Shortly after Sidney Crosby joined the NHL, tales of the next "Next One" began to percolate.
John Tavares gained notoriety for being allowed into the Ontario Hockey League in 2005 at age 15 when he became the first player granted "exceptional player status" by Hockey Canada. He quickly became the most talked about prospect in North America, despite there being two more NHL drafts between then and the one he was eligible for. During that period, a few great hockey players (like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel) almost were overshadowed by what the youngster who NHL teams couldn't yet draft was doing in Oshawa.Nathan MacKinnon was in a similar situation last season. Though he was lighting up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League en route to being the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, there were plenty of stories written about the new "best prospect since Crosby."
It wasn't MacKinnon, who hails from the same small town as Crosby, but Connor McDavid, who isn't eligible to be drafted until 2015 but produced great numbers with Erie in the OHL after gaining "exceptional-player status" to play in the OHL at 15 like Tavares did.
Though the players expected to go at the top of the 2014 draft are dealing with the McDavid shadow, MacKinnon is authoring one of the best rookie seasons in the NHL of the past six or seven seasons. MacKinnon is on pace for 27 goals and 63 points, and that point total would tie Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes for the most since the start of the 2008-09 season by a rookie. That's more than Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Matt Duchene had in their rookie seaons.The thing is, MacKinnon looks like he's getting better near the end of the season. MacKinnon, like Crosby, will play his entire rookie seaon as an 18-year-old but isn't wearing down from the rigors of a grueling NHL season.
He's getting more ice time (three of his five games with more than 20 minutes have come since March 6) and he's producing. MacKinnon recently broke Wayne Gretzky's record for the longest NHL point streak by an 18-year-old when he had at least one in 13 straight games.If he keeps playing well, 30 goals and something close to 70 points aren't out of the question. The list of players with at least 30 goals and 70 points as rookies is brief: Mikael Renberg, Alexei Yashin, Alex Ovechkin, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Colorado is one of the best stories of the 2013-14 season. MacKinnon is, barring injury, a lock to win the Calder Trophy. With PA Parenteau and Alex Tanguay out for at least the remainder of the regular season with injuries, MacKinnon will need to continue his pace to keep the Avalanche in contention for a top-two finish in the Central Division and home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Looking for the next big thing is natural in every sport, and it is why some athletes now are household names while still in high school. McDavid has the potential to be great, but MacKinnon might provide him with some company when "best player to enter the League since year X" discussions happen in the near future.
DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series tonight, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. Also, statistics and team records are through the games on Wednesday.
1. St. Louis Blues (44-14-7) LW: 1
The Blues are 5-0-1 since trading for goaltender Ryan Miller, and have allowed 10 goals in the eight games since the 2014 Sochi Olympics (remember the narrative about teams with lots of Olympians being tired?) They've also gone 3-0-1 against divisional opponents in that span, and are 18-0-2 against the Central Division in 2013-14.
This is not typical behavior. Even the best teams in recent years haven't steamrolled the division like this. The Blues had 114 points in 1999-00 and went 8-6-3-1 against the Central. Since the end of ties, the best team against its division was the Detroit Red Wings, who went 25-3-4 against the Central in 2005-06.
St. Louis has 10 more games against Central teams this season, including five of the final six.
MUST READ: Louie Korac writes about Miller's influence on the Blues.
2. San Jose Sharks (42-17-7) LW: 2
The Sharks have a chance to be considered one of the elite teams in the League again when the playoffs start. San Jose has finished in the top five in the League standings five times in the past seven seasons, but not in the past two.
San Jose's inability to reach the Stanley Cup Final has driven a narrative about the postseason aptitude of some of the team's top players. In those five years where they were an elite team, there was only one large upset (in 2009, when the eighth-seeded Ducks knocked them out in the first round).
Twice they've lost to teams that accumulated more points, and once the Chicago Blackhawks had one less. There are somewhere between four and six elite teams in the Western Conference alone this season, so at least three aren't getting to the Final.
The Sharks might be playing their way into favorite status, despite the past performances. San Jose is 8-2-1 since the start of February, and has scored 30 goals in seven games since the Olympics. They just tore apart three probable playoff teams from the Eastern Conference, and each of those teams won in Anaheim on the same trip.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (38-14-14) LW: 3
The top three candidates for the 2015 Calder Trophy are likely to be Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin, Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and Blackhawks center Teuvo Teravainen. Like Kuznetsov, Teravainen might get a jump on adjusting to the NHL by making his debut this season.
Teravainen had 15 points in seven games at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship and is eighth in Liiga with 40 in 42 games for Jokerit after a slow start. Kuznetsov has already seen time on Washington's top line, so could Teravainen slot in next to Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad on Chicago's No. 2 unit? That might be asking a lot of the kid, but he might make one of the deepest forwards corps even better.
4. Boston Bruins (43-17-5) LW: 6
Since losing to the Blackhawks in a Stanley Cup Final rematch in January, the Bruins are 13-2-2 and have outscored foes 69-37. This 17-game stretch alone would place the Bruins seventh in the NHL in goal differential.
They are second in the League in goals for and second in goals against. The Blues are third in each category. The Bruins are also second in goal differential to … the Blues, by one goal.
St. Louis has three of the top 30 defensemen in points, but Boston has two players on defense trying to accomplish something that hasn't happened in 21 years. Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug could become the first defensemen on the same team to reach 20 goals since Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate did it for the Capitals in 1992-93. It might be a long shot (Chara has 15 and Krug has 13 with 17 games to play) but the rookie did pot six goals in 15 games earlier this season, and large quantities of power-play time for both could spur a hot streak.
They aren't alone among defensemen chasing 20 goals. Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators has 17 and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators has 16 (so too does Dustin Byfuglien, but he's moved to forward). There has only been one season since 1998-99 with three 20-goal defensemen, and that was 2008-09.
There were 21 such defensemen in a three-year span (1991-92 to 1993-94), but there have only been 19 in the 19 years since. Byfuglien was the last, in 2010-11 with the then-Atlanta Thrashers.
5. Los Angeles Kings (38-22-6) LW: 5
Another week went by without the Kings losing a game. They had gone 37 days without a loss after Wednesday night, though the Olympic break had something to do with that. The Kings' winning streak is at eight games, while Canadian gold medalists Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty have celebrated after the past 14 games they've played in.
Los Angeles finished 2011-12 with a 13-5-3 record and 64 goals (3.05 per game) after not being able to score all season. The Kings have 25 goals (3.13 per contest) during the winning streak after scuffling in the goals for (but not every possession stat) column most of the season.
MUST READ: Could Anze Kopitar win the Selke Trophy? Robert Paredez of Jewels From The Crown investigates.
6. Anaheim Ducks (43-15-7) LW: 4
Unlike last season, when the Ducks finished 8-9-2 after a scorching start, there is time to pull out of the funk. Anaheim is 7-8-2 since a run to the top of the NHL standings was punctuated with a 9-1 thrashing of the pre-meltdown Vancouver Canucks. The most recent loss, a 7-2 laugher to the Calgary Flames, might just be the low point in an otherwise great season.
The schedule will afford the Ducks a chance to start winning games again before the playoffs, eventually. Three of the next four are games at Colorado, Los Angeles and San Jose. After that, the Ducks have nine straight games against teams outside the top eight of the West before finishing with the Sharks, Kings and Avalanche again. The Presidents' Trophy is still a strong possibility.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins (44-17-4) LW: 8
After a four-game road trip that included contests in Chicago, San Jose and Anaheim, the Penguins are in the midst of their own personal rivalry week. They vanquished the Capitals on back-to-back nights and will face the Philadelphia Flyers in back-to-back matinees this weekend.
Like Tywin Lannister, Sidney Crosby wiped out the Starks and will now face Stannis Baratheon (again). Furthering the analogy, that makes Zdeno Chara the Mother of Dragons, right? (NOTE: not everyone has read the books, so no spoilers in the comments, please).
MUST READ: Mike Darnay of Pensburgh writes about a young Penguins defenseman on pace to join some exclusive company, while Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes about the next potential star at the position on the way.
8. Colorado Avalanche (43-18-5) LW: 9
The Avalanche just keep winning. Colorado finished the season series Wednesday with Chicago by winning for the fourth time in five games. This was the first time the Avalanche weren't crushed in the possession stats. The Blackhawks still had more than 55 percent of the shot attempts, but that's an improvement from the first four games.
For the season, Chicago attempted 350 shots in the five games while Colorado put 201 toward the Blackhawks' net (that's a Corsi for percentage of 63.5 percent). Each team held a five-goal lead against the other at one point. Again, the Avalanche still won four times.
This could be a first-round playoff matchup, and there will probably be a lot of words written about Colorado's success against Chicago this season. Could the Avalanche beat the Blackhawks despite giving up 70 of 110 shot attempts every night in a seven-game series? Sure.
If the two teams played 10 series, could they win playing that way more than two or three times? Not likely.
9. New York Rangers (35-27-4) LW: 7
College free agent season has arrived with teams finishing their seasons. Signing undrafted free agents who were late bloomers at the NCAA level has become a popular avenue for adding low-risk assets, and several have become key contributors at the NHL level in the past decade.
The Rangers added one Wednesday in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute forward Ryan Haggerty, and he's expected to join the big club and not go to the American Hockey League. Typically, the free agents who sign at this time of year and play right away in the NHL are with bad teams, but the Detroit Red Wings made defenseman Danny DeKeyser a regular in short order last season. New York has also shown it isn't afraid to use a kid during a playoff run that was just living in a dorm room and going to class a few weeks prior, as forward Chris Kreider can attest.
For a list of the other top free agents who could be signing, here is a list from Tim Wharnsby of CBC.
MUST READ: After dealing with Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan this season, Larry Brooks of the New York Post writes the Rangers need to take care of Marc Staal's contract before next season.
10. Minnesota Wild (34-22-9) LW: 10
Just when it looked like the Wild wanted to make a run at not being a wild card, they lost three straight games. There's no shame in losing at Dallas on Mike Modano Night or in a shootout to a team with T.J. Sochi on it, but a late collapse against the Edmonton Oilers is not the stuff of a second-round playoff team.
11. Dallas Stars LW: 11 (32-23-10) LW: 12
What a crazy few days in Dallas. The Stars are without Rich Peverley for the rest of the season, and goaltender Kari Lehtonen for an undetermined amount of time because of a concussion. General manager Jim Nill might have made the trade of the season … by adding Tim Thomas just before the deadline (NOTE: Yes, that other trade he made with Boston is still actually the trade of the season).
There is no way to know where the Stars are going from here. They do have 10 games against teams not currently in a playoff position, and they do have Thomas, who can help this group fend off the chasers for the final playoff spot.
MUST READ: Dan Rosen writes about Modano's journey to becoming an icon for hockey in Texas.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets (34-26-5) LW: 15
The Blue Jackets lost a key player in rookie defenseman Ryan Murray, likely for the rest of the regular season. They were also blasted by Chicago. They also moved up three spots because they've won five of six and have been OK so far without Murray. This spot is tenuous at best. The final five teams on this list (plus the next two or three that didn't make it) aren't separated by much.
MUST READ: The Blue Jackets might have the deepest collection of goal scorers they've ever had, writes Dan P. from The Cannon.
13. Tampa Bay Lightning (34-24-7) LW: 11
Near the end of January, the Lightning had assumed the title of third-best team in the East despite not having their best player. Considering the group effort to replace him, there was always the risk of a letdown once Steven Stamkos returned (a point made on several occasions by ESPN's Craig Custance on the excellent Hockey Today podcast).
This current slide goes back further than that, though. Tampa Bay has lost all three games since the new captain returned, but the funk is now at 10 losses in 13. Making the playoffs is no longer a certainty.
14. Montreal Canadiens (35-25-7) LW: 13
Hey, remember when the Canadiens were one of the biggest winners at the NHL Trade Deadline and then defeated the League-leading Ducks that night? That goodwill didn't last long. Montreal has lost three straight since by a combined 13-3 margin. The goaltending has been a big problem without Carey Price, and Devan Dubnyk hasn't been given a chance to prove the 110 games of evidence from 2010-13 that he can be a solid NHL goaltender might be more of what to expect from him than the 34 this season.
15. New Jersey Devils (29-24-13) LW: NR
The Devils were a strong possession team felled by substandard goaltending last season. That was the case in about half of the games this season as well. It's been the case of late too, only Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur switched roles. There are only 11 teams below them in the League standings, but eight games against those clubs might help propel the Devils into the playoffs.
16. Philadelphia Flyers (33-25-7) LW: 16
The Flyers had won seven of eight, including two against the Capitals and two games in California, before dropping two straight. These games against the Penguins are just the beginning of a brutal closing stretch for the Flyers, who will certainly have to earn a playoff berth. The next 12 games are against teams currently in line to collect a bid to the big dance, and 14 of the final 16 games are against such foes.
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