NHL Power Rankings: Maple Leafs make big leap

Phil Kessel landed a $64 million deal, and teammate James van Riemsdyk fires an appropriate response.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to their best start in 20 years, and confidence is high.

Despite big-splash acquisition David Clarkson (suspension) having yet to play a regular-season contest, and despite injuries to key players (Nikolai Kulemin, Mark Fraser, and now James van Riemsdyk), the Leafs are your surprising Eastern Conference leaders (granted, Pittsburgh has a game in hand).

A flawed club, to be sure. One that gets outshot regularly and has defensive lapses. But the strength of the Leafs’ special teams and ability to generate offence has them making a significant leap in this week’s Power Rankings.

Rank Team

If there was any doubt the Sharks weren’t the most powerful team in the league, those notions were put to rest in a nasty 6-2 victory over the Blues in St. Louis. Defenceman Dan Boyle should be just fine after getting knocked unconscious for what GM Doug Wilson called a “a considerable amount of time.” Thank goodness.

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The Penguins are undefeated when starting any goaltender not named Jeff Zatkoff. Top blue-liner Kris Letang, who has yet to play this season, started practising again Wednesday, so they can only get better. Right?

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There is still some hesitation to rank the Avs this high, based mostly on their atrocious effort in 2012-13, but a perfect record after six games — with a plus-15 goal differential — cannot be denied. Big kudos to Semyon Varlamov — comeback player of the year so far.

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The denouement after Patrick Roy threatened to eat Bruce Boudreau? The Ducks wheel off five straight Ws, including a 6-0 smashing of the Rangers and a 4-1 trumping of the Senators. Two big victories over playoff teams.

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EA Sports’ simulated 2013-14 champions are the trendy early-season Cup favourite, but their fantastic start comes with two grains of salt: their thumping by San Jose and the fact they kicked things off with a five-game home stand. Time to hit the road.

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Not since opening night have the Chicago Blackhawks played a game not decided by a single goal. The champs aren’t steamrolling the competition, but Brandon Saad (five points) is sticking it to the sophomore slump.

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Even the fanboys who paint their faces blue and white could not have predicted a 6-1 start, the Buds’ best since 1993-94. So what if they get outshot? Mason Raymond and Dave Bolland are gems, the power play is clicking, and Joffrey Lupul is downright inspiring in spurts.

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Eastern Conference life is suiting the Wings just fine, as they’ve reeled off three consecutive wins despite goaltender Jimmy Howard’s injured hand.

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The Bruins have held their own against decent opponents. Expect Boston to make ground with games coming up against the Lightning, Panthers (Tim Thomas’s Beantown return!) and Sabres.

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Fabulous western trip for the Habs, who beat the Oilers, Canucks and Jets by a combined score of 11-2. P.K. Subban, the NHL’s highest-scoring defenceman, is taking his Norris defence seriously.

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Like last year, the Lightning are off to a quick start, but can they sustain it? Captain Martin St. Louis deserves credit for their plus-eight goal differential and is playing with eyes on making Team Canada, but an injured foot has put him day-to-day.

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A big night from Jason Spezza (hat trick) helped salvage Kyle Turris’ Phoenix return and a tough road trip for the Senators, but these guys must start limiting their opponents shot totals. Craig Anderson is being forced to carry the weight here.

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The Kings’ next six games will be against non-playoff teams. Now might be a good time for L.A. to start plying the type of hockey they’re capable of and make a run up the standings.

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The injury bug has hit Columbus, who are without Matt Calvert and Nathan Horton. This team needs all the depth it can get. Marian Gaborik is playing well, but he can’t do it all.

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Even in eighth place, the Cancuks’ record is padded with victories against the lowly Devils, Flames and Flyers. Saturday’s tilt in Pittsburgh will test their mettle.

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Note from a recent staff meeting: “If we’re going to do something positive on the Flames this year, now’s the time.” Jiri Hudler is playing at better than a point-per-game pace, and until Wednesday’s loss to Anaheim, Calgary had earned a point in every game played. Can this keep up?

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The Coyotes have earned points in their last four games. It is conceivable that a healthy Mike Smith could help this team steal a wild-card spot.

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Three consecutive losses have the Isles right on that playoff bubble, where we expect them to linger all season long.

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How about “Escape TO New York”? Am I right? The Rangers cannot end this road trip from hell soon enough. Goaltender Martin Biron’s career is likely over, and the Blueshirts have gone red-faced, allowing 20 goals in their last three games — all losses to Western powers. Oh, yeah, and Rick Nash is on IR.

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An O-fer home stand against Western opponents — Chicago, Phoenix, L.A. — shows Carolina how much farther they need to come to be a contender.

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Having Roman Josi and Viktor Stalberg on the shelf is a challenge, but the Preds turned things around this week with W’s over the Panthers and Islanders.

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Imagine if Alex Ovechkin wasn’t on fire (six goals in seven games)? We’d be calling for changes in the U.S. capital. Washington has yet to defeat a playoff-calibre team.

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Josh Harding has played great since Niklas Backstrom went down, and Matt Cooke is the team’s leading point gettter. No one’s sure what to make of this unit quite yet, but they’re hanging around.

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The Jets, who’ve only managed to defeat the Devils in their last five games, are getting great contributions on the back end from Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, but need more from their top six.

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A lower-body injury to goaltender Kari Lehtonen is crushing for a team that needs great performances from its goaltender to contend every night. Tyler Seguin (team-high six points) seems to be adapting just fine, though.

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Some bright spots, Panthers fans: You’ve played more than twice as many games on the road as you have at home. And Tim Thomas appears to be healthy again. So… there’s that.

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The Oilers have a conference-worst minus-11 goal differential, and things are so bad that Dallas Eakins is starting Jason LaBarbera instead of Devan Dubnyk in net. Nail Yakupov, a healthy scratch twice, is now the subject of trade rumours.

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The New Jersey Devils will be the last NHL team to win a game this season. And off-season acquisition Ryane Clowe is now on IR with a head injury.

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The bad teams in the East are downright horrific. It’s tough to watch Philly in their own zone. And if the defence wasn’t so bad off — it’s official: Chris Pronger will not be playing savior — the offence has now lost Vincent Lecavalier and Scott Hartnell to injury. Dire situation here.

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After eight tries, the Sabres finally got their first victory of the season, but it took a shootout to do it. The Darcy Regier hotseat talk is in full force.

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