1. Detroit Red Wings (Central Division Champions) -- A lethal combination of a talented team and a weak division. Ageless blueliners Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios join newcomer Brian Rafalski to form one of the league's elite defensive corps. Meanwhile, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk lead a typically strong Detroit attack.
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2. San Jose Sharks (Pacific Division Champions) -- As if Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Jonathan Cheechoo were not enough, rookie Devin Setoguchi appears set to light the division on fire. Evgeni Nabokov is now the clear starter in goal, and while newcomer Jeremy Roenick is well past his prime, his grit and quotability might be just what this quiet squad needs.
3. Colorado Avalanche (Northwest Division Champions) -- Joe Sakic has been in his prime for more than 15 years, yet he shows no signs of slowing down. Ryan Smyth is a huge addition to a forward corps that already includes talented youngsters Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski, and Marek Swatos. If the blueliners and goaltending come through, the Avs will be a formidable force.
4. Calgary Flames -- Mike Keenan might have a short expiry date everywhere he goes, but he seems like the perfect fit for this squad. A team built on hard work underachieved last season, and the likes of Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf give the Flames solid, heart-and-soul leaders. Mikka Kiprusoff will be better than last year, and the Flames are again a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
5. Vancouver Canucks -- Sure, the Canucks need to find a way to score more goals. But when Roberto Luongo is between the pipes, it does not take many goals to win. Coach Alain Vigneault got the most out of this team last season by keeping things light-hearted off the ice, and the approach played dividends. There is no reason to expect a major drop-off this year, despite playing in the league's deepest division.
6. Los Angeles Kings -- Yes, you read that right -- the Kings could be this year's Penguins. The projected top line of Anze Kopitar, Michael Cammalleri, and Dustin Brown will be as entertaining as any in the league. The defensive corps are deep with Lubomir Visnovsky, Rob Blake, Tom Preissing, Brad Stuart, and youngster Jack Johnson. If 19-year-old goalie Jonathan Bernier lives up to his potential at this early stage in his career, the Kings are playoff-bound.
7. Anaheim Ducks -- For the sake of predictions, one must presume Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer will not be back. If they come back, the Ducks again become contenders. Without them and Dustin Penner, scoring could be a problem. Jean-Sebastien Giguere starts the year injured, and that has spelled trouble in the past. If Selke Trophy candidate Samuel Pahlsson misses much of the season recovering from sports hernia surgery -- and he could -- the Ducks could be in for a long season.
8. Edmonton Oilers -- Forget the doom and gloom predictions -- prior to the trade deadline, this was a contending team last season. Sure, Ryan Smyth will be missed, but Kevin Lowe added offense both up front and on the blueline in Dustin Penner, Sheldon Souray, and Joni Pitkanen. Rookies Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano have been battling for the top-line center position, and both look to have a major impact.
9. Nashville Predators -- After being depleted at just about every position, the last thing the Predators needed to hear was Steve Sullivan being gone for a significant portion of the season with a back injury. While Nashville has some depth, they could struggle to score goals this season. Chris Mason must build on his promising stints in goal for the Predators to be competitive. In any other division, this team would fall further than ninth.
10. Minnesota Wild -- No question, the Wild are a stronger team than Nashville. But as long as the NHL has such an unbalanced schedule -- and it should not be much longer from all indications -- strong teams in tough divisions are penalized. If Marian Gaborik stays healthy and plays 82 games, look for Minnesota to make the playoffs. There is no question they belong there -- if they were in the Central Division, they'd contend for the division crown.
11. Dallas Stars -- The Stars struggled to score goals last season, and there is no indication that will change this time around. Marty Turco is one of the league's top goaltenders, and the defensive corps is reliable. Once again, the Stars are the victims of their schedule -- an improved Los Angeles squad may bump Dallas out of the playoffs. Still, look for the Stars to be in the playoff race until the season's final week.
12. St. Louis Blues -- Andy Murray did a remarkable job with this team after taking over in mid-season, but the Blues seem to be a team in transition. They are too old to be rebuilding, yet too inexperienced at key positions to be a veteran squad. Still, in a weakened Central Division, they will find their share of wins.
13. Chicago Blackhawks -- Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane represent the future of Chicago hockey, and the future is very bright. The Hawks are where Pittsburgh was two years ago and Los Angeles was last year -- on the verge of something great. If Nikolai Khabibulin finds the form he displayed in 2003-04 with Tampa Bay, Chicago will be in the heart of the playoff race. Anything less, however, and the playoffs are still a year away.
14. Columbus Blue Jackets -- You really want to believe Columbus will break through one of these years. Rick Nash is a true goal scorer, Gilbert Brule has the potential to electrify, and Pascal Leclaire has a lot of potential in goal. Yet there are too many underachievers on this squad for the Jackets to be a solid playoff contender. It is a shame, as Columbus fans are some of the most underrated in the NHL.
15. Phoenix Coyotes -- Virtually everyone in hockey wants to see this team succeed. Not only is Wayne Gretzky the greatest player in the history of the game, he is one of the greatest people in the history of the game. Past Shane Doan, however, the cupboard is bare. When your second leading returning scorer is Mike Zigomanis -- who is a solid NHL player but certainly not a sniper -- that is a bad sign.
With the schedule so unbalanced, it only seems fair to rank the teams in the order they would finish if each team played the same schedule. The differences are significant in many cases-- the actual prediction is listed after each team's name.
1. San Jose Sharks (actual prediction: 2)
2. Detroit Red Wings (1)
3. Colorado Avalanche (3)
4. Calgary Flames (4)
5. Vancouver Canucks (5)
6. Edmonton Oilers (8)
7. Minnesota Wild (10)
8. Los Angeles Kings (6)
9. Anaheim Ducks (7)
10. Dallas Stars (11)
11. Nashville Predators (9)
12. St. Louis Blues (12)
13. Columbus Blue Jackets (13)
14. Chicago Blackhawks (14)
15. Phoenix Coyotes (15)
The Eastern Conference preview will follow early next week.
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