Three teams on the rise
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
This has been one disappointing franchise. It has made the playoffs once in its 10 seasons and is still looking for its first postseason victory. Rick Nash is a big-time superstar, and this year he has some help up front with the acquisition of former Flyer Jeff Carter, who has 29, 46, 33 and 36 goals over the past four seasons. Columbus added James Wisniewski on defense to help the power play and hopes goalie Steve Mason is ready to a star. But it's Carter who will push the Blue Jackets into the playoffs.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs were a tad better last season than they were supposed to be. Despite playing a slew of kids, the Leafs went 37-34-11 and finished only eight points out of a playoff spot. They appear to have a promising goalie in James Reimer, who was called up in late December last season and won 20 of 35 starts. Longtime Sabres star Tim Connolly gives the Leafs a bit more scoring punch, and it might be enough to get them a playoff spot.
3. Boston Bruins
Wait, what? How can the Bruins be a team on the rise when they won the Stanley Cup last season? You can't get any higher than that, can you? Well, yeah, sure. No team has won back-to-back Cups since the 1997-98 Red Wings, but the Bruins have a good shot because most of last season's team returns and they are full of confidence. Remember, the Bruins were the East's third seed in last year's playoffs. We see a No. 1 seed in 2011-12. That's a team on the rise.
Three teams on the decline
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Not to rain on the feel-good parade, but getting back to within a game of the Cup final might be asking too much for a team that advanced way further than anyone expected last season. The Lightning will miss players such as free-agent departures Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim. We're still high on the Lightning. But last season's run might have accelerated expectations. Having goalie Dwayne Roloson for a full season could bail out the Lightning.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Much of the Penguins' success depends on the health of superstar Sidney Crosby. He hasn't played in 10 months because of concussion issues and wasn't ready for Thursday's opener. Meantime, the team's other star, Evgeni Malkin, is trying to return physically and mentally from a severe knee injury. And the Pens go through all this in a division where most of the teams have improved.
3. Vancouver Canucks
Two things can happen when a team loses a Stanley Cup final. It can use the loss as motivation, bear down, get tougher and steamroll everyone. Or it can get depressed, feel sorry for itself and tank. Something tells us the Canucks are going to start this season in a fog. And last season's playoffs raised just as many questions as answers when it comes to goalie Roberto Luongo. The Canucks will be good but not Western Conference-final good.
This is a division that could either be the best in hockey or middle of the pack. The Flyers won it last season but have made a bunch of changes. Key parts Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Kris Versteeg are gone, but they added veteran star Jaromir Jagr. The big addition, however, is Ilya Bryzgalov, who should finally solve Philly's issues in goal. The Rangers could sneak up the ladder with the addition of former Lightning center Brad Richards. The Penguins will challenge again if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy. The Devils' chances, as always, depend on how much 39-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur has left. The Islanders are young and improved but still swimming upstream.
The defending champion Bruins remain the class of the division, especially because most of last season's team returns. But watch out for the Sabres. New owner Terry Pegula is spending money and could have the type of impact on the Sabres that Jeff Vinik has had in Tampa Bay. Plus, any team with goalie Ryan Miller is always a factor. The Canadiens added forward Erik Cole, but their fate rests in the hands of goalie Carey Price. The Habs are a borderline playoff team. The Senators and Maple Leafs bring up the rear, but Toronto seems to have much more of a future than Ottawa. The Senators barely made an offseason move after finishing 13th in the East.
Despite their playoff woes, the Capitals remain the team to beat, especially after adding reliable goalie Tomas Vokoun and much-needed character in former Lightning stalwarts Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern. The Lightning is Washington's biggest challenger and could take the crown if older veterans Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Ryan Malone can stay healthy and productive. The Hurricanes should be improved after finishing one spot out of the playoff pack last season. The Panthers spent gobs of money on offseason free agents, but they added more quantity than quality. They still seem to be in a rebuilding phase. The Jets are rebuilding, too, and it's not going to help that all their division games are so far away. Then again, the people of Winnipeg are just happy to have an NHL team again.
The Blackhawks suffered the familiar Stanley Cup hangover last season, following their 2010 Cup with a first-round playoff exit. Now that that's out of their system, look for them, Detroit and Nashville to jockey for the top spot. The Red Wings lost several vets to retirement (Brian Rafalski, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood) but always seem to keep plugging along. The Blackhawks made some nice additions (Andrew Brunette, Daniel Carcillo), and the Predators are trying to improve on last season, when they won a playoff series for the first time. The Blues and Blue Jackets will fight it out for fourth place, but they are capable of playing with any team on any night.
The Cup-finalist Canucks continue to be the division's best team, and even the absence of star Ryan Kesler (hip) to start the season shouldn't slow their run to first place. The rest of the division is four teams — Calgary, Colorado, Minnesota and Edmonton — staggering around in rebuilding phases. The Wild has added offensive punch in Dany Heatley. The Avalanche has added goalie J.S. Giguere. And the Flames are, well, the same old Flames. The exciting team to track is the Oilers, who continue a youth movement with some of the best young talent in the NHL. This team will be something … in about two more years.
The Kings were an up-and-comer last season, but they could arrive this season — arrive in first place, that is. Already strong, the Kings added veterans Simon Gagne and former Flyers captain Mike Richards. Plus they have two of the game's brightest young stars, defenseman Drew Doughty and forward Anze Kopitar. The Sharks shook things up by trading Dany Heatley to Minnesota for Martin Havlat and should be a Cup contender again. The Ducks are decent, especially with the ageless Teemu Selanne returning for another season. The Coyotes have been up and down in seasons past, but will their goaltending, which now includes former Lightning Mike Smith, be good enough to contend? They'll battle the Stars to stay out of last place.
Stanley Cup: Bruins
Hart Trophy (MVP): Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks
Norris Trophy (best defenseman): Drew Doughty, Kings
Vezina Trophy (best goalie): Ilya Bryzgalov, Flyers
Calder Trophy (best rookie): Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche
Jack Adams Award (best coach): Terry Murray, Kings