NHL Power Rankings: Philadelphia Flyers Soar High Among Stanley Cup Contenders
With the Stanley Cup Playoffs less than two weeks away, the NHL's elite are preparing for what they're hoping will be long playoff runs. There are several teams who are very legitimate Stanley Cup threats and because of that, this year's playoffs could very well be some of the most exciting ever.
The Vancouver Canucks are very close to clinching their first Presidents' Trophy in franchise history. Can they match it with their first ever Stanley Cup?
The Philadelphia Flyers are leading the Eastern Conference after a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals last year. Can they copy the Pittsburgh Penguins of 2008 and 2009 by returning to the Finals and claiming the Cup?
The Boston Bruins suffered the worst collapse in NHL history in the second round last year, when they heart-breakingly blew 3-0 series and game seven leads to the Flyers. Can they avenge the loss with the ultimate win?
Then, there are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have come together to remain in the race despite losing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to long term injuries. Captain Crosby has been cleared to resume skating with the team, but will he be able to return? Will he still be the best player in the world? Will adding him to the lineup be enough to help the Penguins claim their second Stanley Cup in three years?
Questions will be answered. History will be made. Other cliche NHL statements will be uttered. And, at the end, only one will be left standing. Who will it be?
10. New York Rangers
Record: 41-30-5, 87 points
Current Seeding: Seventh
Offense: Despite only having one 50 point player, the New York Rangers boast an arsenal of weapons up front including sniper Marian Gaborik and physical forwards Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan. The Rangers' offensive weakness is a lack of contribution from their defensemen, but recent acquisition Bryan McCabe should help that problem somewhat.
Defense: The Rangers defense is very, very good. They've allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the league. They also boast one of the best shutdown pairs in the league in Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Staal is fairly well known as a very good stay-at-home defenseman, but Girardi is vastly underrated. Girardi leads the league in blocked shots and is in the top 10 in hits by defensemen.
Goaltending: The Rangers Henrik Lundqvist is in the top seven in the league in every major goaltending category, including leading the league in shutouts with 11. He's the first goalie in league history to win at least 30 games in each of his first six seasons and has a good chance to be nominated for the Vezina Trophy this year. He did suffer a minor injury in a March 30 game against the Buffalo Sabres, but didn't leave the game.
Special Teams: The Rangers special teams are slightly above average. Their power play is ranked 15th and their penalty kill is 13th. Dan Girardi's shot-blocking is very valuable to the Rangers penalty kill. Bryan McCabe should help their power play improve too.
Coaching: John Tortorella is an exuberant coach with a very unique personality. He often publicly criticizes his players, but it seems to work for him. He led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup in 2004 and has the Rangers playing better than most people thought they would be.
9. Anaheim Ducks
Record: 44-28-5, 93 points
Current Seeding: Sixth
Offense: The Anaheim Ducks have an extremely potent top line consisting of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and league-leading scorer Corey Perry. The Ducks also boast ageless wonder Teemu Selanne and defensive scoring leader Lubomir Visnovsky. After those five, the offense thins, but Saku Koivu, Jason Blake and Cam Fowler provide secondary scoring.
Defense: The Ducks top defensive pair of Visnovsky and Toni Lydman is very solid. Youngsters Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa have had good seasons, and have benefitted from the acquisition of Francois Beauchemin. Beachemin's experience and defensive style will be valuable in the playoffs to match against the second scoring lines of their opponents.
Goaltending: Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller was an All Star and was on pace to be a Vezina Trophy candidate, but he's spent most of the last two months on the injured reserve, suffering from vertigo. Luckily for the Ducks, mid-season signing Ray Emery has been phenomenal, posting a 6-0 record, .935 save percentage and 1.90 goals against average.
Special Teams: The Ducks have the league's fifth-best powerplay, with an absolutely dominant top unit of Getzlaf, Perry, Selanne, Visnovsky and Fowler. Their penalty kill isn't as good. It's 20th league-wide but the Ducks do possess one of the best penalty killers in the league in Todd Marchant.
Coaching: Randy Carlyle has done very well in his first NHL head coaching job. He's made the playoffs four out of five times before this season, including winning a Stanley Cup in 2007. Carlyle's playing experience as a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman has been extremely valuable in teaching the inexperienced Fowler and Sbisa.
8. Chicago Blackhawks
Record: 41-27-8, 90 points
Current Seeding: Eighth
Offense: The Chicago Blackhawks are fourth in the league in goals scored, led by Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and captain Jonathan Toews. The Hawks get good secondary scoring from Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Tomas Kopecky. The Hawks also have Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell who contribute regularly from the back end. What the Hawks are missing this year is the physical netcrashing style that Dustin Byfuglien played so well last season.
Defense: Top defenseman Duncan Keith hasn't been nearly as good as he was last season when he won the Norris Trophy, but he's still one of the best defensemen in the league. Keith, along with Seabrook, Campbell and Nicklas Hjalmarsson form a solid top four, and Chris Campoli and rookie Nick Leddy provide good depth defense. The Hawks will also have two of the better defensive centers in the league in Toews and Bolland, if Bolland can return from a concussion in time to play.
Goaltending: The Blackhawks have a sensational rookie manning the cage for the second consecutive season. Corey Crawford has a good chance at the Calder Trophy and will definitely be the starting goaltender going into the playoffs. His playoff composure will be tested as Crawford has yet to make any kind of playoff run in five professional seasons in the AHL.
Special Teams: The Blackhawks powerplay is second best in the league, behind only the Vancouver Canucks. They have a success rate of 24 percent, which will be crucial to their success in a tight playoff series. The Hawks penalty kill isn't anywhere near as good at 25th in the league.
Coaching: Joel Quennville has been a very good coach for a long time. He's only missed the playoffs once in his 14 year career, and capped it off with his first Stanley Cup last season. He and the Blackhawks have the added advantage of knowing what it takes to win.
7. Washington Capitals
Record: 44-22-11, 99 points
Current Seeding: Second
Offense: The Washington Capitals have gotten more secondary scoring this season with the emergence of Marcus Johansson and John Carlson, but top guns Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are way off last year's pace. The Caps have spent most of the season working on improving defensively, which explains why they're scoring is down, but one can't help but wonder if they'll be able to get a goal when they need it.
Defense: The Caps defense is hard to judge. They've given up the sixth fewest goals against in the league, but with Mike Green out, rookies John Carlson and Karl Alzner have been leading the D-corps. They've done very well in the regular season, but it's hard to know if they'll do as well in the playoffs when the intensity skyrockets.
Goaltending: The goaltending situation in Washington is the least clear of any in the NHL. Semyon Varlamov was expected to be the starter, but he's battled so many injuries this year that he may have lost the starting position to rookie Michael Neuvirth. Neuvirth is 24-11-4 with above average numbers in goals against average and save percentage. Then, there's Braden Holtby who's shuttled back and forth from the AHL. He's been superb for the Capitals, posting a 1.79 GAA and .934 SP, along with 10 wins in 12 starts.
Special Teams: The Caps special teams have flipped from last season when they had the best powerplay and 25th-ranked penalty kill. This year, the Caps penalty kill is third best, but their powerplay has dropped to 22nd overall. They'll need to improve on the powerplay if they want to get through the other top teams in the East.
Coaching: Bruce Boudreau became infamous this season for dropping 15 "F-bombs" in a one minute speech on HBO's 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic. Many people thought that Boudreau was in danger of losing his job in the midst of an eight game losing streak in December, but the Capitals kept him around and it seems to be paying off. Boudreau has the former offense first, defense last Capitals as one of the best defensive teams in the league.
6. San Jose Sharks
Record: 44-23-9, 97 points
Current Seeding: Third
Offense: The San Jose Sharks have a deep and balanced group of scorers. Each of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Dany Heatley and Logan Couture have over 50 points. However, this is the first season in which Heatley, Marleau and Thornton haven't been point-per-game players or better. Also, outside of Dan Boyle, offense from the defense is nearly non-existent. The Sharks are hoping that they've found enough clutch scorers to finally shed their poor playoff reputation–Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau have combined for 17 game-winning goals.
Defense: The Sharks defense is 10th-best in the league, with 199 goals allowed so far this season. Boyle plays big minutes on the back end, then the next four, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ian White, Douglas Murray and Jason Demers all play around 20 minutes per game. The Sharks don't really have an elite shutdown defensemen, which could prove costly come playoffs.
Goaltending: The goaltending in San Jose isn't being questioned for the first time in several years because they have a goalie who's a proven winner. Evgeni "Can't Stop a Puck in Playoffs" Nabokov is out, and defending Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi is in. Niemi had a rough start to the season, but has been instrumental in the Sharks' 23-4-4 run since the middle of January.
Special Teams: The Sharks powerplay is fantastic, clicking at a rate of 23.3 percent, good for third-best in the NHL. With Dan Boyle quarterbacking and any combination of their snipers crashing the net, it's no surprise that they're so good. Their penalty kill is a different matter as they're just 24th in the league with a success rate under 80 percent.
Coaching: Todd McLellan is still relatively inexperienced as an NHL head coach, but has done well so far. Prior to San Jose, McLellan served as an assistant coach to Mike Babcock in Detroit, and got to learn from one of the best coaches in the game. In his first two seasons with the Sharks, McLellan suffered playoff losses in the first and third rounds, respectively. Last season was the Sharks first trip to the Conference Finals since 2004, so McLellan is doing well, but this Sharks team will never be considered successful until they win a Stanley Cup.
5. Detroit Red Wings
Record: 44-23-10, 98 points
Current Seeding: Second
Offense: The Detroit Red Wings have a ton of options when it comes to offense. They boast the elite talent of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, with secondary scoring from Danny Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Valtteri Filppula and others. The Wings also get great offensive contributions from the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall on the blue line.
Defense: The Red Wings top four defensemen are quite possibly the best in the entire league. Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall and Brad Stuart are all capable of playing against and shutting down opposition top lines. Lidstrom is one of the best defensemen ever, and even at age 40, doesn't appear to have lost a step. The Wings forwards are also very responsible defensively, particularly Zetterberg and three time Selke Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk.
Goaltending: Jimmy Howard will be the Red Wings' starting goaltender as long as he's healthy. Howard hasn't had the best season in terms of goals against average and save percentage, but he's reasonably reliable behind the kind of defense the Wings usually play in the playoffs. If Howard falters, the Wings are short on other options due to the groin injury to Chris Osgood.
Special Teams: The Red Wings boast the fourth-best powerplay in the league. Lidstrom quarterbacks the top unit with Datsyuk and Zetterberg as set-up men on the half walls and Tomas Holmstrom irritates goalies just outside the blue paint (usually). The Detroit penalty kill isn't as good, but isn't terrible at 16th in the league. Having Datysuk return to the lineup healthy will help the PK as he's one of the best in the league on faceoffs.
Coaching: Mike Babcock may well be the best coach in the world right now. He wins everywhere he goes, and is the only coach to be a member of the Triple Gold Club–Olympic gold medal, World Championship gold medal and Stanley Cup victory. Babcock also coached Team Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship in 1997. Babcock is one of the smartest coaches in the league when it comes to matchups, and he makes Detroit even more difficult to face.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (if Sidney Crosby Returns)
Record: 45-24-8, 98 points
Current Seeding: Fourth
Offense: The Pittsburgh Penguins have often been a scoring machine in recent years, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. However, with both of them out long-term with injuries, Pittsburgh has developed into a much more defensive team with balanced scoring. Crosby still leads the team by 17 points despite missing 36 games thus far, but the Penguins have 11 other players with 20 or more points. Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, James Neal and Alexei Kovalev have led the charge as of late, and adding Crosby, who's been cleared to skate with the team, will make the Penguins offense very good.
Defense: The Pens defense is arguably better than it has been in recent memory. With Zbynek Michalek, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and potential Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang, the Pens top four is extremely solid. The Pens also have some of the best defensive forwards in the league in Jordan Staal, Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury is having the best season of his career and he is the biggest reason that the Penguins have stayed in the Eastern Conference race without Crosby and Malkin. Fleury is a proven playoff goalie who already has two trips to the Cup Finals, and one win, in just five seasons as a starter.
Special Teams: The Pens penalty kill is one of the great strengths of the team, partly because of the old adage "practice makes perfect." The Penguins are the most penalized team in the league, so it's a good thing they boast the second best PK. The Pens powerplay is dreadful, though. It's 24th in the league and has been even worse than that in the last few months. Getting Crosby back will be instrumental in improving it.
Coaching: Dan Bylsma hasn't been an NHL head coach for long, but his record speaks for itself. In his first year, Bylsma took the Penguins from 10th place with 25 games remaining, and led them to fourth in the East. Then, the Pens got to the Cup Finals and beat the Detroit Red Wings to claim the Stanley Cup. Bylsma is one of the shrewdest coaches in the league for penalty-killing and systems, but still needs to improve on his matchups.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
Record: 46-20-10, 102 points
Current Seeding: First
Offense: The Philadelphia Flyers offense is as deep as it is talented. Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere and captain Mike Richards are all over 60 points. Scott Hartnell, Ville Leino and James van Riemsdyk provide plenty of secondary scoring. The Flyers have three "top" lines that are all equally good, which makes it nearly impossible to match against them. The only slight weakness they have offensively is that they lack the elite talent of a Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos, but they make up for it with overwhelming depth.
Defense: The Flyers have given up 41 fewer goals than they've scored. They're led on the blue line by Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, who are capable of slowing the top lines of most teams. The Flyers top-six defensemen boast a combined rating of plus-101. The Flyers forwards are also a very responsible group defensively, especially former Selke Trophy finalist Mike Richards.
Goaltending: The goaltending situation in Philadelphia is their big question heading into playoffs. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and journeyman Brian Boucher have been battling for the starting job. Bobrovsky has played more games, but has struggled lately. Boucher has been better recently, but neither have shown they really deserve top spot, and neither is really a great option for the Flyers.
Special Teams: The Flyers special teams aren't as good as one would expect. Their penalty kill is 10th-best, but their powerplay is only 20th. It's very surprising that the Flyers powerplay isn't better when considering the amount of skill they can put out on both units. The Flyers will need to improve their powerplay in the playoffs as it could be the deciding factor in a close series.
Coaching: Peter Laviolette is amongst the best coaches in the NHL. He seems to be able to get the most out of the Flyers, as evidenced by their run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year after he took over. Laviolette's matchup work getting Chris Pronger and Mike Richards out against top lines in the playoffs last year was a huge factor in the Flyers' long playoff run, and he'll need to be equally good this year. He did lead the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006.
2. Vancouver Canucks
Record: 51-17-9, 111 points
Current Seeding: First
Offense: The Vancouver Canucks have scored the most goals in the league. They boast the top two point-getters and two of the top five goal scorers. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are two of the hardest players in the league to match against because of their twin chemistry. That leaves Ryan Kesler free of the tightest checkers. The Canucks also have pretty solid secondary scoring from Alex Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson, Mason Raymond and Raffi Torres. They do need to get more out of Raymond and Samuelsson though, as both have struggled this year.
Defense: The Canucks have also given up the fewest goals in the league. They're the best team in the league on faceoffs and boast a near-certain Selke Trophy winner in Kesler. Their defense is very solid, but riddled with injuries to Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Andrew Alberts. The Canucks also lost checking center Manny Malhotra to a career-threatening eye injury, which could be trouble for the Canucks against a team as deep as Detroit.
Goaltending: Can Roberto Luongo come up big when it really matters? That's the biggest question that Canucks critics have right now. Luongo has had a fantastic regular season, but he's fallen apart in the second round each of the past two seasons. This year, if he does falter, the Canucks have rookie phenom Cory Schneider who can step in.
Special Teams: The Canucks own the league's best powerplay and penalty kill. Working the powerplay gives the Sedins even more space to make the opponent's defense look silly, and Christian Ehrhoff has emerged as a very good powerplay quarterback. Ryan Kesler leads the way on the penalty kill, where the faceoff prowess really pays off.
Coaching: Alain Vigneault looks like a genius with the way the Canucks are playing this season, but his true test will come in the playoffs. I've always thought of Vigneault as a regular season coach because when other coaches step up the intensity in the playoffs, Vigneault gets out-coached nearly every game. He almost never wins the matchup battle and hasn't been able to keep his team from getting flustered and taking bad penalties. If Vigneault can't win with the team he has this year, it will further increase my belief that he's not a very good coach.
1. Boston Bruins
Record: 43-23-10, 96 points
Current Seeding: Third
Offense: The Boston Bruins don't have the offensive talent of some of the other favorites, but Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi provide enough balanced scoring for the Bruins to have the second-most goals scored in the East. The Bruins have 11 players with 10 or more goals, and the secondary scoring is provided by Brad Marchand, Michael Ryder and Zdeno Chara.
Defense: Captain Zdeno Chara is the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL. At 6'9", his reach is so long that it's nearly impossible to go around him, and his physicality is downright scary. With Dennis Seidenberg, Tomas Kaberle and Johnny Boychuk, the Bruins top four are very solid defensively. The B's forwards are also very responsible defensively, especially Patrice Bergeron who has an outside shot at a Selke Trophy nomination this season.
Goaltending: Tim Thomas is having the best season of any goaltender, post-lockout. Thomas is on pace to set a new record for best save percentage in a season and boasts a goals against average under two. The Bruins have given up the second fewest goals in the league and Thomas is the biggest reason why. If Thomas does happen to falter, the Bruins can fall back on Tuukka Rask, who led the NHL in GAA and SP last season.
Special Teams: The Bruins special teams are mediocre. Their penalty kill is ranked 17th and their powerplay isn't much better at 15th. The penalty kill is very surprising considering the Bruins prominence on faceoffs and defense. The powerplay should be improving with the arrival of Tomas Kaberle, but it's taking some time to develop chemistry.
Coaching: Claude Julien has had reasonable success as a head coach, winning a Jack Adams Trophy in 2009 and making the playoffs all three years in Boston. However, Julien is yet to have playoff success–he's never reached the third round. Last year, he had the Bruins up three games to none on the Philadelphia Flyers, and 3-0 in game seven, only to choke it all away. It's very tough not to put a portion of the blame on Julien for that loss. He is very strong on matchups though, always making sure to get Chara out against opposing stars.
Why the Bruins?
I believe the Boston Bruins are the team best-suited to playoff hockey. They're tough, physical, great defensively and have the best goaltending in the league.
The Bruins also have one of the most clutch players in the league in Milan Lucic. Throughout his career, Lucic has stepped up when it matters most, notably in leading the Vancouver Giants to the Memorial Cup in 2007.
The Bruins also have the added motivation of revenge. The historic loss they suffered last season has not been forgotten, and will be used to fuel the fire this year.
Finally, Tim Thomas is the most important reason the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup.