NHL Player Tiers: Why Connor McDavid leads our Top 100 rankings for 2022-23

It’s the third annual NHL Player Tiers, where we place the top 100 skaters into four groups: the MVPs, the franchise players, the All-Stars, and the bonafide top-liners. The goal is simple: blend analytics and scouting to figure out where the league’s best stand going into the 2022-23 season.

This is more than one person’s ranking, it’s more than the results of a model, and it’s more than the collected perspective of various people inside the game. We want this to be the most complete list of hockey’s best that you can find, one that started based on numbers, then morphed into what it is today after hours of discussions internally and externally.

Each player’s projected GSVA for next season served as the starting point for Sean Gentille, Shayna Goldman, Dom Luszczyszyn and Corey Pronman to start moving names up or down to their best-suited position. Hours were spent debating each player’s individual value, context and trajectory before a preliminary list was sent off to front offices around the league. From that feedback, we shifted players again combining quantifiable data with qualitative opinions.

What makes this game so interesting is everyone sees it differently. There is no absolute standard for player value. No model or eye test is beyond questioning. Different strokes for different folks — and combining all those things into one amalgamated list is the point. The debate doesn’t end there; each sub-tier features our own thoughts, opinions and concerns surrounding each player’s position. Below you’ll find the results of our exercise tier-by-tier. A full list can be found at the bottom of the article.

Before we get to our tier-by-tier look at how each player fell where he did, let’s get a few bits out of the way. Game Score Value Added, or GSVA, listed as the first stat in the charts, is the resulting metric of Dom’s model, a one-stat-fits-all valuation of a player. The other stats are projected stats for the 2022-23 season — goals, assists, points, individual expected goals, penalty differential and five-on-five (offensive and defensive) impact, plus an adjustment for the difficulty of each player’s minutes.

As for the groupings themselves: Tier 1 is the MVP-caliber best-of-the-best. Tier 2 is franchise players Stanley Cup contenders are built around. Tier 3 is made up of All-Star difference-makers. Tier 4 are bonafide top-pair and top-line guys.

Each tier is divided into three sub-tiers. The gap between lettered groups is smaller than the ones between numbered groups. In other words, the difference between players in 1B and 1C is less significant than 1C and 2A.


Tier 1: MVP

Tier 1A

The Big Debate: Who is the best player in the world?

Last year’s Big Debate in Tier 1A was whether Connor McDavid had done enough with his special 2021 season to truly separate himself from the rest of the world. This year, there were still scouts who wanted us to lower the non-McDavid players so he could be in his own tier.

The 2021-22 season was a rollercoaster with regard to that discussion.

Auston Matthews scored 60 goals in 73 games — the highest goals-per-game rate since Mario Lemieux had 69 in 70 games back in 1995-96 — while also adding a Selke-caliber two-way game to the mix. His five-on-five numbers were nearly as gaudy as his goal totals en route to his first Hart Trophy and a legitimate claim to being the best player in the world. He is the league’s most complete player and played at a seven-win rate last season according to GSVA. That’s the highest mark in the analytics era.

Cale Makar did it all from the back end, a transcendent force that dominated every zone. He scored 28 goals and 86 points in 77 games while providing elite defense, winning his first Norris Trophy in the process. His 5.8-win pace was by far the highest in the analytics era for a defender. If that wasn’t enough, Makar’s playoff performance was even better where he scored 29 points in 20 games en route to a Conn Smythe Trophy. It was the highest playoff points-per-game rate for a defenseman since Bryan Leetch in 1994.

McDavid had another extraordinary regular season, but what Matthews and Makar did was special enough to make each player worthy of consideration as the league’s top dog. In Matthews’ case, he could’ve overtaken McDavid, just as Alex Ovechkin did at times with Sidney Crosby.

Then, McDavid’s show-stopping playoffs left no doubt. The top dog is Connor. It’s always Connor.

McDavid’s playoffs were exhilarating night in and night out, arguably the best hockey we’ve seen in decades. He looked downright unstoppable until meeting the league’s best team, when even his dominance wasn’t enough. Still, his ability to drag an otherwise ordinary club to that point was otherworldly — the stuff of legends.

It was his “Watch the Throne” moment, his Michael Jordan “I’m going to prove I’m better” performance. He heard the debates and he shut them down when the games mattered most.

Tier 1A is special, with an extremely high caliber of hockey between the trio. When was the last time the NHL had three players this good playing at the same time? So good, in fact, that we had to create a third sub-group in Tier 1 to properly show the separation these three have over the rest of the league.

It’s the most dynamic player the hockey world has ever seen. It’s a goal-scoring machine with an elite defensive game. It’s a defenseman who can single-handedly take over games with or without the puck on his stick. There’s no one like them; three unicorns.


Tier 1B

The Big Debate: Would you take Leon Draisaitl or Nathan MacKinnon? 

The apology card for Nathan MacKinnon is in the mail. He dropped out of Tier 1A — where he lived last year, alongside McDavid and Matthews — despite an 88-point regular season. Given how things worked out for him in June, our guess is that he won’t mind. There’s no gigantic trophy awarded to 1A players … yet. Still, his “drop” says something about the standard we’re working with here. An injury-dotted season from one guy, combined with sustained transcendence from a few others, is enough to create separation. The margin is that slim.

The net result? Our exercise has MacKinnon still as one of the five top forwards in the league, albeit the second-best player on his own team.

“(MacKinnon) is older than (McDavid and Draisaitl),” one source said. “No one, even Colorado fans, disputes Makar is better than MacKinnon. Could they be in the same tier still? Potentially, but I think when you’re looking at the top of the league, they’re on the right side of the aging curves. MacKinnon isn’t old, but he’s older than everyone else. He wasn’t bad this year, it just wasn’t him in the MVP race.”

On the other end is Draisaitl, who held his 1B status in part on the strength of a 55-goal regular season and a one-legged playoff run that, for better or worse, added to his overall cache. When you score 32 points in 16 postseason games in the face of obvious pain and physical limitation, you’ve earned the benefit of the doubt — and some lofty comparables.

“I think Draisaitl is our era’s Jaromir Jagr,” said one scout who argued to put him higher.

All told, the parallels between our two subjects are obvious. Ultra-elite as their skill sets are, and through no fault of their own, they’re riding shotgun on their own rosters. Choosing between them is ultimately a matter of preference. If you want borderline maniacal, alpha-dog leadership from your 1C (and a skating stride that might leave cracks in arena floors), look to Denver. If you’d rather have one of the most dangerous power-play weapons of his generation and pure goal-scoring greatness, go with Edmonton. Both players are productive. Both are complete. The tip-top of their skill sets is what makes the choice fun — and what makes it difficult.

Thankfully — and appropriately — we didn’t have to make it. MacKinnon and Draisaitl are neighbors on our chart for a reason.

Hedman no longer the best defender in the world 

There probably isn’t a better example of how this process works — or should work, at least — than Victor Hedman. Last fall, he shared a tier with Makar despite coming off a (by his standard) subpar regular season. Our reasoning — and that of the folks we spoke to — was simple enough. He was dealing with an injury ahead of playoffs, then made his now-customary jump to superhuman status once the games counted for more. Hedman earned the benefit of the doubt, even when the numbers didn’t quite support him. His track record is too long, and his impact is too enormous, to make it any other way. He does everything, and he does it well.

Lo and behold, he bounced back. Good as the results were, though, and sterling as his reputation remains, he’s behind Makar. That’s through no fault of his own. It’s a testament to how remarkable Makar was last season and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. In 2021, Hedman gave us every reason in the world to keep them together. In 2022, Makar has given us ample reason to split them up. Hedman’s trump card — the ability to go from great to greater in the postseason — isn’t playable anymore because of what we witnessed from Makar. He’s leading the race for second place, though, with a trophy case that probably has some remaining space.


Tier 1C

The Big Debate: What is Roman Josi’s value?

If you were dreading a relitigation of the Norris Trophy race, have no fear. Makar beat Josi in that space, just as he beat him here. In our case, the choice was simpler. Josi’s production for the Predators last season, remarkable as it was, can’t compete with Makar’s overall game or stratospheric potential.

Our more important task was figuring out where Josi placed within the next wave of defensemen. “Alone,” as it turns out. There was a decent amount of movement within the Josi-Adam Fox-Charlie McAvoy class throughout the process, and it didn’t stop until the end.

Does Josi land by himself if his 2021-22 point total doesn’t quite reach Paul Coffey territory? Maybe not — but it did. There’s no arguing 96 points from a defenseman. Factor in how Josi got them — by serving as, effectively, the point man for Nashville’s five-on-five offense whenever he was on the ice — and the number gets even more substantive. The things that gave Makar the edge in the Norris race, like defensive impacts, quality of competition and penalty-kill time, don’t loom quite as large when the competition dips a tick or two.

Beyond that, Josi’s strengths remain his strengths. Even now, because of how heavily Nashville relies on him in transition and how desperately the Preds needed those points on their run to the postseason, his game profiles a little more as “MVP candidate” than Norris winner. That value is worth rewarding here, especially after Josi’s play dipped in 2021. He bounced back in a historic way at 32. In plenty of other seasons, that would’ve been enough to get him a second Norris.

As for Fox and McAvoy? They stay put in Tier 2A. McAvoy, after having the stronger 2021-22 of the two, came closer to making the jump — and there’s plenty of reason, at just 24, to believe that it’ll happen for him soon. His underlying numbers are fantastic, and his usage is in line with what we typically see from Norris candidates, but the five-on-five production isn’t quite there yet. The sense is that he has a true monster season ahead of him. It just hasn’t happened yet.

In Fox’s case, that season came in 2020-21. Last season represented a bit of a dip, but it’d also be unfair to actually punish him, especially since he and McAvoy are the same age. Both are likely to improve — and even if that doesn’t come to pass, they’re outstanding as is. They just did a little less for their teams than Josi — and that could change.

Crosby, Barkov and the importance of an elite center 

Success in hockey starts up the middle. It’s why it should be no surprise that Tier 1 is full of centers, making up six of the seven forwards listed. It’s by far the most important position in the sport, and it’s how most Cup contenders are built.

The Penguins have been contenders for 15 years, and it’s mainly because of Sidney Crosby, an all-time great who has lived in this tier for his entire career. Even at 35, he makes the cut as he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Last year he scored at a 100-point pace while continuing to maintain his elite five-on-five influence. He remains a game-changer and showed that in the playoffs with one of his finest postseason performances in years. He’s still got the juice.

“The thing I think sets him apart from other players is he’s the superstar grinder,” an NHL team executive said. “He’s not just flying through the neutral zone with the puck. He’s doing that and he’s in the corners, he’s in front of the net, and he’s outworking the opponent. He’s quintessential to what every hockey person wants out of their players.”

Aleksander Barkov is the newest addition to Tier 1, a title he nearly deserved after his Selke-winning performance in 2021. We wanted to see him do it again — and he did with a 4.6-win pace that matched his dominance from the previous season. He’s Florida’s MVP and one of the very best two-way forwards in the game. He’s a monster on and off the puck.

Kucherov, all alone

If you’re going to have only one winger in the MVP tier, it may as well be a winger who had 93 points over the last three postseasons. Kucherov is a truly dynamic player with the puck on his stick, displaying special puck skills and vision. He’s a very competitive forward as well who has consistently shown he can elevate his play in the highest leveraged environments, with a better career points per game in the playoffs than in the regular season. His playoff resume is a huge reason for his inclusion in Tier 1.

Wingers don’t usually get this type of slotting because they’re not usually the play drivers on their line, either due to a lack of elite speed or size. It’s a job reserved for the center and it takes a special breed of talent to play at such a high level and command such value from the perimeter. Kucherov is that player, an exception to the rule with how much offense he generates for Tampa Bay.

“If Kucherov was on a big market team and healthy, he would be in the 1A conversation,” said one NHL scout.

Tier 1

Player

  

Tier

  

Team

  

Pos

  

GSVA

  

TOI

  

G

  

A

  

PTS

  

OFF

  

DEF

  

USG

  

1A

TOR

C

6.17

20.7

58

44.3

102.3

17.2

12.3

1.1

1A

EDM

C

6.07

22.2

43.8

83.1

126.9

14.3

1.4

1.7

1A

COL

D

5

25.8

22.6

61.3

84

13.1

14.3

-0.6

1B

COL

C

4.69

21.5

38.5

68.1

106.6

11

3.5

0.1

1B

EDM

C/LW

4.02

22.3

48.6

63.1

111.7

6.4

-5.6

1.3

1B

T.B

D

3.81

26.4

16.6

58.3

75

7.9

7.7

1.4

1C

T.B

RW

4.01

20.1

40

70.1

110.1

11.1

-6.6

0.9

1C

FLA

C

3.75

20.3

37.4

53.1

90.5

7.9

2.1

0.2

1C

PIT

C

3.46

20.3

33.7

58.7

92.4

6.1

0.3

0.6

1C

NSH

D

3.6

25.6

18.1

55.3

73.4

5.9

5

1.9


Tier 2: Franchise Player

Tier 2A

The Big Debate: Is Marner an MVP-caliber winger? 

For two straight seasons, Mitch Marner has been a first-team all-star, voted as the league’s top right winger. What’s a guy gotta do to make it to Tier 1?

This exercise started with Marner in Tier 1C, right next to Kucherov — but the more we looked at it, the more it seemed like he fit with the next group of wingers. That’s no knock on Marner. It’s just really hard to make it to Tier 1 as a winger.

“I think 2A is a better place for him. Those other players, you would find somebody who would say that they’re the best player in the game or the second-best player in the game. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone who says that about Marner,” an NHL analyst said.

It’s hard to create an MVP-caliber influence off the wing. Kucherov is the only winger who made the cut, mostly due to his incredible ability to elevate his game come playoff time. He’s been a playoff beast in a way Marner obviously has not. Marner had the edge during the last regular season due to his dominance at five-on-five, but playoff excellence matters. There’s a world of difference there at the moment between the two for the title of best winger in hockey.

There’s also “The Matthews Effect.” Marner is elite in his own right, a massive presence on Toronto’s top line that has helped Matthews achieve stratospheric heights. But that relationship likely overstates Marner’s own value. In Tampa, Kucherov is the clear driver. In Toronto, Marner is second-in-command.

It’s hard to ignore what Marner has done over the last two seasons. Not just offensively, but defensively as well. There aren’t many 100-plus point wingers who kill penalties as effectively. But Tier 1 is a high bar. Marner is on the cusp, but he’s probably closer to the next two wingers on the list than Kucherov and his extensive playoff resume.

“I was willing to move him down with Gaudreau and Kaprizov — the seasons they just had, I don’t know if he’s a full row ahead of that,” an analyst said.

Kaprizov, Rantanen and elite play-driving wingers

Centers reign supreme and there’s always love for the big-minute all-around defender. When it comes to building a contender, those two positions are the foundational tenets of success and wings are less of a priority. That’s evident from the players that made the cut in Tier 1.

But there are exceptions to the rule: wingers who can drive a line. Like Marner, Kirill Kaprizov and Mikko Rantanen fit that bill.

Kaprizov entered the league with a bang, arriving in Tier 3A after one year. After another electrifying season with the Wild where he produced even more (108 points), he’s now a bonafide franchise player on the cusp of MVP-caliber. We had scouts arguing he should be in the MVP tier, with one saying he doesn’t believe the Wild are a playoff team without Kaprizov. He was at that level last season. He just needs to prove it again.

He’s the unquestioned driver of his line, turning Ryan Hartman into a top-line center and Mats Zuccarello into a point-per-game player. He’s a unique winger, with excellent speed, skill, creativity, scoring ability and competitiveness. That makes it easier to distinguish his individual value compared to Marner and Rantanen — right-hand men to Tier 1 superstars. Their grouping suggests a belief that they would perform similarly within the same context. Rantanen’s five-on-five impact last season was stronger than MacKinnon’s. Put him in Minnesota instead of Kaprizov and the difference is likely negligible.

Two young No. 1s stay put … for now

McAvoy and Fox have quickly emerged as two of the best defensemen in the league over just three NHL seasons. For the second straight season, the pair lands in 2A.

McAvoy has many of the traits of a prototypical shutdown defender. He’s a great skater, he’s physical, he can absorb the toughest minutes for his team and limit quality chances. The knock against him is he doesn’t have the scoring luck of some of his counterparts. Still, he finished the 2021-22 season with the best expected goal rate by a defender with 63 percent, and was impactful in the Bruins’ efforts to turn defensive plays into offense.

Fox, on the other hand, has scoring touch and has already won a Norris Trophy. His elite vision, puck distribution and hockey IQ have helped mitigate some of the drawbacks of his skating. But what’s pushed him to this level is his ability to also suppress offense against while taking on top competition. Had he matched his Norris year, maybe he’d have made the jump up a tier. But it wasn’t quite as good, and his postseason didn’t pop either.

Right now, there’s some separation between them and Josi in Tier 1C, but given their respective ages that could change in the near future.

“McAvoy and Fox don’t deserve it now, but as Tier 1C guys next year, I can see them separating from Josi,” an analyst said.


Tier 2B

The Big Debate: What will Gaudreau and Tkachuk do in new locales?

Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk are both coming off career years on one of the best lines in the league, with Gaudreau finishing top five in Hart Trophy voting. How much the 2021-22 season should have raised their stocks in the tiers was the big debate.

Gaudreau is coming off a 115-point season that landed him third in scoring behind only McDavid and Jonathan Huberdeau. The winger was one of the best in the league at generating offense in transition and was quite possibly the top passer of the season. Gaudreau wasn’t an empty-calorie scorer or leaning on the power play to boost his stats. He was incredibly impactful at five-on-five.

Still, analysts and scouts both questioned where exactly he belongs in these tiers.

“Gaudreau had an amazing season and is a great player, but I don’t think that’s what you can expect from him going forward,” said one NHL executive. “I also don’t know if you can win in the playoffs paying a winger his size nearly $10 million.”

“We’re valuing someone whose primary benefit is offensive ability as if he’s going to produce 90 or 100 points each year, and I’m not sure he’s proven that’s what he is. I don’t believe that at age 29 he suddenly got a lot better,” an analyst added.

The conversation revolving around Tkachuk is a bit different. He’s 24 and in the prime of his career, so this isn’t a debate about whether he can repeat based on age. It’s whether he’s as high caliber as his 2021-22 suggests.

Tkachuk’s breakout season pushed his value up with some of the best in the league. Along with a career-high 104 points that ranked eighth in the league, he was excellent at five-on-five and a positive on the power play. The winger’s skill set — which includes having the hands to make slick plays in the scoring areas while also not shying away from the rugged, physical side of the game — makes him an enticing player to many.

But that’s not the only viewpoint held.

“I think Matthew Tkachuk is overrated,” one analyst said, adding that his presence on a supercharged top line plays tricks on public models, while his gritty edge and pesty antics simultaneously trick the old guard to make him a bigger deal than he is.

Tkachuk will still have high-end help to facilitate his game in Florida, most notably in Barkov. But he won’t have that same support he had in Calgary, which may test where he truly belongs. The same goes for Gaudreau, who will be on a much weaker Blue Jackets team.

“The repeatability of 100-plus points is hard. And I don’t think at their core they’re both 100-point players. You’re probably going to see some regression there,” an analyst added.

Their career seasons helped fuel a bump in the tiers — Tkachuk from 3B and Gaudreau from 4A. But how the wingers measure up to the lofty expectations they set for themselves should be telling.

Splitting up “The Perfection Line”

Patrice Bergeron’s return to Boston means a lot of things and for the Bruins, most of them are good. For other forwards hoping to win a Selke Trophy? We’ve got some bad news. For us, another season of Bergeron means another season of trying to adequately rank the members of “The Perfection Line.”

Last season’s placements might’ve been surprising. David Pastrnak’s goal-scoring ability and Brad Marchand’s pace/playmaking/production — combined with Bergeron’s age — put them a half-step ahead. It wasn’t an easy call, but it felt correct. It was also one of the more contentious calls of the project.

Flash forward a year, and all three are still in the same neighborhood, but the specifics have shifted a bit. Marchand’s season wasn’t his best, and Bergeron turned back the clock. It made sense to treat them as a pair. Pastrnak, another 40-goal season aside, doesn’t move the needle enough elsewhere at the moment — relatively — to hang with Marchand and Bergeron. It’s not meant as a knock, but someone has to benefit (at least a bit) from arrangements like that one. It took Marchand years to earn credit as a year-in, year-out equal partner with Bergeron. Pastrnak, it seems, isn’t there yet … and he might be running out of time.

Let’s just agree to enjoy Bergeron — as an individual player and the leader of one of the era’s best trios — while we can. If not for his age (37), there’d be plenty of reason to have him even higher.

“I mean, I hate to use the ‘he does all the little things’ excuse but he does all the little things right,” one source said. “And just his net impact on the game is as good or better than pretty much anybody in the league save for that top handful of players.”

Breadman takes a dip 

It may seem like an odd choice for Artemi Panarin to be demoted a sub-tier after setting a career-high 96 points. But there’s a reason he’s separated from some of those play-driving wingers of 2A. It’s his five-on-five play.

As much as Panarin was a difference-maker for the Rangers in 2021-22 with his scoring abilities, his impact wasn’t at the levels of years past. A coaching change may have influenced that, while teammate quality also seemed to weigh on his five-on-five game. Before the deadline, in particular, Panarin wasn’t as impactful on the Rangers’ offensive creation, and their play in their own end was rough. It turned around when a more capable right winger (Andrew Copp) was added into the fold until the playoffs when he wasn’t too noticeable, aside from when chipping in with a few key scoring plays.

“There’s maybe a question as to whether he’s 2B or 2C — even 3 — just because at five-on-five at least, it seems like he’s kind of starting to slow down a little bit. The power play there I think maybe masked his decline a little bit and kept his top-line numbers elevated,” one analyst said. “I’m kind of wondering whether he’s sliding down the wrong end of the curve there.”

Heiskanen is rising

The panel universally felt that Miro Heiskanen is and will continue climbing these rankings. There was a real push both by the panel and by NHL sources to move Heiskanen up to 2A, but ultimately we leaned toward 2B because he hasn’t had a huge season like Fox or McAvoy. There’s still some noteworthy separation there — for now, anyway.

“Miro Heiskanen is really good at everything, except getting power-play time,” said one analyst poignantly.

“I think Miro Heiskanen, at the end of the upcoming season, he’ll be challenging for that 1C tier spot,” said another.

Heiskanen is a great skater who can make a ton of defensive stops. He has good offensive skills and IQ, but the debate around whether he’s at the high-end parts of the league yet revolves around his offense. To date, the PP1 job in Dallas reasonably belonged to John Klingberg who has since departed for Anaheim. This season will be Heiskanen’s big opportunity to prove he can do it all.


Tier 2C

The Big Debate: Are we being unfair to Brayden Point?

Point hasn’t been a top scorer for two seasons and the Lightning still managed to make a run to the Cup Final without him. It felt reasonable to drop his standing slightly given that context. Still elite, but on the lower end of the franchise player tier.

The NHL was having none of it. Most of the NHL scouts polled thought 2C was too low, with some saying we were “overthinking it” based on Point’s 2021-22 season, pointing to previous years and playoff runs. One analyst agreed, saying Point was “an aggressive drop to 2C.”

Point is still a great player with a ton of speed and skill who works very hard night in and night out. The numbers may not have been there last season, but he’s still a player worthy of high regard. We’ll ignore that 70 players had a higher points-per-game rate than him last season and instead defer to the great things he’s done in recent seasons, especially in the playoffs, to still consider him a franchise player.

Slavin vs. Ekblad: Defense vs. Offense 

Franchise defenders are hard to find and hard to agree on. After the top six, there was a bit more uncertainty — but Jaccob Slavin and Aaron Ekblad fit the bill best. They’re elite defenders who may not be as all-around awesome as those ahead, but are close enough to warrant separation from the next group. Slavin is one of the best defensive defensemen in hockey with an underrated offensive game. Ekblad is the exact opposite, though some would argue less so.

“I think Slavin is better on defense than Ekblad is on offense — and Slavin’s offense is as good as Ekblad’s defense,” an analyst said.

“If I were building a team, Slavin’s a guy I’d be pretty interested in having. I know Ekblad is more productive and does drive a lot of play, but man Slavin’s good,” an analyst said.

Still, it felt like a worthy comparison with regard to who belongs here and Slavin’s inclusion as a franchise player shows how the focus here isn’t only on offense. These two feel like decent mirrors and over the last three years, their relative impact on expected goals is nearly identical at plus-0.15 per 60.

Sebastian Aho, forgotten star, and Carolina’s lack of oomph-per-60 

While most Cup contenders are anchored by a Tier 1 superstar, the Hurricanes are an exception to the rule with their top guys being Slavin and Sebastian Aho — both in Tier 2C. The question is whether that’s enough oomph to win the Cup.

We talked about Slavin already and Aho seems to fit a similar mold. He’s held in extremely high regard league-wide, but he doesn’t quite have that “It” factor. Aho has been a strong two-way center for a few years now and has four straight seasons right around a point per game — but nothing more than that. It’s enough to be considered a franchise player and one of the league’s 10 best centers, but not on the high end of that scale. He’s extremely consistent, but his numbers don’t quite leap off the page.

“Aho might be the most forgettable star in the league. The Canes play a system and style that suppresses offense,” said one analyst.

It’s fair to wonder what Aho could manage offensively on a different team and it’s why some scouts wanted to push him lower. Still, his two-way game deserves more recognition than it gets and had some analysts lobbying to place him higher. A deep Carolina run and a big season where Aho eclipses 90 points would go a long way toward increasing his standing.

Tier 2

Player

  

Tier

  

Team

  

Pos

  

GSVA

  

TOI

  

G

  

A

  

PTS

  

OFF

  

DEF

  

USG

  

2A

COL

RW

4.61

21.1

40.7

57.1

97.8

12.8

8.5

-0.8

2A

TOR

RW

4.51

20.9

30.6

66.1

96.7

14.2

7.4

0.1

2A

MIN

LW

4.21

19.8

44

51.4

95.4

5.5

5.8

0.9

2A

BOS

D

4.11

24.6

10.6

43.3

53.9

13.1

20

2.3

2A

NYR

D

3.48

25.2

11.1

59.1

70.2

4

6.5

3.9

2B

FLA

LW/RW

4.55

19.1

34.3

51.9

86.3

14.6

9.2

0.5

2B

BOS

LW

4.55

19.2

35.7

57.7

93.5

11

11.1

0.9

2B

CBJ

LW

4.4

19.5

32.3

58.7

91

13.4

8.4

0.3

2B

BOS

C

3.99

18.2

30.6

38.5

69.1

10.4

14.1

0.7

2B

NYR

LW

3.35

19.3

28.3

69.1

97.4

4.3

0.5

1.6

2B

DAL

D

2.97

26.1

11.6

37

48.5

0.9

16.9

2.9

2C

BOS

RW

4.32

18.6

42.8

46.2

89

8.2

8.7

0.4

2C

CAR

C

3.29

19

36.1

43.6

79.7

7.3

0.5

0.3

2C

T.B

C

2.85

20.2

36

43.6

79.6

7.5

-2.2

0.4

2C

FLA

D

3.48

26.2

18.2

44.7

62.9

12.5

9

-0.5

2C

CAR

D

2.69

23.6

6.4

30.4

36.9

13.9

11.6

-0.5


Tier 3: All-Star Player

Tier 3A

The Big Debate: Is Jack Hughes a franchise player? 

When we started this exercise, the panel agreed that Jack Hughes belonged in Tier 2. The 2019 No. 1 pick had arrived in 2021-22 scoring 56 points in 49 games, looking like a true driver at even strength. An emerging superstar.

The process was already there for Hughes in 2020-21 as one of the league’s best players with the puck, but the results weren’t. It’s why everyone picked him as their breakout candidate for the 2021-22 season — he looked like someone whose production was ready to explode. And he delivered.

The question was whether 49 games of elite play was enough, or if we were getting ahead of ourselves. We initially felt what he showed when he was healthy, combined with his elite skating and playmaking ability, put him among the very best centers in the league.

The NHL disagreed. Almost every source we talked to in the league said Hughes wasn’t there. Yet.

“He has the potential to be that type of player, and may be that good very soon, but I think it’s aggressive putting him there this early,” said one NHL scout.

“He’s going to be a phenomenal hockey player that will be in that higher bucket. Is today the right spot for that? He’s going to be in that group, no question. Just is it too soon?” said one analyst.

After further deliberation and incorporating input from the league, we conceded. Look, we’re all huge fans of Hughes and wouldn’t be shocked if he rocketed up to Tier 1 status by the end of next year. But 49 games isn’t much, and it’s a number that’s out of line with how we’d previously approached young players. Hughes also had a slower start to his NHL career than expected, and the full body of work is certainly not elite even when adjusted for age.

With most of the panel and NHL sources believing Hughes will be in Tier 2 or higher shortly, it was a worthy debate. But we need more — he’s just not there yet.

Devon Toews finds his level 

Toews is a player who has steadily risen up our skater tiers year over year. He’s coming off a huge season, where he recorded 13 goals and 57 points and played a ton of minutes for the Stanley Cup champion Avalanche.

The debate isn’t whether Toews is an excellent NHL defenseman. The debate centered around whether he was a true franchise player. Our initial inclination was yes, but we decided against it for at least one more year. Toews is well-rounded, a very skilled offensive player who can make a lot of defensive stops. However, he is also stapled to a 1A defenseman in Makar and plays a lot with a high-powered top line. That created some skepticism among NHL personnel.

“Toews is a good player, but I don’t see that level of defenseman. You take him away from Cale Makar and I don’t think he’s close to the type of production,” said one scout.  “He’s just a really nice complementary player.”

“It reminds me a lot of when Chara was playing behind the Bergeron line, where they did whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted to where it’s hard to evaluate Chara’s partner,” said an analyst.

Unless the Avs change Toews’ usage this season, that issue isn’t going away anytime soon, but a repeat performance would help move him up.

Huberdeau gets his chance as a frontman

After a career year where he scored 115 points and earned some Hart Trophy buzz, Jonathan Huberdeau stays in the exact same spot as last year: Tier 3A. He’s undoubtedly an All-Star player as one of the league’s most prolific playmakers, but not quite a franchise player for reasons that have been discussed ad nauseam. He can pass the puck better than almost anyone else, but his defense is lacking and he plays a sheltered role.

“I think that he’s a really good player. He’s always found a way to be productive,” an analyst said. “He’s not really a pure driver, though. I didn’t make a note on him. I didn’t mind the placement there. I’m not sure there’s that dimensionality maybe in some of the guys listed above.”

This upcoming season will be a huge test for Huberdeau, with a new locale offering him an opportunity as a focal point. There’s no Barkov around to take on the tough matchups now, and how Huberdeau handles the job in Calgary will be telling. An improvement to his defensive game under Darryl Sutter isn’t out of the question either.

What was most interesting about Huberdeau’s placement around the league was the division between traditional and analytical perspectives, who wanted him moved up and down respectively.

“Huberdeau is probably a little high for me. I would probably have him in 3B or 3C,” said one analyst.

“I think he’s a superstar personally, one of the most skilled and intelligent players in the league. He’s closer to the 1s than the 3s for me but (I) would have probably put him in the 2s,” said one scout.

“(He) doesn’t play defense, his skating is fine, he’s not super competitive. But he’s a good passer. That helps, but is that a winning hockey player? I would say no,” said another analyst.

Shifting odds in Vegas

Up front, two key Golden Knights forwards saw themselves slip down the tiers. Mark Stone dropped from 2A to 3A after an injury-riddled season, while Jack Eichel’s down from 2B.

There were some mixed results from both in the minutes they actually played in 2021-22, but there’s only so much to draw given their injuries. How much did playing through injury hurt Stone’s level of play? Did Eichel show his true capabilities after shaking off all the rust? It didn’t help either that the team around them was a rotation of absences, either.

Both players are here in 3A for now — Stone is a player one analyst mentioned they would move up and gladly take, if they knew he was healthy. Another mentioned that the placement for Eichel works for now, but in a year he could easily move in either direction. The uncertainty all circles back to that injury status, and whether there are any lingering effects on either one’s game.

They’re not the only Golden Knights to drop, either — Shea Theodore did from 2B to 3A. Having to share the number one responsibilities with Alex Pietrangelo (and, of course, manage the situation around him in Vegas) plays into it. But some systematic changes, with Bruce Cassidy now behind the bench, and a more stable lineup around him may help him trend back up, along with Eichel and Stone.


Tier 3B

The Big Debate: Is Moritz Seider a franchise player? 

Detroit’s star defenseman Moritz Seider was arguably the biggest point of contention in this entire exercise. We put him at 3B, where he eventually ended, and the league had opinions about that. Almost every NHL scout or executive polled said he should be higher, with several arguing he should be in the second tier, saying he was already a clear top-10 defenseman in the league.

“When you watched Seider last season he looked pretty special. He’s going to be an impact player in the league for a long time. I wouldn’t take several of the defensemen you have ahead of him if I needed to win a game tomorrow,” said one scout.

However, several of the analysts polled thought we were being too aggressive and that Seider needed to be lowered. “I think the case with Seider is he had a good year. Is he ready to do that every year? There’s a difference between having a season as the No. 1 defenseman and being a No. 1 defenseman and the reliability of showing up every year to do it,” said one analyst.

The appeal of Seider is obvious from a scouting perspective. He’s a bit of a rare treasure as this huge, highly-mobile and physical defenseman with legit offense. He has early indicators he could be this generation’s Chris Pronger, even though he only has one NHL season under his belt and needs to show that level of play consistently. Analytically, he was a beast in the first half, performing exceptionally well despite facing some of the toughest usage in the league. His defensive numbers sagged a bit in the second half, but that was a problem that plagued much of the team.

In discussing Seider, we debated whether it made sense to have him and Jack Hughes in different tiers. Dom sent out a poll to his readers to even ask that question which leaned Seider. When Corey did his ranking of the best U23 players in the NHL, Hughes and Seider were 1-2, with a lean to Hughes.

We’ll see how Mo does next season, but after being a divisive No. 6 pick in 2019, the next phase of the debate will be about how quickly the Calder Trophy recipient should be elevated to the highest points of the league. He has Tier 1 upside.

One-way wingers with Kane and Ovechkin 

Ranking Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin in this exercise is always controversial. There are those that still see a dynamic playmaker and lethal scorer. Then there are those who see their production as a bit shallow, lacking completeness to their games.

“Kane and Ovechkin need to be higher, they are dynamic scoring wingers” was a theme we heard from a lot of NHL scouts.

“I have a little bit of a concern about Patrick Kane, a little bit of a thing about Ovechkin. Like a lot of these offensive wingers are going to be a little bit high for me,” an analyst said. This was a prevailing thought from other analysts.

On the one hand, a strong defensive game isn’t the highest priority for wingers. On the other hand, it’s part of what separates players like Kane and Ovechkin from the wingers in Tier 2 — the ones who can drive play to a much higher degree. Since we’re projecting for next season, age is a critical component to consider here as well.

For both players, there’s an argument for them to be higher, given their offensive dominance. But there’s also an argument for each to be lower considering their shortcomings. They give a lot back the other way and so splitting the difference between the two dichotomies felt like the safest option.

Still, we understand that decision won’t be a popular one.

“Ovechkin is still a tank, he just scored 50 goals. Nobody in the league wants to play against him,” said one scout.

“Kane should be in the same tier as Johnny Gaudreau at a minimum, he’s still one of the best players in the world,” said another scout.

Paying for potential

We love our “pairs” here — it’s not always deliberate, but we often realize that we’ve linked up similar players at similar points in their careers. Quinn Hughes and Thomas Chabot are one of this season’s examples. Chabot, at 25, is a few years older than Hughes, but the contracts (Chabot at $8.0 million AAV through 2028, Hughes at $7.85 million through 2027) are similar. Both are paid like high-end, left-shot No. 1 defensemen — and both have a bit of work to do before they perfectly fit the bill.

We believe in their ability to get there; if we didn’t, they wouldn’t be in Tier 3 whatsoever. Hughes in particular took major steps to solidify himself. For him, 2020-21 was nearly a disaster. Questions over his ceiling — is he an all-around player or an offensively-gifted defenseman with glaring flaws? — were starting to emerge. Last season, though, his production swung back up to what he managed as a rookie, and he rounded things out elsewhere. There were less turnovers and better awareness, and that manifested itself in better numbers across the board, despite a set of miscast partners on Vancouver’s top pair.

Chabot’s season ended with a broken hand in March, but he’s still a foundational piece for an impressive core in Ottawa. Like Hughes, he’s on a bit of an island — we’ll see if Drake Batherson lives up to the billing — and the Sens have banked a lot on him. It seems like we’ll get answers one way or another. His production will tell the tale.

Svech takes another step

Andrei Svechnikov being put in 3A last season was somewhat of a bullish move by the panel, thinking he would have a breakout season and become a point-per-game player. While he posted career highs in points, he didn’t quite take the massive step we expected. A lesser impact in his play-driving ability and very weak postseason performance also loomed largely.

“I love the player, he has everything you want in a true top-line guy, but man was he bad in the playoffs,” said one scout.

We remain big fans of the player and think the best days are yet to come. Svechnikov’s combination of high-end skill, size, speed, physicality and finish make him so enticing. He has all the tools to be a franchise player.

“I’m still a fan of Svech. The dream is kind of close to what Kaprizov often looks like, except a power-forward version. Production-wise, that’s the dream — but the longer he goes not fully realizing it, the more the window shuts for it,” said one analyst.


Tier 3C

The Big Debate: Where is the end of the high end?

​​The division between lettered sub-tiers can seem a little nebulous. The numbered ones, though? The big boys? Those are a little easier to suss out. One of the clearest distinctions is between defensemen in Tier 3 and Tier 4. If your guy is in 3, you should feel fine about having him as a No. 1. We can quibble about what makes a “high-end” top D-man, but the Tier 3 players are at least in the conversation.

Once we hit Tier 4, though, the warts start to emerge. Tier 3C is the last spot for the true contender’s top defensemen. If you clock in after these folks, you’re probably miscast on a top team.

Drew Doughty is back in the group despite playing just 39 games. That’s a testament to how good he was while he was in the lineup.

Underlying numbers have been a bit of a boogeyman for Doughty throughout his career. Those weren’t a problem last season. Now, he seems primed to start a new phase as the leader of the Kings’ next wave — but his career hasn’t been linear, so we’ll see how it shakes out. If he was conserving energy at times over the past few seasons, it seems to have paid off.

Kris Letang, at 34, set a career best in points (68) and played customarily huge minutes to great effect, showing up on plenty of Norris ballots. He signed a deal that’ll pay him a $6.1 million AAV until he’s 40, and he deserved it. Those two have fewer questions surrounding them than the rest.

Dougie Hamilton’s first season in New Jersey was a bit of a mess. On one hand, his track record suggests he’ll come closer to living up to his contract ($9 million through 2028). On the other, the Devils don’t have anyone approaching a Jaccob Slavin-caliber partner to roll out next to him. Alex Pietrangelo didn’t come close to having the bounce-back season some of us expected, but Vegas — due in part to injuries — may have asked him, at 32, to do an unreasonable amount of work. His underlying numbers don’t do his play justice given his usage on and off the puck. Jared Spurgeon, in part, is who he’s always been — an undersized top-pair guy with phenomenal underlying numbers, but he probably is, at long last, properly rated. At 32, as with Pietrangelo, it’s fair to wonder whether we’re seeing the start of Spurgeon’s decline.

Still, if you fancy your team a contender with one of these guys at the top of your depth chart, you’re in OK shape. Move on to more pressing issues.

Shooters shoot

We put four 3C forwards in a group: Kyle Connor, Alex DeBrincat, Jake Guentzel and Steven Stamkos. The guy who put the fewest pucks on net last season? Stamkos. That says something about the volume of shots we’ve come to expect from that group — Stamkos is at the back of the pack. All four hit the 40-goal mark, with Connor (47, tied for fifth in the league) leading the way.

And Connor, as ever, is the most interesting case. We’ve said before that he’s Phil Kessel 2.0, down to his brutal defensive reputation:

“Kyle Connor is going to make a lot of money and lose a lot of hockey games,” an analyst said. “He has a more well-rounded offensive game than I thought, but the defense is as bad as I thought.”

That “more well-rounded” offensive game is key. Connor made strides across the board with his contributions. He’s more than just a shooter, regardless of your opinion of his defensive game. And for better or worse, you can expect things to tighten up under Rick Bowness. Connor is going to earn that $50 million contract.

Guentzel, meanwhile, continues to show that he’s far from a Sidney Crosby creation, and DeBrincat — productive as ever — gets to go for a big-money deal of his own in Ottawa, away from the Chicago tank parade. That’s also away from Kane and our concern with how he fares without one of the league’s best playmakers was one reason he didn’t earn a higher spot in Tier 3.

Skill … with questions

There’s a common theme between three players who landed in 3C — Nikolaj Ehlers, Robert Thomas and Mathew Barzal are all incredibly smooth with the puck. And there’s an argument to see each one move in the rankings.

Ehlers doesn’t get the usage of a top forward — not at five-on-five or on the power play in Winnipeg. He’s a fit in this section, according to an executive, because this tier is filled with more supporting players versus bonafide superstars.

Thomas is coming off a season where he ranked as one of the best puck-movers in the league thanks to his vision and elite playmaking while also being a reliable two-way center. The Blues center isn’t at that superstar status just yet.

“I think there’s a possibility that when you do this next offseason, he’s in Tier 2. I think that’s how high his playmaking abilities are,” an executive added.

Barzal is coming off the toughest year of the bunch, but there’s reason to keep him with this duo and not demote him based on 2021-22 alone.

“Barzal is one of the more dynamic young centers in the game. I think having him in the 4s is harsh, he should be 3A,” said one scout. “He’s better than Jack Hughes and arguably Sebastian Aho.”

Barzal’s environment, though, and the defensive structure of his team, may be what held him back this past year.

“I think one is just being put in a position to take advantage of those skills and one is not,” an executive explained. “If (Barzal) ends up in a different place at the end of this contract or once he hits UFA status, he’s going to be right up with those Tier 2 guys.”

‘Big D’ bus driver

The challenge with Dallas’ top line was separating who the true driver is. Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson or Roope Hintz?

The conversation really focused on Robertson — who spiced up the Calder race in 2020-21 with Kaprizov before tallying 41 goals and 79 points in his sophomore season — and Hintz. The center has been really solid in the minutes he’s played these last two years. Injuries limited his time in 2020-21, and this last year he got himself on the long list for the Selke Trophy.

That scoring pop is what earned Robertson a nod ahead of his linemates, but it wasn’t without a lot of discussions that ultimately lowered him a few sub-tiers within the third bracket.

“Robertson is really good. His skating has always (been) and continues to be an issue, but he scored 40 goals,” said one scout.

“It’s all shooting and finishing impact,” another executive said. “I think his impact on the rest of the game is just maybe average. A little bit strong, but it’s not at the same level like all these other guys are. If you go down the next tier to 3C, like DeBrincat, Guentzel — those guys are also finishers, but I think they impact the game more in different ways than Robertson does.”

Tier 3

Player

  

Tier

  

Team

  

Pos

  

GSVA

  

TOI

  

G

  

A

  

PTS

  

OFF

  

DEF

  

USG

  

3A

COL

LW

3.32

20.2

35.6

43.3

78.9

4.6

10.5

-1.8

3A

CGY

LW

3.17

19.4

29.2

66

95.2

9

-6

-0.6

3A

VGK

RW

3.03

19

27.2

49.3

76.5

8.6

2.1

0.3

3A

VGK

C

2.4

20.7

30.9

45

76

-2

5.3

0.5

3A

N.J

C

1.97

19.7

27

39

66

3.4

-1.4

1.1

3A

COL

D

3.3

25.3

12.8

38.1

50.9

11.2

17.2

-1.2

3A

WSH

D

2.83

25

16.2

57.5

73.7

3.5

-3.1

1.7

3A

VGK

D

2.6

23.2

13.7

38.3

52

11.2

0.9

0.8

3B

NSH

LW

3.2

18.6

36.3

42.3

78.6

4.5

3.1

1.5

3B

WSH

LW

2.92

21.2

49.6

35.3

84.9

4.9

-4.3

0.7

3B

NYR

C

2.84

19.7

33.5

43.6

77.1

3

2

1.9

3B

CHI

RW

2.72

21.9

29.2

64.5

93.7

-0.1

-0.8

2.1

3B

CAR

LW/RW

2.62

17.7

28.5

41.3

69.8

8.8

-2.3

0

3B

VAN

D

2.14

25.3

9

59.2

68.3

-0.3

-2.8

3.8

3B

DET

D

2.04

25.8

10.1

46.4

56.5

0.8

-7.1

6.7

3B

OTT

D

1.96

26.1

10.7

42.3

52.9

1.9

-2.8

5.4

3C

DAL

LW

4.02

18.7

38.5

45.6

84

13.1

5.9

1

3C

T.B

C/RW

3.72

18.5

39.9

52.6

92.4

7.9

1.1

0.7

3C

PIT

LW

3.25

20.1

38

46

84

6.9

-1.6

0.9

3C

WPG

LW/RW

3.18

19

37.4

42.8

80.2

8.7

-2

1.5

3C

OTT

LW

2.59

19.3

36.8

35.1

71.9

1

2.6

1.9

3C

STL

C

2.42

19.6

21.3

54.7

76

10.9

-2.7

0.3

3C

WPG

LW

2.24

22.1

44.5

44

88.5

1.9

-11.2

1.1

3C

NYI

C

1.82

18.5

20.9

45.3

66.2

4.4

-3.3

1.1

3C

MIN

D

2.69

22.5

12.9

31.9

44.8

5.1

12.8

0.9

3C

PIT

D

2.43

25.8

13.2

51.2

64.5

4.7

-1.4

2.3

3C

N.J

D

2.22

23.8

16.4

36.6

52.9

12.2

-7.2

1.4

3C

L.A

D

1.77

25.9

11.6

38.7

50.2

-0.3

3.9

2.6

3C

VGK

D

1.57

24.7

13.9

31.8

45.7

7.6

-7.7

0.9


Tier 4: Top of the lineup

Tier 4A

The Big Debate: Where do Weegar and Jones belong? 

Analysts love MacKenzie Weegar. Scouts love Seth Jones. They don’t agree on the other.

Weegar has a track record of limiting opponents’ shots and quality chances, and his neutral-zone efforts and plays at the blue line contribute to that. The problem is that when he makes a mistake, it’s glaring. That was particularly true in Florida this past year, a team that was very loose defensively. While Weegar played tough minutes for the Panthers, opinions can easily change on his ability when there’s a misplay at one of the most pivotal moments of the year on the national stage.

“I think Weegar needs to go up. Playoffs aside … fine, they got swept. Making a bad play in the playoffs can stick out poorly, but if you are getting swept you don’t get to complain about individual plays,” an analyst said.

Some analysts felt he could be moved up, but his game isn’t for everyone. “I don’t love Weegar’s hockey sense and defending. We liked playing against him,” said one scout.

Opinions are also split on Jones. Some see him maintaining the level of play that put him in that top defenseman conversation a few years ago, when he was thriving as a rover in Columbus.

“Jones is a monster, he should be way higher than you have him,” said one scout. “You put him on a playoff team and he’d look like one of the top defensemen in the league, such as when he was in that series for Columbus a few years ago.”

Others don’t see him as this highly-touted defenseman, though, and blame more than just his surroundings.

“I don’t know what I said about him last year, but you can probably copy and paste it. Nothing has changed. I don’t know what he did this year except play a lot of minutes for a terrible team,” an analyst said.

The truth about each player is probably somewhere in the middle. Jones had that elite No. 1 upside, but doesn’t seem to be at that level right now. He’ll be more exposed than ever in Chicago, but he can bolster his stock if he can be a stabilizing force in the rebuilding process. Weegar has his strengths, but makes some questionable decisions. He’ll have more support in Calgary, which should bode well for his game.

The debates surrounding these two are what landed them together in this tier — 4A has become the home to flawed top-pair defensemen.

The pivot point

Ask around the league and there’s a clear deference to centers — it’s really hard to win without an elite option. Tier 3 and above features 14 centers — the above-average options, and you’d definitely prefer one from a higher tier. Tier 4 is where problems start to arise if that’s a team’s top guy. They’re luxuries on a contending team playing second fiddle or with a strong support system, but they’re liabilities on bottom feeders as “The Guy,” especially without capable support.

John Tavares fits into the luxury category playing behind Matthews. He’s still a point-per-game guy earning 55 percent of the expected goals, but is in an easier situation on the second line and his skating, which was never an asset, isn’t getting better with age. Hintz and Elias Lindholm play on the top line, but play with very strong wingers. It makes it difficult to get a true read on what they can do on their own.

For Lindholm, it was tempting to have him in Tier 3, but that’s a move that should be reserved for next season — seeing him without Gaudreau and Tkachuk flanking him.

“Lindholm is more of the passenger on that line. There’s enough of a history of this player that he’s a very good player, but like a second-line center. I think you could put a lot of centers in between those two guys, and they would have had the same offensive output. I’m not sure the defense would have been as good though.”

Tomas Hertl and Dylan Larkin are good examples of what happens when this particular archetype — the non-elite all-around center — gets put at the top of the lineup without much help. The team struggles. That’s not entirely their fault, but a better top-line center would be able to drive stronger team results. That’s the separating factor between tiers.

Enigmatic forwards

While 3C featured high-end supporting forwards, there’s a trio of players that find themselves just below. They aren’t superstar talents who can carry a top line, but they are key components to a contending top six.

After falling just short of the Top 100, Fiala made it to 4A after a career year. The forward bet on himself with a one-year contract, then played his way out of Minnesota’s price range. The winger was at his best alongside Matt Boldy, when he finally had some high-end talent to skate with. The upside he showed signs of in Nashville finally came together with a career-best 85 points — though another postseason no-show is tough to ignore.

While Fiala trended up, William Nylander’s consistency keeps him here. He’s a spark for the Maple Leafs’ middle six, whether that’s on the second line with Tavares or driving the third.

Elias Pettersson, however, finds himself lower after an up-and-down season that dropped him down from 2B. What keeps him in the mix is the turnaround he showed late in the year for Vancouver, plus an upward trajectory given his age.

Low-end 1Ds 

While Darnell Nurse did not replicate his offensive output from 2020-21, he is still a true top-flight defender. It’s rare to find a big defenseman who can skate the way he can, who is as physical as he is, and who also provides some offense. Morgan Rielly stays in the same tier despite having one of his best years. He’s a very talented player with a ton of skill, vision and mobility — though questions regarding his defensive game remain.

Proximity to the two best forwards in hockey is part of the reason both defenders fall in Tier 4 rather than Tier 3. It’s a cushy gig earning big minutes with McDavid and Matthews and that means taking some of their sparkling numbers with a grain of salt.


Tier 4B

The Big Debate: What happens when an old guy breaks out? 

Nazem Kadri was 31 with a career high of 61 points. He earned 87 points in 71 games last season. Chris Kreider was 30 with a career high of 28 goals. He scored 52 goals last season. J.T. Miller was 28 with a career high of 72 points. He put up 99 points last season.

Three shocking, out-of-nowhere seasons that will be very difficult to replicate, even though one NHL scout suggested we elevate Kadri all the way to Tier 2. There’s a reason none of the three made the cut last year. That makes ranking each player pretty difficult going into next season.

“Personally I don’t have a lot of faith in Kadri being in that group,” an analyst said. “I like Kreider a lot, but I don’t like him in that group. I don’t think he’s as good as he looked this year — he’s not going to have 75 power-play goals every year.”

“Kreider needs to come down to at least 4C. He’s going back to 30 goals,” an analyst said.

Based on what they did last year they deserve to be higher — but projecting out for next year necessitates caution. Kadri is projected to drop to 70 points, and that might be ambitious given his priors and a move from Colorado to Calgary. Same goes for Kreider who’s projected for 39 goals. Both bring an edge that is valuable come playoff time and Kreider is an elite skater, but their inclusion hinges on a newfound scoring prowess that will be hard to duplicate.

As for Miller, he’s the youngest of the three (29) and has scored a high rate before, making his production more believable. He’s projected for 85 points. The issue is how he earns those points — in big minutes, as the focal point on the power play. While he’s very skilled with the man advantage, being “The Guy” is not an opportunity he’d have on a stronger team.

“If you’re a contending team, are you turning over the keys to your power play to Miller? Ninety-nine points overstates his value,” an analyst said.

It’s worth noting his defensive game isn’t very strong either, further bringing down his value. That’s something Miller himself acknowledges. Without a surprise 99-point season, the rest of his game isn’t strong enough for consideration here and like Kadri and Kreider, the likelihood of repeating the feat isn’t high.

“Miller and Kadri probably both have to be there because they had such good years, but I won’t be surprised if they’re off the list next year,” an analyst said.

The difference between 1s and 2s

This tier is the home of either (slightly) miscast No. 1 defensemen or No. 2s on their own team who are capable of a bit more. If they were well-rounded, they’d be higher on the list. Instead, we’ve got two offensive guys (Columbus’ Zach Werenski and Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev) and two defensive guys (Minnesota’s Jonas Brodin and the Islanders’ Adam Pelech).

The Lightning clearly are banking on Sergachev, based on his new contract (eight years, $8.5 million AAV) and the fact that they sent out shutdown defenseman Ryan McDonagh to accommodate him. The plan is for Sergachev to take over McDonagh’s minutes. If he handles them, he’ll make a jump for next season.

Werenski, meanwhile, is an interesting case. “I feel like you’ve penalized players on average teams,” said one scout, calling Werenski in particular “(a lot) better than some of the guys you have above him.”

Fair. But the Blue Jackets were average for a reason — and frankly “average” is generous. Now, expectations have changed.

Zegras and Hischier, searching for the ceiling 

Nico Hischier was a player who just barely squeezed into the top 100 last year and then had a career season for the Devils. Some of that may have been driven by his team shooting over 11 percent when he’s on the ice, but Hischier is an excellent player. He has a ton of skill, he can play with pace and contribute at both ends of the rink. Is he more than a decent first-line center? Probably not. But on a team with Jack Hughes, he doesn’t need to be.

Trevor Zegras was an interesting case. He’s one of the smartest players in the league and a runner-up for the Calder.

The sentiment among scouts was we had him too low, but one analyst made an interesting argument against Zegras: “Trevor Zegras is all style over substance. He has some substance, but if you need to win a hockey game tomorrow, Phillip Danault is way better.”

There are certainly guys in this tier or below who have had better seasons and would have been better in a playoff game last season. Zegras is not the most well-rounded forward you’ll ever see, but part of this ranking is projection. Zegras oozes skill and offensive hockey sense — we expect another big step next season.

The problem with St. Louis

We’re going to keep saying it because it’s important. There’s nothing wrong with a Tier 3 or 4 player. Those guys are, at minimum, among the top 100 in the NHL. We talked about Thomas’ potential earlier, and that’s evident. Same goes for Jordan Kyrou. But if we’re witnessing the start of Ryan O’Reilly’s decline, even if it’s slow, and the peak of Pavel Buchnevich, that’s a forward group — deep as it is — that might not be good enough to make up for a pedestrian defensive corps.

Colton Parayko was a tough case, but we ultimately included him, even though he’s overextended as a No. 1. The waterfall effect continues from there; Torey Krug, Justin Faulk and Nick Leddy, as a top four, are all on track to be asked to play a level up from where their recent performance dictates. That doesn’t make them bad. It doesn’t make the Blues bad. But it does speak to the sort of talent drain that costs teams once the playoffs roll around.


Tier 4C

The Big Debate: Where do the data darlings belong?

We have three newcomers with something in common. They are analytics darlings who are starting to get the spotlight they deserve.

It took Valeri Nichushkin some time to reach these heights. He rebuilt his value, after being bought out by the Stars, as a strong defensive forward in Colorado. His tenacity and forechecking made him an important supporting piece. He worked his way into the top six where improved finishing talent made him crucial to Colorado’s Cup run. His ability to play in any situation, at any point in the game, is what lands him here.

Carter Verhaeghe has a similar origin story; from unqualified in 2020 to top-line mainstay in Florida. Verhaeghe has become one of the best at generating offense in transition, and clicks well with an elite two-way center in Barkov. The fact that he was one of the few Panthers to even show up in the postseason helps his case.

Andrew Mangiapane’s scoring didn’t jump off the page in Calgary in his first couple of seasons, but there were signs below the surface that it would soon. Then in 2021-22, he tallied 35 goals and 55 points in his best season yet. The finishing talent he’s shown is obviously the highlight of his game, but there’s more to it for the winger. Mangiapane can bring the puck in with control and drive to the quality areas of the ice, where he concentrates most of his shots. He’s not a bad passer, either.

That’s what earned each of these players a spot, and if they can keep up that strong play below the surface, the results should follow. They belong here, even if they never move to the upper echelons with some of the elite.

“I think where they are on this list is fine and justifiable,” an analyst said. “I think some of Hockey Twitter would say they’re too low. All three of them are perfectly good third-fourth best forwards on a good team, which is a valuable thing — that’s kind of where we are on the list here.”

The Selke pool

Sean Couturier and Anze Kopitar are the Selke Trophy mainstays of years past, while Danault and Joel Eriksson Ek are the present.

Nothing went right for the Flyers in 2021-22, including the play of some of their best. Couturier’s slip is less self-inflicted than others who simply dropped off. Whether he can claw back up, however, may depend on whether he can overcome the quality of the team around him.

Kopitar is a player most would expect to start trending down given his age, but sharing some of his defensive responsibilities helped extend his effective play. That fell on Danault. Now that Danault isn’t the sole shutdown center on his team, he has a chance to play in more offensive situations to better express the other side of his game.

“Danault has consistently been just such an impactful two-way player,” a team executive said. “Even though he’s never had the points — I don’t know if he ever will have the points to be considered one of the top players in the league — but effort level, defense, offense … I think he’s criminally underrated as a hockey player.”

Eriksson Ek’s broken into the Selke conversation over the last two years, whether measured as the best outright defensive forward or two-way forward. He’s hard to play against and a pivotal player in Minnesota.

A fall from grace

For the longest time, Mark Scheifele skirted by on a reputation built at his peak. He was a franchise player. Was. While he still scores like one, his two-way game has really taken a hit — especially on defense. Last year he was in Tier 3 as a show of reverence to his skill set, but another trying year in his own end led to a hearty drop. Scheifele scored at an 86-point pace last year, but for the fourth straight season was break-even in goals at five-on-five, while getting badly outchanced.

That’s a worrying trend, and this year there was little appetite from those surveyed to have him higher. Scheifele is still a bonafide top-line center, but a low-end one. He’s not “The Guy” on a contending team. Not like he used to be.

Choose your own Flame

A very late, very unexpected debate broke out while we finalized the list. Which Flames defenseman — Rasmus Andersson or Noah Hanifin — should be included, in addition to 4A’s Weegar? We took the coward’s way out and chose both.

Andersson has added value as a right shot. Players with his profile are simply less common than Hanifin. Playing big minutes with the Gaudreau-Lindholm-Tkachuk line likely helped his numbers. Same goes for Hanifin. Weegar is a wild card — he could open the season on a second pair with Chris Tanev, rather than to Andersson’s left — but if Andersson and Hanifin again make up Calgary’s top pair, it’d be unfair to break them up on our list.

And if they’re split up, both could wind up benefiting. Weegar could have an Aaron Ekblad-type effect on Andersson, and Hanifin and Tanev were outstanding together two years ago. Those are a lot of variables for two ultimately solid players, though, so we split the difference and put them both on the final list.

Highly touted

Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin was an interesting debate after an excellent offensive season. He has all the tools of a star defenseman between his elite hands and offensive instincts to go with good size and mobility. You could easily make a debate about whether he should be higher based on what we expect he could do next season, but that requires a step up in play at five-on-five, specifically in his own end. The panel held out that they wanted to see it more consistently, but not without detractors from around the league who expect Dahlin to make a big jump in the not-too-distant future.

“Defensemen sometimes take longer than forwards. Some of the best defensemen in the league right now didn’t play like that until they were 22, 23, 24 years old. Dahlin will be a top NHL defenseman sometime in the next few years,” said an NHL executive.

Tier 4

Player

  

Tier

  

Team

  

Pos

  

GSVA

  

TOI

  

G

  

A

  

PTS

  

OFF

  

DEF

  

USG

  

4A

DAL

C

3.47

19.3

34.4

40.6

75

9.1

6.4

0.5

4A

L.A

LW

3.12

18.8

32

44.9

77

7.1

3.6

0.3

4A

CGY

C

3.11

20.1

33.9

39.2

73.2

11.2

5.3

0

4A

TOR

C

2.95

18.6

30.8

45.4

76.2

3.7

-0.1

-0.2

4A

TOR

RW

2.6

18.4

31.9

42

73.9

3.1

1.3

-0.8

4A

FLA

RW

2.5

18.1

30.3

36.9

67.1

4.6

4.4

-0.5

4A

VAN

C

2.5

19.2

32.8

40.6

73.4

2.9

0

0.6

4A

S.J

C

2.35

20.5

31.9

38.3

70.1

3.3

-0.8

1.6

4A

OTT

LW

2.1

18.8

28.5

34.4

63

2.1

-4.8

2.1

4A

DET

C

1.61

19.8

26.8

37.4

64.2

2

-5.6

3.1

4A

CGY

D

2.63

21.9

8.5

31.5

40

16.5

6

-0.6

4A

TOR

D

2.31

23.8

10.5

49

59.5

11.1

-4.2

0.5

4A

EDM

D

1.44

24.8

12.4

27.7

40.1

10.6

-8.7

3.4

4A

CHI

D

1.3

26.4

8.4

43.6

52

-10.6

1.9

4.5

4B

S.J

LW/RW

2.96

20.7

34.1

42.8

76.8

7.5

-1.3

2.7

4B

DAL

RW

2.89

18.7

27

36.7

63.7

6.7

8.9

0.6

4B

STL

LW

2.66

18.4

28.7

41.9

70.6

9.3

1

0.9

4B

CGY

C

2.63

18.8

25.6

44.1

69.7

5.9

2.3

-0.9

4B

PIT

C

2.53

19

30.2

52.3

82.4

4.7

-1

0.1

4B

N.J

RW

2.47

17.9

23.8

44.3

68.1

9

-1.3

1.6

4B

VAN

C

2.47

21.2

28.6

56.1

84.7

4.6

-3.7

1.7

4B

NYR

LW

2.34

18.7

38.7

24.8

63.5

2.7

1.7

1.8

4B

ANA

C

2.1

19

26

45.2

71.2

3.9

-1.2

1.2

4B

STL

C

2.06

19

22.9

41.2

64

-1.1

4.6

1.7

4B

N.J

C

1.99

19.3

24.3

38.7

63

1.6

1.1

1.8

4B

MIN

D

1.73

23.2

7.5

25.4

33

-3.2

14.6

2.4

4B

NYI

D

1.64

21.3

4.6

20.4

25.1

3.4

9.6

5.2

4B

T.B

D

1.62

22.7

8.5

33.4

41.8

4.2

3

-0.4

4B

CBJ

D

1.37

25.9

17.1

39.4

56.5

-2.7

-9

3.3

4C

COL

LW/RW

2.38

19.5

25.7

30.3

56

8

9.2

-0.7

4C

STL

RW

2.34

18.1

28.1

46.3

74.4

6

-4.4

0.2

4C

CAR

RW

2.31

18.1

21.9

47.9

70.1

5.9

1.1

-0.5

4C

PHI

C

2.26

20.6

27.9

40.7

68.5

2.6

0.3

2.9

4C

CGY

LW

2.24

16.8

29.6

22

51.6

4.8

7.5

0.1

4C

MIN

C

2.14

18.6

27.1

26.1

53.1

1.8

8.8

1.1

4C

FLA

LW

2.12

16.2

25.8

28.8

54.6

8.7

3.2

-0.5

4C

WPG

C

1.96

21.4

33.3

51.5

84.8

4.1

-12.7

1.2

4C

L.A

C

1.82

20.8

20

47.1

67.2

-0.3

2.1

1.5

4C

L.A

C

1.53

17.9

17.9

30.5

48.5

8

0.1

1

4C

CGY

D

2.22

21.5

8.5

30.7

39.2

8.6

8.1

0.1

4C

CGY

D

2.14

22.9

6.7

35

41.6

8.7

5.3

-0.7

4C

NYI

D

1.77

22.4

7.5

25

32.5

4.4

2.4

4.4

4C

S.J

D

1.74

25.1

12.4

40.4

52.7

6.9

-10.2

4.3

4C

BUF

D

1.06

25.4

11.4

41.8

53.2

-6.1

-5

4.3

4C

STL

D

0.83

23.7

7.7

25

32.7

-4.4

0.1

3.1


(Top photos: Michael Martin, Mark Blinch, Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

.

Leave a Comment