Stanley Cup contender checklist: How does each NHL playoff team measure up?

There are a ton of elements that go into being a championship-caliber team in the NHL. There’s five-on-five play, special teams and overall playing style, among other factors. There’s also roster strength. 

One way to measure that is with the Stanley Cup contender checklist. Originally based on a decade of championships, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn found common elements that winning teams had. This checklist has since expanded to include winners from the 2010 Blackhawks to the current reigning champion Avalanche. 

Those elements are: 

  • An elite first-line center
  • An elite first-line winger
  • Two more top-line-caliber wingers in the top six
  • One more top-line-caliber center for the second line
  • Two more top-six-caliber forwards in the middle six
  • An elite No. 1 defenseman to play in the top pair
  • One more No. 1-caliber defenseman to play behind him
  • A top-pairing-caliber defenseman for the second pair
  • Another top-pairing-caliber defenseman for a soft-minutes third pair
  • A top-10-caliber starting goaltender

The checklist features actual value, based on the entire 2022-23 regular season (on a per-82 game basis), and projected value that includes three years’ worth of data, weighed by recency and adjusted for age. The average value of players at that position is the starting point, with a range that goes one standard deviation in each direction. This is not using data from the New Model; an updated checklist will come after usage is better adjusted for. Instead, this is going to be consistent with the model used earlier this year for playoff teams pre-deadline, and those outside the mix. 

As a refresher, anything with a checkmark falls within the ideal range for a contender. The legend for the visuals is as follows:

  • Red X: Falls below the range entirely
  • Grey checkmark: Passable, but below the average champion
  • Black checkmark: Above average relative to the average Cup winner
  • Gold checkmark: Exceeds the range entirely

‘Actual’ values pictured for each team here. 

Eastern Conference 

After a record-setting regular season, the Bruins are The Gold Standard. No one stacks up to the contender checklist as well as Boston. Few teams face the pressure to maximize on such a magical season, either. 

Boston’s a team highlighted by elite talent, from their core to their supporting cast. It’s not just the top of their lineup living up to expectations. Players like Jake DeBrusk have hit their stride, Hampus Lindholm’s really rebounded since being traded to Boston, Linus Ullmark has had a breakout season, and David Krejci’s shown he’s still got it. 

Tyler Bertuzzi could be interchanged with Taylor Hall here and still bring checkmarks to the list. That’s their strength and it only deepened at the deadline, with additions like the former Red Wing and Dmitry Orlov, among others. 

Center depth is the one area that doesn’t grade out as well without Patrice Bergeron, but players have raised their game with him out.

There isn’t much else to say about Boston; from a checklist standpoint, this is the team to beat. Now it’s a question of how that’ll translate to playoff success as the postseason rolls on. 

Matthew Tkachuk’s proven he was worth every penny spent this summer; he’s put up the numbers of an MVP-caliber player, and is able to drive his own line. Carter Verhaeghe’s put up another excellent season as a complementary top-line winger to the team’s two superstar forwards. And Brandon Montour’s really had a great season which has increased his usage. 

That’s something Florida needs because Aaron Ekblad still isn’t near the level that’s expected of him. Whether it’s missing MacKenzie Weegar, being dragged down by this depleted blue line, or coaching impacts holding up his game, it’s been noticeable. His projected value gives him some wiggle room on where he could reasonably go, but the clock’s ticking on that. 

Then there’s goaltending. Alex Lyon grades out better this year, thanks to his hot play down the stretch, but there’s only so much of a foundation to base it on. Sergei Bobrovsky’s postseason play has been a mixed bag; if he can push for playing time and handle the pressure, though, there’s potential. 

After a busy deadline, the Maple Leafs have shored up a few areas. There’s more leadership, defensive upside and lineup options. Also encouraging is that Auston Matthews picked up his game later in the season. A healthy Ryan O’Reilly is back in the fold, and he’s already showing in a small sample of games what a difference in environment can do for him. Jake McCabe adds some strength back in the Maple Leafs’ own zone. 

That’s all well and good. 

Even with all the checkmarks, there are two pressing questions. 

How is the goaltending going to be? It was a career year for Ilya Samsonov, who earned the starter’s net. His actual value far exceeds his projection considering how different his caliber was this year, but there’s only so much to bet on going into the postseason considering his experience. The Maple Leafs have to hope that’s the level he carries into the playoffs – and so far in Game 1, that certainly wasn’t the case after 2.14 goals above expected through 40 minutes of play before getting the hook.

The other question is whether this team grading out well on paper will translate to results. It didn’t in Game 1, so the pressure is on.

Opposite Maple Leafs is the Lightning once again this year.

Brayden Point’s having an excellent season that’s elevated him in his projections; the same is true for Nikita Kucherov and Brandon Hagel. The latter really kicked it up a notch, after struggling to mesh with his new team post-deadline last year. 

Mikhail Sergachev’s taken steps forward in an expanded role, but a glaring ‘X’ is beside Victor Hedman. It’s been a tough year for the veteran defenseman who usually is among the best in the league. Even more concerning than a downgraded Hedman is none at all, and he left Game 1 with an injury and didn’t return. Tampa’s defensive depth isn’t at the caliber of years past after some salary-cap crunches weakened some of their options, so it’s a less-than-ideal time for their true No. 1 to be any less than his usual level, or not in the lineup at all. It’s even dicier with Erik Cernak’s health in the air, as well.  

As a whole, this team has struggled down the stretch which has only made Andrei Vasilevskiy’s workload tougher. But the bright side for the Lightning is that he’s thrived despite what’s been in front of him; that’s why his actual value is ahead of his impressive projection. That workload may get tougher considering some injury, so this series could become a bigger test for him too. 

The Hurricanes checklist isn’t nearly as strong as it could or maybe should be. Andrei Svechnikov’s injury, which will hold him out of the entire postseason, has forced every winger to move up to a slot that’s above their depth. With Svechnikov in place and everyone in their more appropriate roles, there would be a lot more checkmarks to go around. That’s even more true with Max Pacioretty in the mix, as well. 

Carolina’s managed to maximize a lot of players within their system, so the team results can outweigh roster strength alone. That’s what they have to hope for this postseason as well, with the same questions about finishing talent and overall oomph lingering. 

Where they continue to shine is with defense. This team’s top four is stacked and among the best in the league. Brent Burns’ resurgence has pushed him back to the forefront as a top defenseman in the league, with Jaccob Slavin right beside him. That second pairing has been outstanding all year. 

That defense will help support goaltending, which started with Antti Raanta in net to open the playoffs. How the series progresses will decide who plays moving forward, and whether Frederik Andersen or Pyotr Kochetkov will push for usage.  

New York Islanders

Bo Horvat outperformed his projection this season, and his role on Long Island sends Mathew Barzal to the wing. Neither one is really off the charts for those designated positions, though. Neither is either member of the Islanders’ top defensive pair. 

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Islanders, one with more commitment to offensive creation that’s cost them back in their own zone. That’s reflected here with some of their top players. Lower in the list, this team checks off more boxes with their depth, including with deadline-addition Pierre Engvall who has added some speed and scoring pop to the Islanders’ second line. 

Where the Islanders stand above the rest is back in goal with Ilya Sorokin, who had an absolutely elite season. He thrived with his biggest workload to date, and should be among the Vezina candidates. Between his ability in net and this team generally thriving in the playoffs stylistically, there’s a chance for a Round 1 upset — especially when looking at what the Hurricanes are missing right now. It’ll require some of their leading skaters to elevate their level from this regular season, though. 

The Devils took strides forward this year, which is why so many players outperformed their expectations. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are superstars, Dougie Hamilton had a bounce-back year, and Dawson Mercer really emerged in the second half.

Another player who outperformed expectations was Vitek Vanecek. Where he goes from here is key. The Devils protect their goalies pretty well, and need at least average results. Vanecek started to struggle in the second half with his expanded workload, which can’t be the case moving forward in the playoffs. 

Tomas Tatar also is 1.2 wins above his projection this season. He’s stepped up and played at a pace that some may have expected from Ondrej Palat, and that’s been reflected in their roles moving forward. Palat has a reputation for his postseason play, which is something the team could use since he’s one of their more experienced players on this roster. 

If this otherwise inexperienced team can carry their exciting regular-season performance into the playoffs, the Devils are in great shape — few teams match up to them in roster strength. But there’s still that range for many that they could slip back into, which is based on more than just this season alone.  That, tied with the fact that roster strength isn’t what it takes to win alone, hurt New Jersey. Experience factor and playing styles could be the difference this series. Already that was the case in Round 1.

In New York, there’s more forward depth than last year thanks to progress from the Kids, including Filip Chytil, and some splashy additions. 

Patrick Kane’s actual value falls short of his projection, after an abysmal year in Chicago. He’s picked it up since the trade, averaging a 0.49 Game Score in 19 games compared to 0.12 in 54 games with the Blackhawks. But this is a player who is obviously past his prime, struggles with pace and defense, and is dealing with an injury. If the forward who has a reputation for playoff success can kick it up a notch, it’ll give the Rangers a boost they need to stack up to their Round 1 opponent. The same is true for Vladimir Tarasenko, whose numbers also struggle from playing the first half of the season on a bad team. If Tarasenko or Kane can play closer to what’s projected for them – the former Blues’ winger had a very strong showing already in Game 1 – it should have a trickle-down effect on their teammates, too. That keeps this team in a good position. 

A key for New York will be the health of Ryan Lindgren. He’s had an excellent year playing alongside one of the best defenders in the league, Adam Fox. Any injury, as last postseason and late this regular season shows, throws the rest of the blue line out of sorts. It pushes players out of their depth, which puts even more pressure on their elite goalie. 

Western Conference

The Golden Knights are back in the postseason, although this might be the team’s weakest roster yet since that first year. Luckily, they check all the boxes with their actual performances this year. But there’s still some questions. 

How will Jack Eichel handle the pressure of his first NHL postseason? He’s been better than projected this year (which was weighed down by a rusty return, and his last year in Buffalo), but not fully at that superstar level that he’s known for. 

How healthy is Mark Stone? If the captain is going to be at his best, Vegas is in serious luck. Even at half-speed, he’s probably better than any depth forward in his place. But there are a lot of unknowns after he missed a lot of time with injury. 

And then there’s goaltending. The net belongs to Laurent Brossoit, since Logan Thompson and Adin Hill aren’t ready to return just yet. He’s had a fine season in Vegas, but has only played so much (this year and in the playoffs overall). Jonathan Quick’s available, too, and he certainly has some postseason games under his belt. But his regular season, and really the last four out of five years, have been pretty awful. 

The Golden Knights’ top-four defenders really check off the boxes, though, and that could provide support for their goaltending. So could the offense, if Eichel and Stone can deliver. The two didn’t in Game 1, in what was a tough outing for Vegas. Neither did the team’s overall offense, especially in the third frame. The foundation is there for the Golden Knights to rely on, which helps their chances moving forward unless that opening series was an indication of what’s to come. 

A couple of players, including Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor, who checked off their respective boxes before the deadline, fell out of favor toward the end of the year. That’s something the Jets need to trend in the opposite direction if they’re going to have a shot. Both came to play in Game 1, which was an encouraging sign already for the Jets. It’s a key reason why they’re ahead in this series to start. 

The current lineup configuration decided a few player designations. Vlad Namestnikov’s a solid two-way facilitator but not second-line caliber, for example. Nikolaj Ehlers’ health is a concern, too. 

Depth is where this team picked it up from a few weeks ago, with the addition of Nino Niederreiter, which has moved Blake Wheeler down a slot, and improved play from Dylan DeMelo. 

The highlight, however, remains in net. Connor Hellebuyck exceeded expectations, which were already high, and is a major reason why his team is here. It’s a big advantage over his Round 1 opponent, and most teams this Jets team could run into.

While there are still holes in Edmonton, this is the best team they’ve iced in some time. 

The Oilers’ 1-2 punch down the center is something few can stack up to. Leon Draisaitl elevated his even-strength play over the last month-plus of the season which allowed the coaches to keep their leading duo of Connor McDavid and Draisaitl on two separate lines. That spreads the wealth out in their top six. High-caliber play from Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins only betters this team’s offensive element on the checklist. 

What’s really kicked their defense up a notch is the addition of Mattias Ekholm, who has been great since the deadline. It slots everyone more appropriately on this list now that he’s jumped up to that No. 1 position noted. His impact has influenced Evan Bouchard’s play as well.

All of that helps prop up goaltending. Stuart Skinner’s unquestionably been the better goalie in Edmonton this season, which is why he’s starting over Jack Campbell. 

The Kings primarily stick with their color scheme in terms of actual performance, with a lot of grey and black. Every element on the checklist has exceeded its projected value. Anze Kopitar’s had a bounce-back year, with Adrian Kempe and Quinton Byfield on either side of him. The return of Gabriel Vilardi for Game 2 adds to their depth; now they just need Kevin Fiala back in the fold. 

Like the Oilers, the Kings made some changes at the deadline. Vladislav Gavrikov’s performing much better in Los Angeles, where he’s in a better system and in a more appropriate role for his caliber. Joonas Korpisalo’s performing well, too; he’s having one of his best seasons yet, which is why it’s such a leap from the projected output based on two seasons prior. Now the Kings just need all that post-deadline success to continue into the playoffs against one of the best in the West. 

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche aren’t as sterling as they were this time last year, when they had gold checkmarks for all but one element. Some of that has to do with Gabriel Landeskog, who was expected to return mid-year. That kept getting pushed, until it was ultimately announced the captain won’t be playing this year. That leaves a couple of holes. 

Colorado didn’t address its second-line center position after Nazem Kadri departed, instead using an internal option in J.T. Compher and hoping he’d be elevated by elite wingers. Without Landeskog, and because of some injuries that shortened Valeri Nichushkin’s season, that hasn’t always been the case. But Jesse’s brother did step up as the 2C, especially with his defensive play. 

Without Landeskog in that first top-line winger slot, every forward has jumped up. It stretches this team a little bit thinner than expected, but they still have the star power from their core forwards and defenders — and that tends to be more important come playoff time than depth. 

Speaking of depth, that’s the signature of the Kraken. It obviously leaves them with quite a few red Xs at the top, though. 

Seattle has some bits of star power — there’s Matty Beniers who is developing into a star, Jared McCann who had a stellar season on the wing, and Vince Dunn who broke out on the back end. 

But gaps elsewhere in the top six make this team fall short of other contenders around the league, and that’s only emphasized by Andre Burakovsky’s absence. Where Seattle does rate out well is lower in their lineup, which is unsurprising considering their approach. 

Then there’s goaltending which isn’t as bad as last year, but not quite a strength, either – unless Philipp Grubauer’s Game 1 level if what the team should expect moving forward.  

So while it doesn’t look great for the Kraken right now on paper, this team has pushed past expectations all season and isn’t stopping just yet. Seattle won Game 1, using their depth to contain some of Colorado’s stars. This series is going to be a good test of the ideas we know about what it takes to build a contender in terms of roster strength. 

Last year, the Stars had a great top line, a No. 1 defenseman, and a breakout star goalie. That was pretty much it. Unless those four skaters were on the ice, little was happening offensively for Dallas. 

That’s changed this year, which is why this team has a lot more checkmarks to show for it. The top line is even better than last year, led by Jason Robertson. Miro Heiskanen’s raised his game this season, and Jake Oettinger has carried last postseason’s level into this year. Now there’s depth to support those five core players. Bounce-backs from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin help, as do breakthrough performances from young talent like Wyatt Johnston. 

The question now in Dallas is Joe Pavelski’s health, whether he can return to play this round (or postseason), and how they manage if he doesn’t. Moving every forward up a slot will make this team look a lot thinner by the checklist, because few can compare to his top-line caliber value. 

If center depth wins championships, the Wild are going to need some help. This team has a number of key elements. Kirill Kaprizov’s their superstar winger, with Matt Boldy right behind him. Mats Zuccarello provides some top-six support. And on the back end, there’s Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin leading the way. 

Filip Gustavsson’s had the stronger season, one that far exceeds expectations, which is why he’s starting in net and the Wild earn another check. 

But the true gap here is down the middle, and that’s only emphasized by the Joel Eriksson Ek injury. Ryan Hartman falls short at the top, and not having an elite center is something a team can try to make up for by sandwiching them between two top-end wingers. But the fact that everyone behind him is slotted out of position with Eriksson Ek hurt only strains the team even more. With him back in the lineup — which could happen if this series goes long — there’s a trickle-down effect that makes this team look a lot better by the checklist. 

 Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, AllThreeZones, HockeyStatCards and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.

(Top photo: Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)