The NHL season is about three months away and that saddens the hearts of hockey fans everywhere. Even when the NHL preseason starts, it gets your blood boiling in anticipation for the upcoming season. Every team gets a new slate and everybody begins the race at the starting line.
Then we see the season unfold.
There are teams we don't expect to start out great, who then make the playoffs. Then there are teams that start out slow and miss the playoffs, despite having good offseasons. Here is where I think each team should end up in its division at the end of the season.
Atlantic Division Teams
Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New York Islanders.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had somewhat of a disappointing season last year, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference. That isn't bad at all in either conference. The main problem was the injuries of captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins had a disappointing season also because they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It makes it worse when you have a 3-1 series lead, have Game 7 at home and lose the final game by a score of 1-0.
The main reason they lost the series was because they went 0-25 on the power play. That goes back to the absence of Malkin and Crosby.
The Penguins should have a fresh team coming into the season and should have a healthy Malkin and Crosby at the beginning of they year. Look for them to win the division and maybe even the East.
The Flyers last year had a great regular season and were at the top all season long. Then they fell into a slump late in the season and the Capitals caught fire to take the Eastern Conference. The Flyers lost in the second round of the playoffs, getting swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
The Flyers have been one of the most active teams this summer, while giving away players like captain Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Daniel Carcillo. That is a lot of star power and grit off the roster. Despite all that, the Flyers still have a great team. Picking up players like Ilya Bryzgalov, Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot.
It doesn't quite fill all the holes lost, but does give them a boost where they haven't had it in a while: goaltending. Bryzgalov is a very talented goaltender who has played with the Phoenix Coyotes the last four seasons and, at age 31, still has some good seasons left in him. He also didn't have the best talent in front of him in Phoenix.
The Flyers should still have it for the upcoming season and will finish toward the top of the Eastern Conference, definitely making the playoffs.
The Rangers finished last season as eighth in the Eastern Conference and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals. They had somewhat of a mediocre season. The only reason I think it was cut short was because of young talent that didn't have enough experience. With players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Marc Staal.
The Rangers just recently added All-Star forward Brad Richards to help the average offense of the Rangers. I think it will help too that Richards was coached by John Tortorella on the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
I don't think the Rangers are Cup contenders just because of inexperience, but they will be in a couple of years. One man can't help a team that much; especially a team like the Rangers whose philosophy is teamwork. They will make the playoffs for sure, but don't expect them to make that deep of a run.
The New Jersey Devils had a horrible season last year finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference. The Devils have always been a playoff team and a Stanley Cup contender. Last year they were definitely expected to make the playoffs and maybe be Cup contenders. It also doesn't help when Zach Parise gets hurt 13 games into the season.
The Devils have just about the same core of people coming back this year, unless they make the big mistake of not signing Parise. If they can sign him I expect them to make the playoffs and maybe make a run at it.
I expect four teams from the Atlantic Division to make the playoffs this year. It is probably the best division in the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL. Although the Pacific Division gives them a run for their money.
The New York Islanders have been a basement team since the 2008 season. The Islanders have a great young core of players, though, with players like first overall pick John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner.
The Islanders finished last in the Atlantic Division last year and I don't expect that to change this year. New York is in too tough a division to make the playoffs or be a huge threat. That's the only reason I don't see the Islanders being a contender anytime soon.
Northeast Division Teams
Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.
The Boston Bruins had a great season last year, winning the Stanley Cup. Oh! You didn't know? The Bruins last year started out somewhat dismal and slow. However, they kicked it up a little after halfway through the season.
Boston has a lot of the same talent coming back this season. The losses consist of players like Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle. Ryder was a huge loss, however, with being a 40-point third-liner.
Though Kaberle was probably a good person to let go. For his price, he isn't worth the Bruins' time. He was brought in at the trade deadline last year to spark the absent power play. He didn't.
The Bruins will win the Northeast because the division isn't that strong. The Canadiens usually don't win it and the Sabres are off and on, though I do expect it to be somewhat of a tight race this year.
The Buffalo Sabres had a pretty good season last year, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres should be back and kickin' this year with the signings of forward Ville Leino and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. Buffalo has a solid offense, but has lacked defense to back up Ryan Miller. Ehrhoff should bring just that.
The Sabres signed him to a 10-year deal, so don't expect him to go anywhere. That will help out tremendously on the back end. I can see Buffalo being a playoff contender next year with just these two signings.
A lot of people see Leino as an overpaid signing. He's not. He brings offense to the team and can chip in as a Kris Draper type in the defensive zone.
Expect Miller to have a bounce-back year next season. He still had a good year last season, but obviously not as good as 2010. This will help the Sabres make the playoffs and be a No. 4 or No. 5 seed heading into the playoffs.
The Montreal Canadiens finished last year as a No. 6 seed in the playoffs. Say what you will, but the Canadiens have always been (and probably always will be) a playoff contender. The Canadiens got a 2-0 series lead against the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
To Montreal fans, they blew it. Let's be honest. They did.
The Canadiens are usually always a good team, even if they aren't the top seed. Even when they're a seventh or eighth seed they make a deep run. I see Montreal finishing third because of their lack on defense. Besides Hal Gill they really don't have any true old-school, stay-at-home defenseman.
That hurts them in my case. Montreal has a pretty solid offense with Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta. That has usually never been a problem since the legendary "Rocket" has been on the team—one of my favorite forwards of all time.
The Canadiens will definitely make the playoffs next year like they usually do. I don't expect them to go far, but I'm not putting it past them. I've seen them do some damage in the past.
I have no prediction on where they will finish in the playoffs because they are such an unpredictable team. Expect them to either lose in the first round or win the Stanley Cup.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been a disappointment since the first season after the lockout in 2005. The Leafs have not made the playoffs since the 2004 season, which is a disgrace for the wonderful fans of Toronto. Even if you hate their fans, you cannot deny the passion for that team, when they sell out every game of the season. Also a huge following on the road.
Toronto I can see finishing fourth in the Northeast this year because it needs to still make some serious changes. Colby Armstrong, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel won't cut it alone.
The signing of John Michael Liles was an underrated signing this summer and he should bring a great talent to that blue line. He won't be enough, though. Expect Toronto to miss the playoffs again this season.
What is there really to say about the Senators? They are the biggest rebuilding team going into next season. With multiple people moved and brought up this summer. The Senators could be seeing some big talent leaving Ottawa during the season, with names like Jason Spezza in the mix.
Ottawa will have an even worse year this season, finishing last in the Northeast and maybe even the NHL. The Sens seem like they need players in every position and I think this rebuild can take maybe three to five years. Their biggest problem lies with the goaltending. Craig Anderson won't be the guy for them.
Southeast Division Teams
Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers.
Tampa Bay had a great season last year losing in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. That was the Lightning's first real run since the 2004 Stanley Cup Championship. Expect more great seasons to come out of Tampa.
The recent signing of Steven Stamkos made every Lightning fan let out a big sigh. Although it was unlikely that he would leave, you never know. They have pretty much the same core of guys coming back, except players like Sean Bergenheim leaving and the possibility of Ryan Malone.
Tampa Bay has a good goalie in Dwayne Roloson, but he has maybe two years left in his career. The Lightning need to start looking to the future of the team and maybe sign someone big next July 1st. Other than that, they will have a solid year if everyone stays healthy.
Look for them to be a top-three seed in the East and maybe do some damage come playoff time.
The Washington Capitals had another great season last year. In the regular season that is. Washington made a run toward the end of the year and somehow sneaked into the first seed in the East. The Caps handled the Rangers pretty easily in the first round, but, got swept by Tampa Bay in the second round.
That was Alex Ovechkin's fourth playoff appearance since being in the league and he hasn't even been to the Eastern Conference finals. They could have had three Stanley Cups by now.
Washington got rid of a key piece in Eric Fehr, but signed an even better role player like Joel Ward and veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun for a steal of a price.
Expect Washington to have a great year, but fall short of the division title by maybe a point or two.
Well, everyone got what they wanted. The Winnipeg Jets! Yes, they are back and everyone is anticipating the first faceoff in Winnipeg. The Jets have been somewhat active this summer signing key players to stay on the roster and getting players like Eric Fehr.
The Jets, however, just took over the Atlanta Thrashers roster. It is not a bad team, though; they are just young and need experience and fans behind them. They will definitely have fans behind them now. Winnipeg sold 13,000 tickets in 17 minutes.
It will be one of the biggest stories all year in the NHL. The Jets could even do well enough to make the playoffs in their first year. I don't expect it, but, with this kind of hype, it could happen.
Carolina was in the playoff push all season until about the last 10 games of the season. I don't get this team. It is really confusing. The Hurricanes have such a great team and they are very exciting to watch. Though they don't make the playoffs a lot, when they get in they are always a threat.
Cam Ward in his career is 6-1 in playoff series. He has only made the playoffs twice: his first season winning the Cup in 2006, and the Conn Smythe Trophy to go with it too.
The Hurricanes could swing it around this season, with youngster Jeff Skinner to return for his sophomore season. He will only get better with time and experience. Also, with captain Eric Staal leading the way, they have a bright future. I just don't think the future will be next season.
Florida has been a basement team even since the 2000-2001 season. The Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2000. That's hard to do, especially when more than half the teams make the playoffs in the NHL.
Florida has probably been the most active team this summer, signing players like Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Ed Jovanovski and Jose Theodore. However, its All-Star goalie Tomas Vokoun left for Washington via free agency.
Despite the revamp by GM Dale Tallon, I don't see the Panthers improving their positioning in the standings. The Southeast will be a very tight fight this year and I think the competition is too strong at this point for the young, inexperienced Florida team.
Central Division Teams
Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues
The Detroit Red Wings have been one of the best teams in the NHL for the last two decades. They have made the playoffs every year since 1991 and getting four Stanley Cups in the process, including six Finals appearances.
The Red Wings won the Central Division last season from the former Cup champs, the Chicago Blackhawks. That makes them division champs nine out of 10 years.
The Red Wings lost some power on defense this offseason with the unexpected retirement of Brian Rafalski, while everyone was focused on whether Nicklas Lidstrom would retire.
Detroit made two signings on the blue line this summer with the pickups of Ian White and Mike Commodore. Not really household names, but still some solid players.
Detroit should be back on top in the West again, as it still shows to be the best team in the Central after the free-agent frenzy. Look for the Red Wings to be a top-three seed in the West again.
Chicago and its fans had a very rough season last year—from Stanley Cup to a mediocre team—even though it probably had the best first-round matchup in the playoffs against Vancouver. Coming back from 0-3 in the series to force a Game 7 overtime. Although Burrows and the Canucks would come out on top.
The Blackhawks should be back this season with a team that finally found itself toward the end of the year. Also, with a young Corey Crawford in net, it looks like the sky is the limit. I don't think Chicago has another Stanley Cup in it for another couple years, but, it is definitely a force to be dealt with.
Look for Chicago to make the playoffs a little easier than last season, when it got in on the last game of the season with the help of the Minnesota Wild.
The Nashville "Smashville" Predators had their best year in franchise history, finally making it past the first round of the playoffs. They also got their first overtime win in the playoffs. It looks like it's all uphill from here for the Preds, though.
Losing key role players like Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan can hurt in the long run. Ward went to Washington and Sullivan went to Pittsburgh. Barry Trotz knows how to work his team, though, and is one of the more underrated coaches in the NHL.
One thing Nashville needs to do is sign defenseman Shea Weber to a long-term deal, and soon.
Expect Nashville to make the playoffs and even compete for the Central title. The Red Wings, Blackhawks and Predators shouldn't be separated by more than 10 points at the end of the year.
St. Louis finished 11th in the Western Conference last season and missed out on another playoff year. The Blues used to be one of the more dominant teams in the NHL, making the postseason for more than 20 years straight.
Ever since the post-lockout era the Blues haven't won a playoff game. In fact, they have made the playoffs only once, getting swept by the Vancouver Canucks in 2009. St. Louis always has a tough team, but, seems like it is missing consistency from the whole team. Not having a solid starting goalie doesn't help the confidence of a team either.
I don't expect the Blues to make the playoffs again this year, as the signings of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner shouldn't help them that much.
The Blue Jackets made a big splash this summer trading for former Philadelphia Flyers sniper Jeff Carter. Carter and Rick Nash should be deadly together and help the mundane Columbus offense. Also, he should drastically improve the Jackets power play from 14 percent to at least over 20.
Columbus, however, still can't win and change in the standings that much with just one different player on the roster. Expect the Blue Jackets to get more wins and points, but not go up in the Central standings.
I think the Central is still too tough for the young Columbus team, with great playoff teams like the Red Wings, Blackhawks and Predators to contend with. Look for them to be done in early April.
Northwest Division Teams
Vancouver Canucks, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild.
The Vancouver Canucks had probably their best year in franchise history last year, winning the President's Trophy and getting to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, they would end up losing in seven games to the Boston Bruins. Losing Game 7 is just like flipping a coin and that series could have gone either way.
Vancouver's biggest loss this summer was Christian Ehrhoff on defense, who signed a long-term deal in Buffalo, along with new teammate Ville Leino. That shouldn't slow down the Canucks too much, as they signed D-man Kevin Bieksa back to the team.
With almost the same group of guys filling the roster this season, look for them to be a dangerous team once again. They could easily get back to the Finals and get their first Cup in franchise history. They will win this division just as easily as they did last year.
The Wild fans should be looking forward to seeing Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in their new Minnesota sweaters this fall. Both were traded to the Wild this summer at the 2011 NHL draft, although one of the Wild fan favorites had to go in the process, Brent Burns.
The Wild have been a disappointment for the expectations given to them throughout their short history in Minnesota. They need to get this team on track for the hardcore hockey fans in Minnesota. Getting Heatley and Setoguchi shows that they are trying to be a playoff team for years to come.
Heatley has never really been the face of a franchise since he has been in the league, being overshadowed by players like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in his career. Setoguchi will have a much bigger role with the Wild than he did with the Sharks.
Expect them to get second in the Northwest and possibly make the playoffs.
With yet another first overall pick in the NHL draft, the Oilers selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He was undoubtedly the best player for Edmonton to get and was seen to go first overall since the NHL season ended.
Edmonton is the second-youngest team in the NHL and that is the reason for its lack of success. The Oilers shocked the hockey world with their 2006 Finals run against the Carolina Hurricanes. After that, they have been one of the least successful teams in the league.
They are in the midst of an "oil change" and are looking like they will be one of the elite franchises in the next three to 10 years. Edmonton is loaded up on the offensive side of the puck and need to improve on defense and in net...mainly net.
The Oilers signed Nikolai Khabibulin, going into the 2009-2010 season, to be the franchises player to build around. But with injuries and poor play he hasn't turned out the way they thought he would. They need to get a solid franchise goalie and they will be on their way.
Expect them to shoot up in the standings but still miss out on the playoffs; however, they should be somewhat close.
Calgary has been on a downslope in the last two seasons, missing out on the playoffs—something that usually doesn't happen to the Flames. Calgary is in somewhat of a rebuilding process, but I wouldn't call it one for sure.
The Flames battled their way to contention in the playoffs after a poor start. They missed out, however. What hurt them were the games in hand everyone had on them in the race.
Calgary is a team that seems like it will be willing to give away any of its players if the price is right. The Flames may make some big moves that could dent them for the season to come.
They don't have the same posture and intensity that they use to have when they were making the playoffs. I think the front office needs to make some changes to the personal if they want to be successful long term.
Expect them to miss the playoffs and take a step backward this season.
The Colorado Avalanche finished with the second-worst record in the NHL, finishing in front of only the Edmonton Oilers. The Avalanche have been on the decline since the 2008 NHL season.
Even though they made the playoffs in 2010, they were an eighth seed and were in first in the Western Conference 25 games into the season. They would lose to the San Jose Sharks in the first round.
Colorado has some pretty descent talent to work with, it just can't get the job done. A big hole in the Avs system since 2004 has been goaltending. After Patrick Roy left they haven't found the man to fill the spot. Still, can you blame them for not finding another goalie that will be in the top three for wins in NHL history?
They recently added Semyon Varlamov between the pipes. He is a young and talented goalie, but has yet to prove himself. Maybe the pressure in Washington was too great for the youngster? Maybe all he needs is a change of scenery and less pressure for a while.
Colorado shouldn't be contenders for quite some time to come. It should finish last in the Northwest this season and definitely miss the playoffs.
Pacific Division Teams
San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars.
The Kings had one of the best pickups of the summer, getting Flyers captain Mike Richards. It was definitely a shock to the hockey world. The Kings have some of the best young talent in the NHL. Hockey seems to be making a comeback in Los Angeles with the team's recent success, making the playoffs two years in a row after a six-year drought.
Los Angeles should be one of the best teams in the West all season long. The Kings were expected to finish much better than they did last season, but that could have just been pressure to the youngsters.
Losing role players like Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus shouldn't be too much of a blow, as they have picked up some great talent like Richards and Simon Gagne.
I predicted them to win the Cup two days before they signed Mike Richards. Maybe it could be true?
San Jose caught fire toward the last part of the season last year and sneaked into the first spot in the Pacific. The Sharks fended off division foe L.A in the first round, then beat the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. But I'd bet Shark fans would agree that was probably the scariest series they have witnessed their Sharks in. The team then lost to the Canucks in its second straight Western Conference finals.
San Jose is proving it is a descent playoff team with two straight Western Conference finals appearances. They Sharks have also been getting high seeds in the regular season to help with home ice. They should be back and near the top in this season, but won't get the first seed in this ultra-competitive division.
Expect them to finish second in the division and definitely be a playoff team—maybe Cup champs.
The Ducks came out of nowhere in the end of the season and somehow climbed into the fourth seed in the West. They were inconsistent and sloppy all season, but then turned it on and Corey Perry led the way with his 50-goal season—tops in the league.
Anaheim should be third in this respectable division, which would be first in many others. It shouldn't be more than 10 points out of the top spot in this division, though. Anaheim will be in the playoffs again, as it pretty much has the same team coming back. Ray Emery is gone, but he wasn't that much of a piece to begin with.
Expect them too make the playoffs.
Despite how you feel about the Phoenix Coyotes, they have turned their franchise around somewhat by making the playoffs two years in a row and filling that stadium up a lot more than it was. However, they still haven't won a playoff series since being in Phoenix, dropping their previous two to the Detroit Red Wings.
Phoenix should take a step backwards this year and drop to fourth in the Pacific. The division will just be too tough for the Coyotes to be a competitive playoff team. Also, the team could be relocating after next season, but who knows as of now?
Phoenix could make some moves during the season to develop the team for the better, but it shouldn't be too much of a threat coming into this season.
Expect the 'Yotes to miss the playoffs.
The Dallas Stars completely collapsed at the end of last season, finishing last in the division. They had the division lead almost the whole year and then Brad Richards got hurt and it was all downhill from there.
The Stars had one of the bigger chokes I've seen when it comes to holding a playoff spot. They had a chance to be the fifth team in the division to be in the playoffs, but lost to the Wild on the last game of the season. Can you imagine if every team from the Pacific had been in the playoffs?
The Stars lost a key player to their offense in Richards and that should prove to be a critical loss to their roster. They aren't balanced enough to be a competitor in the Pacific Division. They should be looking to make some big moves during the season to help fill out the roster.
They should miss the playoffs again and be toward the bottom of the West.