NHL contender tier rankings at the midpoint of the 2021-22 season

On this date in 2019, the St. Louis Blues were a .500 team that had given up 10 more goals than they had scored. They were outside the playoff picture, struggling to turn their season around under interim coach Craig Berube.

They were also about to embark on an 11-game winning streak, followed by a playoff berth, followed by a postseason journey that led to the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.

They're an outlier, of course. In the NHL salary cap era, 77% of the teams that were in a playoff seed on Thanksgiving ended up making the postseason. The 2018-19 Blues were not in one, residing in last place while their fans slurped cranberry sauce.

All of this is a reminder that the NHL regular season is a mixture of predicable norms and those anomalous surprises that keep us watching until the 82nd game. Keep that in mind as you read the latest batch of NHL contender tiers, which seek to separate the contenders from the pretenders at the midpoint of the season. A lot can change in short amount of time. To wit: We had the Edmonton Oilers tasting the Cup(!) in our quarter-mark rankings back in December!

Here are the latest NHL Stanley Cup contender tiers:

Tasting the Cup tier

Carolina Hurricanes
Colorado Avalanche
Florida Panthers
Toronto Maple Leafs

I believe these four teams are the true Stanley Cup favorites at the midway point of the season.

The Hurricanes are the total package. Through 39 games, they were No. 1 in goals-against average -- thanks in no small part to Frederik Andersen being second in the league in goals saved above average -- and fourth overall in goals per game. Sebastian Aho reminds me of Anze Kopitar: He's a No. 1 center who is acknowledged as a great player, and one who will be immediately elevated to "elite franchise player" the moment he lifts the Stanley Cup. I also have full faith in this front office to make the necessary trade deadline additions to the roster. Or at least I have faith that Eric Tulsky will lobby for them.