by Josh Brewster, Buffalo Sports Page NHL Expert
The last rankings were published in October; let’s look at the league at the halfway mark:
JANUARY 6, 2018 RANKINGS:
1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (Previous: 1st)
Not many risks that Steve Yzerman has taken have gone against him. Rookie defenseman Mikael Sergachev (8-17-25) is proof of Tampa’s victory in the Drouin deal. 2-0-1 on current 5-game road show. Produce in pairs: Kucherov (57pts) and Stamkos (50) vs. John Tavares (50) and Josh Bailey (50) race for the Art Ross shaping up as big story in season’s second half.
2. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS (Previous: 7th)
Beat west big dogs Chicago (Friday night, 5-4), Nashville, LA, Anaheim, and toppled Eastern powers Tampa and Washington over the past three weeks. So much for this expansion team coming down to earth. 5yr./$30M extension for Jon Marchessault (16-23-39). Only surprise is how productive a no-name defense can be: 18 goals, 68 assists. 11-1 vs. own division.
3. LOS ANGELES KINGS (Previous: 3rd)
Dominating without Jeff Carter all season. Been up and down of late but only real blemish is loss to Vegas at home in overtime. Anze Kopitar huge bounceback from poor 16-17: 17 goals and 28 assists thus far. Dustin Brown, stripped of captaincy in favor of Kopitar a couple seasons back (15-17-32).
4. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (Previous: 18th)
Six 50+ and one 60+ season thus for the Great 8. 26 goals in 41GP makes it look like another run to 50. Caps 7-2-1 in the last ten games, 7-3-1 against Metro. Since XMas, beat hotshots Carolina, New Jersey and Boston after shootout loss to Rangers. Game 83 and beyond loom large as Caps try to remove “choker” millstone from necks.
5. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (Previous: 2nd)
Missed Auston Matthews, going 2-4 over a 6-game stretch in December due to what are now assumed to be concussion symptoms. 5 goals in 6 games since absence. Anticipating GM Lou Lamoriello pulling in some defensive help. Veterans James van Riemsdyk (17G) has stayed strong, and newcomer Patrick Marleau (15G) has been quite an add. Mitch Marner (5G) and Morgan Reilly (4G) need to get going, but Leafs rely on so many youngsters, just have to accept that the offense will ebb and flow. 5th overall (3.21) in goals-for.
6. ANAHEIM DUCKS (Previous: 11th)
Roaring back to life. Finally healthy and expecting the return of Corey Perry. John Gibson and Ryan Miller are team MVPs.Rickard Rakell hot, Ryan Getzlaf 2-14-16 in 12 games since injury. 3-1-1 since Ryan Kesler returned to lineup since summer hip surgery. Acquired Adam Henrique for D Sami Vatanen a few weeks back. Formidable down middle.
7. BOSTON BRUINS (Previous: 28th)
7-0-1 in last 8. NHL’s hottest club does it with youth. Charlie McAvoy (21PTS) legit for Calder, producing on par with Torey Krug (22PTS). Fellow rookies Danton Heinen (10-18-28) and Jake DeBrusk (8-11-19) productive. 4th in goals against (2.45), 7th in goals for (3.08). Tuuka Rask responded to a substantial challenge from Anton Khudobin and staked his continued claim as longtime starter.
8. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (Previous: 10th)
Story of the season had it not been for expansion Vegas. Brian Boyle a great depth guy with 11 goals since returning from cancer treatment, inspiring the team. Taylor Hall best year yet(?) with 40 pts. in 38GP. G Cory Schneider solid with 17 wins. Marcus Johanssen returned from injury after missing 18 games since start of season. Big trade of Adam Henrique to Ducks for D Sami Vatanen has worked for both clubs; Vatanen pulls over 22 minutes per game w/partner John Moore.
9. NASHVILLE PREDATORS (Previous: 14th)
With Kyle Turris in tow, the Preds look even better than they did in their Cup Final run last spring. 10-3-2 against the Central, a key fact that will help in April. Top scorer Filip Forsberg (15-19-34) injured (undisclosed) and will need at least four weeks to recover. Calle Jarnkrok gets the fill-in assignment. Ryan Ellis finally returned over the past two games but Preds have hit a skid (2-4-2 in their last 8). The struggles won’t last.
10. ST. LOUIS BLUES (Previous: 5th)
Very strong until Jaden Schwartz injured after 14-21-35 in first 30 games. Went 3-7 in first 10 games after Schwartz injured before rattling off three straight home ins over Carolina, New Jersey and Vegas. Alex Pietrangelo missed four games, returns as odds-on Norris nominee, if not winner.
11. WINNIPEG JETS (Previous: 16th)
Mark Scheifele (15-23-38) injured Dec. 27 and is expected out for a while. Club is 2-0-1 without him, but check back in a few weeks, we’ll see how this goes. Season turned for the better early after Connor Hellebucyk (21-4-6; .922SV%) replaced Steve Mason in October. Patrik Laine (18G) leads team, looks like old self. Dustin Byfuglien scored first goal Friday vs. Sabres.
12. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (Previous: 8th)
Not scoring. 27th in the NHL in goals-for. Good job on the Panarin trade (for Brandon Saad); he leads the team (10-24-34 in 42). Look for GM Jarmo Kekolainen to pull a deal for a center at the deadline after narrowly missing out on Kyle Turris.
13. NEW YORK RANGERS (Previous: 29th)
Slow start (1-5-2) but 20-9-3 since late October. Won a tight Winter Classic in overtime. Henrik Lundqvist (.922SV%) back in usual form. Michael Grabner (18G) could eclipse his career-high 34 goals recorded with the Islanders in 2010-11. Team 8th in goals-for. Blood clot in right arm sidelined Chris Kreider (11G) for long-term.
14. NEW YORK ISLANDERS (Previous: 17th)
Big start to the season, then stock fell a bit after current five-game losing streak. Team gets OK on new arena. Things very bright on Long Island. Jordan Eberle clicking with rookie Matt Barzal, while John Tavares and Josh Bailey chase Tampa’s Kucherov and Stamkos for the Art Ross; Tavares likely Hart candidate. Goaltending a big issue, ranking dead last on a very good club with high hopes. Expect GM Garth Snow to bust a move.
15. CAROLINA HURRICANES (Previous: 24th)
Cam Ward 10-0-2 after 4-0 shutout of the season Thursday against Pittsburgh. Hurricanes now in wild card race. Wins at Vegas and Nashville, home wins over Pittsburgh (twice), also Montreal and Columbus through recent 8-2-1 span. Spent goaltending money on free agent Scott Darling but got full value in longtime guy Ward.
16. DALLAS STARS (Previous: 19th)
Things looking up, have beaten Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, San Jose and New Jersey since mid-December. John Klingberg unsung hero; little talk (outside of Dallas) of the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman (5-31-36). Ben Bishop has supplanted Kari Lehtonen. Bishop has appeared in 33 games, won 18 with four shutouts.
17. SAN JOSE SHARKS (Previous: 26th)
Brent Burns started slow but got his first goal in game 21 and now has 6 just 17 games after that. Won’t likely reach last year’s 29, which won him a Norris Trophy, but he does lead his club (27pts). The Sharks have struggled offensively and sit 24th in goals-for. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been the key, sitting 5th overall in goals-against (.918 team SV%).
18. MINNESOTA WILD (Previous: 21st)
Zach Parise finally made his season debut this week, has one assist in his first two games. Eric Staal leads the club (17-18-35) while Jason Zucker (15G) and Nino Niederreiter (13) have powered the offense in Parise’s absence. Defensively, Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon have kicked in key points (21, each) to give a lift to the always-dependable Ryan Suter (5-19-24; 26:55TOI). Must improve on the road (8-12-1).
19. CALGARY FLAMES (Previous: 15th)
Johnny Gaudreau (45pts), Sean Monahan (36), Micheal Ferland (16G) and Matt Tkachuk (25pts) have been dependable. The Jaromir Jagr experiment has not borne fruit: 1 goal in 22GP. Prez Brian Burke did not look happy when Flames lost a winnable 2-1 game in Anaheim. Wonder whether the Flames will be a buyer at the trade deadline. Mike Smith continues to stand on his head (.920SV%; 16W; 2SO).
20. COLORADO AVALANCHE (Previous: 20th)
It started well for the Avs, then they came back to reality and along the way, Matt Duchene was finally dealt to Ottawa. Nathan MacKinnon unleashed, now top dog, fifth in the scoring race (17-32-49). Beat Toronto, NY Islanders, Winnipeg and Columbus between Xmas and present. Semyon Varlamov giving team a shot. 6th overall in team goals-for (3.17).
21. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Previous: 4th)
Everyone is pointing to the sheer volume of games the reigning Cup champs have played during their two-season run. Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz are no longer there, and it didn’t help to lose D Ron Hainsey after his brief stay in Pittsburgh. Crosby and Malkin haven’t been at their stratospheric level, but that could return quickly. Matt Murray has been injured on and off, but being 21st in goals for considering all that this club has done is compelling evidence that this is an officially down year.
22. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (Previous: 13th)
The team’s 2nd round pick in the 2016 draft, goaltender Carter Hart, backstopped Team Canada to World Juniors Gold. 6-game win streak in December. Claude Giroux (13-35-48) has enjoyed his move to the wing and Jakub Voracek has become one of the NHL’s elite playmakers, leading the league in assists (40). Brian Elliott has been a workhorse. But the defense is still too young.
23. EDMONTON OILERS (Previous: 25th)
Win one, lose one, the doldrums don’t end for the Oilers, still shaking a case of the blahs 41 games in. Got crushed by the Kings, 5-0, then beat the Ducks in a shootout. Up and down, but at least Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are producing. Club has pressed Finnish prospect RW Jesse Puljujarvi (8-3-11) into action, as well as Jujhar Khiara (7G). Have to wonder whether UFA’s Pat Maroon and Mark Letestu could be chips at the deadline.
24. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (Previous: 9th)
Wonder whether the final grasp at the final straw will be when Stan Bowman cuts a deal for Evander Kane to come to Chicago and fill the role vacated by future Hall of Famer Marian Hossa. It costs a fortune to pay your stars; Toews (12-16-28pts) and Kane (40) have produced, but nothing superstar caliber in those numbers. The power play has been a dismal 14.9% (28th overall). Key Stat: Only 12 goals by defensemen. Duncan Keith still seeks his first goal, while Brent Seabrook has just one.
25. FLORIDA PANTHERS (Previous: 22nd)
Watching Gerard Gallant, the coach left at the curb by the Panthers last season, lead an astoundingly successful Vegas expansion franchise has to give Cats fans pause for thought. Alex Barkov (11G) has underachieved a bit, but Vince Trocheck (15G) and Jon Huberdeau (37pts leads team) have brought it. Still a head scratcher that Reilly Smith and Jon Marchessault ended up in Vegas with Gallant. Marchessault leads the Golden Knights in scoring and earned a fat 5-year, $30M extension.
26. DETROIT RED WINGS (Previous: 23rd)
Perfectly mediocre: 25th in goals-for; 22nd in goals-against. Defense not chipping in a lot (only 10 goals by D-men). Mike Green could yield some future help at the deadline. Trevor Daley has been a nice fit on the blueline. Anthony Mantha (13G), Gustav Nyquist (12), Frans Nielsen and Tomas Tatar (10 each) only scorers in double-digits. 6-8-2 against own division.
27. VANCOUVER CANUCKS (Previous: 12th)
Injuries to Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi, plus recent absence of Chris Tanev (8 games CHECK THIS) led to lustre of Travis Green’s hot start wearing off. Brock Boeser (21-17-38) top rookie scorer, in battle royale with Matt Barzal (37pts) and d-man Charlie McAvoy for Calder. Goaltending by Jakob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson big struggle (27th).
28. MONTREAL CANADIENS (Previous: 30th)
Top scorer Max Pacioretty is on trading block, which is fitting because it’s been a season from hell for GM Marc Bergevin. His club started very poorly, then straightened out a bit and came back to earth quickly. Swung a deal with Tampa for Jon Drouin, coughing up high-scoring rookie D-man Mikael Sergachev. Drouin has just five goals in 36 games. Top defenseman Shea Weber was shut down by a foot injury eight games ago. 28th in goals-for; surprisingly 7th in goals against.
29. OTTAWA SENATORS (Previous: 6th)
From Game 7 double-overtime to the bottom tenth of the NHL. Matt Duchene breathed a sigh of relief after scoring an overtime game-winner against the Sharks Friday. 3-6-3 against own Atlantic division, articles being penned in Ottawa papers suggesting the impending exit of coach Guy Boucher and envisioning a near future without him. One other future subtraction may be Erik Karlsson. It was a bit of a shocker to hear that he was asked for a list of clubs to which he’d accept a trade. This is standard procedure because there are so many no-trade/no-move deals in the league. But since when is Karlsson asked for a list? Owner Eugene Malnyk flamed out the night before the big outdoor game in December, suggesting he’d move the club if he doesn’t get the right deal.
30. ARIZONA COYOTES (Previous: 31st)
30th in both goals for and goals against. 3-3 in their last six. Defense without Nik Hjalmarsson is in a tough spot. Anthony Duclair has requested a trade. How long will youthful analytics guru John Chyka survive as GM? Derek Stepan has solved little (25pts). Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be the most coveted defenseman at the deadline. He’s sure to move. Some good young talent there, including Clayton Keller (14-18-32), who remains on the Calder radar despite a recent dry spell. There’s always good young talent in Arizona. But is there a future?
31. BUFFALO SABRES (Previous: 27th)
Overtime loss at the Winter Classic despite valiant effort in one of the best outdoor games yet. Followed that up by getting trounced, 6-2, at Minnesota, then 4-3 at Winnipeg Friday. Team needs a complete personality overhaul. Club is simply not hungry enough. Goaltending cooled off since last season, but hardly to blame as the Sabres have consistently ranked last overall in offense this season (2.22GPG). Jack Eichel penned a huge ($80M) extension that kicks in next year. Hopefully by then most of his defensive zone lapses will have disappeared.