NHL Power Rankings: B/R Experts' Preseason Poll

Adrian DaterNHL National ColumnistOctober 5, 2015

NHL Power Rankings: B/R Experts' Preseason Poll

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The 2015-16 NHL season is mere days away, which means it's time for Bleacher Report's stable of stellar hockey writers to come out of hiding and prognosticate the league's best and worst teams, then go right back into the government witness protection program from the fans of teams we grievously offended.

    In a league with so much genuine parity, it really isn't a stretch for every team's fans to at least think, "We could slip into the eighth spot in our conference at the end. We really are a potential playoff team! How dare they rank us out of the top 16."

    Case in point: The B/R hockey staff pegged the Calgary Flames at No. 27 in the first Power Rankings of last year, while the Winnipeg Jets came in at No. 26. Both teams made the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings were ranked No. 1 and the Boston Bruins No. 3—and, well, let's just say those projections wound up being a little off.

    While yours truly penned all the text for this inaugural laundry list, the voting of the top 30 teams was truly democratic, with myself, Jonathan "Whatchu talkin' 'bout?" Willis, Lyle "No, not the former NHL player" Richardson, Allan "With two L's" Mitchell, Steve MacFarlane and Carol Schram casting votes.

    Teams are ranked based on a blend of existing talent, team payrolls, competitive balance within each division and conference, recent performance and incoming talent.

    So without further ado, here are your 30 ranked NHL teams before the season, listed from worst to first.

    Take it away, Jackie:

30-26: Arizona Coyotes-Buffalo Sabres

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    30. Arizona Coyotes (2014-15 record: 24-50-8, 14th in West)

    If they want to tank it, the Coyotes would get a great chance at expected 2016 No. 1 pick and local Arizona boy Auston Matthews. The Coyotes won't have to try to lose games on purpose, though. They figure to do plenty of that again regardless. The goal differential last season was 102 (170 for, 272 against). Rookies Dylan Strome and Max Domi are nice pieces for the future, but a bright one remains a ways off still.

     

    29. Toronto Maple Leafs (2014-15 record: 30-44-8, 15th in East)

    If front-office and coaching talent were the lone benchmark, the Maple Leafs would be picked a lot higher on our list. Mike Babcock enters as the highest-paid coach in NHL history (eight years, $50 million), and the team hired Lou Lamoriello to help oversee things from the management suite with Brendan Shanahan. 

    The problem remains the players on the ice. James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier make up one of the weaker goaltending tandems in the league, and the offense figures to take a tough hit with the loss of Phil Kessel. Babcock is a fine coach, but he's not a miracle worker. This rebuild will take time.

     

    28. New Jersey Devils (2014-15 record: 32-36-14, 13th in East)

    This once-proud organization has missed the playoffs four of the last five years, and it figures to be five out of six once game No. 82 is over. 

    Former Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero was brought in to replace a team icon in Lamoriello, but it'll be a while before he can fix the mess he inherited.

    The offense was 28th last year (2.15 goals a game), and it's difficult to see how that will improve much. After all, this team still relies a lot on 39-year-old forward Patrik Elias. Goalie Cory Schneider (.925 save percentage) is the team's biggest strength. He will have to steal a lot of games for this team to get out of the lower tier.

     

    27. Carolina Hurricanes (2014-15 record: 30-41-11, 14th in East)

    They still have a great-looking top three up front, with Eric Staal, brother Jordan and Jeff Skinner. Cam Ward has shown he's capable of taking a team to the promised land as a goaltender. Justin Faulk is a quality D-man.

    But it's been a while now since the Hurricanes were a championship team, almost 10 years. Beyond the Staals and Skinner, it's a rather no-name group of forwards. Second-year coach Bill Peters will need his big names to be great all year long and hope to get more from the lesser lights than one might expect if the 'Caniacs are to see postseason hockey again.

     

    26. Buffalo Sabres (2014-15 record: 23-51-8, 16th in East)

    It was a crushing blow to GM Tim Murray when the ping-pong balls didn't bounce his way at the NHL draft lottery and Buffalo lost out on Connor McDavid. But Murray got over it enough to seemingly have a nice offseason for his team. Newcomers Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane are nice offensive additions, goalie Robin Lehner was a good get from Ottawa, and No. 2 pick Jack Eichel is going to be a very nice player.

    Playoffs? No way, but things are better in Buffalo than last year.

25-21: Edmonton Oilers-Vancouver Canucks

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    25. Edmonton Oilers (2014-15 record: 24-44-14, 13th in West)

    They weren't even the worst team in either conference yet still came away with the biggest draft lottery prize since Sidney Crosby in 18-year-old Connor McDavid. So, McDavid joins Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as recent No. 1 picks, and everyone expects him to finally make the Oilers better.

    Enough to be a playoff team? Sorry, not yet, not without a more proven defense and goaltender. Cam Talbot figures to get good offensive support, but it's a lot to ask of the former New York Ranger to step in and put up good numbers as a No. 1 with a shaky defense still on hand. New coach Todd McLellan will implement a better structure overall, though.

    This could be the last year of the Oilers being playoff no-shows, and if McDavid is as good as advertised, maybe they could slip in just like provincial rival Calgary did last year.

     

    24. Colorado Avalanche (2014-15 record: 39-31-12, 11th in West)

    After a Cinderella-type season in 2013-14 (112 points and a Central Division title), Patrick Roy's sophomore season as coach was a bit rougher.

    There's a lot to like with this team (young forwards such as Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog; quality D-men in the blossoming Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie; and a goalie only two years removed from being a Vezina finalist in Semyon Varlamov).

    But there is still plenty to worry about, too: The defense still looks iffy after Johnson and Barrie, and despite all the hype of their young forwards, the Avs only scored 219 goals last year, 11th in the West. In the preseason, the Avs were a hot mess offensively, getting shut out for the final 218 minutes, 21 seconds of the six-game schedule.

     

    23. Boston Bruins (2014-15 record: 41-27-14, ninth in East)

    They barely missed the playoffs and have plenty of nice veteran leadership still around, led by captain Zdeno Chara and ace two-way center Patrice Bergeron.

    But let's face it, it was a rough summer for B's fans, who saw new GM Don Sweeney make some heavily questioned moves, including shipping off young defenseman Dougie Hamilton to Calgary. None of Boston's three first-round draftees seemed to wow any of the pundits either. Some of the core from the good old days remains, but right now the Bruins seem both a little too old in key areas and too young and unproven in others. It could be a bad mix.

     

    22. Philadelphia Flyers (2014-15 record: 33-31-18, 12th in East)

    Former North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol will attempt to get the Flyers back to their familiar place as a perennial playoff team, though the team is still looking for its first Cup since the great Broad Street Bullies days of the mid-'70s.

    If Philly is to get back in, it will need a monster year from uber-talented forwards Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. After those two—and maybe Wayne Simmonds—it's hard to know where any consistent offense will come from.

    Then there's the defense, which is being retooled under second-year GM Ron Hextall but figures to have some growing pains. This team should be competitive, but that's what you can say with just about every NHL team.

     

    21. Vancouver Canucks (2014-15 record: 48-29-5, fifth in West)

    The Canucks were much better than pundits predicted last season, but can they follow it up? There are doubters.

    That's because Vancouver's top producers are mostly all in their mid-30s. As great as the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik) are, they are starting to get up there in years now, at 34 each. Other forwards such as Radim Vrbata and Alex Burrows are also 34. Goalie Ryan Miller is 35 and coming off an injury-shortened season.

    If Vancouver had kept adding more quality youth to the mix of old guys, we'd feel better about there being no drop-off from last year's playoff year. But when Brandon Sutter and his 21 goals from Pittsburgh is your marquee offseason addition, it's hard to get too excited.

20-16: San Jose Sharks-Calgary Flames

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    20. San Jose Sharks (2014-15 record: 40-33-9, 12th in West)

    There's a new coach in Pete DeBoer. But otherwise, it looks to be too much of the same old thing for Silicon Valley's puck product.

    Despite playing in a land where everybody reinvents themselves business-wise seemingly every few months, the Sharks continue to try to win with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau as their top forwards, with many members of the same supporting cast back for more. Thornton and Marleau are possible Hall of Famers and perfectly good players still, but they're both well into their 30s and have never been able to take San Jose to a Stanley Cup Final before.

    Newcomer goalie Martin Jones could be just the kind of fresh young blood needed to revitalize the Sharks, but he's still young (25) and unproven. The slow, steady decline of the Sharks isn't likely to stop this year.

     

    19. Ottawa Senators (2014-15 record: 43-26-13, seventh in East)

    There's a lot to like with the Sens, starting with defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and young forwards such as Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman. First-year coach Dave Cameron proved he's nimble with a changing roster, earning a two-year extension after leading the Sens to the playoffs.

    Question is: Was goalie Andrew Hammond and his incredible 20-1-2 record a fluke? Nobody can maintain numbers like those, but history is also littered with goalies who were awesome at first and rarely heard from soon after (hello, Patrick Lalime and Jim Carey). Craig Anderson is still there, but he's 34 now, and health is a concern.

     

    18. Winnipeg Jets (2014-15 record: 43-26-13, seventh in West)

    Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little...it's the same group of decent but ultimately no-name players who are back to entertain the Manitoba faithful. Maybe they make the playoffs again, but there's just not enough here to get excited about beyond that.

    If Ondrej Pavelec (.908 career saves percentage) is still your No. 1 goalie, as he is in Winnipeg, then the odds of a Cup go down by that much, too. This is the ultimate in-between team.

    We might seem a little too down on a team that had 98 points last year, and maybe that's the case. But you just look up and down the roster and don't get all that excited still.

     

    17. Florida Panthers (2014-15 record: 38-29-15, 10th in East)

    One lottery pick at a time, the Panthers are getting there. They posted 91 points last year, and their core of young kids (Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov) have another year of experience in the books. Plus, there's 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr around to teach the kids what it takes to stick in this league.

    It seems a little off, though, that Roberto Luongo is the No. 1 goalie for these guys. Florida wants to keep rebuilding through youth, so it would be nice if there were an up-and-coming goalie to grow up along with the other young kids here. Florida, in other words, still has yet to establish its identity.

     

    16. Calgary Flames (2014-15 record: 45-30-7, eighth in West)

    They might be ranked a little too low here.

    This really seems like a team on the rapid rise. The Flames had a feel-good playoff season in 2014-15, then GM Brad Treliving went out and added young two-day defenseman Dougie Hamilton without sacrificing anyone from his regular roster.

    Coach Bob Hartley has a lot of talented youth, including Hamilton and forwards such as Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan. You worry a little still about the goaltending, with Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, but it should be good enough to make the playoffs again.

    Michael Frolik was a great free-agent signing, and Jiri Hudler is one of the most underrated skill forwards in the league. This team will be good for years, with a chance to be great.

15-11: Columbus Blue Jackets-Nashville Predators

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    15. Columbus Blue Jackets (2014-15 record: 42-35-5, 11th in East)

    They finished the 2014-15 season 9-0-1 and had a good preseason, so expectations are high that the Jackets will be back in the playoffs next spring.

    Ryan Johansen had a monster preseason and seems ready to really break out as an NHL star. As a great offseason bonus, Jackets fans were given young up-and-comer Brandon Saad as part of Chicago's salary-cap dump. Saad potted five points in his first two preseason games for Columbus, in case anyone wondered if he might be having trouble adjusting to a new team.

    In goal is Sergei Bobrovsky, who seems back on track after an up-and-down year. Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, David Clarkson and Scott Hartnell give this team a nice veteran presence on the fringe.

     

    14. Dallas Stars (2014-15 record: 41-31-10, 10th in West)

    They're going to score goals.

    A team already with points leader Jamie Benn and linemate Tyler Seguin added proven scorer Patrick Sharp from Chicago, while veterans Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are still around.

    Dallas GM Jim Nill surprised everyone by picking up goalie Antti Niemi from San Jose. On a team with veteran Kari Lehtonen already, it will be interesting to see how coach Lindy Ruff alternates those two while still keeping them sharp. Both goalies struggled in the preseason, however.

    The defense still isn't great, but the additions of former Blackhawks Johnny Oduya and Stephen Johns will help. If Ruff gets good years from Niemi and Lehtonen, this team should have enough to get back into the tough Western playoff group.

     

    13. Detroit Red Wings (2014-15 record: 43-25-14, sixth in East)

    They looked great in the preseason, which along with $4.25 will buy you a grande latte at Starbucks. Some Europeans you've never heard of before might just become valuable regulars for this team, as has happened so often before.

    Prepare to hear more about guys such as Teemu Pulkkinen and Andreas Athanasiou soon. The two young forwards put up a lot of points in the preseason, while Tomas Tatar seems like the real deal as a scorer. Old standbys Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are still here, too. Datsyuk, though, will likely be sidelined into November following ankle surgery, which is a big loss no matter how you slice it.

    It will be interesting to see who grabs the No. 1 goalie job. Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek both played well in the preseason, so it will be a tough choice for new coach Jeff Blashill. Brad Richards and Mike Green were interesting veteran pickups by GM Ken Holland. Arguably, the team is still too old at key positions, but all this team does is make the playoffs every year.

     

    12. Los Angeles Kings (2014-15 record: 40-27-15, ninth in West)

    After so much prosperity, with two Stanley Cups in three seasons, the flower pot turned for the Kings in 2014-15. They turned it on too late and paid for it with a ninth-place finish, then saw an offseason of unsavory headlines involving Slava Voynov, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll.

    But all the pieces are in place for a return to the playoffs, starting with core stars Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown. GM Dean Lombardi made an already big and tough team more so by adding Milan Lucic from Boston. The Kings don't have the same depth down the middle anymore with the losses of Richards and Stoll, so it puts a lot of pressure on Kopitar. He seems motivated, in the final year of his contract, to have a huge season.

     

    11. Nashville Predators (2014-15 record: 47-25-10, third in West)

    They appeared poised to win the West last year but faltered at the end and fizzled out to Chicago in the first round.

    There is every reason to believe Nashville will be back in the postseason, however. The Preds have a great goalie in Pekka Rinne, a great defenseman in Shea Weber and lots of growing, talented youth in Seth Jones, Roman Jossi and Filip Forsberg.

    If veteran forwards James Neal and Mike Ribeiro can have good years again, Nashville has enough to challenge deeper into the playoffs. 

10. St. Louis Blues

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 record: 51-24-7, second in West

    Reason for excitement

    Vladimir Tarasenko is a potential Rocket Richard winner, with a stated goal of scoring 50 this season, per Dan Rosen of NHL.com. He is one of several really good younger forwards for a Blues team that won a lot of hockey games last year.

    The blue line, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, can get it done at both ends. Coach Ken Hitchcock is a master of winning games in the regular season and has a Stanley Cup to his credit. Getting over the hump in the playoffs has been the problem.

     

    Reason for worry

    They've looked like the best team in the league for much of the last two regular seasons, but something always seems to get the Blues in the end. Either the offense dries up or the goaltending gets shaky or both. 

    The Blues did not make any major changes in the offseason other than dealing fan favorite T.J. Oshie to Washington for Troy Brouwer. So, what's the reason to think things will turn around in the playoffs this time? Maybe it'll just be their turn finally, who knows?

    The goaltending tandem of Jake Allen and Brian Elliott has yet to prove they can win the big ones. Then again, the same can be said of every other Blues regular in recent years.

     

    Plan the parade if...

    If Tarasenko keeps progressing at the rapid rate he has since joining the league. He's only 23 and was fifth in the league in scoring in 2014-15. ... If Paul Stastny can play like a star instead of an average guy, like he did in the first year of a four-year, $28 million deal. ... If Allen or Elliott can go into the playoffs as an established No. 1 and elevate their game even more when it counts.

9. Minnesota Wild

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    2014-15 record: 46-28-8, sixth in West

    Reason for excitement

    The Wild excited the 10,000 lakes region and beyond with the twin $98.5 million signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in 2012, with some ready to proclaim them instant Stanley Cup champions. It hasn't turned out that way. The Wild have not made it past the second round of the playoffs with the Gold Dust Twins.

    But Minnesota has been a playoff team in the first three years of their residency. Parise is coming off a 33-goal season, and Suter continues to be one of the elite D-men. There is plenty of talent around them entering this season.

    "We know how we want to play," Parise told NHL.com's Dan Myers. "We know what makes us a good team and what makes us an average team. But I still think that there are going to be players wanting more and challenging for different spots, which I think is good. It's healthy for us to have that internal competition."

    Minnesota coach Mike Yeo can confidently roll four good lines, with the likes of Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, among others. The defense, led by Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin, is strong. The Wild allowed only 201 goals last season, tied for second best in the West.

     

    Reason for worry

    Is Devan Dubnyk for real? Signed midway through last season, the former journeyman went 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. That earned him a six-year, $26 million contract.

    Thing is, Dubnyk was rather pedestrian in the playoffs, with a .908 saves percentage. He was an average goalie before coming to the Wild, so it'll be a big question as to who is the real Devan Dubnyk. We'll probably find out this year.

     

    Plan the parade if...

    If Minnesota's supporting cast can really step it up another level. We're talking about guys like Coyle and Granlund and Pominville—good players all, but guys who need to be better when it counts for Minnesota to be nothing more than an early-round playoff team. ... If Dubnyk is anywhere near as good as he was in the second half of 2014-15.

8. New York Rangers

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2014-15 record: 53-22-7, first in East

    Reason for excitement

    Henrik Lundqvist, of course. The sartorial Swede has a six-year streak of putting up a .920 save percentage or better. Yeah, he's 33, but goalies, unlike position players, usually don't have the statistical drop-off at that age. Then there's the defensive corps of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle, Kevin Klein and Dan Boyle. It's a strong group, and the Rangers figure to be very tough to score on again.

    Rick Nash remains a hugely talented forward who scored 42 goals last season. He should be a beast in overtime, too, under the new three-on-three format.

     

    Reason for worry

    Is there enough offense to support Lundqvist consistently? The Rangers look a little thin beyond the first two lines, and even on the top two there is concern. Newcomer Emerson Etem, 23, acquired from Anaheim for Carl Hagelin, will be a big key to New York's success. The power play finished 21st, at 16.8 percent, and lost specialist Martin St. Louis to retirement.

     

    Plan the parade if...

    If guys such as Etem and second-year forward Kevin Hayes take leaps in their progression. New York will really need them and other fringe forwards to take the pressure off Nash ... If the Rangers can get a good year from new backup goalie Antti Raanta, who replaces Cam Talbot. Lundqvist will still do all the heavy lifting in net, but if he can get more quality rest entering the playoffs, it might make the winning difference for a team that has come close the last two years to winning a Cup. 

7. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 record: 43-27-12, eighth in East

    Reason for excitement

    Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin are your three forwards on the power play down low. Good luck against that.

    The addition of Kessel should be significant. He's a five-time 30-goal scorer, and now he has two genuine studs to get the puck from in Crosby and Malkin. The Penguins are hoping that Crosby, entering his 11th season (really?), will be energized, not threatened, by Kessel's addition. 

    Newcomer Nick Bonino should be a nice replacement at center for the departed Brandon Sutter, who just didn't score enough. Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr were quality depth pickups, too, by veteran GM Jim Rutherford.

     

    Reason for worry

    The return to health of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta will be most welcome on the Pittsburgh blue line, but things look thin beyond that. How well youngsters such as Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin perform could spell the difference between deep playoff success and another first-round-and-out showing—or worse.

     

    Plan the parade if...

    If the chemistry between Kessel and Crosby fully ferments. Two of the best offensive players of the last few years together on the same line should be exciting, but nothing has been proven yet. ... If Marc-Andre Fleury can sustain his play in net. He's been up and down in recent years, but the regular-season numbers, .920 save percentage and 2.32 GAA were strong last year. 

6. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    2014-15 record: 48-28-6, fourth in West

    Reason for excitement

    Chicago has the best leader in the game in captain Jonathan Toews, who has three Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals in the last seven years. He's only 27.

    Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are still around, too. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook form the best one-two defensive duo in the league, and Corey Crawford proved once and for all he's a real winner last spring with his second Cup in three seasons.

    Toews and Kane are just so good and so confident that they intimidate opponents before the game has even started. Keith won the 2014-15 Conn Smythe Trophy, a first for a defenseman since Scott Niedermayer did it for Anaheim in 2007.

     

    Reason for worry

    Because of the salary cap, GM Stan Bowman had to give up quite a lot from his championship roster. The biggest loss was young forward Brandon Saad to Columbus, but Bowman got a good forward back in veteran Artem Anisimov. He had to give up Patrick Sharp to Dallas, along with quality defender Johnny Oduya.

    Will that prove to have been just too much change? Could be. Add in the usual challenges for a defending Cup team (no team has won back-to-back Cups since Detroit in 1997 and 1998), and there is plenty enough concern this team won't be good enough in the end.

     

    Plan the parade if...

    If Anisimov is able to come in and make people forget about Saad. He's coming off a poor season in Columbus (seven goals in 52 games, but he had 22 the year before that). Playing in a lineup with Toews, Kane and Hossa should help him get back on track. ... If veteran D-man Trevor Daley proves a good replacement for Oduya, it will ease the pressure on Keith, Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

5. Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    2014-15 record: 45-26-11, fourth in East

    Reason for excitement

    The hiring of Barry Trotz as coach quickly proved to be a smart move by first-year GM Brian MacLellan. Trotz's defensive system, which tries to cut the ice into thirds and keep the puck to the side, reduced Washington's goals against from 240-203 his first year.

    Alex Ovechkin turned 30 this summer, but he's coming off a 53-goal season and seemed to have no problem playing under Trotz's systems.

    Washington signed young goalie Braden Holtby to a long-term contract, which might have been the best news of the offseason. Holtby is coming off an impressive season (41 wins, 2.23 GAA, .923 save percentage), and he had a 1.71 goals-against average in the playoffs.

    Washington also added Justin Williams and his playoff clutchness from L.A., and T.J. Oshie from the Blues. Nice pickups there.

     

    Reason for worry

    Top center Nicklas Backstrom will be sidelined to start the year because of offseason hip surgery, but it shouldn't be too long. Still, any two- or three-week slump in this league can prove fatal now.

    The loss of veteran puck-mover Mike Green could be a loss, but he wasn't worth huge money anymore, and John Carlson could pick up the slack offensively from the blue line. Of course, the reason Caps fans always worry is because something always goes wrong in the playoffs. And, as great a coach as Trotz is, the fact is he's never taken a team beyond the second round of a playoffs.

     

    Plan the parade if... 

    If Holtby plays with even more confidence now that he's been taken care of long term. He's big, moves well and has proved he can win at least one playoff series (twice) in his career. ... If the penalty kill can be a lot better than 81.2 percent (15th overall). ... If Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to blossom as a young, second-line center. He posted 37 points last season, and if he can get to 50 or 60, Washington will have two dynamic top lines.

4. Montreal Canadiens

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    Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 record: 50-22-10, second in East

    Reason for excitement

    Goalie Carey Price is coming off a Hart and Vezina Trophy-winning season (44 wins, .933 saves percentage), and there's no reason to think he won't have another great year. The only thing missing from his career at this point is the Cup, but he's motivated to be the first to hoist one as a Habs netminder since Patrick Roy in 1993.

    Montreal has stars at every major position, with P.K. Subban leading a strong blue line and Max Pacioretty (76 goals the last two seasons) on the top line.

    Montreal plays with skill and speed and tends to wear teams out by the third period.

     

    Reason for worry

    The power play, for some strange reason, was bad last year. The Habs were 23rd in the regular season (16.5 percent) and went just 2-of-36 in the playoffs. That's what killed them. For a team with Subban at one of the points, that shouldn't happen.

    Montreal added veteran forwards Alex Semin and Tomas Fleischmann over the summer. They are skilled, no doubt, but have histories of inconsistency. There's a reason why Carolina bought out the final three years of Semin's five-year, $35 million deal.

     

    Plan the parade if...

    If the power play can just be average or better. It will make things so much easier for a team with Carey Price in net. Montreal's 214 goals were 11th overall, and the power play simply must be better to boost that important number. ... If Semin can play with motivation again and be anywhere near his old self in Washington.

3. New York Islanders

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    2014-15 record: 47-28-7, fifth in East

    Reason for excitement

    It still seems strange not having the Islanders in Long Island at the Nassau Coliseum, but let's face it: It was time for a change, and it's exciting to see the Islanders in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. 

    A good, young team now has another year of learning under its belt, and there wasn't much turnover on the roster by GM Garth Snow. Maybe that's a reason for worry on a team that hasn't been able to get out of the first round the last two years, but it says the talent on hand is good enough to take the next step.

    Captain John Tavares is an elite player and still just 25. He's coming off a career-best 38-goal, 86-point season, narrowly losing out on an Art Ross Trophy at the end to Jamie Benn. Anders Lee (25 goals), Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson are very good young forwards who figure to be better.

     

    Reason for worry

    The Isles still need to improve defensively, finishing 23rd in goals against last year. Another season with Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy eating up critical minutes should help that. The penalty kill was no good last year, clocking in at 78 percent (26th).

    You wonder how the players will adapt to life in the city now, too. Maybe it seems like a small thing, but getting around New York City on game days isn't easy, and some guys who are used to a slower suburban life on the Island may need a while to adjust to the new culture.

    According to the New York Daily News' Peter Botte, Islanders players have been taking the Long Island Railroad into the city, and the team will provide hotel day rooms for players who want to get their game-day naps in the city.

     

    Plan the parade if... 

    If Tavares leads the transition physically and emotionally to Brooklyn. That would lift all boats in the Isles' room. ... If Jaroslav Halak can be a bit better in goal. He won 38 games and is a strong netminder, but coach Jack Capuano no doubt would like to see his save percentage rise from last year's .914.

2. Anaheim Ducks

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 record: 51-24-7, first in West

    Reason for excitement

    Hard to find any weaknesses on this club, which continues to be led up front by star forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. It's impossible to find a better one-two combination of size, skill and leadership quality than these two.

    There is plenty of depth behind them, too. GM Bob Murray acquired Carl Hagelin, Chris Stewart and Mike Santorelli over the summer, nice additions for a team that already had Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and Pat Maroon up front.

    Murray added quality veteran Kevin Bieksa to the blue line, which already was good with youngsters Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler. Frederik Andersen is just the latest in a long line of good young goalies to emerge from the Ducks organization.

     

    Reason for worry

    Somehow, the Ducks won a Western Conference title despite the smallest goal differential (236-226) of any of the 16 playoff teams. The Ducks obviously need to make things a little easier on themselves.

    Andersen's youth and lack of playoff pedigree will make some in Orange County chew their nails. Blowing a 3-2 lead to Chicago in the Western Conference Final continues to be a sour memory for everyone there, too. It seemed like the Ducks really were the better team, but their top guys didn't show up when it counted.

     

    Plan the parade if... 

    If the Ducks stars can just figure out a way to win key Game 7s when it counts. Perry and Getzlaf both won a Cup in 2007, so they know how to win. But there's no doubt that two straight years of blown playoff leads have hurt their reputation. They are both hungry to prove they can win it again, though, so this could be the year.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    2014-15 record: 50-24-8, third in East

    Reason for excitement

    They took Chicago to six games in the Stanley Cup Final, so they have the intangible of knowing what it takes to get that far and therefore should be that much hungrier to win the last game this time.

    The offense is young, fast and deep, led by Steven Stamkos. He struggled at times in the playoffs, but maintained his dignity and should learn from it all. He still has the best one-timer in the league, no question. He also is entering the final year of his contract before becoming a potential unrestricted free agent. It's motivation for any player—don't be fooled.

    Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov (the Triplets Line) are all 25 or younger and will form perhaps the league's best second line (or, if you like, maybe they're the real first line of coach Jon Cooper). The Lightning's 259 goals led the league in 2014-15.

    Defenseman Victor Hedman, 24, really emerged in the playoffs as a dynamic two-way player and figures to be a mainstay for a long time in Tampa. Goalie Ben Bishop was terrific all season, and if not for a groin injury, he might have finished as a Cup winner.

     

    Reason for worry

    As a young team, you always worry about a bit of a letdown after a season like the Lightning had. Maybe the kids will think things will come too easy, that all they need to do is throw their sticks out on the ice to win. It doesn't work like that in the NHL anymore. Really, that's about it. This team has everything you'd want to compete for a Cup.

     

    Plan the parade if... 

    Hey, maybe it will be his swan song in Tampa Bay, but if the Bolts can get a monster year from Stamkos in his contract year, they'd probably take a Stanley Cup as a nice consolation prize. ... If Hedman continues to develop at the accelerated pace he showed in the playoffs, look out.