Why They Will: Well, Chicago is officially back in the Windy City. Last year, the immense amount of young talent the Blackhawks stockpiled finally came together and the sight was something to behold. The Hawks finished third overall in the conference (though seeded fourth due to division winners), nipping at the heels of the Central Division powerhouse Detroit Red Wings. This year, that order might be reversed.
In the offseason, the Hawks stole coveted sniper Marian Hossa away from their rivals, which will make an already potent offense (264 GF, tied for fourth overall) even more dangerous.
Another key addition is defensive-minded John Madden, who will replace Samuel Pahlsson on the third line. Besides his shutdown abilities, Madden will bring the veteran leadership of which this team is in short supply.
The defense is good to say the least, and nobody really gives them enough credit. Brian Campbell, Cam Barker, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook combine to make a top four any team would be jealous of. They are young, fast, and incredibly effective (their 216 GA was the 5th lowest in the league).
Led by super-talented youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, this team is better than last year's version that made it to the Western Finals. They'll be good enough to get there again, and this time leave with a Stanley Cup berth.
Why They Won't: Two key cogs in last year's success were the outstanding play of Martin Havlat and Nikolai Khabibulin. Havlat led the team in points and was as clutch a player as the team could ask for. Khabibulin returned to his Tampa Bay form, putting up an impressive .919 save percentage. Both are now gone.
While in theory Hossa replaces Havlat, until we see him in action with the team, it remains unproven whether he will be as effective in this offense. Additionally, Cristobal Huet will have to take over the reins as the No. 1 goaltender, something he was unable to do last year. If he can't meet expectations, untested Antti Niemi or Corey Crawford will have to fill in.
Too many offseason distractions (the RFA debacle, firing of Dave Tallon, Patrick Kane's criminal charges) and question marks in net will be difficult for this young team to overcome.
Why They Will: If I'm picking a player to build a team around, Rick Nash is near the top of my list. How many 6'4" 215-lb. players can skate and stick-handle like this guy can? He just put up a career high in points with 79, he's become a solid two-way player, and he's just entering his prime at the young age of 25.
Seriously, he alone should be reason enough why Columbus will make it back to playoffs.
On top of Nash, the Blue Jackets have last year's Calder trophy winner Steve Mason tending the net. After posting an absurd 10 shutouts in his rookie year, Mason will look to build on his playoff experience and confirm that he is one of the best young goalies in the league.
By the end of this season, fans outside Columbus are going to know just how good youngsters Jakub Voracek and Derrick Brassard really are.
The Blue Jackets have improved each of the last three seasons, and that trend will continue as Columbus reaches the playoffs for the second time.
Why They Won't: This team does not have the depth needed to emerge from a tough division. Nash and Mason are nice, but they need more to remain in the top eight.
Kristian Huselius (56 points) and RJ Umberger (46 points) were second and third in team scoring. That's not going to get it done two years in a row.
Mason, while terrific last year, is still very young and it's rare to have a young goalie continue on without a hiccup in their development. The problem is, the Jackets need Mason at his best. If he even remotely regresses, this team does not have the talent to stay afloat.
Columbus scored 226 goals and had a goal differential of -4, ranking them 15th in both categories among playoff teams. This team snuck in to the playoffs thanks to tremendous play from their rookie goaltender, but I wouldn't bet on that happening twice.
Why They Will: Many people are saying this is the season that Detroit finally begins to fall, citing their age and personnel losses this offseason. Well, the team's average age is 30. That doesn't exactly scream retirement home escapees.
To anybody that watched Detroit play last season, run away with the scoring race (295 goals) and dominate possession, they certainly weren't watching a team that was losing a step.
Osgood isn't good enough? Well he only posted a .926 save percentage in the playoffs.
Lidstrom is too old? Tell that to his 59 points, his +31, and his 24:49 ATOI.
Everyone is talking about the players lost. Now all they have is Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall. And oh yeah, Todd Bertuzzi, Ville Leino, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Patrick Eaves probably won't help out either.
Yeah, with a roster like this, who wouldn't think they were in trouble?
Why They Won't: Losing Marian Hossa is a huge loss. Say what you will, but 40-goal scorers who are sound defensively don't grow on trees.
While there is no doubt Osgood always steps it up in the playoffs, if he continues to be so-so in the regular season, this team will have to continue to light it up to stay competitive.
An uncommonly discussed stat from last year, Detroit had the fourth worst GA among playoff teams with 244 (Washington had 245, Montreal had 247, and Calgary had 248). Offense can come and go, but their defense will have to improve if they plan on holding off the rest of the division.
Why They Will: If there are two things that make a playoff team, it's a hot goalie and a great coach. The Predators are blessed to have both.
Barry Trotz can make any team competitive. He should be a perennial Jack Adams finalist. Despite what talent he is given, you know his team is going to be difficult to play against.
Pekka Rinne, the OTHER rookie goalie that tore up the league last year, will be back to prove that his Calder nomination slight was a mistake. And unfortunately for other teams, he has the talent to do just that. It's rare when a goalie posts a .917 SP with seven shutouts and gets as little press as this guy got. You can be sure by the end of this season that won't happen again.
Jason Arnott leads a balanced though unspectacular forward corps. But it's at the other end of the ice that Nashville intimidates. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter make up one of the best top pairings in the league, and I'd be surprised if Weber isn't in the Norris discussion this season.
Why They Won't: Nashville thought they had their starting goalie in Tomas Vokoun, and then he was supplanted by Chris Mason, who in turn was overtaken by Dan Ellis, who lost his job to Pekke Rinne. That's an uncomfortable trend.
Even if that doesn't continue, the Preds need more scoring. 213 goals isn't going to get you a ticket to the postseason, especially when you allow 233 goals.
Barry Trotz is a great coach, but he isn't a miracle worker. The west is stacked, and the central is probably its best division. Nashville simply doesn't have the horses to compete.
Why They Will: When people talk about teams with exciting youth, the Blues are somehow always overlooked.
David Backes, David Perron, Patrick Berglund, TJ Oshie, and Erik Johnson are all 25 or younger, and will continue to improve and become the core of this team. And honestly, besides maybe Chicago or Pittsburgh, I can't think of a young core I'd rather have than this one.
Everybody expected last season to be a rebuilding year for the Blues, but they jumped ahead of schedule and made the playoffs thanks to a scorching record in the second half. And that was with major injuries to Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya only playing a combined 57 games, and Erik Johnson missing the whole season.
Is there really any possibility that those player back in the lineup somehow makes the team worse? Let me answer that for you. No, there isn't.
The Blues will once again be playing extra games this year. I love this team, I love this youth, and I love this third jersey.
Why They Won't: If hockey has taught us anything, it's that the young underdog team that beats the odds and makes the playoffs doesn't always do so next season. We often forget that there was a reason that they were underdogs: They weren't supposed to beat the odds.
This is a very young team. Besides Kariya, McDonald, Brad Boyes, and Eric Brewer, the best players are still learning the game. And you can always expect some growing pains.
It remains to be seen whether Johnson and Kariya can return to form, and if they don't, the Blues may be in trouble.
Despite basically being shot out of a cannon to end the season, the Blues still ended up allowing as many goals as they scored (233). If they start the season like they did last year, it will be difficult to replicate last season's second half.
I hope all the best for Chris Mason, but he seems to be a good-year bad-year player. He alternates between steps forward and backward. Last year was a step forward, so you can guess what this year will probably be. Additionally, he always seems to play better trying to take over the No. 1 position then when he actually has it.
I'm not saying the Blues don't have a chance at consecutive postseasons, but Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, and the odds are standing in the way.
Why They Will: A blue line consisting of Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr is good. Throw Jay Bouwmeester into the equation and it's just unfair. Calgary will enter next season with, at least on paper, one of the best top three in the league. A defense with this kind of potential demands success.
Losing Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi is bringing some to question where the goals are going to come from, and rightly so. But those people should remember, as long as you score more then your opponent, who cares?
This team may have difficulty scoring, but not as much as teams trying to score against them.
Also remember the overwhelming success new coach Brent Sutter had last year with New Jersey, another team that was expected to have trouble scoring.
On top of all this, I never bet against Jarome Iginla. No, literally, never. Calgary will finish with a top three seed.
Why They Won't: There is no denying the talent on the blueline, but take away Iginla, and the Flames don't have a go-to guy on offense (Daymond Langkow is the closest thing with 21 goals). They aren't going to be able to shut out opponents every game.
Don't listen to people who say all you need is a great defense to win. They're wrong. Just ask the Minnesota Wild.
Losing Cammalleri and Bertuzzi not only takes away their goals, but also will greatly hurt the PP and allow teams to focus solely on Iginla. If he can match his output from last season, I'll be surprised.
Most important, Mikka Kiprusoff is—get ready for this—an average goalie. This year, Kipper put up a .903 SP. The year before that, .906 SP. While by no means is this awful, he is clearly no longer the goalie many make him out to be.
To put that in perspective, the only starting goalie in the NW with a worst SP last year was Peter Budaj on an abysmal Avalanche team with a .899 SP.
By the way, the most goals allowed by a playoff team was 248. Guess which team that was.
Why They Will: Now that the great Joe Sakic is retired, the Avalanche will quickly become Paul Stastny's team. The 23-year-old showed tremendous talent and poise in his first two seasons, and clearly established himself as the team's best player moving forward.
An injury limited him to just 45 games this past season, but a healthy Stastny is a big step in the right direction. Assuming Milan Hejduk, Marek Svatos, and Wojtek Wolski can provide the proper support, Stastny should return to the point-a-game pace he showed in his first two seasons.
Scott Hannan and John-Michael Liles head up an underrated defense that will be further solidified by trade acquisitions Tom Preissing and Kyle Quincey.
The biggest improvement will come in thhe net, where Colorado picked up Craig Anderson in free agency. While Anderson wasn't one of the big names on the market, he might just be one of the best grabs.
Anderson had tremendous numbers as a backup in Florida, posting a .924 SP last season. He'll be given the chance to take over as the starter for the Avalanche. And from what I've seen in Florida, he'll do just that and never look back.
Why They Won't: Do you know who Ben Guite and Daniel Tjarnqvist are? Well, you should. Out of those who played more than 10 games for the Avs last season, Guite and Tjarnqvist were the only ones to finish the season with a plus rating (+2 and +1, respectively).
That is a scary statistic, one that shows in what utter disarray this team has found itself.
The Avalanche scored a league-worst 199 goals last season, and after trading away Ryan Smyth—who was tied for the team lead with 59 points—things honestly don't look much better.
Colorado may not like to admit it, but they are entering a rebuild and it's a drastic one. It will take years, and it will be painful.
If Joe Sakic—one of the greatest captains to play the game—can't get this group to perform, who can?
Why They Will: Sometimes the most important change a team can make isn't on the ice. That was the case in Edmonton this offseason, as Pat Quinn and Tom Renney were brought in as the new coaches.
Quinn has a proven track record, most recently highlighted by leading Team Canada to gold at the World Juniors last year. The win proved Quinn can handle kids, which Edmonton has in spades. And with Tom Renney, the Oilers get perhaps the most overqualified assistant coach in the league.
On the ice, the Oilers are laden with young talent that have yet to become a cohesive group, but expect that to change this season.
Ales Hemsky is an amazing talent with hands as slick as silk. He'll lead the offense, but he isn't alone. Shawn Horcoff is capable of 60+ points, but the most important key to success will be the growth of the youth.
Sam Ganger, Andrew Cogliano, Dustin Penner, and Robert Nilsson all showed that they can contribute, and that trend will continue under Quinn's tutelage.
Khabibulin will fill in for Roloson, the defense will put up points, the offense will drum along to Quinn's rhythm, and the Oil will be back in the playoffs.
Why They Won't: The Oilers have a plethora of second line centers and, unless Horcoff can really step up his game, no first line center. Depth down the middle is nice, but a center who can keep up with Hemsky is needed if Edmonton is going be any real threat.
The kids, while talented, are far too inconsistent and need a lot of work on their play away from the puck.
The defense is the biggest concern. While Sheldon Souray, Tom Gilbert, Lubomir Visnovsky, and Denis Grebeshkov can all put up a boatload of points, none are the shutdown defenders that the team so desperately needs.
The Oilers allowed 248 goals last season, and that was with the very good Dwayne Roloson. Khabibulin played well last season, but is getting up in age and historically only plays up to his potential in a contract year.
If he doesn't play at least on par with his performance of last year, Edmonton won't emerge from the NW.
Why They Will: With nothing but respect for Jacques Lemaire and all that he has accomplished, Minnesota needed this change. Todd Richards will bring an up-tempo game to some of the greatest fans in any sport. And they will flourish.
Out is Marian Gaborik and his glass hip, in comes Martin Havlat. Havlat will replace Gabby as the team's primary offensive threat, a role he proved he could handle last season in Chicago.
Mikko Koivu has emerged as one of the premier two way players in the game. Arguably the most underrated player in the league, Koivu put up 67 points in a stifling system, and there is no reason he can't produce even more under new Coach Richards.
Pierre Marc Bouchard, Stephane Veilleux, Antti Miettinen, and James Sheppard will provide the secondary scoring, while Brent Burns leads a more than capable defense.
Niklas Backstrom is the most underrated goalie in the NHL. If you don't believe me, look at the stats. No goalie has a better SP over the last three seasons. And with a rock like Backstrom in net, the Wild can take chances offensively and utilize their talent.
If all of this isn't enough, they have Cal Clutterbuck. You don't think the Wild have what it takes? Don't let him hear you say that.
Why They Won't: Adjusting to a new coach can be difficult, especially when that coach is implementing a completely different system. In this case, a system that all of these players were brought up in. There are going to be some growing pains and, with the conference as tough as it is, the Wild may not have the luxury of time to sort things out.
What if the team's scoring troubles weren't the fault of Lemaire's system? What if the blame lies with the players? If so, the defensive system was the only thing keeping them competitive.
Gaborik was injury-prone and consequently rarely got to show his tremendous talent. Well, Havlat is actually a similar player, an immense talent who rarely plays a whole season. If he can't stay healthy, Minnesota is going to be feeling some deja vu.
Why They Will: Vancouver proved last year that they were more than just an average team with a great goalie. Edging out Calgary for the division title, the Canucks were beaten in the second round by a hot Blackhawks team. The core of the team is back, and out to prove last year was no fluke.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin have established themselves as elite forwards. Both are point-a-game players, incredibly durable, and show up when needed the most.
Roberto Luongo is considered by many to be the best goalie in the league. Whether or not you agree with that, his talent is undeniable. And when he's on, it will be difficult for any team to top the Canucks.
The biggest reason Vancouver will stay atop the NW is because their depth and secondary players have finally showed up. Ryan Kesler developed an offensive side to his already dominating defensive play while Alex Burrows showed his goal-scoring touch, finishing with 28 goals—second only to Daniel Sedin.
The defense will be led by Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieska, and Willie Mitchell, the last of whom had a terrific +29.
Why They Won't: Losing Mattias Ohland is a major loss, one Vancouver won't be able to fully recover from. Big 6'2" D-men who can put up 25 points and move the puck don't grow on trees.
Mats Sundin was really starting to come on near the end of the season, and losing depth down the middle never makes a team better.
As good as the Sedins are together, what if one goes down? Usually when you have two all-star caliber players, if one goes down the other doesn't miss a beat. If one Sedin goes down, you basically lose the other as well.
Pavol Demitra is talented but inconsistent. If Kesler and Burrows prove last year was the exception rather than the norm, Demitra will be relied upon to pick up the slack and I don't think he can.
While everyone has already ordained Luongo as the best in the game, what has he actually done? He hasn't proven himself to be a winner at nearly any level, and he wilted in the playoffs, getting lit up by Chicago. Now he is apparently asking for $8+ million in his new contract. Vancouver is going to pay it, and they'll regret it.
Why They Will: Anaheim snuck into the eighth spot last season, but what you do in the playoffs is more important than how you enter them. Anaheim quickly dispatched the heavily favored San Jose Sharks and gave Detroit all they could handle before bowing out in the second round.
Any team that saw how well the Ducks played last postseason is scared, and they should be. This is a team that has "Cup contender" written all over it.
Jonas Hillar supplanted JS Giguere as the team's starter in the regular season before dazzling us in the postseason. Hillar put up an unworldly .943 SP through two rounds, and if that was any sign of things to come the Ducks are set for years.
Even with the losses of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin, Scott Niedermeyer leads a very skilled blueline consisting of Ryan Whitney, James Wisninewski, Nick Boynton, and Luca Sbisa that can contribute at both ends of the ice.
One of—if not the best—lines in the league returns with Ryan Getzlaf centering Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Ryan exploded last year, finally displaying the potential that the Ducks had seen when they drafted him, while Getzlaf has emerged as the premier big-bodied center.
The additions of Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupol will play with Teemu Selanne and give the Ducks the second line support they've needed since their cup run.
This is one of the last teams I would want to face in a seven-game series.
Why They Won't: Giguere has clearly lost a step, and if Hillar can't keep up his play it will be interesting to see if Giguere can regain his swagger.
One of the reasons the Ducks were so good in recent years was their defense, and you don't lose two of your top three guys and roll on without a hitch.
If Saku and Teemu can't rekindle the magic they've had in international play, the team doesn't have many options to pump up the secondary scoring, as the rest of the lineup is more geared to grinding.
With Brendan Morrow returning for Dallas and LA taking steps forward, the Ducks are going to have a hard time standing out in a very tough division.
Why They Will: Dallas looked like a team that could challenge for the cup last preseason, instead they didn't even make the playoffs. Injuries ravaged this team, but after time to rest, Dallas will be back to form
Brendan Morrow is the heart and soul of this team, and when he went down the team suffered without him. A healthy Morrow completely changes their dynamic. Brad Richards and Mike Ribero give the Stars a talented one-two punch down the middle.
While no one outside of Dallas may know who Loui Eriksson is, you can bet opposing goalies do. The young 24-year-old put up 36 goals last season and promises to get better with experience.
Why They Won't: This team is far removed from the one that surprised two years ago in the playoffs. Having Morrow back helps, but a litany of problems will hold Dallas back.
Brad Richards is a shadow of the player that helped Tampa win the Cup, and this shadow comes with a $7.8 million cap hit. Similarly, Mike Modano, while still producing, isn't ageless. The Stars can't rely on him to be a major component of the attack and still expect to succeed.
The defense is questionable at best. At times they looked downright lost last season without Sergei Zubov, who as of right now will not be returning.
Marty Turco is, sadly, probably done. He hasn't come close to achieving the numbers he put up at the beginning of the decade, and has put up a mediocre .903 SP since the lockout.
This team has questions all over the lineup, and doesn't have great youth coming up the pipeline. They will miss the playoffs, and unless management does something they will be missing them for some time.
Why They Will: Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown lead the Kings attack. They are talented, young (Frolov at 27 is the old man amongst the three), and finally have a supporting cast capable of making the playoffs.
Ryan Smyth was brought in by trade to give this team the push it needs to get over the hump. Jarret Stoll, Michael Handzus, and Kyle Calder will give the necessary support.
On the blue line, the Kings grabbed Rob Scuderi to help mentor a young D corps consisting of Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, and Matt Greene. Scuderi will bring a calming presence both in the lockerroom and on the ice.
Jonathon Quick emerged as a viable starter in net, posting an impressive .914 SP. If he can keep up his play, LA will finally have an answer to the goalie problem that they've had for some time now: consistency.
Many believe if Quick had started the year, LA would have made the playoffs. Well, they'll get the chance to prove that theory this season.
Why They Won't: Yes, this team does have talented youth but when people compare them to Pittsburgh or Chicago, they're deluding themselves.
Kopitar has all the tools to be a dominant player, but needs to work on his defensive play as well as his consistency.
Brown, while a player any team would be lucky to have, will probably top out at a mid-60s point range. There is nothing wrong with that, but LA expects and needs him to become a point-a-game player.
Smyth has not been as effective since leaving Edmonton and will start to show the effects of years of his gritty style of play.
Bringing in Scuderi helps, but, at best, it is a lateral move for a defense that gave up Tom Preissing and Kyle Quincey.
Even if Quick can play like he did the second half, the team still needs to score more goals—a lot more goals. For a team pegged as dangerous by so many, 207 goals isn't going to cut it.
Why They Will: Here is a team with a lot to like.
Shane Doan continues to be an unsung hero, putting up 31 goals and 73 points last season. He works hard on both ends and sets a good example for the youth.
And what youth the Coyotes have.
Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov, Peter Mueller, and Martin Hanzal are all 22 or younger and blessed with tremendous potential. If they can take steps in the right direction, Phoenix will do damage in the Pacific.
Ilya Bryzgalov struggled, but he has proven that he can get the job done. If a couple bounces go their way, the Coyotes may finally prove their worth.
Why They Won't: This organization is an absolute train wreck. Are they staying or going? Who's going to own the team? Can they attract fans?
All those distractions aside, the Coyotes don't have the players to compete. Steve Reinprecht was second to Doan in scoring with an anemic 41 points. They simply can't score.
The defense is about as average as you could imagine. While Bryzgalov is a solid goaltender, he isn't a franchise saviour.
Horrible PK and PP, bad five-on-five play, no scoring, average defense and goaltending. What about that spells success to anyone?
The youth is talented and will be part of a winning team some day. Just not today.
Why They Will: Though San Jose bowed out in the first round, this is still a top-tier team. Winning the Presidents' Trophy is no fluke, and anybody who makes that assumption will be sorely mistaken.
The Sharks are absolutely stacked down the middle, with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski all capable of playing anywhere in the lineup.
Devin Setoguchi replaced Cheechoo as the resident triggerman, and he performs the job well. With seven players eclipsing the 50-point mark—including Ryane Clowe and Milan Michalek—SJ has the depth to send wave after wave at their opponents.
And like Boston, the Sharks can beat you any way you choose. Call ahead and they'll be sure to have your humble pie ready for pick-up.
Anchored by the ageless Rob Blake and Dan Boyle (thanks, Tampa), the defense is more than formidable with Christian Erhoff and Marc-Edouard Vlasic rounding out the top four.
Former Vezina finalist Evgeni Nabokov is more than capable of taking care of his end.
The Sharks may make some changes, but don't expect them to be anything but a powerhouse.
Why They Won't: We have the underachievers of the decade. So much talent, such little by way of results.
The Sharks are going to be looking to make some changes. Coach McClellan led them to a league-leading 117 points, but the same fate befell the Sharks as always—an early playoff exit.
If the team remains complacent, they will be subjecting themselves to same torture over and over again. But making a move for the cap-strapped Sharks isn't as easy as hoped.
Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo are two of the names mentioned to be on the move. With Marleau, a team will have to take on his large contract and he has to waive his NTC. With Cheechoo, nobody wants to give up anything for a $3 million one-hit wonder.
To make matters worse, the Sharks still need to sign a large number of players, so they can take nearly no salary back in a trade.
The frustrations of years past combined with the increasing age of their stars will finally grind the Sharks down.