NHL Power Rankings: Panthers remain on top, plus each team’s pivotal player down the stretch

NHL Power Rankings: Panthers remain on top, plus each team's pivotal player down the stretch

Playoff seeding. Just trying to get into the postseason. A lottery pick. Winning the draft lottery so they can have the No. 1 pick.

These are the driving factors that make the remainder of the NHL regular season so compelling. Perhaps the only things more compelling than what happens to these teams are the players whose efforts will play such a massive role in shaping their teams’ short- and long-term futures.

This week, our NHL Power Rankings take a look at each team’s most pivotal player now that the trade deadline has passed.

How we rank: A panel of ESPN hockey commentators, analysts, reporters and editors sends in a 1-32 poll based on the games through Wednesday, which generates our master list here.

Note: Previous ranking for each team refers to the previous edition, published March 1. Points percentages are through Thursday’s games.

Previous ranking: 1
Points percentage: 70.15%

Gustav Forsling: Forsling signed an eight-year extension just days before the Panthers placed his defensive partner Aaron Ekblad on injured reserve following a collision with the newly acquired Vladimir Tarasenko. Forsling’s time in Florida has seen him serve as a reliable defenseman who constantly logs more than 21 minutes while averaging around 0.50 points per game. His contributions could prove even more vital with Ekblad on the shelf as the Panthers chase the top seed.

Next seven days: vs. TB (March 16), vs. NSH (March 21)

Previous ranking: 3
Points percentage: 68.66%

Casey DeSmith: With Thatcher Demko set to miss up to four weeks, a greater value will be placed on what DeSmith can provide the Canucks. They’ve reached a stage where they are fighting for seeding and home-ice advantage as opposed to just trying to win a wild-card spot. Still, those circumstances have made for a tight race for first place in the Western Conference standings and the Presidents’ Trophy.

Next seven days: vs. WSH (March 16), vs. BUF (March 19), vs. MTL (March 21)

Previous ranking: 2
Points percentage: 68.18%

Igor Shesterkin: His .863 save percentage through his 10 games in January raised a few questions. What Shesterkin has done over the past two months has seen him return to a version of the goaltender that’s one of the NHL’s best. He finished February with a .953 save percentage while posting a .933 save percentage in his first three games in March.

Next seven days: @ PIT (March 16), vs. NYI (March 17), vs. WPG (March 19), @ BOS (March 21)

Previous ranking: 5
Points percentage: 68.38%

Charlie Coyle: He recently told ESPN that no one person could replace Patrice Bergeron in the Bruins lineup. Coyle said it took a collective effort in order to fill that void. Even with that approach, what Coyle has done this season has been crucial to the Bruins. His underlying defensive metrics have made him one of the stronger two-way forwards while his offensive production had him five points shy of setting a new career high entering this week. On the whole, he’s on pace to finish with 65 points — which is more than what Bergeron had last season with 58 points in 78 games.

Next seven days: vs. PHI (March 16), vs. OTT (March 19), vs. NYR (March 21)

Previous ranking: 8
Points percentage: 66.42%

Casey Mittelstadt: Yes, we are aware the Avalanche have a potential Hart Trophy winner in Nathan MacKinnon and a possible Norris Trophy winner in Cale Makar. Mittelstadt gets the nod here because the Avalanche must be more than MacKinnon, Makar and Mikko Rantanen to win games. They saw that last season and at times this season, which made the need for a consistent second-line center even more crucial.

Next seven days: @ EDM (March 16), @ STL (March 19)

Previous ranking: 6
Points percentage: 65.44%

Chris Tanev: A talking point that became a full-on conversation after the Stars lost in the Western Conference finals was the need to find a right-handed defensive partner who could complement Miro Heiskanen on the top line. That’s why they got Tanev. His arrival provides the Stars with the sort of shutdown pairing that makes them a threat to win the West, if not the Stanley Cup.

Next seven days: vs. LA (March 16), vs. ARI (March 20)

Previous ranking: 4
Points percentage: 66.92%

Tyler Toffoli: Entering the trade deadline, the Jets were one of two Western Conference teams to score less than 200 goals. They addressed that issue by trading for Sean Monahan in February, and then added Toffoli at the deadline. Toffoli has been a consistent scorer, reaching 20 goals this season for the eighth time in his career. The hope is that his regular-season success can carry over in the Jets’ postseason flight plans.

Next seven days: vs. ANA (March 15), @ CBJ (March 17), @ NYR (March 19), @ NJ (March 21)

Previous ranking: 9
Points percentage: 65.15%

Jake Guentzel: Collecting draft capital and responsibly managing cap space has been the modus operandi for Canes general manager Don Waddell; his front office doesn’t often take massive swings. But being responsible in the past is what allowed them to take a massive swing this trade season to get Guentzel. Guentzel returned to practice this week, and adding him plus Evgeny Kuznetsov makes the Canes a serious threat to win the East and the Stanley Cup.

Next seven days: @ TOR (March 16), @ OTT (March 17), @ NYI (March 19), vs. PHI (March 21)

Previous ranking: 10
Points percentage: 64.84%

Stuart Skinner: Ever since the Oilers hired Kris Knoblauch, Skinner has looked like a different goalie. The .887 save percentage he had in February was a deviation from the .953 save percentage he posted in January. But he has since opened March with a .948 save percentage through his first three games. Of course, the true barometer for Skinner will be when the playoffs start. Can the progress he’s made under Knoblauch carry over into what could be a fruitful postseason for the Oilers?

Next seven days: vs. COL (March 16), vs. MTL (March 19), vs. BUF (March 21)

Previous ranking: 7
Points percentage: 64.62%

Max Domi: The Leafs need consistent contributions from anyone beyond the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander. While he might not reach 56 points like he did last season, Domi is on pace to score more than 40 points for the sixth time in his career. Plus, the Leafs like that he scored 13 points in 19 playoff games. Having a similar level of production this spring will play a key role in the Leafs taking another step in the bracket.

Next seven days: vs. CAR (March 16), @ PHI (March 19), @ WSH (March 20)

Previous ranking: 15
Points percentage: 59.70%

Colton Sissons: The strongest season of his career has also been the most pivotal he’s had in a Predators sweater. With a top line that has accounted for 35% of the team’s goals this season, Sissons’ role on the second line has helped provide another layer to the offense. He’s certainly under the spotlight now, with a pair of new wingers in Anthony Beauvillier and Jason Zucker.

Next seven days: @ SEA (March 16), vs. SJ (March 19), @ FLA (March 21)

Previous ranking: 11
Points percentage: 58.33%

Chandler Stephenson: Trading for Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl were the latest major deals the Golden Knights have made, joining others that saw them add Jack Eichel and Mark Stone in seasons past. What often gets lost are the subtle moves they’ve made to get players like Stephenson. He’s been a presence throughout the top nine who can alternate with William Karlsson to provide two-way stability down the middle. And while the Golden Knights have faced some trouble lately, Stephenson has been a constant with 14 points in his past 15 games.

Next seven days: vs. NJ (March 17), vs. TB (March 19), vs. SEA (March 21)

Previous ranking: 14
Points percentage: 59.23%

Pierre-Luc Dubois: Being the only Western Conference team in a playoff spot at the trade deadline who didn’t make a deal intensifies the need for L.A. to get everything possible out of the current roster. That’s especially true regarding Dubois, whose first season in Southern California hasn’t gone exactly to plan — he’s yet to record more than six points in a single month. Any added production he could provide over the final weeks of the regular season could be crucial in the race for playoff positioning (and beyond).

Next seven days: @ CHI (March 15), @ DAL (March 16), vs. CHI (March 19), vs. MIN (March 20)

Previous ranking: 13
Points percentage: 56.72%

Cam York: The progress York has made this season is one of the reasons why the Flyers have gone from being in a rebuild to holding a playoff spot into the middle of March. His contributions could prove even more valuable given the state of the Flyers’ blue line at the moment. They traded Sean Walker and signed Nick Seeler to a long-term deal while having to then place Seeler on IR, where he joins defensemen Jamie Drysdale and Rasmus Ristolainen. In a season that’s been dictated by so much chaos, some consistency from York going forward would be valuable for the Flyers.

Next seven days: @ BOS (March 16), vs. TOR (March 19), @ CAR (March 21)

Previous ranking: 16
Points percentage: 57.58%

Andrei Vasilevskiy: Everything about the Lightning’s season has been bizarre. A team that’s typically been in the fight for the top seed in March is now in the wild-card race. Several items have led to the Lightning being where they are in the standings. Vasilevskiy’s individual campaign is an example. He’s had only one month with a save percentage greater than .900 — a drop off from his .917 career save percentage. What he does for the rest of March and into April could not only help the Lightning get a playoff spot but do some damage once the postseason arrives.

Next seven days: @ FLA (March 16), @ VGK (March 19), @ SJ (March 21)

Previous ranking: 23
Points percentage: 55.38%

Noah Dobson: Exactly where would the Islanders be without him this season? Dobson has been the latest to emerge in the league’s ever-expanding discussion about how defensemen continue to shape the game. In January, he had 17 points while averaging more than 26 minutes per game. In February, he had nine points while averaging 23 minutes, and he had three points through four games in March, while averaging more than 22 minutes. The Isles will need everyone playing at a high caliber if they want to hold onto the wild card, perhaps none more than Dobson.

Next seven days: vs. OTT (March 16), @ NYR (March 17), vs. CAR (March 19), @ DET (March 21)

Previous ranking: 12
Points percentage: 54.55%

J.T. Compher: This is not the ideal time for Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin to be missing time due to injury. Compher has provided strength for the Red Wings at center, and he’s anchoring their top line with Alex Debrincat and Patrick Kane. An already pivotal line will take on even more importance now with Larkin being out of the lineup.

Next seven days: vs. BUF (March 16), @ PIT (March 17), vs. CBJ (March 19), vs. NYI (March 21)

Previous ranking: 20
Points percentage: 54.48%

Matt Boldy: Look at what he did against the Predators this past Sunday — from the winning goal to being involved in two more to logging more than 20 minutes. Performances like that are the sort that have kept the Wild’s wild-card dream alive. Getting more of those all-around dominant performances from Boldy could help the Wild stay in the wild-card race.

Next seven days: @ STL (March 16), @ ANA (March 19), @ LA (March 20)

Previous ranking: 21
Points percentage: 54.62%

Hendrix Lapierre: To the surprise of some, the Capitals are still in the mix for a wild-card spot. And with the Capitals moving on from certain players at the deadline, that has created opportunities for players to move into more prominent roles. Lapierre has recently skated as the Capitals’ top-line center and scored two goals and four points in his first four games to open the month. Notably, the Capitals went 3-1-0 in those games. What Lapierre does for the rest of the regular season could do more than have an impact on his own future — it could be a key factor in the Caps’ playoff push.

Next seven days: @ VAN (March 16), @ CGY (March 18), vs. TOR (March 20)

Previous ranking: 22
Points percentage: 53.79%

Pavel Buchnevich: Keeping Buchnevich at the trade deadline could ultimately be a decision that helps the Blues remain in the wild-card mix. The veteran forward has been a point-per-game player with St. Louis, and continues to impact the game on a nightly basis in ways that don’t necessarily hit the box score as well.

Next seven days: vs. MIN (March 16), vs. ANA (March 17), vs. COL (March 19), @ OTT (March 21)

Previous ranking: 24
Points percentage: 52.31%

Joey Daccord: Simply put, he is the most consistent goalie the Kraken have had in their three-year existence, and he’s kept the club (somewhat) in the wild-card race. It’s long odds, but if the Kraken do qualify for the playoffs this season, it’ll largely be due to what Daccord has done as their backstop.

Next seven days: vs. NSH (March 16), vs. BUF (March 18), @ VGK (March 21)

Previous ranking: 18
Points percentage: 52.27%

Jonathan Huberdeau: The 21 combined points that Huberdeau scored in January and February were the most he’s posted in a two-month span since being traded to Calgary. At his best, Huberdeau is one of the strongest facilitators in hockey. He can make passes others can’t while being able to chip in with goals as well. The version of Huberdeau that the Flames have seen in 2024 is one they hope can remain present as they try to stay in the wild-card chase.

Next seven days: vs. MTL (March 16), vs. WSH (March 18)

Previous ranking: 17
Points percentage: 51.52%

Jake Allen/Kaapo Kahkonen: Using the trade deadline to revamp their goaltending was a strategy that the Kings used last season to make it into the postseason. Could the same idea work for the Devils now that they have Allen and Kahkonen? It might be too late, barring a miraculous winning streak, but both goalies will be under the spotlight in the coming weeks.

Next seven days: @ ARI (March 16), @ VGK (March 17), vs. PIT (March 19), vs. WPG (March 21)

Previous ranking: 25
Points percentage: 51.49%

Dylan Cozens: Mittelstadt being traded to the Avs meant there was an opening on the Sabres’ second line. They have promoted Cozens to that spot, where he began the week anchoring a line with Zach Benson and Eric Robinson. With the Sabres seemingly out of the playoff race, Cozens could use this time to solidify his place as their second-line center moving forward.

Next seven days: @ DET (March 16), @ SEA (March 18), @ VAN (March 19), @ EDM (March 21)

Previous ranking: 19
Points percentage: 51.54%

Michael Bunting: Similar to the Sabres, the Penguins appear to be in a situation where a wild-card spot is a bit too far out of reach. Seeing how Bunting performs with his new team is something to watch.

Next seven days: vs. NYR (March 16), vs. DET (March 17), @ NJ (March 19)

Previous ranking: 27
Points percentage: 46.21%

Cayden Primeau: Allen’s departure has opened the door for Primeau to receive more time at the NHL level. He’s had 35 games with the Habs, with most of his experience coming in the AHL. This season, he had a .909 save percentage with 19 wins playing for the Laval Rocket. It’s possible that this stretch of games could give the Canadiens and Primeau insight into what comes next for his development.

Next seven days: @ CGY (March 16), @ EDM (March 19), @ VAN (March 21)

Previous ranking: 26
Points percentage: 45.31%

Shane Pinto: Since returning from his 41-game gambling suspension, Pinto has arguably been the Senators’ most consistent player. Pinto has operated as the Sens’ top-line center, with six goals and 18 points in 21 games while logging 17:45 in average ice time. It’s the sort of progress that has seen him continue to build from the 20-goal campaign he had as a rookie last season.

Next seven days: @ NYI (March 16), vs. CAR (March 17), @ BOS (March 19), vs. STL (March 21)

Previous ranking: 28
Points percentage: 44.03%

Dylan Guenther: Opening March with three goals and six points through seven games is an interesting development for Guenther. He had 28 points in 29 AHL games, but there were questions about how that would translate with consistent NHL minutes. So far, so good, as he spent considerable time on a top line with Logan Cooley and Clayton Keller.

Next seven days: vs. NJ (March 16), @ DAL (March 20)

Previous ranking: 29
Points percentage: 41.67%

Dmitri Voronkov: Sure. This space could be used to get into what his season means for the Blue Jackets’ future. Instead, let’s use it to discuss Voronkov’s spot in the Calder Trophy race. A season that’s largely been dominated by Connor Bedard and Brock Faber has seen Voronkov piece together the sort of campaign that makes him an intriguing candidate; he is tied for second in goals and third in points among rookies.

Next seven days: vs. SJ (March 16), vs. WPG (March 17), @ DET (March 19)

Previous ranking: 30
Points percentage: 37.12%

Olen Zellweger: A season that has seen rookie defensemen Jackson LaCombe and Pavel Mintyukov get a chance to impress could provide a similar opportunity for Zellweger. He’s the latest example of why the Ducks are considered to have one of the most promising farm systems in the NHL.

Next seven days: @ WPG (March 15), @ STL (March 17), vs. MIN (March 19), vs. CHI (March 21)

Previous ranking: 32
Points percentage: 31.06%

Connor Bedard: The No. 1 overall pick has scored eight points in his past two games (three goals and five assists) and 18 in 13 games since coming back from a jaw injury sustained Jan. 5. That injury led to questions about Bedard winning the Calder Trophy, with Wild defenseman Faber receiving more attention. And while it could still be a close Calder race, what Bedard has done this week certainly bolsters his side of the argument.

Next seven days: vs. LA (March 15), vs. SJ (March 17), @ LA (March 19), @ ANA (March 21)

Previous ranking: 31
Points percentage: 30.00%

Thomas Bordeleau: Concentrating on the future has been the focal point for the Sharks this season. The expectation is it could be that way for a while, which makes watching how their young players develop paramount. Bordeleau, who has 25 points in 35 AHL games, was called back up to the Sharks in early March and promptly had three goals in his first two games. He recorded one goal and two points in his first six games back in October. Seeing what he does to finish the season could give a look into the club’s future plans.

Next seven days: @ CBJ (March 16), @ CHI (March 17), @ NSH (March 19), vs. TB (March 21)