The NHL season is nearing its midpoint, which means teams separating out into the hopeful and the hopeless.
Here are the Stanley Cup Hope Tiers as they are currently constituted. The projected points and playoff probabilities are through Monday’s games and provided by FiveThirtyEight. The Stanley Cup champion probabilities are via Money Puck.
We begin with the highest of hopes:
Tier 1: True Stanley Cup contenders
Projected points: 122
Playoff probability: >99%
Stanley Cup win probability: 8.2%
Their hopes get higher if: Can they get much higher? The league-leading Bruins feel like they’ve hit on that rare combination of championship-caliber roster, ideal coach and unshakable sense of confidence and mission. An all-in push for the Cup this season could bring another defenseman to bolster the back end — perhaps the thinnest part of the roster, comparatively — or a swing for the fences for a star center or right wing.
Their hopes get lower if: One of three key players gets injured: Patrice Bergeron, Hampus Lindholm or Linus Ullmark. Bergeron gives them that sense of purpose. Lindholm has been their best defenseman and a primary reason they thrived when Charlie McAvoy was out of the lineup. Ullmark is in the conversation for the season’s top goaltender; due respect to Jeremy Swayman, but his crease-mate makes them a Cup favorite.
Projected points: 115
Playoff probability: >99%
Stanley Cup win probability: 13.8%
Their hopes get higher if: Max Pacioretty finally makes his Hurricanes debut in the near future, bolstering an offense and a power play that are in the bottom third of the league this season. But the reason the Hurricanes acquired the winger from the Vegas Golden Knights for pocket lint is so Pacioretty could provide those postseason goals that win Carolina those tight playoff games they haven’t been winning, and get them over the hump to a championship round again.
Their hopes get lower if: Their goaltending gets botched. The emergence of Pyotr Kochetkov as a rookie sensation has been a welcome development, as Frederik Andersen works his way back from injury. Speculation is that Antti Raanta, who had moments of playoff heroism last season, could be traded. Injuries, ineffectiveness and Kochetkov turning back into a pumpkin are all back-of-the-mind concerns. One false move can turn a blessing of riches into postseason bankruptcy.
Projected points: 107
Playoff probability: 98%
Stanley Cup win probability: 4.4%
Their hopes get higher if: Their depth and goaltending remain this good. The Stars’ mix of solid veterans and impact young players has led them to the top of the Central Division. It’s allowed them to pepper their depth chart with familiar names in unfamiliar roles: Jamie Benn on the third line, Esa Lindell on the third defensive pairing. As one NHL insider put it: “When you can play Benn and [Tyler] Seguin down the lineup, you have depth that cannot be argued with.”
Their hopes get lower if: Their team defense can’t improve in front of their goaltending. The Stars have a lower actual goals-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than their expected goals-against. That’s because they’re seventh in team save percentage at even strength (.925). We’ve seen what Jake Oettinger can do in the postseason. Not asking him to do it for four rounds would be the ideal path to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win since 1999.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Projected points: 110
Playoff probability: 99%
Stanley Cup win probability: 8.5%
Their hopes get higher if: They find another strong veteran center to go with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. The name of currently injured St. Louis star Ryan O’Reilly has been mentioned, and that almost makes too much sense: a win-at-all-costs two-way center with a Conn Smythe legacy who would thrive not having to carry a top scoring line.
Their hopes get lower if: They’re still possessed by those “demons in their heads,” as coach Paul MacLean so eloquently put it a few years ago, when the playoffs arrive. The Leafs are their own toughest opponent in the postseason. They blew a 3-2 lead to the Lightning last season. They’re almost assuredly going to see them again this postseason. Cue the spooky music.