Tom Jones previews the NHL season

Veteran Marty Turco takes over as the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie from Antii Niemi, whose departure was part of maneuvers to get under the salary cap.

Associated Press

Veteran Marty Turco takes over as the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie from Antii Niemi, whose departure was part of maneuvers to get under the salary cap.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic: This is the best division in hockey. The Flyers shocked everyone last season by going to the Stanley Cup final, yet the Penguins and Devils, the latter thanks to bringing back Ilya Kovalchuk, remain the teams to beat. The Rangers seem to be sliding, but goalie Henrik Lundqvist alone makes them a playoff threat. Then there's the Islanders, who seem to be getting a bit better every year. Every team could be a postseason contender.

Northeast: The Sabres made some nice offseason moves by bringing in veterans Rob Niedermayer, Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold, plus they have the best goalie in the world, Ryan Miller. They and the Bruins should battle for the division crown, with the Canadiens not far behind. The Senators will be better with free-agent defenseman Sergei Gonchar, and the Maple Leafs continue to go through a major rebuilding project that started two years too late.

Southeast: The Capitals, led by Alex Ovechkin, are clearly the cream of this crop. It will be shocking if any team comes within 20 points of them. The Lightning and Thrashers are better and will play leapfrog with the Hurricanes for second place. The Panthers will struggle to avoid last place, though you could argue that their goaltending (Tomas Vokoun, Scott Clemmensen) is the best in the division.

Western Conference

Central: It's hard to figure out just how good the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks will be with all their departures, but we're guessing they and the Red Wings will fight for supremacy. After that, the Predators, Blues and Blue Jackets always seem on the verge of taking major leaps, but then they don't. Out of those three teams, St. Louis seems like the best bet to stay within shouting distance of the 'Hawks and Wings.

Northwest: The Canucks, with 2009-10 league MVP Henrik Sedin and goalie Roberto Luongo, are head and shoulders above everyone else in what probably is the weakest division in hockey. The Flames and Avalanche come next. Watch for the rebuilding Oilers to show improvement. The Wild is going fast in the wrong direction and could end up with the worst record in hockey.

Pacific: The Sharks continue to have as much talent as any team in hockey and one of these seasons are going to win the Stanley Cup. Maybe this is the season. The Kings have built themselves a nice team, and there's no reason to believe that last season's surprise team, the Coyotes, won't be as good again. The Ducks and Stars will bring up the rear, but it's never shocking to see those teams in the playoff hunt.

Three teams on the rise

Tampa Bay Lightning

Don't start saving for Stanley Cup final tickets, but after missing the playoffs the past three seasons, the Lightning should be able to contend for a playoff spot if Simon Gagne can stay healthy, Vinny Lecavalier can play like Vinny Lecavalier, the defense doesn't fold and the goaltending doesn't cost it games with soft goals. This is the best the Lightning has looked heading into a season in several years.

Atlanta Thrashers

Remember former Lightning GM Rick Dudley? He's now in charge in Atlanta and hired former Lightning assistant Craig Ramsay to run the bench. Dudley wasted no time making big changes, bringing in Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel from the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks, and goalie Chris Mason from St. Louis. They still lack a major star, and we're not even sure the playoffs are within reach. But this is a better team headed in the right direction.

Edmonton Oilers

Let's be clear: We're not even predicting the Oilers can make the playoffs. But with a new coach (Tom Renney) and three recent first-round draft picks — Jordan Eberle (2008), Magnus Paajarvi (2009) and Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in June — this team can see light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.

Three teams on the decline

Chicago Blackhawks

A team just can't lose the kind of talent the Blackhawks lost in the offseason and be as good as it was. Plus, is goalie Marty Turco a Stanley Cup-contending goalie? Chicago remains one of the better teams. It just isn't as good as it was last season.

Boston Bruins

The B's racked up 103 points last season but then became the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs. Now comes word that Marc Savard, their best forward, still is bothered by postconcussion problems. Maybe the Bruins will shake off last season's collapse and be just fine, but something tells us this season could go south right out of the gate.

New York Rangers

Actually, we hope the Rangers do well, because the league is always more fun when the Rangers and coach John Tortorella are winning. But New York's best scorer, Marian Gaborik, is injury-prone, and if goalie Henrik Lundqvist struggles at all, the Rangers will be eliminated from playoff contention long before the last game, which is when they lost a spot last season.

Team with the best offseason

It's hard to imagine any team having a more productive offseason than the Lightning. (Of course, we said this a couple of years ago when the Oren Koules regime came to town, and that didn't pan out so well.) Still, look at what the Lightning did. New owner Jeff Vinik brought in general manager Steve Yzerman, who then hired a young, energetic coach in Guy Boucher and made slick roster moves by picking up forward Simon Gagne, defenseman Pavel Kubina and goalie Dan Ellis. And he re-signed forward Marty St. Louis.

Team with the worst offseason

The Blackhawks didn't gut themselves, and they still have stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. But they did blow themselves up a bit. Gone are major contributors Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Kris Versteeg, Adam Burish, John Madden and, in the biggest subtraction of all, Stanley Cup-winning goalie Antii Niemi. They did add veteran goalie Marty Turco, but wow, what losses.

Predictions

Stanley Cup: Sharks over Capitals | Hart Trophy (MVP): Alex Ovechkin (Caps) | Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Duncan Keith (Blackhawks) | Vezina Trophy (top goalie): Roberto Luongo (Canucks) | Calder Trophy (top rookie): Taylor Hall (Oilers) | Jack Adams (top coach): Guy Boucher (Lightning)

Tom Jones previews the NHL season 10/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 12:19pm]

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