2013-14 NHL Power Rankings: Inaugural Edition

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistSeptember 28, 2013

2013-14 NHL Power Rankings: Inaugural Edition

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    The great thing about the preseason is that it affords an opportunity for fans of every team in the league to be optimistic. With no wins and losses in the books, it's easy for even the worst teams to imagine scenarios where the best happens—where the new additions work out, everybody stays healthy and the playoffs (or the Stanley Cup) are a realistic goal.

    The preseason is, however, nearly over. On October 1, NHL teams start finding out which changes worked out and which ones failed. 

    Which teams are going to take that leap forward? Which teams will fall behind?

    We'll take our best shot at answering those questions in these power rankings. 

    Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and Hockey-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

30. Calgary Flames

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    Last Season: 19-25-4, 42 points, 25th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: This is going to be a bad team, by design.

    Up front, on defense and in net, there is a noticeable lack of top-end talent, and that means that youngsters, mid-range players and question marks will be asked to do more than should probably be expected of them. This is especially true in net, where likely starter Karri Ramo is a serious gamble.

    The team will face greater challenges as the year goes on too. With several of the competent veterans set to become free agents, Calgary is likely to hold a deadline fire sale for the second consecutive season.

    By the numbers: Karri Ramo’s career NHL totals (11-21-10, .895 save percentage) are pretty miserable, but he’s dominated the KHL in the years since. Ramo has recorded a .925 save percentage or better for three consecutive seasons in Russia.

29. Florida Panthers

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    Last Season: 15-27-6, 36 points, 30th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Well, at least they’re up a spot from where they finished last season.

    The Panthers went from atrocious at five-on-five and on the penalty kill in 2011-12 to the worst in the NHL in those categories last season. With a sketchy group of veterans and a group of high draft picks too young as a group to make a difference, Florida has placed its hope in a group of free-agent tryouts—Tim Thomas, Tom Gilbert and Brad Boyes—to have an impact. The three might be bargains, but they are also, respectively, a 39-year-old who didn’t play last season, a defenseman fresh off a compliance buyout and a guy the Islanders told "Thanks, but no thanks."

    By the numbers: In the last 20 years, only two goalies have both a) played at least 50 games and b) cracked the .910 save percentage mark after the age of 39. One of them is all-time great Dominik Hasek, and the other is Dwayne Roloson, who stubbornly refused to have anything resembling the typical career curve. The Panthers need Tim Thomas to join the club.

28. Buffalo Sabres

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    Last Season: 21-21-6, 48 points, 23rd in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: This summer, fans (both of the Sabres and hockey generally) reacted with dismay as the team unveiled hideous new third jerseys. As it stands, the only thing uglier than those jerseys might be this year’s on-ice results.

    Coming off a disastrous season, the Sabres face an additional wrinkle in 2013-14, as the team’s two most important players—winger Thomas Vanek and goalie Ryan Miller—are slated for unrestricted free agency.

    By the numbers: Since his breakout 2006-07 campaign, Vanek has scored 225 goals, fifth in the NHL in that span. The players ahead of him include two declining veterans (Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley) and one KHLer (Ilya Kovalchuk). The other player is Alexander Ovechkin.

27. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Last Season: 18-26-4, 40 points, 28th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Both the first- and second-highest scorers in the NHL last season play in Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, the franchise doesn’t have the rights to any other major league players.

    While we're exaggerating a little, the situation is bleak. In net, Ben Bishop and his 45 career NHL games will try and solve what has been an area of weakness for the franchise since the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin following the 2004 Stanley Cup win. The defense relies on both (!) Sami Salo and Eric Brewer to play top-four minutes. The forward group is just OK.

    And that’s how a team with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis misses the playoffs.

    By the numbers: Goaltending has been a chronic problem for the Lightning. Since 2005-06, only three players—Riku Helenius (two shots, two saves), Cedrick Desjardins (five games, .926 save percentage) and the aforementioned Ben Bishop (nine games, .917 save percentage)—have been league average or better. Everybody else has combined for 685 games played and a .896 save percentage.

26. Nashville Predators

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    Last Season: 16-23-9, 41 points, 27th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Starting goalie Pekka Rinne is coming off both the worst season of his NHL career and hip surgery, and the backup plan (Carter Hutton) has played one NHL game. The defense looks likely to include four guys with less than 80 games of NHL experience. Free-agent addition Matt Cullen, who turns 37 in November, had 27 points in Minnesota last year, which is more than any other forward on the Nashville roster managed.  

    If Rinne can bounce back and put together a Vezina-caliber campaign, the Predators can be an impact team in the West. Otherwise, it’s hard to see how they challenge for the playoffs. 

    By the numbers: Nashville’s penalty kill in recent years has either been its saving grace or its Achilles’ heel. In the last five years, it’s been a top-10 unit in the NHL three times, but in 2009-10, it fell to 28th, and last year, it was second-worst in the NHL at 75.5 percent.

25. Winnipeg Jets

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    Last Season: 24-21-3, 51 points, 18th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Welcome to the West.

    There are definitely things to like about the Jets. Local whipping boys Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien may not be media darlings, but they get the job done on the ice, and that’s what really matters. Those two are complemented by a core that features more than a few other strong players.

    Unfortunately, the depth (especially at center) is not good, and the goaltending has been flat-out bad the last few seasons.

    By the numbers: In the four seasons since he became a starting goalie, Ondrej Pavelec has played 212 games and recorded a .908 save percentage. That's the worst save percentage of any of the 16 goalies with more than 200 games played since 2009-10 and ranks 34th of the 41 goalies to play at least 100 games.

24. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Last Season: 26-17-5, 57 points, ninth in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: No team in the NHL is more divisive than the Maple Leafs.

    One way to look at it is the way the Leafs' braintrust evidently does. They had an extremely successful 2012-13. They’ve locked down top centre Tyler Bozak, cleared out a problem in Mikhail Grabovski, upgraded their goaltending and added a difference-maker in David Clarkson.

    The other way to look at it is that the Leafs rode unsustainably high shooting and save percentage numbers over a short season, and that over 82 games, getting outshot as heavily as they did last year will cost them. In extending Bozak and dumping Grabovski, they exacerbated their outshooting problem.

    Bet on the latter.

    By the numbers: Bad things happen when Bozak, ostensibly the Leafs' first-line center, is on the ice. Particularly illustrative is what happens when Bozak and Kessel play together/are separated. With Kessel on the ice but no Bozak five-on-five, the Leafs outscore their opposition. With Kessel and Bozak together, the Leafs are slightly outscored. With Bozak and no Kessel on the ice, the Leafs are outscored by a rate of 2-to-1.

23. Carolina Hurricanes

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    Last Season: 19-25-4, 42 points, 26th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: The Hurricanes have a lot of nice pieces and one great big positional weakness.

    On the positive end of the spectrum, their top-six matches up nicely with most teams in the NHL. Cam Ward is healthy, and given the wide-open race for Canada's starting goalie job at the Sochi Games, he should have plenty of motivation to get off to a strong start.

    The question is, who plays defense? Joni Pitkanen is out for the season, and 21-year-old Justin Faulk is the lone returning rearguard who averaged at least 20:00 per game last season. The Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with one of the weakest blue-line groups in recent memory, but they weren't nearly this thin. 

    By the numbers: Alexander Semin is one of just seven players to record a total plus/minus of plus-100 or better over the last five years. The others are Vancouver's top line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows, two-way stars Jonathan Toews and Pavel Datsyuk and Boston captain Zdeno Chara. 

22. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Last Season: 24-17-7, 55 points, 17th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: A year ago, the Blue Jackets rode the best goaltending performance in the NHL to a spot just outside the playoffs. They aren’t likely to get that kind of goaltending in 2013-14.

    To be sure, better health and some other improvements—the addition of Nathan Horton via free agency, a full season from Marian Gaborik, etc.—should help improve Columbus' brutal five-on-five shot numbers. But from here, it doesn't look like those changes are going to make enough of a difference to compensate for the likely fall in Sergei Bobrovsky's play.

    By the numbers: In the last two NHL campaigns, 85 different goalies have played at least 20 games in a single season. Bobrovsky's .899 save percentage in 2011-12 ranks 80th on that list; his .932 save percentage last season ranks fourth. 

21. Colorado Avalanche

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    Last Season: 16-25-7, 39 points, 29th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Looking at the young talent Colorado has assembled, it seems a matter of when, rather than if, it emerges as a powerhouse in the West. Looking at its current blue line, the answer to "when?" would not seem to be 2013-14.

    A strong forward depth chart is going to need to overcome a starting goalie who imploded last year and has generally underwhelmed since arriving in Colorado. It also has to deal with a defensive group that can politely be described as pedestrian.

    By the numbers: Rookie NHL coach Patrick Roy has spent most of the last eight seasons behind the bench of the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. In that span, his team went 349-159-37, made the playoffs every year and was eliminated in the first round only once. On the other hand, Roy didn't win a QMJHL championship as head coach either.

20. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Last Season: 23-22-3, 49 points, 20th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Once again, the Flyers made a big offseason splash.

    Gone are starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and top-six forward Daniel Briere, who were paid a combined total of more than $25 million to go off into the night. New arrivals include Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit and Ray Emery. It's getting difficult to remember the last time the Flyers didn't have a summer of turmoil.

    Yet despite general manager Paul Holmgren's activity, the Flyers still have what has become an old problem in Philadelphia: shaky goaltending. Emery has had ups and downs—both in terms of performance and health—over the last few years, while Steve Mason almost single-handedly got ex-Columbus general manager Scott Howson fired. One of those two has to emerge for Philadelphia to make the playoffs.

    By the numbers: Including his Calder-winning 2008-09 campaign, Steve Mason has posted a .905 save percentage over 239 career NHL games. None of the other 25 goalies to play at least 200 games in that span have managed a worse number. 

19. Phoenix Coyotes

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    Last Season: 21-18-9, 51 points, 19th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Once again, a total team commitment to defensive play and strong goaltending must compensate for a forward group that will struggle to score.

    There's nothing wrong with the back end—a solid group anchored by rising young star Oliver Ekman-Larsson—and starter Mike Smith has proven capable during his time in Phoenix. The forward corps is long on two-way players, and Dave Tippett-coached teams never forget their obligations at their own end of the rink.

    But at the top end, the Coyotes are leaning hard on Mike Ribeiro, Radim Vrbata and an aging Shane Doan. They simply don't have the elite top-end types to really compete with the rest of the West.

    By the numbers: The power play has been a problem for the entirety of Tippett's tenure. Its best performance in the last four seasons was an anemic 15.9 percent showing in 2010-11 that ranked 23rd in the NHL. 

18. Edmonton Oilers

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    Last Season: 19-22-7, 45 points, 24th in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: With new management, coaching and an emerging core of young players, the Oilers should be a team on the rise. However, the loss of top centers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (summer shoulder surgery) and Sam Gagner (broken jaw, courtesy of Vancouver’s Zack Kassian) leaves Edmonton with what can charitably be described as an uncertain group up the middle.

    The wings should be good, the goaltending fine and the defense improved, but this was a team which had low playoff chances, even if everyone was in good health. 

    By the numbers: In the last 20 years, only 10 players (min. 100 games played) have produced a better point-per-game number by their age-20 season than newly re-signed Nugent-Hopkins. The list includes Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Arnott, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene and teammate Taylor Hall. John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron fall just shy.

17. Dallas Stars

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    Last Season: 22-22-4, 48 points, 21st in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: New general manager Jim Nill wasted no time putting his stamp on the Stars.

    A wave of changes took place over the summer, and Dallas looks better for it. Veterans were brought in up front, on defense and behind the bench, with a clear focus on improving in the here and now. 

    Even while Nill shored up the present, the future wasn't ignored. 2010 second overall pick Tyler Seguin was acquired from Boston. Valeri Nichushkin was drafted 10th overall in the 2013 draft and looks poised to make the team. They join a team with a solid group of emerging young players, many of whom can help right now.

    By the numbers: Every single player on the Stars with a cap hit higher than $2.5 million comes with some form of no-trade clause—11 of them in all.

16. New York Islanders

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    Last Season: 24-17-7, 55 points, 16th in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals) 

    Why they’re here: John Tavares gets the attention, but the Islanders proved last season that despite their odd construction, they can be an effective team.

    General manager Garth Snow has used unconventional means (such as the waiver wire) to add key pieces, but his forward group is solid, and the defense is more effective than a simple scan of the names would seem to indicate.

    Net remains a position of weakness, however. The team was unable to upgrade on Evgeni Nabokov, who will struggle to provide league-average goaltending in the twilight of his career. If he struggles, the team really doesn't have another option.

    By the numbers: Nabokov's meltdown in the playoffs against Pittsburgh cost the Islanders a chance to make some playoff noise. In the last five years, only one other goaltender (Marc-Andre Fleury in 2011-12) has stopped a lower percentage of shots while playing at least four postseason games.

15. Minnesota Wild

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    Last Season: 26-19-3, 55 points, 15th in the NHL (Lost in Western Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: A year ago, the Wild shelled out big money to add a pair of marquee free agents. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter joined one of the weakest teams in the NHL and were able to elevate the club to the status of first-round speed bump.

    The situation won't really change until Minnesota's exceptional group of prospects start having a real impact on the team. Jonas Brodin, who was robbed of the Calder Trophy last season, will be paired with Suter to form a strong top unit on an otherwise indifferent defense. 

    Only once others—players like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Mathew Dumba—become difference-makers will the Wild be more than a bubble team.

    By the numbers: Brodin's 23:12 per game ranks third among 19-year-old defensemen (min. 40 games played) since the NHL started making the numbers publicly available. Only Drew Doughty and Tyler Myers played more at the same age.

14. New Jersey Devils

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    Last Season: 19-19-10, 48 points, 22nd in the NHL (did not qualify for postseason)

    Why they’re here: Ilya Kovalchuk: gone. David Clarkson: gone. Martin Brodeur: eroding at the age of 41. Superficially, the Devils should be looking at a steep drop from last year, but the superficial indications are misleading.

    For starters, Brodeur's decline finally pushed New Jersey into acquiring a new goalie. The guy they got, Cory Schneider, has posted elite-level totals in the early going. If he can even be an above-average puck-stopper, the Devils are looking at a massive upswing, seeing as they haven't had a league-average even-strength goalie since 2009-10.

    The forward departures hurt, but the Devils have also added some quality players. None of Damien Brunner, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder or Ryane Clowe can match Kovalchuk as an individual talent, but the quartet gives New Jersey significant options. 

    By the numbers: Last year, the Devils had a five-on-five shooting percentage of 6.7 percent. In three of the four years prior, they were 8.1 percent of better, meaning they were at least 20 percent more likely to score a goal on any given shot in those seasons. It's reasonable to think that they'll bounce back and that they'll consequently return to the postseason.

13. Anaheim Ducks

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    Last Season: 30-12-6, 66 points, third in the NHL (lost in Western Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: The Ducks managed to stay near the top of the NHL during a 48-game schedule last season despite being outshot at even strength. That ended in the playoffs, when they fell in the first round to a Detroit team that controlled the five-on-five shot clock.

    Anaheim has top-end talent, which helps explain the success of its special teams, and strong goaltending that can help compensate for its shot differential. But until it fixes its even-strength play, it won't get back to contender status.

    By the numbers: Ryan Getzlaf's 49 points last year were 11th in the NHL but tied for third (with Pavel Datsyuk) in the lower-scoring Western Conference. He likely would have cracked the league's top 10 if there had been interconference play.

12. Washington Capitals

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    Last Season: 27-18-3, 57 points, 10th in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: With a true superstar in Alexander Ovechkin, a competent supporting cast, depth and talent in net and a strong top-three group on defense, the Capitals have a reasonably solid roster.

    The Caps will go about as far as Ovechkin can take them. After a few disappointing seasons, Ovechkin rebounded in a major way last year and deservedly earned a slew of individual accolades, including his third league MVP award. If he can keep it up, the Capitals have a weapon very few teams can contain. Elsewhere, the loss of Mike Ribeiro stings a little, but will be offset to a large degree by the addition of Mikhail Grabovski, a player who should have plenty of motivation this season.

    By the numbers: Ovechkin's five-on-five on-ice shooting percentage last year was 11.2 percent. That's notable because shooting percentage tends to a) fluctuate wildly and b) have a lot to do with team success. In his last two 100-plus point seasons, Ovechkin's number was around 11 percent; in his two recent weaker years, it hovered around nine percent.

11. New York Rangers

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    Last Season: 26-18-4, 56 points, 12th in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference semifinals)

    Why they’re here: The Rangers established themselves as one of the foremost defensive teams in the NHL under former head coach John Tortorella, and despite the coaching change, there's little reason to think that they'll shift way away from those strengths.

    After all, the best parts of the Rangers roster are defensive, from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (who might be the best in the game today) to a blue-line group that has strong two-way ability. 

    As Vigneault himself said, via ESPN New York's Katie Strang, "As far as this being a drastic change, this organization is one of the best in the league. There are some little things here or there that need to be maybe pushed in a certain direction."

    By the numbers: Under Tortorella last year, the Rangers were remarkably effective at even strength in both the regular season and playoffs. Special teams, however, were more problematic. They were below league average during the season and worse in the playoffs, with the power play converting 9.1 percent of the time and the penalty kill stopping only three-quarters of postseason power plays.

10. Montreal Canadiens

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    Last Season: 29-14-5, 63 points, fourth in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: This team took a major step forward last season. Even more remarkably, it did so during a down year from Carey Price.

    Most of the attention the Habs get is focused on defense, where P.K. Subban anchors a strong unit that is especially dangerous when Andrei Markov is healthy, or in net, where Price is still perceived as a potential franchise goalie. The fact is, however, that Montreal has an underrated group of forwards—particularly Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty—and with Alex Galchenyuk in the mix, it's a group that should continue to improve. 

    After a weird blip in 2011-12, the Canadiens are back. 

    By the numbers: Corsi, a statistical shorthand for a plus/minus of all shot attempts, paints an interesting picture of Pacioretty. With him on the ice last season at five-on-five, Montreal averaged nearly 30 more shot attempts than the opposition in an average hour; with him off the ice, the Canadians were out-Corsied by a small amount. Some of that's related to how coach Michel Therrien deployed Pacioretty, but even so, it's impressive. 

9. Vancouver Canucks

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    Last Season: 26-15-7, 59 points, ninth in the NHL (lost in Western Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: An embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Sharks may have some writing off Vancouver, but it would be a mistake to do so just yet. The Canucks still have many of the strengths that made them one of the NHL's best regular-season teams over the last few years.

    Roberto Luongo has been restored as their starting goalie, and with Team Canada's starting job in his sights, he has every motivation to start the season strong. The defense corps, one through five, might be the best in the league. The Sedin twins remain potent offensive threats, and there's a deep group of forwards behind them.

    Time and the salary cap have chipped away at a very good team, but there's still a lot to like about Vancouver.

    By the numbers: One of the league's consistently good faceoff teams had an off-year in 2013, as injuries to Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra exacted a heavy cost. Among playoff teams, only Anaheim won fewer than the 47.6 percent Vancouver did.

8. San Jose Sharks

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    Last Season: 25-16-7, 57 points, 11th in the NHL (Lost in Western Conference semifinals)

    Why they’re here: When the Sharks dumped Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus at the 2013 trade deadline, it seemed to confirm that their window to win had closed and that the team needed to retool before it could compete again.

    Instead, it turned out that general manager Doug Wilson was simply pruning around the edges, dumping spare parts in exchange for valuable futures without damaging the core of the team.

    To be sure, there is an expiration date on much of San Jose's top talent. Players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle are moving out of their peak production years. But not only are they still quality NHLers, the Sharks have a second wave of under-30 players at all positions that are primed to move up the lineup as needed.

    By the numbers: 2013 was the second consecutive season where San Jose posted a well above-average record in shootouts; they went 8-4 last season after going 9-5 the year before. Is it talent or simply good fortune? In five preceding seasons, the Sharks have a 26-24 shootout record, and in 2005-06, they were an NHL-worst 1-7 in the skills competition. 

7. Ottawa Senators

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    Last Season: 25-17-6, 56 points, 14th in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference semifinals)

    Why they’re here: Given the circumstances last year, it's remarkable that the Senators were as good as they were. Top center Jason Spezza played only five games, top defenseman Erik Karlsson just 17 and top-six forward Milan Michalek missed more than half the season too. 

    Admittedly, the Senators had a few breaks the other way. Nothing in Craig Anderson's career suggests he can maintain a .941 save percentage, for starters, but this was a team that controlled possession even with an ugly series of injuries. Now those players are back, and just for good measure, Ottawa upgraded from Daniel Alfredsson to Bobby Ryan.

    What might they do with good health?

    By the numbers: Thanks to injuries, the Senators' top scorer in 2013 was Kyle Turris, and with 29 points in 48 games, he was just a hair below a 50-point pace over an 82-game season.

6. Detroit Red Wings

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    Last Season: 24-16-8, 56 points, 13th in the NHL (lost in Western Conference Semifinal)

    Why they’re here: Every year for at least the last decade, the question has been: "When will the aging Red Wings finally fall?" And the answer has always been the same: not yet. 

    The loss of Nicklas Lidstrom last season slowed the team a little—for the first time since 1998-99, the Red Wings fell below a 100-point full-season pace—but it wasn't the crippling blow that some had envisioned. There was no comparable loss this year; instead, they restocked via free agency and were handed the gift of a spot in the Eastern Conference.

    It should be very interesting to see what this team can do in the higher-scoring East.

    By the numbers: Detroit was one of only three teams last season (Montreal and San Jose were the other two) to draw at least 20 more power plays than penalty kills.

5. St. Louis Blues

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    Last Season: 29-17-2, 60 points, sixth in the NHL (lost in Western Conference quarterfinals)

    Why they’re here: Big and skilled, the Blues can play the game any way their opposition wants, but under head coach Ken Hitchcock, they've emerged as a grinding defensive team that does a fantastic job of limiting shots against.

    David Backes might be one of the most underappreciated forwards in the game, given his two-way abilities. He's the leader of a group of forwards long on competence but somewhat short of mainstream recognition. The defensive corps does get its due, as skaters like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk have deserved reputations as players that can make a difference at either end of the ice.

    By the numbers: The Blues are Exhibit A in "save percentages fluctuate." Brian Elliott went from a .940 save percentage in 2011-12 to .907 in 2013—from the best in the NHL to below league average. Jaroslav Halak, meanwhile, fell from an elite .926 to a sub-replacement level .899. 

4. Los Angeles Kings

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    Last Season: 27-16-5, 59 points, seventh in the NHL (lost in Western Conference Final)

    Why they’re here: The Kings have become an even-strength powerhouse.

    From top to bottom, at both forward and on defense, Los Angeles has two-way quality in a big way. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams form a lethal top line, and that still leaves players like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to deal with. On the blue line, Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov offer a devastating one-two offensive punch.

    Goaltender Jonathan Quick is also seen by consensus wisdom as a significant strength, but after a sub-par (.902 save percentage) 2013 campaign, he has things to prove.

    By the numbers: Brown is one of the NHL's most accomplished embellishers, frequently ranking among the league leaders in penalties drawn. Last season, he was one of just four forwards to draw at least two penalties while simultaneously taking less than one penalty per hour of even-strength play.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Last Season: 36-12-0, 72 points, third in the NHL (lost in Eastern Conference Final)

    Why they’re here: As long as the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they will be dangerous.

    The club’s last few playoff exits have highlighted their weaknesses—Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t worth what he’s being paid, the defensive group has been error-prone at times and the team’s depth isn’t what it could be—but the Pens have continued to be a dominant-regular season team, and there’s little reason to expect that to change.

    By the numbers: Last season, only two teams were more likely to win a game than lose it when failing to score the first goal. Chicago was slightly more likely to win than lose when trailing by that margin, while the Penguins won almost two out of every three games when they were behind after giving up the first goal. Pittsburgh has been a top-three team in the NHL in that category for four consecutive seasons.

2. Boston Bruins

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    Last Season: 28-14-6, 62 points, fifth in the NHL (lost in Stanley Cup Final)

    Why they’re here: Boston came awfully close to its second Stanley Cup in three seasons last year, and there’s little reason to think it won’t be in the thick of it once again.

    This is a beautifully balanced squad with strength in all areas. Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two-way forwards in the league, and the rest of the cast up front is quite strong. On the back end, Zdeno Chara might be the best defenseman in the league today, while in net, Tuukka Rask has performed at an elite level early in his still-young career.

    By the numbers: Boston led the NHL with a 56.4 team faceoff percentage last season, up from its league-leading 54.5 percent in 2011-12.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Bill Smith/Getty Images

    Last Season: 36-7-5, 77 points, first in the NHL (won Stanley Cup)

    Why they’re here: It’s hard to argue against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

    The Blackhawks aren’t a perfect team. Stan Bowman may feel confident in Corey Crawford, but there’s little evidence to suggest that the goaltender is much better than the league average, while Nikolai Khabibulin’s age and injury history make him a terrible insurance policy. Second-line center is another spot that could be improved.

    Those imperfections, however, are more than compensated for elsewhere. The Hawks have four legitimate first-line forwards—with three of those being extremely high-end first-liners—one of the best defensemen in the game in Duncan Keith and a highly competent supporting cast.

    By the numbers: The last team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. If the 'Hawks can manage the (extremely difficult) feat, they'll also be the first team to win three times in five years since the 1980's Edmonton Oilers.


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