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Cullen: Examining the 2011-2012 NHL Power Rankings

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Scott Cullen
4/4/2012 3:52:39 PM
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As we enter the final week of the NHL regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins, finally healthy, remain in top spot in the TSN.ca NHL Power Rankings.

With the end of the season near, it's a good time to look back at the preseason Power Rankings and the path that each team has traveled to get to their place in the most recent results.

It's important to note that the pre-season rankings are not predictions, because they are based on current value of the team, with the understanding that there will be factors throughout the season (trades, injuries, unexpected performances -- both good and bad) that affect results. But if a team has a dramatically different ranking at the end of the season, compared to the beginning, there ought to be some reasons that are evident for that change.

The Ottawa Senators, for example, exceeded all expectations and are to be commended for it. That they completely missed expectations (at least mine) the year before shouldn't be lost either. It just means they've managed to confound me in back-to-back seasons!

Here are some of the reasons for differences in rankings between rankings in September and April.

ANAHEIM DUCKS
Pre-Season Rank: 15
Current Rank: 23
Average Rank:23.67
What's the Difference?: Depth has been an issue and G Jonas Hiller got off to a rocky start (which shouldn't have been altogether surprising considering how his 2010-2011 season ended), but the biggest issue for the Ducks has been a lack of production from their top players. They've scored 23 fewer power play goals than a season ago and LW Bobby Ryan, C Ryan Getzlaf, RW Corey Perry and D Lubomir Visnovsky are down an average of nearly 30 points apiece from the year before.

BOSTON BRUINS
Pre-Season Rank: 1
Current Rank: 5
Average Rank: 4.96
What's the Difference?: The Bruins were rolling as the top-ranked team through the midpoint of the season, but some regression from G Tim Thomas (2.64 GAA, .904 SV% since the All-Star break), combined with some goal-scoring troubles with RW Nathan Horton and C/RW Rich Peverley sidelined knocked the Bruins down a bit, but they've rallied to remain among the top contenders, getting valuable late-season offensive contributions from depth forwards like Brian Rolston and Benoit Pouliot.

BUFFALO SABRES
Pre-Season Rank: 7
Current Rank: 17
Average Rank:17.33
What's the Difference?: G Ryan Miller started slowly (3.07 GAA, .899 SV% prior to the All-Star break) as did top six forwards Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. Mix in an injury to Tyler Ennis and a not-so-shocking lack of production from free agent LW Ville Leino and the Sabres were in a rather deep hole, sitting in the mid-to-low 20s for an eight-week stretch, but now they're making a late bid for a playoff spot, which would at least salvage what started out as a disastrous season considering the investment they made to upgrade the team last summer.

CALGARY FLAMES
Pre-Season Rank: 21
Current Rank: 21
Average Rank: 22.25
What's the Difference?: For the third straight season, the Flames started the season's rankings outside the Top 16, but this year there wasn't quite as much disappointment expressed by that preseason ranking. Even with a tremendous season from G Miikka Kiprusoff, C Olli Jokinen's first 60-point season since 2007-2008 and a 25-goal campaign from LW Curtis Glencross, the Flames had several significant players miss time with injuries -- Glencross, Alex Tanguay, Mark Giordano, Lee Stempniak, David Moss, Mikael Backlund (among others) all missed at least 15 games and the Flames simply didn't have the horses to make up for those losses.

CAROLINA HURRICANES
Pre-Season Rank: 18
Current Rank: 22
Average Rank: 26.42
What's the Difference?: A viable playoff contender entering the season, the Hurricanes flopped out of the gate, with C Eric Staal struggling mightily (20 points, minus-22 through 38 games) and offseason additions D Tomas Kaberle and LW Alexei Ponikarovsky weren't any help. After hiring Kirk Muller to take over behind the bench (and shedding Kaberle and Ponikarovsky), though, the Hurricanes have put together a respectable second half, giving them a shorter climb if they are going to be a playoff team in 2012-2013.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Pre-Season Rank: 2
Current Rank: 8
Average Rank: 8.54
What's the Difference?: Chicago's current rank is depressed by the absence of C Jonathan Toews, who hasn't played since February 19 due to a concussion. Toews could return soon, which would likely lift the Blackhawks a few more spots, but they're not quite elite calibre, primarily because of goaltending. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have combined for a .901 save percentage this year, which is not adequate for a team striving to be among the league's elite.

COLORADO AVALANCHE
Pre-Season Rank: 24
Current Rank: 19
Average Rank: 17.54
What's the Difference?: It hasn't been a disappointing season for the Avalanche. Even if they miss the playoffs, they're taking the fight right to the end despite the unpredictability of which players would turn out to lead them this season. Consider that Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene were the most likely players in the spotlight entering the season, but it's been Ryan O'Reilly and rookie Gabriel Landeskog rising to the forefront. G Jean-Sebastien Giguere (who has a career-high .923 SV%) also gave the Avalanche first-rate puckstopping when Semyon Varlamov was slumping in the middle of the season, enough to keep the Avalanche in the playoff race in the final week.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Pre-Season Rank: 23
Current Rank: 30
Average Rank: 29.08
What's the Difference?: That preseason projection offered a little bit of hope, with expectations that James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter would upgrade the Blue Jackets' power play. Another miserable season for G Steve Mason, combined with season-long injury woes for expected backup Mark Dekanich left the Blue Jackets to grasp at Curtis Sanford and Allen York in net, and they've performed well, but long after Columbus' fate was sealed. D Nikita Nikitin, picked up from St. Louis, has been a nice surprise, and D Jack Johnson has played well since arriving from Los Angeles in exchange for Carter, but the Blue Jackets haven't had enough finish offensively and, well, the goaltending, hasn't given them a chance. They are tied for 16th in shot differential, which doesn't seem to fit with the worst team in the league, unless the team is getting beat by the percentages at both ends of the rink.

DALLAS STARS
Pre-Season Rank: 17
Current Rank: 14
Average Rank: 14.08
What's the Difference?: 35 goals from RW Michael Ryder has been a treat and G Kari Lehtonen has been even better than expected, posting a career-best .922 SV% and while it may not be enough to squeak into a playoff spot, it has helped the Stars rank a touch higher than expected.

DETROIT RED WINGS
Pre-Season Rank: 8
Current Rank: 7
Average Rank: 6.50
What's the Difference?: A bounceback season from G Jimmy Howard and the emergence of C Valtteri Filppula as a bona fide scorer helps the Wings' ranking, but there have been enough smaller dips in production from others in the lineup and even a late-season injury to C Darren Helm, that the Red Wings finish close to their pre-season ranking. The challenge with the Red Wings is that, with an older core, there is often the sense that they aren't going all-out, trying to ensure that they are rested for the postseason.

EDMONTON OILERS
Pre-Season Rank: 28
Current Rank: 27
Average Rank: 20.88
What's the Difference?: There is obviously promise when the Oilers have Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall -- especially when all three are healthy -- but, as expected, there are still some holes that need to be filled in. G Nikolai Khabibulin started the year on fire (.935 SV% through November), but he's been subpar since, leaving the door open for Devan Dubnyk, whose strong finish (.921 SV% since the All-Star break) gives him a leg up going into next season. As expected, there is room for improvement on defence and in terms of forward depth before the Oilers can be expected to climb from the depths of the rankings and sustain that positioning.

FLORIDA PANTHERS
Pre-Season Rank: 29
Current Rank: 16
Average Rank: 14.54
What's the Difference?: While the Panthers made some intriguing moves last summer, they seemed to be made almost by default, since the Panthers had to go on a spending spree to reach the salary floor. Their largesse has been rewarded with strong seasons from LW Tomas Fleischmann, D Brian Campbell and, perhaps most significantly, G Jose Theodore, whose .918 SV% is his highest since 2003-2004. Add in a breakthrough 16-goal season for D Jason Garrison and the Panthers have a shot at the Southeast Division title. They could still miss the playoffs too, but even if they somehow fall short, they've still been much better than their preseason ranking would suggest.

LOS ANGELES KINGS
Pre-Season Rank: 10
Current Rank: 13
Average Rank: 15.08
What's the Difference?: Even with Jonathan Quick giving a Vezina-worthy performance, the Kings haven't been underperforming their preseason rank for most of the year due to an inability to score goals, a problem that seemed to be resolved when they acquired Jeff Carter from Columbus, but now Carter's out of the lineup with an ankle injury. That they've achieved this ranking despite 42 points from C Mike Richards, 17 points from LW Dustin Penner and 17 points (in 34 games) from LW Simon Gagne is a testament to how great Quick has been in net.

MINNESOTA WILD
Pre-Season Rank: 27
Current Rank: 28
Average Rank: 20.83
What's the Difference?: Defied the odds early in the year, roaring to a 20-7-3 mark through the first 30 games and reaching a season-high eighth in the rankings, but regression hit and hit hard as the Wild managed six regulation wins in their next 41 games, falling way off their early pace. Injuries to C Mikko Koivu, LW Pierre-Marc Bouchard and RW Guillaume Latendresse were too much to overcome for a team that wasn't overrun by skilled scorers in the first place.

MONTREAL CANADIENS
Pre-Season Rank: 16
Current Rank: 25
Average Rank: 21.29
What's the Difference?: Opened the season with one win in the first eight games and never got on track after that. Captain Brian Gionta was limited to 31 games after suffering a biceps injury and D Andrei Markov suffered numerous setbacks in his attempts to return from knee surgery, only getting into the lineup after the Canadiens' fate was sealed late in the year. Strangely enough, there have been some positives, like the emergence of C David Desharnais and LW Max Pacioretty, skating with RW Erik Cole and a bounceback season for a healthy Josh Gorges, but the Canadiens didn't have enough scoring and matters didn't get better when wingers Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn were moved out, nor did the arrival of D Tomas Kaberle appreciably improve a power play that has managed 42 goals this season, after scoring 57 in 2010-2011.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Pre-Season Rank: 13
Current Rank: 4
Average Rank: 9.71
What's the Difference?: It's pretty much an annual occurrence for the Predators to exceed their preseason ranking, as coach Barry Trotz somehow finds a way to get the most out of his guys, but this year's Predators team is different. Not only have they received more offensive production from centres Mike Fisher and David Legwand, but they've added to their roster, calling up LW Gabriel Bourque, D Roman Josi (and Ryan Ellis), trading for D Hal Gill, LW Andrei Kostitsyn, C Paul Gaustad and, most importantly, managed to lure RW Alexander Radulov back from the KHL. The Predators have a solid team, top-to-bottom, but Radulov has the dynamic goal-scoring ability that could take them to a higher level, thus a ranking that they haven't achieved too often, if ever, in previous seasons.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Pre-Season Rank: 19
Current Rank: 11
Average Rank: 16.88
What's the Difference?: With C Travis Zajac out of the lineup for much of the season after suffering an Achilles injury last summer, the Devils were very fortunate to get solid production from rookie C Adam Henrique, as it helped keep the Devils' top two lines productive. RW David Clarkson hitting 30 goals and Petr Sykora contribuing 19 (after playing 14 NHL games the previous two seasons) would also count as favourable surprises. The play of backup G Johan Hedberg (.918 SV% in 27 GP) can't be ignored either.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Pre-Season Rank: 22
Current Rank: 24
Average Rank: 23.04
What's the Difference?: Not an altogether surprising campaign for the Isles. Good years by some of their top scorers and solid play from G Evgeni Nabokov when he was healthy, offered some reason to think that the Islanders could improve, but RW Michael Grabner tailed off in his sophomore season and they were undone by a lack of depth, both in terms of secondary scoring and especially on the blueline, where D Milan Jurcina ranked in the top four in minutes played, leaving him with a league-worst minus-33.

NEW YORK RANGERS
Pre-Season Rank: 11
Current Rank: 3
Average Rank: 4.21
What's the Difference?: The Blueshirts' pre-season ranking was down due to the absence of D Marc Staal, but the Rangers have had enough strong performances to rise above their preseason level. RW Marian Gaborik bounced back with a 40-goal season, D Michael Del Zotto has 41 points and is plus-21 a year after being demoted to the AHL, rookie LW Carl Hagelin contributed immediately upon getting called up and has only recently hit his first slump.

OTTAWA SENATORS
Pre-Season Rank: 30
Current Rank: 10
Average Rank: 17.63
What's the Difference?: After killing my preseason ranking by going in the tank last season, the Senators bounced back and ruined this year's preseason ranking too. They were mediocre through Christmas, going 13-13-4 as of December 10th, but the season started to turn and, not entirely coincidentally, after they acquired C Kyle Turris from Phoenix. It's not so much that the Senators couldn't find the 28 points in 47 games that Turris provided (though their second-line centres weren't offering that much), it's that Turris' presence allowed the Senators to balance their top two lines, keeping C Jason Spezza and RW Daniel Alfredsson on separate lines and both were productive. Getting bounceback seasons from 39-year-old Alfredsson and 37-year-old D Sergei Gonchar certainly contributed to this season's surprise result, as did the giant progression in the game of third-year D Erik Karlsson, who went from dynamic offensive defenceman to Norris Trophy candidate (he's still more O than D, but he does O like no one else). The Senators have also benefitted from good health and even when G Craig Anderson suffered a freak finger injury at a time when it could have derailed their season, goaltenders Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner kept the Sens' playoff hopes alive.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Pre-Season Rank: 4
Current Rank: 9
Average Rank: 8.08
What's the Difference?: No Chris Pronger (who had 12 points in the first 13 games) is the biggest drop from the Flyers' preseason ranking, but a current injured list that includes C Danny Briere, LW James van Riemsdyk, D Andrej Meszaros, D Nicklas Grossman and G Ilya Bryzgalov (who has come on strong after a miserable start to the year) also counters what has really been an exceptional year for a Flyers team that is full of new faces. C Claude Giroux responded to added responsibility, RW Jaromir Jagr showed he still has something left, RW Wayne Simmonds has taken on an increased role with his new team and RW Jabub Voracek is finishing strong. Factor in the roles of rookies Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and, more recently, EricWellwood and it's impressive that the Flyers remain a Top 10 team despite injuries that could have knocked lesser teams down much further.

PHOENIX COYOTES
Pre-Season Rank: 26
Current Rank: 15
Average Rank: 15.42
What's the Difference?: Much like the Predators, the Coyotes often exceed their preseason ranking, though they didn't last year when they started 10th. Nevertheless, coming into this season with Mike Smith replacing Ilya Bryzgalov in goal appeared to be a recipe for collapse, but Smith has turned in a career year, with a .929 SV% in 65 games. 39-year-old LW Ray Whitney has put up 75 points, the fourth time he's hit that threshold in the last nine seasons. RW Radim Vrbata's career-high 33 goals helped too, but still, Smith's season is the difference-maker.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Pre-Season Rank: 9
Current Rank: 1
Average Rank: 4.71
What's the Difference?: Ptitsburgh's preseason ranking was deflated because C Sidney Crosby wasn't yet ready to return from his concussion and he did miss a substantial portion of the season, but the Penguins kept rolling thanks to C Evgeni Malkin returning to elite form which, in turn, lifted RW James Neal to 40-goal territory. The Penguins' supporting cast has also been outstanding as Pascal Dupuis has a career-high 25 goals and 57 points and a reformed Matt Cooke has added a career-high 19 goals.

ST. LOUIS BLUES
Pre-Season Rank: 12
Current Rank: 2
Average Rank: 9.50
What's the Difference?: Considering they had reached the playoffs once in the previous seven seasons, the Blues' preseason ranking was indicative of a team that had the talent to do more. After a slow start, they replaced Davis Payne behind the bench with Ken Hitchcock and the results followed. G Jaroslav Halak was terrible early in the year (3.58 GAA, .843 SV% in October) and that contributed to Payne's demise, but he's been great since and Brian Elliott, who was battling for the backup job in training camp, has merely posted the highest full-season save percentage (.943) since the NHL started tracking the stat. Aside from goaltending, the Blues have seen rapid development from D Alex Pietrangelo, now a Norris candidate, and are finally healthy, after missing wingers David Perron, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen for long stretches this season.

SAN JOSE SHARKS
Pre-Season Rank: 3
Current Rank: 12
Average Rank: 8.33
What's the Difference?: RW Martin Havlat missed half the season with a hamstring injury so the Sharks haven't been able to get the full effect on their scoring lines so a few Sharks have had down years. Left wingers Ryane Clowe and Patrick Marleau haven't scored as much as they did in previous years while G Antti Niemi also took a bit of a step back from his 2010-2011 season, leaving the Sharks to scramble for a playoff spot.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Pre-Season Rank: 14
Current Rank: 26
Average Rank: 24.54
What's the Difference?: There was obviously risk involved in going with 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson as their starting goaltender, but the decision was understandable after Tampa Bay's 2011 playoff run. Nevertheless, Roloson struggled (.885 SV% in 38 GP) and even though Mathieu Garon performed admirably in a much bigger role than anticipated, the Lightning didn't have the goaltending of a playoff team. C Steven Stamkos remains an out of this world talent, but the Lightning losing C Vincent Lecavalier to injury tested their depth and there wasn't enough support for the Lightning's top performers to earn a return to the playoffs.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Pre-Season Rank: 20
Current Rank: 29
Average Rank: 16.42
What's the Difference?: The preseason ranking looked pessimistic midway through the year, as the Leafs were rolling thanks to the offensive exploits of RW Phil Kessel and LW Joffrey Lupul, but the goaltending collapsed, and then the scoring stopped and then the Maple Leafs, who were ranked as high as ninth in the first and sixth weeks of the season, hit rankings free-fall in the last six weeks, dropping from 14 to 29. My forecasts for C Tim Connolly were low coming into the year, but he came in below them. RW Nikolai Kulemin went from 30 goals to seven. Players like D John-Michael Liles and G James Reimer both couldn't play at their previous levels after suffering concussions. Even with modest expectations going into the year, the Maple Leafs found a way to disappoint.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Pre-Season Rank: 5
Current Rank: 6
Average Rank: 4.71
What's the Difference?: The Canucks' preseason ranking reflected the absence of LW Mason Raymond, who was injured in the Cup Final and C Ryan Kesler, who was recovering from offseason hip surgery, but Kesler came back quickly, missing only five games all year. The current Vancouver ranking also reflects the absence of leading goal-scorer Daniel Sedin, so they are what was expected: a very good team and Cup contender, if healthy.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Pre-Season Rank: 6
Current Rank: 18
Average Rank: 16.71
What's the Difference?: Washington started okay, but went in the tank right around the time that G Tomas Vokoun slumped (.881 SV% in November) and it cost Bruce Boudreau his job behind the bench. Results have been uneven ever since. The Capitals show signs, like LW Alexander Ovechkin's improved play late in the year (16 goals in 29 games since the All-Star break), but after missing C Nicklas Backstrom and D Mike Green for long stretches, the Capitals were simply not the go-go Capitals of years gone by, capable of outscoring their mistakes. Now, they are locked in a battle just to make the playoffs, an achievement that would seem more of a relief than anything else.

WINNIPEG JETS
Pre-Season Rank: 25
Current Rank: 20
Average Rank: 22.25
What's the Difference?: There was enough progress that the Jets achieved a little better than expected throughout the season. RW Blake Wheeler and LW Evander Kane made notable strides and even a contribution like the 47 points that Kyle Wellwood provided helped the Jets' first season back in Winnipeg count as a success, even if the playoffs weren't in the cards. If they had better health on the blueline -- Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien missed a total of 53 games -- maybe the race would have been even closer.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Erik Karlsson (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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