Well, it is finally here. After all the posturing and arguing back and forth between players, the NHL Season will finally start this Saturday. It's a shortened season with only 48 games on the schedule, every one taking place within the conference. I have no problem with that. That way when a team does or doesn't make the Playoffs, they can't look back to losses outside of the conference.
But with the Lockout finally over, we now have a season to look forward to. I don't think this season should have an asterisk next to it for the eventual Stanley Cup winner. Whoever wins will still have to go through a grueling Playoff schedule that, in my opinion, is the toughest Playoff format in any professional sport. That is what makes it so much fun to watch, even when your team doesn't make the post-season.
So with all that said, lets get into my pre-season Power Rankings. I will try to update these weekly by Thursday night.
1. Los Angeles Kings
-As they should, the defending Stanley Cup Champs start at the top. Los Angeles put it all together last season and made a run to the Cup as the 8th seed in the Western Conference. They've always had a lot of talent and they finally put it together to make a run in the Playoffs last year. The Kings return almost the same team that won the Cup last year. Johnathan Quick will look to build off his Vezina Trophy season. The only bad thing for ther Kings to start the year is that they will be without Anze Kopitar to start the season due to a knee injury.
Biggest Question: Can The Kings Avoid A Cup Hangover?
-The team defending the Stanley Cup often times struggles out of the gate. Last year, the Bruins started 3-7 before putting together a solid 3 month run. Remember, despite their Cup win, they did only get in as an 8 seed. Los Angeles can't afford to fall behind early in the standings in a shortened season.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
-Some people may question having the Penguins this high, but I like them better as an overall team than some others in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh made a big move at the Draft, trading C Jordan Staal to Carolina. They got a nice prospect package in return. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will lead the team in scoring. Pittsburgh will need to hope that Marc Andre Fleury can shake off a bad performance in last year's post-season against the Flyers.
Biggest Question: The Health of Sidney Crosby?
-Crosby is said to be 100% healthy, but you have to wonder what one more big hit will do to Sid the Kid. Pittsburgh played well without him last year, but without Jordan Staal to step in and fill Crosby's spot this year, will the Pens youngsters be able to answer the potential call?
3. Boston Bruins
-After a slow start to the season, Boston was finally able to come together and win the Northeast Division rather easily. The Bruins are the perfect mixture of toughness and skill. Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic are there to get physical, while Tyler Seguin and David Krejci are there to make plays. Boston won't have to deal with the distraction of Goalie Tim Thomas this year, as he has decided to stay at home rather than come and play. Tuukka Rask is used to the starting spotlight, so it shouldn't be a problem for him. Boston didn't make too many moves in the off-season, so a shortened training camp shouldn't be too much of a problem for them.
Biggest Question: Can Boston Forget Last Season's Playoffs?
-Boston was a heavy favorite in the East last year to make another Stanley Cup run. But they were shut down by a hungry Capitals team. Boston had problems scoring in the post-season and if they face those same struggles to start this year, it could be trouble.
4. New York Rangers
-The Rangers made perhaps the biggest splash of the off-season, finally completing the long awaited trade for Columbus winger Rick Nash. Nash is one of the best playmakers in the game and adds even more fire power to the Rangers offense. New York didn't give up much to get Nash, so they keep together a lot of the same pieces that gave the Rangers the top seed in the East last year. Henrik Lundqvist is great between the pipes for the Rangers, and as long as his defense doesn't let him down, is one of the best in the NHL.
Biggest Question: Can All These Stars Play Well As A Unit?
-One reason I am hesitant to jump on the Rangers band wagon is because of all the star power in one room. Just because you have a handful of great players doesn't mean that they will play well together as one. Nash will have a week to get used to playing with his new linemates.
5. Vancouver Canucks
-Vancouver always seems to have a lot of talent, but they can never put together a Stanley Cup winning team. Last year Vancouver was the #1 seed in the Western Conference, but they were dispatched of in 5 games in the Playoffs by the eventual Champion LA Kings. The twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin will lead the team on offense and they bolster a very solid defensive unit lead by Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. On paper, Vancouver has one of the most talent teams in the West.
Biggest Question: What In The World Do You Do In Goal?
-Perhaps the biggest result from last year's Playoff dud was the changing of the guard between the pipes. After a horrible performance from Roberto Luongo, the Canucks gave the reigns to Cory Schneider and he did not look back. Schneider is expected to start the season, but Luongo is still on the team. How big of a distraction will he be? When will he be dealt? I don't think Luongo is long for Vancouver, and the sooner he is gone, the better it will be for the team overall.
6. Chicago Blackhawks
-Similar to Vancouver, Chicago has a very good team on paper. In the last post-season, Chicago ran into a hot goalie in Mike Smith in Phoenix and were ousted in the first round. One reason I think Chicago can succeed early on this year is because, just like Boston, they did very little to their roster in the off-season. Chicago will continue to be lead by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Chicago re-signed Johnny Oduya to help keep intact a great defense lead by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Biggest Question: How Far Can These Goalies Take Chicago?
-Chicago has always seemed to have problems in net. This year, they will rely on Corey Crawford and Ray Emery to get them by. Crawford didn't have a great 11-12 campaign and will need to improve his play or risk losing his job to Emery. The only problem for Chicago is that Emery isn't a better goalie. So if they are forced to go to Emery, Chicago may already be in trouble.
7. Philadelphia Flyers
-The Flyers saw a changing of the guard last year. They went from a team lead by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to a team lead by Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell. Many people thought the Flyers were nuts for trading away their star players, but it looks like they knew exactly what they were doing. They got a great return in Wayne Simmonds and other prospects. Philadelphia has a lot of young talent on this team with Jakub Voracek, Matt Read and Luke and Brayden Schenn. With the young talent the Flyers have, they should be a top team in the East for the next couple of years.
Biggest Question: What Else? GOALTENDING!
-It seems to be a running theme with a lot of these teams at the top. The Flyers have a lot of talent, but their goaltending is a major issue. Philly signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine year deal last off-season, and there are already questions about his performance level. He's now the undisputed starter in Philly. If he struggles and starts to go on weird Twitter rants again, will he bring down the whole Flyers team with him?
8. St. Louis Blues
-There is finally a reason to be hopeful if you are a Blues fan. When Ken Hitchcock took over St. Louis last season, he got them to buy into playing two way hockey. That resulted in a great run put together, as the team went 43-15-11 after Hitchcock took over. The Blues are a young team lead by a lot of guys who aren't world known players, but are great hard-working two way players. David Backes and Alexander Steen are the team leaders. St, Louis also has a great combo in goal, with Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak both being great options. The Blues are a young team and on the rise in the West.
Biggest Question: Will Youth Continue To Hold Serve?
-While the youth on the Blues is a good thing, it could also be a problem if the team struggles early on. If St. Louis can't get their scoring going, who steps up to take the role of leader on the team? Despite being a great two way hockey team, St. Louis was only 21st in goals scored last year. They'll need more offensive production if they want to get to the next level.
9. San Jose Sharks
-I may be a bit higher on the Sharks than most people. But again, they are a team that did not go through a lot of change during the off-season. The Sharks have made the Playoffs in the last eight season and have a strong veteran group lead by Joe Thornton. But despite all of the regular season success of the Sharks, they have yet to make it to a Stanley Cup final. San Jose's top two lines might be the best in the NHL. Their defense also received a boost with the addition of Brad Stuart to the mix. There's no reason to think the Sharks won't be a Playoff team again this year.
Biggest Question: Is It Now Or Never?
-As I said above, the Sharks have a lot of talent but can never seem to get over the hump and into the Stanley Cup Finals. Last year they were handled quite easily by the Blues in five games. With their top stars not getting any younger, you have to wonder whether or not this may be the last go around for this Sharks team as is.
10. Washington Capitals
-So are all the distractions finally gone in Washington? After the Capitlas fired Coach Bruce Boudreau in November, they hired Dale Hunter who got this team playing a more aggressive style of hockey. But Hunter didn't want to come back, so the team made former player and now Hall of Famer Adam Oates head coach. The reason I have the Capitals this high is because I really like what I saw out of Braden Holtby last season. If Holtby can play as well as he did in the post-season, and with the talent he has in front of him in Alex Ovecnhkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals should be the favorites in the Southeast.
Biggest Question: Can Adam Oates Keep These Guys Focused?
-One of the biggest problems Washington always seems to have is staying focused and playing good two way hockey. Dale Hunter had these guys playing that way, and now it will be up to Oates to keep it up. We know Ovechkin and Backstrom have the skill, but they need to play well at both ends of the ice for the Capitals to succeed.
11. Nashville Predators
-Nashville played some very strong hockey last year headed into the post-season. They took out the Red Wings in the first round and looked like a team ready to take the next step. Then free agency came, and they lost top Defenseman Ryan Suter, and almost lost Shea Weber. The Predators were forced to match the massive offer sheet from the Flyers. Under Barry Trotz, Nashville has always been a hard nose hockey team that plays well on both ends of the ice. With Goalie Pekka Rinne between the pipes, the Predators have a good chance of making the Playoffs again.
Biggest Question: Who Steps Up To Replace Ryan Suter?
-There is no doubt that the loss of Suter will be a big one for the Predators. The pairing of Suter and Weber was one of the best in the NHL. Nashville will hope youngsters Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi can pick up the slack, but that is asking a lot from some young d-men.
12. Detroit Red Wings
-These aren't your father's Red Wings anymore. After a disappointing 1st round exit in last year's Playoffs, veteran D Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement, and forward Tomas Holmstrom did the same after the lockout ended. That means this team is now officially in the hands of talent forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Last year was the first time since the 1990-1991 season that the Red Wings finished lower than 2nd place in their division. Will an influx of youth help them out this year?
Biggest Question: Who Takes Over For Nicklas Lidstrom?
-The retirement of Lidstrom not only creates a leadership void, but it also leaves a huge hole on the blue line for the Red Wings. Detroit will hope youngster Brendan Smith can step in, but it is asking a lot for him to replace Lidstrom. Detroit's blue line could be a weakness this year, and that could expose the average at best goaltending of Jimmy Howard.
13. New Jersey Devils
-The Devils surprised a lot of people last year when they made their run to the Stanley Cup Finals. But despite the success the Devils had last year, they will be hard pressed to duplicate it this year. Zach Parise is gone, and Martin Brodeur isn't getting any younger. And the youngster the Devils hoped could replace Parise, Adam Henrique, is out until early February. The Devils play in the toughest division in the NHL, and the loss of Parise won't help matters.
Biggest Question: The Last Hoorah For Marty?
-Martin Brodeur is 40 years old, but he just signed a two year deal this past summer. There is no doubt that Brodeur is one of the greatest goalies of all time, perhaps the best. But his play has been going down the last few years, and you have to wonder if Brodeur's age will catch up to him sooner rather than later.
14. Buffalo Sabres
-After a rough start to the year, the Sabres came on strong at the end and just missed the Playoffs. They faced a lot of questions mid-season about their toughness after a lack of response to Milan Lucic running Ryan Miller. The Sabres addressed that this off-season by trading for Steve Ott. Buffalo will hope that the line of Drew Stafford-Tyler Ennis-Marcus Foligno will continue to play as well as they did to end the year. If the youngsters play to form, the Sabres should be a Playoff team.
Biggest Question: How Much Longer Do Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff Have Left?
-Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff are the longest running GM/Coach combo in the NHL. But for all the years they've been here, they only have one Stanley Cup Finals appearance to show for it. With the young talent the Sabres have this year, they should be able to get into the Playoffs. But if the Sabres miss out again, will new owner Terry Pegula want change?
15. Edmonton Oilers
-The Oilers have some of the best hockey fans in the NHL. They have been yearning for the Playoffs now for years. Their last appearance was in the first season after the last lockout. Well, the Oilers may finally be ready to take the next step this year. Edmonton is a very young team but they have a lot of talent. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are all great talents. With a veteran supporting class of Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth, Edmonton could be a fun team to watch.
Biggest Question: Will The Goaltending Hold Edmonton Back?
-Despite all the talent the Oilers have, they still have a big question mark in goal. Devan Dubnyk has a lot of critics as he has yet to prove that he can be a full time starter in the NHL. Dubnyk has a lot of talent in front of him this year. If he can live up to the standards of a starting NHL goalie, he may be what holds the Oilers back from making the Playoffs.
16. Ottawa Senators
-Most people picked the Senators to finish dead last in the Northeast Division last year. But Ottawa silenced all of their critics and made it into the Playoffs. And they gave the Rangers a run for their money in the 1st round. Erik Karlsson put together a great year in rout to a Norris Trophy win. You have to commend the job first year coach Paul MacLean did with this team. With the key pieces returning, Ottawa hopes to build off the success if last season.
Biggest Question: Will Ottawa Regress or Progress?
-When teams put together a strong and surprising season, they are often expected to build on it the next season. But sometimes those teams can regress as well. Ottawa will need to rely on veterans Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza to keep this team focused. Teams won't be surprised by Ottawa this year, so they should expect others best every night.
17. Minnesota Wild
-In the middle of December last year, the Minnesota Wild were sitting on top of the Western Conference. But the Wild went on a historically bad run and missed the Playoffs by 14 points. The Wild made the biggest splash during the off-season, signing prized free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Minnesota now has a lot of talent up front with Mikko Koivu and Danny Heatley already on the team. Add youngster Mikael Granlund to the mix, and the Wild could be a dangerous team in the West.
Biggest Question: Will There Be An Adjustment Period?
-Anytime you sign a handful of new players to your team, there is always going to be an adjustment period. And now with a shortened season and training camp, you can almost certainly expect some early struggles from the Wild. But with the talent level Minnesota has, the adjustment period shouldn't be long.
18. Carolina Hurricanes
-Carolina made the biggest splash at the NHL Draft, trading for former Pittsburgh C Jordan Staal. Staal now gets to play along side his brother Eric. Add Alexander Semin to the mix along with talented young forward Jeff Skinner, and the Hurricanes have a lot of talent up front. Again, there is a lot of talent in the Southeast. If Cam Ward can play up to the level he is capable of, Carolina should compete for the Southeast Title.
Biggest Question: Who Steps Up On The Blue Line
-Even if Cam Ward plays to the best of his abilities, he is still only as good as the defense in front of him. Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are the work horses, but they will need more from their supporting class. That includes youngster Justin Faulk, who will be asked to shoulder more of a load this year.
19. Tampa Bay Lightning
-Two years ago the Lightning were one win away from making the Stanley Cup Finals. Last year the Lightning took a bad step back and missed the Playoffs all together. There's no excuse for that when you have as much talent as Tampa does up front with Vincent Lecavailer, Martin St. Louis and Steve Stamkos. Tampa will expect more from D-Man Victor Hedman as well, and the addition of Matt Carle on the blueline will take some pressure off Hedman.
Biggest Question: Is Andres Lindback Ready For The Spotlight?
-Tampa had big problems in goal last year, and they hope they answered those problems when they traded for Lindback. Lindback was backing up Pekka Rinne last year in Nashville, but Lindback showed he has the talent to earn a starting gig. Now that Lindback has it, will he succeed or struggle in the spotlight? That could be what determines the Lightning's fate this season.
20. Dallas Stars
-The Stars made a handful of moves in the off-season that they feel bettered their team. They traded for C Derek Roy and signed veterans Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. Despite Jagr and Whitney being in their 40s, they should play well in a shortened season and not have to worry about tired legs later in the season. The Stars offense will focus on Jamie Benn, who should only continue to improve as the year goes on. Dallas has a lot of youngsters on defense that will need to perform.
Biggest Question: Will This Team Play at 100% All The Time?
-While Jarmoir Jagr and Derek Roy both have talent on offense, they also have been known to not give 100% effort at all times. The Stars can't afford to have that happen in a short season. Hopefully the veteran presence of Ray Whitney will rub off on the younger players and Roy and Jagr. These new veterans can't set a bad example in the locker room.
21. Florida Panthers
-How could a team that won its division last year start this low in the rankings? Well, for one, other teams in the division improved. I also think that the Panthers are the fourth most talented team in this division. There's no denying Florida's run under first year coach Kevin Dineen. They have a lot of veterans in place with Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. Florida will hope that Peter Mueller can put his concussion problems behind him and play up to the level he is capable of.
Biggest Question: A Homecoming On The Way?
-Roberto Luongo is on the trading block, and one of the rumored destinations has been the Panthers, where he started his career. Last year the Panthers relied on Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, and they took the blame for the Panthers first round exit. So now the Panthers have to decide if they want to win now and get Luongo, or wait for youngster Jacob Markstrom to come in and assume the reigns.
22. Anaheim Ducks
-Former Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau took over this team in December and almost took them into the Playoffs. If Boudreau can keep up that success, the Ducks will easily make the Playoffs. Anaheim has the best trio of forwards in the NHL in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry. But Getzlaf and Perry are both unrestricted free agents this off-season, and that cloud will loom large and the season goes on.
Biggest Question: Production From Elsewhere?
-Every team Anaheim plays will be focused on stopping the Ducks Big 3. That means Anaheim will need production from its other players to get to the post-season. Can Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu put together one more good run? Can the Ducks defense step up and provide some points? All of that will be necessary for Anaheim this year.
23. Colorado Avalanche
-If Colorado could re-sign Ryan O'Reilly, their ranking would be a little higher. But O'Reilly still remains un-signed, and Colorado still has a lot of questions surrounding it. Second year player Gabriel Landeskog was named captain of the team, and that puts a lot of burden on his shoulders. The Avalanche signed former Islander P.A. Parenteau in the off-season. While the stats are there, you have to wonder how much of it was because he played with Johnathan Tavares. Colorado was only 25th in the league in offense last season, so that will need to get better.
Biggest Question: Too Young To Succeed?
-The Avalanche are a young team all around, and you have to wonder if that will hinder their success this year. Semyon Varlamov is only 24 but was in the bottom third of the league in all goaltending categories last year. With so many young players on the team, someone will need to step up. The Avs hope it will be Landenskog, but he will need help from others.
24. Phoenix Coyotes
-Again, another division winner, and a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, starts so low. Everyone seems to write off the Coyotes and then they always make a run. Goalie Mike Smith carried this team on his back in the post-season. Phoenix struggles to score, and the departure of Ray Whitney doesn't help that. Phoenix needs someone to step up on offense to help out Mike Smith if they want to repeat last year's success.
Biggest Question: Re-Location Or Staying Put?
-The one question that always seems to surround Phoenix is whether or not they will stay in Phoenix. Greg Jamison is said to be the next potential buyer, but we all know how deals can fall through at the last minute. Phoenix needs a commitment from someone so more fans show up at their games. They may lose money, but fans will show up if they get a firm commitment to the area.
25. Montreal Canadiens
-Montreal had a year that they would like to forget last year. They are coming into the new year with a new coach and GM. They have also put the distraction of Scott Gomez behind. Gomez and his $7 million cap hit has been told to stay home by the team. Montreal, however, needs to re-sign star d-man P.K. Subban before the season starts. Subban is a spark plug on the blue line and makes his team better than this ranking.
Biggest Question: Where Does The Scoring Come From?
-The Habs got tougher this off-season with the additions of Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust, but there isn't a lot of scoring to go around. Montreal is thin at Center and are relying on David Desharnais to be their number one center, a big step up for him.
26. Calgary Flames
-The Flames have missed the Playoffs the last three seasons, but the team refuses to re-build and has decided to stick with its current roster. Calgary did bring in a new coach in Bob Hartley, but that won't be enough to turn a team that has struggled around. Calgary won't go anywhere until they start re-building, and that may still be a year away.
Biggest Question: Jarome's Last Stand?
-Jarome Iginla has been the subject of trade speculation in the last year. Iginla will be a free agent at the end of the season, and if the Flames are out of the Playoff hunt, you can bet he will be traded. Iginla has been the face of the Flames franchise, but he deserves to play for a contender.
27. Toronto Maple Leafs
-Toronto made the biggest splash since the Lockout ended, firing GM Brian Burke completely out of left field. No one saw it coming. The Leafs haven't made the Playoffs in eight seasons and it will be tough to do it this year. The Leafs acquired James van Riemsdyk this off-season to help on offense, but there isn't a lot of depth after JVR, Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel.
Biggest Question: Who's The Goalie?
-Toronto has always been the favorite to land Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. But the Leafs won't give up a kings ransom to get him. James Reimer was injured last season and could never really live up to the expectations put on him. With Leafs fans dreaming of Roberto Luongo, will Reimer feel the pressure?
28. Winnipeg Jets
-It was a great feel good story for the Jets last year. They finished eight points out of a Playoff spot, but there will probably be some drop off this year. Winnipeg was 26th in goals allowed last season. Winnipeg re-signed goalie Ondrej Pavelec in the off-season, which I don't get. Pavelec then went on to be charged with drunk driving, and forward Evander Kane spent his lockout with bricks of money in Las Vegas. There isn't a lot of good going on in Winnipeg.
-Biggest Question: Who's The Leader?
-Andrew Ladd is the team leader, but someone needs to step up to help out. With Pavelec and Kane experiencing their own off-season issues, there aren't a lot of prospects to look around. If maturity issues face this team, it could be a long season for Winnipeg.
29. New York Islanders
-John Tavares is one of the best young prospects in the NHL. But the Islanders haven't surrounded him with enough talent to help make this team a winner. Tavares lost his wing mate in P.A. Parenteau to the Avs, and you have to wonder if that will affect his play. The team announced a move to Brooklyn, and you have to wonder if that will effect the mental aspect of the team and will cause the fans not to show up. It is a shame to see Tavares talents go to waste like this.
Biggest Question: Will Lubomir Show Up?
-The Islanders made a move to help out their blue line in the off-season when they traded for Lubomir Visnovsky. But the problem is, Visnovsky is staying in Russia for the time being. It is pretty obvious he doesn't want to play for the Islanders. So even if he does show up, will he be wanted on the team?
30. Columbus Blue Jackets
-The fans of Columbus are dying for a winning team. Sadly, they won't be getting that any time soon. Columbus finally traded away their biggest distraction in Rick Nash this off-season. But that instantly makes this team worse. Columbus has some solid depth at the blue line, but it will be a long season in Blue Jackets land.
Biggest Question: How Will Success Be Measured?
-Columbus will look to build off of something this year. They will be looking for someone to step up and be a leader, and they hope former Ranger Brandon Dubinsky will do that. Columbus will also hope goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will build off his KHL success as well.
There you have it. Agree? Disagree? I expect these rankings to fluctuate a lot this season. I'm just glad the NHL is back and ready to go.
Until Next Time,
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka