NHL playoff hope tiers: From top Stanley Cup favorites to draft lottery darlings

Sports

Hope can be a powerful motivation for NHL teams. Or it can be a powerful hallucinogen, with the lure of the playoffs altering best-laid plans. Or it can be a foreign concept for teams that are dwelling in the standings basement as the midpoint of the season nears.

Here are the Stanley Cup hope tiers as they are currently constituted. The projected points and playoff probabilities are through Tuesday’s games and provided by Stathletes.

We begin with the highest of hopes:

Tier 1: True Stanley Cup contenders

Projected points: 106.3
Playoff probability: 99.2%
Stanley Cup win probability: 3.7%

Their hopes get higher if: Boston hasn’t gotten enough credit this season as one of the NHL’s surprise teams. After the shocking playoff exit and retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, along with other lineup defections over the summer, no one expected the Bruins to challenge for another President’s Trophy. And yet there they are as the calendar flips to 2024, thanks to the league’s best goaltending and special teams.

They did seem to feel those lineup losses earlier this season when their offense sputtered. The Bruins still aren’t all that threatening at 5-on-5, ranking 18th in expected goals per 60 minutes. Boston could use an offensive infusion before the trade deadline and some additional help at center. The challenge is that GM Don Sweeney went all-in for last year’s juggernaut — Boston doesn’t own a draft pick until the fourth round this summer.

Their hopes get lower if: Their underlying numbers can’t become a little more Bruins-like. Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have helped Boston to 1.98 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, thanks to their combined .920 team save percentage, best in the NHL. They’ve covered for a lot of what’s happening in front of them, where the Bruins are under 50% in expected goals and shot attempts at 5-on-5.

These are things that never happened in the Bergeron years. They can’t continue to happen if Boston hopes to hoist the Stanley Cup one year after Bergeron was supposed to lift it.


Projected points: 108.1
Playoff probability: 98.8%
Stanley Cup win probability: 7.2%

Their hopes get higher if: The Avalanche get any semblance of secondary scoring.

They’re blessed with having Nathan MacKinnon, who can carry the team’s offense on his wide shoulders for a month, such as he did recently to hurdle to the top of the NHL MVP race. Linemate Mikko Rantanen is second on the team in scoring, while star defenseman Cale Makar leads all defensemen with 1.33 points per game. But after Valeri Nichushkin‘s impressive 19-goal season, things get a little bleak.

Ryan Johansen‘s point production is a tick down from last season. Artturi Lehkonen has played only 12 games, while Gabriel Landeskog has played none. Tomas Tatar was signed for depth and then traded to the depths of the Kraken after flopping. The Avalanche have a brilliant front office, one that augmented the core enough to win a Stanley Cup two years ago. It needs to do it again for this group to reach the same heights — especially at No. 2 center.

Their hopes get lower if: They don’t get the ‘Good Georgiev’ at the right time. Goalie Alexandar Georgiev has had more streaks this season than a windshield with dirty wipers. Six straight wins to start the season. Winning six of seven games in November. Most recently, winning five of six games and holding his opponents to one goal in three of them.

But he’s outside the top 20 in goals saved above average. He has also not been a dependable last line of defense for Colorado — Georgiev is 30th in high-danger save percentage at 5-on-5, which puts him in the Devon Levi zone. The Avs won the Cup with goaltending that was more timely than dominant. They probably need more of the latter with this group. Can Georgiev provide it?


Projected points: 104.4
Playoff probability: 98%
Stanley Cup win probability: 2.8%

Their hopes get higher if: The scoring remains this balanced. The Stars are blessed with Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson, a trio that many believe could be the NHL’s best line. So imagine the Stars’ delight in discovering a line that has played even better this season: Matt Duchene, one of the offseason’s greatest additions, skating with Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin.

Down the lineup, they’re getting scoring from Jamie Benn, Wyatt Johnston and Evgenii Dadonov, plus Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Harley on the back end. Dallas is fourth in the NHL in goals per game, and that balance is the reason.

Their hopes get lower if: Jake Oettinger can’t get healthy and recapture the magic. The biggest concern about Oettinger heading into 2023-24 was that he would end up playing too well, which would lead coach Pete DeBoer to run him into the ground again before the postseason. What we didn’t expect was Oettinger being 31st in goals saved above expected, posting a .856 save percentage in December and having only 48% of his 21 starts defined as “quality starts” this season.

He’s currently trying to heal up a lower body injury. The good news is that Dallas was still stringing together wins despite this, so imagine how good they can be when they get their Otter back.


Projected points: 109.3
Playoff probability: 99.9%
Stanley Cup win probability: 11.2%

Their hopes get higher if: Matthew Tkachuk starts snapping the twine again. The pesky star winger has had a fine season with 28 points in 37 games, helping get linemate Carter Verhaeghe to 19 goals. What Tkachuk hasn’t done is score many himself, with six tallies in 37 games after breaking the 40-goal mark in consecutive seasons.

It’s not for lack of trying: He’s averaging 3.46 shots per game. But his shooting percentage is just 4.7%. That’s bound to rise, as Tkachuk also does to the occasion when the games start really mattering.

Their hopes get lower if: Their 5-on-5 defense slips. The biggest difference for the Panthers year over year has been their even-strength defending, which has jumped from 16th last regular season (2.49 goals per 60 minutes) to third this season (1.98). Part of that is good goaltending, which ranks 11th in team save percentage. But much of it comes from the Panthers playing solid puck possession hockey and defending well, led by Selke Trophy favorite Aleksander Barkov at center.

Florida is playing playoff-quality defense and must continue to do so in the postseason.


Projected points: 110.8
Playoff probability: 99.8%
Stanley Cup win probability: 4.7%

Their hopes get higher if: Igor Shesterkin is “the Shesty we’ve come to know.”

That’s how captain Jacob Trouba described a recent stretch that saw the Vezina Trophy winner post five straight wins with a .946 save percentage. Then he was pumped for six goals by the Carolina Hurricanes. It has been that kind of year for the goalie, whose early-season struggles did little to derail the Rangers, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Quick‘s outstanding work as his backup.

But a dominant Shesterkin gives the Rangers such an advantage over most of their potential opponents in the playoffs. They need him.

Their hopes get lower if: The trade deadline doesn’t make a great team even greater. The Rangers are pressing for a President’s Trophy. They’ve looked like a Stanley Cup contender all season. The notion that GM Chris Drury wouldn’t try to nitro boost this team at the deadline is hard to ignore, what with the Rangers having added Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko last season.

Those two weren’t the reason New York lost to the Devils in the first round last spring, but they also didn’t get the Rangers over the top. Drury has pieces to move. The right targets could give the Rangers their first Cup win in 30 years.


Projected points: 106.8
Playoff probability: 97.4%
Stanley Cup win probability: 5.7%

Their hopes get higher if: The offense can find more consistency. The Knights are averaging about the same number of goals per game (3.24) as they did last season (3.25). But when that offense malfunctions, it really malfunctions: Vegas has been shut out four times in 38 games, including at the Winter Classic in Seattle.

In the Knights’ 16 losses, including overtimes and shootouts, Vegas has averaged just 1.75 goals per game.

Their hopes get lower if: The goaltending actually does cost them in the playoffs this time.

Last season’s run to the Stanley Cup happened thanks to the best two months of goaltending in Adin Hill‘s life. He carried over that momentum — and a new contract — into this season to post some incredible numbers … in limited appearances, thanks to injuries that basically cost him December. Logan Thompson has been OK in Hill’s absence but remains an untested playoff goalie. Vegas won the Cup by spinning goaltending plates. Could the Knights pull that trick a second time?

Tier 2: Playoff locks

Projected points: 105.6
Playoff probability: 99.1%
Stanley Cup win probability: 9.6%

Their hopes get higher if: The models are correct. The Hurricanes have defined the phrase “analytic darlings” for the better part of coach Rod Brind’Amour’s tenure in Raleigh. They crush puck possession, once again leading the league in percentage of shot attempts at 5-on-5. They’re third in expected goals percentage. Carolina is making its move up the standings after a middling start.

The Hurricanes are fifth in their own conference in points percentage, but they’re third in the NHL in Stanley Cup win probability via Stathlete’s computations. Close the gap between what’s real and expected, what’s under the hood and in our faces, and Carolina could hoist it.

Their hopes get lower if: The goaltending undercuts all of it. The Hurricanes have the NHL’s 31st-ranked goaltending, down from 12th overall in 2022-23. Injuries have limited Frederik Andersen to six games. Antti Raanta‘s season was so calamitous that he was demoted to the AHL. Young Pyotr Kochetkov has stabilized the position but has played 209 minutes of postseason hockey in his career.

The Canes have other potential postseason issues — like finding that one player who can score a critical goal in a four-overtime game, for example — but the goaltending is the biggest concern.


Projected points: 106.2
Playoff probability: 95.9%
Stanley Cup win probability: 4.0%

Their hopes get higher if: Pierre-Luc Dubois lives up to the hype. Dubois has seven goals and seven assists in 34 games for the Kings. From a points-per-game perspective, he has essentially given them the same output as defenseman Jordan Spence. There’s about a $7.68 million difference in the cap hits of these two players, which should tell you all you need to know about what was expected from Dubois and what he has delivered so far.

There’s still time for him to find his footing and give the Kings their unstoppable trio at center of Dubois, Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. But Dubois’ lack of production, combined with Winnipeg’s outstanding season fueled by players the Kings surrendered for Dubois, has pushed the reactions from disappointment into ridicule for the 25-year-old center’s season.

Their hopes get lower if: They have to face the Oilers in the first round again. Look, maybe things will be different. The Capitals eventually beat the Penguins and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Or maybe things don’t change: Ask a Toronto fan if they’d like to see the Bruins again in the playoffs any time soon.

Coach Todd McLellan’s Kings have faced his former team in Edmonton in two straight opening rounds and were eliminated by Connor McDavid & Co. both times. And that’s despite horror-show goaltending by the Oilers. There’s a chance the Kings could meet them again to open the playoffs. It would be best for the Kings to avoid that.


Projected points: 111.1
Playoff probability: 99.4%
Stanley Cup win probability: 6.2%

Their hopes get higher if: GM Patrik Allvin keeps playing his cards right. The Canucks are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, which is something we haven’t been able to say about them for over a decade. Allvin’s front office is a big reason for that after adding Ian Cole, Filip Hronek, Carson Soucy and Nikita Zadorov to a back end that needed bolstering.

The Canucks might have earned the chance for him to tinker more with a Stanley Cup in sight, although keep in mind that Allvin has managed to make most of his bets small and smart.

Their hopes get lower if: The Canucks’ incredible good luck with the health of their core runs out. The most important stat of the season for Vancouver through Wednesday was 37. That’s the number of games played by the team, and also by J.T. Miller, Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson and most notably Brock Boeser, who has made a career out of lineup absences. Thatcher Demko has made 26 starts, putting him six behind his total from all of last season.

There are many factors for why the Canucks have been the league’s breakout team in 2023-24. Perhaps none are more vital than the health of their core.


Projected points: 101
Playoff probability: 99.8%
Stanley Cup win probability: 8.0%

Their hopes get higher if: They land a second-line center. The Pierre-Luc Dubois trade did its part in making the Jets a better team — some addition, some subtraction — but it ultimately opened up a hole behind Mark Scheifele that they haven’t sufficiently filled.

They’ve had some options, like Gabriel Vilardi, Cole Perfetti and Vladislav Namestnikov, and an internal solution isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But having GM Kevin Cheveldayoff leverage his assets into a big swing, like Elias Lindholm, would level up Winnipeg.

Their hopes get lower if: Their defensive dominance slips. The Jets have been a defensive wagon this season, ranking second in goals-against average (2.47). That’s not just all Connor Hellebuyck. Per Stathletes, the Jets rank third in expected goals against and preventing rush scoring chances; seventh in shot attempt suppression; eighth in preventing scoring chances; and ninth in preventing scoring chances off the cycle.

They’ve been an elite defensive team in front of Hellebuyck, yet Hellebuyck has been even better than that: 15.4 goals saved above expected. Team defense is the foundation for everything the Jets have done. If it cracks, everything could tumble down with it.

Tier 3: Boom or bust

Projected points: 109
Playoff probability: 99.2%
Stanley Cup win probability: 20.7%

Their hopes get higher if: The Oilers are, in fact, the team they’ve been since Nov. 24.

No team has more wins in that span than Edmonton, which went 14-3-0. No team had a higher points percentage than the Oilers’ .824 in 17 games. No team averaged more goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (3.70); more importantly, only six teams prevented more goals at 5-on-5 on average than the Oilers (2.10) in that span. Connor McDavid had 37 points in 17 games. Both Zach Hyman and Leon Draisaitl had 12 goals apiece.

That 3-9-1 disaster to start the season and end Jay Woodcroft’s tenure as head coach seemed like it happened in another lifetime. These were the Oilers many expected to see in 2023-24. These are the Oilers that Stathletes determined have the best percentage chance of any NHL team to win the Stanley Cup at the moment.

Their hopes get lower if: Stuart Skinner can’t be competent. Skinner appeared in 13 of those 17 games, posting a .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 and playing above average in goal. The Oilers don’t need him to win the Vezina Trophy. They need him not to lose them games. As long as that happens — and, again, as long as the Oilers are the team they’ve been since Nov. 24 — Edmonton can contend for the Stanley Cup.

If Skinner is a liability, the other options are Calvin Pickard or taking a shovel to unbury Jack Campbell from the AHL — which is to say the only option at the moment is Skinner.


Projected points: 94.5
Playoff probability: 71.8%
Stanley Cup win probability: 1.7%

Their hopes get higher if: The Devils either get Dougie Hamilton back in their lineup or use his cap space to find suitable replacements. The Devils got 20 games out of Hamilton before he was lost to a torn pectoral muscle, taking his ability to break pucks out and calm things down defensively with him. If they can get him back within the season, that’s great: He’s one of the three most important players on the roster and will immediately make the Devils a better team.

But if the prognosis is that Hamilton won’t be back until the playoffs, then GM Tom Fitzgerald has to pull a “Kucherov” and use that $9 million in salary cap space to bolster the blue line — perhaps with what Calgary might have available, for example.

Their hopes get lower if: The Devils can’t recapture their swagger. Things go pretty well for New Jersey when it scores the game’s first goal, having lost only twice in regulation when doing so. The problem is that the Devils have scored the first goal in only 10 of their 35 games and have a .480 points percentage when they trail first.

The vibe has been off all year for the Devils. Some of it is injuries; a lot of it is sloppy defense in front of porous goaltending. But it might also be the weight of expectations after last season’s breakout, when their speed and attention to detail allowed them to dictate play to opponents. That team hasn’t appeared in many games in the encore season. And that has to change, quickly.


Projected points: 103.1
Playoff probability: 97.6%
Stanley Cup win probability: 6.3%

Their hopes get higher if: Their team defense improves at 5-on-5. For all the talk about Toronto’s goaltending adventures this season — Ilya Samsonov demoted, Martin Jones once again giving his traditional two solid months of play — the Leafs are actually giving up fewer goals than their analytics would indicate they should. Toronto’s expected goals against this season at 5-on-5 is 2.66 per 60 minutes, which is 22nd in the NHL and right ahead of moribund Ottawa. This is up from their defensive play last season (2.51).

We’ve seen plenty of teams overcome specious goaltending with a combination of combustible offense and solid defense. There’s no reason the Leafs can’t add their names to that ledger.

Their hopes get lower if: The Lightning or Red Wings close the gap on them. The Leafs would be content to finish in the second or third slot in the Atlantic Division. To avoid the Boston Bruins in the first round, given that history, and to avoid having to slug it out for a wild-card spot with the Metro Division runners-up. There is a reality in the hockey multiverse in which the Leafs do not qualify for the playoffs this season. Fumbling away a divisional playoff seed would be the first bumbling step.

Tier 4: On the bubble

Projected points: 85.4
Playoff probability: 6.3%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.0%

Their hopes get higher if: Their road record matched their Mullett Magic. Since moving to the Arizona State campus last season, the Coyotes have a home record of 37-21-5, including 12-6-0 this season. But away from Mullett Arena, they’re a pedestrian 7-9-2.

Their goals scored and goals against basically reverse numbers at home and away. They’ll need to be better away from the desert to make the playoff cut.

Their hopes get lower if: They lose either Clayton Keller or Matias Maccelli to injury. These two forwards have powered the Coyotes offensively this season. Maccelli anchors one scoring line and has 21 even-strength points. Keller is the team’s most dynamic power-play performer with 16 points on the man advantage this season. The Coyotes don’t have the depth to withstand many manpower losses, but losing either of these two would be devastating.


Projected points: 79
Playoff probability: 2.5%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.0%

Their hopes get higher if: They follow Money Puck instead of Stathletes. At least MP gives the Red Wings a 13.1% chance of making the playoffs and a slightly sunnier 82.5 projected points total. But in either case, the numbers are pointing toward another season outside of the playoffs for the Red Wings despite a very promising early stretch of the season.

Losing nine of 11 games before the New Year was certainly a factor, and one that Patrick Kane probably wasn’t considering when he chose Detroit as his free-agent destination.

Their hopes get lower if: They can’t find someone to make a save. The Red Wings lost Ville Husso to a lower-body injury. They’ve watched James Reimer regress to the mean. They turned to Michael Hutchinson for an emergency start. Alex Lyon, whom they signed from the Panthers, has kept things afloat for the Red Wings in 10 starts this season. The Wings are 26th in goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.


Projected points: 92.6
Playoff probability: 36.3%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.4%

Their hopes get higher if: The offense cranks it up a notch again. Coach Andrew Brunette arrived in Nashville with the promise of bringing fast and effective offense to the Predators. Fast, they’ve been. Effective? Not always.

The Predators hit their stride one month into the season, scoring four goals or more in six of nine games. In the past month, they’ve done that only four times in 15 games without the benefit of a shootout. It’s not like their offense has dried up — the Predators have scored fewer than two goals in a game only three times in 38 contests this season — but it hasn’t rolled like it did early on.

Their hopes get lower if: Their special teams can’t improve. The Predators are middle of the pack on the power play and 25th overall on the penalty kill (77.4%). They have scored five shorthanded goals, but they’ve given up 28 power-play goals to opponents. Is it a personnel issue? An execution issue? Whatever the case, the PK in particular has hurt the Predators this season.


Projected points: 88.9
Playoff probability: 30.0%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.2%

Their hopes get higher if: They stop leaving points on the table. Look, there’s one way to look at the Islanders’ 10 overtime losses this season, three of which came in the shootout: They’re earning points rather than taking regulation losses. But that 4-10 record also means they’re not winning games in the 3-on-3 or the shootout, where one would assume their goaltending would give them an advantage.

Their hopes get lower if: They can’t help Ilya Sorokin out. There’s only one team that gives up more shots on 5-on-5 on average than the Islanders (33.43), and that team is the San Jose Sharks (33.72). When you’re nearly giving up as many shots on goal as a team built to maximize its draft lottery odds, that’s a tough look. The Islanders are also giving up the third-most scoring chances against per 60 minutes (32.41) behind the Sharks and the Blackhawks. Again, not ideal.


Projected points: 93.1
Playoff probability: 61.6%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.7%

Their hopes get higher if: The bandwagon doesn’t topple over as it hits the bump. As the projections show, the Flyers remain in pretty good shape. They were in a playoff spot on Jan. 1; under the current playoff format, teams in that position advanced to the postseason about 80% of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, 13 of the 16 eventual playoff teams were in a spot entering Jan. 1.

But Philly is facing its first major bit of adversity: Losing five of six games, although two of those losses were after regulation. They averaged over four goals against per game in those losses. Steer into the skid and hopefully make it through this rough patch.

Their hopes get lower if: A young team starts playing like a young team. Coach John Tortorella has done a masterful job getting maximum effort from the Flyers. It’s the reason he was second in the NHL Awards Watch Jack Adams balloting to Rick Tocchet of Vancouver. But GM Danny Briere has called this a “young team,” and team president Keith Jones has made it clear the Flyers are on a journey to become “a consistent playoff team that eventually is going to be contending for Stanley Cups.”

Maybe the Flyers are a playoff team now. Maybe they need to get there. As always in Philadelphia: Trust the process.


Projected points: 96.9
Playoff probability: 83.0%
Stanley Cup win probability: 4.5%

Their hopes get higher if: The Stathlete projections are on point, which give the Penguins an 83% probability of making the playoffs. There are only five teams in the East with higher probabilities and only two of them are in the Metro: the Rangers and Hurricanes.

Money Puck is a little more skeptical of the Penguins, putting that probability at 41%. But Dom Luszczyszyn’s model at The Athletic has them at 76%. Clearly, there’s something about the Penguins these models like.

Their hopes get lower if: The power play can’t become legendary. It’s borderline criminal for the Penguins to have that assemblage of talent on their power play — Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson and Sidney Crosby lead them in power-play ice time — and be so middling in execution. Pittsburgh clicks at 21.7% on the power play, which is one reason its overall offense is just 22nd in the NHL (3.00 goals per game).

Pittsburgh has been better than expected defensively at 5-on-5 but underwhelming offensively. A dangerous power play could help paper over that.


Projected points: 93.4
Playoff probability: 36.4%
Stanley Cup win probability: 1.3%

Their hopes get higher if: They convert games in overtime. Like the Islanders, the Kraken have left points on the table in the extra sessions. Just over 34% of their games have gone to overtime or a shootout this season, where they have three wins and nine losses, including a 1-4 record in the shootout. Flip that record around, and suddenly Seattle is in a division playoff seed rather than the wild-card race.

Their hopes get lower if: They manage to wrap their tentacles around some shooting luck. The Kraken were bound to regress from last season’s shooting success, but they’re currently just 29th in the NHL in 5-on-5 shooting percentage through 38 games after leading the league in that category last season. They’re 25th in 5-on-5 goals this season (69).

As winger Jordan Eberle said recently, climbing back to last season’s heights probably isn’t possible but “a middle ground is probably sustainable.” If the Kraken can get there, a second trip to the playoffs isn’t out of the question.


Projected points: 89.9
Playoff probability: 38.7%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.4%

Their hopes get higher if: Andrei Vasilevskiy carries them to a playoff spot. It’s one of the most inexplicable stories of the 2023-24 season: The Lightning earned a better points percentage in the 20 games Vasilevskiy missed (.575) than in the 19 games in which he has been available (.474).

He hasn’t been himself since returning from lumbar disk herniation surgery. It’s the consistency that’s missing: Vasilevskiy has held opponents under three goals in consecutive games only once since his return Nov. 24.

Their hopes get lower if: They remain reliant on five players to score. Nikita Kucherov (63 points) is a Hart Trophy contender. Brayden Point (40), Steven Stamkos (38), Victor Hedman (38) and Brandon Hagel (30) have been fantastic. But questions about the scoring depth have swirled around this team since GM Julien BriseBois floated the notion that roster quality was part of the math on Steven Stamkos’ next contract.

Despite all that heavy lifting from its stars, Tampa Bay is still just 14th in goals per game (3.23).


Projected points: 84.3
Playoff probability: 11.8%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.1%

Their hopes get higher if: Alex Ovechkin continues to heat up. The Gretzky chase is back on, baby! After his slowest goal-scoring start to a season, Ovechkin finally began finding the back of the net in recent games.

That the Capitals are where they are in the standings is remarkable given Ovechkin’s lack of goals and how that has led to a lack of power-play success. For years, it has been “as Ovi goes, so go the Capitals.” So if he’s going, one assumes Washington will keep going, too.

Their hopes get lower if: Their luck turns in one-goal games. The Capitals were second in the NHL in one-goal wins heading into Wednesday night, with a startling 11-1-6 record. That included six wins after regulation, including three shootouts.

Tier 5: In deep trouble

Projected points: 81.6
Playoff probability: 4.7%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.1%

Their hopes get higher if: The Sabres can find some semblance of defensive competence. Buffalo has a minus-21 goal differential through 38 games, a humbling total for a team that had legitimate playoff aspirations. They’re 25th in the league in goals against per game (3.45), a number inflated by permeable goaltending (30th in the NHL).

Their hopes get lower if: They can’t string together more than one win in a row. Which, at last check, isn’t by definition even a string at all. It’s actually incredible: Buffalo has one two-game winning streak this season, from Oct. 29-Nov. 1. The Sabres have had a few stretches without consecutive regulation losses, but never two wins in a row. It’s hard to climb the ladder if you’re always slipping off the next rung.


Projected points: 91.7
Playoff probability: 25.9%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.8%

Their hopes get higher if: They win a shootout. Through Wednesday, the Flames were the only team to have four shootout losses (and no shootout victories).

Their hopes get lower if: The Flames’ offense continues to sputter. There are 10 teams in the NHL with a goals-per-game average of under 3.00. Calgary is one of them, at 2.97. The Flames’ expected goals rate at 5-on-5 (2.61) is higher than their actual output (2.39), which is a byproduct of their shooting percentage (27th in the NHL at 5-on-5). They’re one of five teams not to have a 30-point scorer yet this season.


Projected points: 86.4
Playoff probability: 7.8%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.1%

Their hopes get higher if: They can somehow weather their injury storm. Kirill Kaprizov is week to week after taking cross-checks to the back from Brenden Dillon. Goaltender Filip Gustavsson is also week to week. Defenseman and captain Jared Spurgeon was placed on injured reserve this week. Also out for the Wild: defenseman Jonas Brodin and forwards Marcus Foligno and Mats Zuccarello

Their hopes get lower if: There’s no room at the inn in the West. The Wild are more than 10 points back of the top three in the Central Division. They’re seven points in back of the Predators for the first wild card. The Oilers have found their stride, and the Kraken are improving. Coach John Hynes has helped lead the Wild back to relevance, but time is running short.


Projected points: 81.4
Playoff probability: 1.6%
Stanley Cup win probability: 0.0%

Their hopes get higher if: The power play somehow improves. That’s asking a lot, given that it’s clicking at just 11.3%, the second-lowest conversion rate in the league. One reason: Jordan Kyrou, who had 11 power-play goals last season, doesn’t have one this season. But then he has only nine goals in 36 games overall, having scored four of those since coach Craig Berube was fired.

Their hopes get lower if: Neither Jordan Binnington nor Joel Hofer can give the Blues a few weeks of outstanding goaltending to get them back in the hunt. As you can see, the odds are long that St. Louis can challenge for a playoff spot. To do so becomes an impossibility without one or both of these goalies stacking wins as soon as possible.

Tier 6: Wait until next year?

According to Stathletes, the Canadiens and Senators both have a 0.2% chance of making the Stanley Cup playoffs. Money Puck is a little sunnier, with the Canadiens at 5.8% and the Senators at 3%.

Ottawa still has that smidge of hope with so many games in hand on the teams it is chasing. But with a .424 points percentage, handing them games in hand is like handing gourmet ingredients to someone who can’t even boil water.

The Canadiens can still see a playoff seed in the distance — while Stathletes doesn’t give them a shot, they entered Thursday with a higher points percentage (.500) than Buffalo. But even with the occasional tease of contention, Montreal feels about a year away.

The Senators, on the other hand, felt like they could take a leap this season … until they didn’t. Their disappointing results on the ice and total upheaval off the ice — with GM Pierre Dorion and coach D.J Smith both dismissed — points to this season being yet another mulligan for the franchise.

Ah, what could have been: No team in the NHL has won fewer one-goal games than the Senators, who are 3-7-0 in them. A few of those bounce the other way, and maybe they add a few points to the record.

Tier 7: Please maximize your Macklin Celebrini chances

Three of these teams have achieved exactly what they hoped to this season: The Ducks, Blackhawks and Sharks all have less than a 1% chance of making the postseason, maximizing their lottery odds for a draft that features Boston University forward Macklin Celebrini as the top prospect. To the future!

The Blue Jackets didn’t want to be here. Back in September, they had a new coach in Mike Babcock, a healthy Patrik Laine and what they hoped would be a chance to challenge for a playoff spot. Now, they have none of that … but they do have their own first-round pick. Again, to the future!

That’s the thing about hope. Teams can find it again. With a lottery win. With a strong offseason. Or, for many of the teams listed above, with strong close to the regular season that turns a long shot into playoff team.

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