1. Washington Capitals
Last season: 54-15-13, first place
After a stunning collapse in the first round of the playoffs, most of the team that raced to the Presidents’ Trophy returns with only one goal in mind — winning the Stanley Cup. The success of young players in net (Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth) and on the blue line (John Carlson, Karl Alzner) could determine whether the Capitals get the chance.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last season: 47-28-7, fourth place
The team known for its trio of stalwart centers (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal) bulked up on defense during the offseason. Snagging free agents Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek adds extra support in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Though going beyond the big names, who will provide secondary scoring remains a concern.
3. Boston Bruins
Last season: 39-30-13, sixth place
Marc Savard has been out with post-concussion syndrome, but additions Nathan Horton and rookie Tyler Seguin should kick start an offense that averaged a league lowest goals per game (2.39). Any scoring jolt should yield impressive results when paired with Tuukka Rask in net and a defense anchored by towering Zdeno Chara.
4. New Jersey Devils
Last season: 48-27-7, second place
The eventual re-signing of Ilya Kovalchuk only added to preexisting depth at forward, while newcomers Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder should keep the defensive standard high. They’ll be contenders, and goaltender Martin Brodeur will try to lead the Devils past the first round after they have failed to advance for three consecutive seasons.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
Last season: 41-35-6, seventh place
GM Paul Holmgren left the gritty team that engineered a run to the Stanley Cup finals last spring largely intact. Right wing Nikolay Zherdev and defenseman Andrej Meszaros are the only major additions. As is routine for the Flyers, questions remain in net with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher vying for top billing.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 34-36-12, 12th place
New GM Steve Yzerman overhauled a team muddied by front-office instability over the past two seasons and has the Lightning looking poised for a giant leap forward, on paper anyway. First-time Coach Guy Boucher will guide a team with improved depth after making several additions (including forward Simon Gagne, defenseman Pavel Kubina and goalie Dan Ellis).
7. Buffalo Sabres
Last season: 45-27-10, third place
Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller likely can keep the Sabres in the playoff conversation by himself with another stellar season (he had a 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in 2009-10), if he remains healthy. There’s less defensive depth, but the continued advancement of Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers can keep the group grounded.
8. Ottawa Senators
Last season: 44-32-6, fifth place
Despite a flurry of offseason rumors, Jason Spezza remained in Ottawa and, if he and his teammates can stay healthy while discovering more secondary scoring, they should make the playoffs again. The loss of Anton Volchenkov is lessened by the arrival of Sergei Gonchar, but it’s unclear whether it will be Pascal Leclaire or Brian Elliott who seizes the job in goal.
Not ready for prime time: Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens.
1. Vancouver Canucks
Last season: 49-28-5, third place
GM Mike Gillis shored up the primary concern of defensive depth with the addition of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis to put more pieces in place for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The bulk of the expectations still rest on usual workhorses Roberto Luongo and Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin.
2. San Jose Sharks
Last season: 51-20-11, first place
A fourth straight 107-point season without a trip to the Stanley Cup final brought subtle change. After choosing to not resign Evgeni Nabokov due to salary cap constraints, the perennial contenders turn to a young goaltending tandem in Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi. The retirement of stalwart Rob Blake could leave a defensive gap.
3. Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 44-24-14, fifth place
Expect the league's oldest team to bounce back after being ravaged by injuries and a comparatively lackluster season. Calder Cup finalist Jimmy Howard returns as the presumed starter in goal, while 70-point seasons by both Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are presumed aberrations. The return of Jiri Hudler and addition of Mike Modano bring depth.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 52-22-8, second place
Despite the departure of several role players from last year’s squad, the Stanley Cup winners shouldn’t drop too much. GM Stan Bowman kept most of the core intact, including franchise pillars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. If veteran goalie Marty Turco can uphold his end, the Blackhawks could be in the mix again.
5. Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 46-27-9, sixth place
After the best season in nearly two decades, the Kings budding superstars look poised to take the next step in the franchise's rebuilding process. Anze Kopitar, Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson continue to progress, while a heated goaltending battle between Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier is on tap.
6. St. Louis Blues
Last season: 40-32-10, ninth place
Although they missed out on the playoffs by five points last year, the Blues are trending upward. The acquisition of former Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak injected optimism and higher expectations to a group already banking on the continuing development of young stars like Erik Johnson, T.J. Oshie, et. al.
7. Phoenix Coyotes
Last season: 50-25-7, fourth place
Fueled by Shane Doan and Ilya Bryzgalov, the workmanlike Coyotes reached the playoffs for the first time in eight years. After falling in seven games to Detroit in the first round, the group guided by Jack Adams winner Dave Tippett believes it can achieve more regardless of the uncertainty with the ownership situation.
8. Nashville Predators
Last season: 47-29-6, seventh place
They might not be the flashiest team, but led by defenseman Shea Weber, who was named captain this summer, and his blend of speed, size and grit the Predators play a reliable style that makes the most of their roster. If Pekka Rinne can continue his ascension to a top-tier NHL goaltender it will go a long way to helping the young team take a step forward.
Not ready for prime time: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild.
-- Katie Carrera