NHL Midseason Power Rankings (Part Two)
by Jason Schwartz - 01/22/2007
The Western Conference playoff picture is a bit clearer than the Eastern Conference going into the All-Star break. Every team in the east except for the Philadelphia Flyers is at least within four points of a playoff spot. The west has had some more competitiveness added to it over the past month, as Phoenix and St. Louis have gained back some ground after their terrible starts to the season. That being said, every team ranked from 26th up in this portion of the midseason power rankings has a legitimate shot at the playoffs.
16. Tampa Bay Lightning 26-22-2 (21) - The Lightning were really hoping that the addition of goaltender Marc Denis would somewhat help the problems they had from last season. Unfortunately, he did not perform as expected. Rookie goaltender Johan Holmqvist has recently snuck in to steal the starting duties from Denis. Holmqvist has not been great, but he has done a decent enough job to give the Lightning a chance to win. One thing Tampa Bay definitely has going for them is the best scoring duo in the NHL. Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St.Louis are both atop the goal scoring leaders with 30 at the All-Star break. St. Louis looks even better than he did when he won MVP back in 2003-04. The Lightning are one of those teams that I believe are better than their record shows. They can win big games on the road, and they have no quit in them when they are down. Look for the Lightning to make the Southeast Division a three-team race as they try to out duel Carolina and Atlanta.
17. Pittsburgh Penguins 21-17-8 (18) - I don't think any team has turned their winning attitude around better this season than the Penguins. After finishing in second-to-last place last season, the Penguins are making a push for a playoff spot. Yes, Sidney Crosby and extremely talented rookie Evgeni Malkin have been a big reason to the Penguins' success, but there are other players who should also be getting credit. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is having his best season yet, as he is capable of stealing some games for the Penguins. Also rookie Jordan Staal (Eric's younger brother) has been a pleasant surprise to the Penguins' lineup, as he is third on the team in goals and is leading the league in shorthanded goals with five. Although they are very young, the Penguins have the fifth best offense, and on some nights they really give the opposition nightmares with their excellent puck movement. Just ask anyone the Philadelphia Flyers if you don't believe me.
18. Colorado Avalanche 24-20-3 (16) - A lot people predicted that the Avalanche had a slim chance to make the playoffs, and so far their record shows they are just three points out. As a team the Avalanche have looked good though, it is actually the goaltending that has kept them out of the playoffs thus far. Goaltender Jose Theodore has been awful this season; he has a 3.13 goals-against-average, with a .897 save percentage. The 2003 MVP has actually lost his job to Peter Budaj recently, and the way Budaj is playing the past two weeks suggests that it will be tough for Theodore to get another chance to prove that he can still be an elite goaltender. Although this was a very weak Avalanche team on paper going into the season, lots of players have taken advantage of their opportunities to fill any void Colorado had. Rookies Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski are the best example of this, as they have been phenomenal this season. Colorado has also lost some of their key defensemen to injury, most recently offensive defenseman John-Michael Liles to a broken foot. The Avalanche continue to stay within range of the Calgary Flames in the Northwest, and with the winning attitude they possess I would be surprised if Joe Sakic and company were not around come playoff time.
19. New York Islanders 22-21-4 (13) -Even though they have cooled down as of late, the Islanders have done a good job of proving their critics wrong in the first half of the season. A team that became the joke of the league during the offseason was predicted to finish near the bottom of the standings. Right now they are tied for 11th place in the Eastern Conference, but they are only a couple of points out of a playoff spot. The hiring of Head Coach Ted Nolan has worked out well as the Islander's defensive game has improved immensely compared to last season. Former first overall pick, Rick DiPietro, is finally having his breakout season in goal and is a big reason why the Islanders are a game above .500. One huge problem for the Islander's this season has been the penalty department. The team has trouble staying out of the box, and their penalty killing is below average. They are one of the best teams in even-strength situations, so if they stay out of the box they could possibly find themselves in the playoffs.
20. Edmonton Oilers 23-21-4 (20) - Going into the season a lot of people thought the Oilers would have a ton of trouble on defense, but apparently that has not really been the case. It is the offense that has not been providing as expected. The Oilers have some of the best young forwards in the NHL, but they have been pretty inconsistent overall this season. The defense has done what they can and especially the penalty killing unit as they fearlessly block shots night after night. Even though the Oilers are not far out of a playoff spot, I see them on the outside looking in this season. Unfortunately it looks as if they will not be making any Cinderella run for the Cup this season.
21. Toronto Maple Leafs 22-21-6 (22) - General Manager John Feguson Jr.'s only goal during the offseason was to get some better help defensively and he overpaid for defensemen Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina. Then he tried to solve the Leafs' goaltending problems by getting Andrew Raycroft (2004 Rookie of the Year). None of these offseason moves have turned out well, and the Leafs are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Luckily, their offense has been able to keep them in the playoff race. They have had injury problems and they seem to keep getting worse as defensive forward Michael Peca and top playmaker Kyle Wellwood are out indefinitely. Raycroft has yet to get over his sophomore jinx from last season. The Leafs took a risk on trading for him, hoping he would be the same type of goalie he was during his rookie campaign, but that risk has not fared too well. If the Leafs want to make the playoffs Raycroft is going to have to start stealing the Leafs some hockey games, and Mats Sundin will have to be excellent in the second half like he did last season.
22. Phoenix Coyotes 22-24-2 (22) - I thought the Coyotes were a team that would definitely surprise some people entering the season, but they actually turned out to be very disappointing early on. Teams were blowing right by them in the first month of the season as a lot of the Coyotes' top players were shelved with injuries. Then came the Yanic Perreault signing, and not to mention the trade for goaltender Mikael Tellqvist. Both of these moves have helped turn the Coyotes' season around for the better. Perreault was picked up at a bargain price and he is known for scoring close to 20 goals at best, but he is labeled really as a face off specialist. Since he was signed by the Coyotes, Perreault has 15 goals and four game-winners in 36 games, and of course leads the league in face offs won in terms of percentage. Tellqvist has also done a great job since joining the Coyotes; he has a record of 9-5-2 and has made the big saves when necessary. His play has also taken some pressure off of Curtis Joseph. The Coyotes have gotten better as the season has worn on, and have actually been one of the top five teams in the league since mid-November in terms of points in the standings. What a great job Wayne Gretzky has done coaching this team.
23. St. Louis Blues 19-21-8 (28) - Has any team turned their performance around more during the season than the St. Louis Blues? Early in the year the Blues looked like they were going to be out of the playoffs by midseason. Then they decide to axe Head Coach Mike Kitchen and bring in Andy Murray. Since the coaching change the Blues are one of the hottest teams in hockey. They have been grinding out wins at home and on the road against quality opponents. The Blues were on a roll going into the All-Star break, with points in 16 of their last 18 games. After a weak couple of months to open the season, goaltender Manny Legace has been shutting the door against opposing shooters with a .926 save percentage since the beginning of December. Despite their great play the past two months, the Blues are still eight points out of a playoff spot. Their defensive system is looking good right now but I do not think this team will make the playoffs.
24. Boston Bruins 22-20-4 (19) - With the signings that the Bruins made during the offseason, I would have to say that their play during the first half was a bit disappointing. I mean they are still in the hunt for the playoffs but their defense is terrible, and this is the team that brought in arguably one of the best defenseman in the game, seven-foot monster Zdeno Chara. Surprisingly their power play has been very effective; the addition of Chara and Marc Savard really helped out that area. This season also saw Glen Murray show that he still has some goals left in him, as he and Savard have had solid chemistry together so far. A stat that really stands out in my mind is that they have been outscored 67-38 in the third period this season. No way are you going to make the playoffs when you get outplayed that badly in the third period.
25. Washington Capitals 20-21-7 (25) - I feel bad putting the Capitals so low in the rankings at the midpoint of the season because they have improved a lot since last season. Although Alexander Ovechkin is the main headline, he is not the only positive thing going for the Capitals these days. Winger Alexander Semin is having an excellent rookie campaign; his soft hands and lethal shot are a great compliment to Ovechkin. Starting goaltender Olaf Kolzig has also done his job well, facing a ton of shots night after night while still possessing a very respectable .910 save percentage. Although the Capitals are one of the better offensive teams this season, their defense continues to be their Achilles heel and will most likely fade them from the playoffs.
26. Florida Panthers 18-22-10 (26) - I thought the Panthers would surprise some teams this season. There may have been no Luongo but there was still plenty of good young talents. Unfortunately, star forward Todd Bertuzzi has been out of the lineup for the majority of the first half, and future Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk called it quits in early December. Their offense has shown some positive signs, creating good scoring chances but they haven't good at capitalizing on them. Ed Belfour hasn't looked too shabby for a 42-year-old, but again he is no Roberto Luongo. Florida has not exactly thrown in the towel yet this season despite being second last place in the Eastern Conference, and they could get in a good rhythm once Todd Bertuzzi returns.
27. Columbus Blue Jackets 18-25-5 (27) - It must be a bit annoying to be the only team currently in the NHL to have yet to make the playoffs. They did enter the league in 2000, but they are far from an expansion team these days. This season once again had high hopes but once again the Blue Jackets got off to a bad start. They fired their coach, Gerard Gallant, and replaced him with a Stanley Cup winner in Ken Hitchcock. Under Hitchcock the team started to put in a better effort night in and night out, but eventually their lack of depth caught up with them. Every writer that said this was the year the Blue Jackets finally break out can start to bite their tongue as Columbus will be lucky to finish with a .500 record.
28. Chicago Blackhawks 17-24-7 (23) - Early on I thought this would be the team of the West that surprises everyone. The Blackhawks got off to a good start until their injury-prone star, Martin Havlat, went down with an ankle injury. When Chicago brought in Denis Savard as their new head coach in late November, the team had a good string of games but nonetheless they will be near the basement of the Western Conference by the end of the season. There are just too many injuries and not enough depth to fill the voids.
29. Los Angeles Kings 16-28-6 (29) - I was expecting the Kings to basically consider this a rebuilding year (even if they did bring in an anchor defenseman in Rob Blake). The Kings have probably had the biggest problems in terms of goaltending this season. They made a big mistake in signing Dan Cloutier, and Matheiu Garon is on and off with injury problems. They badly need to call up third string goaltender Jason LaBarbera. He gave them a decent performance in his rookie season and he is currently one of the best goalies in the minors. Unfortunately, the Kings cannot bring him up to the NHL because they are afraid they will lose him on waivers to another hockey club. Hope the Kings and other teams learn from this mistake, as LA has used already five different goaltenders so far this season.
30. Philadelphia Flyers 11-31-5 (30) - Does anyone recall all these so-called hockey experts predicting that the Flyers would win the Cup last season after they picked up Peter Forsberg? Well I can just sit back and laugh at that now. Forsberg is a great player but the wear and tear on his body just keeps him out of the lineup too often. Their defensemen have been exposed repeatedly as too slow for the new NHL, and the Flyers did not do much during the offseason to fix it. As a result, they find themselves as the worst team in the NHL, and this was no rebuilding season for them, which makes this an even sadder story. For the first time since 1994, the Flyers will be able start planning summer vacations in March.
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