Previewing how the NHL will play out during this lockout-shortened season. Let's start with the Western Conference.
1. Vancouver: If the Canucks can survive the short term without Ryan Kesler (hip surgery), theres no reason they wont remain the favorites in the weakest division in the league. The biggest addition here is the free-agent signing of defenseman Jason Garrison (six-year, 27.6 million contract). Also, the realization -- finally -- that Roberto Luongo is not the answer and never has been in goal. Cory Schneider, the clubs outspoken player rep during the lockout, got the job in the playoffs for good. The Sedin twins remain the gold dust of the division.
2. Colorado: The Avs have gotten progressively better in recent years and now have a young Calder Trophy winner on the roster in Gabriel Landeskog. Parts of this team look very exciting. Goalie Semyon Varlamov can be better than the 2.59, .913 showing he had last season. He is also part of the 20-plus age group that is carrying this club. The Avs' biggest move was bringing P.A. Parenteau out west with a four-year, 16 million deal to help Matt Duchesne. Watch this club rise.
3. Minnesota: Only in the NHL could an owner criticize 100 million contracts and then go out and steal everyone elses thunder with two such deals that landed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Minnesota gone Wild without girls! The Wild had a puny 177 goals scored last year and now figure to hit 200 easy. Alas, these signings dont guarantee a Cup because Suter is the only force back there on the blue line. GM Chuck Fletcher toughened his lineup with Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka. Dany Heatley? Anyones guess there.
4. Edmonton: The Oilers, besides looking for a new arena, keep finishing in the dregs, keep getting the top picks in the draft and keep adding new faces. This season, it figures to be Nail Yakupov, the No. 1 overall pick in last Junes draft, and free agent Justin Schultz. Now, at some point, with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkkins, etc., youd think this speedy group might win some games and make the playoffs. Still hasnt happened. And given the Oilers' blue line and goaltending (Devan Dubnyk), it might not happen this season, either.
5. Calgary: Bob Hartley, long removed from his Cup-winning days in Colorado, takes over behind the bench with a team that still relies on the same, older players -- Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. GM Jay Feasters only two offseason moves of consequence were the trade he struck with Washington for defenseman Dennis Wideman, then signing him to a five-year, 26.25 million contract and adding Jiri Hudler up front. Simply not enough to assure Calgary again Flames out. Time to move Jay Bouwmeester?
1. St. Louis: What a season for coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Doug Armstrong in St. Louey. The Blues' 109 points were second only to Vancouver out west. Unfortunately, the Blues hit a decidedly flat note in the playoffs when they should have gone far. Almost every core player returns, led by the trio of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo -- all three 50-plus point getters. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott formed an impenetrable goalie tandem with a combined 1.78 GAA and .932 save percentage. Gonna be a savage battle in the division this year.
2. Nashville: No team does more with less than Nashville, though we need to mention the Predators draw hefty revenue-sharing checks, too. Yeah, Suter is gone, but GM David Poile saved the franchise by matching the Flyers 14-year, 110 million restricted free agent offer sheet for Shea Weber, and theres always Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne back there in goal. The Preds have been on the upswing for a while now under coach Barry Trotz. Theyll battle the Blues for the division crown with Rinne.
3. Chicago:A couple years removed from the Blackhawks' Cup run, they remain a team with lots of flash at forward, better than average defense, but ... very questionable in net with Corey Crawford and ex-Flyer Ray Emery. Not that the 'Hawks were that much better in goal with Antti Niemi when they won the Cup, but they were better than the Flyers with Michael Leighton. Could Patrick Sharp (33 goals) become the top scorer even with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa around? Special teams need to improve.
4. Detroit: Once upon a time, this was a place every free agent wanted to go. Not so much anymore. The lure to Hockeytown is harder now with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the fact normally savvy GM Ken Holland did nothing of consequence to help his club once he lost out on Suter. All eyes are on Jonathan Ericsson to see if he will be the next Lidstrom. The club is older up front, too, and has bodies and points to replace. Among the questions: can Damien Brunner replace Jiri Hudlers 25 goals and 50 points? Luckily, the Wings have Jimmy Howard in net.
5. Columbus: The exodus of decent players and even high-end players continued in Ohio over the summer as young Scott Howson also continued to prove to be the worst GM in hockey. The Rick Nash trade that brought Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov plus Tim Erixon was a disaster. Sergei Bobrovsky could win the starters job in goal, but hes not going to excite people. If ever there was a chance for R.J. Umberger to shoot to the top the charts, this season is it. Hes the top goal scorer (20) coming back.
1. Los Angeles: When was the last time you saw us pick the Kings over San Jose or Anaheim to win the division? When was the last time a defending Cup champion brought back its entire championship lineup? That is such a rarity in hockey or any sport for that matter. Kudos to GM Dean Lombardi for re-signing Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Jonathan Quick to a 10-year, 58 million contract -- a reasonable cap hit for a guy who pretty much proved once again that the goalie makes all the difference in a Cup Final. L.A. scored the fewest goals in the division and needs some forward to become a 30-goal guy again. Anze Kopitar injured his right knee playing in Sweden during the lockout and could miss a few games at the beginning of the season.
2. Phoenix: The biggest hurdle for the Coyotes was whether they would get to stay in Glendale and actually resolve their ownership issue. Much of that was finalized heading into September for the defending Pacific Division champs. Shane Doan dragged out his negotiations all summer before re-signing, but the Coyotes' leading scorer, Ray Whitney (77 points), headed to Dallas to join Jaromir Jagr. Goaltending was and remains the Coyotes' strength in Mike Smith, who has thrived under goalie coach Sean Burke. Smith was brilliant -- 2.20 GAA and .930 save percentage last season. Phoenix almost made it to the Cup Final, too.
3. Anaheim: Likeable coach Bruce Boudreau didnt get it done in Washington and he didnt do it in Southern California either, as the Ducks failed to make the playoffs last season. Teemu Selanne is now 42 and Bobby Ryan is either very unhappy or very misunderstood, yet still wanting to be a Flyer down deep. Goalie Jonas Hillers health was an issue last season despite his 29 victories. Ryan Getzlaf has to regain the magic in his stick because hes capable of more than twice the number of goals he had last season -- 11.
4. San Jose: Lets face it. Boston was right. The Bruins just were never going to win a Cup with Joe Thornton. And it appears that the Sharks wont, either. No team in the NHL has been picked to win so many times and disappointed every time. And with each year, these Sharks lost some of their collective bite. It's interesting that GM Doug Wilson went out and signed Adam Burish because, other than Marty Havlat, there was no one on this roster with any snarl left in them. Dan Boyle is 36, but the Flyers could have used him on defense.
5. Dallas: What a truly odd fit: Jagr in Dallas. With Whitney, too. GM Joe Nieuwendyk is hoping that what Jagr inspired in Philadelphia -- a strong, across-the-board commitment to fitness on and off the ice -- will transpire in Big D, where the Stars havent been to the playoffs in four springs. If Jagr gives them 50 points and can remain healthy throughout -- a big question -- maybe it works. His influence on youngsters Loui Eriksson (71 points) and Jamie Benn (63 points) could mean tons. Benn, a RFA, remained unsigned as of Wednesday.