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).