2015 Ultimate Standings: Lightning, Ducks lead NHL teams

ESPN the Mag's Ultimate Standings: NHL (2:21)

ESPN the Magazine's Peter Keating explains why the Lightning and Ducks are near the top of the Ultimate Standings, while the Maple Leafs finished as the worst sports franchise on the list. (2:21)

This year, the NHL had 18 teams in the top half of all franchises, more than any other league. That's thanks in large part to high scores in categories like bang for the buck and player likability, almost across the board. Of course, the bad -- well, it's really bad: The Maple Leafs received the worst scores in all of sports in categories like "has affordable ticket prices," "has players that always give their best effort" and "makes it easy to buy tickets online." On the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Lightning and Ducks have respected owners, affordable ticket prices -- and winning records. Moral of the story? It's good to be a hockey fan -- as long as you're not in Toronto.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (3 overall)

The Lightning fell just short of the ultimate prize last season, losing a hotly contested, six-game Stanley Cup final to the Blackhawks. But the Bolts are hockey's big winners as far as we're concerned. Not only did Tampa Bay reach the upper echelon of our Ultimate Standings, finishing third overall and first among NHL teams, it is top-four among all pro clubs in four categories. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

2. Anaheim Ducks (4 overall)

The Ducks may have had to watch the hometown rival Kings host Stanley Cup parades in 2012 and 2014, but they continue to earn high marks from our voters. Even with a slight dip from last year's No. 2 ranking, Anaheim is fourth overall and second in hockey behind only Tampa Bay. "It's terrific to be considered that way," Aaron Teats, the team's chief marketing officer, told ESPN. "It's humbling." -- Scott Burnside READ MORE

3. Dallas Stars (10 overall)

The Stars' mix of affordability, player access and anticipated success on the ice has bumped Dallas into the Top 10 of all franchises for the first time since our rankings began in 2003. Now, coming off a season in which they took a step back in the standings, the Stars hope that the addition of Stanley Cup winners Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya will improve not only their Ultimate Standings finish but also their division chances. -- Craig Custance READ MORE

4. Detroit Red Wings (14 overall)

The Red Wings have long been the gold standard for NHL franchises, in large part because of owner Mike Ilitch, who this year finished as hockey's top owner as well as third-best boss in all of sports. "Not only does [ownership] want to win, they will do everything they can do to win," says Tom Wilson, the CEO and president of Olympia Entertainment, which runs the business side of the Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. "As a fan, if you know the owner wants to win as bad as you do, that creates tremendous loyalty." -- Craig Custance READ MORE

5. Chicago Blackhawks (17 overall)

Three Stanley Cups in six years have been good for the hearts and minds of Chicago Blackhawks fans but not for their wallets. While the Blackhawks rank near the top in every category related to on-ice performance, the franchise dropped outside the overall top 10 this year because of rising costs to attend games at the United Center. -- Scott Powers READ MORE

6. Columbus Blue Jackets (19 overall)

As the Ohio capital's lone representative in the big four sports leagues (all due respect to Major League Soccer and the Columbus Crew), the Blue Jackets really matter in a city that revolves around Ohio State football. And with a ranking of 19th overall, fans don't seem to care much that their hockey squad has made the playoffs just twice in 15 years and has yet to win a postseason round. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

7. Nashville Predators (27 overall)

After a down season that led to the firing of longtime coach Barry Trotz in 2014, the Predators made a return to the playoffs last season, and with it came a jump in fan satisfaction. Nashville climbed 13 spots in the standings, from No. 40 overall last year to No. 27, boosted in large part by a strong -- and affordable -- stadium experience. -- Craig Custance READ MORE

8. Pittsburgh Penguins (31 overall)

Just two years ago, the Penguins were standing at a tall No. 7 in our overall rankings. It's a mark of just how high fans' expectations are that, after a ninth straight playoff appearance (a first-round loss to the Rangers in a season in which the roster was crippled by injuries), they fell another six spots to No. 31 overall. Don't cry, Pittsburgh: There's always 2009. -- Bianca Hock READ MORE

9. Minnesota Wild (37 overall)

The Minnesota Wild are maturing into a team that is consistently in the playoff hunt every year, and that success has translated into strong fan satisfaction. The Wild dropped out of the top 25 overall among all sports but still finished a sold No. 37, thanks in large part to strong faith in Craig Leipold (17th in ownership), who has consistently spent on payroll. Leipold famously invested nearly $200 million in signing free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in 2012 -- the team hasn't missed the playoffs since. -- Craig Custance READ MORE

10. Los Angeles Kings (39 overall)

It might take awhile to get to the top -- in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup and in our Ultimate Standings -- but it sure doesn't take long to slide down the hill. Witness the Los Angeles Kings, who, after winning their second title in three years in 2014, ranked no worse than sixth in coaching, players, fan relations and title track last year en route to a No. 5 overall ranking. But after missing the playoffs this spring and in the midst of much off-ice upheaval, they dropped to 39th this time around. -- Scott Burnside READ MORE

11. St. Louis Blues (43 overall)

After climbing to No. 11 overall in the standings last season, the Blues dropped to No. 43 after another first-round playoff exit. Large drops in coaching, players and stadium experience explain the fall, although the team still remains in the top third of all NHL franchises. -- Craig Custance READ MORE

12. Arizona Coyotes (44 overall)

All things considered, the beleaguered Coyotes' being in the top half of the fan rankings should be treated as a moral victory of no small measure. Yes, the Yotes dropped slightly -- from 41st a year ago to 44th this year -- but for a team that continues to be plagued by issues relating to its very existence, the numbers could have been a lot uglier. -- Scott Burnside READ MORE

13. Florida Panthers (48 overall)

The Florida Panthers have made the playoffs just once since 2000, and they were bounced in the first round in that 2012 appearance. That lack of even a modicum of success, plus an ownership situation that has been more hot potato than cold comfort, means there were nights last season when Twitter mocked the first-period crowds at BB&T Center -- it might have been easier to introduce the fans to the players. But things are looking up, at least in our standings, after the Panthers shot 54 places up the charts to be ranked 48th this year. -- Paul Grant READ MORE

14. Colorado Avalanche (51 overall)

The momentum from the 2013 hiring of Hall of Famer Patrick Roy and subsequent division title and playoff run is gone for the Avalanche. Colorado dropped from No. 16 overall down to 51st -- this after an Ultimate Standings-record 85-place jump from 2013 to 2014. The Avs dropped in all eight categories in a decline that reflected the fall they took in the standings last season. -- Craig Custance READ MORE

15. Montreal Canadiens (54 overall)

Since finishing 111th in 2011, the Canadiens have steadily ascended our standings, sitting in the top half of all franchises for the past four years. It doesn't hurt that on the ice the team has made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, finishing with 100 points or more in each of the past two campaigns -- the first time the Habs have repeated triple-digit totals since 1989. Now if the team can take one more step in the playoffs, its star will continue to rise. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

16. Washington Capitals (55 overall)

The Caps were heading in the wrong direction a year ago, falling from No. 68 in 2013 to 94th overall. But the hiring of coach Barry Trotz immediately turned attitudes around in the nation's capital. Washington -- which was a Game 7 overtime goal away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals last spring -- now trend all the way up to No. 55. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

17. Calgary Flames (56 overall)

The Flames enjoyed a renaissance in 2014-15, defying skeptics not only by making the playoffs but also by winning a round for the first time since 2004. The good news didn't stop there, as Flames general manager Brad Treliving acquired top-four defenseman Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins at the draft, fueling enthusiasm that the Flames are back to stay. That renaissance is reflected in how fans view the team: The Flames jumped a whopping 33 spots in the rankings, from 89 to 56. "Obviously, it was exciting last year," Treliving told ESPN. "Outside of our room, I think there were little or no expectations for our team." -- Scott Burnside READ MORE

18. Ottawa Senators (58 overall)

In early 2015, things seemed to be going from bad to worse for a franchise that dropped 83 spots between the 2013 and '14 rankings. The Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot in February, two months after coach Paul MacLean had been replaced by rookie bench boss Dave Cameron. Then starting goalie Robin Lehner got injured. Enter minor league call-up Andrew Hammond, who carried the Senators all the way to the postseason, where they put a scare into top-seeded rival Montreal in the opening round. The Sens lost the series in six, but their unlikely resurgence helped propel them back to respectability, not to mention 34 places up our poll. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

19. Buffalo Sabres (62 overall)

How is it that a team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference two straight seasons gained 13 places in our franchise rankings? The Sabres articulated their vision for building a winner through the draft, then executed the plan, losing lots of games, hoarding picks and landing can't-miss prospect Jack Eichel at No. 2 overall in the 2015 draft. More than 17,000 fans turned out to see Eichel play. In a scrimmage. In July.-- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

20. Winnipeg Jets (69 overall)

As we know, winning isn't everything -- but it's a lot. And the Winnipeg Jets, who brought their tattered history from Atlanta to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011, have won ... well, squat. Zero playoff wins and just two playoff appearances since 1999. One of those postseasons happened last spring -- along with the emergence of top young talent and a blockbuster trade -- to help the Jets jump a healthy 28 spots in the fan rankings from 97th to 69th. -- Scott Burnside READ MORE

21. New York Islanders (73 overall)

The Islanders are doing the reverse commute from now on, keeping their practice facility on Long Island and playing their home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The franchise also has changed direction in our standings. After posting a triple-digit number five times in a six-year span, the Isles have their best ranking since coming in at No. 57 in our inaugural standings in 2003. -- Doug Mittler READ MORE

22. New Jersey Devils (74 overall)

The Devils reached their fifth Stanley Cup final in 16 seasons just three years ago, but forgive fans for feeling as if that 2012 defeat to the Kings happened during a different era altogether. In many ways, it did. The stars of that team -- Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur -- were all gone before the 2014-15 season began. They've been followed out the door since by captain Bryce Salvador, who recently announced his retirement. But the biggest blow for the Devils came off the ice when Lou Lamoriello, the only general manager the 28-year-old franchise had ever known, shocked the hockey world this offseason by stepping down to take the same role with the Maple Leafs. That loss is reflected in these rankings with New Jersey -- which won three Cups on Lamoriello's watch -- plummeting 27 spots overall. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

23. New York Rangers (75 overall)

Backing the Blueshirts isn't cheap, but the Rangers have repaid their fans' loyalty with interest over the past four years, reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 and last season, and coming within three overtime wins of the Stanley Cup in 2014. Despite falling just short of capturing their sport's glittering prize, the future looks bright on Broadway with the core of Alain Vigneault's team -- including captain Ryan McDonagh, center Derek Stepan and all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist -- all locked up long-term. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE

24. Carolina Hurricanes (78 overall)

It appears the further the Carolina Hurricanes get from 2006, the year they won their first and only Stanley Cup, the more they fall in our rankings (they've dropped each of the past six years). This year, after a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division, Carolina fell 15 spots to 78th overall. -- Bianca Hock READ MORE

25. Philadelphia Flyers (81 overall)

The Flyers' second engraving on the Stanley Cup is officially over the hill and facing a midlife crisis: the 1975 title -- the franchise's last -- turned 40 this year. Last season's sixth-place finish in the Metropolitan Division did nothing to end that streak and, after a third straight year that ended either before the postseason or in the first round, Philadelphia sank 21 spots in our standings to 81st -- 81st! -- Bianca Hock READ MORE

26. San Jose Sharks (88 overall)

The Sharks owe a debt of gratitude to their football neighbors in nearby San Francisco. If not for the 76-point plunge by the 49ers, the NHL's Sharks would own the biggest drop in our overall standings. It's a precipitous fall for a franchise that has traditionally graded well in our rankings, placing no lower than 32nd in seven of the past eight years and as high as 12th in 2010. -- Doug Mittler READ MORE

27. Boston Bruins (93 overall)

Bruins fans have always been passionate about their team, but they've never been known for their patience. The team's missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons is certainly reflected in these rankings. And with significant changes to Boston's front office and roster, many questions remain heading into 2015-16. -- Joe McDonald READ MORE

28. Edmonton Oilers (112 overall)

The bad news if you're the Edmonton Oilers is that you rank 112th of 122 pro sports franchises in North America. The good news? That's three spots better than a year ago. And, not to put too positive a spin on things in the town they used to call The City of Champions but for whom the playoffs now have become something from the dim past, we can only imagine next year's rankings will reflect a healthy climb up the ladder, given the significant changes within the organization -- including landing the next great prospect, Connor McDavid, in June's draft. -- Scott Burnside READ MORE

29. Vancouver Canucks (113 overall)

It was only four years ago that the Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and ranked a respectable No. 43 in our standings. But the bottom fell out the next year (with a 59-point drop) and has settled a little bit deeper every year since. The Canucks have their lowest mark since we began our rankings in 2003 and are in triple digits for the second straight year. -- Doug Mittler READ MORE

30. Toronto Maple Leafs (122 overall)

The hapless, entitled Leafs have owned last place in this ranking in three of the past four years. No franchise in the four major sports leagues charges more for delivering less ($139 total cost per game for a club that has failed to qualify for the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons). The dream management crew second-year team president Brendan Shanahan has assembled -- GM Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock both arrived this summer -- means there is finally real cause for optimism in a city that calls itself the Hockey Capital of the World. -- Doug McIntyre READ MORE