1. Buffalo Sabres (Northeast Division Champion) -- The departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere got most of the off-season headlines, but the Sabres are as much about system as individual players. And the Sabres have plenty of offensive firepower in the likes of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Maxim Afinogenov, Drew Stafford, Derek Roy..... you get the idea. The Sabres might not match last year's point total, but they will be close.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (Atlantic Division Champions) -- With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, the Pens have more than enough firepower to contend for the Stanley Cup. Ryan Whitney is one of the league's most underrated blueliners, but that could change soon as Pittsburgh continues to get more media attention. If Marc-Andre Fleury plays as he is capable of, Pittsburgh will win the tough Atlantic Division.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (Southeast Division Champions) -- Talk about a close division -- it is easy to see anyone in the Southeast finishing anywhere from first to fifth. The Lightning feature a potent attack with Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards, but it is the blueline that could make or break the team. Dan Boyle will miss significant time at the start of the season due to injury, but Paul Ranger and Shane O'Brien could be set for breakout years. The question, as always, is goaltending. If they cannot solve the problems in-house, look for Tampa to trade for a goalie by mid-season.
4. New York Rangers -- Most hockey fans know the Rangers can score goals, and most hockey fans know Henrik Lundqvist can keep the puck out of the net. The question will again be the blueline. In every other way, the Rangers look like a Stanley Cup contender, but question marks on the back end mean Lundqvist could face a lot of rubber. The potential of multiple 5-4 and 6-5 games in North America's largest market can only make the NHL salivate at the thought.
5. Ottawa Senators -- There is no reason to believe Ottawa will not be competitive. After a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Sens had a solid pre-season. Still, something seems off-kilter in Ottawa. Ray Emery's health is an issue, while Dany Heatley's contract requests have been met with shock and dismay by many. Perhaps everything comes together, but at the same time, something just seems unsettling in Ottawa.
6. New Jersey Devils -- Scott Gomez is gone. Brian Rafalski is gone. Colin White's status is in doubt as a result of an eye injury. So why the cause for optimism in New Jersey? New coach Brent Sutter became one of the league's best bench bosses the day he took the job. His work with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels and the Canadian national junior team is legendary, and there is every reason to believe he will find similar success in Newark.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs -- Vesa Toskala's days in Toronto got off to a shaky start in pre-season, but anyone who has watched the San Jose Sharks knows this goalie is for real. If Toskala plays up to his capability, the Leafs will challenge for the Northeast Division title. Jason Blake may or may not be the long-awaited sniper to play with Mats Sundin -- do not be surprised if the Leafs continue to play Sundin with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov -- but he adds another weapon to an already strong attack.
8. Florida Panthers -- The way the Roberto Luongo for Todd Bertuzzi trade turned out -- or failed to turn out -- for the Panthers, you would think negativity would prevail in the Everglades. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tomas Vokoun came over in a trade with Nashville, solidifying the situation between the pipes. Jay Bouwmeester seems ready to take the next step towards being a top-flight defenseman, and the Panthers' young guns up front continue to progress. If it all comes together, there is no reason the Panthers will not make the playoffs.
9. New York Islanders -- In many ways, this team is a classic Ted Nolan squad. Nolan has always excelled at taking a group of players and having them overachieve, and this team seems perfectly suited to that philosophy. Bill Guerin is the key addition, but look for Ruslan Fedotenko to regain his pre-lockout form. No contract disputes between the pipes here -- Rick DiPietro still has 13 years left on his contract. The way he played last year, they might be talking extension if he repeats last year's performance.
10. Washington Capitals -- The Caps stayed in the playoff race longer than last year's finish indicated, and they have high hopes for this season. Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the game's best young talents, and his goal scoring prowess is second to none. Olaf Kolzig has been a fixture in goal for Washington, and he seems to have a few more good seasons left. In a super-tight Southeast Division, it would not be a surprise if Washington soared to the top of the pack.
11. Philadelphia Flyers -- The Flyers made more moves than any other team over the past several months, even if many of them came during the final half of last season. The contract for Daniel Briere could go either way -- if Briere produces like he did in Buffalo, it could be reasonable. But many feel Briere was the beneficiary of an up-tempo system in Buffalo, and adjusting to Flyers hockey could be difficult. The talent is there in Philadelphia, but it remains to be seen how it all comes together.
12. Carolina Hurricanes -- Just two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup victory, the Canes continue to be a team of question marks. Cam Ward has looked solid through preseason, and the offensive firepower still remains. If Carolina is to be in the midst of the playoff race, they must get a big season from Eric Staal. He fell 30 points last season from his 100-point campaign in 2005-06, and the Canes fell accordingly.
13. Montreal Canadiens -- The Habs surprised many by keeping rookie goalie Carey Price on the roster, but it will not be a further surprise if he is the starter by November. After a stellar junior career with the WHL's Tri-City Americans, Price joined the Hamilton Bulldogs for the AHL playoffs and led the squad to a Calder Cup championship. If Price comes up with a Patrick Roy-like rookie performance, Montreal could be in the thick of the Northeast Division race.
14. Atlanta Thrashers -- After a fast start last season, the Thrashers were average for the second half of the season. A four-game first round exit to the New York Rangers highlighted the team's weaknesses, and significant change has occurred. Atlanta has become one of the league's smallest teams in a season when most teams are getting bigger, and that could go either way. Coach Bob Hartley has been hesitant to show confidence in Kari Lehtonen, and that is rarely a good sign.
15. Boston Bruins -- The Bruins should be better this year in just about every way. Zdeno Chara should be better than last year. Claude Julien comes in with an impressive track record behind the bench. A full season from Brandon Bochenski could establish him as a legitimate 30-goal scorer. Still, in a competitive Eastern Conference where there is little to pick and choose between teams, the Bruins face an uphill battle to make the playoffs.
Rankings in a balanced-schedule league, followed by actual predictions:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (2)
2. Buffalo Sabres (1)
3. New York Rangers (4)
4. Ottawa Senators (5)
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (7)
6. Tampa Bay Lightning (3)
7. New Jersey Devils (6)
8. New York Islanders (9)
9. Florida Panthers (8)
10. Montreal Canadiens (13)
11. Washington Capitals (10)
12. Philadelphia Flyers (11)
13. Carolina Hurricanes (12)
14. Boston Bruins (15)
15. Atlanta Thrashers (14)