Today, From the Pressbox: Power ranking of all 30 teams, including a +, -, or = to indicate what my second half expectation is for each team, along with a note about some players to watch on each team in the second half.
1. Chicago (=) The defending champs have the best record in the NHL and a wealth of frontline talent at every position. Second year pro Brandon Saad has already exceeded his rookie scoring totals with 14 goals and 30 points. Kris Versteeg was re-acquired from the Panthers and provides scoring depth on the third line. Top goalie Corey Crawford is the one guy they cannot afford to lose.
2. Anaheim (=) The Ducks have been almost perfect at home (14-0-2) and have been buoyed by the play of their dynamic duo, Ryan Getzlaf (44 points) and Corey Perry (42 points). Young guns Nick Bonino (25 points) and Andrew Cogliano (23 points) have moved up into second line scoring roles, taking some pressure off key veterans Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
3. Pittsburgh (-) The Penguins are currently on top in the East and still have the NHL's best player (Sidney Crosby), who leads the league in scoring with 58 points. Marc-Andre Fleury (2.16 gaa; .920 save pct.) is on a career-best pace in goal. Injuries to other key front-liners Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and the loss of first line left winger Pascal Dupuis for the season will make it hard to sustain their first half pace.
4. St. Louis (-) The Blues are a well-balanced team, with the depth to roll four solid lines and three very steady defense pairs at opponents on a nightly basis. Their top scorer Alex Steen (38 points) recently sustained a concussion and is out indefinitely. In the mean time, 21-year-old Jaden Schwartz (13 g and 15 a) has made a huge leap up to a second line role. Rugged power forwards like David Backes and Chris Stewart are also offensive leaders. Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo are all excellent scoring, and puck moving, defensemen.
5. San Jose (-) The Sharks have leaned hard on their veteran leaders Joe Thornton (43 points) and Patrick Marleau (36 points) and other usual suspects Joe Pavelski (36 points) and Logan Couture (31 points). None of them has even missed one game so far. In fact among their key players, only Brent Burns and Dan Boyle have missed significant time this season. I think that good fortune will be tested at some point over the remaining games.
6. Boston (-) The Bruins roster looks like the best team in the East, but they will be challenged by key long-term injuries to Loui Eriksson and Dennis Seidenberg. Reilly Smith (30 points) has stepped up to fill in the offensive loss of Eriksson and Jarome Iginla (26 points) looks rejuvenated as a Bruin. Filling in for Seidenberg will not be so easy. Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton are certainly capable offensively, but it may fall to Adam McQuaid to step up into that defensive shutdown role to hold the fort here.
7. Los Angeles (+) The Kings have remained among the leaders in the West without starting goalie Jonathan Quick (having just returned) for much of the first half. Ben Scrivens and, most recently, Martin Jones took turns delivering spectacular play in his absence. A team-wide defensive focus has also been improved in this time. With Quick's return, I expect a boost in confidence and this experienced roster should even improve from its current, solid level of play.
8. Vancouver (-) Good health, with their top nine scorers showing up for every game, and the excellent work of Roberto Luongo (2.24 gaa and .920 save pct.) have been the staples of the Canucks' first half. Luongo figures to be a key for Team Canada and may suffer a letdown after the pressure of the Olympics. Ryan Kesler's return to top form and good health (27 points) has been a key aspect of the team's strong performance. Similarly, Chris Higgins (22 points) has played the role of a top power forward, providing key secondary scoring.
9. Colorado (-) The Avalanche has slowly slipped back to the pack after charging to the top of the league standings in the first 10 games. A talented group of young forwards, led by Matt Duchene (34 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (27 points) bodes well for the team's long-term outlook. The excellent improvement of former first round draft, Erik Johnson (16 points and +12 rating) gives hope for stability on an inexperienced defense corps.
10. Tampa Bay (=) The Lightning were expected to sink like a stone in the ocean when their top scorer, Steven Stamkos, went down with a broken leg. The excellent play of Ben Bishop (1.89 gaa and .935 save pct.), the leadership of Martin St. Louis (38 points) and the ability of Valtteri Filppula (30 points) to assume a front line role have brought stability in Stamkos' absence. The whole team has grown stronger in managing their way through this adversity.
11. Montreal (-) It was at this point last year when things started to go south for one of the smallest teams in the NHL. They have relied on excellent goaltending, in a career-best campaign by Carey Price and excellent team speed. Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk were drafted because of their size and skills, yet both have regressed, when compared to last season. Getting another full campaign out of veteran Andrei Markov in support of the dynamic P.K. Subban has been central to their success to date.
12. Phoenix (-) While they have gotten nice production from the likes of Mike Ribeiro (29 points), Radim Vrbata (28 points) Martin Hanzal (26 points) and seen the development of Mikkel Boedker (24 points), the Coyotes offense doesn't measure up with the top teams in the West. They do have two top offensive blueliners in Keith Yandle and (24 points) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (22). They are really missing Shane Doan's leadership as he has only played 27 games due to an undefined illness.
13. Dallas (-) The Stars have been bolstered by the development of Tyler Seguin (37 points) and his prolific partnership with Captain Jamie Benn (34 points). The problem here is that their next highest scorer, Alex Chiasson, has only 19 points. One other offensive bright spot is the play of rookie Valeri Nichushkin, who has 19 points and a +14 rating. Their top two offensive defensemen have only combined for two goals and a total of 25 points. Unless the scoring improves, the league will make them pay dearly in the second half.
14. Washington (+) The Capitals continue to thrive in their attack style game as the duo of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom continue to pile up points at better than a point per game pace. Offensive support has improved thanks to contributions from Mikhail Grabovski (30 points) and Joel Ward (12 goals and 11 assists). The Caps can wear opponents down with other productive and big, physical forwards like Jason Chimera (20 points) and Troy Brouwer (18 points).
15. Detroit (-) The Wings have slipped from their consistent level of recent years and have struggled to a 6-10-6 mark on home ice as they have been without perennial offensive stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for extended periods already. Their absences have exposed a lack of depth as no younger players have tallied even 16 points so far. Lucky for them that Jonas Gustavsson has provided top-notch goaltending (2,39 gaa and .914 save pct.) while Jimmy Howard was recovering from a leg injury or they would be much lower in the standings right now.
16. Minnesota (-) Goaltending has been the story here as Josh Harding (1.64 gaa and .934 save pct.) has risen to the front ranks of his peers in the NHL. He has clearly passed the former leading man Niklas Backstrom (3.32 gaa and .893 save pct.) in the Minnesota net. Unfortunately neither of their recent big free agent signings, Ryan Suter (1 g, 23 pts. -5) and Zach Parise (27 pts, +1) is having a big year. On the positive side, Nino Niederreiter (19 pts. +6) is having his best year as a pro.
17. Toronto (+) After surviving a lengthy injury list, the Leafs are as finally as healthy as they have been all year, missing only center Dave Boland. The offensive load has been shared by front-liners Phil Kessel (37 pts.) and James van Riemsdyk (29 points), while Mason Raymond (26 pts.) and Peter Holland (10 pts. in 23 games) have made important contributions, too. This team would be nowhere without the goalie tandem of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, who have combined for a 2.72 gaa and a .923 save pct.
18. Philadelphia (+) The Flyers' offense got off to a sluggish start, however, that part of the team game has come around recently, though only Wayne Simmonds (12) and Claude Giroux (11) have even topped the 10-goal mark. Ironically, for a franchise that has endured a multi-year struggle in goal, Steve Mason (2.38 gaa, .922 save pct.) has been vital to their success. Brayden Schenn (eight goals) and Scott Hartnell (seven goals) need to score more. The same goes for Vinny Lecavalier (15 points in 26 games). The key to the Flyers ability to compete for a playoff spot will hinge on the continuation of those offensive pieces and Mason to combine over the long haul.
19. Winnipeg (=) The Jets are finding it tough sledding in their first year back in the battle for positioning in the West, as they are one game over .500 and only 11th in the Conference standings. Captain Andrew Ladd has shown the offensive way (10 g, 19 a, +9). Blake Wheeler has solidified a reputation as a top power forward (15 g, 16 a). Evander Kane has taken a step backwards with only 21 points and pending UFA Olli Jokinen might be most valuable as trade bait at the deadline.
20. Ottawa (=) The Sens have slipped to the fringe of playoff contention because of a loss of leadership, as Jason Spezza (30 points, -14) seems to have had difficulty assuming that role from the departed Daniel Alfredsson. Goaltender Craig Anderson has regressed to his worst season since the 2005-06 campaign (3.17 gaa and .904 save pct. Even top scoring blueliner Erik Karlsson is a statistical anomaly with his team-leading 38 points offset by a (-10) rating.
21. Nashville (-) A troubling hip injury that has limited Pekka Rinne to only nine appearances in goal has really dampened playoff hopes here. He's expected back in two to three weeks, but the Preds will be hopelessly out of the race by then. Top blueliner Shea Weber, their signature player, has posted modest numbers (22 points, -13), which serve to underscore the gaping hole in the Nashville net through the first half season. Goal scoring remains a chronic issue as well, with only Craig Smith (11) and Mike Fisher in double figures.
22. NY Rangers (=) Through his 30 appearances, goalie Henrik Lundqvist has posted a career-high 2.70 gaa and with the offense sputtering at a rate of 2.2 goals per game, there is cause for concern on Broadway. Rick Nash (16 points) has been limited to 24 games and though well-compensated Brad Richards started out strong, he has only 27 points through 41 games played. The Rangers have a number of contracts expiring this year, most notably captain Ryan Callahan and key defender Dan Girardi. Do they become a seller at the trade deadline?
23. New Jersey (-) With 40+ year-old players like Jaromir Jagr (34 points) leading the team offensively, and Martin Brodeur matching counterpart Corey Schneider save for save in the Devils net, this club has played better than most expected. Andy Greene has emerged as the blueline anchor (20 points, +3). They have committed over $4M to each of Adam Henrique (18 points) and Ryan Clowe (only two points and nine games played), which are looking like critical salary cap errors at this point.
24. Columbus (=) Missing the services of the defending Vezina-Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (only 27 games played) has impacted the Blue Jackets this season. They do have some nice pieces here, led by two very efficient puck-moving blueliners in Fedor Tyutin (16 points) and James Wisniewski (20 points). They have stockpiled a nice group of forwards via trade including (Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and R.J. Umberger) but they do need to find more players like Ryan Johansen (team-leading 32 points) in their drafts.
25. Carolina (+) This team needs more out of the Staal brothers, as Eric (10) and Jordan (8) have not scored nearly as much as Hurricanes fans would like. Jeff Skinner (16 goals) is the only other forward in double digits here. Jiri Tlusty, who tallied 23 goals last year, has only six conversions to date and Alex Semin has only five goals in 28 games played. Even in goal, Cam Ward (3.15 gaa, .895 save pct. in 18 appearances) has underperformed, posting some of the worst numbers in his career.
26. Florida (=) Although he was expected to be a team leader and a steadying influence in goal, Tim Thomas has only appeared in 22 games. Scott Clemmensen and Jakob Markstrom have faltered in his absence. That issue is magnified with a poor offense where Brad Boyes' 10 goals in the high water mark. Offensive hopes ride with Jonathan Huberdeau, who has struggled (15 points) and 18-year old Aleksander Barkov (19 points). The Panthers need more building blocks.
27. Calgary (-) Jiri Hudler (33 points) has been a consistent scoring threat but the gap between him and the next most potent scorer Mike Cammalleri (20 points) is indicative of the work to be done here. After an impressive start, rookie Sean Monahan has only seven points in his last 21 games. Captain Marc Giordano, whose season has been marred by injury, has been impactful when healthy (17 points in 22 games). Rebuilding teams can't suffer first round draft errors like Mikael Backlund (15 points, -2).
28. NY Islanders (+) The Islanders are the biggest disappointment so far this season, after making the playoffs last year. Offensively, John Tavares (44 points) has produced as expected and Kyle Okposo (40 points) is enjoying a career year. Beyond them, there are a host of disappointments, with Josh Bailey (13 points) and Michael Grabner (12 points) topping that list. An unproductive defense corps has compounded poor secondary scoring and some suspect goaltending.
29. Edmonton (+) Oilers fans look like they will have to wait at least another year for this young group of offensive stars to deliver a playoff spot. Taylor Hall (38 points), Jordan Eberle (32 points) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (31 points) have done their part but they need more from the likes of Justin Schultz (15 points) and Jeff Petry (9 points) from the blueline. Devan Dubnyk (3.24 gaa, .896 save pct.) has regressed and ilya Bryzgalov (2.91 gaa) has not stemmed the tide.
30. Buffalo (=) Matt Moulson (26 points) leads the Sabres and part of that was achieved before he was traded here. Cody Hodgson (19 points, -10) and Tyler Ennis (15, -10) are the best current performers, but much more help is needed. Captain Steve Ott has changed into a more disciplined player and team leader but might be a valued commodity at the trade deadline. The Sabres have to be concerned with the lack of production from Christian Ehrhoff (a long-term annual $4M cap hit) and the continued regression of big Tyler Myers, who looks light another salary cap albatross right now.
Happy New Year to all my readers and followers!