season surgery, could be a bit of a concern as playoffs continue. Their major bright spot though lies within the pipes with Andrei Vasilevskiy. The current Vezina favorite alone could help to carry Tampa to a familiar promise land again this year.

5.  Toronto Maple Leafs

One of the most potent offenses in the NHL both now and all year. There isn’t a better goal scorer at this moment than Auston Matthews, whose 40 in 49 campaign will go down in history. On top of that, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are both having career years, while veterans John Tavares, Nick Foligno, and Joe Thornton will provide contributions in various ways for a relatively young Leafs squad.

The only knock on the Leafs are the questions surrounding their strength of schedule and whether they are really battle tested. It will be interesting to see how they fair against some of the other divisions big hitters — if they get there. Although, there is no question they should be able to take a big step forward in regards to their playoff success. Out of all 16 teams, the Leafs should have the easiest route to the semifinals where matchups will be determined by seeding. Any exit sooner than the semifinals is yet again another playoff failure.

6. Florida Panthers

I believe, one of the most underrated teams in the playoffs this year. They aren’t getting the attention in the Central with the previous champions Tampa and the surging Canes taking most of the spotlight. Not to mention the attention the Leafs, Avs and Golden Knights are getting on a daily basis. However, the Panthers finished well above where many would have slotted them at second in the Central.

It’s clear Coach Q has finally got his team to buy into his message, as they are executing their systems perfectly. Pair that with careers years from their stars in Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad (pre-injury), as well as overperforming newcomers in Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, and Christopher Verhaeghe, and the Panthers are a legitimate contender.

Goaltending was not quite a strong suit early-on in the season, but it looks as though the Panthers have three solid options in net if need be. Despite the Ekblad injury being a tough loss, defenseman like MacKenzie Weegar and Keith Yandle have stepped up drastically to solidify the blueline. Don’t sleep on the Panthers, who get home ice in Round 1.

7. Washington Capitals

Goaltending and injuries. The Capitals fate will rely primarily on those two things. When you have the third best powerplay and fifth best penalty kill, you certainly have the capabilities that push you over the edge in playoffs. Of course Alex Ovechkin will be dangerous, but TJ Oshie, Anthony Mantha, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are all guys that opposing teams will need to keep their eye on.

Washington also did well to add even more size and leadership bringing in Big Z to a fairly solid blueline. Admittedly, the injuries scare me when it comes to the Capitals, although they have the depth to overcome it. Clearly with an aging core, general manager Brian MacLellan knows the window is closing (as evidenced by the Vrana-Mantha deal). The East Division is going to be hard to get out of, however. For Washington, their toughest East matchup will probably come in the first round.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins

They probably deserve to be a bit higher with the way they have been playing recently, winning eight of their last ten. They are also getting healthy just in time for the playoffs, with no major or concerning injuries to note. Much like for Ovi, Sid’s chances to win another Cup are coming to a close. The Penguins could very well look to rebuild depending on how things go this offseason, which means it could be the last push in a Penguins uniform for Kris Letang and/or Evgeni Malkin.

A healthy Penguins team, though, can be dangerous. They’re second in the NHL in goals scored while possessing a top-five ranked powerplay. Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, and Jason Zucker are all nice depth pieces as well. Their first-round matchup may not be an easy one, but the Penguins could make a nice run through the East. My only quirk on them is how reliable and steady they will be between the pipes.

9. Minnesota Wild

The Wild were getting a tough hand no matter what way you drew it up. They were going to see either one of the highest favored teams to win the Stanley Cup in the Avalanche or Golden Knights. We now know of course they will see the Knights, who’ve they’ve had more success against than the Avalanche.

Although neither option was best case scenario, the Wild get a better draw with the Knights who’ve they beaten a shocking five times. Like it did in the regular season, much of the Wild’s success will be driven off the shoulders of Kirill Kaprizov and goaltending. The Wild certainly have some nice pieces and depth, but are unlikely to match that of Vegas’. Nevertheless, they could be a tougher out than most think despite their opponent being heavily favored.

10. Boston Bruins

The Taylor Hall acquisition is paying immediate dividends, as he’s seemed to find a nice home in Boston. Truthfully, I think the Bruins would have been better off in the four seed given the extremely big and tough matchup the Caps present. However, the Bruins have a lot of talent upfront in the perfection line, Hall, and Krejci. They can take advantage of a potentially injury-ridden Caps team with young inexperienced goaltending. Given the success of the Caps third ranked power play so far, the second ranked Bruins penalty kill is going to have to find continued success to take an advantage in this series. The B’s could provide one of a few first round upsets this year.

11. New York Islanders

Much like last year, the Islanders play began to taper off drastically towards the end of the season. Although they were able to bounce back in the bubble, they don’t have the time to get healthy and readjust like last year. With that said, however, the Islanders brought in some nice pieces that should bolster an already deep team. They also are seeing extremely solid goaltending from rookie Ilya Sorokin and veteran Semyon Varlamov. The fact of the matter is though, any Barry Trotz coached team has the ability to make a spectacularly deep run due to the execution and buy in of the Trotz system. If there is any four seed that can pull off the upset, my money is on the Islanders.

12. Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers are finally back in the playoffs and really began to separate themselves as the second best team in the North. It’s going to be really special to see Connor McDavid in the NHL playoffs again, especially given his remarkable 2021 campaign. Their first round matchup won’t be the easiest despite what the Jets record says. Although, both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have the ability to take over a series. Goaltending will be an obvious factor in this series, as we’ve seen some not so great lapses from Mikko Koskinen when he gets the nod.

Smith should be the starter, which is an upgrade, but Hellebuyck will pose a tough matchup on the other side. The Oilers lead leaguing power play percentage of 28.1% could be a huge difference maker in any/all of their playoff series. It is hard enough to defend McDavid and Draisaitl 5v5 — let alone when you are down a man. Furthermore, McDavid and Draisaitl are virtually matchup proof. But as we’ve seen in the past, those two can’t do it all. Scoring depth and defensive play are going to play a major factor if the Oilers want to get out of the North.

13. Winnipeg Jets

The Jets are one of if not the best team down the middle in the 2021 NHL Playoffs. But like the Islanders, they began to tamper out and eventually saw themselves drop down from the second seed to the third spot, surrendering home ice. The Jets almost dropped to the fourth spot as well. If the Jets want any chance of getting past the Oilers, they are going to have to come up with a solid game plan for McDavid and Draisaitl and play like they did earlier in the year. They’ve got the depth and goaltending to make a run, but they need to be more sound defensively.

14. Nashville Predators

On paper the Predators should be able to compete with the best of them. Juuse Saros has been a revaluation in net of recent and the Predators have strung together some really solid wins, including two over their first-round opponent to beat out the Stars for the final spot in the Central. The Predators are also finally healthy, which is a big boost for them, especially when you consider what Filip Forsberg has meant to them this year.

With all of the trade deadline rumors, it’s clear the Predators have depth on defense with Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. But considering the waves in which the Canes can score, the Predators are going to have to get elite defense and goaltending alongside contributions up-and-down the lineup. This includes the big names like Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Erik Haula, etc.

Nashville will also have 12,000+ fans in attendance for home games, which could very well be the most of any team. This alone could provide a major advantage that could help the Preds squeeze another game or two out of this series.

15. St. Louis Blues

The good news; you avoided Vegas. The bad news; you get Colorado. Much like the Wild, the fourth seed in the West was also going to be a sitting duck. They’ve beaten the Avalanche three times, which should spark some hope. The two teams will play extremely different styles as the Blues play a hard and physical game, while the Avalanche play a fast and skilled game. The best chance the Blues have will be to wear down the Avalanche physically through a heavy and physical forecheck paired with 2019 level Jordan Binnington. If the Blues do that, they may be able to force a few more games than anticipated.

16. Montreal Canadiens

They have been too hot and cold to really trust them anywhere above the 16 spot. Goaltending isn’t what it used to be and the blueline isn’t all that impressive. The offense can score, but it comes in bunches at times. On top of that, they don’t possess any super dangerous goal scoring threats outside of Tyler Toffoli. They also get a pretty difficult first-round matchup, especially considering how the two teams line up. Hopefully for Canadiens fans they can build on last years impressive playoff run.