We’re about six weeks into the 2023–24 NHL regular season, and a clear hierarchy of teams is beginning to form.
As usual, you have the bottom-feeders like Chicago, San Jose, and Columbus; the up-and-comers on the bubble like Ottawa and Arizona; and the clear-cut playoff teams like … uh, Vancouver and Philadelphia? Hmmm. We’ll check back on those two in a couple months.
But above all those clubs are the cream of the crop: the bona fide contenders. It’s up for debate as to exactly how many of them there are, but I’ve identified six teams who have realistic Stanley Cup aspirations at this point in the season: the Vegas Golden Knights, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
All six of those teams are capable of winning a championship. As always, only one of them will. The stakes are as high as ever, and every team with legit Cup hopes will be looking for the missing piece. For last year’s Vegas team, it was Ivan Barbashev.
This time around, what will it be?
Vegas Golden Knights
Biggest need: More secondary scoring
It’s difficult to imagine a more well-rounded team in the modern NHL than the Golden Knights — other than, perhaps, last year’s iteration of the team, which rolled four lines, three pairings, and even two goaltenders all the way to the Stanley Cup.
Now, Reilly Smith is gone. Barbashev, the guy who replaced him, has seemingly reverted to being the gritty third-liner he was in St. Louis rather than a bona fide top-six forward. Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault are all off to nice starts, but much of the rest of the forward group is on pace for worse offensive numbers than last year.
It’s hard to complain too much about a team on pace for 121 points. These guys are really good. But they could really use another secondary scorer — not just to provide offense, but also to push other players down the lineup into more appropriate slots for their talents.
Biggest need: Another top-six forward
If it feels trivial to criticize the Golden Knights, it’s practically pointless to nitpick these Bruins. They’re 13–1–3 and somehow on pace to outdo their ridiculous 135-point 2022–23 season despite losing both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci over the summer.
The B’s are a wagon. They’re a well-coached team with two terrific goaltenders and an excellent defensive group. Their forward ranks are a bit of a hodgepodge, with David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand at the head of a pack of misfits, but it’s nevertheless been smooth sailing in Boston through the first six weeks of the season. This isn’t a team that needs to make changes.
But for our purposes, that’s not good enough. And you can bet that a Bruins team coming off an unfathomable first-round playoff loss to Florida last year will be eager to add as many contingencies as possible heading into this year’s postseason. For as good as these Bruins have been, are they really planning on heading into the playoffs with both 19-year-old Matt Poitras and 34-year-old James van Riemsdyk playing big minutes?
Biggest need: An influx of youth
Joe Pavelski. Matt Duchene. Tyler Seguin. Jamie Benn. What do all these players have in common?
A) They’re all very good top-six forwards. B) They’re capable of helping a team go far in the playoffs. C) All of them are on the wrong side of 30. And with Evgenii Dadonov and Craig Smith also in the mix, this Stars forward group is one of the most experienced (read: oldest) in the entire league.
But even so, these Stars have an extremely bright future. Over the last few seasons, they’ve managed to bring Jason Robertson, Wyatt Johnston, Jake Oettinger, and Miro Heiskanen into the NHL alongside their veteran stars. It’s allowed them to build one of the deepest teams in the league. And now, they have an opportunity to make their team even stronger while maintaining their formidable asset base.
Top prospects Logan Stankoven and Mavrik Bourque are practically banging down the door in the AHL. Stankoven, in particular, projects to potentially be a game-changing top-line forward if everything clicks for him at the next level. These Stars are already one of the top Cup contenders in the league, but they could become downright terrifying if they elevate Stankoven and he clicks for them right away.
New York Rangers
Biggest need: Better veteran depth
We could’ve very easily said the Rangers need Igor Shesterkin to find his game, but he’s still rocking a 7–3–0 record despite starting the year with a very pedestrian .908 save percentage. On top of that, Jonathan Quick has turned back the clock in backup duty. They’ll make do on that front. The Rangers also need Adam Fox back, but that’ll happen before long and Erik Gustafsson has performed admirably in his absence.
What hasn’t worked at all for the Rangers this season is the veteran quartet of Barclay Goodrow, Blake Wheeler, Jimmy Vesey, and Nick Bonino. Wheeler is the only one of those four to have posted an expected goals share north of 40 percent at 5-on-5 (via Natural Stat Trick), and they’ve collectively managed just 12 points in 61 games to start the season.
The Rangers will let this play out. Wheeler and Bonino are both on the wrong side of 35. They’ve both shown they can be better than this in the past, but what about now? The Rangers are in danger of taking a one- or two-line team into the playoffs if those guys can’t pick it up.
Biggest need: Second-line center
Ever since Nazem Kadri left the Avs for the Calgary Flames as an unrestricted free agent in 2022, Colorado has searched far and wide for someone to replace him at the No. 2 center position.
Evan Rodrigues? J.T. Compher? Alex Newhook? None of them came close to replicating Kadri’s impact with Colorado’s Cup team — and now all of them are gone. The Avs’ new 2C is Ryan Johansen, but he’s likely best-suited to a third-line role at this point in his career. It’s not an ideal fix.
Now, hear us out. Is there any better potential Kadri facsimile out there than Kadri himself? Sure, his $7 million cap hit for five years after this one certainly isn’t ideal, particularly with him already being 33 years old, but he’s proven he can still be a difference-maker in this league. He’s been terrific of late with the Flames after a slow start to the year. With a bit of retention — and maybe Sam Girard heading the other way for cap purposes — a Kadri reunion with the Avs could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
(They also need Gabriel Landeskog back, but as we all know, that ain’t happening before the playoffs — if at all.)
Toronto Maple Leafs
Biggest need: Defensive defenseman
C’mon, we had to include the Leafs on this list — after all, they finally won a playoff series last year. And of all the teams on this list, they’ve been by far the most prominent players in the rumor mill to begin the 2023–24 season. A move feels close to inevitable as general manager Brad Treliving continues to put his stamp on his new team.
All eyes are on the Flames, who have three notable defensemen on the trade market: Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, and Noah Hanifin. Of that trio, Tanev and Zadorov have both been linked to the Leafs in various reports thus far. It makes sense: Treliving was at the forefront of bringing those guys to Calgary in the first place, and his new team could sorely use a pure defensive stalwart.
Nobody seems to have any idea what’s up with John Klingberg. Mark Giordano just turned 40. TJ Brodie is a pending UFA. Morgan Rielly is the only defender in the organization signed beyond next season. This team needs another guy back there, and not necessarily a rental. Trading for (and potentially re-signing) a guy like Zadorov would do a lot for this Leafs team.
Recently by Mike Gould
- Four teams in need of shakeup trades early on in the 2023–24 season
- Free Agent Stock Watch: Elias Pettersson angling for huge payday with great start
- The Arizona Coyotes’ top line of Keller, Schmaltz, and Hayton is one of the NHL’s best
- The ultra-competitive Central Division playoff race is already taking shape
- Three young defensemen set to take off with increased responsibility in 2023–24