Which NHL Team is the Best?

The NHL season is three months in, and we are already starting the premature spiral of predicting the playoff outcomes and having the well-worn debate over who is the best team in the league. The obvious answer would be to look at the top of the standings, and there (as of January 22nd) sits the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have been incredible. They are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league and started on a massive win streak. They sit number one in the Atlantic and number one in the NHL. However, today (January 22nd) by points percentage, the first-place team in the NHL is split between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Stanley Cup Favorite, Colorado Avalanche. Both teams have been dominant, beating other contenders and bottom dwellers all the same. Then, of course, there are the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have still failed to fall off. So here is the debate, which of these teams is the class of the NHL and which are just good teams who orbit the top like planets to the sun. 

Lightning: 

The Lightning are back-to-back Cup champions. This season they have looked dominant even with important players out to injury and after losing their third line in the off-season. The team looks just as powerful and dominant as it has in years past. Andrei Vaslevskiy, the Lightning’s goalie, still looks like arguably the best goalie in the league. The team has held up, and now they are more built for the playoffs, with pieces like Corey Perry brought on to the team in the off-season. Since they are the reigning Cup Champions, the argument can be made that they are the best team in the NHL until a new Cup Champion is named. 

The Lightning are still outstanding, just not as good as they have been in the years where they won the cup. However, while they are built more for the playoffs now, they lost some crucial pieces in Yanni Gourde and Kevin Shattenkirk, who were great for the Lightning in the playoffs the last two years. The team lost a lot of its offensive prowess, and, on paper, they are no longer as scary as they were in 2020 and 2021.  

Panthers: 

The Panthers have found their groove. They are dominating; the most impressive part is that while they have highly-skilled players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad, they are experiencing this success without “stars” like Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar on their roster. The team is led in goals by Barkov, but the number of goals he leads by is small enough to indicate that the Panthers are getting scoring from more than their most prominent players. They are an extremely deep team that looks unbeatable when they have solid goaltending.  

Their division is arguably the most difficult as it features the last two years’ Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning and contenders like the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. It makes it even more impressive that the Panthers sit on top of the division in the first place. 

One of the big points of concern with the Panthers is that their away record is a mediocre 5-5-5 (or 10-5 if we disregard the loser point). They are barely a five hundred road team with an incredible home record. Can you really be the best team in the league if you can only mount that performance in one building? However, if they finish first in the league, they will get home ice for every playoff series, making them incredibly dangerous. 

Avalanche:

I have spent the past year covering the Avalanche for the Regis University Highlander, so to say that I know the team pretty well would be an understatement. The team is incredible and has top ten talent in both the forward and defense groups. Their goaltending has finally solidified as Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz have had impressive performances. While there are tiny flaws that the team has which could lead to trouble for them in the playoffs, they are built to win and are doing it spectacularly. They lead the league in goals per game, and they find ways to win, whether it’s 7-6 or 2-0. They are an absolute wagon ready to slay any team in their wake. They are doing all of this with a chronically injured lineup that hasn’t been complete for more than one game all year. When fully healthy, both the forward group and blue line are tremendously deep. 

The only thing to be wary of is that the Avalanche’s most recent success comes from a ridiculously high PDO. PDO and shooting percentage, both of which are high for the Avalanche, tend to regress to the mean, which means that the level of offensive domination is bound to come back down to earth. However, down to earth for the Avalanche will probably still be exceptional. 

Hurricanes: 

The Hurricanes are a fun team. They are relatively young, have elaborate victory celebrations, and have a fantastic social media team. They are a well-built team that continues to produce and wins games, all while having a little fun with it. The whole team gives off a scrappy, loveable, underdog energy even though they are one of the best teams in the league and far from the underdogs. The Hurricane’s pride and joy is their d-core which is excellent. With pieces like Jaccob Slavin and Ethan Bear, their blue line is perfect for shutting down other teams. The Hurricanes also have a solid forward group, with Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov as bright young offensive talents. 

In net, the Hurricanes have Frederik Andersen, former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender, who signed with the team in the off-season. Andersen has done a great job behind a d-core as skilled as the Hurricanes’. The only worry about Andersen is his poor performance in the playoffs. But for now, he is playing incredibly and is helping the team stay dominant. 

The only drawback to the Hurricanes is their depth on offense. The Canes seem to be getting depth scoring, but when looking at the forward group, it is not as convincing. I would take the Panthers, Lightning, and Avalanche forward groups over the Hurricanes any day of the week.

So, what team is the best in the NHL? I am inclined to say that debate lies between the Avalanche and the Panthers for the title. Both are teams with impeccable home records and can destroy almost any other team in the league. Truthfully, the best team in the regular season has little clout besides getting a home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs (which is a massive benefit if you are Florida). Winning the President’s Trophy is considered a curse, and playoff hockey is a whole different beast. So what team is the best, that’s all speculation until the season ends and playoff hockey begins. 

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