With the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs coming to a close this week, it's now time to look ahead to next season, and consider which teams have the best shot of finishing on top in a year's time.
There are a few teams that are consistently among the league's best in the regular season, who must be considered contenders entering the 2011-12 campaign, but as this year's postseason proved, the playoffs are unpredictable.
In addition, a number of the league's best teams will likely look very different come opening night, as salary cap constraints and unrestricted free agency will force some teams to make adjustments to their rosters during the summer months.
With that in mind, here is a look at the top 10 teams that will contend for the Stanley Cup in 2012.
While the Los Angeles Kings have a few key players they must ink to new deals this summer, such as franchise defenseman Drew Doughty, they'll be looking to take the next step in the 2012 Playoffs.
As a relatively young team, the Kings can only improve upon last season's performance, which saw them put up a good fight against San Jose in the quarterfinals, despite having to deal with injury problems. Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson and Dustin Brown are all entering their prime, so if goaltender Jonathan Quick can play with more consistency, Los Angeles will be a dangerous team next year.
Though the Kings may be a season or two away from unseating the top dogs in the Western Conference, Los Angeles is not a team opponents fantasize about playing in the first round. If they get on a roll at the right time, a berth in the 2012 Conference Finals is not out of the question.
The Tampa Bay Lightning shocked the hockey world by sweeping the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and ending up just a goal short of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Rookie head coach Guy Boucher has the Lightning playing an effective brand of hockey that stresses defensive responsibility, while allowing the team's snipers to work their magic in the offensive zone, which bodes well for the postseason.
Assuming Steve Yzerman is able to sign Steven Stamkos to an extension, the team boasts three of the most dangerous offensive players on the planet, which means that scoring won't be a problem. The only major question mark for the Lightning lies in between the pipes, as starting netminder Dwayne Roloson is 41, so it's unclear whether he'll be able to replicate this season's performance.
Either way, the Bolts play in the relatively weak Southeast Division, so it's tough to imagine them having trouble qualifying for the postseason. Once they're in, anything is possible for Boucher's group.
Year after year, the Detroit Red Wings continue to be one of the top teams in the league, which is a testament to the quality of the franchise's front office and coaching.
Despite the retirement of Brian Rafalski (and potentially Nicklas Lidstrom), the Wings appear to be in good shape for next season. They still have possibly the two best two-way forwards in the game in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, as well as a talented supporting cast that fit the team's highly skilled style of play.
After a disappointing loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals to San Jose, the Wings will be hungry to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals after a two-year absence. Detroit knows what it takes to win, but they also must recognize that their window of opportunity is shrinking as the team's nucleus ages.
The 2012 Playoffs will be one of the Wings' last legitimate shots at the Stanley Cup with this group, so they'll be eager to reclaim their title as the best team in the Western Conference.
If teams were measured upon their performances during the regular season, the Washington Capitals would be much higher on this list.
However, the Capitals have been overwhelmingly disappointing during their last four playoff outings, so they can't be considered the preseason favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference as the last team standing come May 2012.
With that being said, Washington has one of the most talented rosters in the league, and as long as Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green are around, the Capitals are capable of making noise in the postseason.
Whether the Capitals will ever manage to vanquish their playoff demons and claw their way to a berth in the Conference Finals remains to be seen, but either way they must be considered a contender entering the 2011-12 season.
While the Boston Bruins have enjoyed one of the most successful Playoff runs in franchise history, it will be difficult for them to duplicate that showing in 2012.
On paper, the Bruins are not as talented as some of the other contending teams in the Eastern Conference, but the chemistry they demonstrated during the 2011 Playoffs more than compensates for their lack of star power.
In comparison to other powers in the East like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, the Bruins don't have the same calibre of offensive weapons. However, they have a collection of talented two-way players like David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron who are proven playoff performers.
It also doesn't hurt that the Bruins lay claim to arguably the best goaltender and defenseman in the NHL in Tim Thomas and captain Zdeno Chara, who have shown they're capable of carrying the team when called upon.
The Bruins play a gritty, tenacious brand of hockey that wears opponents down over the course of a best-of-seven series, and they have confidence in their ability as a team to overcome even the most daunting of obstacles.
No matter where they finish in the standings at the end of the regular season in 2012, the Bruins are one of the most battle-tested teams in the league, which will serve them well in the playoffs.
The San Jose Sharks have to be frustrated. Year after year, the Sharks rank among the league's best during the regular season, only to have their Stanley Cup hopes dashed by another Western Conference Contender.
During each of the last two Western Conference Finals, the Sharks have been dominated by the opposition, as they managed just one win during that span.
However, the Sharks remain one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the game, as their roster is dotted with sublimely skilled players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Logan Couture and Dan Boyle.
On top of that, San Jose has some of the best secondary scorers in the league, as Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe have emerged as consistent offensive threats while playing a gritty style of hockey.
The reason behind the Sharks' continued playoff struggles remains a mystery, because at least on paper, this team should have won a Stanley Cup already.
They have a Cup-winning goaltender in Antti Niemi, and a coach who believes in his team, but San Jose's nucleus is beginning to age, so this will be one of the team's final chances at reaching the finals with this current group.
The Philadelphia Flyers have been plagued by poor goaltending for the last two decades, and the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs were no different, as the team used three different goaltenders during their 11 postseason games.
However, the Flyers may have addressed this issue as they're reportedly close to inking 2010 Vezina nominee Ilya Bryzgalov to a deal after acquiring his exclusive negotiating rights from Phoenix earlier this month.
If Bryzgalov is in a Flyer uniform for the start of the 2012 Playoffs, Philadelphia will be considered a front runner to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, because all of the other pieces appear to be in place.
They have a plethora of talented forwards such as Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere and Kris Versteeg who have proven to be clutch performers come playoff time, and a gritty supporting cast that perfectly embodies the Flyers' tough-as-nails mentality.
On the back end, the Flyers' talent level is virtually unmatched, as they have an imposing top-four of Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle, which is key during the two-month grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Simply put, if the Flyers manage to find a goaltender capable of carrying his own weight, Philadelphia will be almost impossible to stop in 2012.
After years of underachieving in the postseason, the Vancouver Canucks steamrolled their way past the San Jose Sharks en route to a berth in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.
Looking ahead to next season, the Canucks have almost all of their most valuable forwards returning, including the league's last two scoring champions in Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Furthermore, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows have emerged as dangerous offensive weapons, providing Vancouver with strong secondary scoring.
Like his team, Roberto Luongo has finally rid himself of his reputation for choking during clutch situations, as he finally defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, and put on a dominating performance against San Jose in the Conference Finals. Though he's had his share of bad games (see Games 3 and 4 of the 2011 Finals), Luongo has demonstrated that he's capable of providing the team with solid goaltending in big games.
The biggest question mark for the Canucks entering the offseason is what they'll do with regards to their defensive corps, as Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff are all unrestricted free agents come July 1st. Assuming they can either retain the trio or find suitable replacements via trade or free agency, the Canucks will be poised to make another run at the Cup.
Whether the Canucks capture the 2011 Stanley Cup or not, they'll be among the top contenders for Lord Stanley's chalice in 2012.
When the curtains open for the start of the 2011-12 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be a much better team than the one that blew a three-games-to-one series lead against Tampa Bay in the 2011 Quarterfinals.
That's what happens when a team regains the services of two of the best players in the world, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are expected to join the Penguins in time for training camp.
If Crosby continues to score at the astounding rate he did during the 2010-11 season, the Penguins will be armed with the most dangerous offensive player in the game, and he may be even better in 2012. That's because for the first time in Crosby's young career, he'll have the opportunity to play with a legitimate first-line winger, as the Penguins acquired James Neal from Dallas at the 2011 trade deadline.
In addition to Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh has possibly the best third-line center in the game in Jordan Staal and a collection of hard-working forwards who are proven postseason performers.
At their own end of the rink, the Penguins have a solid defensive unit, headlined by All-Star Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. Behind them, Pittsburgh has one of the best big-game goaltenders in the league in Marc-Andre Fleury who enjoys playing in the spotlight.
Regardless of whether the Penguins best Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division crown, if Crosby and Malkin remain healthy, Pittsburgh will be poised to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since raising the Cup in 2009.
Heading into the offseason, the Chicago Blackhawks look to be the most complete team in the NHL, which is why they're the No. 1 contender for the 2012 Stanley Cup.
While the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks were ousted by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2011 Playoffs on Alexandre Burrows' overtime-winning goal in Game 7, they seem to have finally found their man in between the pipes.
Rookie goaltender Corey Crawford played like a seasoned veteran in net for Chicago, helping them climb out of a three-games-to-none hole to force a Game 7 in dramatic fashion.
The 2010-11 season was a difficult one for Chicago, as they dealt with the departures of 2010 Playoff heroes Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, as well as the lengthy absences of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland and Brian Campbell due to injuries.
That being said, now that the Blackhawks have found a capable goaltender, they look like the team to beat entering the 2011-12 campaign, simply because they have an abundance of talent at every position.
Up front, Chicago has some of the best young offensive players in the game, and more importantly, they've all proven that they can elevate their level of play when the chips are down.
2010 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews and 2008 Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane are two of the best clutch performers in the league, and both will be 23 entering the 2011 Playoffs, which means their best years are yet to come.
Beyond Toews and Kane, the Blackhawks have a skilled group of offensive players, including Bolland, Hossa and Patrick Sharp that give Chicago all the secondary scoring they need.
On the blue line, the Blackhawks are fortunate to have what may be the best defensive pair in hockey in 2010 Canadian Olympians Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, not to mention former All-Star Brian Campbell. Again, not only are Chicago's rearguards talented and intelligent, but they're proven postseason performers, which is just as important.
Ultimately, the Blackhawks are a playoff-tested team with a young, sublimely talented nucleus. They're stocked with elite level players at each position, so assuming Corey Crawford's 2011 Playoff performance was no fluke, they should be considered the early favorite to come out on top as the 2012 Stanley Cup Champions.