NHL Opinion: The Athletic Projects 2025-26 Standings
NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
Sep 30, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (86) skates with the puck against the New York Rangers during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

By its very nature, sport is chaotic and extremely difficult to predict. The National Hockey League (NHL) is no different, with the last ten Stanley Cups producing seven champions. Yet back in December, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman and a cadre of seven hockey analysts had a go at forecasting the 2025-26 NHL season rankings.

A lot can happen in two and a half years. Still, looking at five factors in roster-building, scoring every team on each, and weighting those scores, Pronman is attempting to provide an objective analytical analysis of the trajectory of each team. Here we list the top six.

6. Vegas Golden Knights

Aside from the glittering lights of the Vegas Strip, which remains the world’s number one gambling destination despite the threat of high-roller online casinos, the money and ownership behind the team have made it one of the best expansion teams in the last 50 years.

Pronman points to this in their analysis of the Knights’ key players, which they say are built to win now. Whether this will still be the case in two-to-three years is a different matter, but they believe they have the right owners to keep the team near the top of the rankings.

5. New York Rangers

Rangers have an intriguing mix of youth and experience. Its five highest-paid forwards are all close to 30, but they have a young core that will be maturing by the time 2025 rolls around. This blend means they may reap the benefits of wise old heads and youthful exuberance.

The team’s ambitious owners will also add some other fresh faces. Adam Sykora is set to join from HK Nitra in Slovakia after the World Junior Championships end in January. The 18-year-old is a hot prospect who will improve even more over the next few years.

Add to this mix Igor Shesterkin, who’ll be just entering his new bumper deal by that point, and we could see Rangers challenging the top five.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

Despite the Leafs not advancing in the playoffs, Athletic writer Jonas Siegel sees a rosy future for them. Pointing to the good management and coaching behind some ‘monster’ regular seasons, he feels that gains made in the postseason could lead to progress in the spring, should general manager Kyle Dubas stay on.

The rise in salary cap could help the Leafs construct a team ready to challenge in three to four years, and fans will keep their fingers crossed that Dubas can get it right.

3. Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche’s run to the 2022 Stanley Cup meant they depleted their prospect pool to bring in new contributors, with Drew Helleson, Conor Timmins, and Justin Barron (among others) making way. But they could fall back on a consistent middle-six player, like Jean-Luc Foudy, to propel them to success.

The team also has one of the strongest cores in the league, with Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar leading the way. A formidable front office, including Joe Sakic and Chris McFarland, backs this up. A top-three ranking may be a tall order, but The Avalanche has shown it has what it takes to be a force over the next three years.

2. Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have proven that they have nous when it comes to drafting and development: they take a sensible long-term approach to contract dealings and have a solid spirit that stands them in good stead.

After a tough time over the last ten years, which saw fan number drop, Hurricanes seem to have turned it around under Tom Dundon, their sole owner who has put his money where his mouth is in previous years. With General Manager Don Waddell, Hurricanes are set to be strong challengers for the Stanley Cup.

1. New Jersey Devils

The Devils are the team that takes the top spot in the 2025-26 rankings, with the Athletic experts picking out their excellent roster and young core. Provided they can keep within the cap when extending Jesper Bratt’s deal and sorting out Damon Severson’s situation, they should be the pick of the bunch at that time.

Devils’ coaching has benefitted from a change of assistants, with their high place in the current standings being proof of that. A losing streak before Christmas dented their hopes of a trophy win this year, but they should have the long-term quality to get right back to the top.