NHL Power Rankings: Time to step it up edition

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) is checked by Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) during second period NHL action in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/CP)

It’s too early for a playoff race and we’re just starting to crack open the book of trade rumours, still two months out from the deadline. But if teams don’t already have a good grasp on their realistic outlook for this season, or how certain players fit into those plans, those thoughts should begin to crystallize in short order.

Although our Power Rankings remain a ranking of all 32 NHL teams, with a weight toward recent play, our focus is on someone in the organization who needs to step up. This might be a struggling player, one afforded a golden opportunity or someone who the team needs to squeeze more from. It could also be a GM who needs to step up to the plate and start doing something for his team.

Without further ado, here are this week’s Power Rankings. Time for these guys to step up!

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1. Florida Panthers
The best team in hockey, the Florida Panthers are scoring at an absurd rate, and even Sergei Bobrovsky, after a slower December, is back on track and snuffing out any chance the opposition might have. Now it’s time for GM Bill Zito to add. The Panthers have been mentioned in rumours around a lot of players in the past two seasons and Zito has done well to add Sams Bennett and Reinhart in the past year, as well as find value in Carter Verhaeghe and MacKenzie Weegar, among others. John Klingberg and now Jakob Chychrun are the latest names linked here and adding more pop to the back end could really launch the high-flying, quick-paced Panthers. It’s not that they’re dying for help, but other teams will add, and so if Zito can make a big splash, it’ll be fantastic for both hype in the market and real optimism on the ice. There are Vegas vibes to how this team is conducting business.

2. Colorado Avalanche
Going for the Cup again and trying to get over the second-round hump this time, Colorado had to replace Philipp Grubauer in net and did so with Darcy Kuemper, who had played well behind Arizona’s leaky defence. In Colorado, he’s been hot and cold, and injury concerns have persisted, which makes us wonder if the Avs go goalie hunting on the trade market, for insurance. Kuemper, who has a minus-1.00 goals-saved above expected this season, had reeled off seven wins in a row, then allowed nine goals in three-and-a-half games. He had to leave Monday’s game after the concussion spotter pulled him. For Colorado, it’s imperative for Kuemper to find a sustainably good run and keep on it – there may be no more important player to their Cup push.

3. Carolina Hurricanes
Gonna have to get very nit-picky on this one, given the Hurricanes are so deep and effective without a glaring weakness or horrifically underperforming player. Even Jesperi Kotkaniemi has picked up from his slow start. Jordan Staal has continued to be a defensive force on the third line, which is his primary duty, but it’s incredible how snake-bitten he’s been on offence. He hasn’t scored since Oct. 29 and has just five points in those 27 games. He has the lowest 5-on-5 goals-for percentage on the team (a still-strong 50 per cent) and if some offensive luck just starts dropping his way, the Canes have a path to being even stronger.

4. New York Rangers
The Rangers certainly weren’t expecting to draft first overall in 2020 when Alexis Lafreniere topped the board, and so he walked into a tough situation where Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin occupied the top two spots on left wing. Lafreniere, who has been used on the right wing, hasn’t blown up the scoresheet the way other recent first-overall picks have, but as Lucas Raymond – another 2020 pick – lights up the league and even defenceman Jamie Drysdale scores at a better pace, we do wonder when it will click for Lafreniere. Way too early to get worried about him at age 20, though it’d be great to see him start a scoring run on one of the NHL’s top teams.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning
From 2018-19 through 2020-21, Mathieu Joseph ranked fifth among all Lightning players who played at least half a season with the team in goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Ahead of him was only Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Carter Verhaeghe. The idea behind that stat is that, with more ice time, Joseph should be able to produce higher totals – that’s exactly what’s happened with Verhaeghe after he moved to the Panthers and became a top-line player. As the cap has squeezed players out of Tampa, Joseph was given more opportunity but the consistent production has yet to come. He scored on Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 14.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins
For a few years in Minnesota, Jason Zucker was one of those players with decent goal totals and the upside for more based on per minute rates. He’s not met those totals with the Penguins this season, scoring just six goals in 31 games – three of which came in his first six games of the season, and two that came on Monday. The Penguins have found a way to hang with the best teams despite not being at full health, but now that they’re getting all their key players back, it’ll be interesting to see how it comes together. On the second line with Evgeni Malkin, Zucker still has the upside to explode on the score sheet.

7. St. Louis Blues
The Blues and Avalanche are tied for the league lead in comeback wins this season (14), and no doubt it’s because both can score goals and look like Cup contenders. But they’re also having to play from behind because their goalies have left something to be desired. Jordan Binnington‘s sudden rise was so crucial to St. Louis’ 2019 Cup win, but he hasn’t quite captured that same magic since. This season, Binnington has a .906 save percentage and a minus-2.37 goals saved above expected. He has allowed four goals or more in eight of his 22 starts and has allowed less than three goals only seven times this season. When things start tightening up again down the stretch and in the playoffs, the Blues will need better play from their starter.

8. Boston Bruins
Line shakeups have landed Charlie Coyle on the third line as a centre, which is hopefully a better fit for his game than the second unit, even if paying $5.25 million to a 3C isn’t ideal in this league. The new-look second line is humming and the top line is always a threat. Support scoring has been an area of concern for recent Bruins teams, especially post-David Krejci, so if a third line led by Coyle can step up, the Bruins could be a second-half force.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs
If Justin Holl doesn’t step it up in the coming weeks, the Maple Leafs are going to have to find a credible second-pair defenceman to put next to an also-struggling (and now injured) Jake Muzzin. With Muzzin not going anywhere due to the cap space and years committed to him, it’s imperative for the Leafs to give him a stable partner and solidify their top four. If Holl doesn’t get back on track soon, not only could he lose his spot on Toronto’s second D pair, he may even find himself involved in one of these trades out of town.

10. Minnesota Wild
Welcome to the NHL, Matt Boldy. The winger found his way to the third line after the Wild waived a couple of players and has stepped up with two goals and four points in four games. Being a waiver-exempt 20-year-old means he’s no guarantee to stay up with the big club, but he can play his way to that point. In 24 AHL games between this season and the end of last, Boldy managed 10 goals and 28 points. The Wild’s future success – especially through a buyout-induced cap crunch on the horizon – is heavily tied to 25-and-under players Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek. Add Boldy to that list. Fantastic start, let’s see where he takes it.

11. Nashville Predators
What a surprising season in Nashville, after 2020-21 was peppered with talk of blowing it up and trading veterans. There was some turnover to that roster, but perhaps not as much as there could have been, and now the Preds are a challenger again – and maybe even a buyer. With a number of players doing so well, it’s hard to pick out someone who needs to stand up, but 24-year-old Luke Kunin is our guy. He finished last season on a positive note (six goals, 12 points in final 17 games), and even had a two-goal playoff game, which gave optimism he could build on that. It may yet come, but through 41 games in 2021-22, he has fewer goals (8) and points (16) than he had in 38 games last season.

12. Washington Capitals
With neither of Washington’s goalies signed next season or playing very well this one, either of them could still earn the No. 1 job. Vitek Vanecek surprisingly has the better numbers after being selected by the Kraken in the expansion draft and then traded back to the Capitals. Vanecek hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game in seven appearances since Nov. 21 and has separated from struggling Ilya Samsonov in the past month and a half. Now it seems like he’ll be given a shot to take over.

13. Vegas Golden Knights
So much of Vegas’ outlook is “wait and see” as the Golden Knights hope to get to full health at some point and, of course, with Jack Eichel’s arrival still a month or two away. One area they’ll have to get better at is on defence, where Vegas leaks its worst scoring chances against and expected goals-against rates in team history. A key player in helping turn that around will be Alec Martinez, out of the lineup since Nov. 11 when he took a skate to the face in a game against Minnesota. He was put on the COVID-19 protocol list in January, and while he won’t play against the Canadiens Thursday, a return is near.

14. Calgary Flames
An important all-situations defenceman, Noah Hanifin has been outscored 14-7 on the ice at 5-on-5 since Dec. 5, and 10-4 since the team returned from its COVID-19 pause. That included a string of losses against some tough teams in what was a measuring stick process for the entire team. Hanifin (and partner Rasmus Andersson) were lightly called out by coach Darryl Sutter last week (they’ve “had a tough time lately”) and so it only seems right to mention both here. The revenge win over Florida Tuesday was a good start.

15. Winnipeg Jets
It just hasn’t gone as planned for Nate Schmidt ever since Vegas traded him to Vancouver. With just a single goal this season, Schmidt is off to a more normal pace for 7-9 goals, and at 5-on-5 he has the lowest goals for percentage of any full-time Jets blueliner. The Canucks envisioned him as a good and cheap top-four addition to their blue line, but after that didn’t pan out, he’s now on Winnipeg’s third pair. Not ideal for a player making just shy of $6 million for another three seasons beyond this one.

16. Los Angeles Kings
We all thought Cal Petersen was neatly taking over this crease as the 27-year-old outduelled Jonathan Quick last season and then signed a three-year extension in September (that kicks in next year). But Quick, 35, has taken the reins back this season, outshining Petersen in every major stat and playing in nine more games. This, likely, will eventually become Petersen’s crease anyway, but with a minus-4.44 goals saved above expected, and an .899 save percentage, that transition has been a little less smooth.

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17. San Jose Sharks
Could pick on the ageing Marc-Edouard Vlasic here, as having the formerly great shutdown defender at his peak again would greatly help this club. But Father Time does not lose. So, we won’t pick on anyone really, and instead look to Rudolfs Balcers to step up. He was getting favourable placement on San Jose’s top line after missing six weeks to injury and is now out short-term again on the COVID protocol list. The 24-year-old has the fourth-most shots and high-danger chances per 60 minutes of all regular Sharks this season, but just four goals to show for it.

18. Vancouver Canucks
The curious case of Elias Pettersson finally took a positive turn this week, first with a two-goal effort in a win against Washington (his first multi-goal game since February of 2021) and another goal in Tuesday’s win over Nashville. Pettersson was a superstar stud in his first season, and seemingly just had to get used to the grind of a full schedule to bring consistency over 82 games. The past couple of years have no doubt been difficult for everybody, but it’s striking to see just nine goals and 20 points next to his name 39 games into the season. There is a small door open to the possibility of the Canucks coming all the way back to being a playoff team this season, but they’ll need all hands on deck to do it – and none may be more important to that than Pettersson returning to point per game form.

19. New York Islanders
Maybe, just maybe, things are starting to turn in New York’s favour. With an 8-3-1 record since Dec. 7, the Islanders have beaten all the soft touches in that stretch, but still have a long way back to the playoffs. One player we’re looking to score a bit more often in the back end of the season is Anthony Beauvillier, who has six goals in 29 games for the worst pace since his rookie season. Three of those goals have come in his past seven games, so he might already be turning a corner.

20. Detroit Red Wings
Filip Zadina is one of the many exciting young players in Detroit’s rebuild, but while Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond have been stealing the show as rookies, Zadina has posted just four goals in 38 games. It’s not for a lack of trying, as Zadina is sixth on the team in shots and third in individual scoring chances per 60 minutes. His shooting percentage has suffered, though, sitting at 5.1 per cent, which followed last season’s six-goal campaign with 6.2 per cent shooting. Curious, given the winger’s shot was one of his most desirable weapons in his draft season. It’ll come.

21. Dallas Stars
The Stars will be one of the more interesting teams over the next two months as they try to figure out how much of a challenger they will be, or if they should instead sell and point a bit more to the future. Tied with the Oilers in the standings, but with a minus goal differential, the Stars are far from the polished Cup finalists they were in 2020. Alexander Radulov has been a player vital to the team’s success in the recent past, especially as it pertains to offensive generation. Some younger players have stepped up nicely (Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson), but the Stars are still 23rd in offence on the year. Radulov has just a single goal and 12 points in 31 games.

22. Edmonton Oilers
It’s a painful wait in Edmonton, as Oilers fans watch their team spiral and anticipate change. But the games have been slow to come by in recent weeks – they’ve played only once (losing by blowing a third period lead) since Ken Holland spoke to the media last week and seemed content to wait it out. But whether the Oilers get a win or two this week in difficult assignments against Florida and Calgary, there seem to be flaws that will hold this team back, whether it’s forward depth, defence help, or the most obvious shortfall in net. The GM tried to put all the necessary pieces in place over the summer, but as it becomes obvious this is still a work in progress, it’s time for him to put those wheels in motion.

23. Chicago Blackhawks
A stud of a college player, Henrik Borgstrom hasn’t been able to turn that into NHL success yet. The Panthers (who picked him in the first round) traded Borgstrom to Chicago, where he’s mustered just five points in 26 games and hasn’t seized an opportunity on the top line. Rumours he could be traded again (as a minor piece) are out there. He’s just 24, with still time to fit in to a third line somewhere.

24. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks’ offence was taking a turn for the better this season after a few years languishing near the bottom of the league, but since Dec. 1 the team’s goals per game rate has sunk to 29th in the league. Over that time, Rickard Rakell has led the Ducks in shots (50), but has scored just twice. It seems that’s likely to pick up again. And the Ducks need the offence to turn back on if they are to push for the playoffs. Rakell will be an important part of that from the top line, but increased production from him could also make the pending UFA more valuable on the trade market.

25. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season was a write-off, and understandably so, for Patrik Laine, who never seemed to settle in under coach John Tortorella after a January trade to Columbus. This season was interrupted by an oblique injury, and since returning he has two goals in eight games. Laine is 10th among all Blue Jackets in goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, which is a far cry from when he was one of the most dangerous snipers in the league. An RFA this summer again and now just one year away from UFA eligibility, Laine hasn’t been himself for two years now, but Blue Jackets management will have to weigh his future with the team, and the cost with it, in short order.

26. Ottawa Senators
After going unclaimed on waivers this season, Matt Murray was back for the Senators, won two games in a row – the second thanks in part to another Oilers implosion – and then was sidelined again with a non-COVID illness. With the third-most games played among Ottawa goalies this year, Murray will probably not bring value to his $6.25 million contract, but the Sens would be happy with just NHL-calibre play and consistency. Guy needs to catch a break and find a groove.

27. New Jersey Devils
What is MacKenzie Blackwood? Before the pandemic, he was seen as one of the better young goalies in the game and maybe someone who could help lift the Devils out of a rebuild sooner than later. He was going to be in the running for at least Canada’s third goalie, had NHLers gone to the Olympics, but that case was drying up as the months went on. Blackwood posted just a .902 save rate last season and is below .900 right now, with a negative goals saved above expected rate in each year.

28. Buffalo Sabres
When Victor Olofsson burst on to the Buffalo scene two years ago with a 20-goal season, he brought hope that the Sabres might have a gem of a seventh-round pick. What we wanted to see going forward, though, was more 5-on-5 scoring as he mostly relied on the power play for those numbers. He has just five goals in 30 games this season, four of which have come at even strength, but he hasn’t scored at all since Halloween. Olofsson makes $3.05 million this year and is an arbitration-eligible RFA in the summer.

29. Arizona Coyotes
Trade rumours are slowly building steam and the Coyotes are one of the teams front and centre of it all. Phil Kessel as a veteran pending UFA is as close to a guarantee to eventually move as you can get, but Jakob Chychrun’s name is curious given he’s 23 years old and signed long-term. GM Bill Armstrong is well down the rebuild path and seemingly open to going further into that rhubarb. But, boy, does he need to hit a grand slam in any Chychrun deal.

30. Philadelphia Flyers
A little earlier in his still-young career, Ivan Provorov looked like someone who could develop into a Norris challenger, or at least a top-pair blueliner who would be absolutely miserable to play against with big point upside. Now he’s someone who is better with a stable partner, not as hard on the puck, and with the worst shots-for and goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 of all Flyers defencemen. He looked to be such an important, and leading, piece of this team, and now at 25 he’s something less than that until we see a bounce back.

31. Seattle Kraken
It wasn’t a good start for either Kraken goalie, despite the team’s rather decent defensive play, and Philipp Grubauer continues to have a tough time, allowing fewer than three goals in a game. This Kraken team doesn’t have the goal scorers to overcome those deficits, but does have the team defence that should support its goalies. All year it’s been that way, but since Dec. 1 Seattle has allowed the second-fewest high-danger chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play and fourth-fewest overall shots. Grubauer has an .884 save percentage in that time as Chris Driedger quietly makes a case for more playing time.

32. Montreal Canadiens
One trade that is nearly guaranteed to happen will involve Ben Chiarot, a physical, rental defenceman, the kind that’s always appealing to contenders this time of year. But the results have been mixed for him in tough circumstances. The Habs have been outscored by 13 at 5-on-5 with Chiarot on the ice, the second-worst goals-for percentage among Montreal defenders, and his on-ice shots against per 60 minutes is 10th-worst in the league. The Habs hope to get a first-round pick back for him, while Chiarot might just want to go to the best team possible. For both of those goals to be achieved, he might need to show a little more in the coming weeks. Granted, it’ll be an uphill battle on the NHL’s worst team.

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