The Central Division:
1. Nashville Predators
The Preds made the biggest splash of the off-season by trading long-time captain Shea Weber for younger superstar P.K. Subban, thus securing both the present and future. Mike Ribeiro is still an efficient passer, James Neal is still a terrific sniper, the support staff is high-end, Pekka Rinne has proven to still be at the top of his game, and Roman Josi would be a #1 defenseman just about anywhere else. The Preds are the team to beat, either finishing first in the division and making it to the second round or finishing third and making it to the Cup Final.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
They've settled in with their ''dynasty'' status and are ready for another go at the Cup. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are now supported by Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin, with Marian Hossa still in the mix; some kids will need to make an immediate impact for the team to keep rolling in the playoffs, but regular-season success is ensured by the offensive balance and a back end that starts with Corey Crawford, then kicks in with Duncan Keith (the best of the post-Nicklas Lidstrom generation?), Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. That's power, right there. And Joel Quenneville is among the top five head coaches in the game right now.
3. Minnesota Wild
Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu, need to prove they're not over the hill (they aren't), and Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle will become fine second-liners. Devan Dubnyk will need to play like he did two years ago, when he almost won the Vezina and Hart trophies for this team to have a chance, but Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella and the rest of the underrated defense corps will do their part.
4. Dallas Stars
Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Jason Spezza and Antoine Roussel. Patrick Sharp. A defense comprised of John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis, Stephen Johns, Patrick Nemeth ane other promising kids. All they need is a goalie. GM Jim Nill may hold out until Christmas, but will fix the problem when the price drops on either Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, Marc-André Fleury or James Reimer.
5. Winnipeg Jets
I like this team a lot. Blake Wheeler is a fine captain and power forward, Mark Scheifele is ready to take on the mantle of #1 center, Bryan Little is fine backing him up, and I do believe rookie Patrick Laine has it in him to score 40 goals. Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Entrom, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers make a formidable top-4 on defense, and I'm fairly confident that goalie Connor Hellebuyck is going to have a great career; whether he's ready to take top spot in his second NHL season remains to be seen.
6. St. Louis Blues
Ok, so was trading Brian Elliott to leave the crease to Jake Allen the right move? The Blues will find out this season. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester still lead the defense, but Kevin Shattenkik (a UFA at season's end) may not last all year, and it's slimmer pickings after that. Vladimir Tarasenko is still an elite sniper and Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny can help out. But this team is no longer a contender. They're aging without being the type of winners the Hawks are.
7. Colorado Avalanche
Head coach Patrick Roy left the team late this summer because he did not feel management (i.e. former team captain Joe Sakic) had not done enough to improve the team. Roy, also VP of Player Personnel, felt his opinion wasn't taken into enough consideration when it came to the roster he was asked to ice - probably having to do with Matt Duchene still being on the team despite two years of criticism from Roy and his allies in the dressing room about Duchene's lack of leadership and team play, as well as shoddy defense and not being able to land prized free agent Alexander Radulov. New head coach Jared Bednar, despite an AHL championship least season, will not fare well. The Avs will battle for last place overall with the Arizona and Carolina.
The Pacific Division:
1. Anaheim Ducks
John Gibson is the man in nets, but the Ducks remain built on throwing their weight around and scoring garbage goals - and they still have Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to do that, with Ryan Kesler to help. Getting Randy Carlyle back as coach is a weird move, but the Ducks may have landed the best/quietest/cheapest forward available in Antoine Vermette. Rickard Rackell and Jakob Silfverberg are also fine dependable forwards. There might be some movement on the blue line because of next summer's expansion draft, and one of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm or Sami Vatanen may be on the move, particularly is Shea Theodore proves ready for a top-unit spot.
2. Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid might win the Art Ross trophy. Cam Talbot could win 40 games. They brought in Milan Lucic and traded away disgruntled forward Taylor Hall to solidify the defense with Adam Larsson. They managed to keep goal-scoring genius Jordan Eberle. This could finally work.
3. Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar is now the captain, Drew Doughty can finally stop crying about not having a Norris trophy and concentrate on his game, and Jonathan Quick knows how to coast through a regular season to turn it on come playoff time. And that's not mentioning the fact that the team's actal top line consists of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.
4. Calgary Flames
Johnny Gaudreau leads this team, and Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Mikael Backlund, Troy Brouwer and Matt Stajan will follow. The defense is in fine shape too, led by captain Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton, but I'm surprised they didn't go hunting for a bigger name in nets than Brian Elliott, whom I like but isn't the flash I expected the Flames to go for.
5. San Jose Sharks
Urgh. I was asked about my opinion with the NHL awarding a new franchise to Las Vegas on a radio show this summer. I said I'd rather cheer for Vegas than the Sharks or Leafs. Chukus maximus, again. Next.
6. Vancouver Canucks
Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are not getting younger, and Alexandre Burrows may still have gas in the tank; the uneven Loui Eriksson might score 25-30, but a lame-duck coach will use Ryan Miller too much instead of up-and-comer Jacob Markstrom. This team is too old too succeed, not experienced enough to win, and so poorly coached and managed that in any other hockey league, it would be in last place. Thankfully, the NHL still has teams in Arizona and Carolina, and Colorado is looking to spend a couple of years in the basement, wasting their captain's prime years. But I digress, this was about the Canucks sucking. And they do.
7. Arizona Coyotes
The playoff picture:
Anaheim (1A) - Dallas (7)
Edmonton (2) - Los Angeles (3)
Nashville (1B) - Calgary (8)
Chicago (2) - Minnesota (3)