NHL Power Rankings: A New Top Team

The Penguins have been on top all year, but in this week's look at the power rankings, a new team takes the crown.

A new number one in the hockey rankings along with a few teams on the rise makes for great theater after a long (USA only) weekend. Even with the log jam in the 14-16 win range, true favorites are starting to emerge, and with a generational type of draft on the horizon, the teams that want no part of the playoffs are starting the Tankapalooza.

A big matchup in Nashville this Saturday will paint a clearer picture at the top of the West, and can anyone challenge Pittsburgh in the East?

Same Story, Different Week

30. Buffalo Sabres (nERD -1.19, Last Week: 30)
29. Edmonton Oilers (nERD -0.91, Last Week: 29)
28. Florida Panthers (nERD -0.70, Last Week: 28)

I’m running out of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel jokes for this sad bunch. The only consolation for the bragging rights associated with the bottom spot is that they’ll probably have company next week because Columbus looks hell-bent on winning the "Number 1 Pick" sweepstakes, and maybe Buffalo can find their way out of the bottom three.

I guess we could call them “Deflated for McDavid” or “Suicidal for Eichel” if we want to give this sad lot a tagline. Either way, it is poor hockey here. Edmonton looks the worst of the bunch, and aren’t getting any help from all those highly invested draft picks. In a place that once had Gretzky and Messier in the building, maybe the top pick will be the only way revival comes to Edmonton.

Can We Please Get a Win?

27. Columbus Blue Jackets (nERD -0.53, Last Week: 26)
26. Carolina Hurricanes (nERD -0.45, Last Week: 27)
25. Arizona Coyotes (nERD -0.39, Last Week: 24)

Carolina can take some consolation in playing tough with Pittsburgh in their most recent home and home, but other than that, it's two wins in nine games for them.

Blue-liner Justin Faulk is tied for the team’s lead in points, which says more about the sorry state of their forwards. Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner need to start chipping in more goals to keep pace with Jiri Tlusty, who has a team-leading 10.

Throw all that in with the awful form of goalie Cam Ward, and disaster is brewing in Raleigh.

At Least One of these Fanbases Has a Distraction

24. New Jersey Devils (nERD -0.27, Last Week: 23)
23. Philadelphia Flyers (nERD -0.26, Last Week: 19)
22. Ottawa Senators (nERD -0.16, Last Week: 20)

I was in Philly over Thanksgiving, and it may sound sacrilege to the Great White North, but that city takes its hockey as seriously as any in Canada. I have been to Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, and can say with full certainty that it means just as much in the City of Brotherly Love. However, when things aren’t going well for the Broad Street Bullies, fans can take solace in the play of the Philadelphia Eagles.

After watching the Eagles rip their rival Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, fans in Philly were pumped up for a home and home showdown with another rival in the New York Rangers. Only that didn't exactly go as planned, as the Broadway Blues swept the Flyers right into Monday.

Goalie Steve Mason can't be the only one to blame (he was pulled for Ray Emery after conceded three goals, none of which appeared to be completely his fault). It's no secret that the Flyers have always struggled in the goaltender department. Rumors now swirl that Craig Berube’s job may be in jeopardy, and that Connor McDavid could be on the horizon. Philly started slow last year, and hopefully they can replicate that form and make a second-half playoff charge.

High Wins, Low nERDs

21. Dallas Stars (nERD -0.15, Last Week: 18)
20. Washington Capitals (nERD -0.08, Last Week: 17)
19. Vancouver Canucks (nERD -0.06, Last Week: 21)
18. New York Islanders (nERD -0.05, Last Week: 22)

Both the Islanders and the Canucks will break into the positive numbers in terms of nERD (a team’s projected goal differential that we use to determine their ranking) next week. Don’t look now, but the Isles closed out November with 11 wins and only 3 losses (they are the only team without a tie), which is insane considering their low expectations were coming into the season.

I was one of this team’s biggest doubters, but I’m thinking it’s time to change my tune a bit. In what looks like a weaker Eastern Conference, New York really should not have any issues making the playoffs, which is sad news for everyone in Buffalo who were hoping for a high lottery pick from the Thomas Vanek trade.

The nERD formula tries to factor in last season and preseason expectations with the ultimate goal of predicting final playoff seeding. The Islanders and the Canucks are both trending upwards.

We Take Back All Those Mean Things We Said

17. Winnipeg Jets (nERD -0.04, Last Week: 15)
16. Toronto Maple Leafs (nERD -0.02, Last Week: 25)
15. Colorado Avalanche (nERD 0.03, Last Week: 14)

Wow, so I guess Randy Carlyle’s job is safe? The Leafs are 3-0-1 since losing by a touchdown to Nashville. I still maintain that Toronto will be competitive this season, but I also admit that I may be putting too much stock in their earlier win over the Bruins. Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak have both chipped in 11 goals for Toronto, who started off their current five-game home stand with a win over Washington.

Speaking of healing self-inflicted wounds, Colorado is also righting their ship after a woeful start by posting five wins in their last seven. I don’t think Patrick Roy’s job was in trouble the way Carlyle’s was, but he has to like what he is seeing from Calvin Pickard while Semyon Varlamov recovers from injury.

Welcome to Smashville

14. Calgary Flames (nERD 0.07, Last Week: 16)
13. Detroit Red Wings (nERD 0.14, Last Week: 13)
12. Montreal Canadiens (0.15, Last Week: 11)
11. Nashville Predators (nERD 0.19, Last Week: 11)

Filip Forsberg came to play hockey this year -- not bad for a 20-year old who has already been traded once in his brief career. We could be seeing a slew of trophies headed to the Music City at season’s end with Forsberg the clear Calder favorite, Pekka Rinne leading for the Vezina, Shea Weber in the Norris conversation as always, and Peter Laviolette looking like a Coach of the Year contender.

Nashville’s stingy defense enabled them to post a 16-5-2 split, and they are currently riding a four-game winning streak. A huge matchup looms with Chicago on Saturday, and the Preds have a chance to really prove themselves in the Central Division.

Their nERD should continue to climb despite whatever happens against the Blackhawks, and don’t sleep on a potential Nashville-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final.

On the Rise?

10. Minnesota Wild (nERD 0.24, Last Week: 9)
9. San Jose Sharks (nERD 0.24, Last Week: 8)
7. New York Rangers (nERD 0.25, Last Week: 12)

The Rangers may be starting to hit peak form; the kind of form that they rode to the Cup Finals last year. Loosely translated: Ryan McDonagh stabilizing their D and Henrik Lundqvist being unbeatable between the pipes.

The return of McDonagh is meaningful in so many ways for a team that had a bit of an early season identity crisis. Sure, Rick Nash was playing well, but everyone wondered what was wrong with King Henrik. After beating their rivals in Philadelphia three times in 10 days, the Rangers must feeling better about their long-term prospects. Aside from a close loss in Tampa, the Rangers have won four out of five including a 5-0 shutout of Montreal.

Despite stiff competition from teams on the rise behind them, the Rangers could prove to be one of the teams really on the rise, especially if they can avenge that loss to the Lightning in Madison Square Garden Monday night.

Keep Holding On

6. Los Angeles Kings (nERD 0.41, Last Week: 7)
5. Boston Bruins (nERD 0.45, Last Week: 4)

Boston is still holding tough even without Zdeno Chara, which has to be a little disconcerting for their Eastern Conference foes. Word out of Boston is that Chara is back on his skates with a return date nearing.

The Bruins have still managed 14 wins in what has been a difficult season, and they are doing it mostly on the strength and stability of Claude Julien behind the bench. Morale must have been low after Chara’s injury with the locker room still dealing with Johnny Boychuk’s trade on the eve of the season. But Julien has somehow figured out what works for his guys and how to get the best out of a team that some felt may have been past its peak in the playoffs last season.

True Contenders

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (nERD 0.49, Last Week: 6)
3. St. Louis Blues (nERD 0.62, Last Week: 3)
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (nERD 0.75, Last Week: 1)

Yes, the Pens lost the top spot in the nERD Rankings, but don’t think for one second that it hampers their ability to win the Cup. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still pacing this team towards a potential President’s Trophy with 33 and 29 points, respectively (good for first and fourth in the league).

As transcendent as Crosby is, the feeling in Pittsburgh is that it's time for The Kid to deliver another Cup to the Steel City. 2009 is starting to feel like a long time ago, and fans probably expected more from Crosby after hoisting the Cup so early in his storied career. Unfortunately for all hockey fans, Crosby missed a lot of time with injury and surely suffered some Team Canada burnout, especially after the 2010 Games in Vancouver. But he appears to be firing on all cylinders now and relishing the massive amounts of pressure heaped upon his shoulders.

A New Boss in Town

1. Chicago Blackhawks (nERD 0.84, Last Week: 2)

This nERD figure reflects the current form of a team much was expected from -- the Blackhawks are finally surging.

They have won six of seven and closed out their most recent road trip at 5-1. We have already mentioned the massive showdown in Nashville this weekend, and Chicago could put the whole Central on notice with a statement win there.