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NHL Tiers: Risers and fallers at the halfway point

The Bruins and Stars have joined the NHL's "elite," while the Rangers have fallen out of the top tier.

The Boston Bruins have been the cream of the crop through the first half of the NHL season. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The Boston Bruins have been the cream of the crop through the first half of the NHL season. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL.

We are now at the unofficial halfway point of the season, as 26 teams in the league have played at least 41 games. The trade deadline is less than two months away. The playoff picture is in place. It makes it as good a time as any to revisit our preseason tiers and move around teams based on their play so far.

Note: Order within tiers does not matter.

1 - The Elite

Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars

Still here: Avalanche, Lightning, Hurricanes, Maple Leafs

New additions: Bruins, Stars

Demoted: Rangers

I'm not going to overthink this category, even though a few teams will surely have a problem with it, namely the New Jersey Devils and Vegas Golden Knights. Before the season started we noted that, “A healthy Bruins team could join the elite club before too long, but for now they aren’t healthy and so it will be interesting to see how the first few months go for them.” Well, the injuries did not slow them down one bit and they are running through the league.

Carolina and Toronto are tied for second behind Boston in points percentage, as we somewhat expected by having them in the elite tier at the start of the season. Both teams have been regular-season monsters for years and there was hardly much reason to think that was going to change.

Tampa Bay is cruising through the regular season as it did a year ago. The Lightning haven't replaced several key players — Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh — they lost in the offseason, but they swung big at the trade deadline and we’ll wait to see if they do so again.

The Colorado Avalanche are in a similar boat, but are sitting 18th in points percentage. They have battled injuries throughout the season — Gabriel Landeskog hasn’t even played a game yet — and they haven’t come close to replacing the contributions of Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. But their top players all remain and the betting here is that they sort everything out, get healthy and get rolling down the stretch. I’m certainly not down on the defending Cup champs through half the season.

The Stars are leading their division, have one of the best lines in the league along with an elite defenseman and an emerging goaltender. They are top six in goals per game, goals allowed per game, power play and penalty kill. They are a serious problem.

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

Vegas Golden Knights, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets

Still here: Wild

New additions: Golden Knights, Jets

Promoted: Stars

Demoted: Blues, Oilers, Flames

The musical chairs in the West are fascinating to sort through. Minnesota got off to a slow start but has really settled down of late and is eighth in the league in points percentage since Dec. 1. Ryan Hartman returned from injury Dec. 18 after being sidelined for six weeks, and he is a significant piece for them.

The Blues have struggled to a surprising degree while the Flames and Oilers have underachieved thus far. More on them soon.

The Winnipeg Jets have been great and look firmly entrenched as a playoff team with a number of game-breakers up front and Connor Hellebuyck looking like he wants to reclaim his status as the best goalie in the league.

Vegas was always a team we believed in, but they needed to prove it and so far they have. Logan Thompson has settled down their uncertainty in net, a healthy Mark Stone is a massive difference-maker and they are eighth in expected goals at 5-on-5. Jack Eichel returned last week after missing a month with a lower-body injury and promptly announced his presence with a three-point night.

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

Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils

Still here: Penguins, Capitals

New additions: Rangers, Devils

Promoted: Bruins

Demoted: Panthers

The Penguins and Capitals both got off to slow starts and I was wondering if they’d drop out of this tier entirely.

Pittsburgh currently leads the wild-card race with a .600 points percentage and sit ninth in expected goals at 5-on-5. Sidney Crosby is having another incredible season. Tristan Jarry, now hurt, was putting together another strong season with a .918 save percentage and 2.75 goals-against average. If they survive his absence, they are in good shape.

The Capitals have had a ton of injuries all season but are fourth in the league in points percentage since Dec. 1. A number of contributors have stepped up as key players have been hurt. When healthy, they have a strong roster and now they’ve positioned themselves as a wild-card team while finally starting to see some light at the end of the injury tunnel.

Depth issues have hurt the Rangers, who are 16th in goals per game but seventh in goals against per game. Last season they added a number of key players at the deadline to help them make a run and it looks like they’ll need to do so again.

The Devils are a bit of an analytics darling and they have had tremendous success despite Palat, the team's big free agent signing, only playing nine games so this season. You could argue they are elite, but after years of futility I’m not ready to include them among the league's best after half of a season. Since their massive winning streak early in the season, they are 19th in points percentage with a 10-8-3 record. A drop off was expected after that streak, but let’s see how they move forward from here.

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

Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Seattle Kraken, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues

Still here: Kings, Predators

New additions: Kraken, Flames, Oilers, Blues

Promoted: Golden Knights

The Kings have a case for being up a tier, but they are 21st in goals against per game, 26th on the penalty kill and have a zero goal differential for the season. They have been hot lately to separate themselves in the standings, but that doesn’t exactly scream a team in firm standing.

The Predators are in the mushy middle after, unsurprisingly, a number of key players are not replicating their career years from a season ago.

All of the teams new to this tier are going to be in a battle. The Kraken have been a pleasant surprise but they are 17th in expected goals at 5-on-5 and have the highest shooting percentage in the league. If and when that comes crashing down, it could drop them right out.

The Flames have strong possession and expected goal numbers and there are legit signs of life with the roster, but if Jacob Markstrom doesn’t turn it around it’ll be difficult to overcome that. They are 28th in 5-on-5 save percentage.

The Oilers are in a similar situation: elite at the top, not much else. Evander Kane's absence has also really hurt them. If they get in they are a problem because Connor McDavid is a problem, but their playoff chances are in the 30s right now.

It’s easy to see the Blues falling out but until they do, we’re keeping them around. The injury to Ryan O’Reilly obviously hurts and it’s possible they have a fire sale at the deadline. This tier could completely change after the deadline.

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

New York Islanders

Still here: Islanders

Demoted: Blue Jackets

This was a tough one to evaluate as I think the East is generally set, but the Islanders are legitimately in the hunt so let’s recognize that. The Islanders are solid and it wouldn’t be the first year Lou Lamoriello bought at the deadline to help his team and set them up for a run. They have a .560 points percentage right now and are chasing the Capitals (.591). A good or bad week could flip those teams in the standings.

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

Vancouver Canucks

Still here: Canucks

Promoted: Jets

The only reason the Canucks are here is because they haven’t fully embraced that they are done. Other than that, not much to say here.

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

Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres

New additions: Panthers, Red Wings, Sabres

Promoted: Devils

Demoted: Senators

All three teams added to this tier face tough battles to make the playoffs.

The Red Wings are fading fast. They are 27th in 5-on-5 corsi percentage, and consistently get controlled like that is prohibitive to success. The Panthers are a maddening team and somewhat like Calgary with Markstrom, they are 19th in 5-on-5 save percentage. They spend a lot of money on goaltending and need better than what they're getting. The Sabres are a great story and are a fun team for the first time in more than a decade. They are also 21st in expected goals at 5-on-5. The top half of their lineup is great, but the bottom half leaves a lot to be desired.

8 - Stuck in purgatory with possible good times ahead

Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators

New additions: Canadiens, Senators

Promoted: Sabres, Kraken, Red Wings

Demoted: Ducks

I debated having the Canadiens in this category because they are just slightly better than the true bottom-feeders. They have a number of good young players and as they develop, the team on the whole has real potential. Their management group made a number of strong moves already that has positioned the team well for the future. It doesn’t look like a lost cause.

The Senators are in the middle of another disappointing season after such high offseason expectations, but there is a core in place of note. They need to figure out how to improve their defense and losing Josh Norris potentially for the season, their No. 1 center on paper, is a blow that would ruin a number of teams. Even still, it’s easy to see them competing for a playoff spot next season.

9 - Stuck in purgatory but it might be getting worse

Philadelphia Flyers

Still here: Flyers

Demoted: Sharks

The Flyers are too good to finish at the bottom and not good enough to compete for a playoff spot. One way or another, they are going to have to sort that out to move forward properly.

10 - Happy to lose

Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks

Still here: Coyotes, Blackhawks

New additions: Blue Jackets, Ducks, Sharks

Promoted: Canadiens

Alternatively, we can call this group Fall Hard for Bedard.

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