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Super 16: East gaining ground in balance of power

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

For several seasons, the NHL's balance of power has tilted to the left.

The Western Conference has won more games against their brethren in the Eastern Conference for years. The West has been home to six of the past eight Stanley Cup champions, and the two that lost had a Game 7 on home ice in the Final.

That has not changed at this point in the 2014-15 season, but the two conferences might be a little closer to equal than they were a season ago, at least at the top. The East is 112-94-22 against the West through games on Wednesday.

Basically, the Eastern teams are collecting points at an 89-point pace in games against the West. That's a slight uptick from last season, when the East teams were essentially an 86-point team against the West and Western teams were a 102-point team against the East.

Over the course of the 2013-14 regular season, it was pretty clear that five of the top six teams in the NHL were in the West (the three California teams, Chicago and St. Louis). This season, the elite teams appear to be more evenly distributed.

The New York Islanders have played like an elite team during the season's first half. (Photo: Getty Images)

While the whole of the Eastern Conference is performing only slightly better than last season, the teams in the back half of the top eight to 10 could end up significantly better.

There are seven teams in the East currently on pace for at least 105 points. The Boston Bruins are currently in the eighth position and are on pace for 97 points. The Florida Panthers in ninth place are actually on pace for 98 (two back with three games in hand).

Compare that to a season ago when the two wild-card teams ended up with 93 points, and the New York Rangers had home-ice advantage in the opening round with 96 points. The biggest reason for this upswing is four teams that were on the bubble a month or six weeks ago (Florida, Boston, the Washington Capitals and the Rangers) have all been winning a lot of late.

The West remains the deeper conference (despite having two fewer teams), but the middle of the pack in the East looks like it is improving while the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings made significant steps forward in the first half of the season and look like elite teams now.

There is still time for some teams in the West, particularly the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, to round into their 2013-14 form. But for now, the East appears to be improved from a season ago and the battle for the final two or three playoff slots will be waged by good teams, not slightly mediocre ones.

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 right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (28-13-2)

One of the directives in Chicago between now and the NHL Trade Deadline might be to figure out what is wrong with Johnny Oduya. Among defensemen with at least 200 minutes of even-strength ice time, he's last in Corsi-for percentage relative to team average.

His "With Or Without You" (WOWY) numbers are not flattering either. The Blackhawks control 50.3 percent of the shot attempts when Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are on the ice at even strength together. Without Oduya, Hjalmarsson's above 60 percent, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

MUST READ: Mike Spellman of the Daily Herald writes about the continued improvement of Patrick Kane.

2. St. Louis Blues (27-13-3)

The Blues lead the NHL in goals since Dec. 1, overall (72) and at even strength (49). They do not lead in goal differential (third, behind the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers), but St. Louis has had goaltending issues and a healthy Brian Elliott should take care of that.

MUST READ: Dave Luecking of USA Hockey Magazine writes about the increase in youth hockey talent in St. Louis.

3. New York Islanders (29-13-1)

Speaking of Oduya, it doesn't help him that Nick Leddy has blossomed with the Islanders. He's gone from struggling to earn to coach Joel Quenneville's trust during multiple postseason runs to a puck possession monster on Long Island.

Oduya and Leddy are each slated to become a free agent in July, and given their difference in age (Leddy is nine years younger), Leddy should be more valuable, though being a restricted free agent versus unrestricted could change that.

Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) does fantastic visual work on Twitter with advanced statistics. Check out this tweet, not only to see how great Leddy has been, but also who is distributing it to his followers.

That is Neil Sheehy (@ICEHockeyAgent), who happens to be Leddy's agent.

MUST READ: Dave Lozo of Bleacher Report writes about why it is time to stop doubting the Islanders.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (27-14-4)

Several solid websites dealing with advanced statistics in hockey have risen from the ashes of the (brief) post-Extra Skater apocalypse, and WAR on Ice [war-on-ice.com] has an amazing wealth of data to sift through and sort. One of the newest features on the site is an attempt to quantify scoring chances, and the data says "That Line" is having an incredible season.

Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are first, second and third among forwards with at least 400 minutes of even-strength ice time in on-ice scoring chances per 60 minutes, all averaging more than 36 per 60 minutes. They're all in the top 15 in scoring chances for, each having been on the ice for at least 326. Kucherov and Palat are also in the top 15 in scoring chances for percentage as well.

MUST READ: Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune writes about Steven Stamkos evolving as captain.

5. Nashville Predators (29-9-4)

There is a collection of No. 2 defensemen in the West that could all be No. 1 guys on a different team, and make up an interesting "who is the best No. 2" debate. Those names include Brent Seabrook, TJ Brodie and Jake Muzzin, and that group should also include Roman Josi, who is actually fifth in the NHL in average time on ice per game (partner Shea Weber is fourth). Josi is also sixth among defensemen in even-strength points and in the top 15 overall.

MUST READ: Sam Page of Sports Illustrated writes about whether Weber misses his old partner, Ryan Suter.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-10-6)

There was plenty of speculation in the offseason that the Penguins might trade Paul Martin, a pending unrestricted free agent, once they signed Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year contract. The Penguins had several exciting young defense prospects and a logjam at the position. They didn't have several proven top-four defensemen at the NHL level, and not ones beyond Martin that had been healthy recently. Olli Maatta's season-ending shoulder surgery has reinforced that it was a pretty good idea to keep Martin around.

MUST READ: Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes about how the Penguins need to find Evgeni Malkin, who is having a fantastic season, some help.

7. Anaheim Ducks (28-10-6)

One of the criticisms of Bruce Boudreau's aggressive philosophy and system when he was with the Washington Capitals was while it helped his club rally from deficits, it also left the team vulnerable to not holding leads. Regardless of the validity of that hypothesis back then, Boudreau's current team certainly has not had that problem. The Ducks are 74-1-6 when leading after two periods since the start of the 2012-13 season.

MUST READ: Chris Johnston of Sportsnet writes about Ilya Bryzgalov being at peace in Anaheim.

8. Detroit Red Wings (23-11-9)

Last season there were several goaltenders who began the season No. 3 on the NHL depth chart but rose to prominence, which illuminated just how deep the position is now compared to say 10 or 15 years ago. Teams haven't needed their No. 3s quite as much to this point, though Calvin Pickard of the Colorado Avalanche and Scott Darling in Chicago have both been really good.

Pickard currently leads all No. 3s with 15 games played and 12 starts, but Petr Mrazek is poised to pass him with Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson out of the lineup because of injuries. Before the season, Mrazek would have featured well on a list of the top No. 3 goalies, and the Red Wings might not miss a beat with him patrolling the crease.

MUST READ: Ansar Khan of MLive.com hands out some midseason grades for the Red Wings.

9. New York Rangers (24-12-4)

A common misconception as advanced statistics evolve is a team needs to be successful in the faceoff circle to be strong in puck possession. "Best way is to start with the puck" is the general refrain. There's been analytics work done to prove that isn't necessarily true, that a team that doesn't win faceoffs well can still control the puck.

The puck possession metrics for the Rangers have been steadily improving, and they're winning a bunch of games right now. They are not winning a whole lot of faceoffs, and remain 29th in the League at 46.1 percent.

MUST READ: Dave Shapiro of Blue Seat Blogs writes about the Rangers and WAR on Ice's scoring chance data.

10. San Jose Sharks (23-16-5)

For all of the attention Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau received in San Jose's wacky offseason, the goaltenders avoided a lot of the action. The Sharks brought back both Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock, and there was an expectation Stalock would earn a larger share of the starts.

That hasn't happened. Stalock was hurt for a few weeks, but he's still only started 10 games this season. He and Niemi have identical .912 save percentages (Niemi has been slightly better at even strength), but despite being pulled twice in 2015 already, Niemi has started 12 of the past 13 games.

MUST READ: Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area writes about San Jose needing more from the 2013-14 rookie class.

11. Winnipeg Jets (22-14-8)

There are 14 forwards who have played at least 160 games since the start of the 2011-12 season who have averaged exactly 2.2 points per 60 minutes at even strength. Here is the list: Joe Thornton, Patrick Sharp, Pavel Datsyuk, Marian Hossa, David Krejci, Claude Giroux, Corey Perry, John Tavares, Rick Nash, Bobby Ryan, Martin St. Louis, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul.

That's some pretty strong company. Oh wait, that's only 13 names. There's one more name on that list.

It is Mathieu Perreault.

MUST READ: Scott Burnside of ESPN.com writes about the impact Paul Maurice has had on the Jets.

12. Washington Capitals (24-11-8)

A Washington Capitals goaltender has appeared in at least 70 games four times. Once it was with Jim Carey in 1995-96, and the other three were consecutive seasons from 1999-01 for Olie Kolzig.

Having played 38 of the first 43 games, including 20 straight, Braden Holtby could end up challenging Kolzig's season-season mark in Washington (73, in 1999-00). He's currently on pace for just shy of 73. Maybe the time off will have helped backup Justin Peters. This isn't a team record anyone really wants a goaltender to achieve in 2015.

MUST READ: Kevin Klein of Japers' Rink writes about Alex Ovechkin seven years into his $124 million contract.

13. Los Angeles Kings (20-13-10)

The Kings have been steadily improving in puck possession but still finding middling results. Losing Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli isn't going to help their troubles with scoring goals, and puts a big dent in one of their greatest strengths (forward depth).

MUST READ: Andrew Leafman of Jewels From The Crown writes about Drew Doughty's worthiness as a Norris Trophy candidate.

14. Montreal Canadiens (27-12-3)

Max Pacioretty is seventh in goals (105) and fifth in shots on goal (865) in the NHL since the start of the 2011-12 season. He's scored 1.4 goals per 60 minutes, which is tied with a bunch of guys behind Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and James Neal among players with at least 1,000 minutes of ice time.

What might be most impressive is Pacioretty's ability to generate this production despite his team's relative inability to. Among the top 20 players in individual shots on goal in that span, Pacioretty is 18th in on-ice shots on goal (SOGs by the team when he is on the ice).

MUST READ: Andrew Berkshire of Eyes On The Prize writes about whether the Canadiens deserve to be considered Stanley Cup contenders (and here's guessing most of the Quebec natives who have commented on the Super 16 this season will not agree with his conclusion).

15. Boston Bruins (23-15-6)

In Zdeno Chara's first game back from a knee injury, the Bruins lost by a goal to the Blackhawks. Nothing dishonorable about that. Then Boston lost to the Ottawa Senators in a shootout. And then to Nashville in a shootout.

It was around this point that words like mediocre and average were used to describe Boston, and after four straight losses and eight of 11 it seemed pretty accurate. Then David Krejci came back from his groin injury and Chara started to get back into game shape and all of a sudden the Bruins started racking up points.

Standings on 12/16 Standings since 12/16
Team Record Points Team Record Points
Tampa Bay 20-10-3 43 Boston 8-2-3 19
Montreal 20-10-2 42 Montreal 7-2-1 15
Detroit 17-7-8 42 Tampa Bay 7-4-1 15
Toronto 19-9-3 41 Florida 7-4-1 15
Florida 13-8-8 34 Detroit 6-4-1 13
Boston 15-13-3 33 Ottawa 5-5-2 12
Ottawa 12-12-6 30 Toronto 3-10-0 6
Buffalo 13-17-2 28 Buffalo 1-10-1 3

The Bruins are 8-2-3 since Krejci returned, which is a 119-plus point pace over 82 games. They are merely at a pace of 107-plus since Chara returned. The Atlantic Division standings since Krejci returned, which is a span of about one month, show it's probably not quite time to say the aging, salary-cap strapped Bruins are done.

MUST READ: Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe writes about the pending decision the Bruins have to make on rookie David Pastrnak.

16. Florida Panthers (20-12-9)

The Panthers are good at hockey, and if they could find another goal-scorer either internally or through trade, they might be really good. It's still not going to be easy to make playoffs given the pace being set in the back half of the top eight right now.

MUST READ: Jameson Olive of Fox Sports Florida writes about how Willie Mitchell has helped Dmitry Kulikov rebound from a poor 2013-14 season.

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