Reasons to Watch: Three Storylines to Follow This Season for Each NHL Division


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↵As a hockey fan, it's a tad easy to get confused these days. Sure, we had four regular season games in Europe last weekend, but every hockey fan knows that the season really doesn't get started until the defending Stanley Cup Champion raises its banner at their home opener. That honor tonight goes to the Detroit Red Wings, who will do some final celebrating before demolishing the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs this evening. There are three other games on the schedule tonight, all out West, with the most compelling coming in San Jose where the Sharks host the Ducks. Along with Dallas and Detroit, those two teams should be around the top of the standings for most of the season in the Western Conference. ↵

↵Of course, not all teams are created equal, and not all teams are worth paying attention to this season. Hence, I'm going to give you three compelling storylines for each of the league's six divisions. If you find your favorite team is missing in action, there's a reason -- either there isn't much hope or I couldn't find a compelling reason to watch your team. Is that unfair? You bet it is, but after taking a look around the league, it's hard not to see some things hardening in cement. ↵

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↵EASTERN CONFERENCE ↵

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↵Atlantic Division ↵

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↵Philadelphia ... With Jason Smith's departure and Derian Hatcher's retirement, the Flyers are looking thin on the blueline, but the presence of Mike Richards, an athlete with an intensity that matches Alex Ovechkin, and the return of Simon Gagne makes them my favorite to take the division ... Pittsburgh ... They've lost Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone to free agency, while Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar will be out for long stretches thanks to injuries. But if there's any team in the East that can weather the storm, it's a team like Pittsburgh that can count on the two best pivots in the East and maybe all of hockey, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They'll be in the mix and dangerous come playoff time when everybody is healthy again ... New York Rangers ... No Jaromir Jagr, no Brendan Shanahan and no Sean Avery. While the first two management decisions are defensible, the third is less so, and I think the Rangers will miss hockey's No. 1 troublemaker something fierce. As for the folks that remain, I can't get over the fact that players like Scott Gomez and Chris Drury are being expected to carry the load here, something they've never really done before anywhere else. They'll make the playoffs and their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, may help them steal a round, but don't expect much else on Broadway this year. ↵

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↵Northeast Division ↵ ↵

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↵Montreal ... It's the 100th anniversary of the Canadiens, and expectations are high with the importation of Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay being added to the league's top power play. Carey Price will be sharper, but the pressure will be on as the celebrations continue all year long with the All-Star Game and finishing up with the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. It's been 15 years and counting since the last Cup, and the locals are getting antsy ... Boston ... The Bruins had 94 points last year despite losing Patrice Bergeron to a god awful concussion. But the skilled winger is back, and there's no reason to believe that Boston can't slip into the back half of the playoff bracket thanks to weakness in the rest of the division ... Ottawa ... The drip, drip, drip of the salary cap is killing the Sens one season at a time. Yes, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley are all still here, but hardly anyone is left on the blue line while Martin Gerber inspires little to no confidence in net. After 11 straight years in the playoffs it might be time to start the rebuild. ↵

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↵Southeast Division ↵ ↵

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↵Washington ... Expectations for the Caps haven't been this high since Jagr arrived in time for the 2001-02 season, and we all know how that worked out. Still, with Michael Nylander healthy and Sergei Federov sticking around, the Caps boast some depth behind second-year center Nicklas Backstrom to go along with all-world winger Alex Ovechkin. Mike Green brings incredible scoring punch from the blue line, but plenty of folks have their doubts about new goalie Jose Theodore, who starts the first year of a two-year contract. The Caps take the division and maybe even the No. 2 seed in the East, but to do more damage Theodore needs to play better than he has in years ... Tampa Bay ... Sure, there was plenty of excitement as new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie went on a shopping spree that included new head coach Barry Melrose. But the first two games in Prague revealed something everyone feared -- high-priced forwards can't score if your defensemen can't get the puck out of the zone. Shaping up to be one of pro hockey's great disasters ... Atlanta ... After last year's debacle, the season ticket base has contracted and the fans seem to be ready to stay away in droves. It's tough to blame them, as sniper Ilya Kovalchuk will have little to nothing to work with most nights. For hockey to survive in Atlanta, this team needs to make the playoffs and do some winning, but it's hard to say when or if they'll ever get back. ↵

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↵WESTERN CONFERENCE ↵

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↵Central Division ↵

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↵Detroit ... Add Marian Hossa to the defending Stanley Cup Champions and you more or less have a formula for a cakewalk in the Central Division and the Western Conference overall. With no significant losses, the Red Wings are set to repeat their success of last season, with the only question being whether the crisis in the U.S. auto industry will crush the team attendance-wise ... Chicago ... Welcome to another example of rapidly rising expectations. Yes, the Blackhawks boast a bevy of young players starting with last year's Calder winner in Patrick Kane and another 2nd-year player who actually has more potential upside in Jonathan Toews. Toss in puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell and new goalie Cristobal Huet, and Hawks fans have plenty of reasons to cheer. Look for them to slip into second in the Central and into the playoffs ... Nashville ... What few hockey fans there are left in Music City deserve better. The Predators have essentially done everything right when it comes to building a model franchise, it's just unfortunate that they can't find an owner they deserve. GM David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz will keep this group honest and hard working, but expect them to slide out of the playoff picture and maybe out of town forever. ↵

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↵Northwest Division ↵ ↵

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↵Edmonton ... Anaheim GM Brian Burke might not think much of Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, but there's little doubt he had the best offseason of any team in this division. The team added Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky in reasonable deals to supplement a team of youngsters that's one year older. They might not win the division, but there's little doubt in my mind that the Oilers are the Northwest's most interesting team, and the one worth staying up late to watch on the weekends on NHL Center Ice ... Minnesota ... Just when you thought they couldn't find a way to make the Wild more boring, GM Doug Risebrough says goodbye to both Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, both of whom undoubtedly chafed under Jacques Lemaire's defensive system. They still have enough here to slip into the backend of the playoffs, but I'm having a tough time thinking of a good reason to watch this team ... Calgary ... As long as Jarome Iginla is in a Flames uniform, this team will always be worth watching. Just don't expect a club that let go of both Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius to light things up regularly. Sure, Calgary will play Mike Keenan-tough, but it won't be enough to do much more than qualify for the postseason and a quick exit. ↵

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↵Pacific Division ↵ ↵

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↵San Jose ... Exit Ron Wilson and enter ex-Detroit assistant Todd McLellan, which should make for a more tranquil locker room. Importing Rob Blake from LA will help the blue line, but the most significant acquisition has to be the addition of Dan Boyle, one of the few players in the league who can quarterback a power play all on his own ... Dallas ... That run to the Conference Finals was no fluke, and now the front office had the good sense to import Sean Avery from New York, a move that's more or less designed to drive both San Jose and Anaheim positively nuts, I think Dallas will be in the mix for the division lead all season long ... Anaheim ... The GM more or less already has his bags packed for Toronto, the owner is suspended and may be in jail before the end of the season and the team will boast 15 unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. In short, it's Lord Stanley or bust for this crowd, who will husband their strength for the playoffs. ↵

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↵Eastern Conference Champion: Philadelphia
↵Western Conference Champion: Detroit
↵Stanley Cup Champion: Detroit
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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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