1. Presented by

    SB Nation's 2014NHL Preview

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    Getty Images / USA Today Sports
    1. Credits

    2. Editorial Lead Travis Hughes
    3. Developers Ryan Mark, Guillermo Esteves
  2. Presented by

    Pacific Division

    Counter to their postseason success in recent years, the Kings' regular season story has left a bit to be desired. We're expecting that to change this year, as the Ducks and Sharks have each taken steps back this offseason. It'll still be your familiar Pacific picture come season's end, though: California at the top, Alberta at the bottom. Someday the Flames and Oilers will be back in the playoff race, but this is not that year.

    USA Today Sports
  3. Presented by

    Anaheim Ducks

    Ron Chenoy / USA Today Sports

    The Ducks took big strides forward in 2013-14, placing first in the Western Conference with the best regular season record in franchise history (54-20-8). Teemu Selanne is gone, as are a few other key pieces, but Anaheim remains one of the most talented clubs in the league. Ryan Kesler, acquired from Vancouver for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and draft picks, was the biggest addition in the offseason. The Michigan native will bolster an already impressive scoring attack and, along with Ryan Getzlaf, give Anaheim one of the NHL’s best 1-2 punches at center. In net, 24-year-old Frederik Andersen is now joined by top prospect John Gibson, who thrived in his short stint with the Ducks last spring. The Ducks may not finish atop the West again in 2014-15, but the pieces are there to contend for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.

    • HEAD COACH Bruce Boudreau

    • GENERAL MANAGER Bob Murray

    • 2013-14 RECORD 54-20-8, 116 points (1st in Pacific)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Ryan Kesler, LW Dany Heatley, D Clayton Stoner, C Nate Thompson

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES G Jonas Hiller, RW Teemu Selanne, C Saku Koivu, C Mathieu Perreault, C Nick Bonino, D Luca Sbisa

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Rickard Rakell, LW/RW Emerson Etem, C William Karlsson, LW Nicolas Kerdiles, LW Nick Ritchie, D Shea Theodore, D Josh Manson

    • AHL AFFILIATE Norfolk Admirals

    • TEAM BLOG Anaheim Calling

    Three strengths

    1. The twins: Simply put, following the Stanley Cup season of 2006-'07, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have been the drivers of the Ducks offense. In the seven seasons since, the duo have finished one-two in scoring five times. In the other two seasons, Perry led the team in his '10-'11 Hart winning year and finished second in '11-'12. Getzlaf has grown into his role as captain, and showed more of a goal scoring touch last season posting a career high 31 tallies while leading the team in scoring both in the regular season and playoffs. Perry bested the 40-goal mark for the second time in his career, finishing second in the league with 43 goals. They will be expected to pull the wagon offensively for the Ducks again, but should get some relief at least in their defensive responsibilities from the acquisition of Ryan Kesler.

    2. Young puck-moving defensemen: The trio of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Sami Vatanen give Anaheim a clutch of defensemen with the increasingly-valued eye for puck moving. Since being picked 12th overall by the Ducks in 2010, Fowler has been a mainstay on the blue line, and last year put up his best numbers offensively since his rookie year while earning a spot on the US Olympic team. 2012 6th overall selection Lindholm's play made it impossible for the Ducks to send him back to Norfolk, as he carved out a spot thanks to reliable and responsible play beyond his 20 years of age. Vatanen impresses with his ability to increase shot production no matter who he's paired with, and projects to have a larger role this season. With Scott Niedermayer behind the bench as an assistant, the three have one of the best teachers the position could ask for.

    3. Shot quality, not quantity: In a league that has increasingly valued shot-based metrics, the Ducks have regularly been an outlier, making the playoffs despite not posting strong Corsi or Fenwick numbers. Last year Anaheim had eight players score on better than 10 percent of their shots. While 'quality' is a bit of an amorphous, hard to define term, the Ducks have been consistent in taking and converting on their chances.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Goaltending: The Ducks have done a full 180 between the pipes. They've gone from solid veteran Jonas Hiller and long term Swedish League pro Viktor Fasthm to the combined 42 games NHL experience shared between Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. Young goalies have learning curves, and there's no safety net here. If either goalie struggles, Jason LaBarbera is supposed to be available to pick up the slack, but that career .907 save percentage isn't reassuring. The nightmare scenario for the Ducks is that Gibson and Andersen go through concurrent poor stretches, resulting in a stretch of games that will deny them the top seed that they'll probably need to win a playoff series. Even worse, they could permanently stunt Gibson's growth. It's not that the skill is lacking here, and much like other Ducks' weaknesses, it might be more accurate to call it a question mark. Still, the Ducks are going to be counting on two inexperienced goalies to carry them through the season, and that's not something you usually see from teams that are supposed to be contenders.

    2. The blueline: The Ducks have one legitimate top four defender at the top of his game: Cam Fowler. The team is hoping Francois Beauchemin can come back to his Norris caliber form of the shortened season, and that Hampus Lindholm won't have a sophomore slump. After that, Ben Lovejoy is not a real top four solution. Clayton Stoner is another $3 million-plus bottom pairing defenseman that will probably push out a younger, more skilled Sami Vatanen. The Ducks need to be better at switching from defense to offense if they are ever going to improve their possession numbers. As of right now, the Ducks defense will most likely be Fowler, Lovejoy, Beauchemin, Lindholm, Allen and Stoner. That's almost terrifying considering they'll be standing in front of two rookie netminders.

    3. Scoring up front: This probably sounds counterintuitive for one of the top performing offenses in the league the last two seasons, but the Ducks lost their third, fourth, and sixth-leading scorers this summer. Ryan Kesler is an obvious replacement and potentially an upgrade. Dany Heatley's numbers have been on a steady decline, and he's mostly just a prayer. Still, the Ducks will be counting on more minutes that translate into breakout seasons for Kyle Palmieri ... or Jakob Silfverberg ... or Rickard Rakell ... or Devante Smith-Pelley ... or Patrick Maroon ... or Emerson Etem ... or someone. The Ducks have been relying on Bruce Boudreau's system to transform every player into a potential scoring threat, but that's a gamble against the percentages. Anaheim has finished in the top five in even strength shooting percentage the last two seasons, and Bourdreau only finished in the top 10 in that category once in his four full seasons in Washington. The best way to cover for a likely drop here is to compensate with proven NHL talent. The Ducks haven't done that.

    Three questions

    1. What is going on in net?
    2. What will the Ducks blue line corps look like?
    3. Do the Ducks have a third line center?

    Best case scenario

    Frederik Andersen and John Gibson both prove that their stellar debut campaigns were no fluke, putting up numbers similar to Andersen’s 2.29 goals against average and .923 save percentage from last year. Meanwhile, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry continue to do what they’re each being paid almost $70 million to do, and both of them have a couple more 80-plus point seasons. The offensive disparity between the Twins and the team’s next leading scorers shrinks as the Ducks roll out three consistently dangerous scoring lines. Ryan Kesler's signing pays huge dividends as he improves on both his 43-point season from last year while providing a much-needed presence in the faceoff circle behind Getzlaf. Having earned a good amount of NHL experience last season, young defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen will provide more of a punch on the blue line alongside veterans Cam Fowler, Francois Beauchemin and Ben Lovejoy. With the entire team better-rounded, and after a tough lesson to the younger Ducks about what it takes to win in the postseason, Anaheim will threaten for the Cup. They capture their third consecutive Pacific Division title, second straight No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference, and first-ever Presidents’ Trophy. Their incredibly successful season culminates in the franchise’s second-ever Stanley Cup -- and for the cherry on top, they eliminate their hated rival Los Angeles Kings in the process, allowing Ducks fans to take back bragging rights over their neighbors to the north.

    Worst case scenario

    Ryan Kesler gets injured early and requires surgery which leaves him out of the lineup for six months or more. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry get injured. Or Perry gets snakebit and can’t finish at the net ... or he plays recklessly, and is suspended for several games ... or several playoff games. Cam Fowler and/or Francois Beauchemin get injured, leaving the defense in the hands of Bryan Allen, Clayton Stoner and two guys under 24. (The horror!)

    The Dany Heatley experiment doesn't pan out, and furthermore, becomes a league-wide embarrassment for the Ducks.

    The "goalie battle" between Frederik Andersen and John Gibson becomes a comedy of errors. Bruce Boudreau rushes John Gibson's development (which has technically already happened). Or Gibson goes full Jim Carey and “wins” the goalie battle – plus the Vezina Trophy -- but is then never heard from again.

    The Ducks miss the playoffs entirely, or they fall apart during the first round because Boudreau is unable to make the necessary adjustments that allow the Ducks to win the series. They draft another right winger. Bob Murray acquires another "tough" "defenseman" with "character" who can’t skate or play the puck in free agency. Rinse, repeat.

  4. Presented by

    Arizona Coyotes

    Chris LeClaire / USA Today Sports

    Several years ago, the Coyotes worked their way up the Western Conference standings with steady defense and excellent netminding. Last season, they got neither of those. And the record reflected those changes. With a subpar blueline and underwhelming play between the pipes, Arizona dropped to ninth in the West -- missing the postseason by two points. A productive summer could have propelled the ‘Yotes back to playoff contention, but GM Don Maloney wasn’t particularly active. Gone are Mike Ribiero and Radim Vrbata. No top-four defensemen were added. Forward Sam Gagner was acquired via a three-way trade, but he won’t improve the team much (if at all) defensively. To have a successful season, Arizona needs goalie Mike Smith to return to form. After posting a 2.21 goals against average in 2011-12, the 32-year-old allowed 2.64 goals per game last year. At his best, Smith saves roughly 93 percent of shots on goal. Such a number could push Arizona back into the West’s top eight. Question is, can the aging Smith perform that well again?

    • HEAD COACHDave Tippett

    • GENERAL MANAGER Don Maloney

    • 2013-14 RECORD 37-30-15, 89 points (4th place in the Pacific)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS G Devan Dubnyk, C Sam Gagner, C Joe Vitale, RW B.J. Crombeen

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Mike Ribiero, RW Radim Vrbata, D Derek Morris, G Thomas Greiss, C Jeff Halpern, LW Paul Bissonnette

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH LW Max Domi (1st Round 2013; London, OHL), D Brandon Gormley (1st Round 2010; Portland, AHL), D Connor Murphy (1st Round 2011; Portland AHL), LW Lucas Lessio (2nd Round 2011; Portland, AHL), C Tobias Rieder (4th Round 2011; Portland, AHL), G Mark Visentin (1st Round 2010; Portland, AHL), C Henrik Samuelsson (1st Round 2012; Edmonton, WHL), C Tyler Gaudet (Undrafted; Portland, AHL).

    • AHL AFFILIATE Portland Pirates

    • TEAM BLOG Five for Howling

    Three strengths

    1. Power play. Arizona finished 4th in the NHL (19.9 percent) last season courtesy of Newell Brown’s system. Radim Vrbata is a key loss, but one would assume skilled players like Sam Gagner and/or Max Domi should be able to pick up the slack on the man advantage.

    2. Blueline offense. The Coyotes possess two of the most effective offensive blueliners in the league in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle. Both finished in the top 15 in the league in points by defensemen and Yandle has done so each of the past four seasons. They are likely to be joined by former 1st round picks Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy this season. In addition, holdovers Michael Stone & David Schlemko have the ability to drive offense from the backend.

    3. A healthy Shane Doan. The veteran captain started off last season much faster than normal -- 12 goals and 11 assists in the first 27 games of the campaign. If he had been able to avoid a tick, and the resulting Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, his team may not have found themselves golfing in late April.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Lack of skilled forwards. The team does not have a single forward who finished in the top 75 in the league in scoring last season. The only youngster showing an upward trend is Mikkel Boedker and he finished with 19 goals last season. You could argue that their best offensive player is a defenseman, Keith Yandle.

    2. Young blueline. There is certainly an abundance of talent on the blueline, but there is also a severe lack of experience, which could foretell a rough season of trial by error ahead. Of the eight defensemen on Arizona’s roster, only Zbynek Michalek is over 30 years of age and half of the D corps has not played as many NHL games combined as 23-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson has in his young career.

    3. Penalty kill. While the Coyotes’ play with the man advantage improved dramatically last season, their play with the man disadvantage went in the opposite direction. Their PK finished 26th (79 percent) in the league after finishing 22nd (79.9 percent) the prior season. The club’s addition of Joe Vitale as their 4th line center is a head scratcher because, while he has been good at faceoffs, he played less time on Pittsburgh’s penalty kill than Sidney Crosby last season.

    Three questions

    1. Will the bottom two defensive pairings be overwhelmed most nights?
    2. Can Sam Gagner and Joe Vitale be effective two-way centers?
    3. Which of Arizona’s young forwards, if any, will make an impact at the NHL level this season?

    Best case scenario

    Max Domi turns in a Calder winning performance, Sam Gagner finally lives up to his potential, Martin Erat rediscovers his game and Mike Smith relives early 2012 over again as the Yotes stun their way to the Western Conference Final where they lose to the Los Angeles Kings in five games.

    Worst case scenario

    The Desert Dogs finish dead last in the Western Conference and wind up third in the 2015 NHL draft lottery therefore missing out on both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

  5. Presented by

    Calgary Flames

    Derek Leung / Getty Images

    The Flames are a long way from contending. At their best, they still aren’t a playoff team. However, unlike some fledgling organizations, Calgary is very self-aware. Its rebuild, while in its early stages, appears to be going well. Top draft pick Sean Monahan thrived in his rookie campaign. T.J. Brodie has evolved into one the league’s best defensemen. Other youngsters, including Joe Colborne, have shown promise. Top draft pick Sam Bennett, picked fourth overall this year, has a world of potential. Indeed, a strong foundation is being set by Brian Burke and Co., and fans are just going to have to be patient. Another year in the West’s basement seems likely. But if the Flames keep loading up on young talent, their time at the bottom could end sooner than many believe.

    • HEAD COACH Bob Hartley

    • GENERAL MANAGER Brad Treliving

    • 2013-14 RECORD 35-40-7, 77 points (6th in Pacific)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Brandon Bollig, LW Mason Raymond, RW Devin Setoguchi, D Deryk Engelland, G Jonas Hiller

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES LW Mike Cammalleri, RW Kevin Westgarth, D Chris Butler

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Sam Bennett, C Markus Granlund, LW Johnny Gaudreau, LW Emile Poirier, D Tyler Wotherspoon, G Joni Ortio

    • AHL AFFILIATE Adirondack Flames

    • TEAM BLOG Matchsticks and Gasoline

    Three strengths

    1. Center depth. After years of asking wingers to play down the middle, the Flames have finally managed to gather a collection of quality natural centers. Mikael Backlund was one of the NHL’s best possession centers last season, Sean Monahan is coming off a 22-goal rookie season and is oozing potential, and Matt Stajan provides a reliable veteran presence. That isn’t even counting Markus Granlund, who could become a full time NHLer this season, or Max Reinhart, or Corban Knight. And then there’s fourth overall pick Sam Bennett, and while he may not be a regular NHLer this season, he’ll be joining the Flames’ increasingly impressive center ranks sooner rather than later.

    2. Prospects ready to step in. Injuries may not pose a problem for the Flames this season. Over the past few years they’ve greatly improved their prospect pool, and now, many of those prospects are just about ready for the show. There are a bunch at center, as mentioned above, and a few high quality names headline the left wing, including Sven Baertschi, Johnny Gaudreau and Emile Poirier. The Flames have enough veterans signed that it’s going to be tough for any prospect to make the team out of camp, so the level of internal competition should be intense. Some deserving of an NHL spot may fall victim to a numbers game, but injuries will happen, they’ll get a spot and the team may not miss a beat.

    3. Top D pairing. One could argue the TJ Brodie / Mark Giordano combination was the greatest out of all defense pairings last season. They were No. 1 and No. 2 out of all regular defencemen in relative Corsi percentage, all the while facing some of the toughest competition and lowest offensive zone starts in the league. The Flames fared significantly better when they were on the ice, so it’s a good thing they both averaged more than 24 minutes a game. The undrafted Giordano is nearly 31, so he should still have a few good years left in him. Former fourth rounder Brodie is 24, so he should have many, many good years ahead of him yet, and may grow into an even more valuable commodity as the NHL shifts towards embracing advanced statistics. The combined 78 points from the pair wasn’t bad, either.

    Three weaknesses

    1. The rest of the defense. There’s a reason Brodie and Giordano had such great relative Corsi numbers: they were very good, but the rest of the team wasn’t, and that includes the defense. While Kris Russell and (hopefully) Raphael Diaz are nice pieces to have, they don’t really compare; and Ladislav Smid, Deryk Engelland and (potentially) Sheldon Brookbank are more likely to hurt the team than help it. We also don’t know if Good Dennis Wideman or Bad Dennis Wideman will show up. Meanwhile, Tyler Wotherspoon is the only defense prospect of note at this time, so there isn’t much help in the pipeline.

    2. Right wing depth. When the Flames signed Devin Setoguchi to a one-year, $750,000 contract, it was big news, for the simple fact that the Flames simply don’t have right wingers. Other than him, the Flames have David Jones, Brian McGrattan, and no prospects of note. Last season the team converted center Joe Colborne to the right side, so he may be added to that group, but it’s still a very pathetic collection, especially for the team that used to be able to boast one of the best right wingers in the game night after night for 16 years. The Flames may have a lot of bodies down the middle and on the left, but the right side is glaringly empty.

    3. Grit, toughness, and goons. The Flames let go of Kevin Westgarth, who was redundant with McGrattan’s presence. But then they gave an asset to a cap-squeezed Chicago for an overpaid Brandon Bollig, obsessed over drafting 6’7” behemoths with 100-ish penalty minutes, and on top of all of it, signed Engelland to a three-year contract worth nearly $9 million total in a move that baffled pretty much everybody. It’s not that the Flames don’t have enough grit, toughness, and goons: it’s that they have a consuming affinity for them that’s ultimately going to hurt the team. The Flames actually have the personnel to put together a pretty decent fourth line this season, but it’ll likely end up being a possession black hole that punches a lot of faces instead.

    Three questions

    1. Can TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano repeat last year’s performance?
    2. How big a difference will Jonas Hiller make?
    3. Will the Flames be in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes?

    Best case scenario

    While the Flames have added some nice pieces to their team, the rebuild isn’t quite over yet. They’ve restocked the prospect cupboards, and while Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett are top tier prospects, they probably aren’t enough. The Flames could use another one of those, particularly on defense. With this in mind, the best case scenario for the Flames would be to have a season just like last year: mostly close games, and mostly losses.

    It’s best if the Flames lose more than they win simply to give them a better chance at a better prospect. The team already has several quality depth players in the pipeline, but very few future superstars to call upon. Those tend to be found right at the top of the draft. For Calgary to finish its rebuild sooner rather than later, it’ll need to draft high at least one more time.

    On the other hand, it’s important the games at least be close. The Flames played in 49 one-goal games last season, and it isn’t coincidental that this was the same season in which the team established a hard working identity. It’s also simply good for morale: losing a lot sucks, but if you feel you have a chance every night rather than suffering blowout after blowout, you’re likely to perform better. It’ll also be valuable for the Flames’ prospects to frequently play in these types of situations. Besides, any sign of improvement is always welcome.

    Worst case scenario

    A big reason the Flames are in the mess they’re in is because they kept finishing ninth in the West, resulting in no playoffs and a bad draft pick. Now that the team is rebuilding, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, ninth place for this group would be an impressive feat, and may hint towards the Flames finishing their rebuild sooner rather than later. There are two strong negatives, however: it results in another poor draft pick, which is not ideal for a team in need of elite talent; and it may fool management into thinking the team is closer than it actually is, which has happened in the past (again: why the Flames are where they are now).

    Unless narrowly missing the playoffs is followed up with a lottery win, then the team performing well enough to justify the old “going for it” mantra is the worst thing that could happen to them. The playoff chase would be fun until it falls short, but ultimately, it would set the rebuild back even further. Calgary could get meaningful games in March again, but they would be at the expense of really meaningful games in June in the (hopefully near) future.

  6. Presented by

    Edmonton Oilers

    Chris Austin / USA Today Sports

    It feels like more of the same is ahead for the Oilers. Gushing with young talent but lacking in many key areas, Edmonton is primed to struggle yet again in 2014-15. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins give the Oilers some firepower up front. They’ll score a lot of goals, many of which will be highlight reel-worthy. However, the blueline continues to be a huge concern, and it’s hard to see the D corps do enough to get Edmonton into the playoffs. The additions of Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin should help, but the depth is seriously lacking. In net, Ben Scrivens Viktor Fasth give the Oilers some welcoming stability. Neither is an elite netminder, though, and someone of that caliber is likely needed to propel Edmonton to new heights. The Oilers will play an exciting brand of hockey this year, but there are simply too many flaws to suggest they can make the playoffs.

    • HEAD COACH Dallas Eakins
    • GENERAL MANAGER Craig MacTavish
    • 2013-14 RECORD 29-44-9, 67 points (7th in Pacific)
    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Leon Draisaitl, D Mark Fayne, D Nikita Nikitin, LW Benoit Pouliot, RW Teddy Purcell

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES D Anton Belov, C Sam Gagner

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH D Oscar Klefbom, D Darnell Nurse
    • AHL AFFILIATE Oklahoma City Barons
    • TEAM BLOG The Copper & Blue

    Three strengths

    1. Taylor Hall. Hall is the beating heart of this Oilers team. NHL.com writes that "Hall's 1.08 points per game has paced all left wings the past two seasons and his 0.91 career points per game ranks him fourth among players at the position." Edmonton has been blessed (largely due to their own terrible devices) with one of the best forwards in the game today. Some will argue that Hall is the best LW in the league; it’s not that far a stretch, depending on how you feel about Jamie Benn. Taylor Hall drives this squad, and if and when the rest of the proverbial young guns catch up to him, it just might equal a winning hockey team.
    2. Depth on the wing. If there is any one aspect of the Oilers roster that resembles that of a competitive team, it’s the current group of wingers. It’s a questionable group at center, but they're flanked by a wing corps that includes some pretty safe bets (Benoit Pouliot, Taylor Hall) and plenty of offensive potential (Nail Yakupov, David Perron, Jordan Eberle). In his goal projection series at Oilers Nation, Jonathan Willis estimated that around 75 percent of the team’s non-empty-net goals by forwards will come from the wing. They're going to drive the offense for the Oilers this season.
    3. Craig MacTavish. MacTavish inherited a broken team from the scourge known as Steve Tambellini, and he’s wasted no time changing over 75 percent of that group since he took over. Last summer he made some low-risk bets that didn’t pan out in Anton Belov and Denis Grebeshkov, but also traded a stagnating Magnus Paajarvi for David Perron, the team’s co-leading goal scorer in 2013-14. This past off-season, he made what appear to be some darn good acquisitions in Benoit Pouliot and Mark Fayne. He also parted ways with Sam Gagner in the best way possible by getting an actual roster player in return with Teddy Purcell. It’s true that Andrew Ference, and especially Jason LaBarbera, look like bad moves in retrospect, but MacT has worked his bones to dust to try and put this team into a position to win. Unlike his predecessor, he’s displayed a willingness to do his job and be active on the player acquisition front -- something that, even when he did try his hand at it, Tambellini was genuinely terrible at. The season ahead will be a great opportunity to judge MacT on his work thus far.

    Three weaknesses

    1. A second line center. Craig MacTavish did some justifiable things this summer, and given recent offseasons for the Oilers, that's darn-near a glowing review. The biggest issue heading into the off-season isn't with any of the moves that were made -- it is with the one that wasn't. Somehow, the team with only two legitimate, proven NHL centers in the entire organization went an entire summer without signing even one. Two additional centers would have been ideal, but a plan to have Marc Arcobello and new draft pick Leon Draisaitl battle it out for a single roster spot in camp could at least have been defensible. Handing both a job before camp even opens is calamitous. With Boyd Gordon pegged for heavy defensive-zone starts and PK duty this year, the team has nobody else with a proven ability to even tread water against NHL opposition beyond Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who, though sublimely talented, is still developing himself. If the Oilers' season falls flat again this year, the pivot position is the odds-on favorite to be the biggest reason why.
    2. The left side on the blueline. For the first time in about five years, the Oilers will possess six legitimate NHL blueliners to patrol their back end. This group almost has to be better just by default. The right side is -- dare I say it -- nearly league average! Mark Fayne and Jeff Petry give the team two stable but unspectacular top four options while golden boy Justin Schultz, if used properly, could play protected five-on-five minutes and heavy PP time. Exactly as needed -- great! Sadly, there's a left side to discuss. The team's best left-side blueliner is potentially Martin Marincin, he of 44 games of NHL experience. Beyond that they have newly-acquired Nikita Nikitin who couldn't stay in the lineup for Columbus last year and captain Andrew Ference, who, despite his contract, is essentially a sixth or seventh defenseman at this point. The left side has three bottom-pair players and no legitimate top four options unless Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom take a quantum leap and come to the rescue.
    3. Tactics. Last season, rookie coach Dallas Eakins brought in a new system, which he tried to teach his players during camp. After a run of what would have been below-average goaltending for an ECHL team, he admitted to making changes to that system to try and stop the bleeding. The majority of the season then showed serious problems with powerplay and disturbing downward trends in possession metrics, even among typically strong individual performers in that area. (Hi Taylor Hall!) The team made some late-season adjustments to course-correct, but that was long after the story had been written. Will 2014-15 see a repeat of these issue, or will Eakins' lessons learned from last season along with the addition of Craig Ramsay bring some improvements in the strategic aspects of the game?

    Three questions

    1. Can the Oilers finally claw their way out of the basement of the NHL?
    2. Can Mark Arcobello handle to the second-line center job?
    3. Can Justin Schultz live up to the "Norris Trophy potential" prophecy of Craig MacTavish?

    Best case scenario

    Imagine the following scenario: the Oilers avoid injuries to Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, David Perron, Boyd Gordon, Mark Fayne, Jeff Petry and Ben Scrivens. Martin Marincin continues his incredible level of play on the backend, giving the Oilers three solid options in the top four. Mark Fayne's steady presence brings Nikita Nikitin's game from three years ago back to Edmonton. Justin Schultz improves his defensive play to average. Dallas Eakins hides Schultz and Andrew Ference on the third pairing, deploying them in the offensive end and against the dregs. Nail Yakupov gets comfortable on the right side with David Perron and Mark Arcobello and Dallas Eakins draws up a power play that keys off of Yakupov's shot, allowing Nail to score 25. Mark Arcobello handles his own against weaker competition thanks to Benoit Pouliot, Boyd Gordon and Teddy Purcell handling tougher competition, and Leon Draisaitl gets a baby-soft landing in the NHL against 4th line competition. In that scenario, if you squint your eyes just so, you can see the Oilers in the playoff race at the trade deadline with all sorts of trinkets and baubles to trade for a versatile defenseman and center depth.

    Worst case scenario

    Injury problems are always the safe answer here. Certainly losing Taylor Hall or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would lay waste to any optimism fans may hold heading into the season, but for my money, the slim hopes for success the Oilers have this season lies on the shoulders of two players: Ben Scrivens and Martin Marincin. Scrivens may make a little more sense to most readers. He's considered the leading candidate for the top job in goal to start the season and if he is not up to that task the horrors that may await the Oilers this season may defy description. Furthermore, if Scrivens is not the answer, then there is no realistic option for the near future elsewhere in the organization, which means the team is starting all over in their search for a solution in goal. As for Marincin, it may seem odd to place the season at the feet of a player with less than a full season of experience, but consider what the alternatives are if he struggles to maintain a performance like he produced in his debut last season. That likely thrusts Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference both into top four roles. Something that both have proven incapable up handling as recent as last season. Other options involve robbing Peter to pay Paul by shifting Mark Fayne to his off-side or throwing Oscar Klefbom into the deep end and handing him a boat anchor.

  7. Presented by

    Los Angeles Kings

    Gary A. Vazquex / USA Today Sports

    Coming off their second Cup championship in three years, the Kings return much of the same roster from last season. No major additions were made; no major subtractions were suffered. A third title is certainly in the cards, and there’s little evidence to suggest LA isn’t capable of accomplishing such a feat. The Kings should cruise through the regular season, and their seed shouldn’t matter much. After all, they won their championships after finishing eight and sixth in the West. This is a group that rises to the occasion when necessary, and that should continue in 2014-15.

    • HEAD COACH Darryl Sutter

    • GENERAL MANAGER Dean Lombardi

    • 2013-14 RECORD 46-28-8, 100 points (3rd in Pacific)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Marian Gaborik (if you call that an addition), RW Adam Cracknell (if you call that important)

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES D Willie Mitchell, C Colin Fraser, C Linden Vey

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH D Brayden McNabb, LW Valentin Zykov, RW Adrian Kempe, C Jordan Weal, D Derek Forbort

    • AHL AFFILIATE Manchester Monarchs

    • TEAM BLOG Jewels from the Crown

    Three strengths

    1. Puck possession. The Los Angeles Kings led the NHL in Corsi in 2013-14. Don’t expect that to change. The Kings will continue to deploy a strong puck possession game based largely on superior neutral zone play. People bemoan the Kings for being a heavy dump-and-chase team, but they play their system well. With the added forward depth provided by players like Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, look for the Kings to become an even scarier team through the neutral zone. Those three players add both speed and skill and help the Kings spread their attack throughout the lineup.

    2. Center depth. Anze Kopitar is the ideal first-line center, who routinely posts Corsi numbers around 60 percent despite playing difficult minutes against the other teams' top players. He gains the zone with control with great frequency and makes everyone around him better. Behind Kopitar, the Kings boast Jeff Carter, who has to be in consideration for best second-line center in the game. Carter's 11.47 shots per 60 minutes at even strength was the seventh-highest in the entire league last year. Should his shooting percentage rebound from last year’s 10.5 percent (his lowest since 2009-10), he's likely to score even more than the 27 goals he put up this past season. Behind this strong top two sits Jarret Stoll, a very useful player and a fine 3rd line center who won 54.7 percent of his faceoffs last season. Mike Richards has been a bit of a disappointment during his time with the Kings so far, but he remains a decent (if overpaid) player who, at the very least, is a hell of a fourth-line center. It's very possible the Kings have the best overall depth at center of any team in the entire NHL, and if not, they're at least damn close.

    3. Overall defense. There’s a reason LA won the Jennings Trophy. For starters, the top pairing of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin has a good case as the best defensive pairing in the NHL. Doughty’s ability to skate the puck into the opposition is vital to LA’s possession game; Doughty managed to control the puck on over 60 percent of his zone entries, which would be a very good rate if he was a forward; given that he’s a defenseman, it’s just fantastic. Muzzin often gets lost in his partner’s shadow, but he is maturing into an elite defenseman in his own right. With Muzzin, Doughty has posted a 60.6 percent Corsi over the last two years -- that’s higher than any other pairing in the NHL. Without Muzzin, Doughty has recorded a much less superlative 55.1 percent Corsi. The third pairing of Alec Martinez and Matt Greene is also highly effective. Martinez’s impressive goal totals (11 in regular season, five more in the playoffs) rest upon unsustainable shooting percentages and likely won’t continue. But he and Greene each have long track records of driving play.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Penalties. There’s a certain irony that the team that allowed the fewest goals against in 2013-14 was also the third most penalized in the NHL. Matt Greene, Kyle Clifford, and Jarret Stoll were the worst offenders at penalties/60. Blame Greene’s lack of footspeed, Clifford’s lack of high end skill, and Stoll’s apparent love of the penalty box. Even Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams, who took ten minor penalties in the playoffs, wasn’t immune. The team as a whole had a tendency to take lazy penalties when they got behind in the score or on a play. They were dinged most often throughout the year for simple stick penalties that Anze Kopitar said were the result of "maybe not moving our feet and being a little tired on the ice."

    2. Defensive depth. The Kings' third pairing of Martinez and Greene work well together, and the top end pairing of Muzzin and Doughty is as good as any in the league. However, the Kings lost Willie Mitchell, who logged more than 20 minutes a night during the 2014 championship run. Brayden McNabb, who will ideally fill his shoes long term, is a young player who will probably have to be allowed a bit of a learning curve. Regehr, the veteran safety net, has always been a drag on possession numbers and simply isn't as good as Mitchell. Unless McNabb makes a seamless transition to big minutes, this is one area that other strong contenders might be able to exploit.

    3. Offensive inconsistency. It’s become every Kings’ fan’s biggest gripe. Why does LA always go through stretches where they just can’t score?! Last year, there was a two-week stretch where every King other than Anze Kopitar was shut out, and the low point was a humiliating shutout at Dodger Stadium. The Kings have been near the bottom of the NHL in shooting percentage in each of the last two full seasons, and that has resulted in lower playoff seeding and regular season headaches. Then again, Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik might still be in Columbus if these scoring woes hadn’t occurred; this season, they’ll be counted on to keep team-wide scoring slumps at bay.

    Three questions

    1. Will the Kings' playoff success finally translate to the regular season?
    2. Which Mike Richards will the Los Angeles Kings get this year?
    3. How will the presence of Marian Gaborik affect Anze Kopitar and the Kings’ offense?

    Best case scenario

    This was another quiet offseason for the Kings. All they really lost was the now overpaid Willie Mitchell, veteran healthy scratch Colin Fraser, and any thought that Mike Richards was a good hockey player. Putting it bluntly, Los Angeles’s roster is essentially the same as it was in June when they hoisted the Stanley Cup. So the best case scenario is that they do the exact same thing as they did last year. Specifically, humiliating their in-state rivals en route to winning another Cup. The Kings have Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson raring to go for a full stint, and hopefully Darryl Sutter plays them ALL THE TIME, DARRYL. There’s also a hope Brayden McNabb is the real deal and can lock down a job. Maybe Mike Richards puts up sixty points. MAYBE the Sharks waive Joe Thornton and the Kings pick him up so he can experience winning for a change. MAYBE Anaheim has their arena flood with sewage again.

    Worst case scenario

    Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson slump for a week and then both are made healthy scratches for the remainder of the season to teach them a lesson. Mike Richards becomes so bad at hockey that his nasty juju spreads to Jeff Carter just from proximity. Marian Gaborik plays only twenty games. Jonathan Quick breaks both his wrists trying to strangle Corey Perry. Trevor Lewis is used in every shootout. The Sharks’ John Scott nearly beats Bailey to death with a tire iron during the Kings’ banner raising ceremony. Subsequently, all the lopsided deals done with the Blue Jackets come back to bite the Kings when they give up Valentin Zykov for Jared Boll, just so they have a counter to Scott. The Kings’ Corsi numbers fall from first in the league, and the organization never recovers.

  8. Presented by

    San Jose Sharks

    Thearon A. Henderson / Getty Images

    What an offseason for San Jose. Martin Havlat, Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart -- gone. Added were Tye McGinn, Taylor Fedun and, of all people, John Scott. To top it all off, Joe Thornton was stripped of the captaincy. After a devastating loss in the first round of the playoffs, in which San Jose blew a 3-0 series lead over Los Angeles, it appears as if GM Doug Wilson overreacted to the worst of many playoff failures. And though the Sharks remain a quality team, they look a bit worse than they did this time last year. They’ll make the postseason, and they’ll probably earn one of the top seeds in the West. But until the Sharks prove their worth in April and May, they’ll continue to be doubted.

    • HEAD COACH Todd McLellan

    • GENERAL MANAGER Doug Wilson

    • 2013-14 RECORD 51-22-9, 111 points (2nd in Pacific)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Tye McGinn, LW John Scott (lol)

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW Marty Havlat, D Dan Boyle, D Brad Stuart

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH LW Nikolay Goldobin, D Mirco Mueller, C Chris Tierney, C Freddie Hamilton, D Konrad Abeltshauser

    • AHL AFFILIATE Worcester Sharks

    • TEAM BLOG Fear The Fin

    Three strengths

    1. Center depth. This is largely contingent on who actually lines up at center but if Todd McLellan and the rest of the Sharks coaching staff do the sensible thing in giving each of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski their own line, no team in the league is deeper down the middle than San Jose. Frankly, no one is even close. Pavelski finished 3rd in the entire NHL in goal-scoring last year yet he’s a third-line center in the Sharks’ ideal configuration. 20-year-old sensation Tomas Hertl is also a natural pivot while Canadian Olympian Patrick Marleau is capable of playing center as well so the Sharks are endowed with an embarrassment of riches concentrated in one vital position. Now watch as James Sheppard inexplicably centers the third line anyway.

    2. Top 4 defensemen. Again, this is somewhat reliant on how the Sharks roster shakes out but if the team is comfortable playing breakout blueliner Jason Demers on his off-side, the Sharks will boast a top four of Norris-worthy Marc-Edouard Vlasic, All-Star defenseman-turned-wookiee-turned-forward-turned-defenseman Brent Burns, adept puck-mover Justin Braun and the offensively skilled Demers. While none of them are quite at the level of a Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson (though Vlasic is close, just without those players’ offensive dominance), it’s as complete a top four as the Sharks have had in years, bereft of immobile veterans like Brad Stuart, Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin who have plagued the team in the past.

    3. Power play. This might seem like a patently absurd thing to say about a team that finished 20th in power play efficiency last season and converted at an even lower rate in the playoffs but bear with me here. For the first five years of the Todd McLellan era (2008-2013) no team averaged more 5-on-4 shots per minute or scored more 5-on-4 goals than the Sharks. Last season the team again led the league in power play shot rate but dropped to 20th in conversion percentage thanks to the NHL’s fifth-worst shooting percentage in that game state. What’s more likely: the best shot-generating and goal-scoring 5-on-4 team in the league continued to generate shots at an elite rate while up a man but forgot how to bury those chances? Or that they endured a frustrating, but temporary, dry spell? Even with the loss of veteran QB Dan Boyle, I’ll bet on the latter. San Jose also vastly outpaces every other club at drawing penalties so they’ll pile up the PP goals even if their PP% isn’t north of 25. The Sharks will very likely struggle to score at 5-on-5 but they should be able to make their hay offensively with a bounce-back season on the man advantage.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Bottom six forwards. If the coaching staff insists on playing Joe Pavelski at first-line wing, the Sharks will enter the year with Tyler Kennedy, a healthy scratch in all seven playoff games last spring, and James Sheppard, he of 16 career NHL goals (in 323 games), on their third line and Mike Brown and Adam Burish, neither of whom even belong in the NHL, on their fourth. That’s as ugly a bottom six as you’ll find on any team that considers itself a Cup contender and it doesn’t compare all that favorably to many non-playoff teams either. Fortunately, there are solutions: Raffi Torres will return from injury at some point and it’s possible McLellan will save the third line by letting Pavelski center it but there’s simply a lack of quality forward depth in the organization beyond the top six. It’s unfathomable that a team chasing Los Angeles, who won their most recent championship with former Canadian Olympian Mike Richards on their fourth line, and Chicago, who get terrific value out of skilled two-way center Marcus Kruger on their fourth line, would go out and sign useless facepunchers like Brown and John Scott to staff their own bottom unit. Fourth-line minutes matter in today’s NHL game and the Sharks are set up to get killed in those minutes.

    2. Defensive depth. Outside of their top four NHL defensemen, there just isn’t much to work with on the blueline in the Sharks organization. Matt Irwin is gifted with a booming slapshot but he doesn’t seem to have the trust of the coaching staff or a whole lot of defensive awareness. Scott Hannan should probably have retired years ago. Matt Tennyson and Taylor Fedun are in their mid-20’s but have just 8 games of NHL experience between them. Mirco Mueller is 19 and hasn’t performed at a level in junior that suggests he’s capable of handling regular NHL minutes. Taylor Doherty seems like a longshot to ever make the big leagues. There are a lot of questions for the Sharks in this area and unless someone unexpected like Tennyson, Fedun or Konrad Abeltshauser emerges to answer them, San Jose could be in serious trouble if one of their top defensemen sustains an injury. Even otherwise, an inability to ice a competent third pairing will hurt a team that seems reticent to play its top defenseman, Vlasic, upwards of 25 minutes a night.

    3. A house divided. The value and impact of “locker room chemistry” is both ambiguously defined and vastly overstated in hockey but if there was ever a team that had significant issues in this department, it’s the 2014-15 Sharks. Several players told general manager Doug Wilson following the team’s playoff collapse against the Kings that they felt more like coworkers instead of teammates, a vague but apparently important distinction. Wilson himself declared he was only interested in players who “wanted to play here, not just live here” and reportedly tried to trade captain Joe Thornton, only to have the team’s best player exercise his no-movement clause to stay in San Jose. The organization eventually settled for stripping Thornton of the captaincy but he’s still here and so are whichever players complained to Wilson about the lack of team camaraderie, clear criticism of the leadership group Thornton formerly presided over. This can really only end in two ways: it all blows over and teammates privately make amends for things that may have been said in the heated aftermath of a devastating playoff loss or Wilson is finally successful in moving Thornton. It probably should have never come to this but the resolution of the Sharks’ offseason drama has the potential to shape the course of their regular season, one way or another.

    Three questions

    1. Who, if anyone, will be the Sharks’ next captain?
    2. Will Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both still be Sharks after the trade deadline?
    3. Can Alex Stalock beat out Antti Niemi for the starter’s job in net?

    Best case scenario

    If everything breaks absolutely perfectly for the Sharks -- Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau show no signs of aging, either Antti Niemi or Alex Stalock provides the kind of superlative goaltending performance this team has never received in the playoffs and San Jose avoids facing either the Kings or the Blackhawks in spring -- then it’s possible that they finally win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. But things never break perfectly in the Sharks’ favor when the calendar turns to April and simply hoping that everything doesn’t go against them is tempting fate enough as it is. So a realistic best-case scenario would be a second-round elimination at the hands of Los Angeles, marking the third straight year the Sharks will have had their Cup hopes dashed by their Southern California rivals.

    Worst case scenario

    Father Time finally comes calling for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto stagnate in their development, Joe Pavelski takes a significant step back after a shooting percentage-fueled 40-goal season, Brent Burns struggles to move the needle in his return to the blueline while the forward corps desperately misses his presence and injuries exacerbate the team’s already dire depth issues. That’s just a sampling of the potential problems that could affect the Sharks this season, without even getting into the on-ice implications of the fractures that clearly exist in the team’s dressing room in the wake of Thornton being stripped of the captaincy, the very real chance that Thornton and/or Marleau could be traded during the year or the possibility that neither Antti Niemi nor Alex Stalock can provide average goaltending. If all or even most of those issues crop up, the Sharks would miss the playoffs but unfortunately sport enough talent that they wouldn’t finish low enough to be in the mix for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. 13th-18th place is an unenviable spot to be in for a NHL club but that’s where the Sharks could find themselves with a major injury or trade.

  9. Presented by

    Vancouver Canucks

    Anne-Marie Sorvin / USA Today Sports

    2013-14 was nothing short of a nightmare in Vancouver. With John Tortorella behind the bench, the Canucks dropped to 12 in the Western Conference and scored fewer goals than every team not named the Panthers or Sabres. Tortorella and GM Mike Gillis were fired at season’s end. Trevor Linden was named team president, Jim Benning assumed the role of general manager and Willie Desjardins replaced Tortorella. Ryan Kesler, who grew unhappy with his life in the Pacific Northwest, was dealt to Anaheim, bringing Vancouver Luca Sbisa and Nick Bonino. Ryan Miller, who didn’t seem to fit in well with the Blues, was added to replace Roberto Luongo. The slate has been cleaned, and a rebound season is certainly possible. Whether or not the Canucks can return to the postseason will depend heavily on the Sedin twins, who combined for just 97 points last year. If Henrik and Daniel return to their old selves, and if Miller provides stability in net, Vancouver could surprise a lot of people in 2014-15.

    • HEAD COACH Willie Desjardins

    • GENERAL MANAGER Jim Benning

    • 2013-14 RECORD 36-35-11 (83 points, 5th in Pacific)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS D Luca Sbisa, C Nick Bonino, RW Radim Vrbata, G Ryan Miller, C/RW Linden Vey, RW Derek Dorsett, C Dustin Jeffrey, D Bobby Sanguinetti, HC Willie Desjardins, GM Jim Benning, President Trevor Linden

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Ryan Kesler, LW David Booth, C Mike Santorelli, D Jason Garrison, C Jordan Schroeder, RW Zac Dalpe, D Andrew Alberts, HC John Tortorella, GM Mike Gillis

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Bo Horvat, C Brendan Gaunce, RW Nicklas Jensen, LW Hunter Shinkaruk, D Frank Corrado

    • AHL AFFILIATE Utica Comets

    • TEAM BLOG Nucks Misconduct

    Three strengths

    1. Change. By shutting the doors on general manager Mike Gillis, coach John Tortorella and Ryan Kesler, the Canucks have introduced new voices and leaders in the room. Had they stayed the course with a wildly disgruntled center, a coach whose big mark while in town was physically assaulting another coach and a GM whose vision become untenable, this entire strength section would be woefully blank. Instead they’re going in with a player’s coach behind the bench, a GM devoid of bluster and posturing, an influx of youth and a core eager to prove last season was a fluke. Minus any unforeseen catastrophes (and since when do those happen in Vancouver anyway?) there’s every hope a return to possession driven and opportunistic hockey are on the (not too distant) horizon.

    2. Defense and goaltending. Some think Jim Benning lost the narrative bringing Ryan Miller into the -- never boring! -- goaltending mix, but to stem off Goalie Graveyard 2.0 he went with the best veteran (and short-term) option available while giving Eddie Lack some time with coach Roland Melanson to round out his game. It’s not Roberto Luongo / Cory Schneider, but it’s a far cry from icing Dany Sabourin or Mika Noronen while holding back a mouthful of vomit. In front of the netminders is a defensive group led by Hamhuis and Tanev who, collectively, were one of the few bright spots last season, Bieksa is the prototypical “heart and soul” player and it’s unconscionable to think Edler can’t rebound from his disastrous campaign. Stanton, Sbisa and ideally Corrado round out a group that should make the opposition work hard for their ice throughout the season.

    3. The next generation. The Canucks have long been criticized for their inability to succeed via the draft; I submit, for your humble knee-slapping approval, the Vancouver dumpster fires of 2007, 2008 and 2009. To their credit the Gillis regime seemingly did much better starting in 2011 (Nicklas Jensen, Frank Corrado), 2012 (Brendan Gaunce) and certainly 2013 (Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Cole Cassels and Jordan Subban). It’s no coincidence that one of Jim Benning’s strengths is through the draft: 47 of the 109 players he selected during his previous stints with the Sabres and Bruins stepped onto NHL ice. This summer Benning added Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Thatcher Demko to that group. Undrafted players like Dane Fox or Kellan Lain will get their looks too. It wasn't long ago Vancouver’s future was largely centered on Cody Hodgson and Cory Schneider; now there’s about 8-10 players – some of who will get a crack at making the starting roster this season – who shape the mold of the next generation of Vancouver Canucks.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Durability. Vancouver must have outstanding hospitals, because how else -- besides pointing to the sky past your tinfoil hat and shaking a fist at them “hockey gawds” -- do you explain losing 299 man games to injury last season (sixth worst), 159 games the season before (seventh worst) and 271 (12th worst) in 2012? Even at the most recent best – the Cup run in 2011 – they lost 360 man games due to injury, 6th worst overall. Thankfully they have a young guy or two waiting in the wings because, at some point, you’ll hear “lower body injury” and someone will disappear until March.

    2. Depth. Losing a guy like Kesler is going to sting. Vancouver struggled mightily when Daniel Sedin went down last March, and if some are quick to blame that on the clown horn that was Tortorella’s coaching strategy, the fact is once you move away from the Sedins, Vrbata and Burrows, there’s a hell of a lot of question marks regarding their plethora of third and fourth line guys. Higgins, Hansen, Richardson and Matthias have each been hit or miss at different times, they’re still waiting on Kassian to take the next step and they have yet to see what Bonino and Vey can do against up against strong opposition. On the back end there fear remains Edler will disappoint again, Sbisa may struggle on his third NHL team in seven years and it'll be nothing short of a small train wreck if Hamhuis or Tanev - or worst yet both - fall off the map. If Vancouver's best players aren’t their best and rest of the maturing talent doesn’t step up in their wake, they're in big trouble because of...

    3. The @#$%* Western Conference. If some massive earthquake wants to toss half of California in the ocean, that may be the only way the re-tooling Canucks can – over an 82 game stretch – keep pace with The Golden State, which conveniently includes the current Stanley Cup Champions and two others that had more points and wins than the champs last season. That’s even before we address the buzzsaw Central Division where Chicago is still Chicago, the Blues reinforced their ranks this summer, the Avs and Wild aren’t any weaker and Dallas suddenly decided to become relevant. There’s no room for prolonged scoreless droughts or losing streaks, both of which were in ample supply under Tortorella.

    Three questions

    1. What will the Willie Desjardins effect be?
    2. Can their new core lead them against the Pacific heavyweights?
    3. Are we watching a re-tool or a rebuild?

    Best case scenario

    When you hit rock bottom there’s nowhere to go but up, and that starts with Desjardins properly utilizing his assets (like, oh for instance, the Sedins get a breather during the PK) and injecting both a sense of calm and strong worth ethic back to the roster. Vrbata clicks with the Sedins and Bonino drives a talented second line, giving the Canucks the 1-2 punch they’ve sorely lacked. Their veteran offensive depth – Higgins, Hansen, Dorsett, Richardson, Matthias – exceed at both ends of the ice, Vey turns out to be a steal and Desjardins comfortably rolls four dependable lines night in and night out. Edler rebounds to lead the defensive end, Hamhuis and Tanev excel again at their shutdown roles and the Miller/Lack combo in net, quietly, turns out to be one of the more reliable pairs in the conference. They won’t take the Pacific but slide into one of the final three playoff spots and roll the dice on a dark horse run playoff run. Even if they miss the playoffs, a return to normalcy for fans and responsible, exciting hockey for a franchise that isn’t forced to trade top six talents, their third starting goalie in three years or can half their back office again would be a win in and of itself.

    Worst case scenario

    The Sedins land hard in regression city, Vrbata and Burrows disappear offensively and Bonino is exposed as anything but a consistent top six talent. Kassian loses his mind and starts tossing cars at the elderly. Edler decides a -39 isn’t as sexy as a -83 (take that Bill Mikkelson), Hamhuis breaks every bone simultaneously, and Tanev demands a trade to the Mongolian Hockey League (Google it, such a thing exists). Miller flees his crease every time he sees “Weber” on a jersey staring back at him, Lack is traded to Florida for Shawn Thornton and – somehow – Keith Ballard. Desjardins rips off his face to unveil Tortorella giggling like a schoolgirl beneath it, the Oilers and Flames leap frog them in the standings all the while Luongo gets the Panthers to playoffs, Vigneault gets the Rangers back to the Final, and Kesler lifts the Cup in Anaheim.

  10. Presented by

    Central Division

    Despite finishing third a year ago, this is, as always, the Blackhawks division to lose. But instead of a threat from the Avalanche this year, we're expecting another upstart competitor to take a run at the top: the Dallas Stars. Led by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and propelled by offseason additions Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, the Stars are a likely candidate to go from playoff bubble to home-ice advantage. Colorado, meanwhile, is in a fight against an analytics crowd that says they'll sharply fall off this season. Can Patrick Roy's crew prove the math wrong or will they be on the playoff bubble come April?

    Scott Rovak / USA Today Sports
  11. Presented by

    Chicago Blackhawks

    Jerry Lai / USA Today Sports

    The Blackhawks came within a goal of winning the West last spring, falling in overtime to Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Conference final. Had a bounce or two gone another way, Chicago may have advanced and ultimately beaten the Rangers for its third Cup in five years. With that loss in the rearview mirror, the Blackhawks return as one of the league’s elite. All the key pieces from last season will return. Brandon Bollig was mercifully shipped to Calgary. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed matching contract extensions—keeping one of the NHL’s best duos together for the long haul. Furthermore, Brad Richards will join an already lethal scoring attack, signing a team-friendly deal on July 1—giving Chicago a true No. 2 center behind Jonathan Toews. Barring a devastating injury, the Hawks will contend for the Cup yet again in 2014-15. Many have pegged them as the favorite to go all the way, and when you look at their roster, it’s easy to see why.

    • HEAD COACH Joel Quenneville

    • GENERAL MANAGER Stan Bowman

    • 2013-14 RECORD 46-21-15, 107 points (3rd in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Brad Richards, G Michael Leighton, D Kyle Cumiskey, C Cody Bass, LW Pierre-Cedric Labrie

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES LW Brandon Bollig, C Michal Handzus, D Sheldon Brookbank, G Nikolai Khabibulin

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Teuvo Teravainen, D Adam Clendening, C Joakim Nordström, RW Mark McNeill, D Stephen Johns

    • AHL AFFILIATE Rockford IceHogs

    • TEAM BLOG Second City Hockey

    Three strengths

    1. Star power. Great teams are often defined by their best players, and the 2014-15 Blackhawks will be no different. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp are regarded as some of the best players in the sport, and their leadership means as much to the team as their on-ice production. Depth is an obvious requirement when battling through 82-plus games and the postseason, but these are the players who will determine just where Chicago lands at the end of the year. Luckily, there’s little reason to believe one of the game’s great cores will take a step back.

    2. Stability. While many teams enter the upcoming season surrounded by significant questions, the Blackhawks have a remarkably similar roster to last year. Outside of a couple minor changes, such as replacing Handzus with Richards, the entire core of a team that’s consistently been among the NHL’s best remains intact. That kind of stability is rare in professional sports, especially during the age of salary caps, and it’s a testament to the impressive maneuvering that’s been done by Bowman and the front office. Instead of trying to catch lightning in a bottle, the Hawks are simply working to further remodel and refine a group that’s already accomplished quite a lot.

    3. Youthful reinforcements. Injuries can sink pretty much any team at any time, but the Blackhawks have the benefit of several talented prospects who are nearly NHL-ready. Beyond Finnish phenom Teuvo Teravainen, the top guy in the system and one of the most well-regarded prospects in hockey, there are a number of young players who could step into contributing roles if the need arises. The most obvious name is forward Jeremy Morin, who showed flashes in a stint with the team last season and could break into the lineup by opening day with a strong preseason. There are others, too, including defensemen Adam Clendending and David Rundblad, and forwards Joakim Nordström and Mark McNeill. The Blackhawks might be a win-now team, but they’ve done an impressive job of flowing talent through the system.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Goaltending depth. Any discussion of the Blackhawks’ issues tends to begin with Corey Crawford and the team’s goaltending situation. While Crawford has proven to be a solid goalie and probably deserved his massive extension after the 2013 Stanley Cup win, he’s also routinely one of the biggest question marks looming over the team. Is Crawford a great goaltender? Most people would say no, but they’d also probably admit that he’s good enough to win a Cup with. The bigger problem might be who’s behind Crawford: Annti Raanta, and not much else. If Crawford goes down, the Hawks are in trouble.

    2. Penalty kill. One of the biggest issues for last year’s Blackhawks team was the penalty kill. Given that there’s not much significantly different about this year’s group, it’s reasonable to wonder whether fighting off power plays will continue to be an issue. Last season, Chicago finished 19th in the NHL with a penalty kill percentage of 81.4 percent, then continued to struggle against opponents with the man advantage in the postseason. The Kings in particular took advantage of the Hawks’ weakness, scoring six power play goals in the seven-game series. It would be nice to reverse that trend in 2014-15.

    3. Uncertain depth at center. The Blackhawks’ situation at center is probably better than it was last season, but in an increasingly stacked Western Conference, the uncertainty is concerning. Will Brad Richards be the set-up man Patrick Kane has been waiting for, or could Teuvo Teravainen arrive earlier than expected? Might someone like Andrew Shaw step up and surprise with more offensive pop on the second or third line? There are lots of possibilities, but after a season of failing to find many answers, folks could probably use some steady solutions. Teams like the Ducks, Stars and Blues haven’t gotten any weaker up the middle.

    Three questions

    1. Someone’s getting traded by opening day, but who?
    2. Did the Hawks do enough to keep up during the offseason?
    3. What will ultimately happen with Teuvo Teravainen?

    Best case scenario

    Everyone stays healthy, the young guys step up in the playoffs and Chicago gets its third Stanley Cup in six years. There are arguably scenarios where things can go wrong for the Blackhawks and a Cup is still in the mix, so anything less will feel like a disappointment. It’s hard to fathom actually being here as a fan given where the franchise was 10 years ago, but last year’s Game 7 loss to L.A. in the Western Conference Finals left a terrible taste in everyone’s mouth. It’s not like the city I’ve grown up in, but for once, we pretty much all expected to win. So the Blackhawks don’t really need to do much different in 2014-15, other than maybe get some better puck luck and improvement from their non-Toews centers. There are lots of things we’d love to see, from the breakout of Teuvo Teravainen to a truly consistent, high-level year from Corey Crawford. Patrick Kane finally blowing up the stat sheets with goal after goal would be fun, too. But ultimately this is a win-lose proposition with borderline dynasty status at the center of it, and that’s all anyone will really care about.

    Worst case scenario

    You’re lying there, it’s 3 a.m. and the thought strikes you for no good reason at all whatsoever: What if Toews or Kane got injured. Like, “career-altering” injured. We all worry about the physical safety of our loved ones, and obviously it would be grand if everyone simply lived forever, but when you’re the fan of a team with truly transcendent players, sometimes you worry that they’ll stay healthy, too. If the Blackhawks repeat last season, falling just short with some bumps along the way, it’ll be disappointing. What would happen if one of the faces of the franchise suffered a devastating injury, well, it’s hard to explain what it would be, not just because of the loss in on-ice production. Toews and Kane are the two most important players to the team’s future, and not only would losing either one for a significant period mean losing more games, it would mean seriously stressing about how such physical woes might have an effect down the road. So let’s pretend we never had this conversation, and go back to talking about possible dynasties.

  12. Presented by

    Colorado Avalanche

    Frederick Breedon / Getty Images

    The Avs are fresh off one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history, in which they jumped from last in the West in 2012-13 to second. Patrick Roy enjoyed a wealth of success in his first year behind the bench, and an exciting, young group led Colorado to a division championship. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene give the Avs a plethora of options up front, and Semyon Varlamov proved to be one of the NHL’s best goalies in 2013-14. However, despite the Avs’ success last year, there are reasons to be pessimistic about them moving forward. The numbers say Colorado is due for some nasty regression. Personnel-wise, Paul Stastny, who finished third on the team in goals, left for division rival St. Louis. PA Parenteau departed, as well. Jarome Iginla and Daniel Briere were GM Joe Sakic’s two big July signings, but they come with a lot of question marks. Can the aging Iginla continue to be a top-six forward? Is Briere completely washed up? We’ll find out soon enough. The Avs remain uber-talented and should have little trouble returning to the playoffs. Whether or not they are true contenders remains to be seen.

    • HEAD COACH Patrick Roy


    • 2013-14 RECORD 52-22-8, 112 points (1st in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS RW Jarome Iginla, C Daniel Briere, D Brad Stuart


    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Joey Hishon, D Duncan Siemens, D Stefan Elliott, D Chris Bigras, G Calvin Pickard, G Sami Aittokallio

    • AHL AFFILIATE Lake Erie Monsters

    • TEAM BLOG Mile High Hockey

    Three strengths

    1. Offense. The Avs return 5 players who scored more than 20 goals to power last season’s 4th highest scoring team. Bringing Jarome Iginla into the fold only helps bolster an offense that did lose stalwart Paul Stastny. Iginla and the Avs both hope he continues his trend of scoring 30 goals in a season, something that hasn’t happened in Colorado since 2007. Matt Duchene again looks to pace the offense as he comes off a season in which he scored 70 points in 71 games.

    2. Starting goaltending. If you’ve paid any attention to the Avs this off-season, chances are you’ve heard everyone on the planet be skeptical over Semyon Varlamov repeating last season’s career year, one that ended in him finishing 2nd in Vezina Trophy voting. Alas, it’s a strength until it’s not as the insanely athletic Varlamov enters his prime with a secure hold on the starting job.

    3. Coaching. While plenty can be said about Patrick Roy the tactician and his need for improvements in-game, nothing can take away that Roy proved to be a master motivator who doesn’t struggle to own his locker room. The attitude overhaul inspired by Roy’s dominant presence brought back the long-dormant swagger to a franchise accustomed to finishing among the league’s elite.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Defense, defense, defense. The Avs were soundly beaten in possession last year, resulting in Varlamov facing the most shots in the league. With a handful of quality two-way players in the forward corps, its clear the team’s biggest weakness lies on its blueline. While Erik Johnson finally flourished into the two-way player he was expected to be, the offensive breakouts of Tyson Barrie and Nick Holden weren’t enough to offset the defensive limitations both players present, as well as the steady-but-overmatched Jan Hejda and the simply overmatched Nate Guenin. This defense, with the addition of Brad Stuart, must make a significant leap for the Avs to hope to realistically repeat last year’s division championship.

    2. Backup goaltending. The Avs quietly traded for G Reto Berra at least year’s trade deadline as they prepared for Jean-Sebastian Giguere to depart via retirement after the season. Unfortunately, Berra’s brief appearances in Colorado last year continued an underwhelming rookie NHL season that saw the Swiss netminder finish with an .893 save percentage and 3.07 GAA. This lackluster track record inspires little more than doubt about Colorado’s chances on nights when its star goaltender is taking a breather. Berra will need to significantly outperform his work last season if he’s to repeat Giguere’s standard of giving the team a solid shot to win in the absence of Varlamov.

    3. Depth. The Avs are powerful but thin on offense as their recent development pattern of drafting and immediately sending kids to the NHL has left the system barren in terms of high-end replacements when injuries inevitably occur. While the expected third line of Jamie McGinn, John Mitchell, and Danny Briere features 3 players with varying amount of experience in the top 6, any injuries suffered beyond that will mean calling up an unproven player from the AHL. As evidenced by last year’s playoffs, any injuries to either Erik Johnson or Tyson Barrie along the Colorado blueline would be disastrous. For the Avs to repeat last year’s success, the team must stay healthy.

    Three questions

    1. Can Semyon Varlamov repeat last year’s Vezina-level breakout season?
    2. Will Patrick Roy up his game in his second year behind the bench?
    3. Will Colorado’s defense improve enough to mitigate potential regression on offense and in net?

    Best case scenario

    Colorado repeats last year’s successful transition from rebuilding to contending and builds upon last year’s experience, winning the division before the final day of the season and getting healthy as the playoffs arrive. Varlamov repeats his success in goal, Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene pace the high-octane offense, Ryan O’Reilly improves his previous success to post a 30-goal season, Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay re-ignite their old flame and post 60+ point seasons, we see the best yet from Gabe Landeskog in a 30-goal campaign, and Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie key a much improved defense as the team advances beyond the first round of the playoffs and announces themselves once again as a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.

    Worst case scenario

    The Avs are unable to sustain some of the good fortune that aided them last season, specifically Varlamov going from the .927 goaltender who carried the Avalanche many nights and reverting back to more of the .915 goaltender he had previously shown himself to be. The Avs’ lack of depth leaves them vulnerable to a wild variation of potential finishes, and missing the playoffs would be a step back from what was thought to be a completed rebuild. The Avs don’t quite yet have the horses to overcome the regular season obstacles, and the wheels fall off the bus completely. The Avs sustain a rash of injuries to key players, the luck dries up, and the Avs not only miss the playoffs, but unexpectedly put themselves in the thick of the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes with a bottom 5 finish.

  13. Presented by

    Dallas Stars

    Jerome Miron / USA Today Sports

    Despite finishing eighth in the West last year, the Stars are being lauded as one of the most exciting clubs in the NHL. The world saw their potential in the opening round of the playoffs, when they pushed the top-seeded Ducks to six games after falling in a 0-2 hole. With Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Valeri Nichushkin, Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky in the fold, it’s easy to see why people are so high on Dallas. Indeed, head coach Lindy Ruff has this group on the right track, and GM Jim Nill has been one of the more productive executives over the last few seasons. They’ll be one of the more exciting offensive teams, and their defense should hold up just fine. The big concern is in net. Kari Lehtonen, while talented, has a well-deserved reputation for getting injured. Nill brought Anders Lindback aboard to serve as Lehtonen’s backup, but he has struggled mightily over the last few years. If Lehtonen (and Lindback) stay healthy and play to their potential, Dallas should make a lot of noise this year. The Stars are certainly moving in the right direction, and it may not be long before they enjoy a long postseason run.

    • HEAD COACH Lindy Ruff


    • 2013-14 RECORD 40-31-11, 91 points (5th in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Jason Spezza, RW Ales Hemsky


    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Radek Faksa, LW Curtis McKenzie, RW Brett Ritchie, RW Matej Stransky, D Jyrki Jokipakka, D Jamie Oleksiak, D Patrik Nemeth, C Jason Dickinson

    • AHL AFFILIATE Texas Stars

    • TEAM BLOG Defending Big D

    Three strengths

    1. Team speed. One of the things that stuck out the most about the Stars last year was the raw speed up and down the lineup. From Tyler Seguin’s quickness to the blurs that are Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel, there are extremely few teams that can keep up with the Stars in a team footrace.

    2. Scoring depth. Take one of the most dynamic scoring duos in the NHL last season in Seguin and Jamie Benn and add another of the most impressive (if short-lived) duos in Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to take some of the defensive focus away from those two, and you’ve got potentially one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

    3. Organizational leadership. From Jim Nill at the top to Lindy Ruff at the helm and Jamie Benn in the room, there is as much confidence in the leadership group as there has been since perhaps the days of Bob Gainey, Ken Hitchcock and Derian Hatcher. The way Nill has improved the team with shrewd trades, the way Ruff handled a number of delicate situations last season and the way Benn has grown into the captaincy all have the Stars set at the top.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Team defense. While the Stars defense performed admirably under fire last season, it is still a largely undermanned unit, particularly in the Western Conference. There is talent in the pipeline, but Dallas can’t afford an off-year from players expected to soak up NHL minutes.

    2. Proven backup goaltending. Kari Lehtonen isn’t as injury prone as his reputation suggests, but he will miss a few 1-2 week stretches each year. Given that, and given how worn down he can get after 65 starts, the Stars desperately need a reliable backup. They haven’t found that in recent seasons and enter this year with Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas as the options, two players with talent but who have disappointed elsewhere.

    3. Team consistency. It is probably the hallmark of a young team, but last season’s Stars could put together one heck of streak. Some great play in February probably pushed them into the playoffs, but some terrible play in January and March nearly kept them out. They also had melt-downs within games, the most notable coming on no less of a stage than Game 6 of the first round.

    Three questions

    1. Can the Dallas Stars live up to heightened expectations?
    2. Will the defense improve without any drastic personnel changes?
    3. Will the Dallas Stars finally find consistent backup goaltending?

    Best case scenario

    A mixture of canny acquisitions (Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky), developing youth (Valeri Nichushkin), and a pair of freshly-minted superstars (Jamie Benn & Tyler Seguin) turn last year’s 11th-best offense into an absolute supernova. Another year of experience helps Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt stay out of the box, which gives the Stars unprecedented levels of snarl, and allows Cody Eakin’s third line to become one of the most effective units in the league. Defensively, Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski display their stretch-run form all season, and a few of the youngsters take modest steps forward. Between the pipes, Kari Lehtonen gets a reliable backup, the occasional night off, and stays fresh all season long. All of this equals options for Lindy Ruff and headaches for the rest of the league. Such an influx of talent might even help Dallas' moribund power play. By the time mid-season rolls around, the Stars are comfortably in the playoff mix, where they’ll stay. It’s not quite enough to unseat Chicago or St. Louis at the top of the division, but it should be enough to run the party well into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All of this proves the resurgent Stars are here to stay.

    Worst case scenario

    Last season the Dallas Stars used a late season surge and a bit luck to get into the postseason, before losing in six games to a Anaheim Ducks team that was very clearly beatable. Expectations are much higher this season, but the defense is essentially the same as before and much of the depth outside of the top six are either aging veterans or unproven prospects. There’s certainly more promise than there has been in quite some time, but a regression the blue line or a regression in the overall team defense can really have a negative impact on the Stars chances for the postseason this year. The Stars improved, but so did the rest of the Central Division, and making the postseason became no easier even with the additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Inconsistent defense and inconsistent goaltending could once again mean another dogfight for the postseason and if that goal is missed, there will be many frustrated and upset fans in Dallas.

  14. Presented by

    Minnesota Wild

    Brace Hemmelgam / USA Today Sports

    The Wild were a playoff team a year ago, and now, the bar has been raised. Can Minnesota take another step forward in 2014-15 and evolve into a legitimate Cup contender? Perhaps. The Wild have an underappreciated amount of young talent, which should only improve in the coming years. Guys like Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund have shown a lot of promise, as have Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Blue chip D-man Mathew Dumba could make the jump to the NHL this season, as well. Minnesota’s seasons will likely be decided by its goaltending. Josh Harding is out for an extended period of time after breaking one of his feet. Can Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom push the Wild to the next level? That seems unlikely. Minnesota should vie for a playoff spot yet again in 2014-15, but it’s easy to see them taking a step back.

    • HEAD COACH Mike Yeo

    • GENERAL MANAGER Chuck Fletcher

    • 2013-14 RECORD 43-27-12, 98 points (4th in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Thomas Vanek, C Jordan Schroeder, D Justin Falk

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES LW Dany Heatley, D Clayton Stoner, D Nate Prosser

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH LW Jason Zucker, LW Michael Keranen, D Matt Dumba, D Christian Folin, D Gustav Olofsson

    • AHL AFFILIATE Iowa Wild

    • TEAM BLOG Hockey Wilderness

    Three strengths

    1. Veteran leadership. The Wild have a number of former team captains guiding the ship. From incumbent Mikko Koivu, to Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville, and now Thomas Vanek, there should be enough leadership on the team to help the talented youngsters on the roster to be successful.

    2. Depth at forward. General manager Chuck Fletcher had some retooling to do of the AHL roster. He’s signed some good youth to help challenge players fighting for spots in training camp like Guillaume Gelinas, Michael Keranen, Jordan Schroeder, and Gustav Olofsson.

    3. A solid top 4 on defense. While overall depth on defense may be lacking for the Wild into the season, players like Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, and Jared Spurgeon make for an effective top 4.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Goaltending. Minnesota dressed seven netminders last season and started five of them. With Harding dealing with MS and now an ankle injury, goaltending depth is up in the air.

    2. Youth. Last year the roster turned over to a number of early 20-somethings and the Wild had to really lean on them to help carry the team to the playoffs. If one or two of the young, promising kids have a down year, it will be a brutal season.

    3. Inability to score. To sound like a broken record, the WIld just don’t score a lot of goals. Thomas Vanek now in the fold should help a bit, but the team as a whole needs to find the back of the net with more efficiency.

    Three questions

    1. Will the power play improve to a level of competence?

    2. Can the Wild stay healthy and rely on 1 or 2 goalies?

    3. With the Central Division getting stronger, can the Wild find a way back into the playoffs?

    Best case scenario

    For the season to be an absolute success, the Wild will need to return to the post-season and find a way into the conference finals. A long shot, I know. However, the team that dominated the Avalanche in 7 games in every way except the scoreboard, and put forth a respectable effort against the Blackhawks, is returning almost fully intact. They jettisoned the dead-weight that was Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner, and Nate Prosser. On board comes Thomas Vanek, whose insertion into the line-up should help balance scoring among the forward lines, and young, more mobile defensemen should help the Wild score more goals. The Wild should be positive possesion team, and total goal tally should improve to be around 225 goals. Special teams will improve because, well, it’s really the only it can go. The power play eeks closer 20 percent and the PK finishes near 87 percent. The Wild will be 3rd in the Central and make a 3rd straight appearance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    Worst case scenario

    Minnesota’s goaltending situation isn’t solved because of injuries...again. Then the Wild is forced to rely on an aging Martin Brodeur or Ilya Bryzgalov who seem to be a shell of their former selves. Thomas Vanek becomes Dany Heatley 2.0. The Wild plummet out of the playoff picture, but play just good enough to be out of the McDavid sweepstakes. Mike Yeo, who was on the hot seat at the end of 2014, then re-signed to a new three year contract, is fired in the first year of a new deal. Zach Parise takes a stick to the eye and has to retire early, Al McInnis style, and Mikael Granlund is concussed to oblivion and turns into Pierre-Marc Bouchard Part Deux. This, of course, has been the Wild’s calling card since 2009 and well within the realm of possibility.

  15. Presented by

    Nashville Predators

    Frederick Breedon / Getty Images

    Gone is Barry Trotz, the only head coach the franchise has ever known. In is Peter Laviolette, who will attempt to turn Nashville into an offensive-minded team for the first time ever. The biggest move of the offseason occurred on draft night, when GM David Poile sent Patric Hornqvist to Pittsburgh for James Neal. The Preds will miss Hornqvist’s aggressiveness and character, but the addition of Neal gives the team an elite scoring threat—something Nashville has lacked for most of its existence. Mike Ribiero was brought on board, as well, as were Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen. Should these new forwards perform the way they’re capable of, Preds fans should finally enjoy an exciting, dangerous offense in the Music City. However, given Ribiero’s off-ice troubles, Roy’s recent decline and Jokinen’s age, this group could leave a lot to be desired. Defensively, there are less question marks. Shea Weber returns as the captain and foundation of the blueline. Joining him will be the underrated Roman Josi, teenage phenom Seth Jones and veteran Anton Volchenkov. Those four and star goalie Pekka Rinne should keep Nashville among the best defensive teams in the league. If Laviolette’s system works, and if the forwards surpass expectations, the Preds may return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus.

    • HEAD COACH Peter Laviolette

    • GENERAL MANAGER David Poile

    • 2013-14 RECORD 38-32-12, 88 points (6th in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW James Neal, C Mike Ribeiro, C Olli Jokinen, C Derek Roy, D Anton Volchenkov

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW Patric Hornqvist, C Nick Spaling

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Filip Forsberg, C Calle Jarnkrok, C Colton Sissons, LW Brandon Leipsic, D Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, G Magnus Hellberg, G Marek Mazanec

    • AHL AFFILIATE Milwaukee Admirals

    • TEAM BLOG On the Forecheck

    Three strengths

    1. Unpredictability. No one expects anything out of the Predators this year, and they have a chance to surprise a lot of people. Trading for James Neal has the potential to be the biggest thing the organization has ever done, and the low-risk, high-reward signings give the team plenty of options and lines to work with. Plus, now that they aren’t stuck in a grind-it-out, dump-it-deep system, players like Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Gabriel Bourque could really flourish. Even the fans don’t know what this club is capable of yet. Nashville made it to the playoffs seven times in eight years defying expectations. They have the potential to do it again.

    2. Defense. The Predators are incredibly deep on the blue line. Shea Weber and Roman Josi may be one of the best pairs in the league, and Seth Jones is still developing into a potential superstar. The defense is so stacked that Ryan Ellis, a top four defenseman anywhere else, will probably spend most of his time on the third pairing. That depth will help mask any deficiencies they might have finding their way in a new system.

    3. Youth. Organizationally, it may not help them in the short term. However, they have several kids knocking at the door to make the team even though they are extremely young. Filip Forsberg was voted MVP of the rookie camp, and 11th-overall pick Kevin Fiala has scouts chattering he’s talented enough to be in the NHL at 18. These are speedy, dynamic scorers that Nashville hasn’t seen since Alex Radulov. Then James Neal is only 28, Craig Smith 24, Seth Jones 19. All could be staples in the coming years when the prospects are ready. Rinne is starting to age, but Marek Mazanec or Magnus Hellberg could be Nashville’s goalies of the future. Their roster looks a lot better down the line than it did before.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Unpredictability. It’s a double-edged sword. The chemistry between all the new players and the new coach could work out well, or it could fail miserably. Just because ingredients sound like they go well together, it doesn’t always make for a delicious meal. If they can’t put it together, Nashville will very quickly sink to the bottom of the standings. There will also be a question mark over Pekka Rinne’s play. He says he’s healthy, but even if he is will he be able to return to the elite form he’s shown in the past?

    2. Lack of a true top-line center. For the amount of centers on the roster, there isn’t one legit top-line center. Mike Ribeiro may work for a bit, but Neal is eventually going to need a talented playmaker to feed him pucks. If the Predators were able to acquire a Spezza-like player, they could absolutely be in the talk of making the playoffs. Instead, they have to hope and pray that what they did this summer pays off, and look to fill that 1C through drafting or trading, which may take a while.

    3. Being in the Central. Five teams from the Central made it to the playoffs last year, and Nashville has the unenviable task of having to bump one of them out. Even if the Preds do everything right on their end, there’s a distinct possibility the rest of the teams will be just too good to allow that to happen. The team will have to take monstrous strides if they want to see the second season, and that may be just a little bit too much to ask given the division they’re in.

    Three questions

    1. Will Peter Laviolette change the defensive culture in Nashville?
    2. Is Pekka Rinne still a difference maker?
    3. Does the bargain bin shopping pay off for David Poile?

    Best case scenario

    Under the new direction of Peter Laviolette, the Predators are able to find an offensive groove the likes of which the city of Nashville has never seen before. James Neal breaks the franchise record in goals (33) while Craig Smith and Colin Wilson finally burst through their previous ceiling, and Filip Forsberg emerges as a start to watch. In addition, the menagerie of aging free agents David Poile acquired over the summer pays dividends, helping the team break their two-year playoff drought.

    Worst case scenario

    The Preds have their third terrible season in a row...but not terrible enough to land a top pick in what is regarded as an exceptionally deep draft. Whatever their reasons, it doesn't appear that big-name free agents view Nashville as a destination, so if the Preds are going to reload, it's going to be through the draft. While totally bottoming out would be tough to watch (and as somebody who goes to a lot of games, I can assure you I’m NOT rooting for this scenario), it would at least give the team a chance to land an impact player who could contribute right away. Aside from the sheer boringness of mediocrity, finishing an oh-so-close couple of points out of the playoffs would be the absolute worst…for this year, and for the future of the franchise.

  16. Presented by

    St. Louis Blues

    Eric Hartline / USA Today Sports

    Coming off a disappointing playoff performance, the Blues return with one of the deepest rosters in the NHL. Though St. Louis doesn’t have an elite goalscorer, the likes of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie are complemented by a solid bottom-six that defends well and can find the back of the net. Blueliner Alex Pietrangelo has grown up a lot in the last few seasons and figures to lead an impressive corps of defensemen. The one area that can hold this team back is goaltending. Ryan Miller, who didn’t fare well in his short stint with the Blues, signed with Vancouver. This is Brian Elliott’s team, at least for now. The 29-year-old was tremendous back in 2011-12, posting a .940 save percentage and 1.56 GAA in 43 games. So the talent is there. After struggling in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, he returned to form last year by stopping 92.2 percent of shots and surrendering just 1.96 goals per game. The time has come for Elliott to embrace the role of a true No. 1 and become one of the NHL’s best goalies. If he can accomplish that, the Blues should do a lot of damage in 2014-15.

    • HEAD COACH Ken Hitchcock

    • GENERAL MANAGER Doug Armstrong

    • 2013-14 RECORD 52-23-7, 111 points (2nd in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Paul Stastny, C Jori Lehtera, D Karl Gunnarsson

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Vladimir Sobotka, D Roman Polak, G Ryan Miller

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH RW Ty Rattie, C Robby Fabbri, C Ivan Barbashev, LW Zach Pochiro, D Jani Hakanpaa

    • AHL AFFILIATE Chicago Wolves

    • TEAM BLOG St. Louis Game Time

    Three strengths

    1. Play making. Yep. You are not seeing things. Play making is definitely going to be a strength of the Blues this season. Rob Vollman rated the top 100 forwards from the last three seasons based on the number of estimated passes (for more information about the stat and how to calculate it, you will need to check out Vollman's book Hockey Abstract). He uses this estimated passes per game stat as a measure of a player's play making ability. The Blues will have 5 players on their team this season that are in the top 100. That is the most out of any other team in the Central Division. None of the Blues players crack the top 10, but T.J. Oshie is in the top third. The biggest surprise is Vladimir Tarasenko. There are only 9 players who have played 123 games or less (the equivalent to the last two seasons) and also made the top 100. Tarasenko is one of those players.

    2. Centers. The center position has been one of the Blues' weaker links in their efforts to move deep into the playoffs. Not this season however. With the addition of Stastny and Lehtera the Blues suddenly have the enviable problem of figuring out new line combinations. Stastny brings great play making ability while, according to Hitchcock. Lehtera brings "hockey savvy" and a relationship with rising star Tarasenko. The Blues still have Berglund, though they lost Sobotka. And yes, I'm ignoring Ott. Bottomline, Blues have some great options down the middle this season and it comes at a perfect time in the team's development.

    3. Possession. The Blues are known for their style of play that allows them to dominate puck possession. The Blues rank third in even strength (5v5) Fenwick close over the past three seasons combined with 53.85%. The two teams ahead of them are the LA Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. Pretty good company. The difference between those two teams and the Blues? You guessed it, goals for and goals for %. So as long as the Blues maintain their style of heavy possession play, and are able to integrate the new talent down the middle, they just might have what it takes to make it deep into the playoffs this season (finally).

    Three weaknesses

    1. Goaltending. Goaltending might not actually be a “weakness,” per say, but you’d be hard pressed to name a bigger question mark facing the Blues going into 2014-15. With Jaroslav Halak long gone and Poochie having been allowed to leave (his planet needed him), the burden falls to the duo of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Ells has been mostly rock solid since coming to St. Louis, but when he's been off he's either been fake-injury rehab assignment bad, or good but juuuuust not-good enough when it mattered most. Meanwhile, the youngster Jake Allen showed promise when forced into duty in 2013 and has been one of the best netminders in the AHL for the past couple years, but will that translate to the NHL level? Either option would be a dream come true for any team as a backup, but do two top-tier #2 goalies equal a starter? Can Allen handle a significantly heavier workload if Brian Elliott suddenly turns back into a pumpkin? Gretzky forbid either should miss time on the IR, could we survive Jordan Binnington seeing meaningful NHL minutes? And of course, the $64 million question: can either turn it on and shut down elite attacking teams in the playoffs?

    2. Even strength scoring. Here's a stat for you: of all of the goals the Blues scored last year, only 67% of them came 5-on-5 (you know...how the game is designed to be played). Only Montreal and Pittsburgh had lower percentages and made the playoffs. More to the point though, Chicago, San Jose, Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota, Dallas, Boston, and Detroit were all between 70-75%. The Blues are among the best possession teams in the league at even strength, but if you're of the camp that considers that meaningless without goals to show for it then congratulations, you're mostly right. Granted this "stat" isn't a gospel, but it does illustrate the gap in elite attacking skill the rest of the West still has on St. Louis. Will the addition of Paul Stastny and the further emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko and (hopefully) Jaden Schwartz help close that gap? Possibly, but until they prove otherwise you have to point to it as a weakness.

    3. Physicality on the blueline. Personally, I'm of the opinion that defensemen whose biggest asset is their physical intimidation are vastly overrated in today's NHL, especially when compared to the offensive benefits of their puck-moving counterparts. However there's no denying that the Roman Polak for Carl Gunnarsson trade took away some muscle from the Blues defensive corps, a staple of the franchise dating back from Pronger to Butcher to the Plagers three. The old stalwart Barret Jackman still sits back there to facewash forwards and piss off Blackhawks fans, but outside of Sir Jaxx, no one who's likely to make the roster could be called particularly physical. Alex Pietrangelo is every bit the Norris candidate everyone says he is, Kevin Shattenkirk gets the puck up the ice and should rebound from a pretty spotty defensive year, and for my money Jay Bouwmeester was the most consistent of the bunch in 2013-14, but that just isn't a significant part of any of their games. Don't be surprised if some of the bigger teams get to a few more rebounds than in seasons past for a few more garbage goals.

    Three questions

    1. Will the tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen be good enough?
    2. The Blues finally have consistent center depth. Do Stastny and Lehtera push them over the hump?
    3. Can Patrik Berglund’s offensive numbers get up to where his possession numbers are?

    Best case scenario

    Obviously, the best case scenario for the Blues, as with any team, is one that ends with Gary Bettman handing over a big shiny thing to the captain. Alas, there’s a lot that needs to happen before you get to that point. A true “best­ case” would mean setting a new franchise record, surpassing the 114 points of the 1999­-00 team. A team with that many points would very likely also win the President’s Trophy. Why not ask for it all? In the playoffs, beating Boston would be the dream scenario for a city that's tortured by their friends from the northeast. 2004 Cardinals, lost to Boston. 2002 Super Bowl, lost to Boston. 1961 NBA Finals, lost to Boston. And the 1970 Stanley Cup Final, a loss to Boston. Beating the Bruins to bring the Cup to St. Louis is the dream victory.

    Worst case scenario

    No matter what goes wrong for the Blues during the regular season they are still going to be a playoff team. They are too talented and too skilled and too deep to be anything else. It’s once they get into the playoffs where things have gone wrong for the Blues over the years, and on this team, it could all start with what happens in net. Brian Elliott has been an up-and-down player over the years and has had some really good performances sandwiched between some really bad performances. If he and Jake Allen aren’t up to the challenge it could be another early postseason exit added to the already lengthy list of early postseason exits. The other worst case scenario for the Blues that could lead to their premature dismissal? Another first-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

  17. Presented by

    Winnipeg Jets

    Marianne Helm / Getty Images

    The Winnipeg Jets finished 2013-14 11th in the West, falling well short of expectations yet again. So, of course, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did almost nothing this summer to improve his roster. Par for the course. There are some nice pieces in place, but truth is, Winnipeg will go nowhere as long as Ondrej Pavelec is its starting goalie. Michael Hutchinson could overtake Pavelec at some point this year, but that would take some time. Barring some drastic and unforeseen changes, the Jets will suffer yet another long season.

    • HEAD COACH Paul Maurice

    • GENERAL MANAGER Kevin Cheveldayoff

    • 2013-14 RECORD 37-35-10, 84 points (7th in Central)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Mathieu Perreault

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Olli Jokinen, RW Devin Setoguchi

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH G Michael Hutchinson, LW/RW Nikolaj Ehlers, D Josh Morrissey, C Adam Lowry, C Nic Petan

    • AHL AFFILIATE St. John’s IceCaps

    • TEAM BLOG Arctic Ice Hockey

    Three strengths

    1. Top eight forwards. After spending much of the last three seasons as a four player forward group, the Winnipeg Jets have been upgraded. Michael Frolik found his offense, Mark Scheifele emerged as a top six scorer, Dustin Byfuglien’s offense was moved up front and Mathieu Perreault was signed via free agency. All four players are capable of scoring at the NHL level. Combine them with Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane and this gives the Jets eight forwards that can go toe-to-toe with most any team in the league. Of course, nine such players would be preferred, but the top eight is pretty nice and should lead to three quality lines.
    2. Youth. Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian are already key components of the Winnipeg Jets roster - and they are all pre-prime players. They all have substantial room for growth. Meanwhile, the veteran core group of Ladd, Little, Wheeler, Frolik, Perreault, Byfuglien and last year’s number one defender, Tobias Enstrom, remain in the midst of their high function hockey years. A massive decline is not expected. There is potential for the Jets younger players to lift and carry the players that have previously been asked to do the heavy lifting. If the Jets are going to improve, it will come from their young players.
    3. Coaching. It is hard to say if coaching will actually be a plus for this team, but the players and General Manager seem to be counting on it. Almost every interview features mention of the coaching change and how things are set to improve. They claim that the team is more organized and that players better understand their roles. Given how middling Paul Maurice’s career record is, this is far from a ringing endorsement for his predecessor.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Goaltending. This drum has been beaten hundreds of times, but it remains a key issue for this team. Fans and media alike appear to be on the same page - Ondrej Pavelec is not good enough to start in the NHL. Meanwhile, Kevin Cheveldayoff remains steadfast. He has declared Pavelec to be the unquestioned starter heading into next year. There have been suggestions of a new found dedication. There is talk that Pav is in the best shape of his career. This may help, it may not, but until Pavelec posts a save percentage somewhere close to league average, goaltending will be looked at as a weakness. The Jets will go into next season with the division’s worst starting goaltender.
    2. Superstars. The Winnipeg Jets dress a number of very good players every game day, but they lack a superstar. There is no Jonathan Toews. There is no Anze Kopitar. No Drew Doughty. No Duncan Keith. The Jets’ don’t have a player that can be expected to go out and carry the team through matchups versus the opposing team’s best. Bryan Little is a very good centre. Tobias Enstrom is a very good defender. Neither player is in the running for yearly awards. Winning without a superstar carrying the mail is tough.
    3. Lack of a tough minutes defenders. The Winnipeg Jets defensive depth chart is… interesting. Dustin Byfuglien topped the Jets’ depth chart for two and a half years, but he has been moved to forward. This leaves Tobias Enstrom as the only proven, top-pairing defender on the team. He has proven capable of winning versus tough minutes. Everyone else is a question mark. Jacob Trouba has flashed star potential, but he is young. Zach Bogosian remains okay, but he is inconsistent and he has health concerns. Grant Clitsome is tough to read and he’s returning from back surgery. Mark Stuart was a career 6th defender before logging big ice down the stretch last year. After that, there are a bunch of marginal NHLers. Unless somebody steps up and joins Toby in beating toughs, the Jets will struggle defensively.

    Three questions

    1. Who will finish the season as the Winnipeg Jets No. 1 netminder?
    2. What are reasonable expectations for Mark Scheifele?
    3. How much of a difference can coaching make?

    Best case scenario

    Goaltending. The best case scenario for the Winnipeg Jets relies heavily on goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec posted a .901 save percentage last year. A .920 across those same minutes would equate to a +30 in goal differential and easily put the team in the mix for a playoff spot. A short term boost doesn’t help much though, the team needs a long term fix in net. Has Pav rediscovered himself? Can Hutchinson take the reins and become a bonafied NHL starter? If either of these things happen, it will push the Jets forward. After that, it will be all about development. In a best case scenario, Mark Scheifele will put up 60 points and look like a long term number one centre. Jacob Trouba will put himself in Norris contention. Establishing a long term answer at #1C, #1D and #1G is the best possible outcome for the 2014-14 season. If that can’t happen, a top 3 pick in the 2015 NHL draft would be pretty stellar too.

    Worst case scenario

    This season, and the next few, will be all about the youth of the Winnipeg Jets. Fans will be looking for progress, particularly when it comes to Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. Stagnation or a setback would hurt long term hope. It would also hurt the now and that could have larger consequences. Michael Frolik will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd will be free agents the following year. Another rough season could lead to any or all of these players looking to leave. A trade demand would be a further kick in the teeth. The worst case scenario is anything that creates more long term questions than it answers. As mentioned in the “best case”, the Jets need a #1C, #1D and #1G. If they finish the season with none of these and see core players asking for their walking papers, it will make the long term longer – especially if they miss out on a franchise changing draft pick.

  18. Presented by

    Atlantic Division

    How many playoff teams will come out of the Atlantic? Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal are, just like last year's finish, our projected top three. But from there, will Detroit, Ottawa and Toronto be able to win two wild card spots, or will the Metropolitan Division take them both? A bunch of mediocre teams means we'll get a pretty fun playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

    Francois Laplante / FreestylePhoto
  19. Presented by

    Boston Bruins

    Ron Chenoy / USA Today Sports

    Thanks to the salary cap it was a pretty quiet offseason for the Boston Bruins with the biggest news being about who they lost (Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton) than anything else. But they still have Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask to shut down opposing offenses and keep them near the top of the Eastern Conference. They are still one of the top teams in the NHL and should be one of the favorites in the east.

    • HEAD COACH Claude Julien

    • GENERAL MANAGER Peter Chiarelli

    • 2013-14 RECORD 54-19-9, 117 points (1st in Atlantic)


    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW Jarome Iginla, G Chad Johnson, LW Shawn Thornton

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH F David Pastrnak, F Ryan Spooner, G Malcolm Subban, D Linus Arnesson, F Alexander Khokhlachev

    • AHL AFFILIATE Providence Bruins

    • TEAM BLOG Stanley Cup of Chowder

    Three strengths

    1. Goaltending. With reigning Vezina winner Tuukka Rask minding the net, the Bruins look to play on this strength again as they have in recent years. Although the team signed veteran backup Jeremy Smith this offseason, odds are we’ll see Providence standout Niklas Svedberg backing Rask up for at least a portion of the season. And if they both succumb to injury or failure, superior Subban brother Malcolm is waiting in the wings for his chance at NHL minutes. Whatever the case, the Bruins are set in net for this season.

    2. The power play. The Bruins’ power play, ranked third in the NHL last season, should continue to be near the top of the league. The Bruins experimented with throwing Zdeno Chara in front of the net on the man advantage last year, and it worked more often than anything they’d done in the past (remember how terrible the PP was in the Bruins’ 2011 Cup run? Yeah.) Krug is a vital part of the Bruins’ PP unit, and getting him signed was a huge priority. So that's a huge move.

    3. The bottom six. The Bruins have about eight viable options for the third and fourth lines, and none of them are named Shawn Thornton anymore. Ryan Spooner, Alex Khokhlachev, Matt Fraser and Justin Florek could all see significant ice time this year, changing up the usual grinder dynamic of the Bruins’ fourth line.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Right wing depth. The Bruins are currently looking at Loui Eriksson or Reilly Smith as first and second line right wingers, having lost Jarome Iginla to free agency. Neither is a particularly prolific scorer, and the depth beyond those two is even shallower. The Bruins don’t have an elite right wing, and it might come back to bite them if either Smith or Eriksson suffers an injury.

    2. Youth. It’s great to see an injection of young talent in the bottom six, but what if none of those players pan out? The Bruins have invited Simon Gagne and Ville Leino to camp, and while we hope to never have to actually see them suit up for the Bruins, that could actually happen if the Bruins’ staff doesn’t have the faith in some of these younger players.

    3. The salary cap. Which defenseman is going to have to go to fit Reilly Smith and Torey Krug under the cap? It’s looking like it’s going to be Boychuk, which will definitely hurt the Bruins on the blueline. This might not come immediately, but eventually something has to give.

    Three questions

    1. Torey Krug and Reilly Smith have been re-signed. How will that impact the Bruins salary cap issues?
    2. Who the heck is going to play on David Krejci’s other wing?
    3. Will David Pastrnak crack the opening night roster?

    Best case scenario

    The Bruins trade Adam McQuaid and Gregory Campbell, sign Krug and Smith, Pastrnak makes the roster and ends up on the top line and scores 30 goals, the Bruins keep Boychuk and remain strong on the blueline, all the new kids play to the best of their potential, and the Bruins win the Cup. Okay, that’s a little bit of a big dream. The more likely best case scenario is that the trade to fit Krug and Smith under the cap happens sooner rather than later, Spooner and Khokhlachev make the transition to the NHL smoothly, and the Bruins remain competitive enough to win the division and make a deep Cup run. David Pastrnak on the Bruins roster for this season is a bit of a pipe dream, especially with his size, but having him make the roster as an 18-year-old would be pretty sweet to see.

    Worst case scenario

    Things could definitely go south for this team this year, as well. If Boychuk gets traded and the hole he leaves on the blueline can’t be filled, the Bruins could be in trouble defensively. Additionally, the lack of an elite right wing may bite them hard. We could easily see another season like 2009-2010 (the Bruins were 29th in the league in goals scored that season). They’ll be safe in net, but an injury to Tuukka Rask could leave the net in the hands of a rookie and a career AHL goaltender. Any injuries at all, really, could completely cripple this team - there’s not a lot of proven depth. The Bruins will likely make the playoffs no matter what happens, but they could be looking at a quick first round exit if the chips don’t fall just right in their favor.

  20. Presented by

    Buffalo Sabres

    Kevin Hoffman / USA Today Sports

    The 2014-15 season should go a little better for the Sabres simply because there is nowhere else to go but up after a disastrous 2013-14 campaign. Matt Moulson returned in free agency, and they also brought in veterans Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges to add some veteran stability to a team that will be one of the youngest in the league and likely headed into the Connor McDavid derby.

    • HEAD COACH Ted Nolan

    • GENERAL MANAGER Tim Murray

    • 2013-14 RECORD 21-51-10, 52 points (8th in Atlantic)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Matt Moulson, C Brian Gionta, D Josh Gorges, D Andrej Meszaros

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Ville Leino, D Christian Ehrhoff, D Jamie McBain, D Henrik Tallinder

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Sam Reinhart, C Mikhail Grigorenko, D Rasmus Ristolainen, D Nikita Zadorov

    • AHL AFFILIATE Rochester Americans

    • TEAM BLOG Die By The Blade

    Three strengths

    1. Defense. The Sabres aren’t exactly strong in any area of the game, but they’re looking better along the blue line than they do anywhere else. Marrying solid veterans such as Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros with a very talented youth movement led by a rejuvenated Tyler Myers, the invisible (in a good way) Mark Pysyk, and uber-prospect Rasmus Ristolainen will make for decent production now with a heavy eye towards the future. The way both the young and old guys produce on both the power play and penalty kill will go a long way towards determining how effective they are as a unit.

    2. Work ethic, or, the benefit of fairness in the locker room. This might sound a bit odd, but hear me out. The Sabres head coach, Ted Nolan, is famous for getting maximum effort out of his players (whether he can get the most production out of more talented players remains to be seen) and he doesn’t play favorites in the locker room. If a star player is dogging it, Nolan won’t hesitate to move that player to the third line, or the bench, thus sending the message to both rookies and veterans that you’ve got to bring it every night for a spot on this team. High-effort players and locker room leaders like Brian Gionta and Zemgus Girgensons will ensure that everyone is giving it their all, even though for most players on this team, that isn’t much to begin with.

    3. Youth. Make no bones about it, this season is all about the future for the Sabres. Not just in regards to the draft, but in the development of talented youngsters like Sam Reinhart, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Joel Armia, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk, Nic Deslauriers, Johan Larsson, Andrey Makarov, Nathan Lieuwen, and about 10 others. Regardless of where the team finishes, it will be fun to watch these guys develop and improve in both the NHL and AHL.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Offense. Last season, the Sabres scored 157 goals, an incredible 39 tallies below the next worst team. That’s an extremely low number even for a bad team, and the only major offensive addition they made was the 18-goal scorer that is Brian Gionta. Yes, they also added Matt Moulson, but they had either Moulson or Thomas Vanek for much of last season. Even if they score another half-goal per game this year, which would be a very significant jump, they’d only be the 27th-worst offensive team in the NHL.

    2. Goaltending. With their offense as bad as it was last season, it’s really miraculous that the Sabres won even 21 games. Part of the reason they did was because of above-average goaltending by Ryan Miller while he wore blue and gold (not yours, St. Louis). This year, the Sabres will send the untested duo of Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth to the crease, and one of them will have to grab a tight hold of the starter’s job quickly if the Sabres want to be anything more than basement dwellers this year.

    3. Youth. As much fun as watching the young guys will be, there will certainly be many rough moments along their respective learning curves. Mental errors, physical walls, and blown assignments will accompany the baby steps and breakaways, and there will be many, many nights where the Sabres will be outmanned and outgunned by older, more experienced teams.

    Three questions

    1. Which youngsters will make the team?
    2. Who will be the captain?
    3. Who will start in goal?

    Best case scenario

    Tim Murray and the Sabres may need to tiptoe around it, but we don't. The best case scenario for the Sabres is finishing last in the league, winning the lottery, and drafting either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. A top pick was the Sabres main goal last year, and it hasn't changed. Buffalo already has one of the top prospect pools in the league, but needs a big crown jewel to move closer towards fielding a team that will contend not only for the playoffs, but for a Stanley Cup.

    The team will at least be a bit more interesting to watch than they were last season. Some of the youth that Buffalo hopes will help change their fortunes in the future are trickling onto the roster. If all goes well for the Sabres this year they'll see Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Sam Reinhart take big steps forward.

    Worst case scenario

    There are still some fans who would be very happy if the Sabres were good enough to make the playoffs this season. The worst case for the Sabres would be the additions of Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, and the return of Matt Moulson making the team just good enough to take them out of the top pick conversation but not good enough to make the postseason ... anywhere from ninth to 12th in the conference would be a monumental setback for the Sabres future plans.

  21. Presented by

    Detroit Red Wings

    John E. Sokolowski / USA Today Sports

    Another offseason where the Red Wings were unable to land an upgrade to their defense should keep the Red Wings right about where they were last season: A second-tier playoff team in the Eastern Conference. With Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco this season should be all about the next wave of talent that is coming up through the system, especially as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg grow another year older.

    • HEAD COACH Mike Babcock

    • GENERAL MANAGER Ken Holland

    • 2013-14 RECORD 39-28-15, 93 points (4th in Atlantic)


    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW Todd Bertuzzi, C David Legwand

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH F Anthony Mantha, F Teemu Pulkkinen, D Ryan Sproul, D Alexey Marchenko, D Xavier Ouellet, D Matthias Backman

    • AHL AFFILIATE Grand Rapids Griffins

    • TEAM BLOG Winging It In Motown

    Three strengths

    1. Quality youth. Many teams in the league have more youth than the Wings, but the quality of the Red Wings youth is significantly above average. We all know about Nyquist’s shooting percentage enhanced season, but what fewer know is that Tatar, Nyquist, Sheahan, Jurco, and Smith were among the best on the team in pushing possession last season. There’s also a glut of quality defense prospects, and there’s a very good chance at least one of them cracks the lineup and helps the team this season. The youth certainly won’t solve everything, but they sure have added a certain sense of depth that the team hasn’t had the previous few seasons. If the Wings go far this season, it’ll likely be because of the depth the young players have provided.

    2. High ceiling. This team’s ceiling is a lot higher than most people seem to realize. Last year the Wings combined a down season for Jimmy Howard with an injury-riddled top half of the lineup and still made the playoffs. Part of the reason injuries are a concern is because of the age of their veteran players, but if they all do manage to stay healthy, this team has a real chance to compete in a division where we may see Boston take a step backwards. Whether Detroit remains healthy enough to actually hit this ceiling is another discussion entirely, but there’s no question that the opening night lineup will be more talented than the one iced the previous two seasons.

    3. Mike Babcock. Babcock has had many seasons of excellent coaching, but last season may well have been his finest. In a season where his team had to deal with injuries to seemingly everyone, prying 24/7 cameras, an Olympic “break” that just meant more work for Babcock and its oldest players, and a team struggling to make the playoffs, Babcock somehow kept the team performing. Despite at one point missing the Wing’s top 5 centers, his team managed to finish 4th in the east in Fenwick% last season. That speaks rather strongly of a coach whose system is good enough to withstand those losses, so you can’t help but wonder what he can do this season if his preferred lineup stays healthy.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Lack of elite defensemen. Since Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement, the Wings have been trying to add another elite defenseman to their team. Ryan Suter and Matt Niskanen were courted to no avail, and, any attempts at trading for an elite defenseman have fallen apart when the Wings have been asked to give up too much. The Wings’ best defenseman is by far Niklas Kronwall, who many consider a borderline elite player. However, the dropoff in quality after him is staggering. Danny DeKeyser is a budding star, but, he is still young, and has a lot to learn. Brendan Smith has shown some promise, but, he is far from being considered elite at the moment. As long as Kronwall remains healthy, this inadequacy is not an issue. However, if Kronwall is injured for an extended period of time, the Wings may have a major problem on their hands.

    2. Power play. While the Wings’ special teams were in general questionable last season, the Wings’ power play was horrendous. The Wings finished 18th in the league in power play percentage, with a 17.7% success rate. Often, the Wings’ powerplay seemed unable to even threaten to score, let alone to actually carry out the job. One part of the reason for this lack of success harks back to the first weakness mentioned. Outside of Kronwall, the Wings do not have another naturally offensive defenseman to help pilot the power play. The Wings’ previous power play coach, Tom Renney, has left to join Hockey Canada as its new president. His replacement is Jim Hiller, who was a head coach in the WHL for eight years before being hired by Detroit. Hopefully, Hiller will be able to reinvigorate the Wings’ power play. But, if he cannot, the Wings will find themselves playing a one-dimensional game yet again.

    3. Questions in goal. Jimmy Howard has proven that he can be a very good goaltender. However, his play has been derailed by inconsistency and injuries, both of which were evident last season. Howard posted a .910 SV% and a 2.66 GAA, his worst season statistically since 2010-11. Howard’s backup, Jonas Gustavsson, played phenomenally well during one of Howard’s injury spells, but, his own season was cut short as well due to injury. The Wings’ also employ Petr Mrazek, a highly promising prospect who will be playing in the AHL this season. The Wings are not poor in goal, but, at the same time, the position is not a strength by any means. In order for the Wings to make the playoffs for a 24th straight season, Howard will have to disprove his critics and show that he deserves to be the Wings’ starting goaltender.

    Three questions

    1. Can the Red Wings even stay healthy at this point?
    2. Will Jimmy Howard bounce back from a regular season that was down by his standards?
    3. How much of an impact will the youth have on the team this season?

    Best case scenario

    The Red Wings end up dead last ... in man-games lost to injury. Stephen Weiss makes us all forget about whoever that Finnish forward was that used to play in Detroit. Brendan Smith has a breakout season and almost single-handedly solves the problems of offensive production from the backend, becoming a legitimate 1-2 punch with Niklas Kronwall. Headlines argue “Jimmy Howard should win the Vezina” and are met with comments that say “Yup.” Datsyuk and Zetterberg are finalists for the Selke while posting 75+ points. “The streak” becomes more than just a number, and the Red Wings make it past the second round for the first time since 2009. Jakub Kindl plays up to his contract, and the third pair isn’t a nightmare anymore because any or all of the kids play their way to roster spots on the blue line -- Ryan Sproul, Alexey Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet, Mattias Backman, you name it. Fans around the league are reminded of why they hate the Detroit Red Wings because those bastards just keep WINNING all the damn time. The usual round of excuses will rear their ugly heads from “They play in a weak conference!” to “It’s easy to win when the referees have Red Wings jerseys under those stripes!” while the Red Wings skate on their merry way to another two points.

    Worst case scenario

    Datsyuk and Zetterberg miss long stretches, and the kids can’t pick up the slack in the same way they did last season. Johan Franzen makes us regret not using our second compliance buyout on him. Weiss? Who’s Weiss? The defense provides more offense for the opposing team. Jimmy Howard misses significant time. Jonas Gustavsson proves last year was a fluke and re-lives his days with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Petr Mrazek shows he still needs significant AHL time. Ken Holland panics and initiates another controversial trade involving a top prospect to add some “grit, toughness, truculence, leadership, and sandpaper” to an overloaded bottom six (perhaps with some real sandpaper thrown in). I’m torn. Is it worse that all these nightmares combine to end the playoff appearances streak? Missing the playoffs would certainly be a rude but probably needed awakening, but . . . it’s missing the playoffs, man! Or is it worse for the Red Wings to mire themselves in another hapless first round exit and spin the playoff appearances streak as a mark for success? Maybe we’re already in the “worst-case scenario” because there are multiple possible worst-case scenarios. Yes, that’s it. The worst-case scenario is that there are multiple ways this season could become just the absolute worst.

  22. Presented by

    Florida Panthers

    Robert Meyer / USA Today Sports

    It was another busy offseason in Florida as they dipped into the free agent market and made a couple of expensive splashes with the additions of Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton and Dave Bolland. But while those guys have expensive price tags, the real excitement should come from No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad, a full season of Roberto Luongo and young players like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau.

    • HEAD COACH Gerard Gallant

    • GENERAL MANAGER Dale Tallon

    • 2013-14 RECORD 29-45-8, 66 points (7th in Atlantic)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS D Aaron Ekblad, C Dave Bolland, F Jussi Jokinen, D Willie Mitchell, LW Shawn Thornton, C Derek MacKenzie, G Al Montoya

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES D Tom Gilbert, F Jesse Winchester, C Scott Gomez, D Ed Jovanovski, G Scott Clemmensen, RW Krys Barch

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH D Aaron Ekblad, D Mike Matheson, C Vincent Trocheck, F Rocco Grimaldi, D Mackenzie Weegar, F Jayce Hawryluk, D Alex Petrovic, D Ian McCoshen, LW Quinton Howden, LW Juho Lammikko

    • AHL AFFILIATE San Antonio Rampage

    • TEAM BLOG Litter Box Cats

    Three strengths

    1. Goaltending. After watching far too many pucks end up in the back of their net, the Panthers made the bold move of bringing Roberto Luongo back a day before the March 5th trade deadline. A full season with Luongo primarily between the pipes bodes well for the Cats. The highly-paid veteran went 6-7-1 with a 2.45 GAA and impressive .924 save percentage playing behind a tattered Florida defense following the deal. Compare those numbers to the bloated figures posted by Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, Jacob Markstrom and Dan Ellis last year and it’s pretty easy to pencil in more wins this season. Al Montoya, who was signed to a two-year deal during the offseason, has never really lived up to his lofty draft status, but his play with Winnipeg last season was light years above what the Panthers got from any of their backups in 2013-14.

    2. Burgeoning young core. The Panthers are starting to reap the rewards of some downright awful finishes over the last several years. Recent Dale Tallon first-round selections Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad got their feet wet last season, with the mature-beyond-his-years Barkov earning a spot on the Finnish Olympic Team and Bjugstad leading the team in scoring, albeit with just 38 points. 2013 Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau struggled, but got another year of valuable experience under his belt. A couple of others with first-round pedigrees, defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov, should be ready to take the next step in their development, and when you add this year’s number one overall pick Aaron Ekblad to the mix (and with a handful of other top prospects about to or already knocking on the door), you have all the building blocks in place for a perennial playoff contender, provided most everyone lives up to their vast potential.

    3. Center depth. This position has been a sore spot for years, but with the team’s highest-paid forward slotting in as the third-line pivot, things are definitely looking up. While Dave Bolland might be somewhat overpaid, the summer acquisition brings mucho intangibles, as well as two Stanley Cup rings, to a Florida club looking for leadership. If Bolland can post double-digit goals and approach his career-high of 47 points, it will give the Panthers another line that opponents will have to worry about. The aforementioned Barkov and Bjugstad may still be green, but both impressed mightily during their rookie campaigns and the potentially dynamic duo boast the size and skill that makes scouts drool. Gritty former Columbus Blue Jacket Derek MacKenzie will anchor a vastly improved fourth line. The top four centers on the depth chart will likely force another very talented youngster, Vincent Trocheck, to either bide his time with the San Antonio Rampage or change position from center to wing.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Special teams. The Panthers were dead last in the NHL on the power play and penalty kill last season. The numbers are not for the faint of heart: Florida had 269 power play opportunities, but scored only 27 goals, for a PP percentage of 10%, a full four percentage points below Buffalo (who finished in 29th place on the PP). On the penalty kill, the team gave up 63 goals against in 262 kills, for a league worst 76% (with the Islanders two percentage points better at 78% in 29th place). No team can win with those numbers and until the Panthers show they have in fact improved in this area, it will be a massive source of concern for fans, players and coaching staff alike.

    2. Goal scoring. The Panthers were second-to-last in the league in scoring last season, with only the punchless Sabres bagging fewer goals. Florida’s leading marksman, Brad Boyes, was the only player with more than twenty goals (21). Nick Bjugstad and Sean Bergenheim tied for second best with 16 apiece. The Cats scored only 188 times last season, for a 2.29 goals-for-per-game average, but were 17th in shots-for per game. Middle-of-the-pack shots-for, with a 29th place goals-for means a lot of shot futility and that’s worrisome. Florida took 1,125 shots last season from high-productive areas of the ice, 107 fewer than the Chicago Blackhawks. The biggest part of the problem comes from the flanks. A high-end lottery pick like Jonathan Huberdeau must produce like the first-liner he was expected to be after his Calder Trophy winning season. Putting it simply: he did not do so. The demise of Tomas Fleischmann from a top point producer to an 8-goal scorer was equally destructive to the offense. This team needs more finish and finishers, as well as a more productive system for generating higher percentage shots-for in a bad way. Until that happens, goal scoring is a major area of concern.

    3. Young defense. This is NOT to say the Cats’ defense is a weakness, they are an exceptionally talented bunch. It IS to say that young defensemen without several hundred games worth of NHL experience are prone to make costly mistakes as they learn. A team must suffer through that learning curve, and the Panthers are likely to be no different in that regard. Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell are the geriatrics of the group, at 35 and 37 respectively, with 1,633 regular season NHL games between them. But after that pair, the Panthers next 5 D-men (Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Dylan Olsen, and Colby Robak) have a collective 589 regular season NHL games between them, with Kulikov leading the way with 313, while Ekblad (of course) has none. The defense could be excellent one day, but there are still some growing pains to expect this season.

    Three questions

    1. Is Roberto Luongo capable of carrying the team to the playoffs?
    2. Will Jonathan Huberdeau bounce back from his sophomore slump?
    3. What impact will new head coach Gerard Gallant have on the club?

    Best case scenario

    Young centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad are able to hold their own, and then some, as the Panthers’ one-two punch down the middle. Jonathan Huberdeau has a bounce back season under his former junior coach, Gerard Gallant. Brad Boyes, Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim perform as expected, and provide some much-needed scoring from the wing. Two-time team scoring leader Tomas Fleischmann recovers from last year’s horrible season to put up 20 goals. Roberto Luongo gives the Cats the above average goaltending that they need, and Al Montoya is able to win enough games to give both Luongo a rest and the club some additional victories. Veterans like Willie Mitchell, Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen and Brian Campbell play well enough to make up for the few mishaps that the young guns have, and provide that apparently necessary “leadership” in the locker room. Above all, whatever system Gallant installs results in a high tempo, upbeat, possession game that the Panthers execute to perfection, and the roster as a whole gels under the new coach. Florida sneaks into the playoffs as one of the wild cards, and gives whoever the division winner is a good run for their money before bowing out in seven games.

    Worst case scenario

    The Panthers whiffed in free agency and once again, don’t have the right veteran players surrounding their promising young core. New head coach Gerard Gallant can’t squeeze any more out of the roster than the recently departed Kevin Dineen and Peter Horachek were able to. Special teams continue to be an absolute abomination, with both units stuck at the bottom of the league rankings. As usual, scoring depth is thin, and if Jonathan Huberdeau and Tomas Fleischmann don’t have bounce back seasons, or if the team’s top two centers, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, don’t build on their promising rookie campaigns, there won’t be a whole lot of goal support for reacquired lynchpin Roberto Luongo. Speaking of Luongo, he is 35-years-old and the Panthers will be counting on him to be at his best to backstop a mostly young defense corps. If Luongo gets hurt or starts “playing old” all of the sudden, it will be another long season in Sunrise, which is the last thing this organization needs as it tries to: contend for a playoff spot; revitalize an apathetic fan base; and shake the growing sentiment across most of North America that it doesn’t belong in South Florida anymore.

  23. Presented by

    Montreal Canadiens

    Eric Bolte / USA Today Sports

    The best move the Montreal Canadiens made over the offseason didn’t have anything to do with who they brought in (though, Tom Gilbert and P.A. Parenteau were excellent additions) but who they managed to keep: Specifically, franchise defenseman and former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. After a lengthy contract negotiation they finally managed to work out an eight-year contract with their superstar defenseman, making sure their best player will be leading the team for the foreseeable future.

    • HEAD COACH Michel Therrien

    • GENERAL MANAGER Marc Bergevin

    • 2013-14 RECORD 46-28-8, 100 points (3rd in Atlantic)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS RW P.A. Parenteau, D Tom Gilbert

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Daniel Briere, LW Thomas Vanek, D Josh Gorges, D Douglas Murray

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH D Nathan Beaulieu, D Jarred Tinordi, RW Jiri Sekac, RW Sven Andrighetto, LW Jacob de la Rose

    • AHL AFFILIATE Hamilton Bulldogs

    • TEAM BLOG Eyes On The Prize

    Three strengths

    1. Center depth. Much ink has been spilt over what the Habs should do at center this season, especially concerning Alex Galchenyuk. However while many are clamoring to trade a center to, the Canadiens having four top-six capable centers is a great strength that can’t be ignored. Having the depth to survive injuries is paramount in the NHL, and the Canadiens have that at perhaps the NHL’s most important position.

    2. Goaltending. Though he was snubbed for the Vezina trophy, Carey Price put up a performance for the ages last season. Those who didn’t watch the Habs much may not understand how terrible they were for most of the season, and how Price’s incredible performance dragged them into the playoffs. Price has established himself as one of the NHL’s premier talents, and he has two solid goalies behind him in Budaj and Tokarski to boot.

    3. Speed. This was part of the preview last year, but it’s still true, maybe even more true now. By ditching Douglas Murray and Josh Gorges for Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert, the Canadiens have become much more mobile on the back end, which matches their team style at forward. Skating speed isn’t where it ends though, the Canadiens’ speed of transition with Subban, Markov, Gilbert, and Beaulieu around should be astonishing.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Coaching / system. The Canadiens are bound to improve over last year simply due to the upgrades on defense, but part of their problem last year was an insistence on dump and chase, grind it out hockey, something they aren’t built for. We know that Michel Therrien can coach a high tempo, puck possession system, but we don’t have any clue if he will, and until we know, coaching has to be seen as a weakness.

    2. Two-way forwards. While it was smart for the Canadiens to not match Buffalo’s contract offer for Brian Gionta, the result is that they are down to just two forwards who can play a two-way game at a high level in Lars Eller and Tomas Plekanec. It’s possible that younger players like Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher can step into bigger defensive roles, but they are as yet, unproven there.

    3. Power play. We’ll call this more of a question mark than a weakness, but it was awful last year. Awful at creating chances, and awful at scoring. With the players at their disposal, this was definitely a coaching issue, and although there’s a new coach, we don’t know who will run the power play. If it’s Clement Jodoin again, it will most likely be bad.

    Three questions

    1. Is this the year Alex Galchenyuk becomes a top line forward?
    2. Will the Canadiens be patient and allow Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi to establish themselves as NHLers?
    3. Will Carey Price be able to not only repeat his performance from last season, but stay healthy?

    Best case scenario

    Carey Price has a fully healthy season for the first time in three years, repeating his elite performance from last season. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher take yet another step forward as they both produce first line level offense, and combined with the elite scoring of Max Pacioretty, the addition of P.A. Parenteau, and a rebound season from Lars Eller, for the first time in a long time, the Canadiens have three lines full of offensive firepower. The defense is as improved as it appears to be, with Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban forming one of the best top pairings in recent memory. Michel Therrien reverts back to the system the Canadiens employed during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, and the Canadiens remain one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference.

    Worst case scenario

    The lessons many assumed were learned in the playoffs last year didn’t sink in, and the Canadiens continue to be a dump and chase, grind it out in the corners team that isn’t built to play that way. The talent of young stars like Subban and Galchenyuk goes to waste as their creativity is pounded out of them by an old school coaching staff that doesn’t understand what led to past success. Andrei Markov experiences a sharp decline in play due to age, leaving the Canadiens behind the eight ball on defense once more. To top it all off, Carey Price struggles with injury, and as a result, consistency on the way to missing the playoffs.

  24. Presented by

    Ottawa Senators

    Francois Laplante / FreestylePhoto

    The top story to watch out of Ottawa this season (other than “how many points can Erik Karlsson rack up?”) will be whether or not the team can keep Bobby Ryan. His contract is up after the season and he has taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to committing to the team long-term. They already sent Jason Spezza packing over the summer and are a very thin team once you get beyond the likes of Ryan, Kyle Turris and the always underrated Clarke MacArthur.

    • HEAD COACH Paul MacLean

    • GENERAL MANAGER Bryan Murray

    • 2013-14 RECORD 37-31-14, 88 points (5th in Atlantic)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C David Legwand, RW Alex Chiasson

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Jason Spezza, RW Ales Hemsky

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Curtis Lazar, LW Matt Puempel, D Fredrik Claesson

    • AHL AFFILIATE Binghamton Senators

    • TEAM BLOG Silver Seven

    Three strengths

    1. Young, NHL-ready talent. After Curtis Lazar, the Senators may lack young up-and-comers with name recognition, but this type of surface analysis fails to recognize several promising young players ready to contribute at the NHL level. The name most familiar to casual fans will be Mark Stone. He’s a big body with unusually soft hands and he has greatly improved his skating in recent years. He’s scored at a fantastic rate in the AHL (79 points in 91 games over the last two seasons) and has driven possession in a big way in his time with the big team. Mika Zibanejad has been in the Ottawa system for so long now we forget that he is only 21 years old; he’s more than ready to assume the role of second-line centre. And that’s before we get to players like Mike Hoffman and Patrick Wiercioch.

    2. Erik Karlsson, elite gamebreaker. Even his most ardent critics would begrudgingly agree that Erik Karlsson is in possession of world-class offensive skills. When healthy, he’s a sure-fire bet to lead the league in scoring by a defenseman. Last year, when Karlsson was on the ice the Senators won the possession battle by roughly a 55-45 margin. That’s very good. Conversely, when Karlsson was not demonizing the opposition, the team played to an approximate 50-50 split. And lest you think Karlsson was simply riding his teammates’ coattails, he alone was responsible for generating 15 or so shot attempts for every 60 minutes of play. That would rank first among all defenseman, and 55th among all skaters period; he really is a freak of nature. Or if you’re not a fan of the numbers, ask the typical NHL forward what he thinks of trying to forecheck against Erik Karlsson. There’s no one like him.

    3. Winning the possession battle. It was a bit of Pyrrhic victory last year given the team’s struggles to keep the puck out of the net, but this year’s edition of the Senators is built on a foundation of players that have proven their ability to drive play. In addition to Karlsson, Ottawa’s top line of Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan went head-to-head with the best competition the league had to offer last year and won more than their fair share of the encounters. Add in an increased role for strong possession players Mika Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman and it’s easy to imagine the team coming out on the positive side of the ledger yet again this year.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Lack of discipline. The Senators took the most minor penalties in the league last year, with the worst penalty differentials on the team belonging to veteran players like Chris Neil, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza, and Joe Corvo, as well as struggling defenseman Jared Cowen. With Spezza and Corvo moving on, we can expect the Senators to improve a little on this front – but what about Neil, Phillips, and Cowen? Player usage under Paul MacLean will be key to answering this question, and if exit interviews are any indication, MacLean wants to address this question from the get-go when training camp starts in September.

    2. Poor defensive zone play. This problem has been recognized by management and the coaching staff, but not much was done in the off-season to remedy this. In fact, as of right now the team is going into the season with almost the same defense core as last season, subtracting Joe Corvo for rookie Mark Borowiecki. Bryan Murray has faith in the young players to improve, hoping the coaching staff’s new defensive zone tactics and the increased two-way support from the forwards makes the difference. There is a chance for improvement in the defensive zone as Erik Karlsson, Patrick Wiercioch, Jared Cowen, and Cody Ceci are all under 25. It’s also reasonable to suggest that goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner will improve on last season’s poor performance and cut down the goals against, but proper defensive positioning will help the Senators exit their zone quicker and ultimately cut down on shots against.

    3. Unproven scoring depth. The loss of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky this off-season will put the Senators in a precarious position in 2014-15, as management expects their prime offensive minutes to be replaced internally by younger forwards who will be given an extended opportunity to show what they’ve got at the NHL level. The Senators offense has survived without Spezza for an extended period of time before. After the excellent first line of Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris, and Bobby Ryan, Mika Zibanejad is expected to replace some of Spezza’s offensive minutes, with veteran David Legwand brought in during free agency to act as an insulator in case Zibanejad struggles. Beyond that, there are mostly unproven forwards at the NHL level that will have to step up and produce for the Senators to have any shot at the playoffs. Alex Chiasson, Mike Hoffman, and Mark Stone have all scored in junior or college, as well as at the AHL level, but have yet to see top-six minutes.

    Three questions

    1. How will the absence of Jason Spezza affect the Senators?
    2. How will Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson perform?
    3. Will Paul MacLean return to his Jack Adams Award-winning form?

    Best case scenario

    Ottawa’s young defense core builds on the growing pains of 2013-14 and provides reliable play in front of goaltending tandem of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. With less time spent penalty killing the Senators blueline gives up less shots against and Anderson and Lehner provide excellent goaltending. Finally 100 percent healthy, Erik Karlsson returns to Norris-Trophy winning form, leading Ottawa’s offense at even strength and on the power play. Fully recovered from season-ending hernia surgery, Bobby Ryan is a 30-goal-scorer once again and commits to the team long-term. Mika Zibanejad takes the next step offensively and provides Ottawa with viable secondary scoring while David Legwand covers more of the defensive burden for Kyle Turris and Zibanejad; Legwand’s reliable play keeps the fourth line playing fourth line minutes. Teenager Curtis Lazar excites during his nine-game audition to start the season and remains in the NHL for the entire year, chipping in offensively and providing much-needed scoring depth. Ottawa surprises the pundits and makes the playoffs as a wild card team. With the team winning, leadership questions don’t dominant discussions in the capital, allowing the city to embrace a new generation of Senators.

    Worst case scenario

    Another year of experience at the NHL level makes little difference in the development of young defensemen Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba, Mark Borowiecki, and Cody Ceci who continue to struggle, while veteran blueliner Chris Phillips can’t keep up with the pace of the NHL at 36. Coach Paul MacLean refuses to utilize the optimal line-up available to him, relying on grit and determination resulting in an over reliance on the fourth line. Expecting a return to the Vezina-calibre goaltending the team received in 2012-13, Craig Anderson’s play is closer to his career average and controversy brews all season long between the pipes with both Anderson and Robin Lehner inked to extensions. Mika Zibanejad falters with increased ice time and responsibility and David Legwand’s struggles in Detroit continue to plague him in Ottawa, leaving the Senators without a true number two centre. Young wingers Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, and Alex Chiasson all fail to grab top-six roles resulting in a lack of secondary scoring. With the Senators providing few alternatives, opposing teams key in on the Turris-MacArthur-Ryan line, limiting their offensive production. The team’s struggles make it harder to re-sign 2015 UFAs. Bobby Ryan is retained at the trade deadline in a futile attempt to make the playoffs and walks as a free agent in the summer. The Senators finish the season as one of the worst teams in the conference but miss out on the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.

  25. Presented by

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    Kim Klement / USA Today Sports

    It’s probably been a decade since expectations were this high in Tampa Bay. But after a breakout season from a couple of young stars and an offseason that saw them add to a defense that already has a Norris Trophy contender in Victor Hedman, the Lightning are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and should be a force to be reckoned with. If healthy, it will be worth watching to see if Steven Stamkos can crack the 60-goal mark again. He did it during the 2011-12 season but was slowed down the past two years due to the 2012-13 lockout and the leg injury that cost him half of his season a year ago.

    • HEAD COACH Jon Cooper

    • GENERAL MANAGER Steve Yzerman

    • 2013-14 RECORD 46-27-9, 101 points (2nd in Atlantic)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Brian Boyle, D Jason Garrison LW Brendan Morrow, G Evgeni Nabokov, D Anton Stralman

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW B.J. Crombeen, G Anders Lindback, LW Ryan Malone, RW Teddy Purcell, F Tom Pyatt, D Sami Salo, C Nate Thompson

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH F Jonathan Drouin, LW Adam Erne, G Kristers Gudlevskis, D Slater Koekkoek, D Dominik Mastin, C Vladislav Namestnikov, C Matthew Peca, C Cedrick Paquette, G Andrei Vasilevskiy, G Adam Wilcox, D Luke Witkowski

    • AHL AFFILIATE Syracuse Crunch

    • TEAM BLOG Raw Charge

    Three strengths

    1. Youth + experience. While Tampa Bay will likely have 12 players under the age of 25 on the opening night roster to start the season; this is punctuated by an elder veteran leadership presence of three former NHL captains who also happen to be on the roster. Ryan Callahan, Eric Brewer and Brendan Morrow - who wore C’s with the Rangers, Blues and Stars, respectively – will be looked to for help to guide the young and talented squad down the right path, especially come the playoffs.

    2. Offensive potency. A healthy Steven Stamkos is the general fixation point when you think of the team’s offense, but it goes beyond this. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson combined for 47 goals and 62 assists in their rookie seasons, veteran Valtteri Filppula notched 58 points of his own in 2013-14. Now factor in the looming addition of rookie Jonathan Drouin and former 1st round draft pick Brett Connolly and you have the makings of a diverse scoring threat for the Lightning, with speed, deftness, responsible two-way play and tenacity. The loss of Martin St. Louis shouldn’t hinder the efforts of anyone listed, while the dark horse contributor on offense is Nikita Kucherov.

    3. Organizational depth. When Steven Stamkos went down last season, the Bolts bent a bit. The same happened with injuries at times to Valtteri Filppula, Sami Salo, Victor Hedman, Ben Bishop and others on the club during the season. Bent, but didn’t break. That wasn’t just a testament of perseverance but also an example of how Tampa Bay had system depth to cover for key loses. The club will likely start the season with 4 pairs of NHL-ready defensemen, and have a 5th and 6th line of NHL-caliber forward depth in Syracuse, ready to step in if the need arises. This should be a benefit to the club as the marathon of the season drags on.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Special teams. An 80.7% kill-rate on the penalty kill and an 18.5% success rate on the power play are points the Bolts have got to improve on in the forthcoming season. Personnel issues (read: Steven Stamkos broken leg) could be looked at as the primary cause for Tampa Bay’s failings on the power play, where it was ranked 13th in the league, but the club still had the scoring touch of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Marty St. Louis and others during the course of the season to fill that void. The penalty kill was tied for 23rd in the league, and while things improved with the addition of Ryan Callahan, it wasn’t a night-and-day change. Tactics could be looked at as the issue hindering both special team units, though personnel have been tweaked to potentially improve both squads.

    2. Physicality. The Lightning organization shed itself of prototypical grinders and fighters this past summer. The traded away Nate Thompson and B.J. Crombeen while letting others depart via free agency. Emphasizing skill and ability can be an asset (not many teams boast offensive threats on all four forward lines), but it also may turn into a very big liability in the physical Atlantic Division where teams like Boston and Montreal aren’t afraid to throw their weight around.

    3. Defending the goalie. A long standing issue in Tampa Bay is making sure opponents respect the team netminder. Coaching (be it Rick Tocchet, Guy Boucher, or Jon Cooper) hasn’t stressed the point over the years to limit and stop opponents from knocking into or running the Bolts man in the crease. With a goalie recovering from injuries, (Ben Bishop) and an elder backup (Evgeni Nabokov) this could be a point of concern if it’s allowed to play out like usual.

    Three questions

    1. In what areas and how does the club have to cover for the absence of Martin St. Louis from the lineup?
    2. Where will Jonathan Drouin spend most of his playing time this season, at wing or at center? On which line?
    3. Which second-year NHLer on the roster is at greatest risk to suffer a sophomore slump? Who is most likely to escape it?

    Best case scenario

    With the hype leading in to the season, the best case scenario is simply living up to the high expectations for the club. If everyone stays healthy and produces as they are capable, if the team improves on special teams, if the defense gels, and the club can trump other formidable Easter Conference teams, winning the East title is not out of the question. Steven Stamkos would rebound from his injury marred 2013-14 season and once again contend for the Rocket Richard; Jonathan Drouin would vie for the Calder Award, while Victor Hedman makes a case for the Norris trophy.

    Worst case scenario

    In many of the season previews that have been published thus far, the Lightning have been listed as either being a dark horse in the Eastern Conference, or as one of the top contenders. The talent on the team is perhaps the deepest it’s ever been – including the AHL affiliate. Which in and of itself is a testament to Yzerman’s team building capabilities. However, there are some things that could still happen that would prevent them from going deep into playoffs – or even making playoffs at all.

    The Lightning added a bunch of new faces in the offseason, and that could potentially hurt them in the end. Chemistry can make or break a line, and if one of the new guys doesn’t fit in, then that could be a problem. That was a concern last season with Ryan Callahan when he was traded to the team, but thankfully that didn’t happen.

    The rest of the worst-case scenario is a repeat of last season – sans the Martin St. Louis drama. Injuries can sink any team, and while Tampa Bay has a lot of depth, all you need is for two goalies to go down, and you’re left wondering what’s going to happen. Again.

    The possibility of sophomore slumps from Johnson and Palat is certainly there. There’s also, perhaps, Stamkos reinjuring himself due to a weakened leg. Potentially Bishop could play average instead of how he did last season – even with a healed wrist and elbow. Then the defense might end up playing about the same as last season. And that’s not even mentioning Drouin not living up to the hype….

  26. Presented by

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Tom Szczerbowski / USA Today Sports

    After an embarrassing late-season collapse the Toronto Maple Leafs made sweeping changes to their team on and off the ice, finally embraced the analytics movement and made a few nice bargain signings that should improve their depth to the point where they no longer have to ice a fourth-line made up of three face-punchers. Phil Kessel may not skate much during the offseason or give good soundbites in interviews, but he will keep scoring 35 goals, be the best player on the team and still get blamed when everything goes wrong.

    • HEAD COACH Randy Carlyle

    • GENERAL MANAGER Dave Nonis

    • 2013-14 RECORD 38-36-8, 84 points (6th in Atlantic)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS D Roman Polak, D Stephane Robidas, LW David Booth, C Mike Santorelli, C Daniel Winnik, LW Leo Komarov

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES D Tim Gleason, D Carl Gunnarsson, C Jay McClement, LW Mason Raymond, C Dave Bolland, LW Nikolai Kulemin

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C William Nylander, D Stuart Percy, LW Josh Leivo, C Peter Holland, LW Andreas Johnson, D Matt Finn

    • AHL AFFILIATE Toronto Marlies

    • TEAM BLOG Pension Plan Puppets

    Three strengths

    1. Wingers. The Toronto Maple Leafs will once again be much stronger down the wings than down the middle. The top line features Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk give the Leafs a lethal first line which can is supplemented by Joffrey Lupul on the second line. The former both broke the 30 goal mark and it is certainly within Lupul’s grasp. The second line has an opening with plenty of suitors. Last year many laughably suggested that David Clarkson might be a good fit – surprise! he wasn’t – but he will no doubt get a crack at it nonetheless. More likely, David Booth will reprise the role of “scrap heap player that underlying numbers suggests can bounce back” after Mason Raymond signed in Calgary. Matt Frattin and Daniel Winnik may also get some reps on that wing but more likely they’ll reside on the bottom two lines and help give that unit much more depth. All that remains is for Carlyle to actually use that depth.

    2. Goaltending. The party line is that the position of starting goaltender is wide open. The reality is that Jonathan Bernier is coming off of the stronger season in blue and white and clearly holds the confidence of Randy Carlyle and the majority of fans. Whether it's down to style or perception, it does not matter that you cannot differentiate between the two at the NHL level over their careers. Both goalies will have to be at their peak for the Leafs to have a chance as the team is likely to once again give up obscene amounts of shots. If they aren’t ground into dust and can both stay healthy then the Leafs will have a fighting chance on most nights. If Bernier struggles in his recovery from injury and Reimer is only average again then maybe we can welcome Connor McDavid to Toronto.

    3. Management. The Toronto Maple Leafs shed a lot of dead weight when they canned Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin alongside Dave Farrish, Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin. Excised from the management suite were poor talent evaluators with antiquated approaches to hockey and incompetent management of the salary cap. The departed coaches represented three bodies that were unable to make the changes necessary to get the Leafs to play better hockey. Were the assistant coaches hamstrung by a bad coach? Yes. Should he have been fired too? Of course. However, the cumulative effect of these firings alongside the highly publicized hirings of Kyle Dubas, Brandon Pridham, Cam Charron, Rob Pettapiece, and Darryl Metcalfe is to demonstrate that new ideas are needed and that they will be given a voice. Brendan Shanahan won’t stand for the same old garbage and that alone may make a difference.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Randy Carlyle. It takes a shocking amount of luck to be terrible at your job for three years, luck into a playoff spot because of a shortened season, suffer a massive collapse at the hands of issues that hobbyists predicted months in advance, and keep your job while your assistants are fired. Now imagine the audacity it takes to demand that you are given an extension! That’s the kind of bullheadedness that is behind the Maple Leafs’ bench. While they have invested quite a bit of money into analytics and new ways at looking at the game, the man laying out strategy and choosing the roster is still a dinosaur that will be trying to protect his job. How badly Carlyle hamstrings the team will depend on how much Peter Horachek, and to a lesser extent Steve Spott, can impose changes on him.

    2. Defense. We are entering the eighth straight year of people confusing a team having a lot of NHL-calibre defencemen with a team that has a lot of good NHL-caliber defencemen. The Leafs’ defence has it’s bright spots in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly but Dion Phaneuf still seems destined to be partnered with an anchor in Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas’ injection of character and leadership has yet to be cleared for contact. Cody Franson is back but after that the proven talent level is lacking. Youngsters like Matt Finn and Stu Percy still need some seasoning while older prospect like Victor Loov and Tom Nilsson still have to show that they can play at the highest level. That doesn’t bode well if the Leafs run into any injuries.

    3. Depth. Loyal readers will remember this from last year and boy has it not been addressed in a meaningful way at all. A defence corps that saw among the most shots allowed in hockey history was not significantly bolstered despite Nonis’ “best” efforts – Josh Gorges?! – and up front, while there are more players, I’m not sure that the net effect will be felt all that keenly. What may help is that the Leafs signed players like David Booth, Mike Santorelli, Petri Kontiola and Daniel Winnik while repatriating Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin. That provides legitimate hockey players to fill slots 1-12 in the forward ranks. The question will be if Carlyle insists on throwing a spot away for a facepuncher like Frazer McLaren or Colton Orr or if he’ll play two or three forwards less than six minutes a night. Like the defence, there are slim pickings after what will likely comprise the opening night roster. The forward prospects on the Marlies are still undercooked and any halfway serious injury will wreak havoc.

    Three questions

    1. Will the Leafs pmprove their puck possession abilities?
    2. Will Randy Carlyle last the season?
    3. Will Dion Phaneuf get the help he needs?

    Best case scenario

    The odds are that the Maple Leafs did not make any huge jumps in quality. Up front, they will hopefully have replaced most of the offence lost through the departure of Mason Raymond and will have replaced some possession black holes with better players. Randy Carlyle may seem determined to keep the utterly useless Colton Orr on the roster but as a group 1-12 the forwards are stronger albeit marginally. David Clarkson can’t possibly be any worse - right? - but a lot will depend on the deployment that Carlyle chooses. If he does it well and the major pieces stay healthy than the Leafs can challenge for the 7th or 8th spot but that really is their ceiling. After only 7 playoff games in a decade that is incredibly pathetic and perhaps last year’s collapse will awaken more fans to the reality of the team’s situation. Those two would combine for the likely best case scenario. Then again, last year’s Leafs and Avalanche both showed how far luck can take a team. Maybe there’s more in store if the hockey gods are shining on them but on the balance of probabilities, a second playoff appearance in three years seems like a major success.

    Worst case scenario

    The worst case scenario may end up actually being the best case scenario. Injuries to Kessel or JVR or Gardiner or Rielly or the goalies would severely test the lacklustre depth of the Leafs. The backend is thin as is and losing any significant amount of games from their best puck moving defencemen would serve only to exacerbate their current issues. If they lost one of the top five point producing forwards in the NHL over the past four seasons then the team would naturally run into problems outscoring their defensive problems. Depending on the length of injuries, it could be enough to pop them down into McDavid territory. Of course, it may not take injuries for that to happen. If the team’s shooting goes cold or their goalies struggle then this is a team that will be buried by the percentages. If the roster changes and tactical tweaks don’t provide the Leafs with better possession splits then they will once again be riding the percentages and that’s a scary place to be.

  27. Presented by

    Metropolitan Division

    Talk about a hard division to predict. The Pittsburgh Penguins got better this offseason and should probably run away with things yet again, but from there, just about anything can happen. Our general consensus is that the Rangers will stay competitive, while Columbus, New Jersey, Washington and the Islanders should all get stronger. Carolina will finish in the basement, but we're expecting this playoff race to be a giant mess right into the final weekend.

    Ed Mulholland / USA Today Sports
  28. Presented by

    Carolina Hurricanes

    James Guillory / USA Today Sports

    The big question in Carolina this season will be whether or not Anton Khudobin has once and for all wrestled the starting goalie gig away from Cam Ward, and whether or not he can duplicate what he did last season. A team that was already short on depth, the Hurricanes suffered a serious blow in the preseason when center Jordan Staal broke a bone in his leg.

    • HEAD COACH Bill Peters

    • GENERAL MANAGER Ron Francis

    • 2013-14 RECORD 36-35-11, 83 points (7th in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS C Jay McClement, LW Brad Malone

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW Radek Dvorak, C Andrei Loktionov

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH LW Brock McGinn, C Victor Rask, LW Phillip Di Giuseppe, LW Sergey Tolchinsky, C Patrick Brown

    • AHL AFFILIATE Charlotte Checkers

    • TEAM BLOG Canes Country

    Three strengths

    1. Youth. Normally youth would not necessarily be a strength, but in Carolina’s case their youth should be progressing enough to improve the team. Elias Lindholm now has a year under his belt and Ryan Murphy should also be a bit more experienced and improved. Jeff Skinner’s overall game should also be better. Even someone who has been around for a bit like Jordan Staal is still relatively young and his game should continue to progress, once he returns from his leg injury.

    2. Center ice. The Hurricanes acquired Jordan Staal to team up with his brother and help them be dominant at center ice, but because of injuries and other reasons, that has not yet worked out as originally planned. This season if the stars line up right, the Canes should be strong in the middle of the rink. Eric Staal is capable of dominating and if Jordan is on his game, they will be a force. Newly acquired Jay McClement is also a solid centerman and the Canes have other players like Riley Nash, Elias Lindholm, and Jeff Skinner who could play center and continue to improve.

    3. Goaltending. This might sound ridiculous after what happened last season, but the Hurricanes should be solid in net this season. Anton Khudobin is coming off a franchise record best save percentage of .926 last season and Cam Ward struggled with injury problems. At one time, both goalies were out with injuries and the Canes relied on third string goalie Justin Peters to hold the fort. If this goalie tandem stays healthy and can perform close to their career averages, these two netminders might be one of the best tandems in the league.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Depth. Carolina’s depth this season should be better than in season’s past, but still, if one of their top six forwards go down or either one of their top defensemen are out for a period of time, the team could be in big trouble. Drew MacIntyre was acquired to be the goalie in Charlotte and should be a capable replacement if Ward or Khudobin gets injured. But secondary scoring is unproven and the defense might be thin even if they all stay healthy.

    2. The blue line. Management is confident that Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk will be a solid, dependable number one defensive pairing this season and by all counts they should be. But Carolina’s defense offers more questions than answers after that. Next up is Ron Hainsey, who has had ups and downs in his career, though he played pretty well for the Canes last season. The Leafs couldn’t wait to trade John-Michael Liles last season and he is probably next on the team’s depth chart. Then in a surprising move, the team brought back Tim Gleason after trading him to the Leafs because of consistency issues last year. Gleason was available because he was bought out. Jay Harrison took a step back last season and Brett Bellemore, while improved, is still unproven and was signed to a two-way deal this summer after a long hold out. Another wild card is youngster Ryan Murphy, who will be counted on to juice up the shaky powerplay and continue to improve in his own end. There is a lot that could go wrong here.

    3. Third line scoring. New head coach Bill Peters has said that he wants three scoring lines, and who can blame him? Most playoff teams have three lines that can be counted on to light the lamp somewhat consistently. But after Carolina’s top six forwards, the third line currently consists of Riley Nash, Nathan Gerbe, and Zach Boychuk. Gerbe had a career best 16 goals last year and could repeat, but Nash is unproven and Boychuk has AHL success but has yet to prove himself in the big leagues. They are rolling the dice that Nash, (10 goals) improves and Boychuk or someone else can make the jump.

    Three questions

    1. Can this team stay relatively healthy all season (aside from already losing Jordan Staal)?
    2. Will one or more of the youngsters step up and be a consistent scorer?
    3. Will Ward and Khudobin turn out to be a well-working tandem and push each other to consistent performance or will they both need to play the majority of games and fail to play at their best?

    Best case scenario

    What if new coach Bill Peters’ message sinks in? How about if Cam Ward or Anton Khudobin — or both?? — prove to be reliable, top-10 NHL starters again? And what if Eric Staal rediscovers his game, perhaps even with Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty on the first line that was so good two seasons ago? If all that happens, Carolina should have no issue returning to the postseason. But those are a lot of ifs. The Hurricanes are a young team and are hungry for a playoff trip from top to bottom, and a new voice — and strategy — behind the bench should help.

    They should also have a chip on their collective shoulder, seeing that their play in recent years led to two coaching dismissals and Jim Rutherford’s "retirement" as general manager, plus the across-the-board projections that Carolina is much more likely to land Connor McDavid than flirt with Lord Stanley. If luck goes their way and Peters can mold all these things into one cohesive, inspiring message, the Hurricanes could max out as a middle seed in the Eastern Conference. After five years on the golf course instead of in the playoffs, you can bet everyone in Raleigh would take it.

    Worst case scenario

    The worst case for the Hurricanes this year, you ask? Hoo boy, where to start. The worst case scenario starts with the budding goalie question marks between Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin turning into a full-fledged goalie controversy, with Khudobin outplaying Ward who makes no secret of his displeasure. Ward proceeds to form a faction in the locker room that turns against Bill Peters from day one. Ron Francis, trying his best to play the United Nations between these two warring sides, calms everyone down and makes a not-so-veiled threat that everyone had better be singing from the same hymnal post haste...or else.

    This uneasy truce holds for a month or so, when one of the Canes' big guns goes down with a season-ending injury. Peters does what he can to juggle the lineup, but it blows up in his face repeatedly as no lines can find any chemistry. Stuck in the Metro Division cellar at the end of January, Francis goes into fire-sale mode, but then finds that he can't move any of the Canes' big-money contracts. Eventually, one of those contracts moves for sixty cents on the dollar, and with the Charlotte Checkers contending for an AHL West Division title, Francis is reluctant to call up any of the players having success in Charlotte and throw them into the burning pit of fire that is the Canes' season, so by the trade deadline the first line consists of a leftover contract Francis couldn't trade, a waiver claim and Chad LaRose. Khudobin demands a trade, fed up with having to look over his shoulder and be second-guessed, but knowing that the Canes have no upper hand in any trade negotiations, he's traded for next to nothing.

    The Canes are eliminated from the playoffs in March, but go on a mini-run to end the season that somehow ends with them finishing with the fourth-worst record in the NHL, and the only thing it accomplished is giving them worse odds in the draft lottery. By some miracle, the Canes win the lottery, but Connor McDavid pulls an Eric Lindros and refuses to play for the team. Francis drafts him anyway, but then is forced to trade him. The ticket sales department quietly shakes their head, unsure how they're ever going to sell a season ticket before the 2015-16 season.

    Oh, and Jim Rutherford wins the Stanley Cup with a 116-point season.

  29. Presented by

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    Kirk Irwin / Getty Images

    One of the feel good stories in the NHL in 2013-14, the Columbus Blue Jackets finally earned their first playoff win in franchise history and gave the Pittsburgh Penguins everything they could handle in the first round. Now it’s about taking the next step and keeping that momentum going by not only returning to the playoffs, but also advancing beyond the first round. Once they get the Ryan Johansen situation settled, there will be some promising things happening in Columbus.

    • HEAD COACH Todd Richards

    • GENERAL MANAGER Jarmo Kekalainen

    • 2013-14 RECORD 43-32-7, 93 points (4th in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Scott Hartnell, RW Brian Gibbons, LW Jerry D’Amigo, RW Simon Hjalmarsson

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES LW R.J. Umberger, D Nikita Nikitin, C Derek MacKenzie, LW Blake Comeau

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Alexander Wennberg, RW Kerby Rychel, LW Sonny Milano, C Marko Dano, RW Oliver Bjorkstrand, D Mike Reilly

    • AHL AFFILIATE Springfield Falcons

    • TEAM BLOG The Cannon

    Three strengths

    1. Offensive depth. The concept of having a wealth of front line talent is a new one for Columbus Blue Jacket fans, but this is indeed a team of offensive talent, with much more waiting in the wings -- or pounding on the door. Sure, Columbus lacks the star power that came with Rick Nash, but has found that transition a liberating experience, enabling its young squad to show their stuff. Last year, 13 players scored 20 or more points, and eight players had double digit goal totals. That trailed only Boston in the East (13 20+ point players, 10 double digit goal producers). With a healthy Nathan Horton, the acquisition of Scott Hartnell, and the likes of Cam Atkinson and Boone Jenner getting a full year under their belts, those numbers should only improve. Alexander Wennberg and Kerby Rychel provide upward pressure from the junior level. Ryan Johansen, you ask? Odds are overwhelming that a deal gets done and he’s in Union Blue come October. If not, he could bring big return in a trade, and Columbus has the cap space to do virtually anything.

    2. Versatility. Columbus has earned a reputation for being a “gritty” team – playing hard-nosed, physical hockey that earns grudging respect from adversaries. While the heavy hitting style is one coach Todd Richards loves, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all the Blue Jackets can bring. The Blue Jackets have a lot of speed in the lineup, and added to that with the acquisition of Brian Gibbons this summer. They were among the leaders in short-handed goals in the East, and showed the ability to match speed and skill with virtually any club. Richards has shown more willingness to let his horses run a bit, and the playoff experience made him realize that speed and skill are necessary weapons. Add Sergei Bobrovsky to the equation, and you have a club that can grind out a 1 – 0 win, or skate and score the opposition into submission. Look to see the latter more this season.

    3. The mental game. Historically, Columbus was viewed as a “soft” franchise – one that was mentally fragile and lacked the work ethic necessary to consistently compete at the NHL level. No more. There has been an enterprise-wide upheaval in Columbus, and whether you wear a sweater or a suit, nothing less than 100% effort is accepted. Those who watched the playoff series against Pittsburgh saw the club’s mental toughness in action. No matter the score or situation, they refused to say die. They kept coming, and came within an eyelash of forcing what would have been a very interesting Game 7 in Pittsburgh. Just to get to the playoffs, the Blue Jackets had to endure a difficult start, key injuries and a nail biting battle for the last two months of the season. Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson and Nick Foligno stepped up as vocal leaders, while guys like Artem Anisimov and Sergei Bobrovsky let their play do the talking. The team chemistry has now been forged in the crucible of the NHL Playoffs, and the collective mental toughness passed the test with flying colors. With Hartnell and Horton becoming full-time fixtures, Columbus is committed to winning the mental battle every time.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Lack of "skill" throughout the lineup. While the Jackets are a relentless, hard-working team, and their success is predicated on that identity, there are times throughout a season (and hopefully in the playoffs) where you need to have guys that can just make that one gorgeous play to get you a big goal. The Jackets had solid scoring numbers in the regular season last year, but relied on a very hot Power Play to hang with the Penguins. Outside of Ryan Johansen--who has his own issues currently--though, Columbus has a dearth of pure "goal scorers" or pure "playmakers". Grit and tenacity is great, and it's turned this team around in two years. But, sooner or later, you need skill to go with it. The Jackets are still lagging in this area.

    2. Goaltending depth behind Bobrovsky. Columbus suffered through an injury to Sergei Bobrovsky last season during December and into January, and they survived. However, their backup (Curtis McElhinney) isn't a guy that can carry a team, and behind CMac the pickings are a little slim. Two very young guys (Anton Forsberg and Oscar Dansk) will be getting the bulk of the playing time in the AHL in Springfield, and if Bobrovsky finds himself on the shelf for an extended period of time again this season Columbus will be forced to call upon one of them to play some meaningful games, most likely. Whether they'll be up to the task remains to be seen.

    3. Defensive consistency. Columbus doesn't have much competition for spots in their top-seven blueliners (i.e., the guys that will make the roster, barring injury), but that having been said there are some question marks. Jack Johnson is forever a lightning rod, and had a pretty atrocious regular season last year, though he did turn it up for the playoffs. But, which Jack Johnson will show up this season to start off? Fedor Tyutin is another year older, and battled some injuries last year for the first real time in his career. James Wisniewski was a points-machine, and the "fancy stats" folks loved him last season. That said, he, too, is another year older, has a history of injuries since coming to Columbus, and was very bad in the playoffs (though he played hurt). Ryan Murray is just a second-year player, and while he has the highest ceiling of any defenseman in the system, he is still just a second year player. David Savard, Dalton Prout, and Tim Erixon are all fighting for bottom pairing minutes, but each has their warts. Whether or not this blue line unit can come together and help keep Bobrovsky clean will tell the early tale while Columbus tries to avoid another slow start.

    Three questions

    1. Will Ryan Johansen improve on his breakout 2013-14 season?
    2. Are the Jackets ready for an extended playoff run?
    3. Sergei Bobrovsky is in a contract year. Will he return to Vezina form?

    Best case scenario

    Let's get this out of the way: Before anything else happens, the Blue Jackets will have signed Ryan Johansen to a new deal.

    From there, it's likely that 2013 1st round pick Alexander Wennberg is going to earn a spot, giving he team another strong young option who can learn the game in the bottom six, then move up as warranted. With a dash of seasoning all around for the young roster and the addition of Scott Hartnell and a healthy Nathan Horton, there's no reason why this team can't compete for the top of the Metro division.

    The two biggest keys to success for Columbus are going to be the continued strong play of Sergei Bobrovsky, and Johansen continuing to prove that he's taken the next step in his career.

    With the All Star Game in town and their success last season, this team is facing heightened expectations, both internally and externally. If they can rise to meet them, they'll be a dangerous group going into the postseason, who may well be able to use the lessons of last year to take them into the second round and beyond.

    Worst case scenario

    As of this writing, the best offensive player for the Blue Jackets last season still does not have a contract. If Ryan Johansen doesn’t start the season with the team and joins a few weeks after the season has started, it could cost Columbus valuable points in pushing for a playoff spot. The Jackets have had dreadful starts the last two years, costing them a playoff berth in the lockout-shortened season. Shuffling the lines and affecting chemistry would not be ideal to getting off to a fast start.

    he top nine for the team remains largely the same, save for the Johansen situation and turning R.J. Umberger into Scott Hartnell. After that, the front office brought in a lot of new faces for the fourth line and as depth when injuries occur. Many of these players are young or new to the system being run.

    The worst case would see the Blue Jackets regress and miss the playoffs. Another sluggish start, coupled with a Johansen holdout, could put Columbus in a big hole early. Nathan Horton has yet to play 100% healthy in a CBJ sweater, and some are skeptical he’ll be able to return to his old form. The concern remains, outside of Johansen, if there really are any elite scorers on the roster. If Todd Richards can’t get another group scoring effort up front in addition to blue line contributions from guys like James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson, it could become difficult to score goals. However it plays out, Columbus is not going to surprise anyone this year and they would desperately like to avoid a third consecutive horrendous start to the season.

  30. Presented by

    New Jersey Devils

    Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

    The Devils are finally turning their goaltending duties over to Cory Schneider after finally parting ways with Martin Brodeur, a move that is probably a couple of years overdue. The Devils are the oldest team in the NHL and attempted to fix their offensive problems by bringing in Mike Cammalleri, Martin Havlat and re-signing the ageless Jaromir Jagr. They should be a real threat to emerge as a playoff team in the Metropolitan Division where at least two of the playoff spots seem to be wide open.

    • HEAD COACH Peter DeBoer

    • GENERAL MANAGER Lou Lamoriello

    • 2013-14 RECORD 35-29-18, 88 points (6th in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW Mike Cammalleri, G Scott Clemmensen, RW Marty Havlat

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES G Martin Brodeur, D Mark Fayne, D Anton Volchenkov

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH RW Reid Boucher, LW Stefan Matteau, C John Quenneville, D Damon Severson, D Steve Santini

    • AHL AFFILIATE Albany Devils

    • TEAM BLOG In Lou We Trust

    Three strengths

    1. Possession. The New Jersey Devils have been one of the most dominant teams in terms of shot attempt differential for several seasons. They have a close-score Fenwick percentage of 53% over the last three seasons according to Hockey Analysis. Only five teams have been better over that same timespan and Boston is the only Eastern Conference team among those five. The Devils accomplish this by playing low-event hockey; they don’t take a lot of attempts and they regularly make their opponents take even less. This ends up with the Devils having the puck more often at even strength, which gives them opportunities to control the game. This was true last season, as big-minute players (who are returning) like Andy Greene, Jaromir Jagr, and Travis Zajac posted incredible Corsi percentages above 55%. In fact, only one skater was below 50% and he played minimally last season. When others note how difficult the Devils are to play against, this explains why. This will likely continue in 2014-15.

    2. Forward depth. The New Jersey Devils lack a big name scorer with the possible exception of Jaromir Jagr, who’s still a possession-driving demon but the high-scoring days are behind the 42 year old man. What the Devils lack in an ace in the proverbial deck of cards, they have plenty of 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s. While Adam Henrique tipped Jagr to lead the team with 25 goals last season, the Devils boasted eight skaters with at least ten and would have had a ninth had Ryane Clowe been available all season. Since it is not likely Michael Ryder will go over two months without scoring a goal again, a full season from Tuomo Ruutu, and given the team’s additions of Mike Cammalleri (26 goals in 63 games last season) and Martin Havlat (12 goals in 48 games last season), this number should be maintained. It’s expected that Jagr and Zajac will lead the attack followed by whoever is next to Elias. However, the scoring will be a group effort, the team has at least 14 NHL-quality forwards, and that could very well make the Devils an even more difficult team to defend if contributions come from all over.

    3. Goaltending. The 2013-14 Devils didn’t score a lot of goals. When a team struggles to score goals, then there’s further emphasis on the goaltenders to make stops. The Devils had two last season: Cory Schneider and the legendary Martin Brodeur. Schneider posted a good 92.1% save percentage whereas the 41-year old Brodeur played like, well, he was on the wrong side of 40 and posted a 90.1% save percentage. A save percentage difference of 2% is significant given that even the stingy Devils concede over 2000 shots in a season. Had the Devils played Brodeur in fewer games, it is not unreasonable to think they would have allowed fewer goals which would have yielded a few more wins and perhaps made the postseason instead of missing it. The Devils parted ways with Brodeur and will make Schneider, who has an impressive 93.25% save percentage over the last three seasons, the unquestioned #1 goalie on the team. Provided Scott Clemmensen or Keith Kinkaid (the two will battle for the #2 spot) can be marginally better than Brodeur, goaltending should be a strength instead of a hindrance.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Health. The Devils finished 15th in the league in number of man games lost to injury with 261. Injuries included Ryane Clowe, who extended his concussion history; Patrik Elias; Bryce Salvador; Damien Brunner; Ryan Carter; Adam Larsson; Peter Harrold; Anton Volchenkov; Stephen Gionta; and Jacob Josefson. Each of those ten players missed at least ten games last season due to injury and it led to the Devils digging deep into their system to fill in spots. While it led to some new blood on defense, it also tested the team’s depth at points in the season. The team remains old and their two big free agent acquisitions - Cammalleri and Havlat - have missed plenty of time from injuries in recent seasons. Whether someone gets hurt may be based on luck more than anything, but it’s a legitimate concern as to how many games all of these skaters will actually get to play.

    2. Power play. The Devils have had a very good conversion rate last season at 19.5%. It is not likely this will be maintained. While the Devils got goals last season, they were dead last when it came to shooting the puck. Their shooting rate per 60 minutes was just above 40 in a league where the median is at 50. They regularly struggled to gain the zone as it appeared the players were not on the same page, and would undergo entire games where the power play would be in name only. Their success came from some impressive luck; the team’s shooting percentage in 5-on-4 situations was 14%, the sixth highest in the league. The Devils acquired Cammalleri and Havlat in part to strengthen man advantage situations. Unless they get an impressive repeat of luck (e.g. Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas shooting above 15% in 5-on-4 play) or figure out how to gain the zone to generate more shots, then their power play should be expected to suffer.

    3. Transition offense. Ryan Stimson tracked the Devils’ passes at even strength last season. He’s made a number of impressive conclusions from the data. Among them, the Devils trail their opposition significantly when it comes to generating shooting attempts from passes from the defensive or neutral zone. It partially explains why the Devils lag in generating shooting attempts and shots as a whole. The reasons for why this range from the team’s tactical approach (e.g. they don’t regularly go for long passes), personnel (e.g. only the 37-year old Marek Zidlicky can be described as a distributor from the blueline), and speed (the Devils are an older team and lack speedy players) among other potential reasons. Whether it is by design or by choice, the Devils aren’t pushing for odd man rushes and such.

    Three questions

    1. Given their defensemen, can Devils continue to be among league leaders in shot prevention?
    2. How hot is Peter DeBoer’s seat?
    3. Who leads this team on offense?

    Best case scenario

    The New Jersey Devils get plenty of fortune their way: they don’t suffer massive injuries to critical players, their shooting percentage as a team isn’t firmly in the bottom of the league, and they win a bunch of shootouts. More important than that, Cory Schneider sparkles while making roughly 60 appearances while Clemmensen or Kinkaid does at least better than Brodeur last season. Jaromir Jagr repeats last season somehow, Elias remains a two-way force like Zajac, and Cammalleri and Havlat significant contributions on the scoresheet. Defensively, the team remains stout. Andy Greene continues to be an under-the-radar blueline leader and the young trio of Larsson, Merrill, and Gelinas establish themselves as competent, regular NHL defensemen. All of this good play culminates in the Devils challenging Pittsburgh and New York for first in the Metropolitan Division. They make the playoffs, perhaps win a round, and then DeBoer returns next season with plenty of critics -- fan and media alike -- eating crow. Lou Lamoriello thinking to himself, “I knew these guys were good. Good thing no one who isn’t smart respects us.”

    Worst case scenario

    The oldest team in the league gets smashed by Dr. Injury and Father Time alike. Worst of all, Cory Schneider misses most of the season, meaning the team has to lean on Clemmensen or Kinkaid to be great. Neither are and so the low-scoring, low-shooting Devils suffer many more goals against than they can handle. Up front, things fall apart: Jagr becomes a regular 43-year old man. Elias fades to the levels of Dainius Zubrus; Zubrus fades further; and all while Cammalleri, Havlat, Clowe, and Ryder miss a lot of time while being hurt. The offense, in all facets, suffers. The young trio of Larsson, Merrill, and Gelinas do not progress as Greene alone can’t lead a blueline to limit shots as much as possible. In conjunction with damage at goaltender, this exacerbates the issue of giving up goals. Any help from the minors won’t provide much, as expected since that team is filled with players not really ready for the NHL and those who will never be. As a result, the team misses the postseason by quite a bit, they’ll look for a new head coach (perhaps in-season), and Lou Lamoriello will gaze upon a roster that may not be able to be turned around in a summer and have to consider something he’s never done: rebuild.

  31. Presented by

    New York Islanders

    Tom Szczerbowski / USA Today Sports

    It’s a year too late, but the Islanders finally attempted to fix their disastrous goaltending situation by acquiring Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson. It was a great series of moves and could prove to be the single biggest on-ice improvement made by any team in the division. Not only do the playoffs seem like a legitimate possibility, they could be very well within reach if the new two-headed monster in net can provide them with an even league average performance.

    • HEAD COACH Jack Capuano

    • GENERAL MANAGER Garth Snow

    • 2013-14 RECORD 34-37-11, 79 points (8th in Metropolitan)

    • NOTABLE ADDITIONS G Jaroslav Halak, C Mikhail Grabovski, LW Nikolai Kulemin, G Chad Johnson

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES G Evgeni Nabokov, D Andrew MacDonald, LW Thomas Vanek

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH LW Anders Lee, C Ryan Strome, D Griffin Reinhart, D TJ Brennan

    • AHL AFFILIATE Bridgeport Sound Tigers

    • TEAM BLOG Lighthouse Hockey

    Three strengths

    1. Forward depth. For the first time in the John Tavares era, the New York Islanders have the forward depth to run four dangerous lines. Rising prospects Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome could play center or wing. If either play the former, Mikhail Grabovski’s addition means the Islanders can use four centers who are top-six material.

    2. Goaltending. For the first time since Rick DiPietro’s lone all-star season -- before the voodoo injury bug brought his steady demise -- the Islanders have top-10 goaltending. The jump from Evgeni Nabokov to Jaroslav Halak should be massive; the jump from fellow sub-.900 backups Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson to Chad Johnson should be equally impressive.

    3. Fast players at peak ages. John Tavares and Kyle Okposo are coming off big seasons and should be entering their primes. Travis Hamonic too. Meanwhile, the Islanders boast an arsenal of smooth, speedy skaters like Michael Grabner, Mikhail Grabovski, and Calvin de Haan, and up-tempo youth like Nelson and Strome. All should combine for a commitment to move the puck quickly and put opponents under pressure.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Durability in defense. Critics say the Islanders defense is weak, but that undersells their talent and the fact the subtraction of Andrew MacDonald could actually be a bonus. Where they might be weak is in size and durability. Calvin de Haan will be relied upon but has a worrisome history of injuries. Lubomir Visnovsky is aging and has a history of concussions, including one that ruined 2013-14. Thomas Hickey and T.J. Brennan are great puckhandlers but do not intimidate.

    2. Expectations. The Islanders are a “laughingstock” according to the pouplar narrative. Their only playoff appearance since 2008 was in a surprise rise during a lockout-shortened season. Now with expectations raised and the depth to match, do they thrive under the spotlight? Or fall back into old woe-is-me habits?

    3. The lure of the status quo. As noted above, the Islanders have a new strength in forward depth. But fully utilizing that and their new additions could mean parting ways with or reducing roles for club favorites like Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Eric Boulton. Will they choose talent, or old school hockey trappings?

    Three questions

    1. Will the goaltending upgrade make enough of a difference?
    2. Will the Islanders optimize their newfound forward depth?
    3. Will the health of key players hold up?

    Best case scenario

    All of Garth Snow’s offseason acquisitions pan out, starting with the new goaltending, extending through the Grabovski, Kulemin and Brennan additions, and finishing with the extra bodies like Cory Conacher who provide injury insurance. Prospects Ryan Strome and Anders Lee take off, while Brock Nelson repeats his impressive rookie year.

    John Tavares reaches another level while Kyle Okposo repeats his breakout 2013-14. The Islanders scare the Metro and the rest of the East with speed, depth and the goaltending to cover up the warts.

    The blueline holds up just enough for the Islanders to close out Nassau Coliseum in style -- with a couple of raucous playoff series and their first playoff series victory, maybe two, since 1993.

    Nassau says “Goodbye, but we’ll follow you to the new horizon.” Brooklyn awaits one hell of a team.

    Worst case scenario

    Lubomir Visnovsky’s age and injuries catch up with him, Calvin de Haan’s body remains cursed, and the blueline prospects are not yet ready to fill the gap behind Travis Hamonic. Jaroslav Halak sees a recurrence of the injury bug that slowed him in St. Louis, and the Islanders never quite figure out how to deploy their arsenal of forwards.

    In desperation in the Islanders’ final season in Nassau, Jack Capuano relies on underperforming veterans until under-pressure general manager Garth Snow fires his good friend. But it’s too late to reverse this confluence of negative factors, and Buffalo receives a handsome lottery pick. The Islanders close out Nassau Coliseum the way they opened it: With a performance that makes people wonder how the franchise could ever win a Stanley Cup, let alone four.

    The momentum that the new owners hope to see carried to Brooklyn is nowhere to be found. And worse: Those new owners fail to secure approval from the board of governors.

  32. Presented by

    New York Rangers

    Adam Hunger / USA Today Sports

    As long as Henrik Lundqvist is playing like Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers are going to have a shot. They lost a couple of key performers from last season’s Stanley Cup run (Anton Stralman and Benoit Pouliot), made a bizarre three-year investment in Tanner Glass and suffered a tough injury to Derek Stepan in the preseason, but this is still a very good team that will show that last season’s playoff run was no fluke.

    • HEAD COACH Alain Vigneault

    • GENERAL MANAGER Glen Sather

    • 2013-14 RECORD 45-31-6, 96 points (2ns in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS D Dan Boyle, W, Lee Stempniak, F Kevin Hayes, C Matthew Lombardi

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES D Anton Stralman, C Brian Boyle, F Derek Dorsett, RW Benoit Pouliot

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH F Pavel Buchnevich, F Anthony Duclair, D Brady Skjei

    • AHL AFFILIATE Hartford Wolf Pack

    • TEAM BLOG Blueshirt Banter

    Three strengths

    1. Goaltending. So long as Henrik Lundqvist is tending the pipes this year, the Rangers are going to have an advantage over most every team in the NHL. Lundqvist was the backbone of the Rangers’ success through the playoffs last year, and despite a rough start to the season, still finished the year with fantastic numbers. He’s a guy the Rangers can (and will) count on heavily.

    2. The defense. Yes, the Rangers allowed Anton Stralman (who was an underrated asset through the playoffs last year) to walk away for nothing. But they still have Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi on their top two pairings. Dan Boyle will fit in just fine on the second pairing, especially since his workload will be diminished from what he’s used to in San Jose. Kevin Klein is an ever-steady option on the third pairing, and you can expect a jump in John Moore’s play this year as well. Overall? Not bad at all. Especially in front of Lundqvist.

    3. The power play. This is a little optimistic, but we’re running with it anyway. The Rangers brought in an elite puck moving defenseman in Dan Boyle. Yes, he’s 38 years old, but he played a major role in all situations for the Sharks the past few years, and helped their power play generate the most shots in the NHL. Adding a puck mover who knows when to shoot along with Martin St. Louis for an entire season? I think this unit should be much improved from last year.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Fourth line depth. Gone is Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett, two of the three players who made the Rangers’ fourth line so dominant last year. In their place? Tanner Glass, Matthew Lombardi and maybe Lee Stempniak (if he’s pushed off the third line by the younger players vying for a spot). If Glass plays more than 15 games this year on the fourth line it’s a major step down.

    2. The penalty kill. Like the power play, we’re taking a guess here. This one is more pessimistic. Boyle, Stralman and Dorsett all played big roles on the penalty kill. All three are gone. Lombardi was a good penalty killer back in the day, but he’s been out of the NHL for two years. Do the Rangers have the vehicles to replace the three above? I’m not so sure.

    3. Bottom six depth. If Hayes or Miller (or both) make an impact on the third line, it pushes Stempniak down to the fourth line which pushes Tanner Glass out of the lineup. Ryan Malone, Matthew Lombardi and Stempniak (in a far more grueling defensive role) are all big question marks right now, and as such they need to be treated as a weakness.

    Three questions

    1. Are Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller (or both) ready for a bigger role with the team?
    2. Will the Rangers improvements to their power play roster make a difference?
    3. Was last year a fluke? Or can the Rangers really build off that Stanley Cup Final run?

    Best case scenario

    The best case scenario is the Rangers build off of what they built last year and win the Stanley Cup. Younger players like Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and John Moore all improve thanks to the experience of going through such a deep playoff run. Younger players like Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller take over bigger roles and thrive with them. The improved firepower with Martin St. Louis for an entire season and the new addition of Dan Boyle bolsters the power play. Lundqvist is Lundqvist.

    Worst case scenario

    A Henrik Lundqvist injury. The younger kids (mainly Hayes, Miller and Moore) aren’t ready to take the next step, and the Rangers relying on Miller and Hayes to play third line minutes comes back to bite them. Tanner Glass plays a major role for the team (even if it’s daily fourth line minutes). The Rangers’ power play continues to let them down and the defense actually relied on Stralman more than the brass thought they did.

  33. Presented by

    Philadelphia Flyers

    Eric Hartline / USA Today Sports

    General manager Ron Hextall hasn't said it directly, so we'll say it for him: The Flyers are not a better team this year than they were a year ago. They will be a borderline playoff team in the Metropolitan Division at best, and out of realistic playoff contention before March at worst. Philadelphia can score with the best teams in the NHL, and on special teams they should still be great in 2014-15, but the defense is a nightmare, especially with the loss of the aging but wonderful Kimmo Timonen. And the goaltending? Well, Steve Mason has given room for optimism, but he's proven nothing truly tangible yet. Hextall has a multi-year plan in Philadelphia that hinges on the success of his young prospect defensemen, but they're likely not NHL ready just yet, leaving the Flyers with big time uncertainty as they embark on the new season.

    • HEAD COACH Craig Berube

    • GENERAL MANAGER Ron Hextall

    • 2013-14 RECORD 42-30-10, 94 points (3rd in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS LW R.J. Umberger, D Michael Del Zotto

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES D Kimmo Timonen, LW Scott Hartnell, RW Steve Downie, C Adam Hall, D Erik Gustafsson

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH C Scott Laughton, D Shayne Gostisbehere, D Samuel Morin, D Robert Hagg, D Travis Sanheim

    • AHL AFFILIATE Lehigh Valley Phantoms

    • TEAM BLOG Broad Street Hockey

    Three strengths

    1. Claude Giroux. Over the past three seasons, no NHL player has scored more points than Giroux, who has delivered an unmatched combination of production, consistency, and durability. He also earned himself his first Hart Trophy nomination in 2013-14, and continues to be in the prime of his career. So long as the Flyers have Giroux, they’ll be a contender for a playoff spot, regardless of the team’s other roster flaws.

    2. Forward depth. Though the offseason trade of Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger weakens the Flyers a bit, the team still will not be hurting for forward depth. Even without Hartnell, the team returns six 20-goal scorers, and that doesn’t even include 21-year old shutdown center Sean Couturier, who will be expected to take a step forward offensively in 2014-15. From the puck carrying ability of Jakub Voracek to the speed of Matt Read to the net front presence of Wayne Simmonds, the Flyers have a great mix of forward talent to surround their star, Giroux.

    3. Special teams. The Flyers have not been a particularly strong team at even strength for the past two seasons, and with the loss of Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen in 2014-15, that most likely will not change. Luckily, Philadelphia employs both a top-ten power play and penalty kill to help them try to overcome their mediocre 5v5 play. The man advantage runs through Giroux, who was second in the NHL in power play assists in 2013-14 with 30, and Wayne Simmonds, who scores most of his power play goals right in front of the net. While shorthanded, the Flyers lean heavily upon the young Couturier, who firmly established himself as one of the league’s best penalty killers in only his third NHL season.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Defense. What was a struggling group of blueliners became even more worrisome when it was revealed that Kimmo Timonen would be out indefinitely with blood clots. The steady veteran remained the Flyers’ best defenseman last season even at age 39; and he won’t be easily replaced by the subsequently signed Michael Del Zotto. Braydon Coburn may be much-maligned by fans but I shudder to think what this blueline would be without him. Mark Streit was really impressive after the Olympic break and he’ll need to continue to be if the unit is going to be respectable. Andrew MacDonald, despite what appears to be above average skating and puck skills, is a possession black hole who is constantly defending. Nicklas Grossmann and Luke Schenn round out the group and their lack of foot speed is often apparent. Unless there is a surprising jump from at least one of the bottom four, it’s an uneasy group.

    2. Discipline. It was labeled as a weakness coming into last year and it remains one as we enter 2014-2015. The Flyers had the most penalty minutes in the entire league last season, and it’s not as if they were wracking them all up in fighting majors. They also had the second most minor penalties in the entire league which, forgive me for stating the obvious, are the ones that result in playing down a man. The Flyers lived and died by their special teams last season and they can’t always expect to ice an elite penalty kill unit; especially after letting a PK mainstay in Adam Hall walk. They’ve jettisoned the undisciplined Scott Hartnell which could help in that regard; but on the whole it’s never a good idea to need your special teams to save you.

    3. Lack of natural left wingers. The Flyers have two incredible centers in Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. Beyond that they have quite a few others that form a crowd in the faceoff dot, while also leaving big vacancies on the left wing. Brayden Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier are natural centerman and are both better as centers, with Lecavalier even go as far as stating "I just completely can't play left [wing]". And yet, there is not much of a choice for him unless he’s relegated to the fourth line center spot, as Schenn seems likely to retain the second line center position. The Flyers have an impressive forward group on the whole, but some of them are being asked to play out of position. Finding someone to play with Giroux and Voracek on the top line would go a long way for the Flyers this season.

    Three questions

    1. Can the Flyers possibly replace Kimmo Timonen?
    2. Do Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn finally take steps forward offensively?
    3. Will Steve Mason replicate and grow on his successful 2013-14 season?

    Best case scenario

    The team is top-10 in the league in goal scoring once again, thanks to a forward group that doesn’t miss a beat without Hartnell. Giroux is still Giroux, Lecavalier’s second year in Philly goes a bit better, and the team’s two young centers (B. Schenn and Couturier) finally break out offensively. On defense, Mark Streit continues his outstanding post-Olympic play from last season, at least one of the team’s big defensive question marks (MacDonald, L. Schenn, Del Zotto) turns in a strong year, and the unit as a whole is at least passable even without Timonen. And in net, Mason’s breakout year was no fluke and he once again puts up above-average numbers. The end result is a Flyers team that, while not a no-doubt contender, can at least hang with any team in the Eastern Conference, making an extended playoff run a realistic possibility.

    Worst case scenario

    The defense will be unable to fill the void left by Kimmo Timonen, with new additions Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto proving to be inadequate plugs on the blue line. Steve Mason regresses to the level he played at for many years in Columbus, making the subpar defense that much worse in terms of game results. Add the subtraction of Scott Hartnell and the top line of Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek could fail to continue their dominance from previous seasons. And if Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier (and Vincent Lecavalier, although that may already be a lost cause) don’t show any offensive development, the Flyers will have a lot to worry about.

  34. Presented by

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Jamie Sabau / Getty Images

    After a fifth straight postseason exit it was an offseason of change in Pittsburgh with a new general manager (Jim Rutherford), new coach (Mike Johnston) and a host of new players (Patric Hornqvist, Christian Ehrhoff, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and Thomas Greiss) coming in. The big questions, aside from how Johnston’s system and style will differ from Dan Bylsma’s, will be whether or not they fixed the depth issues that sabotaged them last season and the usual concerns about Marc-Andre Fleury when it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    • HEAD COACH Mike Johnston

    • GENERAL MANAGER Jim Rutherford

    • 2013-14 RECORD 51-24-7, 109 points (1st in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS D Christian Ehrhoff, RW Patric Hornqvist, LW Nick Spaling, RW Steve Downie, LW Blake Comeau, G Thomas Greiss, LW Daniel Carcillo

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES RW James Neal, D Matt Niskanen, D Brooks Orpik, LW Jussi Jokinen, RW Lee Stempniak, D Deryk Engelland, C Joe Vitale, LW Tanner Glass, RW Brian Gibbons

    • *PROSPECTS TO WATCH D Derrick Pouliot, LW/RW Kasperi Kapanen, D Brian Dumoulin, D Scott Harrington, RW Adam Payerl

    • AHL AFFILIATE Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

    • TEAM BLOG Pensburgh

    Three strengths

    1. The NHL’s best player. Sidney Crosby finally proved he could stay healthy in 2013-14, playing in 80 games and easily running away with the NHL’s scoring race. Crosby compiled 104 points, a whopping 17 better than second place in the league. Crosby can shoot, pass, dominate at even-strength and the power play and quite simply he’s the best offensive player in the league by a mile right now. He also logs the most minutes of any forwards and faceoffs for any center, which might raise the question of just how much Crosby should be leaned on early in the season to make sure he’s got enough gas in the tank for the playoffs.

    2. The NHL’s second best player. Evgeni Malkin was second in the entire league (behind only Crosby) in points per game last season, and with his combination of size, skill, speed and experience, if he’s not the NHL’s second best player, it’s just a matter of not playing enough games to be recognized as such. With the trade of James Neal, Malkin (who has been used in a role on the point far away from the net) should be utilized closer to the net on the power play, which could mean a two-year trend of declining power play goals is about to be reversed and maybe get Malkin back towards the 50-goal plateau that he hit in his MVP season of 2011-12.

    3. Revamped depth. Pittsburgh’s formula has failed in the playoffs, but it’ been very stout in the regular season. Marc-Andre Fleury has long been consistent in the regular season for output of high starts, a decent save percentage and a ton of wins. Fleury will once again have a very competent defensive core (led by Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta) to help out. Crosby and Malkin are joined by former 30-goal men in Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist and then a mish-mash of bounce-back candidates from injury (Pascal Dupuis, Steve Downie) and young skill that might breakout in 2014-15 (Beau Bennett, Kasperi Kapanen). The team looks to break in new faces like Nick Spaling and Blake Comeau to join Brandon Sutter in the bottom six that will hopefully provide better play than the depth players have in recent years.

    Three weaknesses

    1. Shakeup behind the bench and in the front office. Former coach of the year Dan Bylsma is out, and a relative unknown in 57-year old Mike Johnston is in behind the bench. Johnston succeeded in Portland (WHL) with an uptempo game and has experience as an NHL assistant head coach, but this will be his first trip as head coach in the NHL. How his systems and how he will adapt and adjust to the NHL level is an unknown, which may prove to be a strength or weakness in the long-run. Penguins upper management became unsatisfied with Bylsma’s failure to bring postseason results, so Johnston’s reign will ultimately be judged by how close he can get the team back to the Stanley Cup. 2013 GM of the year Ray Shero was also fired and replaced by veteran GM Jim Rutherford, who struggled at the end of his stint in the same job in Carolina. If Rutherford isn’t better than he was with Carolina (Alex Semin 7 year contract extension, anyone?) the Pens might be affected for years by a bad trade or careless contract decision.

    2. Roster turnover. With Orpik and Niskanen defecting to Washington as free agents, the Penguins have a huge hole in their defensive depth chart. It also bears mentioning that the two best returning defensemen (Martin and Letang) had injury troubles last season, missing 43 and 45 games last year, respectively. Newcomer Christian Ehrhoff slots in as a top-4 defenseman and should add depth in all three phases of the game to minimize some of the losses, but the Penguins will need young, internal players to step up Maatta and prized prospect Derrick Pouliot both underwent shoulder surgery in May, which may open up the roster for Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson to make bigger impacts early. Can either take advantage of it?

    3. Cap considerations. As is the Penguins yearly issue, the salary cap will have to be considered as a primary factor in hockey operation decisions. They may not be able to carry the amount of players they would like, due to being right up against the upper limit of the $69 million salary cap. They also have cap anchors in aging veterans Rob Scuderi and Craig Adams that are basically immovable due to performance and cap concerns. Also, thanks to the salary cap the Penguins could not replace Jussi Jokinen in the free agent market and will count on an internal option to have a great season on Malkin’s line. Finding a productive left-winger for Malkin was a huge issue for the Pens before Jokinen, and it looks to be a large hole right now with most candidates (Bennett, Downie, Dupuis, Hornqvist) playing more on the right-wing in recent years.

    Three questions

    1. How will Mike Johnston’s first season as an NHL head coach go?
    2. Will Marc-Andre Fleury, in a contract year, provide a different level of play positively or negatively?
    3. Have the other teams in the Metropolitan Division made up the difference to pass the Pens?

    Best case scenario

    In the perfect world for the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Mike Johnston turns out to be a breath of fresh air and his uptempo strategies translate perfectly from a high-skilled junior team to a high-skilled NHL team. The Pens would run away with the Metropolitan Division and easily coast to the #1 seed for the playoffs, much like they did in 2013-14. They do this behind the strength of Crosby and Malkin, who both play full-seasons and probably finish 1 and 2 in the scoring race on what should easily be a top 5 power play unit. A new scoring threat like Beau Bennett would emerge as a top 6 option and Patric Hornqvist would score near a point-per-game and make Pens fans forget the name of James Neal. Defensively, the best case would be that Letang and Martin both play full seasons and use their skill to help the Pens younger defensemen like Maatta, Despres, Dumoulin and Pouliot establish themselves as NHL regulars. The team would hit the post-season in stride and not blow a series lead to a lower seeded team and roll to the Stanley Cup Finals. Fleury would justify a short-term extension and the team would also bring Ehrhoff back on a reasonable deal. Granted, nothing ever goes perfectly to plan, but in the best case scenario, the Pittsburgh Penguins end the season the way their owners envisioned with another Stanley Cup parade.

    Worst case scenario

    The worst imaginable season also starts coach with Mike Johnston, who’s systems end up not working in the NHL which would lead to confusion, and early season losing streak and the pressure amping up on the team as fans and media start wondering what the problem is in Pittsburgh. For a team that already suffered the most man-games lost to injury last season, they would suffer a few more key players going down with long-term injuries, further adding to the issue of the coaching and negating the advantage that the Pens have in top-end, elite skill. In the worst possible scenario, the best of the Pens younger players (Bennett, Maatta, Pouliot) end up failing to make NHL impacts or languishing with the results of their respective off-season surgeries. The speciality units would languish and the PK probably would be a cause for concern. Then GM Rutherford would step in and make an ill-advised trade offering up young talent for older, more ineffective players. Speaking of older players, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are past the age of 35 and if both fall off the map on scoring, the team would be in trouble. Steve Downie and/or Daniel Carcillo, known as loose cannons, would have some vicious attack that would get them suspended and make the team look bad. The Pens would be frustrated, directionless, under weak leadership and possibly heading for barely scraping into the playoffs (and certainly bowing out in the first round) in the worst possible case scenario.

  35. Presented by

    Washington Capitals

    Clyde Caplan / Japers' Rink

    Barry Trotz is the latest coach that gets the opportunity to try and fix whatever it is that ails the Washington Capitals. Whether or not he is able to do it and get them back to the playoffs will probably only be a secondary storyline to whatever happens with Alex Ovechkin, whether it be the good (another 50-goal season) or whatever his plus-minus is which will then become a referendum on his entire value as a player. They narrowly missed the playoffs last season and with even a few small improvements on both sides of the puck should be able to get back.

    • HEAD COACH Barry Trotz

    • GENERAL MANAGER Brian MacLellan

    • 2013-14 RECORD 38-30-14, 90 points (5th in Metropolitan)

    • IMPORTANT ADDITIONS D Matt Niskanen, D Brooks Orpik, G Justin Peters

    • NOTABLE DEPARTURES C Mikhail Grabovski, G Jaroslav Halak, LW Dustin Penner

    • PROSPECTS TO WATCH F Andre Burakovsky

    • AHL AFFILIATE Hershey Bears

    • TEAM BLOG Japers’ Rink

    Three strengths

    1. Team defense. Washington will enter the season with its best and deepest blueline this century, a new coach renowned for his defense-first approach to the game and an emerging goaltender whose ability and potential has mostly been limited only by his coaches in the past. The additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to a “Big Three” of John Carlson, Mike Green and Karl Alzner, along with up-and-comers Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick and Cameron Schilling give Barry Trotz plenty of options for pairings and, more importantly, the chance to roll three sets of defenders in front of Braden Holtby and capable back-up Justin Peters. If the forwards buy in on the game plan, expect the Caps to be tough to score on, something they haven’t been over the course of a full season in quite some time.

    2. The power play. Over the past two seasons, no team has scored more goals or had a better efficiency on the power play than Washington or, for that matter, scored them at a higher rate while skating five-on-four (and it’s not even close - the Caps have potted those power-play goals at a 15% better clip than second-place Pittsburgh). Did that dominance get sent packing along with Adam Oates? Doubtful – the key on-ice personnel remains, as does assistant coach Blaine Forsythe, who was responsible for running the extra-man unit. It will be interesting to see how much of his predecessor’s power play Trotz retains (perhaps he’s more risk-averse than Oates), but if it ain’t broke – and it ain’t – this is one area that doesn’t need fixing.

    3. The right side. If Alex Ovechkin stays at right wing (and Trotz has said he’s going to play both sides, albeit likely starting on the left), the Caps would have Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Tom Wilson filling the starboard lanes up front, with Carlson, Green and Niskanen doing the same on the back end. That’s an impressive septet of skaters, accounting for more than 130 goals (100 from those top-three wings) and 300 points in 2013-14. Roles and fortunes will be different in 2014-15, in large part due to this depth – Ovechkin moving back to the left side would allow 2012 first-rounder Wilson a bigger role, Niskanen slots in lower on the power-play depth chart for Washington (behind Green and Carlson) than he did for Pittsburgh, etc. Every team wants to tilt the ice… but this isn’t what that old cliche is intended to mean.

    Three weaknesses

    1. The second line. The Caps should get plenty of production from the (offensively) dependable Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and have a fine looking bottom-six (with a particularly strong third line anchored by Joel Ward and Jason Chimera), but questions abound regarding what they’ll get from the players in between. While the Capitals boasted a pair of 20-goal right wings behind Ovechkin in Brouwer and Ward (the former of whom could be bumped to the top line as Ovechkin shifts back to left wing), both of them did it by shattering previous career highs thanks to unprecedented power-play scoring and notably high shooting percentages. And considering that both players are on the wrong side of 27 years old, a bit of a regression is probably in order. Beyond that production (and Backstrom’s 18 tallies), Washington got 15 goals from the 34-year-old Chimera, 13 from now-former Cap Mikhail Grabovski and another 13 from Eric Fehr. No other Washington forward hit double-digits, though Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Laich pro-rated above that not-so-lofty milestone. The persistent problem of second line performance is one that has to be solved for the Caps to reach the postseason, and until it is, it remains a weakness.

    2. Five-on-five play. Washington’s dramatic fall from Cup contender to fringe playoff contender coincided with a similarly steep decline in their five-on-five possession metrics, as Bruce Boudreau’s dominant puck-hoarders gave way to various incarnations of more… giving squads and eventually Adam Oates’s all-too-generous group. Trotz’s Predators have been an up-and-down team in terms of possession and other even-strength metrics over the years, but it’s hard to imagine the Capitals won’t be better at fives going forward. Of course, the same was said when Dale Hunter was replaced behind the Washington bench, so until it actually happens, it’s an area of concern for the Caps.

    3. Penalty killing. As bad as Oates’s Caps were at five-a-side, they were worse on the penalty kill, allowing shots at an unprecedented rate (insofar as information on such things is available). That the unit finished as high as 16th in overall efficiency in 2013-14 (after ranking 27th the season before) was a function of otherworldly man-down goaltending performances from the trio of ‘tenders other than Holtby who took the cage and spared the penalty kill from the gruesome fate it probably deserved by. Was it the system? The personnel? Regardless, the additions on the blueline and behind the bench should help the Capitals’ shorthanded efforts tremendously, but, as was the case with the team’s five-on-five play, it’s a weakness until proven otherwise.

    Three questions

    1. Can Alex Ovechkin be happy and productive under Barry Trotz?
    2. Who will center the second line?
    3. Are the Caps back on track towards being a contender in the Eastern Conference?

    Best case scenario

    It all clicks. Led by the League's best six-man corps of blueliners, a breakthrough superstar in net, a still-lethal extra-man unit, and a refined (but not too much!) captain, Washington has finally found itself within the disciplined-but-effective structure imposed upon them by their new coach. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Calder Trophy-winning performance as the team’s second-line center, combined with Tom Wilson’s emergence as a power forward, gives the Caps a strong second line for perhaps the first time in the Ovechkin era. After spending much of the last few years haphazardly chasing styles and systems, the Capitals have landed on something that works… and boy does it. In a relatively weak Eastern Conference and weaker still Metro Division, a good thing can go a long way.

    Worst case scenario

    The team spends 2014-15 reliving some of the worst parts of 2013-14 and adding new woes to the list, unable to get anything going at five-on-five, desperately lacking secondary scoring, regressing between the pipes and struggling on the penalty kill. Brooks Orpik proves all the doubters correct by looking old and slow, while Matt Niskanen folds under the pressure of his contract. Following the pattern of the last several years, Mike Green gets injured just in time to ensure that the Caps can’t peddle him for picks or prospects at the trade deadline. Barry Trotz, like his predecessors, has no answers and the tailspin leaves Washington on the outside of the playoff picture for a second-straight season for just the third time since the early 1980s. More problematic (and more dramatically), the season confirms Capitals fans’ biggest fear: that the team’s issues aren’t about the coach or the general manager, but rather the core of the team, with all eyes and blame placed squarely on the captain, and the half-dozen $10-million seasons he has left on his contract.