As the year 2011 comes to an end, here are my final NHL power rankings including a review of the year that was for each franchise. A graph of the team's January to December regular season power rankings are included. You can see what the picture of a Stanley Cup hangover looks like. Note that last season my rankings were a subjective opinion based on my own opinion, where this season is based on a mathematical formula derived from goal differential and points. Over the summer I altered how I did rankings. Most rankings were about 2-3 weeks apart, and early this season there was a higher variance based on the small sample size.
1. Boston Bruins (last rank #1): If someone asked you to draw a picture of a Stanley Cup hangover, recovery, and improvement, refer to the image below. This team is even better than they were last season, and a lot of that has to do with Tyler Seguin and spectacular goaltending. Brad Marchand is becoming an elite player very quickly.
2. NY Rangers (last rank #3): They finished last season as a team that was average at best, and have evolved into a very competitive franchise this season. Garborik and Richards are both producing on separate lines, giving the team a very balanced attack. The level of play they are getting from their depleted defense is far better than I would have expected. Del Zotto, McDonagh, and Stralman have been playing great hockey. Henrik Lundquvist has been earning his pay cheque this season, and then some. The return of Marc Staal can only make this team better.
3. Vancouver Canucks (last rank #6): The same picture as Boston, except that Vancouver is a little bit worse than before their hangover, while the Bruins are a little bit better. Right now few teams are playing better than the Canucks, with the Sedin BROTHERS firing on all cylinders and Luongo in his happy place. We should start calling Roberto Mr December.
4. Detroit Red Wings (last rank #2): This franchise was a model of consistency in 2011, notwithstanding a small blip in early November. Detroit had 7 forwards score at least 4 goals in December, and right now Pavel Datsyuk is carrying the team on his shoulders. This is often the time of year that he gets hurt and takes some time off, so Wings fans need to hope he stays healthy. Jimmy Howard is having a strong season, but he's still a level below the elite tier between the pipes.
5. Chicago Blackhawks (last rank #5): Another model of consistency, this is just a good team with a great core of young players. Toews and Kane are among the league's best duos, next to maybe the Sedins. Hossa and Sharp led the Hawks in scoring in December, combining for 16 goals. Also this month, Ray Emery is 6-1 with a 1.91 GAA while Crawford is 4-1 with a 2.42 GAA. Right now Rayzor is getting more action, but their Save Percentages are virtually identical (suggesting Chicago gives up more shots when Crawford is in the net (the math works out to roughly 6 shots more per 60 min), which could possibly be due to rebound control).
6. Philadelphia Flyers (last rank #4): The team should start slipping any day now, though getting Claude Giroux back is a big boost. Giroux had 17 PTS in 9 GP in December. Jaromir Jagr deserves some kind of award for the season he's had, be it comeback player, or the stick it to your old fan base award. Ilya Bryzgalov has been quietly bad for the month of December (6-3, 3.21 GAA), while Sergei Bobrovski has been stellar (3-0, 1.86 GAA). You can see the team has been gradually trending downwards following a strong start to 2011.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins (last rank #9): Continuing to play strong despite missing the league's best player for most of the year. So far this season Evgeni Malkin is the team's MVP, but James Neal is a close #2. What's hurting the team right now is missing Letang, who did not play a game in December, which explains the team's dip as much as the loss of Crosby. Letang is the one player this team cannot afford to be without. Note that last season's rankings were more subjective and I dropped Pittsburgh after the Crosby and Malkin injuries down to 17th place, but the team's on ice performance never actually regressed that far. This season's rankings are based on a mathematical formula in lieu of my personal feelings.
8. San Jose Sharks (last rank #10): Havlat is hurt, not that the team is going to miss his lacklustre production. Couture led the team with 9 goals in December, followed by Jamie McGinn with 6 and Pavelski with 4. After that, nobody has been scoring goals. This is a team that was great in the 2nd half last season, advanced to the conference finals, and has been less impressive thus far this season but still at a playoff calibre level.
9. St. Louis Blues (last rank #8): This team was consistently bad for most of 2011, but has taken off here as the year's end is near. David Perron is the feel good story of the season as he led the team in scoring in December since returning from an extended concussion absence. If you look at the Blues 2011 graph below, that sharp jump upwards aligns with the rise of Brian Elliot and the return of Perron. The Blues will make the playoffs this season, and possibly win a round.
10. Minnesota Wild (last rank #7): The Wild have won just 2 of the last 10 games after spending some time at the top of the NHL standings. This season has been substantially better than last season, and Mike Yeo is an early favourite for coach of the year (provided they are able to stabilize their recent tailspin). They have won 55% of their games with Zidlicky in the line-up, and 80% without him.
11. Florida Panthers (last rank #11): Clearly this team improved itself in the offseason with their big spending spree. I'll admit to being very skeptical that these acquisitions would have a substantial impact, but this season they have been playing like a playoff team. Though I've said it before and I'll say it again, beware putting any faith in the team starting Jose Theodore in goal. Scott Clemenson has been brutal this month as the #2. The future is Markstrom, and the time is now to get him in the starting line-up. Versteeg having career year. That bears repeating, especially in conversations with Leaf fans. Versteeg having career year for a team competing with Toronto for a playoff spot.
12. Nashville Predators (last rank #12): For the next 5 years, this team will only go as far as Pekka Rhinne can take them. If they lose Weber for a significant period, making the playoffs would be very improbable. Pekka went 8-2 in December but had a 2.92 GAA. That's not the same Pekka we have become accustomed to. Jordin Tootoo had 8 PTS in 12 GP in Dec, which is far above his standard offensive output. They have won 7 of their last 10 games.
13. Washington Capitals (last rank #18): Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel. After a sudden collapse that led to the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau, they are quietly inching back up the standings, though still finish 2011 outside of a playoff spot. Their goaltending has been playing very well in December, when combined with balanced scoring has led to a reversal of fortune. Still, they have a way to go before they can be considered back in the elite tier.
14. New Jersey Devils (last rank #13): This team entered 2011 as the worst team in the league and have since steadily improved to the point where they are now tied for the final playoff spot in the East. Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuck deserve most of the credit, as the Devil's normally reliable goaltending has been shaky at best.
15. Winnipeg Jets (last rank #19): The 2011 Atlanta/Winnipeg team slowly bottomed out before leaving town, and have been steadily improving since returning to Canada. Their stadium is proving to be a very difficult place for opponents to play. This team has some of the best fans in the league, which goes to show that the Jets never should have left in the first place. Though perhaps it is appropriate to say "you don't know what you've got till it's gone"? Expect Evander Kane jerseys to sell like hotcakes in Manitoba for years to come.
16. Dallas Stars (last rank #14): It is now safe to drop Andrew Raycroft in your very deep fantasy leagues where all goalies are owned. Lehtonen is back, and Richard Bachman is backing him up. This team has survived the loss of Brad Richards without a significant regression (they missed the playoffs with Richards). Even the month long absence of Kari Lehtonen did not have a significant impact on their rankings. They are only a marginal playoff team at best. They won't rank higher than 6th or lower than 10th in the West.
17. Toronto Maple Leafs (last rank #17): This team has shown steady improvement for most of 2011, but has leveled off as of late. Phil Kessel has played mostly great since being picked last at the all-star game, and Joff Lupul has been outstanding since they acquired him in the Beauchemin deal. This is a year that the Leafs must make the playoffs, and if they don't, that Ron Wilson contract extension won't be worth the paper it's printed on.
18. Los Angeles Kings (last rank #22): This is a difficult team to figure out that has endured a roller coaster year. Only one player (Dustin Brown) scored more than 2 goals in December, while Jon Quick has continued his strong play. Kopitar had zero goals and 10 assists this month. Dustin Penner has been a major disappointment this season and it looks like these guys could really use Ryan Smyth.
19. Phoenix Coyotes (last rank #15): They have been a consistently average team for most of the calendar year, but they have been declining the final 6 weeks. Goaltender Mike Smith was playing very poorly before getting injured, and Jason LaBarbara has been decent as his replacement. Still, too many under-achievers on offense has proved too large an obstacle to overcome.
20. Colorado Avalanche (last rank #25): Just what the Western Conference needs, the Avalanche winning 7 of their last 10. This team has experienced some major swings in the year 2011. They were brutal to finish last season, great to start this season, then brutal again, now suddenly playing well again. JS Giguere is currently outplaying Simeyon Varlamov. Matt Duchene has been statistically comparable to Daniel Winnik and TJ Gallardi, rather than an elite player in this league. The kid has regressed.
21. Calgary Flames (last rank #24): With Iginla and Jokinen firing on all cylinders, this team will challenge for a playoff spot. The concern is the future beyond Iginla and Jokinen. Leyland Irving looks like he could soon replace Mikka Kiprusoff between the pipes, or at least that he's ready to. As you can see below, their 2011 year has the roller coaster shape in terms of team performance, though not with the swings of some of the other teams.
22. Ottawa Senators (last rank #23): This has been one of the worst teams of the year, though they finish 2011 tied for the last playoff spot in the East. Their year has been one steady, consistent improvement. It is great to see Alfredsson back and producing at a strong clip.
23. Edmonton Oilers (last rank #20): 2011 has been quite an up and down year for this young team. They were terrible last season, drafted Ryan Hopkins, brought back Ryan Smyth, started this season as one of the league's best, and have been regressing to the mean ever since. Jordan Eberle was the team MVP for December with Hopkins declining from his early pace.
24. Buffalo Sabres (last rank #16): This season has been steadily getting worse for the Sabres, who barely squeezed into the playoffs last season. After the money they spent in the offseason acquiring high priced talent like Ville Lieno and Christian Ehrhoff, fans must be disappointed. Vanek and Pominville are co-MVPs, while the goaltending has been atrocious.
25. Montreal Canadiens (last rank #21): Clearly this team over-achieved last season. This season they have been playing more on their level, because there is no loss or acquisition which can adequately explain their collapse. They have struggled with injuries over the years. Not enough French Canadians I suppose...
26. Tampa Bay Lightning (last rank #26): This team has fallen off a cliff after a great playoff run. There is no hangover here, this team just isn't very good. The D has played poorly and Roloson is not the same guy. He has a 4.97 GAA in December as Garon has taken over as the #1 guy. The only problem is that Garon has never succeeded as a #1 guy and the team is not improving.
27. Carolina Hurricanes (last rank #28): When you look at the big picture, this team's regression was slow but steady. It is very nearly a straight line down. Are they missing Erik Cole that much? It is not absurd to say that E.Staal is paid too much money. Paul Maurice wasn't the problem.
28. NY Islanders (last rank #27): A pathetic 2011, with a small highlight blip at the start of the season when Tavares was leading the NHL in scoring. This team has a lot of nice young pieces, but it is not coalescing to an upward trend. Is the team too young? If they can keep the core together, there could be a bright future on the Island.
29. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (last rank #29): Is this team really this bad? They survived the loss of Jonas Hiller last season by getting other-worldly production from Corey Perry, but this season has been a nightmare. This team needs either strong goaltending, or Perry/Getzlaf being the best tandem in the NHL. Long term prospects questionable.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets (last rank #30): This team is just not good. Sorry Ohio.