Anze Kopitar keys an outstanding group of forwards for the Los Angeles Kings.
The NHL season is in jeopardy—at least the start of it is—but we are going to suspend disbelief when it comes to labor problems.
We are going to believe that cooler heads will prevail and the lockout will end quickly. The league and players' association will negotiate a settlement, teams will report to training camp and the season will begin.
With that as a disclaimer, we're going to look at the top 10 teams in the league on paper. The best teams on paper don't always win the Stanley Cup. The Kings were the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and barely made the playoffs before dominating in the postseason.
Very few observers would have called them a top 10 team at the end of the regular season.
But as we prepare for the regular season, we'll handicap the top 10 teams based on talent level.
The Red Wings have been among the most talented teams in the league for 20 years.
They still rank in the top 10 going into the 2012-13 season, but they man the outer limits of the designation.
They are going in the wrong direction, largely due to the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, who will go into the Hall of Fame as perhaps the second- or third-best defenseman in NHL history, and their inability to land major free-agent talent in the offseason.
The cupboard may be thinning but it is not bare. The Red Wings are still loaded at the center position where Mike Babcock will trot out Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Darren Helm on the first three lines. Justin Abdelkader gives them a gifted No. 4 center.
Johan Franzen, Danny Cleary and Valtteri Filppula are solid forwards, and, while Lidstrom is gone, Niklas Kronwall is a top of the line defenseman. His hip checks are devastating.
Jimmy Howard is an underrated goalie who is very good-to-excellent most nights.
The Wings need a lot of help on the blue line, but they still sneak into the top 10.
The Blues turned their season around when Ken Hitchcock came on board early last season.
They were a rudderless ship prior to his arrival, but the team focused on defense and physical play under Hitchcock and quickly shot up the standings. They had a shot at the President's Trophy before settling for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
While the Blues hustle and work hard, they have plenty of talent. Forwards David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald, David Perron, Chris Stewart and Vladimir Sobotka are a gritty group who will outwork you and make you pay once they get scoring chances.
Defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Ian Cole form the first defensive pairing. Pietrangelo will become one of the league's top defensemen this season.
In goal, the Blues are loaded. Brian Elliott's excellent showing may have been somewhat surprising. Though it's unlikely he will repeat his 1.56 goals-against average, he is still solid. Jaroslav Halak borders on excellent in the net.
The Lightning were magnificent in 2010-11 when they got to the Eastern Conference Finals, but a poor start and lousy goaltending did them in last season.
There is no reason the Lightning can't have a bounce-back season in 2011-12. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis key the first line and they are capable of filling it up and Teddy Purcell adds determination and grit to that duo. Vinny Lecavalier is still a potent offensive force. Ryan Malone, Nate Thompson and Adam Hall are functional players who fit Guy Boucher's scheme.
Newcomer Benoit Pouliot has the talent to provide an upgrade, but he is going to have to overcome his tendency to make mistakes at key moments.
The defense is led by Victor Hedman. Newcomers Sami Salo and Matt Carle will improve that unit, but there is not a ton of depth.
The Lightning acquired talented Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators to play goal. He is going to have to turn potential into production if the Lightning are going to get back to the postseason.
The Blackhawks have been ordinary since they won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
They barely made the playoffs the next season and were eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Coyotes last year.
However, the Hawks could climb back into Stanley Cup contention. When it comes to having a high talent level, the Hawks certainly qualify.
Up front, their core players are Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.
Toews may be the most underrated superstar in the league. He may not always dominate the scoring column, but when it comes to faceoffs, defensive play and leadership, he is superb. Hossa is a brilliant skater and a solid scorer. Sharp has a terrific wrist shot and is a clutch goal scorer.
Kane is an X-factor. He has brilliant offensive talent but appears to lack discipline and motivation. He was held to a career-low 66 points last year.
Though Duncan Keith has been somewhat erratic on the blue line since the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, he is very talented. Brent Seabrook has excellent skills, and Johnny Oduya will surprise you with his ability to make big plays. He's not always consistent, however.
The Hawks don't have a lot of talent in goal with Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, and that could prove to be their undoing.
The Sharks have the talent to win the Stanley Cup, but their overall depth is somewhat questionable.
There are also issues with the team's leadership, which is probably why they have never gotten out of the Western Conference playoffs during the Joe Thornton era.
Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat join Thornton on the front line. If Havlat can stay healthy, that line will be explosive.
Add in forwards Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe to make a somewhat formidable group.
Dan Boyle is the team's best defenseman. He is joined by Brad Stuart, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Antti Niemi is a former Stanley Cup-winning goalie who has shown he can get hot and dominate. He has not proven his consistency, however.
The Bruins appeared to be in good position to defend their Stanley Cup championship last year. But they lacked the same verve they had in 2011 when they took on the Washington Capitals in the first round and lost in overtime of the seventh game.
The Bruins have the kind of overwhelming talent that should put them right back in the mix this season.
Start off with explosive young Tyler Seguin up front. He has the speed, talent and moves to exceed the 35-goal mark this season. He is joined by Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.
The Bruins will get a huge boost if Nathan Horton can shake off the effects of his concussions from the last two years. Horton reported this summer that he was healthy and ready to play.
The Bruins are loaded on the back end with Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. However, the big buzz this year will come from rookie Dougie Hamilton, who has the same kind of talent on the defensive end that Seguin has on offense.
The Bruins took a heavy body blow when goalie Tim Thomas decided to take the year off. But, Tuukka Rask is talented enough to bring them to glory. However, he has to prove his consistency if the Bruins are going to get there.
The Canucks are frustrated.
They have been ousted from the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions the past three years. If the 2012-13 season is not their year, will they begin to run out of opportunities?
While forward Ryan Kesler is likely to be recovering from shoulder surgery until December (Rotoworld.com), the Canucks are loaded as usual. The presence of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, David Booth, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins give the Canucks a unique and talent mix up front.
Defensemen Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler are quite talented. They should make life much easier for Cory Schneider as he prepares for his first season as the team's No. 1 goalie.
The Penguins have superior talent every time they take the ice.
Looking at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from across the ice, you know you have to be at your best to compete.
Crosby and Malkin are arguably the No. 1 and No. 2 offensive players in the league. James Neal is an explosive scorer who complements them well. Newcomer Brandon Sutter may not be as gifted as former Penguin Jordan Staal (now with the Carolina Hurricanes), but he should be a solid addition.
While the Penguins aren't as explosive on defense as they are on offense, Kris Letang is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He leaves it all on the ice every night. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been inconsistent in recent years (2.36 goals against last year) but he is capable of dominating with his athleticism.
Throughout the 2011-12 regular season, the talented Kings struggled putting the puck in the net. They remained in contention because of their defensive strength and consistency, but they didn't really become a viable offensive team until they acquired Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Carter gives them consistent scoring. Throw him in the mix with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Dwight King, and you get a group that can fill up the back of the net.
They have superb complementary talent on the defensive end, with Drew Doughty leading a gifted group that includes Rob Scuderi, Slava Voynov and the underrated Alec Martinez.
If Jonathan Quick is not the best goalie in the league, he is in the top three with Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators.
Just because John Tortorella is an intense coach who demands that all his players hustle and play defense does not mean the Rangers don't have talent.
They are loaded.
Marian Gaborik will start the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but his teammates will pick up the slack. The Rangers have newcomer Rick Nash to fill up the net. He joins a group that includes Brad Richards, Carl Hagelin, Ryan Callahan, Chris Kreider, Brian Boyle and Derek Stepan.
The defenseman are talented and deep. Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto and Marc Staal form as strong a top-four as can be found in the league.
Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy last year with a 1.97 goals against and a .930 save percentage. He has no weaknesses to his game.