Is it October, yet?
While the hockey world is gearing up for the most exciting spectacle in all of sports, a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, the eternal pessimist in me can't help but think of it as the final shred of meaningful NHL hockey we'll be seeing for three and a half months.
So, while most are stuck analyzing the fantastic season that was in the NHL, the progressive fans are set to take speculate on what figures to be another season for the ages.
Which players are going to take the step into the league's elite this season, and which players might fall out of favor?
Here's a look at my projected top 50 NHL players for the upcoming 2011-2012 season, complete with video of each star on the list. Enjoy.
Mikko Koivu is one of the great two-way forwards in the NHL today.
Unfortunately, he has never had the chance to truly shine offensively without top level talent around him up front.
The Wild front office has vowed to surround Koivu with some weapons and improve their offense next season. It remains to be seen whether or not that can happen.
Meanwhile, Koivu will continue to be terrific at both ends of the ice and one of the best captains in the game.
Relax, Bruins fans. I know this seems low for the Conn Smythe lock but hear me out. This ranking is for NEXT season.
Tim Thomas is incredible and was one of the league's finest goaltenders this past season. That being said, I'm not sure he can sustain the same level of play next season.
The Bruins' netminder will turn 38 next season, and his days of flailing about making acrobatic saves could be coming to an end.
Also, Tuukka Rask will continue to emerge for the Bruins, preventing Thomas from putting up the same type of numbers while keeping him fresh for the entire season.
Stuck in the hockey wasteland of Phoenix Arizona, Ilya Bryzgalov has not really been given the chance to shine on the big stage in his tenure in the NHL.
Well, now's his chance.
Assuming Philadelphia is able to sign the Russian goaltender, Bryzgalov should be in for another terrific season and could add postseason success to his resume.
Expect the same old Bryz, just on a bigger stage and with more goal support.
Ryan Suter and Shea Weber finally got some national attention for their superb run to the second round of the 2011 NHL Playoffs.
Now, the best defensive team in hockey has to build on that going into next season.
As long as Shea Weber is retained by the Preds, he and Suter will continue to enjoy the same old success.
After carrying the San Jose Sharks defensively this past season, Dan Boyle will be begging the Sharks' front office for some help on the blue line for next season.
Boyle is one of the most underappreciated players in the game today and will only truly shine for who he is if he can be surrounded by some other quality defensemen.
With the New York Islanders on the brink of contention, John Tavares could be due for his breakout season in 2011-2012.
The talented kid from Oakville, Ontario was made the first overall draft pick in 2009 and has been quietly improving throughout his NHL career.
Could this be the year Tavares flashes that true star potential?
The 2011 NHL Playoffs were a huge disappointment for the Philadelphia Flyers.
However, it was not an entirely negative experience for the Broad Street Bullies.
The emergence of 2007 first-round pick, James Van Riemsdyk, is a definite selling point going forward for this club.
Expect a huge 2011-2012 campaign from JVR.
Hearing your name involved in trade rumors all offseason must be a great source of motivation, right?
The Flyers certainly hope that is the case with forward Jeff Carter. The superstar scorer is involved in plenty of trade rumors, but Paul Holmgren will find a way to hang on to him.
If Carter can stay healthy, 2011-2012 could be his best season to date.
There's no reason to expect a decline in production from one of the most consistently productive players in the NHL over the past five seasons.
Patrick Marleau will still be surrounded by tons of talent, and I expect to see him produce at the same high level we are accustomed to seeing from him.
It was a forgettable year for the Colorado Avalanche, who finished among the league's worst teams and will be drafting second in the upcoming NHL draft.
However, the play of Matt Duchene is a definite bright spot. The 20-year-old center has over 50 points in each of his first two seasons in the league, including 67 this past season.
Battling through injuries, Mike Green had a relatively mediocre campaign statistically. After two straight 70-point seasons, Green put up just 24 for the Capitals this season.
Granted, I did notice an improvement from Green in his own end. Once just a glorified left winger, Green has appeared to take his defensive responsibilities a bit more seriously. However, he still has a ways to go in that aspect of his game.
Nicklas Backstrom had a bit of a disappointing season by his standards. After putting up 101 points a season ago, Backstrom was only able to muster 65 points this season.
Of course, the Capitals focused more on a defensive-oriented game this past season, but Backstrom still failed to fill it up offensively like he's accustomed to.
That being said, the Swedish winger has an incredible future in the NHL. He is one of the most dynamic young forwards in the league and should return to 80-plus point form sooner rather than later.
Bobby Ryan put up his third straight 50-plus point season and his second straight season playing over 80 games in a season.
Ryan certainly benefits from playing alongside Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but his talent is undeniable. He is a steady dependable winger with a dynamic offensive skill set. In addition, he is a powerful forward willing to grind it out in the corners. Ryan is a perfect fit with the Anaheim Ducks.
There's no reason to expect a decline from the American-born winger next season.
2010-2011 was not an outstanding season statistically for the former Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, but Cam Ward was once again steady between the pipes for the Canes.
What stands out is the fact that Ward started 74 games, more than any goaltender in the NHL. His fundamentals are as sound as any goaltender out there, and he nearly carried Carolina into the playoffs.
Cam Ward will be a mainstay on this list for years to come.
Once found a bit higher on lists like these, Mike Richards needs to reestablish himself as a leader in the Philadelphia Flyers' dressing room.
Richards had reported run ins with both Peter Laviolette and Chris Pronger during the playoffs, and that type of disconnect in a locker room is always going to kill a team.
I'll chalk it up to a team-wide chemistry issue and hope that Richards can turn things around this season.
Ryan Kesler is one of the most valuable players on the Presidents Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks. He played over 80 games in five of the last six seasons for the Canucks. A terrific two-way forward, Kesler was also a plus-22 this season for Vancouver.
Prior to getting injured, Kesler was on a torrid pace in the 2011 NHL Playoffs. He has since slowed down as he's battling through an unspecified injury. The Canucks hope a healthy Kesler can pick things right back up next season.
After piling up just over 60 points this past season for the Sharks, Dany Heatley has to find his game again this season.
Heatley is traditionally an 80-point per season type of player, so 64 points is not going to cut it for the Sharks.
If he's not going to get in done in the postseason, Heatley may as well light it up in the regular season.
Jaroma Iginla has to slow down at some point, doesn't he?
Despite the fact that he turns 34 this summer, Jarome Iginla has shown no signs of slowing down just yet for the Calgary Flames.
While I'm not expecting another 80-point season out of Iginla, 70 points is not out of the question, and he's a near lock for 60 points if healthy.
Not to mention, the Flames' captain is a tremendous leader and presence in all three zones.
Pekka Rinne came into his own this season for the Nashville Predators. The Preds' backstop has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy—and for good reason. He was in between the pipes for 64 games this season and is a big reason for Nashville's playoff run.
Rinne certainly has the benefit of playing behind an elite defense and an even better system. However, there is no denying the work Rinne did holding the entire operation together.
Rinne should be even better next season.
The 2010 NHL Playoffs were a coming out party for Claude Giroux. The Canadian-born center managed to parlay his success in the postseason into a breakout regular season.
Now, Giroux hopes that carries over into the 2011-2012 campaign, as he continues to emerge as the Flyers' most dangerous offensive weapon.
Patrick Kane has four straight seasons of 70-plus points for the Chicago Blackhawks. He plays an underrated two-way game at winger and is a terrific playmaker in the offensive zone.
The Blackhawks will continue to improve as a team next season, and Patrick Kane should be a big beneficiary of that improvement.
I expect to see another 80-point season from the American superstar.
Anze Kopitar has truly come into his own as an elite player in the NHL. Kopitar was the most valuable player for the L.A. Kings, as evident by the fact that the Kings weren't able to escape the first round of the playoffs after Kopitar went down with injury.
He has become the face of this Kings team and is the perfect piece for the Kings to build around. Los Angeles has plenty of talented prospects in their system that will soon surround Kopitar and make this team one of the best in the Western Conference.
Kopitar has not tapped into his full potential just yet.
Eric Staal steadily manages to compile 70-point seasons year in and year out. The Carolina captain piles up points despite not being surrounded by the elite talent as some of the league leaders.
The continued improvement of the players around him will only help Staal's already solid point totals.
After Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down with injury, Fleury was forced to carry the Penguins and did so effectively, earning the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
For a number of seasons, critics were quick to point out Fleury's flaws and say that he was not worthy of the No. 1 overall selection that Pittsburgh spent on him in 2003.
However, after winning the Stanley Cup and proving that he can carry the team on his own, Fleury has established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and a crucial part of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Next season, Fleury will have Crosby and Malkin back to take the pressure off him and allow him to thrive.
After his breakout season a year ago, Drew Doughty came back down to earth in 2010-2011, declining in all major statistical categories.
That being said, Doughty is still rock solid on the back end for the Kings. He had a shaky start to the season but managed to pick up his play late in the season—especially in the playoffs against the Sharks.
Doughty clearly picked up his play once Kopitar went down, which is a terrific sign for the Kings moving forward.
After being written off a year ago due to the white hot play of Jaroslav Halak, Carey Price bounced back in a big way. Halak was traded during the offseason, clearing the way for Price to play in 72 games this season.
However, Price once again failed to carry the Canadiens through the postseason. While he was brilliant in the first portion of the series, he was increasingly average as the games wore on.
Price still hasn't reached his prime. He has fluid lateral movement and picture-perfect fundamentals. Occasionally, Price lacks a killer instinct. However, as he matures, the Canadien netminder should develop into one of the best in the NHL.
By Joe Thornton's standards, 2010-2011 was quite the off year. After five straight 86-plus point seasons, Thornton amassed just 70 points this year. Meanwhile, Jumbo Joe was just a plus-four for the season.
It was another solid year for Columbus's franchise player. Rick Nash piled up points and ate up ice time for the Jackets, while doing his best to earn Columbus a playoff berth.
Nash might be the best power forward in the NHL, which limits his productivity, but certainly not his value. Playing anywhere else in the NHL, Nash would be a perennial MVP candidate.
Unfortunately, the first overall draft choice in 2002 finds himself stuck in the wasteland of Columbus with very little talent around him.
If Columbus executes this offseason and brings in a stud center to play with Nash, he'll be in for his best season to date.
Is anyone following the Brad Richards news more closely than Marion Gaborik?
Gaborik has always been supremely talented but has never truly put it all together to his full potential.
With Brad Richards centering his line, Gaborik would certainly blossom into one of the league's highest scorers.
Luongo's spot on this list is subject to change based on his performance in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.
If Luongo turns in another dud, that performance could result in a hangover heading into next season.
It's becoming increasingly tough to read Roberto Luongo, so stay tuned.
Normally a reliable and durable defenseman, Chris Pronger spent nearly half of the season out of the lineup for the Flyers.
Despite missing 30-plus games, Pronger displayed his value to the team. The power play struggled mightily without his service, and even though Philly has a deep defensive core, it was not the same without his services.
Is Pronger's age starting to show?
Ryan Miller had an up-and-down season, riddled with injuries and inconsistent play. He started the season off horribly but turned things around to post respectable numbers.
America's goaltender fared well in the postseason, nearly carrying Buffalo to an upset over second-seeded Philadelphia.
Expect to see more of the same from Miller next year and for many seasons to come.
Zach Parise's presence in New Jersey's lineup was undoubtedly missed by everyone involved. Kovalchuk and Zajac were unable to reach their full potential without Parise accumulating his usual 80-plus points.
The Devils are hard at work on contract talks with Parise, and the superstar should regain form in the 2011-2012 season for New Jersey.
2010-2011 was a breakout season for the Ducks' Corey Perry. Anaheim's winger led the NHL with 50 goals and was third in the league with 98 total points.
Perry is just 26 years old and entering the prime of his career.
Despite playing in just 67 games due to injury, Ryan Getzlaf managed to collect 76 points for Anaheim.
Getzlaf is a rare power forward at the center position, and he is one of the best in the NHL. The trio of Getzlaf, Ryan and Perry is the meanest line in the NHL. Meanwhile, they are all still young and just hitting the prime of their careers.
The Anaheim Ducks and Ryan Getzlaf should enjoy plenty of postseason success by the time it's all said and done.
A change of scenery could be the best thing for playmaking center Brad Richards.
Whether it be New York, L.A., or Toronto, Brad Richards's new home will welcome him with open arms.
Each of those clubs has offensive weapons for Richards to feed the puck to in order for him to continue his incredible production.
Zdeno Chara has a chance to silence his critics with a Stanley Cup victory against the Vancouver Canucks.
Either way, it will still be difficult to anoint Chara as the best defenseman in the NHL. He has had a terrific postseason but still shrinks at times and isn't enough of a jolt on the power play like some of the blueliners higher up on this list.
2011 was not quite the same for Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. However, despite coming down to earth, Keith and the Blackhawks still played quite well and showed promise for the future.
Keith once again had over 40 points during the regular season and followed it up by leading the Blackhawks in playoff goals.
Chicago may have lost leadership and depth to free agency, but new leaders are emerging on the roster. Duncan Keith is one of those leaders.
With all of the offensive talent the Blackhawks lost in the offseason, the pressure was on Jonathan Toews to pick up the slack on the offensive end for Chicago.
Unfortunately, Toews managed just eight more points than last season and scored just one single goal in the postseason series against the Canucks.
I expect next season to be a true gem for Toews. He has to start truly carrying the Blackhawks, and I expect him to rise to the occasion.
Evgeni Malkin's season was off to a pedestrian start before a knee injury forced him to miss the entire second half of the season.
The Penguins will eye the rehab of Malkin and Crosby closely this offseason, especially after Pittsburgh got unseated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
I'm not fully confident Malkin will completely return to form just a year after that nasty knee injury. We'll monitor his progress and temper out expectations.
Like Roberto Luongo, the Sedins have a lot to prove in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
A loss for the Vancouver Canucks would be a colossal failure on so many levels and could easily result in a hangover.
Daniel had an MVP type season for Vancouver this season, but I expect him to come back down to earth as other teams follow Nashville's and Boston's blueprints for stopping the Swedish twins.
Jeff Skinner, David Backes and Milan Lucic all scored the same amount of goals as Kovalchuk this past season, give or take a few. No disrespect to any of those players, but the Russian superstar has to bring more to the table if New Jersey is going to turn things around this season.
With a healthy Zach Parise, and a renewed sense of focus, Kovalchuk should bounce back to form in 2011-2012.
Martin St. Louis has been defying the odds and silencing his critics since he entered the NHL back in the late 1990s. At just 5'9'', St. Louis was considered too small by most scouts which caused him to go undrafted.
However, size has not been an issue, as St. Louis has missed just two games in the last eight season, while reaching at least 60 points in each of those years.
At 35 years of age, St. Louis still has it. Tampa's winger collected the second-most points in the league with 99. He has aided the development and production of superstar Steven Stamkos and been an intricate aspect of the Lighting's success.
His production will only improve with the continued development of Steven Stamkos.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Henrik Zetterberg was in the discussion as the best player in the NHL. Of course, the influx of young talent such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin has caused him to slide down the list a bit.
However, the former seventh-round draft choice is still one of the league's elite forwards, as evidenced by the fact that he once again finished in the top 10 in scoring with 80 points.
In what has come to be expected of him, Henrik Sedin led the Canucks to the league's best record this season with his 94 points and terrific two-way play.
Much like his twin brother Daniel, his season will be defined on Vancouver's ability to win the Stanley Cup.
His postseason play has been less than stellar, and that is often what defines a player's career.
Shea Weber has been absolutely phenomenal on the back end for a disciplined Nashville Predators team. He continually shut down opposing scorers and is able to make significant contributions in the offensive zone.
Between the Preds' brilliant system, the top pairing of Suter and Weber, and Rinne's play between the pipes, they are the best defensive team in hockey.
The Preds would be foolish to let Shea Weber go this offseason.
For those who think Nicklas Lidstrom is finished, think again. Lidstrom is still the best all-around defenseman in the world, even at the age of 41.
Detroit's captain finished the season with 62 points, his highest total since '07-'08. However, his influence cannot be felt on the stats alone. The Swedish blueliner still provides quality play on both ends of the ice and is a tremendous leader for Detroit.
I see no reason for Lidstrom to hang 'em up. He's still has a shot to win with the Detroit Red Wings.
Henrik Lundvist has established himself as the world's best goaltender. Despite playing on a less than average team, Lundvist always manages to keep the Rangers in every single game. In addition, New York is always in the playoff hunt due at large to King Henrik's services.
If the Rangers bring in Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist might be able to will the team to a Stanley Cup championship.
Unfortunately for Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings, the stud winger had his season abbreviated by injuries this past year. The alternate captain was on a better than a point-a-game pace before falling victim to the injury bug.
Expect a huge bounce-back season for Pavel Datsyuk.
Datsyuk is simply one of the most gifted playmakers in all of hockey. His hands are the best in the league, and he has a sixth sense when it comes to creating magic in the offensive zone.
Steven Stamkos has entered the discussion as the league's most dynamic offensive player. The 21-year-old center has already completed two 90-plus point seasons in his young career.
His astonishingly quick release and outstanding skating ability are rare, to say the very least. Stamkos has the ability to take over a game from start to finish and simply dominate.
The scary thing is that Stamkos is only going to get better.
Say what you want about Ovechkin focusing more on his defensive game, but the Washington captain did not put up the numbers we are accustomed to seeing from him in 2010-2011.
Granted his plus/minus (plus-24) was excellent, but his defensive improvement was not substantial enough to warrant that large of a drop off in his offensive production. Eighty-eight points is nothing to be ashamed of, but Ovechkin has set different standards for himself based on his ridiculous production recently.
Ovechkin cannot be considered the best player in the league if his two-way game isn't near what Crosby's is, and he does not put up the mind boggling offensive numbers.
Ovechkin has to regain offensive form next year, right?
Provided he returns to the ice healthy in 2011-2012, Sidney Crosby will continue his reign as the NHL's best player.
Crosby was on pace for a 120-point season before being knocked out with a concussion at midseason.
Come October, we should see the Penguins' franchise player pick up where he left off. Sid the Kid will likely challenge for the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy and the Stanley Cup.
He isn't even fully blossomed yet, and we are already be treated to an amazing early career from Sidney Crosby.