1. Detroit (Central Division champions). Take away a ten-game stretch late in the season, and last year's Wings were one of the best teams in NHL regular season history. This year's squad is better.
2. San Jose (Pacific Division champions). It is no secret Patrick Marleau and Ron Wilson did not see eye to eye the past couple of years. A coaching change alone could mean an additional 10% out of each player, and that could be enough for the Sharks to challenge the Wings.
3. Calgary (Northwest Division champions). When Iron Mike Keenan is behind the bench, the potential for implosion always exists. So does the potential for teams playing beyond their abilities. And with the additions of Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi, this is clearly an improved team.
4 . Dallas. They are off to a bad start in the injury department, but this team is solid top to bottom. Since Brett Hull and Les Jackson took over as co-general managers, this team is also a lot more enjoyable to watch.
5. Chicago. The sum is greater than the whole of the parts in Chicago, where youthful enthusiasm and a reinvigorated fan base combine to create a dynamic energy. Adding puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell will have a massive impact as well.
6. Edmonton. The acquisitions of Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky were much talked-about, but the Oilers paid a strong price in the departed players. The real key may be the progression of the young players, which alone was enough to make Edmonton a contender in the Northwest.
7. Anaheim. Despite losing Mathieu Schneider and Sean O'Donnell, the Ducks have one of the top defensive corps in the league. But where will the goals come from? Right now, the Ducks seem to be in position to put a fourth-liner in their top six forwards. They are one key injury away from missing the playoffs.
8. Colorado. Joe Sakic never seems to get old, and he is surrounded by some decent young talent. If the goaltending holds up, the Avs will be fine. If not, they could fall several spots in the standings.
9. Nashville. Talk of franchise relocation and defections to Russia -- what a difference a few decades makes -- means the Preds are in the news as much in summer as winter. The scrappy Predators find a way to get things done year after year, and they will be in the heart of the playoff race.
10. Minnesota. An offensively-challenged team without Brian Rolston, the Wild will have to win many 2-1 games. They've been good at that in the past, but they also have to be cognizant of UFA-to-be Marian Gaborik. If the team gets too much into a defensive shell, they risk losing Gaborik to a more offensive-minded team once the season ends.
11. Vancouver. It's hard to bet against a team with Roberto Luongo, but at some point, the Canucks need to address offensive deficiencies. Much like the hyper-inflated Vancouver housing market, there is fear this team could be headed for a bust at some point. This might not be the year, however.
12. Columbus. The Blue Jackets are the only NHL team never to make the playoffs, but that could change this year. Rick Nash is a top-notch goal scorer, and the off-season moves will make Columbus more competitive. Still, it's a tall task in a tough Western Conference.
13. Phoenix. The Coyotes paid a high price to acquire Olli Jokinen, and as a result, there are questions about this team's blueline. Keith Ballard had evolved into a very solid defenseman, but he's now in Florida. If the defense turns out alright, Phoenix could sneak into the playoffs.
14. Los Angeles. The young forwards are highly talented, and several rookies seem ready to step into key roles. The defense is young, even with the acquisition of O'Donnell. If the goaltending shores up, the Kings will surprise some people this season.
15. St. Louis. A strange mix of young and aged changed little during the off-season. Most concerning is the fact that some of the older players are showing signs of slowing down. In a tough conference, the Blues could struggle.
1. Montreal (Northeast Division champions). The Habs have solid depth up front, and the additions of Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang only add to the situation. Carey Price has lost more than 20 pounds, and looks primed for a huge season. The celebration of a century of Habs hockey in Montreal and a first-place finish loom in the coming months.
2. Washington (Southeast Division champions). The Caps were electric after Bruce Boudreau stepped behind the bench, and they have the game's most electrifying player in Alex Ovechkin. If Jose Theodore repeats last season's performance, the Caps are serious contenders.
3. Philadelphia (Atlantic Division champions). The Flyers are young, fast, deep, quick, and tough -- not a bad combination. Mike Richards is ready to take the reins as the team's leader, and he could take them deep into the playoffs. A traditional-looking Flyers squad, this team is built for the post-season.
4. Pittsburgh. Injuries have ravaged the blueline before the season begins, but the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ensure this team will be in the hunt. Someone will have to step up early on the blueline if the Pens are to repeat as division champs, however.
5. Boston. The Bruins have quietly built a solid squad on Causeway Street, as was evident in their epic first-round battle with Montreal last season. The Bruins are again gritty with enough offensive punch to be competitive. Tim Thomas is one of the league's most entertaining goaltenders, and he has proved his early success was no fluke.
6. New Jersey. The Devils have a system that just suits certain players perfectly, and that is proven by the fact that so many players seem to leave and come back later in their careers. This year, Rolston will add the potential of another 30-goal scorer to an already-solid lineup. Martin Brodeur alone makes this team a perennial contender.
7. Buffalo. The Sabres struggled last season following the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, and the mid-season loss of Brian Campbell did not help matters. Yet this is a deep, young, exciting team, and they seem poised for a bounce-back season.
8. Ottawa. Ray Emery was the lightning rod for Ottawa's problems last year, but that may have been overblown. In truth, the Senators rely too much on one line -- but what a line on which to rely. The defense is completely rebuilt, and time will tell how that works.
9. New York Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the game's elite netminders, but there are serious questions as to where the offense will come from. This is another team that will have to win 2-1 games, and that is a lot of pressure to put on an average defensive corps.
10. Tampa Bay. The Lightning will be exciting, led by Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and rookie Steven Stamkos. Yet the loss of Dan Boyle could be significant. Boyle was a catalyst for the Lightning, and his injury last season was a major reason the Lightning finished last overall.
11. Carolina. The Hurricanes seem to have some of the worst injury luck in the league, and that trend has already started. They will miss Cole as well, yet there is enough offensive punch to make a playoff run. In order for that to happen, however, Cam Ward will have to find his spring 2006 form between the pipes.
12. Florida. The Panthers have a formidable blueline, but this is another team with question marks at all forward spots. If the Panthers can find some goals from an unlikely source, they are a playoff team. Looking at the roster, that might be too much to ask.
13. Toronto. The Leafs are in true rebuilding mode, something that has not been said for many years. A little short term pain will lead to long term gain in the Mecca of hockey. Toronto is not as bad as some pundits say, but the playoffs are a stretch.
14. Atlanta. Once you get past the top line, the Thrashers struggle to score goals. Mathieu Schneider adds some experience on the back end, but the Thrashers could be a step behind in a high-flying Southeast Division.
15. New York Islanders. The franchise goalie is coming off two surgeries, only two of the top five goal scorers return, and they did not make a big splash in the free-agent market. It could be a long year on the Island.
Western Conference Finals:
Detroit over San Jose
Eastern Conference Finals:
Philadelphia over Montreal
Detroit over Philadelphia