The puck drops on the 2023 NHL playoffs on Monday, which means the most grueling postseason in all of professional sports will soon commence. In anticipation, let’s run down the list of top Stanley Cup contenders (every team with at least a 5 percent chance,1 according to our NHL predictions model) and detail why they will — or won’t — hoist Lord Stanley’s mug in June.
Seeding: No. 1 in Atlantic division
Stanley Cup odds: 39 percent
Why they can win: To put it simply, the 2022-23 Bruins have had the greatest regular season in the history of the NHL, which has existed in one form or another since 1917. After 81 games, the Bruins are 64-12-5. That’s good for the most wins and the most points (133) in regular season history.
How have the Bruins done it? For starters, they’ve scored the second-most goals in the league while conceding by far the fewest. Their goal differential is a gaudy 63 better than their closest challenger.2 They also rank second in both offensive and defensive goals above replacement.better balance value between positions by ensuring that forwards get 60 percent of leaguewide value, while defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent.">3
Boston also has the best penalty kill in the league,4 and the best save percentage5 — which accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor. It helps that starting netminder Linus Ullmark posted the seventh-best single-season save percentage in NHL history6 — he’s a couple of months away from winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie — and backup Jeremy Swayman has the fourth-best save percentage in the league this season among goalies who have made at least 10 starts.
And while Boston’s power play has been just above average — it ranks 11th — the Bs are the NHL’s best 5-on-5 team by goal differential. (Being just above average on the man advantage is fine when you’re dominating at 5-on-5 because the majority of an average NHL game is played 5-on-5.)
Why they can’t win: Ummm … because the Hockey Gods are Montreal Canadiens fans?
Honestly, this is going to sound very boring, but after the regular season the Bruins have had, potential injuries to key players — Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David PastrÅÐâ¬ák, Ullmark or Charlie McAvoy, for example — might be the only thing that can stop this team from going the distance. Aside from the beginning of the season when Marchand and McAvoy missed considerable time to injury, this team has been pretty darn healthy. But we saw what injuries can do to great teams during the regular season. (See: the first half of the 2022-23 season for the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.)
So if the Bruins can stay healthy-ish, it’s their Stanley Cup to lose. Of course, a 39 percent chance to win also means a 61 percent chance to lose — and this being the chaos of playoff hockey, things might not be as straightforward for Boston in the postseason as they’ve been in the regular season. But then again, this team might just be dominant enough for that not to matter.
Seeding: No. 1 in Central division
Stanley Cup odds: 16 percent
Why they can win: The Avs have done this whole Stanley Cup thing before, knocking off the dynastic Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final a year ago. While it’s not quite the same team it was then, Colorado still possesses a ton of top-end talent — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen both eclipsed 100 points, Cale Makar is still Cale Makar, etc. — to go with strong goaltending from newcomer Alexandar Georgiev in his first year as starter, a deadly power play (No. 5 in the league) and few glaring weaknesses. In spite of what was, at times, a challenging campaign, the Avs rank among the NHL’s top 13 teams in GAR on offense, defense and goaltending this season.
Most importantly, the Avalanche are healthier now than they were earlier in the season, when injuries threatened to wipe out their title defense before it could really get started. Of the nine Colorado skaters who’ve produced at least 2 GAR but also missed double-digit games this season,7 seven are either back in the lineup now or set to return soon. Not coincidentally, the Avalanche have the league’s second-most wins since the season’s midpoint and a higher Elo rating (1606) than they had entering last year’s playoffs (1601).
Why they can’t win: Health is still a concern, even if Colorado’s situation has improved from the dumpster fire it was around New Year’s. Although Makar’s lower-body problem sounds less worrisome than the “out indefinitely” tag would suggest, any disruption in availability for the league’s top defenseman by GAR over the past three seasons would be a major blow. And it remains unclear if the Avalanche will see their captain, Gabriel Landeskog, play a single game this season as he recovers from knee surgery; Landeskog was fourth on the team in playoff scoring with 22 points in 20 games last year. All of this points to maybe the biggest red flag for Colorado this postseason: its relative lack of depth. Whereas the 2021-22 Avs had nine players accumulate at least 10 GAR during the regular season, this year’s version has only five. Between key offseason losses and all the injuries, the Avalanche can’t throw as much sheer talent at opponents as they could a year ago.
Seeding: No. 2 in Pacific division
Stanley Cup odds: 10 percent
Why they can win: For starters: Connor McDavid. The two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner8 is all but certain to become a three-time winner in June. McDavid led the NHL in goals, assists and points,9 and his 152 points are the most scored in a season since Mario Lemieux notched 161 in 1995-96. McDavid is just the sixth player to score 150 or more points in a single NHL season. He’s been downright ridiculous in 2022-23.
Having the best player in the league — and one of the best players ever — is a good starting point. But the Oilers aren’t merely the “Connor McDavid Show.” Leon Draisaitl ranked fourth in goals and assists (and second in points) and probably would have been the Hart front-runner if McDavid didn’t exist. Unsurprisingly, the Oilers also have an excellent power play — like, historically excellent. They’ve scored on 32.4 percent of their man advantages in 2022-23, the best mark in NHL history. Edmonton can win because Edmonton is an offensive juggernaut.
Why they can’t win: The Oilers are about as bad on the defensive side of the puck as they are good on the offensive. Their penalty kill currently ranks 19th in the league — a heavy counterweight to that obscenely productive power play. The Oilers are also giving up the joint 13th-most shots per game and were below average in defensive GAR. Plus, Edmonton goalies are posting a league-average save percentage of .900 — not the kind of goaltending required for a deep Stanley Cup run.
Seeding: No. 1 in Metropolitan division
Stanley Cup odds: 6 percent
Why they can win: No team in the playoff field is more airtight defensively than the Canes, who own the league’s second-best penalty kill (spoiling 84.3 percent of opposing power plays) and allow its fewest shots per game (25.9, more than a full shot per game fewer than the No. 2 Seattle Kraken). We dare you to find a better top-to-bottom blueline corps than Carolina’s lineup of Brent Burns, Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Jalen Chatfield and Shayne Gostisbehere. You can’t — Carolina ranks No. 1 in total GAR from defensemen this season. And the Hurricanes are also a possession machine, dominating the Corsi rankings at 5-on-5 with the score close. Playoff opponents had better make the most of their scoring chances against Carolina, because they won’t get very many.
Why they can’t win: Despite everything the Hurricanes seem to have going for them, they don’t cut an especially imposing statistical figure overall — ranking tied for seventh in goal differential, seventh in Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System and fifth in Elo. Much of this is because Carolina’s offense is tied for 17th in goals per game with just the 19th-best power play in the league. Despite this being the highest-scoring NHL season in nearly 30 years, only one Hurricane (Martin NeÄÐÐas) has topped 70 points, as Carolina’s attack dropped eight spots from its 2021-22 ranking. And things aren’t primed to improve anytime soon, with two of the team’s most talented offensive weapons, Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty, both out for the season.
Then there’s the netminding, another area where the Canes have been surprisingly pedestrian; the team ranks 12th in save percentage and 19th in goaltending GAR after sitting third and ninth, respectively, last season. The starting tandem of Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen isn’t bad, but 27 goalies have more goals saved above average this seasonCarolina’s best goalie this season but was assigned to the minors in favor of his more experienced teammates.">10 than either of Carolina’s playoff netminders.
New York Rangers
Seeding: No. 3 in Metropolitan division
Stanley Cup odds: 6 percent
Why they can win: The Rangers are one of the most well-rounded teams in the postseason field. New York ranks 10th in scoring and third in goal prevention; its defense is allowing the league’s seventh-fewest shots per game; its goalies rank seventh in save percentage; and its special teams are in the top half of the league on both the power play (No. 7) and penalty kill (No. 13). And few, if any, NHL teams have more star power: The Broadway Blueshirts are tied with Colorado and Edmonton for the most players in the league with at least 20 GAR (three) and trail only Boston for the most players with at least 10 GAR (eight). And that number doesn’t even include partial seasons with the club from Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, both of whom were picked up in midseason trades to bolster an offense that had already made a leap from its 17th-place finish last year.
Why they can’t win: If a possession-focused style wins in the postseason, the Rangers are still working on that — they sit 18th in close-score Corsi at 5-on-5 for the season, a ranking that has actually gotten worse since the trade deadline.11th in close-score 5-on-5 Corsi on Feb. 1.">11 And for stars who were supposed to help New York achieve “superteam” status, neither Tarasenko nor Kane has produced points at the same rate since taking up residency at Madison Square Garden. That’s not any huge indictment of this team, since even if their shiny new headliners aren’t quite what they used to be, the Rangers are still in much better shape on paper than last year — a season when New York went all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. But in the same conference with a juggernaut like the big, bad Bruins — or even a daunting first-round matchup looming against the up-and-coming New Jersey Devils — it might take a true superteam firing on all cylinders to ride the playoffs out intact.
Vegas Golden Knights
Seeding: No. 1 in Pacific division
Stanley Cup odds: 5 percent
Why they can win: Despite leading their division, the Golden Knights are the kind of solid-if-unspectacular team that flies under the radar going into the postseason. After missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year, Vegas has rebounded to post roughly the same goals-per-game differential (+0.49) as it had during its magical expansion-year run to the Final in 2017-18 (+0.54). But while that team was more offensively focused, these Knights have embraced goal prevention in coach Bruce Cassidy’s first season at the helm, allowing the 11th-fewest goals per game. Despite numerous injuries between the pipes, Vegas’s netminders rank ninth in save percentage and seventh in goaltending GAR — and the team has no shortage of candidates to start in net for a playoff run, including the solid Logan Thompson (depending on his return from a lower-body injury) and a multi-time Cup-winning goalie in former L.A. Kings icon Jonathan Quick.
Why they can’t win: Aside from special teams and possession stats, where Vegas ranks a mediocre 18th on the power play, 20th on the penalty kill and 21st in Corsi, the Golden Knights aren’t bad at much. But they’re also not particularly great in any area, either, with the exception of goaltending — which, as we noted, is depleted by injuries at the moment. They have a middle-of-the-road offense (14th in scoring), middle-of-the-road defense (14th-most shots allowed per game) and virtually no standout individual performers despite rolling out such recognizable names as Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Phil Kessel. Zero Knights accumulated even 15 GAR this season, making Vegas the only playoff team to feature such a dearth of productive stars. Perhaps that speaks to the machine-like quality of a roster where no single cog is more important than another, but no team since the 1966-67 Maple Leafs has won the Cup after a regular season where its best player had fewer than 15 GAR per 82 team games.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Seeding: No. 2 in Atlantic division
Stanley Cup odds: 5 percent
Why they can win: Because it’s been too damned long!
OK, that’s not a good reason, but it is worth dwelling for a moment on just how much playoff pain Maple Leafs fans have endured. They are the only Original Six team that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup at least once in the NHL’s post-expansion era. Heck, they haven’t even won a measly playoff series since before the lockout, back when Mats Sundin was still the captain and current superstar Auston Matthews was just a six-year-old Phoenix Coyotes fan. All told during that time, they’ve made seven trips to the playoffs and seven first-round exits.
This year, though, could be different (yeah, we know Toronto fans have heard that before). The Leafs have a top-three power play — thanks in large part to current captain John Tavares, whose 18 goals on the man advantage are tied for sixth with PastrÅÐâ¬ák — and their 5-on-5 scoring chance percentage is higher than all but four teams.
The Leafs aren’t just a difficult proposition for opposition defenses — they’re also stingy in their own end. They rank fifth in defensive GAR and give up the sixth-fewest shots per game. Couple that with better-than-league-average goaltending, and the Leafs can make a pretty reasonable case for themselves as a playoff contender. They should at least be able to get past the first round this year.
Why they can’t win: Because history is a cruel arbiter? Because the ghost of Harold Ballard hasn’t yet made amends for all the things he needs to make amends for?12 The real answer, though, is probably that the Leafs remain very good but not truly great (No. 5 in 5-on-5 scoring chance percentage, No. 6 in goal differential and SRS) and they’re going to have to go through some combination of the Lightning, Hurricanes, and/or Bruins to escape the East. Tampa is dynastic; the Hurricanes don’t give up many scoring chances, let alone many goals; and the Bruins are, well, the greatest regular season team in league history.
With its roster of young, world-class talent, Toronto could reasonably expect to be in the middle of its own dynasty at the moment. Instead, the Leafs are fighting history and their own demons as much as they are other hockey teams. Is this the year they finally take the narrative back into their own sweaty hockey mitts? Or are the Leafs and their long-suffering fans destined to exist in an indefinite state of existential dread?
The rest of the field
Stanley Cup odds: 13 percent
According to the betting markets, the New Jersey Devils (7 percent implied Cup probability13 versus 2 percent in our model) are our most undervalued contender, and it’s hard to argue with that. New Jersey is young and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2018, but we’d be discounting the Devils’ two-way talent at our own risk. Another team to keep an eye on is the Dallas Stars; along with the Bruins and Devils, Dallas is the only team to be at least 0.3 goals per game better than average on both offense and defense this season. And we can’t forget about the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have visited each of the previous three Stanley Cup finals. Tampa Bay’s goals-per-game differential is down substantially from its usual form, but no team with Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman can be taken lightly in the postseason.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.