Muir The Kings team that fell in five games to the eventual champion Blackhawks last season was a battle-weary shadow of the club that won it all the previous year. This time around, it can count on a full effort from a healthy and rested Jonathan Quick, who is a top-three goalie by anyone's standards, a tough and mobile defense led by Drew Doughty and emerging star Slava Voynov, and a forward group that's deep, physical and capable of beating an opponent on the scoreboard . . . or into submission. The Kings may prove to be a middle-of-the-pack team during the regular season, but they'll kick it into gear when it counts. Kwak The Blackhawks learned an important lesson from their last Cup defense and took the offseason to rest. They didn't celebrate as hard, they said, and felt more comfortable turning down opportunities in order to prepare for this season. So they feel ready to defend their title properly. They know they'll have a target on their backs and what that's like, with opponents treating a routine Wednesday night battle like it's a playoff game. But most importantly, unlike in 2010, the Hawks haven't dismantled their roster. And given how strong they were wire-to-wire last season, it's hard to imagine any team dethroning them. Cazeneuve These are not the Blackhawks of 2010-11 that lost 10 players, including Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien during the off-season in order to deal with the salary cap. This team didn't lose nearly as much. Coach Joel Quenneville has already navigated those post-championship waters and won another three years later. The Hawks picked up Nikolai Khabibulin during the summer to make up for the loss of Ray Emery. Starter Corey Crawford has already proved that he's Cup-worthy to his most important critic: himself. Bernstein The key word for Chicago this season is continuity. The Blackhawks' Stanley Cup-winning squad from last season got through the summer almost completely intact, even retaining playoff darling Bryan Bickell after it was rumored that he would take his talents elsewhere. The core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford remains, and that's enough to make the Hawks the Cup favorite until another team proves otherwise.
Most Intriguing Storyline
Tim Thomas ::Lynne Sladky/AP
Muir The Sochi Olympics. Every game up until when the national teams are named in late-December isn't worth just two points. It's a tryout for someone who is looking to make an impression and prove that he belongs on the big Olympic stage. Every game between that point and the Games will be a nailbiter as everyone hopes to make it to Sochi healthy and ready to play. And after the medals have been handed out, the story will be how well the league uses whatever momentum the tournament generated to help build the NHL brand. Until the playoffs roll around, the Olympics will be the story that dwarfs all others. Kwak Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins' goaltending situation will continue to unfold in public. Marc-Andre Fleury has gone from Cup-winner to scapegoat in five short years, and it will be fascinating to see how long Pittsburgh, which really should be the team that's got dynasty potential, continues to ride him out or finds a way for him to rediscover his game. Cazeneuve Tim Thomas. He's just two years and a few months removed from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Bruins. He also won his second Vezina that year. But he's 39 and hasn't played an NHL game in a full season. Can he he return to his old form? Can he help the Panthers become competitive this season? Sochi is one of the reasons for his return, so would a revitalized Thomas have any chance to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, especially with the likes of Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard and Craig Anderson looking for spots?
Muir Dallas Stars. The league's best summer started with the bold, surprising theft of Jim Nill from the Red Wings, followed by the decision to back off and let him do his thing. Nill's remake of the Stars was nothing short of remarkable, from behind the bench (Lindy Ruff) to the team's boldest trade in years that landed the element it most desperately needed: a young, high-end talent in Tyler Seguin with the potential to be the No. 1 center in Dallas for the next 10 years. Add in a strong draft (Valeri Nichushkin) and an intriguing FA signing for the blueline (Sergei Gonchar) and it's easy to picture the Stars being the year's most improved team. Kwak New York Islanders. They've already made a most noticeable step forward, going from laughing stock of the East to playoff contender. What they did in the playoffs last season did wonders for the confidence of a young group that needed a jolt of positive feedback to build on, and this will be the season that they make a real statement. I think they'll be the best New York area team. Cazeneuve Columbus Blue Jackets. They endured a tale of two seasons in 2013 and fell just short of their second appearance in the playoffs. Columbus started the year 5-12-3, but finished with a 19-5-4 run. Now the Jackets will have a full season with sniper Marian Gaborik in the fold. After his trade from the Rangers last year, he put up eight points in 12 games with Columbus and should be even better without John Tortorella there to critique his every move. The off-season signing of two-way forward Nathan Horton could be a huge help for the Jackets once he returns from shoulder surgery. Horton can not only put up points (he has six 20-goal seasons), he can be responsible at both ends. (He led all players with a + 20 rating in last season's playoffs.) Those are reasons enough to hope that the second half Jackets will be back again to shake things up Bernstein Winnipeg Jets. They've improved on their previous season in each of their two years under coach Claude Noel and fought their way to the cusp of a playoff spot in 2013. A move to the Western Conference's Central Division means that Winnipeg's brutal travel schedule will be lightened, and youngsters Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele should provide an infusion of energy. Led by hard-nosed captain Andrew Ladd and a point-per-game season from Evander Kane, look for the Jets to get over that postseason hump and notch a surprise series win in the first round.
John Tortorella :: Chris Austin/Icon SMI
Muir NHL Department of Player Safety. We probably shouldn't allow ourselves to be disappointed anymore by the kid glove treatment that Brendan Shanahan and the boys at the DPS employ when dealing with the league's cement-headed miscreants, but you know we will, just the same. The next time tan assailant who brutally concusses an opponent — no harm intended, natch — is handed a one or two or five-game timeout to think about what he did, we'll just shake our heads at the arbitrariness of the decision and the unwillingness of the DPS to impose discipline with some real meaning to it. We know the day will come (over and over and over again) . . . and yet we'll still be disappointed. Kwak Chicago's outdoor game. The March 1 showdown at Soldier Field is the last of the Stadium Series in the U.S. By then, the luster of playing outdoors will be lost on just about everyone outside of Chicago. And even though the game is between the Blackhawks and Penguins, two teams that are favorites to come out of their conferences, there's nothing novel here. It'll essentially be just another meeting between two teams that have already played in three outdoor games. Overkill.
Cazeneuve John Tortorella, Canucks. You won't be able to judge the impact of John Tortorella's hire in Vancouver until the spring. The Canucks already know what it is to win the Presidents' Trophy, but their franchise still needs its first Cup. Tortorella's Rangers teams were too small at times to fit the style he wanted them to play. It won't be much better in Vancouver, especially among the team's elite players. Though the Sedin twins campaigned for his hire, they aren't very stout specimens and they tend to wear down late in the season even when they aren't told to block shots. Goalie Robert Luongo has taken enough criticism in Vancouver already and doesn't need more from his coach. The Canucks will be good again, but anything short of that last step isn't good enough, and they may not have the formula to get them there.
Bernstein Detroit Red Wings. Welcome to the East, Detroit. Signing Daniel Alfredsson won't do much to alleviate a scoring drop-off outside of Detroit's other established stars. While the Red Wings' defense was stingy last season, it lacks a top-shelf blueliner besides Niklas Kronwall, which could prove problematic for netminder Jimmy Howard during a full 82-game campaign. The Wings might make the playoffs, but don't expect their championship pedigree to dazzle their new conferencemates.
First Coach or GM Fired
Claude Noel :: Marianne Helm/Getty Images
Muir Claude Noel, Jets. It may feel like the honeymoon will never end in Winnipeg, but a savvy fanbase is growing restless after consecutive playoff DNQs. The Jets look to be deeper and more experienced up front, but saddled with arguably the worst goaltending in the division, they'll be in tough to make their mark in the revamped Central. Noel, whose front office support was clearly illustrated by the one-year extension he was offered in June, will be an easy scapegoat when things go south. Kwak Jay Feaster, Flames. When Calgary announced the hiring of Brian Burke to oversee hockey operations, it signaled the impending demise of GM Jay Feaster. Though he's remained on, it's no secret that his power will be severely undercut by Burke's hiring and it probably is just a matter of time before Feaster is shown the door. Cazeneuve Peter Laviolette or Paul Holmgren or both. The Flyers have a short window to get things right, after a miserable 2013 season that saw the club fall well short of expectations. This team has already used its compliance buyouts to chase Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov. While Briere gave the Flyers some good worth prior to last season, Bryzgalov was clearly not the answer to the Flyers' perpetual goalie riddle. If new netminder Ray Emery and the club's other key off-season pickups Vincent Lecavalier from the Lightning and Mark Streit from the Islanders don't help the team improve quickly, the axe may fall on someone's head. Bernstein Dan Bylsma, Penguins. After last season's ignominious ouster at the hands of the Bruins, Penguins Nation is growing restless. A team featuring the level of talent that Pittsburgh has is expected to make a Cup run every year, and for Bylsma to only coach one championship out of Sidney Crosby and Co. so far could be looked on as underachieving. If the Pens don't get off to the torrid start many think they will, expect Bylsma's tenure to be called into question.
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