Tuesday October 13th, 2009

A reminder: these rankings are based mainly on quality of play and my uncannily intuitive gut calls rather than a rehashing of the standings. Also note that statistics and records are through Sunday's games, and "last week" refers to my preseason rankings.

Want to send me a comment about the rankings? Scroll to the bottom of this page for my Mailbag. I read 'em all and if you're halfway civil -- or at least clever in your skewering of my decisions -- I'll try to get back to you.

NHL Power Rankings
1Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 1
We should all look this good with a hangover. Outside of the beating by the note-perfect Coyotes, the Cup champs appear none the worse for summer celebrations. Alex Goligoski has been an early standout, soaking up heavy minutes to mask the loss of Rob Scuderi and adding another dimension to an impressive attack.
2Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 4
Hard not to recognize Chris Pronger's impact. Partner Matt Carle leads all defensemen in scoring. The revamped power play, with Pronger manning the point and Mike Richards moved to the half wall, is more active and dangerous down low. The penalty-kill -- critical for Philly to remain this physically challenging -- is smarter and more aggressive. Just wait until Pronger gets comfortable.
3San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 2
He may have been out of his depth in Ottawa, but swimming with Sharks seems to suit Dany Heatley. After feeling his way through the first two games, he exploded for five goals, including a hat trick in the home opener, and three assists. Patrick Marleau has been just as impressive and while he'd never admit it, his five goals suggest he's more comfortable after being shorn of the C.
4New York Rangers
Last Week: 17
Probably best not to get too worked up. The 2008-09 Rangers opened 10-2-1 before settling into their role as first-round cannon fodder, but there's a different feel to this bunch, isn't there? Marian Gaborik, with a point in every game, is the offensive threat they lacked last season, but the immediate impact of young defenders Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy changed this club's dynamic.
5Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 15
It says something about improving conditions in Columbus that Steve Mason is doing nothing to enhance his Team Canada chances but the Jackets are still finding ways to win. The NHL's most smothering penalty kill has scored as many goals (one) as it has allowed and a disciplined approach with the puck (league-low 19 giveaways) means these Jackets won't beat themselves.
6Calgary Flames
Last Week: 7
Not to be a little black rain cloud, but how exactly did they win four to start? Olli Jokinen hasn't scored a regular season goal in 18 games; defenders Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr are a combined minus-10. At times a big stop at a key moment from Miikka Kiprusoff seems to be all that separates Calgary from the Northwest cellar, which suggests this team may be very dangerous when its core players get their acts together.
7Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 22
The Kings are reaping early returns on the Ryan Smyth trade. Displacing Dustin Brown on the top line, Captain Canada (4-3-7) found instant chemistry with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. The trio combined for 20 points through the first four games.
8Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 3
Stan Fischler beat me to the punch: with Johan Franzen sidelined for the next four months (at least) after blowing out his ACL, we'll find out just how good a coach Mike Babcock is. So far there's little sign of the promised improvement in the defensive zone, a nagging situation that looks even more critical with the Mule's offense removed from the equation.
9Washington Capitals
Last Week: 11
No team has scored more effortlessly or looked more baffled by the concept of defensive responsibility. Isn't this the same formula that got Team Excitement bounced in the second round last spring? Bruce Boudreau is again preaching the need for "high effort" to go along with "high talent." Until he gets it, this will be an entertaining but undistinguished squad.
10Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 6
I need to listen to my esteemed colleague Michael Farber more often. In a recent SI.com gallery of valuable role players, Farber called Niklas Hjalmarsson "the NHL's most underrated defenseman." I'm inclined to agree. The Hammer is playing a smart, confident, physical game that begins and ends with taking care of his own end. No wonder Brian Campbell's struggles ended after being paired with him last March.
11Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 19
Life without Heatley seems fine for the Sens. After a sluggish opening loss to the Rangers, they reeled off wins over the Leafs, Isles and Thrashers. Sure, those are teams they need to beat, but the strong defensive play that characterized their second-half surge re-emerged after they gave up five goals in the opener.
12Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 9
As goes Teemu Selanne, so go the Ducks. The 39-year-old sniper was held pointless in each of three losses, but chipped in four goals and a shootout winner to power a pair of victories.
13Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 20
Forget the nine-game reprieve: The Kelowna Rockets can start planning for life after Tyler Myers. The 6-8rookie is anchoring a defense that allowed just three goals and an average of 22 shots-against. Good thing it's been so stingy. The offense is fizzling with a NHL-low four goals despite averaging nearly 40 shots a night.
14Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 29
Maybe that opening spanking of the Sharks was more than just the hockey gods smiling on Joe Sakic's big night or maybe this is what the Avs look like with capable goaltending. Craig Anderson slipped comfortably into the No. 1 role, ringing up a 122:36 shutout streak and smothering shots that seemed to float by Peter Budaj or Andrew Raycroft at the most deflating moments last season.
15Atlanta Thrashers
Last Week: 28
You can't accuse impending UFA Ilya Kovalchuk of trying to play his way out of town. Through three games, the captain has five goals on just 11 shots. The rest of the team has combined for seven.
16Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 14
Shawn Horcoff's 6-year, $33 million extension is starting to smell like one of the NHL's worst contracts in the NHL. No matter how you measure it -- his $7 million salary or $5.5 million cap hit ? no one may be providing less return on the investment. He's dominating in the circle (58.8 winning percentage bolstered by playing four straight at home), but with one assist and minus-3, appears to be sagging under the deal's weight.
17New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 12
After losing the first two at home (due, in large part, to Martin Brodeur stinkers that sent Canada's Olympic staff scrambling for the Zantac), they responded with a pair of road wins over Tampa Bay and Florida to right the ship defensively. Newcomer Rob Niedermayer proved his value with a strong two-way effort that's helping Devils fans get over the defection of John Madden.
18Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 10
A 7-1 pasting of the Habs relieved some pressure after an 0-3 start, but losing sniper Daniel Sedin for up to six weeks (broken foot) and d-man Sami Salo's knee injury in Sunday's win over Dallas suggest a tough road ahead. They're used to doing without Salo (average of 20 games missed the last four seasons), but the top line's effectiveness will be tested while Sedin fills up on press box popcorn.
19Dallas Stars
Last Week: 16
Dallas Stars (1-0-3)
No Zubov. No Jokinen. No Lehtinen. No wonder they've thrown away three points in a trio of shootout losses. Marty Turco is struggling to find the aggressive edge that once made him so tough to beat in the skill sessions. May be time to re-examine his quirky sideways stance. Of course, Dallas wouldn't have to worry about the shootout if its penalty kill wasn't even money to give up a goal.
20Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 30
Their flat performance at the sold-out home opener felt like a momentum-killer, but the Desert Dogs still have plenty to build on. Their 3-0 win over the Stanley Cup champs was the result of an expertly executed scheme, not just a hot Ilya Bryzgalov. They've held foes to an average of less than two goals per game. Give Dave Tippett some time to settle in and this group might surprise.
21St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 13
Who are the real Blues: the opportunistic group that swept division rivals Detroit or the mostly disinterested group that laid down for Atlanta and L.A.? The team's core youth reflects the dichotomy. David Perron and Patrik Berglund have struggled early, but Erik Johnson looks every bit the part of a No. 1 defender despite missing all of last season.
22Boston Bruins
Last Week: 5
Peter Chiarelli looked more shell-shocked than relieved after his team pulled out a stunning come-from-behind win over the Isles on Saturday. Eight minutes of frantic hockey couldn't cover that these Bruins were playing with little of the intensity and puck discipline that marked last season's ascent into the conference elite. Wouldn't be surprising to see the GM tweak the lineup this week to send a message.
23Nashville Predators
Last Week: 23
The winning record flatters them. The Preds are a team that can't score at even strength or on the power play, and skates 10 forwards who have yet to record their first point. Looks like another season of offensive frustration ahead for their long-suffering fans.
24Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 25
The hapless 2008-09 Bolts weren't sunk by their 3-10 mark in the shootout, but if this year's new and improved group hopes to contend for a playoff spot, they must stop giving away points. Already 0-2 in the skills contest and without a single goal in four chances, they need to think less and fire away. Wouldn't hurt if the goaltenders mixed in a big stop every once in a while.
25Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 8
The '08-09 Canes were the NHL's least penalized team. Coach Paul Maurice attributes their early struggles to a surprising lack of discipline that's put too much pressure on the penalty killers. They allowed four power play goals in a 7-2 loss in Boston and Steve Downie salted away Tampa's win on Saturday while Jussi Jokinen was in the box. "We're spending too much time back on our heels in the defensive end," Maurice groaned.
26Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 18
A strong pair of starts to open led to speculation that Carey Price had played his way back into Team Canada's goaltending picture. Two losses later, that's back to looking as unlikely as it did last summer. Already struggling with the forced chemistry experiment of eight new players and the long-term loss of Andrei Markov, the Habs are in deep trouble if Price is anything less than sensationnel.
27New York Islanders
Last Week: 27
A pair of blown third period leads didn't make for the most glorious start to the John Tavares era, but at least the kid is living up to the hype. The first overall pick had two goals and five points in three extra-time losses and has been up to the challenge away from the puck. More good news: Rick DiPietro is facing shots in practice and is expected back in mid-November.
28Florida Panthers
Last Week: 26
If Tomas Vokoun ever gets the urge to sue his teammates for non-support, he's got the stats to back up a whopper of a claim. The Panthers are allowing a league-high 40.5 shots against per game -- even worse than the 34.7 coughed up by the NHL's most porous defense last season. Amazingly, coach Pete DeBoer says it will take 15-20 games to decide whether shots-allowed will be an issue. Hey, Pete, it's hard to score goals when the other team has the puck all game.
29Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 21
Not exactly the start they were hoping for under new coach Todd Richards (0-3 on road), but perhaps it should have been expected. The transition to his more aggressive system should pay dividends over time, but in the early going it's leading to too many turnovers and not generating enough opportunities in transition.
30Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 24
No one expected goaltending guru Francois Allaire to revive the flagging fortunes of Vesa Toskala overnight, but this? Torn between an old style that isn't working and a new one that isn't taking, Toskala's confidence is shot. And while he's fighting to make just one stop at a key moment, the rest of the team has only piled on his misery with poor positioning, a propensity for giveaways, and the NHL's leakiest penalty kill.

Allan Muir's Mailbag
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