1. Chicago Blackhawks – To be the best you need to beat the best, and all of those other cliches. Pat Kane, Jonathan Toews and the same corps that won the Stanley Cup last season is still completely in tact, and still so young. Many thought that last year they may have still been a year away, but they showed everyone that they are way ahead of schedule.
2. Washington Capitals – The critics came out in force when the Caps lost to Montreal in the playoffs last season, but night in and night out in the regular season, nobody has an answer for Alex Ovechkin. They’re free-wheeling, “throw the playbook out the window” style is a big reason why they may never win a cup, but when they come to town with all of their superstars, it’s a major event.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins – Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin make the Pens a consistent threat to win the Eastern Conference so long as they are both still skating. Defense, goalkeeping and forward depth are all a problem, but they were also a “problem” when the Pens raised the Cup two years ago.
4. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks are the best team in the league that has nothing to show for it. The Sharks should again be great night in and night out, but the jury is still out until the playoffs start.
5. Detroit Red Wings – You don’t want to see Detroit roll into town when you’re on the back end of back-to-back games. They are ultra-physical, and their big boys can put the puck in the net as well.
6. New Jersey Devils – The Ilya Kovalchuk saga now in the rear-view, the Devils are loaded at forward and have that patented Devils defense that can make them a Stanley Cup contender any season. Is Kovalchuk just someone who stuffs the score-sheet, or is he a legitimate superstar who can put a team on his back?
7. Los Angeles Kings – Maybe a bit high to start the season, but there is a bit of a prediction is putting the Kings at number seven. Jack Johnson is one of the five best defensemen in the NHL, and no other team has as many young, talented forwards as the boys from L.A do. A dark horse for a Western Conference Finals berth.
8. Vancouver Canucks – An incredibly talented offense with Roberto Luongo as a brick wall in goal. The man they call “Bobby Loo” might have been exhausted from the Olympics last season, but he is one of the three best goalies in the league, and makes the Canucks that much more dangerous.
9. Philadelphia Flyers – Despite the magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, there are still big questions marks in Philly. Will they get consistent goalkeeping? Will Danny Briere stay healthy enough to make a difference all season long? All signs point to 2009-10 being an anomaly and the Flyers returning to what they are — a middle of the pack team.
10. Boston Bruins – The NHL world will finally get to know Nathan Horton, who was in hockey’s version of Siberia, playing for Florida. Horton is a physical forward who can be a beast on the power play; he is the kind of player that can make it a nightmare to play against. He seems to be the perfect addition to a Bruins team that should battle to with the Northeast Division.
11 Phoenix Coyotes – Such a great story last season, and it was all about Ilya Bryzgalov in net last year. He’ll return and dominate, and the young ‘Yotes have come together with a few nice veteran additions to show that they are a viable threat in the Western Conference.
12. Buffalo Sabres – You cannot put a team with Ryan Miller in goal any lower than 12. Miller single-handedly won more games for the Sabres than any other player in the NHL. They have a nice offense, with four consistent lines, and a superstar defenseman in the making in Tyler Myers. It should be another year in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
13. Montreal Canadiens – It’s on Carey Price’s shoulders this year after the Habs decided to let go of Jaroslav Halak, who carried them deep into the playoffs last year. Mike Camallleri and Brian Gionta are the heart and soul of a team that is fun to watch.
14. Colorado Avalanche – Goaltender Craig Anderson was a marvel last season, going out night after night, and facing more shots than any other goalie in the NHL. The youngsters, like Peter Mueller and Paul Stastny.
15. Ottawa Senators – At this point, it gets hard to differentiate the teams in the middle of the pack. Sergei Gonchar comes to town, but Anton Volchenkov leaves. Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza will lead Ottawa’s offense, which is what makes them better than the other teams who are in the middle of the pack.
16. Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning added Simon Gagne in the offseason, and that makes their offense a scary proposition now. With Vinny Lecavalier, Steve Stamkos and Victor Hedman all set to get another year better, the Lightning will be fun to watch and could take a giant step forward.
17. New York Rangers – Time to do it again. Get excited for an over-rated Rangers team that struggles to even be a top 10 team in the Eastern Conference. Henrik Lundqvist has complained about carrying too much of the load this offseason. Not a good sign for a team where chemistry is one of their biggest problems.
18. St. Louis Blues – The Blues will be better this year after a disappointing 2009-10. A young team took a step back after a nice run in the playoffs the year before. Jaroslav Halak will jump into the net and lock down a position that has seen a lot of turnover in St. Louis. One of the final three spots in the West, and a trip to the second round are where expectations should be.
19. Nashville Predators – Dan Hamhuis and Denis Grebeshkov leaving town is going to be a problem over the long haul for the Predators, who have been a kind of enigmatic team in the NHL. They have more success than the Atlanta and Florida’s of the league, but, they are an afterthought, and that won’t change in 2010-11.
20. Calgary Flames – The strangest move of the summer was the Flames bringing back Olli Jokinen. Jokinen went to Calgary at the trade deadline two seasons ago, and his time up there was awful. So what did they do? Bring him back to town. He’s a selfish player who has always been a bit of a cancer in the dressing room.
21. Anaheim Ducks – It cannot be that bad in Anaheim can it? Their defense is brutal, and in a loaded Western Conference that will sink a team. There aren’t too many light nights out West, and despite an above average offense, the Ducks are going to scrape to just make the playoffs.
22. Minnesota Wild – Again, a weak defense in the Western Conference spells doom. The surprising thing is that goaltender Niklas Backstrom was so poor that there was talk of him losing his starting job in Minnesota, depite a very good 2008-09. John Madden and Matt Cullen will improve Minnesota’s outlook, but it’s going to be a battle just to be .500.
23. Toronto Maple Leafs – General Manager Brian Burke sped up the rebuilding process in a big way last winter. He dumped a lot of dead weight, and added Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Phil Kessel and Mike Komisarek. The moves will also provide the opportunity for Burke’s team to finally resemble his personality. The playoffs are not out of the question in T.O.
24. Atlanta Thrashers – The Thrash were better after the Ilya Kovalchuk distraction finally went away. They made a nice push with a lot of the parts that were brought in at the deadline, but, some of those pieces are now gone as well. It’s going to be ugly in the ATL, Only three players on the current roster made any significant offensive contributions to the Thrash last season.
25. Carolina Hurricanes – One look at the roster, and you cannot help but as out loud, “who are these guys?” Maybe it’s the product of playing hockey in an area where fans don’t even know what icing or offsides is, but the Canes are a mystery. How did they fall so fast?
26. Columbus Blue Jackets – The only bottom-dwellers with an actual superstar player. Rich Nash hasn’t been able to carry the load all on his own however, and this could be the season where the Jackets finally have to admit that Nash deserves better, and they need a lot more help than what Nash can do alone. A slow start could speed up the Rick Nash trade buzz.
27. Dallas Starts – Full throttle rebuilding is underway in Dallas. It’s going to be very odd to see Marty Turco and Mike Modano in different uniforms, and it’s hard to see where any optimism for this season would come from. Jamie Benn is a budding superstar, but that could be a year or two off still.
28. New York Islanders – Rick DiPietro only has 12 years left on his contract. Maybe he’ll play a full season in one of those 12 years? The goaltending situation is a mess because of the uncertainty with DiPietro, and John Tavares will need to carry the offensive load; a lot to ask of such a young player. He is capable, but he’s not a miracle worker.
29. Florida Panthers – A terrible 2009-10 in Miami, followed by the trading away of their best player in the offseason equals trouble.
30. Edmonton Oilers – An organization that is in disarray. They lost four starters, and gained nothing in return. Top pick in the NHL draft, Taylor Hall will come in and start right away, and projections have him in the 45 to 50 point range, including 20 goals. Even with a great season from Hall, there is no supporting case, and it just looks like imminent disaster for the Oilers in 2010-11.
Kevin King covers the Sabres for echoflam.com, and also for Rotowire.com. Follow him on Twiiter as well.