Stanley Cup Checklist: Analyzing the East contenders ahead of the trade deadline

There is no single blueprint for success in the NHL. There are lessons to learn from past champions in terms of roster construction and playing styles, but different ways to apply them to each team. 

There is a common thread between championship-caliber rosters over the last decade-plus: High-end talent in certain positions. One way to measure that is with the Stanley Cup Checklist. 

The Cup Checklist is not the end-all-be-all. It is just one way to analyze roster strength. It sets an average value for a dozen positions as a starting point, from the 2010 Blackhawks through the 2023 Golden Knights, with a range of one standard deviation in each direction. 

There are two ways to evaluate this: With a player’s data for this season only and a projected value based on three years of data, weighed for recency and adjusted for age. Ideally, a team checks off each element. But sometimes, their success stems from actual value exceeding projections; that was the case for the 2022-23 Golden Knights. Other times, a team can miss on quality but make up for it with enough top-notch talent around them, like the Avalanche in 2021-22. 

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With the deadline approaching, it’s time to check in on all the teams in the playoff picture, starting with the Eastern Conference, to see who could use a boost and where. The teams are ordered by the NHL standings heading into Monday night’s matchups, with players positioned based on their usage and role this season. Check back Wednesday for the Western Conference.

Stanley Cup Checklist Legend

Red X: Falls below the range entirely

Gray checkmark: Passable, but below the average champion

Black checkmark: Above average relative to the average Cup winner

Gold checkmark: Exceeds the range entirely

New York Rangers

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The deadline can’t come soon enough for the Rangers. Mika Zibanejad isn’t performing at the level of an elite No. 1 center, and a lot of that stems from a lack of five-on-five production. Finding a right winger to unlock his game, and shift the rest of the depth chart into more appropriate roles, would do wonders for how the team currently grades out. 

Behind Adam Fox, there is a lot more red on the blue line than the Rangers should want. Ryan Lindgren has taken a step back this season, and the Rangers aren’t breaking even in expected goals with the Jacob Trouba-K’Andre Miller pairing on the ice. But this is not something management is likely to fix at the deadline, it’s a problem for the coaches to manage. 

The Rangers rely on their goaltenders to be their backbone, so Igor Shesterkin’s underperformance this year looks like a red flag. But after a disastrous January, he is back on track after saving 8.5 goals above expected through six starts in February. If this is an indication of what’s to come, the team can assume he will be closer to that projected value down the stretch.

Boston Bruins

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The deadline is the prime opportunity to solidify the Bruins’ skater group in front of their excellent goaltending duo. 

To the surprise of no one, a Bruins team that did not replace Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci lacks down the middle. Will this team address it at the deadline? Boston already missed out on Elias Lindholm, and the Sean Monahan trade showed what a premium that position will cost. Instead, the team could look for a difference-making forward on the wing. That would deepen the team’s forward group, and give more support to their top-nine centers. Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha are both on track to exceed their projected values, and this could help push them even further. 

Charlie McAvoy continues to thrive and Brandon Carlo has performed better than expected. But Hampus Lindholm’s injury and Matt Grzelcyk’s struggles will put this team on the market for some defensive reinforcements, too. 

Florida Panthers

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Florida has a little bit of everything, which is why they pass with checks across the board. Aleksander Barkov is having a Selke-caliber season and Sam Reinhart has popped off on both ends of the ice, in all situations. That helped balance out a slower start to the season from Matthew Tkachuk who has found that top gear again. 

The defense is another standout, and that starts at the top with Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. And the depth defenders signed to keep this team afloat while their big guns were sidelined to open the year are providing great secondary support. This team looks poised for a deep run before potentially sprinkling in some deadline additions. 

Toronto Maple Leafs

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The Maple Leafs are built to be top-heavy between Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. That trio is delivering what the Leafs need, and lately, they’re starting to have more consistent secondary scoring thanks to the emergence of Bobby McMann, plus Tyler Bertuzzi finding his finishing touch. If that holds, the return of Calle Jarnkrok could round out the forward group enough. 

The defense isn’t as concerning as it once was, either. Toronto needs more from TJ Brodie, who picked up the pace while Morgan Rielly was suspended. If this group of skaters can keep playing up to their current level, management may only need to make tweaks at the deadline instead of getting splashy. 

In goal, Ilya Samsonov’s rebound from an awful start helps. So does the return of Joseph Woll (who grades out better than his goalie partner). There is some uncertainty there still, but it likely isn’t a deadline priority. 

Carolina Hurricanes

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Carolina was going through it earlier this season back in net, but Pyotr Kochecktov’s game has since stabilized. With the addition of Spencer Martin, plus the potential return of Frederik Andersen (there is no timetable yet), this does not seem like an area management will address. 

Instead, the focus is likely in front of the blue paint. A strong defense remains a part of the Hurricanes’ identity so that does not need much work. Up front, Seth Jarvis’ emergence has given this team more oomph at the top of their lineup, as has Marty Necas over the last few weeks. But this team could still use another bonafide scoring threat. Adding another weapon to the top six would be their best bet for elevating the group, since that 2C position does not stack up to the average championship caliber. 

Detroit Red Wings

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Alex DeBrincat is streaky, but at least is outperforming his projection. A healthy Patrick Kane has been an excellent fit. Shayne Gostisbehere, in the right usage, adds offense from the blue line. And Alex Lyon has stepped up, after starting the year as the team’s third goalie. 

But there’s a lot of room for improvement in Detroit, both in the top nine and on the back end. Moritz Seider and Jake Walman are being dragged down by their extreme usage, but they are the only defenders cut out for that role in Detroit. Adding a defender may not make sense, unless the team can send another out to make space. Already, as Max Bultman explained, offseason signing Justin Holl has been a healthy scratch, and the path for Simon Edvisson to jump up from the AHL has been blocked. So a trade for another forward could make sense — whether the team goes bold for a scorer, or just an all-around utility option. 

Detroit hasn’t hit contender status yet, which leaves them some room for error against this checklist. It has been a year of progress for a Red Wings team that finally took an important step forward. The way to seal that is by reaching the playoffs, no matter how it shakes out. The Red Wings finally don’t have to be sellers at the deadline. Actually buying for a change could be what helps cement those playoff chances even more.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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The cost of winning has chipped away at the Lightning roster, which falls short of those championship seasons. The team’s depth has been completely depleted, and the Mikhail Sergachev injury only strains an area of weakness on the blue line. On top of that, Steven Stamkos has been dragged down by his defense, Andrei Vasilevskiy has only been average, and Victor Hedman could use some support around him. 

Tampa Bay has unlocked deadline cap space to upgrade their defense and possibly address their supporting cast up front. But that’s if — and only if — management has the assets to move to swing trades, which likely means dipping into draft capital for 2025 and 2026. If the Lightning can find some reinforcements, Nikita Kucherov can keep playing MVP-caliber hockey and the rest of the core (especially Vasilevskiy) can flip a switch come playoff time, the potential can still be there. It just isn’t as certain as years past.

Philadelphia Flyers

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Few expected the Flyers to get off to such a strong start this season, and fewer likely saw them still being in the mix with the deadline approaching. 

On paper, this doesn’t look like a contender. Travis Konency has taken another step forward, and the return of Sean Couturier has added a much-needed boost down the middle. Breakout seasons from Sean Walker and Owen Tippett, along with the emergence of Tyson Foerster, have kicked the Flyers up a notch. Almost every player on the checklist has outperformed his projection so far, and John Tortorella’s system seems to have something to do with it. But with eyes on the future, the biggest question is how this team will look post-deadline. Could Walker, Nick Seeler or Scott Laughton be on the move? Will a team pay up for Konency?

This checklist may look a lot different on March 9, and that will be what decides their trajectory for the rest of the year. 

New Jersey Devils

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The biggest conversation around the Devils has been their goaltending. While Nico Daws has been a bright spot at times, not one netminder in New Jersey has been consistent or reliable enough. 

Adding a true No. 1 goalie will get this team closer to stacking up to a championship-caliber roster. Unfortunately, that isn’t all that needs to change for this team to measure up — and that is why their playoff odds aren’t higher at this point. 

Timo Meier has underperformed, and the coaches haven’t done enough to maximize his game, either. On defense, Dougie Hamilton’s absence leaves a huge hole. Simon Nemec has been far better than expected in his first NHL experience, but mainstays from last year like John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler have been nothing short of disappointing in their minutes. After Sunday’s loss to the Lightning, management has to decide what to invest in, and whether this is truly the year to spend at the deadline at all. And there need to be bigger conversations than just the deadline — like whether it’s not the ingredients that are the problem, it’s the chef mixing them together. 

Washington Capitals

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The Capitals are still in the thick of the Metropolitan Division slogfest, against all odds. Realistically, though, this team does not look like a contender. Washington has one of the worst No. 1 defense pairs in the league. Center depth is another glaring area of weakness and that likely won’t change until management can find a high-end No. 1 center to knock everyone else into more appropriate roles. 

The decision on whether or not to sell, or just how many players to move out, may depend on where this team sits next week. But the team’s roster strength at this point is pretty telling, so it may be in the Capitals’ best interest to move out pending UFAs like Anthony Mantha, who has had a better year than expected, Max Pacioretty and Joel Edmundson. 

Pittsburgh Penguins

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The Penguins are the prime example of why the checklist is just one way to analyze contenders. Pittsburgh’s a top-heavy team with some solid secondary pieces like Marcus Pettersson and Bryan Rust. On some nights, this looks like the team to beat led by one of the best players in the world. Other nights, they look imbalanced with a dysfunctional power play that needs to get realistic about their future, quickly. The reality is somewhere in between, and the clock is ticking to figure it out, with the pressure building around how to proceed with Jake Guentzel. 

The team looks even further away from contender status without Guentzel, considering the winger depth behind him. It’s a decision that will have a ripple effect on more than just this year, too. But that will signal whether management is still swinging for the playoffs this year, or starting to plan for next season.

New York Islanders

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It would be one thing if the season-wide numbers just weren’t favorable, and everything post-coaching change showed signs of encouragement. But that just isn’t the case on Long Island.

Brock Nelson remains underrated as a high-end second-line center. Noah Dobson is having a fantastic year. Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal don’t quite hit championship-caliber, but have been slightly better than projected. And Alex Romanov has taken strides this year. 

But Adam Pelech’s having an uncharacteristically tough season when this team relies on him to be a stabilizing force on defense. The supporting cast up front is lacking, and the team needs that to make up for some gaps at the top of the lineup (relative to what a contender should strive for). And Ilya Sorokin has not consistently been his usual dominant self to mask any problems in front of the crease. 

It would not hurt to make some roster tweaks to bring in players who will thrive in Patrick Roy’s systems, but it will take more than just a few deadline adds to get this team back on track. The last thing a team with hopes of contending should want is numerous players falling below their projections. 

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Data via Dom Luszczyszyn and Evolving-Hockey

(Top photo of Brad Marchand and Artemi Panarin: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images )

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