By Adrian Dater
January 09, 2013

If these preseason rankings had come out in October, teams would have occupied different spots than you see here. The shortened season means they must be viewed through an entirely different prism, one that is more short-term. The old hockey saying used to be that the season didn't really start until January anyway, when the really good teams get serious for the playoff push. Well, it's January, before Game 1. So will the veteran, battle-tested rosters actually fare better because their attention will be piqued on opening day by the knowledge that they have little margin for slumps? Or will the younger teams with more energy and vigor be better in a sprint instead of the usual marathon? We'll find out, but for now these are my first projections for the lockout-shortened season:

1 Pittsburgh <a href=Penguins" title="Pittsburgh Penguins">
Last Week: 4
Sidney Crosby was always respected as a player, but now he's probably a lot better-liked among his peers. He was seen as a solid soldier for the NHLPA, earning lots of public and private praise from grateful members. Will that mean he'll get a free pass in games? Nope -- no friends in hockey except those wearing the same logo on the front. But I'll predict that Crosby will, in fact, receive a higher level of "respect" on the ice, which is why I think he'll lead the league in scoring. No, he didn't play for anyone during the lockout and there could be some rust on him, but he'll also be rested and raring to go. Losing Jordan Staal will hurt, but Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still the class of the league among forwards.
2 New York <a href=Rangers" title="New York Rangers">
Last Week: 2
New York Rangers (51-24-7)
If they don't drop dead from the effects of a short, intense training camp run by taskmaster coach John Tortorella, they'll contend for the Stanley Cup again. Expectations are high now that Rick Nash can finally make his Broadway debut. He and Brad Richards will be a deadly duo, and Henrik Lundqvist is still Henrik Lundqvist. We've been Torts-deprived for too long now with regard to his famously terse postgame press conferences. They should be even better during a pressure-cooker short season.
3 Edmonton <a href=Oilers" title="Edmonton Oilers">
Last Week: 25
Edmonton Oilers (32-40-10)
Check with me in a month or two, but it says here that they will get off to a great start -- which really ups the odds of getting into the playoffs. Why the reason for Oil optimism? Because Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and newcomer D-man Justin Schultz all played regularly during the lockout in the AHL and will be that much further along than the players who were limited to informal skates or shinny matches for charity. Eberle had 51 points in 34 games for Oklahoma City, while Schultz had 48 in 34. Granted, big questions remain in goal and defense, but what an offense this should be.
4 Vancouver <a href=Canucks" title="Vancouver Canucks">
Last Week: 1
The fundamentals are all still in place for another run at the Cup. The Sedins will be back and the Canucks figure to get a pretty good return for Roberto Luongo, assuming he gets traded soon. Cory Schneider seems more than ready to assume the No. 1 job in net. The return of Ryan Kesler, who was ascending to the game's elite until injuries ruined most of last season, will be a boost. In a short campaign, Vancouver's veteran leadership is a boon.
5 Boston <a href=Bruins" title="Boston Bruins">
Last Week: 5
Boston Bruins (49-29-4)
How will this team look without Tim Thomas, who reportedly has no interest in coming out of his bunker to play hockey this year? His quirks aside, Thomas was often a world-beater goalie during the previous two seasons and his loss will be felt. But Tuukka Rask is a nice alternative, and it's not like he's coming in green to his teammates. It probably was time to pass the torch anyway. After a Cup hangover-type of season in many ways, the B's should be good and eager to try to win another.
6 Los Angeles <a href=Kings" title="Los Angeles Kings">
Last Week: 12
Los Angeles Kings (40-27-15)
The defending Stanley Cup champs normally would be higher on the list, but the Kings probably will have to start the season without dominant first-line center Anze Kopitar, who hurt his right knee while playing in Sweden. There is plenty still on hand for Darryl Sutter to work with, including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Conn Smythe goalie Jonathan Quick. A short season probably will help the Kings avoid the bad tendencies that can beset a Cup team the season after, such as boredom during the early months.
7 St. Louis <a href=Blues" title="St. Louis Blues">
Last Week: 3
St. Louis Blues (49-22-11)
Something happened to these guys late last season and into the playoffs, and nobody still seems quite sure what it was. After looking like a Cup contender, they just kind of wilted, despite getting into the second round. A good question will be how they respond to what figures to be a very amped up coach Ken Hitchcock. There is too much strong, young talent on hand to predict that they will underachieve. I don't know if we'll see another Jacques Plante-type of season again from goalie Brian Elliott, but the Blues will be tough to score on again, and forwards such as David Backes and T.J. Oshie are a handful.
8 Carolina <a href=Hurricanes" title="Carolina Hurricanes">
Last Week: 26
Eric and Jordan Staal are now officially brothers in arms, and the Hurricanes are going to be very good again. They almost snuck into the playoffs with a late charge last year, so they figure to have a nice vibe going into a short season. The 'Canes also added Alexander Semin from Washington, and Jeff Skinner was already a premier young forward. They should put enough offense on the board for goalie Cam Ward to hold the fort.
9 Chicago <a href=Blackhawks" title="Chicago Blackhawks">
Last Week: 8
Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11)
Jonathan Toews figures to be a bear again now that he's fully recovered from concussion issues and eager to get back to the pantheon level. Patrick Kane managed to make no headlines for off-ice behavior during the lockout, too, which can only be viewed as a surprising positive. It'll all come down to the defense and goaltending, which was just plain bad at times last season. But these guys did win the Cup not too long ago, don't forget, and the core of the team mostly remains in place.
10 Minnesota <a href=Wild" title="Minnesota Wild">
Last Week: 23
Minnesota Wild (35-36-11)
I'll need some "prove-it-to-me" performances from these guys before I buy in, unlike many others who seemed ready to concede the Cup to them when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were signed to stunning free-agent contracts during the summer. Hey, of course they'll be better than the group that again finished out of the playoffs last year. But are they an elite team yet? Let's see.
11 Philadelphia <a href=Flyers" title="Philadelphia Flyers">
Last Week: 7
They've got the same sexy-looking roster and they'll almost certainly make the playoffs as usual. But is anybody confident anymore about a team that has Ilya Bryzgalov in net? The 32-year-old Russian had his moments during the regular season, but he was flat-out terrible for much of the playoffs. It's been that way for three straight years now, with his saves percentages checking in at .887, .879 and .906. The Flyers' forward group remains superb, but if you can't keep the puck out of your own net enough, then it doesn't matter. In other words, the Flyers are looking at their same, old biggest problem again.
12 Detroit <a href=Red Wings" title="Detroit Red Wings">
Last Week: 9
Will a steep decline finally hit Motown now that Nicklas Lidstrom is retired in Sweden? Perhaps, although the Wings will still score plenty of goals. But the loss of the iconic Lidstrom figures to negatively affect this team in so many ways that it's hard to see how it can realistically compete for the Cup. At least Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are still here. That should be good enough to get into the postseason again.
13 Phoenix <a href=Coyotes" title="Phoenix Coyotes">
Last Week: 14
Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13)
Every year, we badmouth them for all sorts of things (miserable ownership situation, apathetic fans, boring playing style) and yet they have become a perennial playoff team. Their Western Conference finals appearance was a landmark achievement, and a new owner seems to finally be in place. They have a top goalie in Mike Smith, but it's hard to see how these guys go as far next spring. Then again, isn't that what we said all of last year?
14 Nashville <a href=Predators" title="Nashville Predators">
Last Week: 6
It will never be said that a Barry Trotz-coached team is easy to beat. The only coach this franchise has ever known makes chicken salad out of chicken poop better than any bench boss in the league. But there is no getting around the fact that the loss of Ryan Suter figures to hurt, probably a lot. Shea Weber remains on hand, though, after the Flyers tried to spirit him out of Nashville with an offer sheet last summer. Pekka Rinne is still in net, too, but he'll have a tougher time without Suter helping in front.
15 Colorado <a href=Avalanche" title="Colorado Avalanche">
Last Week: 17
A late-season collapse denied them a playoff berth, and plenty of question marks remain with this team --- one of them being, "Will they sign Ryan O'Reilly in time for opening night?" But some good young talent remains up front, most especially NHL rookie of the year and new captain Gabriel Landeskog. If they can get good years from defender Erik Johnson and goalie Semyon Varlamov, a playoff spot should be in the works.
16 New Jersey <a href=Devils" title="New Jersey Devils">
Last Week: 10
I'm giving them a low ranking spot to start, probably too low. But I felt they were something of a fluke team while reaching the Cup Final last year and I see a decline coming here. Can Marty Brodeur really have another good year at his age (40)? I have my doubts, but in a short season? Could be tailor-made for him, too. Yet I just don't see another year like the last one for the Devils.
17 Florida <a href=Panthers" title="Florida Panthers">
Last Week: 13
Florida Panthers (38-26-18)
Speaking of flukes, that's what these guys were called most of last year, but they won the Southeast Division and nearly upended the Devils in the playoffs. They should be competitive again, but we remain skeptical of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen in goal.
18 Washington <a href=Capitals" title="Washington Capitals">
Last Week: 18
The addition of Mike Ribeiro was a good one, and Alex Ovechkin remains an elite player. Plus, young goalie Braden Holtby showed flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, especially while knocking off the defending champion Bruins in an epic series. But the fact is these guys massively underachieved during last year's regular season. Now Nicklas Backstrom is injured and they have a new coach in Adam Oates. It would be foolish to write off the Caps totally, but it's hard to escape the feeling that they will continue on a slow decline.
19 Ottawa <a href=Senators" title="Ottawa Senators">
Last Week: 11
Ottawa Senators (41-31-10)
It's nice that Daniel Alfredsson didn't have his career ended by a fully lost season. His return figures to be a boon for the Sens on and off the ice. These guys were better than people (hand raised) thought they'd be last year, and they gave the Rangers fits in the playoffs. But this team is aging somewhat, with five players 30 or older. In this league, it gets harder and harder to get by on veteran moxie. If Craig Anderson can have a big season in net, though, another playoff spot is very possible.
20 Winnipeg <a href=Jets" title="Winnipeg Jets">
Last Week: 22
Winnipeg Jets (37-35-10)
Was there a city more afraid of losing the season than Winnipeg? It had to wait 15 years to get the NHL back, after all. This is a very hard team to predict. The Jets play well in their own packed barn and they have some nice young talent, led by Evander Kane, up front. But they remain a team without much true star power. They'll scrape by and be competitive, but until they get more top-end talent, they seem destined to come up just short of the playoffs again.
21 Buffalo <a href=Sabres" title="Buffalo Sabres">
Last Week: 19
Buffalo Sabres (39-32-11)
They got red hot late in the year and nearly snuck into the postseason. But other than adding super-pest Steve Ott, they didn't do a whole lot to the roster in the off-season. The defense and goaltending have some big names, but underachieved too much of last season. It just seems like this team is a little off composition-wise. They spent a lot of money before last season, but got little in return. It'll be up to guys like Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino to give more proof that they were worth more than they showed in 2011-12.
22 Dallas <a href=Stars" title="Dallas Stars">
Last Week: 16
Dallas Stars (42-35-5)
It was the weirdest signing off the off-season: Jaromir Jagr to...Dallas? But Big D it is for the ageless forward. Speaking of ageless, Ray Whitney left Phoenix for bigger bucks with the Stars and will add more offense. But it's hard to get too excited about this team, which has question marks on defense. Jamie Benn is a terrific forward, but he remained unsigned as of the end of the lockout. No Benn, no hope of a playoff spot.
23 San Jose <a href=Sharks" title="San Jose Sharks">
Last Week: 15
San Jose Sharks (43-29-10)
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and...zzzz. No offense to those two high-scoring veterans, but this team appears near its expiration date as a serious Cup contender. There is just too much failed playoff baggage with this roster, led at the top by Thornton and Marleau. Sure, they'll win some games, but I see a non-playoff finish this year.
24 Calgary <a href=Flames" title="Calgary Flames">
Last Week: 21
Calgary Flames (37-29-16)
New coach Bob Hartley always gets his teams to play hard, but with an old roster full of high-paid guys, it won't be as easy. Maybe Hartley can get Jay Bouwmeester to show some passion, but we won't hold our breath. Jiri Hudler was a nice, if slightly overpaid, addition in the off-season and Miikka Kiprusoff remains a top goalie. So there is hope here, but a lot of things have to go right.
25 Anaheim <a href=Ducks" title="Anaheim Ducks">
Last Week: 24
Anaheim Ducks (34-36-12)
Any team with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan as a top line will have a shot at the playoffs. The Ducks made a furious charge late last year, but still wound up finishing well back in the standings, and this team has plenty of age on it. One of those older players is Teemu Selanne, who remains a wonderful part of the league. It would have been a travesty to see his possible final year wiped out by the lockout.
26 Tampa Bay <a href=Lightning" title="Tampa Bay Lightning">
Last Week: 20
The Lightning were something of a mess last year after going to Game 7 of the conference finals in 2011. The addition of defenseman Matt Carle and some expected improvement from Victor Hedman will help the blue line, which was atrocious. But Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, while still highly skilled, aren't getting any younger and Anders Lindback must prove he can be a reliable starter in net. Steven Stamkos probably has the best pure shot in the game, though, and he makes these guys dangerous on any given night.
27 Toronto <a href=Maple Leafs" title="Toronto Maple Leafs">
Last Week: 28
Change often has the desired effect on a team (see Kings, L.A.; Blues, St. Louis), but canning GM Brian Burke on the eve of the season? That move was too just bizarre and downright cruel by Leafs management to have the desired effect on this team - whose players loved Burke. The addition of James Van Riemsdyk will be highly scrutinized by the ravenous Toronto media and fan base, which may be too much pressure to put on the youngster. Then again, maybe he'll thrive with more responsibility than he ever had in Philadelphia. James Reimer needs to have a big bounce-back year if the Leafs are to have any hope, but who knows -- maybe a guy like Roberto Luongo will come aboard to lighten the load?
28 New York <a href=Islanders" title="New York Islanders">
Last Week: 27
New York Islanders (34-37-11)
Geez, you just want to say some nice things about this team and its near-term future. But you just can't quite do it. John Tavares proved last year that he's an elite scorer, but there just isn't enough talent around him to get too excited about the Isles. How long before goalie Rick DiPietro goes back on the injured list, too?
29 Montreal <a href=Canadiens" title="Montreal Canadiens">
Last Week: 29
Montreal Canadiens (31-35-16)
The storied Habs finished last in the east in 2011-12, and not much changed with their roster during all these months. Newcomers Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong will add grit and toughness, but a lack of those things wasn't the team's big problem last year. Scoring goals, and preventing them, were. Carey Price will need to have a monster year in goal if the Canadiens are to move up much in the standings.
30 Columbus <a href=Blue Jackets" title="Columbus Blue Jackets">
Last Week: 30
They were brutal all of last year, and have lost their biggest star and all-time leading scorer in Rick Nash. They did get heart-and-soul forward Brandon Dubinsky from the Rangers in return, though, not to mention the talented stick of Artem Anisimov. But there are just too many remaining holes to see the Jackets escaping the cellar for another year. New hockey ops president John Davidson has some work to do.
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