Five teams to beat
1. Red Wings. They were the best team in hockey. Then they signed the best free agent on the market, superscorer Marian Hossa. Their weakest link is goalie Chris Osgood, and all that guy does is prove he isn't a weak link. The Red Wings have to be favored to become the first Cup winner to repeat since they did it in 1997-98.
2. Canadiens. Goalie Carey Price is no longer a rookie, and he might be among the top five or six netminders in the NHL. They've added Alex Tanguay to a team that has top-notch scorers Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec. The defense is poised and tough. No major weakness on this club.
3. Penguins. The Pens might have two of the top five or six players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They lost several key players, and the defense remains a question mark. But goalie Marc-Andre Fleury proved he can carry a team deep into the postseason.
4. Sharks. Maybe new coach Todd McLellan can finally get the most out of an overly talented team that continues to underachieve. New addition Dan Boyle should pump more offense into a skilled team. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov is one of the best in the biz.
5. Rangers. Many believe the Rangers will slump without Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery. We don't believe so. They've added Markus Naslund up front and Wade Redden on defense. Look for Chris Drury to play like the Rangers believed he would when they signed him a year ago. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist remains the team's MVP. Five best players
1. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals. We compare Ovechkin, below, with Mario Lemieux. He's an exciting scorer who can do it all on his own.
2. Sidney Crosby, Penguins. We compare Crosby, right, with Wayne Gretzky. He's an exciting player who makes everyone around him better.
3. Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings. He might be the second-best defenseman in NHL history, behind Bobby Orr.
4. Vinny Lecavalier, Lightning. When you include the physical part, he's the most well-rounded player in the league.
5. Marian Gaborik, Wild. He may be the best pure scorer in the world. His only problem is injuries. Three teams on the rise
1. Lightning. New owners. New coach. New players. New finish. Hey, it can't finish any lower than last again, right?
2. Capitals. Last season Alex Ovechkin took them to the playoffs. This season he takes them deep into the playoffs.
3. Blackhawks. Young guns Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will get them into the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and only the second time since 1997.
Three teams on the decline
1. Avalanche. Somehow it sneaked into the playoffs last season, but now goaltending is a question mark.
2. Thrashers. After finally making the playoffs two seasons ago, they are moving backward again. And it's only a matter of time before the no-so-young-anymore Ilya Kovalchuk gets fed up and begs out of Atlanta.
3. Islanders. They don't have any offensive punch, and they fired coach Ted Nolan, the best thing the franchise had going for it. Three things to love this season
1. The new schedule. Hooray! The NHL finally dumped that unbalanced schedule, and now every team will play every other team at least once. We'd still love it if teams played each other at least twice — once at home, once on the road — but this is a start.
2. The outdoor game. This season the NHL takes the winter classic to legendary Wrigley Field, where the Blackhawks will host the Red Wings on New Year's Day. We'd still love to see the All-Star Game become the outdoor game.
3. It's hockey. We love just about everything.
Three things to hate this season
1. Because of a legal dispute, the Hockey Night in Canada theme song is no longer on Hockey Night in Canada. That just stinks.
2. Jaromir Jagr is playing in Russia. No player was more exciting to watch over the past 17 seasons.
3. Because of the goofy schedule, Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Vancouver don't come here this season. That means, among others, no Jarome Iginla, no Roberto Luongo, no coach Wayne Gretzky, above, and no Ducks, one of hockey's top teams. Teams that had the best summer
1. Lightning. Drafted Steven Stamkos, picked up Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Radim Vrbata, Andrej Meszaros and Olaf Kolzig, and re-acquired Vinny Prospal.
2. Sharks. Added two elite defensemen, Dan Boyle and Rob Blake.
3. Devils. Two great signings, centers Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.
Teams that had the worst summer
1. Penguins. Their big loss was Marian Hossa. They also lost Ryan Malone and pesky Jarkko Ruutu.
2. Rangers. They should be okay, but still, they lost Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Ryan Hollweg, Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan.
3. Avalanche. They lost top goalie Jose Theodore and second-leading scorer Andrew Brunette.
Three things we think will happen
1. The Maple Leafs will stink again, and that's bad. Whether you hate the Leafs or bleed blue and white, the league is always way more interesting when the Leafs are good.
2. John Tortorella will be behind someone's bench before the season is over.
3. At some point this season, Lightning fans will look at the power play, sigh and say, "Wish we still had Dan Boyle.'' Tom Jones' predictions
Stanley Cup: Red Wings over Canadiens.
Hart Trophy (MVP): Alex Ovechkin, Capitals
Norris Trophy (Best defenseman): Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings
Vezina Trophy (Best goalie): Carey Price, Canadiens
Calder Trophy (Best rookie): Steven Stamkos, Lightning
Jack Adams Award (Best coach): Barry Melrose, Lightning
First coach to be fired: Lindy Ruff, Sabres
Comeback player of the year: Sean Avery, Stars
Team that will be better than you believe: Senators
Team that will be worse than you believe: Stars