So here we are, eight more sleeps until the start of the 2010-11 season. We've endured one of the slowest offseasons in recent memory and I'll be the first to say, that puck couldn't drop on the season soon enough.
While the offseason may have been a slow one, a few major things happened that have reshaped the league's landscape. Chicago's roster got retooled by the salary cap, San Jose let go of their franchise goaltender, Carolina continued to get younger, Montreal's epic goaltending went questionable, and much, much more.
So now that the dust has settled (for the most part) and teams are making their final decisions on their opening night rosters, it's time to take a look at how I think things could finish this year. It's always tough to make predictions because I am well aware that players who I expect to perform will have off-years or get hurt. Over the coarse of the year, we'll see unpredicted management changes, trades and even free agent signings that rock the NHL's landscape once again. Even so, it's fun to make preseason predictions as to what might be:
1. Washington Capitals
It was a quiet offseason in Washington, but the team that will step on the ice next week will be much of the same that went out in round one to the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps knew they hit a hot goalie and were smart to not retool too much. Jose Theodore is gone, but a healthy Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth will give the Caps one of the best young goalie tandems in the league. Washington remains the league's most explosive threat up front and while I'm not sold on their defensive ability, I think the Caps will be just fine.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins upgraded their biggest weakness this summer: their D. While losing Gonchar hurts, the additions of Michalek and Martin make Pittsburgh's overall defensive depth better. This should create more room up front for their offensive stars while giving Marc-Andre Fleury an easier time in net. The Penguins still could use some secondary scoring up front, but I expect both Crosby and Malkin to do just fine carrying the offensive load for these birds.
3. Boston Bruins
I didn't necessarily like the offseason the Bruins had, but it's a no-brainer that these bears really underachieved last season. Losing Dennis Wideman on the blueline will hurt, but the offensive additions of Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin (should he get proper minutes), as well as a healthy Bergeron, should make the Bruins the best team in the NorthEast. With a weaker blueline, however, the pressure will be on both Rask and Thomas. If one of these goalies can't stand out and steal the number one job early, Boston could struggle.
4. New Jersey Devils
With Parise, Kovalchuk and Zajac up front, the once defensive first Devils should be a serious threat up front. While Brodeur is getting older, the veteran netminder still should be solid enough to make New Jersey a top threat in the East. On defense, the loss of Paul Martin will hurt, but kudos to the team for somewhat replacing him with Anton Volchenkov, who will be surely missed in Ottawa. Andy Greene should continue to develop into a top-line defenseman and the Devils should stay neck-and-neck with the Penguins all season for their division.
5. New York Rangers
The Rangers will continue to get better with time, as young players like Dubinsky, Del Zotto and Callahan will get more dangerous as they develop. Frolov should add more offensive punch up front while I expect a bounceback year from Lundqvist. I think Derek Steppan could turn some heads should he get the opportunity with the big club. The East is wide open from about fifth to 12th, but the Rangers have every opportunity to be the best of that bunch.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts finished the year off strong last year and that should carry over into 2010-11. This team got retooled during the offseason and the additions of Gagne, Kubina and Ellis make this team better in all three areas. I expect Lecavalier to have a bounce back season while the sky is the limit for where Steve Stamkos could take his game.
7. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers post-season run last year isn't fooling me; I still don't think they're that good. This is a team in desperate need of goaltending, especially after Michael Leighton will miss the next month due to injury. With that said, this team has a great mix of youth and veteran leadership and should be right in the thick of the playoff race all season long. Like I said, it's going to be close between five and 12, the Flyers need to stay healthy and get quality goaltending if they want to be playing at the end of April.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
I think this is the season the Leafs squeak back into the post-season. While there is no doubt that the Leafs need another top-line forward, their defense has the potential to be one of the best in the league. The Leafs are a much improved team from the one that started 09-10, with better goaltending, more offense and a stronger blueline. It will be a battle all season, but if Kessel, Versteeg, Bozak and Gustavsson continue to improve as they have, the Leafs should finally be playing meaningful hockey this spring.
9. Ottawa Senators
The Sens were very up and down last season and I expect much of the same this year. I'm still not sold on LeClaire and Elliott in net, which scares me more this season without Volchenkov patrolling the blueline. I love the addition of Gonchar, but this team will miss Volchenkov and Sutton's defensive ability. Spezza needs to bounce back and hard if this team has any chance at making the post season.
10. Carolina Hurricanes
The first time I made this list, I had Carolina in the playoffs, but upon further review, I think it will take one more season. This team is full of future stars and will be a lot of fun to watch over the next few seasons. I love guys like Bowman, Sutter, Boychuk (very disappointed they sent him down this morning). A healthy Cam Ward and further progression from these young guys and the Canes could make things interesting down the stretch.
11. Atlanta Thrashers
Call me crazy, but I like the Atlanta Thrashers. Nobody benefited more from Chicago's blow up than the Thrashers, while the addition of Chris Mason gives the Thrashers the best goaltending they've ever had. Yes, this team would be much better with Kovalchuk, but I like what Atlanta did this season and think they could push for a playoff spot right until the final few weeks of the season.
12. Montreal Canadiens
If Montreal kept Halak, I'd have Montreal probably fifth. With that said, I can't put much faith behind Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. I think full, healthy seasons from Gionta and Cammaleri will make this team more dangerous up front, but I can't help but fear this team's defensive ability and questions in goal.
13. Buffalo Sabres
Ok, I'm going to take a lot of heat on this one. Yes, the Sabres finished with 100 points last season, but if ANYTHING happened to Ryan Miller's game last season, the Sabres were a marginal team at best. The Sabres will go with a younger lineup this season and I think this could be the one year they take a step back to get better. The Sabres are a couple of years away from being VERY good, but I think the Sabres miss the post season this year while they learn a little.
14. New York Islanders
The injury to Streit hurts NYI's already thin defense, while DiPietro and Roloson is even more questionable than Price/Auld. The Islanders have the best young forward group in the league, but their defense is a big grey zone. Another high draft pick is coming New York's way, let's just hope they don't waste another pick on a forward.
15. Florida Panthers
The Panthers started to retool this offseason and I expect that to continue throughout the season. Vokoun will likely be dealt, Weiss isn't untouchable and the Panthers seem destined to be picking in the top three in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.