NHL Midseason Power Rankings (Part One)
by Jason Schwartz - 01/22/2007
With the All-Star Game about a week away, I feel like it was the right time to get out a midseason report on each team. This week's report will feature the top 15 teams and next week I will have reports for the teams ranked 16-30th. After going through the whole midseason with Buffalo and Anaheim exchanging first and second place rankings, finally another team steals the spotlight. Nashville has been excellent as of late, while Buffalo and Anaheim have gotten a bit off track. It is great to see a very competitive NHL season so far. Besides Philadelphia and Los Angeles I cannot see how any of the other 28 teams do not have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. We should be in for a very interesting second half of the season, along with some surprising results.
1. Nashville Predators 34-12-3 (5) - The Predators are exactly where they were projected to be at the beginning of the season, first place in the Central Division. However, I did not think anyone would have planned on them accomplishing what they have this season without backup goalie Chris Mason. Mason jumped in after starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun went down with a thumb injury. During the 20 games Vokoun was out for, Mason was one of the hottest goalies in the league. He is currently among the league leaders in save percentage. This leaves Nashville with two good goalies on their team now that Vokoun has fully recovered. Now about Nashville's offense, the puck movement is great, and they are always great at hitting that open man, whether in transition or across the crease. The offense has much more depth than last season, as they have eight players with 10 goals or more entering the all-star break.
2. Buffalo Sabres 33-12-4 (1) - Nobody in the Eastern Conference looked like they were going to touch Buffalo after their amazing start to the season. Even when injuries sunk in they managed to keep a comfortable cushion at the top. However, a bit of a slip up in the month of January has let some teams come within range of catching them in the Eastern Conference standings. There is no argument that Buffalo is the best offensive team in the league this season. Their chemistry is extremely high, and they can score in bunches. The main problem for Buffalo so far this season is their power play. Yes, the penalty killing unit is not so great either, but this is a team built on offense, that means they should at least be in the top 10 in power play percentage. Currently they are only scoring on 16 percentage of their opportunities, which is ranked 24th in the league. With New Jersey and Ottawa playing solid hockey the Sabres are starting to feel the pressure of being on top, I think they will hang on to lead the Eastern Conference standings.
3. San Jose Sharks 32-16-0 (6) - San Jose has been playing as well as expected this season. Their defense has gone above and beyond what was expected of them. The goaltending duo of Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala has worked out very well as the Sharks have the second best goals-against-average. One player who has not gotten enough credit this season (and probably also in year's past) is Patrick Marleau; the Sharks' captain is leading the team in goals (20) and game-winning-goals (7). The Sharks' power play has been a nightmare for the opposition so far this season; they score on nearly 26 percent of their power play chances, easily best in the league. The Sharks might currently be behind Anaheim in the Pacific Division, but I don't think that will last long. I expect the Sharks are going to get really hot in the second half, as they try to make a run for the President's Trophy (for best record in the league).
4. Anaheim Ducks 30-12-8 (2) - There was a lot of pressure on the Ducks this season to be an elite team and they delivered early on and have not really looked back as they are still No. 1 currently in the NHL standings. The end of 2006 turned into a nightmare for Anaheim though, as they lost goaltender J.S. Giguere and Chris Pronger to injuries. Both players have been having great seasons. You knew the injuries would obviously affect the team's performance, but I did not think it would affect them as much as it already has. Right now it seems like the Ducks are just trying to hang on to their Pacific Division lead until they at least get Giguere back. The goaltending has been pretty weak for the Ducks lately, as Ilya Bryzgalov has not been too sharp in Giguere's absence with a .875 save percentage and 3.15 goals-against-average, more importantly he only has two wins in January. Regardless of their bad performances as of late, the Ducks will continue to fight until the end to try and have the best record in the league.
5. New Jersey Devils 29-14-5 (9) -The Devils are the hottest team entering the all-star break. They are leading the Atlantic Division, and are second in the Eastern Conference. Their defense is the best in the league and they look much better than last season's team. Most fans are aware of Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, and Patrik Elias but I do not know how familiar people are with the Devils' second scoring line, which has helped them get timely goals this season. The Devils second line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner has really gained some surprising chemistry, and as a result there is much less pressure on the top line to produce every night. Although they have two pretty good scoring lines this season, they don't have a great team offensively. They can, however, put the puck in the net when it is necessary. Also, to no one's surprise, Martin Brodeur has been excellent, and this may be his best season yet. This season he is not just among the best goalies, but probably among the league's best players. I think Brodeur could be considered for league MVP right now, it amazes me how well he plays in the clutch.
6. Detroit Red Wings 30-14-5 (3) - Detroit was a bit of a wild card going into this season. The real wild card was their goaltending situation though. General Manager Ken Holland took a chance by bringing back 42-year old goaltender Dominik Hasek during the offseason. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Hasek could still be one of the best goaltenders in the league at age 42. He proved he could still dominate last season with Ottawa. The only concern was if he could actually stay healthy for about 40-50 games this season. So far he has managed to stay healthy, as Hasek is once again shutting down the opposition. Any goaltender would probably be having a good season with Detroit though, as their defense limits scoring chances as well as any team in the league and they allow the least shots on goal per game. Detroit knew they were not as strong offensively as they were last season, so they continue to play sound defensively. It must be still unusual for Detroit to actually find themselves looking up from second place in the Central Division, as they have pretty much owned it over the past five seasons.
7. Vancouver Canucks 27-19-2 (11) - After bringing in outstanding goaltender Roberto Luongo during the offseason, I had very little doubt that the Vancouver Canucks would make the playoffs. After the first two months of the season, though, it looked like the Canucks would find themselves struggling to make the playoffs, as they were one of the worst offensive teams in the league. However, near the end of 2006, this team finally started clicking on the power play, and the offense was finally starting to support the great goaltending of Roberto Luongo. The Canucks have won eight of their last ten going into the All-Star break, and are tied for the lead with Calgary in the Northwest Division. Regardless of whether the Canucks win the Northwest division or not, it looks like Roberto Luongo will finally accomplish his goal of making the playoffs.
8. Ottawa Senators 28-20-2 (17) - Although the Senators were not expected to be as good as last season, the team was still expected to be a great hockey team. For the majority of the season, the Sens were no better than average, and early on they were being portrayed as one of the most disappointing teams in the league. Their offense was not producing anywhere near last season's, and the goaltender they brought in, Martin Gerber, was playing with less and less confidence every start. To make matters worse, Daniel Alfredsson was well off his game, and there were even some people wondering if the Sens should trade him. Awkwardly, things started to turn around for the Senators in late December, just around the time when top line center, Jason Spezza, was reported to be out for four-to-six weeks with a knee injury. Third line center Chris Kelly ended up playing on the top line with Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. This new version of the first line is the best thing that has happened to Ottawa so far this season. The top line has been as good as any line in the league, as Alfredsson has finally found his scoring touch. The Senators are currently playing the type of hockey that fans are more accustomed to seeing them play, an explosive offense that turns into a goalie's worst nightmare. Right now the Sens are ranked second in the league in goals per game. They are currently sitting comfortably in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings. The question is, how much better will they get when Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher return to the lineup? Buffalo better watch out.
9. Montreal Canadiens 27-17-5 (4) - Montreal had everything going their way in the first three months. They were playing consistent hockey, and rarely went on long losing skids. Their special teams were the best in the league, and goaltender Cristobal Huet was as dominant as he was last season. Defenseman Sheldon Souray's bomb from the point made him one of the most dangerous goal-scoring defensemen in the league. After a strong December, the beginning of 2007 has not been so kind to them. One thing that was a bit of worry for the Canadiens was their play in even strength situations (they are ranked 26th in the league). So it is no surprise that when their special teams went sour in January, the team was starting to go ice cold. The Canadiens have recently turned their play around though, as they picked up big wins over Atlanta and Buffalo. This is easily Montreal's best team in over a decade, and they should find themselves with a good spot in the playoffs.
10. Atlanta Thrashers 27-15-8 (8) - Anything short of a playoff spot was going to be a disappointment this season for the Thrashers' organization, but it was also the same story last season as they came up just short at the end. This season the Thrashers are not just in a good spot to make the playoffs, but they are leading the Southeast Division at the midpoint of the season. The main difference between this year's Thrashers and last season is simple: good goaltending. Khari Lehtonen has been a stud in goal, starting in 40 games with a 22-12-7 record. His save percentage is at an impressive .912, and he has four shutouts (just one less than the Thrashers had all of last season). Outside of the great goaltending, the Thrashers have been getting an MVP performance from Marian Hossa. This guy makes everything looks so easy in the offensive zone, and he can handle all the rough stuff thrown at him. The Thrashers are doing a good job of playing some physical hockey, as they are definitely not shy to dish it out this season. As good as the Thrashers have been, I would not be surprised if they ended up blowing their lead in the Southeast Division, I just do not think they have enough offensive depth outside of their first line.
11. Dallas Stars 29-18-1 (7) - I don't think any team has had worse luck in the health department than Dallas. No one would be blaming them if they were in a slump right now. I am not going to waste your time listing all the injured players on their team. The fact is they continue to overcome the loss of their team's top players. Luckily Dallas plays a defensive system, and they have managed to hang in the balance of things in the Western Conference. The defense has done a good job to help chip in with the scoring, and Marty Turco has made the big saves when needed. Before all these injuries, Dallas had the best defensive unit in my opinion. Their team had great balance, and I thought they would at least get a fourth or fifth seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, they play in the tough Pacific Division, which includes San Jose and Anaheim, so they cannot afford to go on any long losing skids. I don't think any team is anticipating the all-star break more than Dallas, and I'm not just saying that because the all-star festivities will be held there, this team needs some serious rest.
12. Calgary Flames 26-17-4 (15) - This season's team and last year's are not much different. They both got off to bad starts, and they both used their home games to get them back in the lead in the Northwest Division. The only real difference is that Jarome Iginla was never injured during last season. A couple of weeks ago he sprained his left MCL, and I am sure there were a lot of worried Flames fans out there. Iginla is Calgary's best offensive player, and one of the best power forwards in the league. On top of that, this team does not have much scoring depth whatsoever. After watching the team play since Iginla has been injured, I must admit, maybe the injury wasn't such a bad thing. I mean it was obviously not a good thing, but look how well the offense has stepped up during his absence. The team won their first five games after Iginla got injured, and they averaged 4.4 goals during those games. Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow have looked excellent during Iginla's absence, and show that the Flames might have more scoring depth than we thought. The fact that they can win games without their best scorer in the lineup should really boost the Flames' confidence. Oh, and of course Mikka Kiprusoff continues to be amazing in goal, as they continue to rely on him just about every night. Until the Flames can get big road wins, I do not consider them much of a threat to be a big contender for the Stanley Cup.
13. Carolina Hurricanes 25-19-6 (10) - Carolina got off to a terrible start to the season, and it took them a while to get back to playing some run-and-gun hockey. Injury problems were mainly to blame for their slow start, as they had trouble with some depth on defense. Lots of so called experts were quick to mention the annoying phrase "Stanley Cup hangover", when referring to Carolina early on in the season. Their offense so far has not been as good as last season. There is no doubt about that, but they have been looking more and more relentless offensively as the season goes on. Carolina has done a great job of hanging onto leads this season; they are the only team in the league to have won every game when leading after the first or second period. That might not have been impressive a couple of years ago, but with the faster paced NHL, it is extremely tough to do. Rod Brind'Amour continues to do one hell of a job leading this team. He not only leads off the ice, but also on the ice. It is nice to see that Erik Cole has recovered very well from the dangerous injury he suffered to his vertebrae in March 2006. Hopefully the Canes can continue to get big goals from their main guys, as the defense continues to face injury troubles. Once the defense is healthy, I am pretty confident Carolina will make a strong push to try and win the Southeast Division.
14. New York Rangers 23-21-4 (12) - There were a lot of high expectations for the Rangers this season after how well they did in the 2005-06 regular season. The team added free agent Brendan Shanahan during the offseason to add some secondary scoring to the lineup. Shanahan not only brought in some much needed secondary scoring, but also great leadership, which the Rangers have not really gotten from Captain Jaromir Jagr. Jagr has done pretty well this year but he is not as dominant as last season. Despite how well the top players have been doing, the Rangers have been somewhat of a disappointment this season. The defense is not physical enough, and they need to be much better if the Rangers want even a shot at the playoffs. Lundqvist's sophomore season has been a bit inconsistent, but he has been playing much better as of late, giving the Rangers a chance to win. Besides not being physical enough on defense, the team relies way too much on its top powerplay unit. Their second power play unit does not provide much, and they are very weak in even strength situations as a team. The Rangers are barely clinging on to a playoff spot right now, while they should really be pressing New Jersey for top spot in the Atlantic Division. The defense is a key to getting better in the second half, but they also need production from the second and third line players.
15. Minnesota Wild 25-20-4 (14) - The Wild were considered one of the many pleasant surprises to begin the season. They had an impressive 9-2-0 record after the first month, but things slowly got worse after that. The team played with little energy on the road, and at the same time they were pretty much unbeatable at home. At one point they had eight straight wins at home, along with an 11-game winless streak on the road. I should probably mention that Marion Gaborik was out for 34 games during the first half of the season, although the Wild have some great offensive threats in Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston; Gaborik is still their main goal scorer. Since Gaborik's return, the Wild have won four out of their last five on the road and Gaborik has had six goals during that five-game road trip and has definitely improved the offense overall. Unfortunately, at the same time they are currently winless in their last four at home, really weird. One thing that has definitely been on the Wild's side this season has been overtime and the shootout; they are 13-4 in games that go beyond regulation. They have also been one of the most dangerous shootout teams, with about five or six legitimate shootout threats; they have cashed in on an impressive 54 percent of their shootout attempts.
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