With training camps opening this week, here are some key matters, thoughts and predictions to consider -- one for each team.
Kari Lehtonen's maturation process has been anything but linear. However, his play late last season when the team struggled was impressively resolute. The Thrashers need him show the same mettle each and every night all season long and I believe he can be counted on to provide consistent goaltending.
With Patrice Bergeron back from post-concussion symptoms that kept him out of 79 games including the playoffs, the Bruins will hope that their offense improves like their defense did last season. But that would be expecting a 67-goal jump due to one player. It's not going to happen. Still, the Bruins' attack will be more diverse and potent with a healthy Bergeron back in the mix.
Ryan Miller is a difference-maker in goal. Actually, his performance cuts in either direction. He struggled at the beginning of last season and in shootouts and the Sabres missed the playoffs. If he has a good start and can find the form in the shootout format that he displays on in-game breakaways, Miller will indeed prove the difference between playoff-bound and an idle spring again.
The move to a younger, more mobile defense won't make the Hurricanes better. Not markedly, anyway, because they already had a good, if underachieving, team last season with veterans in the mix. Their makeup hasn't really changed, as they've always emphasized moving the puck and getting it to their forwards in full flight. The 'Canes just need to stay healthy -- both on the blueline and particularly up front.
Is there enough scoring here to get them to the post-season? It's always perilous to base predicted success on projections of increased productivity. That's especially true when the Panthers are pinning their offensive fortunes on upticks from young players like Nathan Horton (27 goals), David Booth (22), Rusty Olesz (14) and rookie Shawn Matthias. I don't think they'll get enough to make the playoffs.
It's fair to wonder if last season's point total of 106 was a mirage, but the Habs were maybe ahead of schedule last season. GM Bob Gainey's gang has arrived. They're fast, skilled and present a nice blend of youth and experience throughout their lineup, including stellar netminder Carey Price at just 21 years old. They are a legitimate top team and will be for the foreseeable future.
New Jersey Devils
Will the return of veteran mainstays Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik translate into continued success? Not if you define success as being what the Devils have been in the past: an elite team with the Stanley Cup as a real possibility. However, if you describe success as a team that is tough to play against and hard to beat on a nightly basis, one that could scratch its way into the playoffs and possibly win a round, then change the answer to yes.
New York Islanders
Remember when we all thought that Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract sounded exorbitantly long? This season alone may seem longer for the goaltender, new head coach Scott Gordon and long-suffering Islander fans everywhere as the team starts to rebuild yet again.
New York Rangers
Look at the pedigrees of the incoming players this season: Markus Naslund (Vancouver), Nik Zherdev and Dan Fritsche (Columbus), Patrick Rissmiller (San Jose) and Wade Redden (Ottawa) all hail from defensively disciplined organizations. Further, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury both played for, and won championships with, teams that had dominant goaltenders. Entering their second season with the Blueshirts, that frame of reference -- as it relates to the players who have been brought in -- is paramount in this process, as the Rangers have stalwart puck-stopper Henrik Lundqvist as their centerpiece for success. The personnel now matches the team's established identity under coach Tom Renney and his staff.
The changes on the blueline will be positive in the near term. By adding Filip Kuba and moving Cristoph Schubert back to his natural position full time, the Senators may actually be more consistent, although less dynamic, than they were with the energetic but at times erratic Andrej Meszaros (moved to Tampa for Kuba) and former-but-fading All-Star Redden.
The Flyers can expect a return to form by winger Simon Gagne -- assuming full physical and mental recovery from post-concussion syndrome. Gagne joins a team that exhibited exemplary balance on the attack last season. That means there won't be any undue pressure on him to put up big numbers right away, but don't be surprised if he isn't producing right out of the gate.
Nothing really changes for the Stanley Cup finalists, despite all the changes. Even though seven players off that team have moved on, the young core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang remain intact and as such, formidable.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Can this shuffled deck yield a royal flush? Yes. It can also lead to 52-card pick up. The new-look Lightning will probably end up somewhere in between those two extremes, but with first overall pick Steve Stamkos joining Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis along with the cast of thousands that was added this summer now at the disposal of new coach Barry Melrose, the Lightning may be a hand worth gambling on.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The recent work of GM Cliff Fletcher is an overdue and necessary part of the rebuilding process. If you're going to change a stagnant culture, you have to stir the pot. In this case, that means moving away from over-reliance on veterans with onerous contracts and infusing some young legs into the lineup. Remember, though, especially at mid-season when the Leafs are falling -- that this is just the beginning of the change in direction.
The Caps can, um, capitalize on last season's surge. Coach Bruce Boudreau brought it all together in stunning fashion, but for two-plus campaigns the Capitals had been building their foundation as hard team to play. In other words, despite how it came about and appeared, the Capitals aren't an overnight sensation.
Free agent center Brendan Morrison will return from the wrist and knee injuries that limited him to 39 games and only 25 points last season to be the catalyst for much needed second-line scoring. Morrison should be a better fit than was Doug Weight (since departed to Long Island), who was brought in from St. Louis last December for Andy MacDonald.
By getting bigger and stronger on the wings, the Flames be better. The additions of Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque,Todd Bertuzzi and MikeCammalleri solidifies Calgary's identity behind the game's premier power forward: captain Jarome Iginla.
The free-agent adds of defenseman Brian Campbell and goaltender Cristobal Huet will be enough to put the Blackhawks in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and only the second time since 1997. Campbell will help the Hawks' powerplay efficiency and Huet will improve their consistency in goal.
Tony Granato's second stint behind the bench won't go any more smoothly than his first (two early playoff exits in his season-and-a-half as Colorado's head man). The Avalanche have some fine young pieces in Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski and the motivating factor of captain Joe Sakic's return, but not much else, especially in goal. That's critical.
Columbus Blue Jackets
For all the promise shown last season, this still won't be the campaign in which the Jackets finally make the playoffs for the first time in their history. Alas, they still don't have enough dependable scoring outside of Rick Nash, even with the additions of Kristian Backman and RJ Umberger.
Did their trip to the Western Conference Finals prove indicative of where this team really is? Yes. The Stars have young leadership in Brendan Morrow; premier playmakers in the middle with Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro; key veterans in Mike Modano and Sergei Zubov who are still capable of contributing significantly, and a diligent defensive identity backed up by goaltender Marty Turco.
Detroit Red Wings
Detroit has all the ingredients win back-to-back Stanley Cups for the first time since they turned the trick in 1997 and 1998. The addition of hired gun Marian Hossa boosted their chances of repeating from the realm of possibility to the neighborhood of a foregone conclusion.
The Oilers have to hope that goaltender Mathieu Garon plays to the same level as he did season ago. It's possible, but not likely based on his career to date and the fact that he only played 47 games in 2007-08 -- not a big number for a number one -- with 10 of his 26 wins coming via the shootout. While impressive, that number is also deceptively inflationary.
Los Angeles Kings
They have a stable of young talent that will continue to grow under the tutelage of new coach Terry Murray and returning assistant Mark Hardy. The playoffs may be still be a reach, but you can expect this team to make strides in the right direction.
After last season's division title and subsequent first-round flameout against Colorado, it's fair to ask if coach Jacques Lemaire is still the right man to guide this team. I say, yes. He showed frustration at times last season, but when it comes to winning hockey, Lemaire is still very hard to improve upon.
If you think the Preds will improve enough to remain a playoff team, consider that their powerplay ranked near the bottom of the league last season -- and that was with 26-goal scorer Alexander Radulov, he of the disputed contract with Ufa of Russia's Continental Hockey League (KHL). Their top two centermen -- Jason Arnott and David Legwand -- are both under 50 percent as faceoff men and Dan Ellis led the NHL in save percentage as an unknown, a luxury he won't have this time around.
The addition of Olli Jokinen down the middle won't be enough to lead the young Coyotes to the playoffs. Jokinen has yet to participate in postseason play after 10 seasons in the league, and there may be a reason beyond the poor teams he's played for in Los Angeles, Florida and on Long Island: his leadership qualities were routinely scrutinized while he was the captain of the Panthers.
San Jose Sharks
Reconstituting the blueline with veterans will put the Sharks over the top. By adding Dan Boyle, Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich, GM Doug Wilson gave his team and new head coach Todd McLellan the best chance possible to take the next step and challenge the Red Wings, Stars and Ducks for the Western Conference crown and a shot at the ultimate prize.
St. Louis Blues
Their fans would surely like to know if this team has finally hit the bottom of the rebuilding process. This season will see the Blues integrate even more young talent -- most likely forwards T.J. Oshie out of North Dakota and Swede Patrick Berglund -- and they'll garner valuable experience as they continue to reestablish an identity and improve accordingly.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo will be enough to keep them in almost every game, but he alone can't make up for a lack of offensive production, and the Canucks are looking awfully thin in that department.