The field appears wide open in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Mug, the grail the Boston Bruins will defend for the first time since 1972.
Let us take an early crack at the NHL’s hierarchy, and try to predict what clubs are poised for the playoffs, and those who are destined for disappointment. A surprise team or two will ultimately surface, and a few teams will undoubtedly regress, but many of last year’s finest teams will again be making the top of this list.
Welcome back hockey, and away we go!
The top 10:
1. Vancouver Canucks
If the Canucks can hold it together until Ryan Kesler returns, then there’s no reason to think they can’t challenge for the Cup once again.
2. Washington Capitals
Why this team struggled to put pucks in the net last year remains a mystery, but don’t count on the trend repeating itself. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun might have been the best off-season addition by any club.
3. San Jose Sharks
Martin Havlat is a great signing, but can he stay healthy? Brent Burns is a welcome addition to the back end.
4. Boston Bruins
Can lightning strike twice for the Bruins? With most of the key pieces returning from the team’s championship run, there’s good reason to believe in Boston.
5. Detroit Red Wings
Good old reliable Detroit keeps on chugging. There’s a 50-50 chance Nick Lidstrom is a cyborg.
6. Anaheim Ducks
Goalie Jonas Hiller is apparently fully recovered from his bout with vertigo, and it cannot be overstated what he means to the success of the Ducks.
7. Philadelphia Flyers
Still a formidable hockey club, but not buying that a calmer dressing room will balance out the loss of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. The Ilya Bryzgalov deal already smells putrid.
8. Chicago Blackhawks
If netminder Corey Crawford can match or improve on his performance over 55 starts a season ago, then the Hawks are arguably one of the West’s strongest clubs.
9. Tampa Bay Lightning
There’s very little defence to speak of in Tampa beyond Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman, and Dwayne Roloson is really pushing the boundaries at 41. Can this team score enough to make up for its shortcomings?
10. Pittsburgh Penguins
No Sid, no dice. Evgeni Malkin will need an otherworldly campaign in order for the Pens to battle in the East’s upper-ranks.
Middle of the road:
11. Los Angeles Kings
Mike Richards and Simon Gagne could make the Kings a top-10 club, but it may take several months to get the chemistry in order. Time to make a decision on the Jonathans – is Quick or Bernier wear the crown in the crease?
12. Nashville Predators
The Preds will again need to find goals from all over their roster, and rely on Pekka Rinne to keep them competitive nightly. There’s nothing flashy to see here, but Nashville has proven it can win without a single 25-goal scorer.
13. Buffalo Sabres
Terry Pegula created about as much of stir in Buffalo as a single sports figure can, considering he can’t score goals from the owner’s box. Ville Leino is a nice addition, but hardly a signing worthy of the reverence it received. Miller will need to stand on his head if Buffalo is going to go deep in the post-season.
14. Montreal Canadiens
Welcome back to the rankings Canada! Looks like the right call was made between Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, but the Habs didn’t show enough offensively last season to be considered a Cup contender. Erik Cole was costly, but could be just what Montreal was missing up front.
15. New York Rangers
No brainer giving New York a boost up the ladder after signing coveted centre Brad Richards in the off-season. Henrik Lundqvist is a rock in goal, and should backstop the Rangers to a playoff spot in the East.
16. Carolina Hurricanes
Cam Ward is perpetually a Vezina Trophy threat, while Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner give the Canes some solid punch up front. A lack of depth keeps Carolina on the playoff bubble.
17. St. Louis Blues
A healthy lineup plus a full season from Chris Stewart gives St. Louis a realistic playoff shot. Captain David Backes will need to continue lighting the lamp.
18. Phoenix Coyotes
Is 2011-12 the final curtain call for the Coyotes in Phoenix? Can the Yotes again get double-digit goals from 10 of their players? Can Mike Smith play consistent goal as the No. 1 guy? With so many questions, it’s difficult to predict anything but a drop off for Phoenix.
19. Toronto Maple Leafs
Mikhail Grabovski has developed to a level of production few predicted he could reach. James Reimer needs to prove himself over a full season. Tim Connolly is already ailing.
20. Dallas Stars
Dallas might be in as much trouble this season as its ownership, because Mike Ribeiro is not Brad Richards. 90 points might be all the Stars can hope for.
Work to be done:
21. Calgary Flames
Mikka Kiprusoff and the Flames look to be trending in the wrong direction. Lee Stempniak is hardly a game-changing acquisition.
22. Minnesota Wild
The good news is that Dany Heatley came to town. The bad news is that Brent Burns left. Scoring should be on the rise in Minnesota, but the D looks shaky.
23. New Jersey Devils
Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk are a lethal one-two combo, but there isn’t much beyond that. What does Martin Brodeur have left in the tank? I see the empty light coming on mid-way though the year.
24. New York Islanders
John Tavares’ club looks poised for considerable improvement on last season. Rick DiPietro will try to remain healthy for at least 15 minutes this year. Don’t worry, there’s only a decade left on his absurd 15-year deal.
25. Columbus Blue Jackets
Rick Nash must have been doing back flips when he heard Jeff Carter was coming to Columbus. Goaltending is still a worrisome area, however.
26. Winnipeg Jets
Atlanta is now Winnipeg in name, but unfortunately for Jets fans, it kept the same roster that finished 12th in the East a year ago.
27. Colorado Avalanche
Is first-round pick Gabriel Landeskog ready for prime time? Is Semyon Varlamov worthy of the No. 1 job? Should be an improved club, but not by much.
28. Edmonton Oilers
Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may soon headline the most potent attack in the NHL, but this fruit’s not yet ripe.
29. Florida Panthers
Brian Campbell comes to a club trying to avoid its 11th-straight season without making the playoffs. Going to have to wait another year to end the drought.
30. Ottawa Senators
This won’t be pretty. Goals will be hard to come by, and Craig Anderson is an average starter at best.