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Western Conference

Central Division 

Chicago Blackhawks: Can you say back-to-back championships? Because that’s what the Blackhawks have been thinking of all summer. With an amazing array of offence and defence, the Blackhawks aren’t worried about just getting by in the regular season. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp headline what is undoubtedly the best top six in the Western Conference. In addition, their rich offence is matched by one of the best defensive lineups in the NHL, with both Jonny Oduya and Duncan Keith anchoring their back line. Meanwhile, between the pipes, Corey Crawford isn’t half bad either.  They have speed, power, and finesse. The only question now is, can they be stopped?

Colorado Avalanche: After a disappointing season that was mercifully shortened due to the lockout, the Avalanche hope to turn a new leaf entering the 2013-2014 campaign. Over the summer, legendary alumni Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic assumed important roles within the organization, in a move designed to energize both the players and the fans. Colorado then selected Nathan MacKinnon first overall in the draft with the hope that the skilled centre will turn out to be another star in their already-strong nucleus of young players. Twenty-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog is also looking to dominate this season after struggling with injuries for most of last year. The Avalanche look to have some serious dark horse potential in the West this season if Roy can bring the same intensity and competitive drive to coaching as he did when he strapped on the pads.

Dallas Stars: After missing the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, the Dallas Stars’ push for the playoffs this year began in the off-season with a major shake-up of their roster. The acquisitions of Sergei Gonchar, Tyler Seguin, and Shawn Horcoff bring a mix of youth and leadership to an otherwise lackluster Dallas offence. The addition of Lindy Ruff behind the bench provides Dallas with a seasoned head coach who knows how to win not only in the regular season, but the playoffs as well. While these new acquisitions provide the Stars with a flurry of new weapons, their road back to the post-season will be a challenge in the highly competitive Western Conference.

Minnesota Wild: In the summer of 2012, the Wild spent over $200 million to snag two NHL superstars: Minnesota-born Zach Parise, and star blue-liner Ryan Suter. It seems the team is hoping its investment will finally translate into a winning season. The only major personnel changes in 2013 were the acquisition of center Jason Pominville and Matt Cooke. Young forward Mikael Granlund should provide a burst of talent, eager to make his mark on the NHL in his first full season. Nonetheless, the Wild are a few players short of making a real playoff push; a lack of depth and size will probably deny them a chance from sneaking into the playoffs.

Nashville Predators: The Predators are once again in dire need of some offensive firepower this year to compete with the rest of the league. Their off-season moves were little help—it will be a miracle if new signing Matt Cullen can even hit 35 points this season. The team’s chances lie on the shoulders of younger players such as Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Seth Jones. Nashville should have no problems defending in its own zone thanks to the superstar combo of Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne. It can only get better for the lowest scoring team in the league as they hope to climb out of the league’s cellar.

St. Louis Blues: Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Jay Bouwmeester—three All-Star calibre defencemen—are ready to headline the Blues’ attempt to ascend to the top of the Central Division. On paper, St. Louis has the capacity to dominate games defensively. If the offence can follow captain David Backes’ example and put points on the scoreboard, the Blues will be in good position. All they need now is to solidify their options in net, and St. Louis will have all the pieces to make a deep run in the post-season.

Winnipeg Jets: In order for the Winnipeg Jets to make a serious run at the playoffs this season, a lot will have to go right for the organization. Specifically, the Jets will rely upon goaltender Ondrej Pavelic to deliver top-notch performances on a nightly basis. Offensively, the Jets will need to find secondary scoring, a factor that eluded them last season. The Jets also have to make sure that they use home-ice to their advantage this year (the MTS Center is one of the loudest buildings in the NHL). If the Jets can stay healthy and get off to a good start, they will have a chance to compete in the Western Conference playoff race.

 

Pacific Division 

Anaheim Ducks: An impressive regular season earned the Anaheim Ducks the second seed in the Western Conference. However, a first round upset to the Detroit Red Wings erased the sense of accomplishment. The Ducks’ star duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry remains, while starting goaltender Jonas Hiller should provide another solid season in net. The biggest question mark for Anaheim will be their defence, as veteran Sheldon Souray is likely out until January, and Francois Beauchemin is returning to the ice this season after knee surgery. As long as Getzlaf and Perry can offset the offensive loss of winger Bobby Ryan the Ducks should erase the dismay of last season and make a deep playoff run.

(via The Canadian Press)
(via The Canadian Press)

Calgary Flames: Calgary’s future looks bleak as Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff­—two fan favourites who have embodied Flames hockey for a decade­—are no longer with the organization. Without any major signings, the Flames seem content to continue rebuilding. They have a few good prospects in the pipeline, but lack the seasoning to make an impact this season. Flames fans will be spending most of this season watching their goaltender try to keep pucks out of the net. KHL star Karri Rämö will compete with Joey MacDonald for the honour to mask the mistakes of a talent deprived squad. If Calgary somehow makes it out of the NHL’s bottom five, the season will be deemed a success.

Edmonton Oilers: Every avid hockey fan has been patiently waiting for Edmonton to finally have its dominant breakout season. With budding superstars Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins anchoring their top six, the sky is the limit for this team. Young defenceman Justin Schultz will look to match last year’s point production and hopefully contribute defensively in his own zone. With the additions of veteran defenceman and new captain Andrew Ference, along with winger David Perron, the Oilers just might have what it takes to finally make a respectable playoff push. The only question that remains is whether goaltender Devan Dubnyk has the ability to carry an Oilers team brimming with potential to their first playoff berth since 2007.

Los Angeles Kings: Coming off a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings hope to bring back their fortunes of two years ago when they won the Stanley Cup. The Kings should be primed for another playoff run with the core of their title winning lineup still intact. Just as any championship team will tell you, the Kings’ success this year will depend largely on the play of goaltender, Jonathan Quick, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Quick hopes to build upon his previous years of success and prove his status as an elite NHL goaltender and should lead Los Angeles deep into the post-season once again.

Phoenix Coyotes: The Phoenix Coyotes aim to return to the playoffs after a disappointing 10th-place finish in the lockout-shortened season. The Coyotes were relatively quiet in the offseason, as they believe they have a roster that can contend in the Western Conference. After all, it is virtually the same roster that captured a division title only two years ago. The one splash that the Coyotes did make was the addition of veteran forward Mike Ribeiro, who will provide a calming presence to the team. With a full training camp and complete 82-game season, the Coyotes feel confident that they will be able to return to the playoffs.

 San Jose Sharks: After an upset sweep of the third-seeded Vancouver Canucks in last year’s playoffs and a narrow Game 7 loss to the Kings, the San Jose Sharks are looking to carry the momentum of its unexpected playoff run into this upcoming season. With nine consecutive playoff appearances under its belt, San Jose is still chasing after the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Championship. With young stars Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski locked in for the foreseeable future, as well as veteran leadership from Joe Thornton and Antti Niemi, the San Jose Sharks will undoubtedly be a force to contend with in the Western Conference.

Vancouver Canucks: The ever unpredictable John Tortorella debuts behind the bench for the Canucks this season. Vancouver’s notoriously critical fans and media should prepare for insult and belittlement at the hands of their extremely vocal coach. Vancouverites will be relieved to finally begin a season with a clear-cut option for no. 1 goaltender, Cory Schneider. Vancouver opted to trade Schneider and keep perennial scapegoat Roberto Luongo. Offensively, Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin will spearhead the squad once more along with gritty forward Ryan Kesler. If Luongo can finally live up to his $6.7 million contractg and the team as a whole starts playing with more heart, then a trip to the Western Conference finals is not out of the question.

 

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins: It’s very rare that a Stanley Cup runner-up makes it back to the final, but that is the task at hand for the Bruins this year. The off-season was a welcome period of rest for a roster that was hobbling by the end of the playoffs. The team returning this year is largely the same, although one-time future of the franchise Tyler Seguin was shipped to Dallas after a poor playoff performance and reports of off-ice problems. Loui Eriksson came back the other way and should provide offence as well as a veteran presence on the wing. Jarome Iginla, who spurned the Bruins at last year’s trade deadline, brings veteran leadership to a squad that has the capability to win it all.

Buffalo Sabres: Rebuilding is the name of the game in Buffalo. The Sabres have missed the playoffs in four of the past six years, and last season brought significant changes. Long-time coach Lindy Ruff was fired and Ron Rolston, coach of their AHL affiliate, was brought in as the interim head coach. The team’s core remains largely unchanged, but rumours of the exits of Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller floated around during the off-season and will only continue with the two slated to hit free agency following this season. If Buffalo’s playoff chances disappear early, both Vanek and Miller could find themselves on the block as the team moves towards a younger core.

Detroit Red Wings:  Last season provided a scare for the most consistent franchise in the NHL, with the team just scraping into the playoffs and falling in the second round. As always, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be the ones leading the charge once the puck drops this year. On top of that, a savvy front office was able to add Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss to supplement the production of the fan favourites. Defensively, Niklas Kronwall leads a unit that should play with the tenacity and grit that the ‘hockeytown’ loves to see. Detroit will undoubtedly make the playoffs once again on the backs of their veterans, but lack the youth to sustain a deep post-season run.

Florida Panthers:  After signing veteran goaltender Tim Thomas to a one-year deal, some intrigue will definitely surround the Panthers this year. However, most people would agree that the team’s core is not ready to challenge for a post-season position in the immediate future. Despite a wealth of young talent in their system, they are probably still a few years away from contending in the newly formatted Atlantic division. Many of the components from Florida’s 2012 squad that won the Southeast Division are still in place, but unless a lot goes right for the Panthers as it did then, it will likely be another long season in Sunrise.

Montreal Canadiens: It has now been more than 20 years since the Habs last won a Stanley Cup. The team that finished second place last season has fans hoping that the end of that drought is just around the corner. Veterans Daniel Briere and Douglas Murray were brought in and should be welcome improvements over the outgoing Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle. The young core of Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and P.K. Subban will also benefit from another year of development. The Canadiens limped into the post-season last year, bringing about questions as to how they would have fared over a full 82-game season. They are not the division favourites, but the Habs should be strong nonetheless.

Ottawa Senators: Despite being plagued by injuries Ottawa managed to squeak into the playoffs last season, largely due to a strong defence. Key players Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and goaltender Craig Anderson all missed significant time but are healthy to begin this season. The Senators also enter the post-Daniel Alfredsson era, as the captain of 13 years left for Detroit in the off-season. The Sens traded for right-winger Bobby Ryan, which should help fill the hole Alfredsson leaves on the first line. Clarke MacArthur will also help generate offence, which was a weak point last season. Provided they can stay healthy, Ottawa should be a playoff team.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning will be looking to turn the corner this season after buying out long-time captain and fan-favorite Vincent Lecavalier over the summer. The team is still thin on the blueline and lacks a bona fide number one goalie, despite Ben Bishop’s occasional flashes of brilliance. In Vinny’s absence, it is expected that the team’s 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman will take on a more prominent role this year. With Steven Stamkos and Martin St Louis still on board, the Lightning shouldn’t have any problems scoring, but their offensive prowess will likely not be enough to get the Bolts into the playoffs this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs surprised many last year with a fifth-place finish and a trip to the playoffs. However, significant regression could be in store for Toronto this season. They were consistently outshot, and advanced statistics suggest that the team was quite lucky. Dave Nonis was one of the busier GMs this past off-season, trading for goaltender Jonathan Bernier and centre Dave Bolland, signing free agent David Clarkson, and re-signing several core players. While certainly improved, the Leafs still lack a true top-line centre and sit too close to the salary cap to make any significant moves. That said, this is still a fast, young team that could sneak into the playoffs and pose problems for their opposition.

 

Metropolitan Division

Carolina Hurricanes: Expectations are raised this season in Carolina as Kirk Muller begins his first full 82-game season behind the Hurricanes bench. The squad is counting on goaltender Cam Ward to have a bounce-back season if it plans on fighting for a playoff spot. Up front, the team will be highly dependent on the Staal brothers, Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin to carry the load offensively. Ex-Hab Mike Komisarek will try to re-establish himself as an NHL-caliber defenceman after a disastrous stint with the Maple Leafs. If it all falls into place, the Hurricanes have a chance to sneak into the playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Believe it or not, the Jackets might actually be a threat this year. By signing one of the hottest free agents, Nathan Horton, they are looking more and more like contenders. The acquisition is indicative of how far the Jackets have come. They finally have an offensive lineup that can produce. Their defence is equally dependable, with Jack Johnson and James Wisneiwski leading a stout backline. Backing them up is Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, who returns for another season with the Jackets. With all that said, Columbus has a solid chance of making the playoffs this season.

New Jersey Devils:  The scoring struggles that plagued the Devils last season have only been accentuated over the summer as top offensive threats, Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, have departed. The team will count on off-season acquisitions Jaromir Jagr and Ryan Clowe to add a desperately-needed scoring touch. Elsewhere, a strong defensive core that held opponents to a league-low 23 shots per game last season returns its key components and welcomes goaltender Cory Schneider. If the Devils can’t solve their offensive woes, they will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years.

New York Islanders The Islanders managed to end a six-year playoff drought last season, and are expected to improve upon the result. Superstar John Tavares will be under pressure to perform not only as an elite scorer but also as a leader, taking over from former captain Mark Streit, who left for Philadelphia this summer. Streit’s departure also leaves a hole on the blueline that was not filled over the off-season. Instead, the defence will rely on the development of younger players such as Matt Donovan and Griffin Reinhart.  If the Islanders want to win a playoff series for the first time since 1993, they will need to continue to mature as a squad.

New York Rangers: The Alain Vigneault experiment will certainly be interesting. The new head coach will allow for more freedom, and focus on individual play more than former bench boss John Tortorella. The keys for success will hinge on offensive output, as goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is one of the league’s best and has the luxury of playing behind a stout defence. Vigneault will attempt to get the most out of his star forwards, and also fix a powerplay that was among the league’s worst in the lockout-shortened season. Although they have the ability to be a top contender, it is more likely that the Rangers will spend the season fighting for a spot in the post-season.

Philadelphia Flyers: After missing the playoffs for only the second time since 1994, the Flyers had a busy off-season. They added two crucial veterans in centre Vincent Lecavalier and defenceman Mark Streit. The Flyers biggest move of the summer, however, was buying out the remaining portion of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract. They begin the season with two solid options to replace him in Steve Mason and Ray Emery, both of whom have had success starting in the past. Although the Flyers are not considered favourites to lift the Stanley Cup, they could get hot at the right time and make a lot of noise in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pittsburgh Penguins ended last season on a sour note, suffering a sweep at the hands of the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Their elimination can be attributed to two main factors—a lack of scoring and poor goaltending. If the Penguins hope to hoist the Stanley Cup this season, their star-studded offence must find a way to produce against physically imposing teams. At the other end of the ice, goaltender Marc-André Fleury must rekindle the consistent brilliance that he displayed during Pittsburgh’s 2009 championship. If the Penguins play up to their potential this season, they will once again be a favourite to win the Stanley Cup.

Washington Capitals: The Washington Capitals will once again be an offensive juggernaut. With Alexander Ovechkin leading the charge following an MVP  winning season, the team should light up the scoreboard more often than not. Mikhail Grabovski will look to bounce back this season, mitigating the loss of Mike Ribeiro to unrestricted free agency this summer. In net, Braden Holtby will try to solidify himself as the team’s undisputed number one goaltender. Overall though, Washington’s success will depend on its ability to shed its historical choking habit in the playoffs.

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