NHL Power Rankings: Tight Atop the Central

Can the Predators keep up with Chicago in the power rankings without Pekka Rinne?

It’s been awhile since we’ve done a power rankings update. The Christmas holidays and a compressed MBA class got in the way of reviewing numberFire's analytically-driven rankings, but we are about to right that ship.

As usual, the rankings are reflective purely on a head-to-head goal differential formula designed to help predict a Stanley Cup champion. If you’re looking for a simple ranking of the hottest teams, looks elsewhere because we have the big picture on our minds. The Cup is the only thing that matters.

Without further ado, here are the pre-All Star break rankings.

Bottom of the Barrel

30. Buffalo Sabres (nERD -1.52)
29. Edmonton Oilers (nERD -1.00)
28. Arizona Coyotes (nERD -0.91)

The only three teams nERD gives a 0.00% chance of actually reaching the playoffs are the Sabres, Oilers and Coyotes. As mentioned basically everywhere over the past month during the World Juniors, there are two can’t miss, surefire prospects in the next draft -- Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. With the NHL lottery format, the worst record is guaranteed either the number one or two selection which really motivates the tanking.

Buffalo appears to be in the pole position: they haven’t won a game since 2014. Much has been said about Edmonton, who should have the pedigree in place to lead to eventual success, but potential and results are two different things.

The Oilers have managed to win more games (three) in January than they did for the whole month of December (two). There was even a recent Nail Yakupov sighting in their 5-2 win over Chicago, which is a welcome sign for GM Craig MacTavish. You don’t beat Chicago and the Islanders in the same week unless you have some talent, and that has to be the message to Oiler fans.

At least they care in Edmonton, unlike the hockey metropolis of Glendale.

Going Somewhere?

27. Florida Panthers (nERD -0.53)
26. Columbus Blue Jackets (nERD -0.43)
25. Carolina Hurricanes (nERD -0.39)
24. New Jersey Devils (nERD -0.38)
23. Philadelphia Flyers (nERD -0.29)
22. Toronto Maple Leafs (nERD -0.15)

There's always a group trending one way or another. Florida looks like they are going up, Philly and Toronto look like they are on the way out, and so it goes in the NHL.

If this article was one week in the past, I certainly would have had plenty of nice things to say about how well the Panthers were playing. But four straight losses kind of put things in perspective for a young team still growing and learning the rigors of an NHL campaign. Aaron Ekblad looks like the real deal, however, and hasn't needed any of the requisite “give him time” narratives that accompany highly touted blue line prospects.

Ekblad, still a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, might be one of the most important players in the NHL. By this I mean Florida got it right (something Edmonton might want to look into) and selected a player who, at 18, is undoubtedly their best skater. To have a just-shy-of-elite-caliber defenseman at 18 is a huge gift for the Panthers, who run Ekblad onto the ice for 22 minutes every game and benefit from his stellar +7 rating.

Ekblad is only going to get better, and he’s already really good. He more than likely will become the NHL’s youngest captain this offseason, and by the next Olympic/World Championship cycle, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Ekblad as the first defensive choice for Team Canada. With 6 goals and 19 assists, Ekblad should dominate the next decade from Florida’s blue line.

The Central’s Basement (and Ottawa)

21. Minnesota Wild (nERD -0.14)
20. Colorado Avalanche (nERD -0.07)
19. Dallas Stars (nERD -0.05)
18. Ottawa Senators (nERD -0.04)

Dallas didn’t have huge expectations coming into the season, but they hoped to contend for a playoff spot behind the solid play of Jamie Benn and breakout potential of Tyler Seguin. While Benn and Seguin have played well, the playoffs look like a long shot for Dallas as they join Colorado and Minnesota in attempting big pushes down the stretch.

All three are clustered within eight points of Calgary for the eighth seed in the playoffs, but they will also have to overcome L.A. if they ever wakeup from their championship hangover.

Minnesota and Colorado have been two of the worst stories in regards to fulfilling expectations over the first half of the season. The Wild are playing better after Mike Yeo’s meltdown (not so sure that was the great motivator), and I can only imagine what Patrick Roy has said behind closed doors to try to spark his team.

The Fighters

17. San Jose Sharks (nERD 0.00)
16. Los Angeles Kings (nERD 0.10)
15. Boston Bruins (nERD 0.12)
14. Calgary Flames (nERD 0.17)

If the season ended today, San Jose, Boston, and Calgary would all be in the NHL playoffs, but only by the slimmest of margins. L.A. would find themselves a point off of the mark in a tight Western Conference.

Boston had their five-game winning streak snapped on the eve of an important two-game set before the break, but have managed to play their way back into the playoffs. The Bruins attack centers around balance as they can come at you from so many angles. Milan Lucic could be the driving force for them as they try to maintain their playoff positioning. The sometimes troubled brute, Lucic has the skill and demeanor to spark the rest of the Bruins’ key pieces.

L.A. has been quite disappointing this season, and mostly one can attribute it to off-ice issues. Aside from dealing with the distraction of Slava Voynov’s legal proceedings, the Kings are experiencing the infamous championship hangover. Anze Kopitar is finally starting to get things in gear which is much needed for a team limping into the All-Star break (and playing the Blackhawks and Bruins after).

Fringe Contenders

13. Vancouver Canucks (nERD 0.19)
12. Winnipeg Jets (nERD 0.20)
11. Detroit Red Wings (nERD 0.21)

Every time I write one of these pieces, I always come to a spot in the rankings that feels like drawing a line in the sand as far as Stanley Cup winners are concerned. Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Detroit are all safely in the playoffs and gunning for different levels of home ice. But can they win the Cup?

The Cup checklist usually follows some combination of hot goaltending, strong defensive play, and well-timed goals. Based on that valuation, Detroit emerges as a true favorite and may find themselves a grouping higher next time out.

Jimmy Howard has been solid this year, and should be back from a short-term groin injury sometime soon after the All-Star break. Niklas Kronwall anchors a strong and diverse set of blue liners who have helped backup goalie Petr Mrazek to eight wins in Howard’s absence. And the many ways the Red Wings can light the lamp will surely scare any opponent come April.

Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are proven winners and have continued to provide excellent leadership and production this season, but its Detroit’s continued ability to churn out international talent that sets them apart. Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist have made the leap to All-Star caliber players this season, building off their budding success of 2013-2014.

Any team traveling to Hockeytown is in for a tough test as the Red Wings look like Cup threats once again.

The Climb

10. Anaheim Ducks (nERD 0.25)
9. Washington Capitals (nERD 0.29)
8. Montreal Canadiens (nERD 0.35)

Both Washington and Montreal are climbing toward the playoffs, as Barry Trotz looks to have his team playing the way he envisions, and Montreal continues to maintain their good form.

But why is Anaheim, holders of the league’s best record, only ranked 10th?

Well, in part because, in our formula, we're relying on goal differential to help predict a Stanley Cup winner. Anaheim leads the league in shootout appearances (11) and shootout wins (7), which are two of the flukier ways to accumulate points. nERD also factors in preseason expectations, which were low for the Ducks particularly in the goaltending department where Frederik Andersen has been nothing short of amazing.

A final contributing factor is their actual goal differential of only +12, which is only 14th in the league and a good 20 off the pace of the three Central teams intent on beating each up for that division’s number-one seed.

It’s great that Anaheim can score so many goals, but wide open play rarely succeeds in the playoffs and contributes to the Ducks low ranking of 10.

Beasts of the East

7. New York Islanders (nERD 0.38)
6. Tampa Bay Lightning (nERD 0.40)
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (nERD 0.50)
4. New York Rangers (nERD 0.56)

Here come the New York teams. Last week’s showdown in the Garden felt like a playoff game, and as a neutral, it was great to see that kind of hockey between two storied franchises.

The equality among these Eastern franchises has been remarkable and trying to determine the elite team with just the eye test is difficult. The Islanders still suffer in nERD a bit with their 6-1 mark in shootouts, and the Lightning, who peaked at number three in the rankings, are starting to suffer from a slight plateau in form.

The Penguins are still able to boast some world class talent, but so much of their success is tied to Marc-Andre Fleury’s form, which goes in and out like an oceanic tide. The Rangers have playoff success to draw on and the best version of Rick Nash that anyone has seen in years.

To see an East go through Nassau for the first time in decades would be awesome, but nERD still gives a slight edge to the Rangers to continue climbing to the top.

Best of the West

3. Nashville Predators (nERD 0.63)
2. St. Louis Blues (nERD 0.77)
1. Chicago Blackhawks (nERD 0.78)

Remember those three I mentioned that were hell-bent on beating each other up in their fight for home ice? Well, we found them.

Boasting goal differentials of +34, +37, and +34 respectively, the Predators, Blues, and Blackhawks can get the job done at both ends of the ice. Both St. Louis and Chicago handled goaltending injuries well enough to keep pace with each other, and now it is Nashville’s turn.

Pekka Rinne, numberFire’s midseason Vezina Trophy winner, was diagnosed with a sprained knee, which could be a tricky recovery for a butterfly style goalie relying so much on lower body flexibility.

Brian Elliott and Corey Crawford were both missed when out, but neither were counted on and pressured to perform on a nightly basis the way Rinne is. Shea Weber needs to rally the rest of his defensemen together to buckle down for the long haul while the one of the league’s hottest shot stoppers is on the shelf.