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2009-10: 52-22-8, 112 points, first in Central
FRESH FACES: Marty Turco (Dallas), Viktor Stalberg (Toronto), Fernando Pisani (Edmonton), Jeff Taffe (Florida), John Scott (Minnesota), Ryan Potulny (Edmonton)
OTHER PLACES: Antti Niemi (San Jose), Dustin Byfuglien (Atlanta), Andrew Ladd (Atlanta), Kris Versteeg (Toronto), Brent Sopel (Atlanta), Ben Eager (trade, Atlanta), Adam Burish (Dallas), John Madden (Minnesota)
STORYLINE: Look, no one ever said it was easy defending the Stanley Cup -- just ask the 2009 champs from Pittsburgh. But when salary cap issues forced this team into yard sale mode just days after skating the mug, the question became one that would define this season's edition of the Hawks: do they have enough left to repeat? All things being equal, GM Stan Bowman fared well at the swap meet, getting himself under the cap while acquiring a bit of help for now and a lot of help for later. What he's left with is a solid core that, despite all the changes, looks as capable as any of winning it all.
MVP: Duncan Keith. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the sleek and shiny chassis of the franchise, but Keith is engine that makes it all go. At 27, he came into his own during a Norris Trophy-winning season, providing the sort of sublime two-way excellence that fans in Detroit have enjoyed for years from Nick Lidstrom.
KID TO WATCH: Nick Leddy. The Hawks gave long looks at several of their top prospects this fall, but only Leddy made the cut. The team's staff raved about the 19-year-old's anticipation and ability to make skill plays under pressure. With Brian Campbell out of the lineup, Leddy's up-tempo game will fill a significant hole.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Niklas Hjalmarsson. The Sharks didn't throw that loaded RFA deal at the young defender simply to monkey with the cap miseries of their conference rivals. At 23, Hjalmarsson has yet to fully tap into his potential, so the Hawks are expecting an upgraded contribution from him this season. Tells you how much faith they have in his steady game that they're pairing him up with rookie Leddy in a top-four role.
BOTTOM LINE: They can't lean on the depth they enjoyed last season, but these Hawks still boast a loaded top six up front and a solid top four on the back end. They're the class of the West until proven otherwise.
2009-10: 44-24-14, 102 points, second in Central
FRESH FACES: Jiri Hudler (Russia), Mike Modano (Dallas), Joey MacDonald (Anaheim), Ruslan Salei (Colorado)
OTHER PLACES: Brett Lebda (Toronto), Jeremy Williams (NY Rangers), Mattias Ritola (Tampa Bay)
STORYLINE: Which Wings team will we see this year? The creaky, elderly one that stumbled through an injury-ravaged first half of last season or the rejuvenated one that tore through the league in the wake of the Olympics? Truth is, it could be either. No argument that the talent is there for another dominant regular season and lengthy run through the playoffs. Still, when a team is relying on 12 regulars on the other side of 30 to play significant minutes, the potential for another health-related meltdown has to be a concern. That puts the onus on coach Mike Babcock. Nobody can prevent freak mishaps, but the coach will be responsible for handling his graying assets judiciously.
MVP: Pavel Datsyuk. Granted, he's coming off his poorest offensive showing since the lockout, but it wasn't that long ago that Datsyuk could make a solid case for being the MVP of the entire league, not just the Wings. His third consecutive Selke Trophy demonstrated that he's lost nothing in the defensive end, but he was forcing the play too often in the offensive zone to compensate for the team's struggles, and that minimized the impact of his passing game. With a healthier lineup this season -- and, hopefully, a better start -- Datsyuk should slide back into his comfort zone and take another run at the Hart.
KID TO WATCH: Jakub Kindl. Some teams would have written off a 2005 first rounder with just three NHL games to his credit. Not the Wings, a team that slowly seasons its prospects the way an alligator marinates a deer under a submerged log. Now that he's out of minor league options, Kindl will stick with the team in a reserve role. Based on his steady, heady preseason play however -- and the struggles of Jonathan Ericsson -- he could assume more significant responsibility before long.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jiri Hudler. Didn't take a particularly long stint in the KHL for the ex-Wing to realize that the deal offered by Detroit prior to last season wasn't so bad after all. Hudler's young legs and enthusiasm will make him a valuable addition to this lineup. It'll be interesting to see how he clicks with Modano, a player who still had the speed and creativity, but lacked the motivation to be a consistent contributor in Dallas.
BOTTOM LINE: There's sure to be a long line of pundits willing to write off the Wings, but it says here that good health may be all that separates this team from a berth in the Western Conference Final.
2009-10: 40-32-10, 90 points, fourth in Central
NEW FACES: Jaroslav Halak (Montreal), Vladimir Sobotka (Boston), Nathan Oystrick (Anaheim), T.J. Hensick (Colorado)
OTHER PLACES: Lars Eller (Montreal), Keith Tkachuk (retirement), Paul Kariya (free agent -- injured), Chris Mason (Atlanta), Darryl Sydor (retirement), D.J. King (Washington)
STORYLINE: The Blues' chances were sunk last season by two significant failings: an inability to win at home and an underperforming group of top-six forwards. Tough to say how they'll address the former, but more reliable output from the latter would go a long way toward putting this team back in the playoff hunt. That means players like David Backes (17 goals down from 31 the year before), Brad Boyes (14 from 33) and Patrik Berglund (13 from 21) need to regain their touch, while budding snipers T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen must continue developing theirs.
MVP: Erik Johnson. Fully healed from the knee injury that sidelined him two seasons ago, Johnson has emerged as the face of the franchise. He was magnificent last season, particularly upon his return from duty with Team USA at the Winter Olympics. If he had any doubts about his ability to perform at an elite level, they were gone by the time the silver medal was hung around his neck in Vancouver, and his play after the break reflected that. Just 22, his best days are yet to come.
KID TO WATCH: Alex Pietrangelo. After starting each of the past two seasons in St. Louis, the fourth overall pick from 2008 finally looks ready grab hold of a job for the entire season. Bigger and stronger thanks to an aggressive summer program, he's looked the part of a mature, poised defender in camp. Though he's likely to be used primarily on the third pairing to start the season, look for him to assume a larger role as the calendar turns.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jaroslav Halak. His stock buoyed by a spectacular postseason run, the Blues felt comfortable parting with Eller and prospect Ian Schultz to nab the Slovakian stopper. The question now is, can Halak live up to the pressure of an uncontested No. 1 job? There's plenty of reason for confidence, but until he proves he can play at the high level the Blues need from him for the 60 games, he ranks as one of the season's great unknowns.
BOTTOM LINE: The Blues were their own worst enemies in a campaign that fell just five points shy of a playoff berth. Simply protecting their home ice should ensure them a spot in the postseason mix.
2009-10: 47-29-6, 100 points, third in Central
FRESH FACES: Matthew Lombardi (Phoenix), Sergei Kostitsyn (Montreal), Matt Halischuk (New Jersey), Shane O'Brien (Vancouver)
OTHER PLACES: Jason Arnott (New Jersey), Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver), Dan Ellis (Tampa Bay), Dustin Boyd (Montreal), Ben Guite (Columbus), Ryan Parent (Vancouver), Denis Grebeshkov (Russia), Jonas Andersson (Vancouver)
STORYLINE: The Preds have yet to turn the corner from competitive to contender, and probably won't as long as they're financed like hockey's answer to those Syfy network movies. Still, as long as the great Barry Trotz is behind the bench, you'll always get an honest effort from this crew. That should be enough to get them into the postseason -- at least, as long as they're not submarined by their special teams. Both were brutal last season, with the power play finishing 24th and the penalty kill 28th. The former probably shouldn't be a surprise, given the lack of high-end offensive talent, but waving the flag on the PK is inexcusable. How Trotz addresses those glaring weaknesses could tell the tale.
MVP: Pekka Rinne. Coming off a mixed-bag of a season in which he set a career high in wins (32) but saw both his GAA and save percentage balloon, Rinne can't afford to falter in 2010-11. For the first time in his career, he won't have to split the No. 1 job. In fact, the team had such faith in his ability to rebound that no experienced backup was brought to camp to challenge Rinne's hold on the position. Without a safety net, he'll have to assume a significantly larger workload than the career-high 58 games he played in last season. His ability to respond to that challenge should tell the tale of Nashville's season.
KID TO WATCH: Colin Wilson. The arrival of Lombardi was the best thing for the development of Wilson, sparing him from being forced into a role for which he's being groomed but is not yet ready to assume. Instead of centering the top line, Wilson will start the season alongside Lombardi. That means he can learn from the veteran and focus more on using his body to work the corners and get to the net rather than having to deal with the expanded defensive responsibilities of a pivot.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Patric Hornqvist. The last pick in 2005 draft offered up the unlikeliest 30-goal campaign in some time and earned himself a three-year, $9.25 million extension for his efforts. Not bad, but what can he do for an encore? And with Arnott gone, do they have a center who can maximize the impact of Hornqvist's go-to-the-net game?
BOTTOM LINE: With effort and focus magnifying their talent, look for the Preds to sneak in at the tail end of the playoff qualifiers list.
2009-10: 32-35-15, 79 points, fifth in the Central
FRESH FACES: coach Scott Arniel (AHL), Nikita Filatov (Russia), Ethan Moreau (Edmonton), Kyle Wilson (Washington), Ben Guite (Nashville)
OTHER PLACES: Nathan Paetsch (Florida)
STORYLINE: It won't be so much of a new look in Columbus as a new attitude. GM Scott Howson's key summertime additions will all be behind the bench, including innovative thinker Arniel and Brad Berry (both plucked from the Manitoba Moose), Bob Boughner (two-time Memorial Cup champ with the Windsor Spitfires) and 13-year NHL vet Dan Hinote. It's a group that appears ideally suited to nurture a young team from promise to delivering on its potential. The approach of this staff will be a far cry from that of former coach Ken Hitchcock. More listening, less screaming, and a definite shift from shutdown defense to a game plan that thrives on puck movement and creating offensive chances. It won't be an overnight switch, but the Jackets should be more successful ... and more entertaining.
MVP: Steve Mason. The player who dragged the Jackets almost by himself into the 2009 playoffs fell apart last season, both mentally and fundamentally. The team never lost faith, though, and proved it by signing him to a two-year extension last month worth $5.8 million. Apparently, Howson placed greater stock in a strong second-half performance that was obscured by Mason's overall numbers. After Hitchcock was removed, Mason posted a 2.56 GAA and .923 save percentage. If he can build on those numbers even slightly, the Jackets can be a far more dangerous team.
KID TO WATCH: Nikita Filatov. You can put a monkey suit on a horse, but you can't make him swing from a vine. Filatov, a thoroughbred to the core, bolted when Hitchcock tried to make him into something else entirely. Under Arniel, he's being allowed to play to his strengths, and the results have been promising. Filatov scored four times in the preseason, securing a spot on the second line alongside fellow first-rounders Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek. With just 21 games on his resume, Filatov is Calder-eligible and looks like an early favorite.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ethan Moreau. The former captain of the Oilers was drummed out of Edmonton after being rendered obsolete on the league's worst team. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for what he might bring to the Jackets, but Howson clearly sees something he likes. At his best, Moreau can be a gritty competitor on the ice and a terrific leader off it. But here he is, walking into a new room where he holds no sway and playing with a body that, at 35, is past its best-by date. This will be a real, and maybe last, test for the veteran.
BOTTOM LINE: It says here that Mason and Arniel will spark a renaissance in Columbus, and that the Blue Jackets will be the most improved team in the West this season. Something to build on ... but it won't get them into the playoffs this time around.