Will the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins meet in the Stanley Cup finals for a third straight spring, or will the San Jose Sharks find the gumption to match their talent?
There's no consensus winner in either conference, mostly because even the elite teams have issues after the summer's free-agent scramble.
Marian Hossa to an astonishing 12-year, $62.8-million contract from the Blackhawks, but shoulder surgery will delay his Chicago debut until late November. The Blackhawks lost goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to free agency, leaving them to rely on Cristobal Huet to continue their remarkable rise from the NHL graveyard.
The champion Penguins lost two physical and valuable defensemen to free agency -- Hal Gill to Montreal and Rob Scuderi to the Kings -- and they'll be without playoff sparkplug Maxime Talbot (shoulder surgery) until December. Scoring champion and playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby (slowed by a groin pull in training camp) and Jordan Staal should help them get through it.
The Flyers look strong on the blue line with Chris Pronger but their goaltending could be cringe-worthy in the hands of Ray Emery and Brian Boucher. The New York Rangers picked up premier free-agent winger Marian Gaborik but must hope he stays injury-free and can carry their entire offense.
Nine points separated the third- and eighth-seeded teams in the West last season and that close finish could happen again. The Sharks have the most talent but acquiring Dany Heatley didn't raise their guts quotient. Vancouver is built around stellar goalie Roberto Luongo, who's likely to share time with New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in net for Canada in the Winter Olympics and bear the hopes of a nation on his well-padded shoulders.
Calgary has a tough defense corps but will have trouble scoring. And the Kings, with a wealth of young talent, could get into the playoffs if their goaltending is solid and their second line produces.
The only sure thing is that the Coyotes, kept in Phoenix by Commissioner Gary Bettman despite widespread public indifference and Jim Balsillie's lucrative offer to buy and move the team, will be too distracted by the legal fight over their ownership to benefit as much as they should from new Coach Dave Tippett.
The NHL season will begin Thursday and will take an Olympic break in February, perhaps the final time NHL players will represent their homelands in the Winter Games.
Here's a look at what to expect, in order of predicted playoff seeding.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
2008-09 record: 53-18-11=117 points.
Power play: 24.2% (third). Penalty killing: 83.3% (fifth).
Leading scorer: Joe Thornton, 25-61.
Outlook: This is Heatley's last chance to prove he can be a team player. Heatley, Thornton and Devin Setoguchi can become a monstrous line and Joe Pavelski and Torrey Mitchell provide depth up the middle, but adding Heatley didn't solve the lack of heart and leadership that dropped them from Presidents' Trophy winners to first-round playoff victim. Patrick Marleau was stripped of the captaincy but the blame belonged to nearly everyone in that locker room. Expect another big regular season and another postseason crash.
2008-09 record: 45-27-10=100 points.
Power play: 18.8% (16th). Penalty killing: 81.4% (16th).
Leading scorer: Daniel Sedin, 31-51.
Outlook: Adding Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich firmed up their defense so they won't miss free-agent Mattias Ohlund and will gain puck-moving and physical elements. Luongo (2.34 goals-against average, .920 save percentage) remains their franchise, and they're sunk if anything happens to him. Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin (22-60 -- 82) worked well with winger Alex Burrows (28 goals, 51 points) but that spot could be up for grabs.
DETROIT RED WINGS
2008-09 record: 51-21-10=112 points.
Power play: 25.5% (first). Penalty killing: 78.3% (25th).
Leading scorer: Pavel Datsyuk, 32-65.
Outlook: They've lost a lot. Hossa's 40 goals, Jiri Hudler's grit, Mikael Samuelsson's size and skill and Tomas Kopecky's two-way talent, but they have a flow of young talent ready to step up in Justin Abdelkader, Ville Leino and Darren Helm. Tomas Holmstrom and Daniel Cleary are the league's most effective operators around the net. Detroit will have to improve defensively (its 2.88 team goals-against average was 19th last season) and on the penalty kill. Brad Stuart is error-prone but Niklas Kronwall is a punishing hitter and Nick Lidstrom remains a puck-moving marvel at 39.
Up front, stalwarts Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper are nearing the end but Henrik Zetterberg (31 goals, 73 points) and Johan Franzen (12 playoff goals) are in their prime. The Red Wings could get to the finals again, but it won't be easy.
2008-09 record: 46-30-6=98 points.
Power play: 17.0% (21st). Penalty killing: 83.4% (fourth).
Leading scorer: Jarome Iginla, 35-54.
Outlook: Their defense is big and tough and punishing with Jay Bouwmeester joining Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr but they'll miss the scoring provided by Michael Cammalleri, who left for Montreal as a free agent. Iginla is a character guy but he's got mostly popguns around him. Brent Sutter, who left New Jersey to coach closer to home -- and to work for his brother, Darryl, the Flames' general manager -- will drive them hard and make them better defensively.
2008-09 record: 46-24-12=104 points.
Power play: 19.3% (12th). Penalty killing: 80.6% (18th).
Leading scorer: Martin Havlat, 29-48.
Outlook: They think losing Havlat to Minnesota won't hurt much because they believe Patrick Kane (25 goals), Jonathan Toews (34), Patrick Sharp (26) and Kris Versteeg (22) are capable of even more. But they won't have game-breaker Hossa until November because he underwent rotator cuff surgery. Checking center John Madden and former Red Wing Tomas Kopecky were good signings, but rugged right wing Adam Burish, out six months after knee surgery, will be missed. Their defense moves the puck well but Brian Campbell must have a bounce-back season for the Blackhawks to go far.
2008-09 record: 42-33-7=91 points.
Power play: 23.6% (fifth). Penalty killing: 79.7% (23rd).
Leading scorer: Ryan Getzlaf, 25-66.
Outlook: They had to trade Pronger to Philadelphia to boost their anemic offense, getting winger Joffrey Lupul, promising defenseman Luca Sbisa and two first-round picks. It was a good move but it depleted their muscle on defense, especially after bruiser Francois Beauchemin priced himself out of their budget and left as a free agent. James Wisniewski is a heavy hitter but doesn't inspire fear like Pronger does. Scott Niedermayer, still smooth at 36, will have to play at least the 26:55 he averaged last season.
Bobby Ryan, called up from the minors in mid-November, led rookies in scoring with 31 goals and 57 points in 64 games, and the first line of Ryan with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry compares well to any top trio. Signing free agent Saku Koivu to center for fellow Finn Teemu Selanne should solve the secondary scoring problem. They might trade goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere for an impact defenseman, if they can.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2008-09 record: 41-31-10=92 points.
Power play: 12.7% (30th). Penalty killing: 82.1% (13th).
Leading scorer: Rick Nash, 40-39.
Outlook: They made the playoffs for the first time last season only to be dismissed by Detroit in four games. Their real victory was in re-signing Nash for eight years and $62.4 million. That said he believes in the franchise's future, and that's a strong statement. With Nash, rookie of the year Steve Mason in goal (2.29 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and 10 shutouts) and 19-year-old winger Nikita Filatov they have a strong base. Signing defensive specialist Samuel Pahlsson gives them an anchor for their checking line. To really make noise they've got to get more out of a power play that was the league's worst last season.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
2008-09 record: 41-31-10=92 points.
Power play: 20.5% (eighth). Penalty killing: 83.3% (third).
Leading scorer: Brad Boyes, 33-39.
Outlook: They clawed out of the cellar to finish sixth, overcoming a series of injuries that would have doomed a lesser team and daunted a less intense coach than Andy Murray. They should regain Paul Kariya (hip) and Erik Johnson (knee) and have Andy McDonald (broken ankle) for the full season. Youngsters David Backes (31 goals), Patrik Berglund (21 goals, 47 points), David Perron (50 points) and T.J. Oshie (14 goals in 57 games) have another year's experience and poise. Chris Mason (2.41, .916) had a solid finish.
2008-09 record: 34-37-11=79 points.
Power play: 19.2% (14th). Penalty killing: 82.9% (seventh).
Leading scorer: Anze Kopitar, 27-39.
Outlook: After a mid-February shootout loss that left the Kings four points out of a playoff spot, a reporter asked team captain Dustin Brown if it had felt like a playoff game. Brown, then in his fifth season as a King, smiled. "Obviously, I've never been in one at this level," he said.
He might have to wait one more season. Maybe not if Jonathan Quick's 2.48 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 44 games weren't flukes. And if Jarret Stoll can drive an effective second line and Justin Williams can revert to his 30-goal form after two injury-plagued seasons.
Sensational rookie Drew Doughty came back with more muscle and confidence and will step up offensively, while Scuderi will stabilize things defensively. Winger Ryan Smyth has a lot of miles on him but his aggressiveness around the net is a huge asset. The Kings haven't been to the playoffs since 2002, when Brown was a 17-year-old kid in Ithaca, N.Y., but he and they might finally reach the Promised Land.
2008-09 record: 36-35-11=83 points.
Power play: 15.4% (27th). Penalty killing: 78.6% (24th).
Leading scorer: Mike Ribeiro, 22-56.
Outlook: Longtime coach Dave Tippett was fired, taking the fall for the mistakes of co-general managers Brett Hull and Les Jackson and serious injuries suffered by Brenden Morrow, Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov. New GM Joe Nieuwendyk hired Marc Crawford, who was impatient and ineffective working with the Kings' young talent a few years ago. Maybe not the best choice. But there's a decent mix of proven talent (Ribeiro, Morrow, Brad Richards, goalie Marty Turco and gallant, 39-year-old Mike Modano) and tremendous potential. Right wing Loui Eriksson (36 goals, 63 points) is fun to watch.
2008-09 record: 38-35-9=85 points.
Power play: 16.9% (22nd). Penalty killing: 77.5% (27th).
Leading scorer: Ales Hemsky, 23-43.
Outlook: Heatley didn't want to be traded there, frustrating their effort to shake things up in the locker room after they shook out their entire coaching staff. The team that Pat Quinn inherits from Craig MacTavish has a skillful and mobile defense and a good deal of speed up front but no snipers, though former King Patrick O'Sullivan had a strong preseason. Maybe Quinn, coaching again at 66 after a three-year absence from the NHL, can motivate the hulking but inconsistent Dustin Penner. No other coach has been able to do that on a consistent basis.
2008-09 record: 40-34-8=88 points.
Power play: 15.7% (tie 25th). Penalty killing: 82.5% (10th).
Leading scorer: J.P. Dumont, 16-49.
Outlook: They're usually small but fast and competitive and built around an admirable defense corps that moves the puck exceptionally well. That will be true again this season, though they're hoping for big things from 2008 first-round pick Colin Wilson and bigger things from David Legwand than last season's 20 goals and 42 points. They're well coached and managed -- Barry Trotz and David Poile have had their jobs since the start, in 1998 -- but they can't spend enough to get the depth and scoring that might make them a perennial playoff team.
2008-09 record: 40-33-9=89 points.
Power play: 20.1% (ninth). Penalty killing: 87.6% (second).
Leading scorer: Mikko Koivu, 20-47.
Outlook: They have a new coach in Todd Richards, most recently an assistant in San Jose, and new general manager in Chuck Fletcher, whose resume includes assistant GM roles in Pittsburgh and Anaheim. They lost Marian Gaborik to free agency but uncharacteristically made a major free-agent move by signing Havlat for $30 million over six years. Niklas Backstrom (2.33, .923) had an impressive season, but he might not match those numbers if Richards keeps his word about opening the game up offensively.
2008-09 record: 32-45-5=69 points.
Power play: 15.7% (tie 25th). Penalty killing: 79.9% (21st).
Leading scorer: Milan Hejduk, 27-32.
Outlook: The mighty have fallen, and hard. The Avalanche was last in the conference by 10 points last season, and deservedly so. Joe Sakic ended his brilliant career by retiring after the season and Ryan Smyth accepted a trade to the Kings, so this team will be ruled by kids. Center Paul Stastny (36 points in 46 games) will center their top line. Matt Duchene, drafted No. 3 in June, might center the second line, a lot to ask an 18-year-old. This is the early stages of a slow rebuild and it won't be much prettier this season.
2008-09 record: 36-39-7=79 points.
Power play: 14.5% (28th). Penalty killing: 76.8% (28th).
Leading scorer: Shane Doan, 31-42.
Outlook: This will be a lost season in every sense. They do have some talent, but the overriding story will be the imminent sale out of bankruptcy and whether the franchise will be moved to Hamilton, Canada, under the ownership of Jim Balsillie. The ungraceful exit of Wayne Gretzky as coach didn't help settle things. Dave Tippett, fired by Dallas after last season and hired to coach during the last days of training camp, is smart and a good teacher. He will have his hands full.
2008-09 record: 50-24-8=108 points.
Power play: 25.2% (second). Penalty killing: 80.6% (17th).
Leading scorer: Alexander Ovechkin, 56-54.
Outlook: Ovechkin, last season's MVP, scoring champion and goal-scoring leader, is the most dazzling player in the NHL and his post-goal celebrations are exactly what the league needs: a show of individuality that fans love. He's going for his third straight 50-goal season, not accomplished since the Flyers' John LeClair did it more than a decade ago. The Capitals have talent beyond the Russian left wing. Mike Green led NHL defensemen in scoring with 31 goals and 73 points, center Nicklas Backstrom had 22 goals and 88 points, and left wing Alexander Semin contributed 34 goals and 79 points. Their signing of right wing Mike Knuble (27 goals with the Flyers last season) wasn't heralded but could prove crucial. This is a team on the brink of very good things.
2008-09 record: 44-27-11=99 points.
Power play: 22.5% (sixth). Penalty killing: 83.0% (sixth).
Leading scorer: Jeff Carter, 46-38.
Outlook: General Manager Paul Holmgren wanted a bigger, more physical team to combat the skill teams like the Penguins and Capitals and he got that in a 6-foot-6 physical force named Chris Pronger. He lost Lupul and Knuble in that trade with the Ducks, but 21-year-old center Claude Giroux and 6-foot-3 rookie James van Riemsdyk are being counted on to pick up some of the scoring slack. It all looks good except the goaltending. Ray Emery had a tumultuous time in Ottawa and spent last season in Russia. If he can't handle the job they don't have much salary cap space to replace him with an elite goalie.
2008-09 record: 53-19-10=116 points.
Power play: 23.6% (fourth). Penalty killing: 82.4% (12th).
Leading scorer: Marc Savard, 25-63.
Outlook: They're deep everywhere, even in trophies. Coach Claude Julien won the Adams Trophy as coach of the year, Zdeno Chara won the Norris as the top defenseman and Tim Thomas (36-11-7, 2.10, .933) won the Vezina as the top goalie. Savard didn't win any hardware but he won a lot of opponents' respect. They'll miss Kessel, who led them last season with 36 goals but couldn't agree on a new contract and was traded to Toronto. Czech center David Krejci is recovering rapidly from hip surgery. He might sit out the opener but isn't expected to sit out many games beyond that. The Bruins should finish atop the Northeast again without much strain.
2008-09 record: 45-28-9=99 points.
Power play: 17.2% (20th). Penalty killing: 82.7% (eighth).
Leading scorer: Evgeni Malkin, 35-78.
Outlook: Their best players during their Cup run were their youngest players: Crosby, who turned 22 in August, Malkin, 23, Staal, 21, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, 24. That bodes well for a third straight trip to the finals and becoming the first consecutive Cup winner since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings. Losing shot-blocker and penalty killer extraordinaire Rob Scuderi and towering Hal Gill will force their defense to regroup but Brooks Orpik is a big hitter and Alex Goligoski will get a chance to shine. Without Talbot, Tyler Kennedy will get time alongside Malkin and will benefit from the Russian center's many talents.
2008-09 record: 45-30-7=97 points.
Power play: 18.7% (18th). Penalty killing: 80.4% (19th).
Leading scorer: Ray Whitney, 24-53.
Outlook: They awoke in the second half last season to grab the No. 6 seeding and made it to the East finals. Very deep down the middle with Eric Staal, Matt Cullen and veterans Rod Brind'Amour and Stephane Yelle. They were able to re-sign free-agent wingers Erik Cole and Chad LaRose, good second liners. Goalie Cam Ward (2.44, .916) was outstanding down the stretch and in the playoffs and is a franchise cornerstone at 25 with a Cup title to his credit as a rookie in 2006. He signed a six-year, $37.8-million contract extension this week. Coach Paul Maurice, who replaced Peter Laviolette -- who had replaced Maurice in 2003 -- restored the energy and confidence the Hurricanes had lost. Assistant coach Ron Francis deserves kudos for his work, too. A team that could go far.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
2008-09 record: 51-27-4=106 points.
Power play: 18.9% (15th). Penalty killing: 79.9% (20th).
Leading scorer: Zach Parise, 45-49.
Outlook: Parise had a breakout season but might have difficulty duplicating it if Coach Jacques Lemaire, back on the scene of his 1995 Cup triumph, pulls the reins on his forwards in the name of team defense. Lemaire claims he will give his players some slack, but seeing is believing. Goalie Martin Brodeur sat out 50 games after undergoing surgery on his biceps but bounced back and is likely to be one of Canada's Olympic goalies. Given that extra burden and the fact he's 37 it might not be reasonable for him to play as much as in previous seasons. They're thin at center after Travis Zajac and their once-commanding defense is merely ordinary but Lemaire has the knowledge and experience to make this team better than the sum of its parts.
2008-09 record: 41-32-9=91 points.
Power play: 20.9% (seventh). Penalty killing: 81.8% (14th).
Leading scorer: Derek Roy, 28-42.
Outlook: They have a small-market budget in a conference where the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins and Maple Leafs can spend to the cap limit without thinking twice. But that's not the only factor holding them back. They always have speedy, gritty teams that lack the impact defenseman and elite first line that might take them places. Left wing Thomas Vanek, a 40-goal scorer last season, is a gem but they have no real threats on the right side and very little depth. And if anything happens to U.S. Olympic goaltending candidate Ryan Miller (2.53, .918) they're finished. They work hard and it's easy to root for them but they just seem stuck in the middle of the East pack.
NEW YORK RANGERS
2008-09 record: 43-30-9=95 points.
Power play: 13.9% (29th). Penalty killing: 87.8% (first).
Leading scorer: Nik Antropov, 28-31.
Outlook: The key question is whether Marian Gaborik can avoid injuries after playing more than 65 games only once in the last five seasons. He played 17 games last season for Minnesota after hip surgery and had 23 points; the lone season he escaped harm during that span was 2007-08, when he played 77 games and scored 42 goals. The Rangers will need that kind of performance from him to remain competitive. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist (38 wins, 2.43, .916) will be busy because Coach John Tortorella favors an aggressive offense and the Rangers defense isn't fast or good enough to get back. Oh, and care to guess how many times Sean Avery will run afoul of the NHL's disciplinary deans?
2008-09 record: 41-30-11=93.
Power play: 16.6% (24th). Penalty killing: 82.6% (ninth).
Leading scorer: Stephen Weiss, 14-47.
Outlook: They have decent goaltending, with Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen. After that . . . well, that's pretty much it. They weren't going to be able to re-sign defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and so traded his negotiating rights to Calgary for Jordan Leopold and a third-round pick. That's not much of a return. Weiss, David Booth (31 goals, 60 points in 72 games) and Nathan Horton (22 goals, 45 points in 67 games) make for a serviceable top line, but the Panthers will struggle to score after that. They haven't made the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, a streak that's all but sure to continue.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
2008-09 record: 24-40-18=66 points.
Power play: 17.8% (19th). Penalty killing: 78.0% (26th).
Leading scorer: Martin St. Louis, 30-50.
Outlook: Steven Stamkos, last year's No. 1 draft pick, struggled to adjust from junior hockey to the pros but gradually improved and finished with 23 goals and 46 points. The Lightning had the No. 2 pick this year and used it on 6-6, 220-pound Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman, who has been paired with compatriot Mattias Ohlund. Signing Ohlund as a free agent provides a mentor for Hedman and makes for a decent defense. With St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier (a disappointing 29 goals and 67 points), free-agent signee Alex Tanguay (16 goals and 41 points in 50 games with Montreal) and Ryan Malone (26 goals, 45 points) they're not bad up front. Goalie Mike Smith, who sat out the second half of last season because of post-concussion syndrome, played well in the preseason and is supposed to be ready. If he's on, the Lightning could make the playoffs.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2008-09 record: 34-35-13=81 points.
Power play: 18.8% (16th). Penalty killing: 74.7% (30th).
Leading scorer: Jason Blake, 25-38.
Outlook: There's a lot of bluster to General Manager Brian Burke, but the man does know how to get his way at the negotiating table. He pried restricted free agent and 36-goal scorer Phil Kessel away from the Bruins for a bunch of prime draft picks, instantly giving his offense credibility. Signing defenseman Francois Beauchemin as a free agent was a shrewd move because the former Duck can hit and has a booming shot that should help the power play. Burke's signing of Swedish goalie Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson created competition for Vesa Toskala, who last season was part of the NHL's worst defensive team (a 3.43 team goals-against average). Coach Ron Wilson said Toskala will start the team's opener but he might not keep the job long. This is a better team than last season's 12th-ranked mishmash, but the playoffs are a distant vision.
2008-09 record: 41-30-11=93 points.
Power play: 19.3% (13th). Penalty killing: 82.4% (11th).
Leading scorer: Alex Kovalev, 26-39.
Outlook: The Canadiens are going smaller this season. They added Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, all well short of 6 feet, and while the forwards will be faster, they'll also be easier to push around. General Manager Bob Gainey also signed defensemen Hal Gill, Paul Mara and Jaroslav Spacek, making the defense bigger but no speedier. The roster overhaul was taken to another level with a coaching change -- and not for the better. Dour Jacques Martin likes to smother creativity in the name of playing stifling defense, and crowds at the Molson Centre won't like it.
2008-09 record: 36-35-11=83 points.
Power play: 19.5% (10th). Penalty killing: 81.5% (15th).
Leading scorer: Daniel Alfredsson, 24-50.
Outlook: They've endured a steep decline since their 2007 Stanley Cup finals loss to the Ducks. First, their excuse was Ray Emery's inconsistency. Last season -- their first out of the playoffs after 11 straight appearances -- the problem was the chill between Dany Heatley and Coach Cory Clouston, which led Heatley to request a trade. He got his wish, going to San Jose for top-six forward Milan Michalek (23 goals, 57 points) and winger Jonathan Cheechoo, who had only 12 goals in 66 games last season. Goalie Pascal Leclaire, apparently recovered from ankle surgery, needs a big season. Free-agent winger Alex Kovalev, who had 26 goals and 69 points for Montreal last season, should help the second line.
2008-09 record: 35-41-6=76 points.
Power play: 19.3% (10th). Penalty killing: 76.0% (29th).
Leading scorer: Ilya Kovalchuk, 43-48.
Outlook: The Thrashers had a strong finish last season and they've upgraded since then by signing free agents Nik Antropov (28 goals, 59 points with the Rangers last season) and Maxim Afinogenov, a two-time Russian Olympian. Antropov is expected to play right wing opposite the dynamic Kovalchuk, with Todd White centering for them. The Thrashers' biggest problem will be in goal because Kari Lehtonen had back surgery during the summer and wasn't expected to return until the season is a few weeks old.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
2008-09 record: 26-47-9=61 points.
Power play: 16.9% (23rd). Penalty killing: 79.8% (22nd).
Leading scorer: Mark Streit, 16-40.
Outlook: No. 1 overall pick John Tavares had chemistry with former King Matt Moulson in preseason play, giving fans of this too-long downtrodden franchise something to look forward to. There won't be much else. Rick DiPietro (knee) won't be ready to start the season, so the Islanders signed Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron as insurance at a cost of $6.4 million. DiPietro, who played only five games last season and won one game, is in the early years of a 15-year, $67.5-million contract. A lot to spend on goalies who will play behind a porous defense whose only legitimate standout is Swiss-born Streit.