2011 NHL preview
1. Washington Capitals
Last season: 48-23-11, first
General Manager George McPhee resisted making significant changes in the coaching staff or to the core of the roster. By adding character and grit in free agency (Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Joel Ward), there's a stronger supporting cast, but how many more chances will Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin get to win together?
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last season: 49-25-8, fourth
Sidney Crosby may not be healthy and able to return yet, but the other two big centers, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, are ready to carry the load in his absence. The Penguins proved last year they could succeed without their captain, but they will need others such as Fs Tyler Kennedy, James Neal and Steve Sullivan and D Kris Letang to step upin order to contend once again.
3. Boston Bruins
Last season: 46-25-11, third
Bringing back nearly all of the Stanley Cup-winning squad, the latest Big Bad Bruins could challenge again if the fatigue from a championship run doesn't catch up to them. If Tim Thomas has anything close to his Vezina and Conn Smythe year, he and D?Zdeno Chara can lead another steady rise up the standings.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
Last season: 47-23-12, second
GM Paul Holmgren rocked his previous lineup, jettisoning Fs Mike Richards and Jeff Carter out of the organization on the same day. But now-captain Chris Pronger, James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux and Danny Briere remain a solid foundation. The addition of Ilya Bryzgalov in net and Jaromir Jagr up front are high-risk, high-reward moves. If they pay off, the Flyers will be dangerous.
5. Buffalo Sabres
Last season: 43-29-10, seventh
The era of Terry Pegula as owner begins its first full season with a host of new faces in the mix, including Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr on defense and Fs Ales Kotalik and Ville Leino. After years of relying on Ryan Miller's ability to backstop their way to wins, the Sabres are building a balanced team around him and Fs Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 46-25-11, fifth
After coming just one game away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals, the Lightning will face pressure to build off the success in the first year under GM Steve Yzerman and Coach Guy Boucher. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier return to anchor the club. Dwayne Roloson, 41, will be asked to serve as the workhorse in net again.
7. New York Rangers
Last season: 44-33-5, eighth
C Brad Richards joins the Blueshirts after being the most sought-after free agent on the market. He will face intense pressure to produce, as will the rest of the team as it looks to do more than simply reach the playoffs. G Henrik Lundqvist returns and RW?Ryan Callahan is now captain, but it's still uncertain how long D Marc Staal will be out.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Last season: 40-31-11, ninth
After the team finished two points shy of a playoff berth, the Hurricanes' anchors of Fs Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Brandon Sutter and G Cam Ward are back. With LW Alexei Ponikarovsky and D Tomas Kaberle among the additions, the steady club could push its way into the postseason after two consecutive absences.
Not ready for prime time
Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets.
1. Vancouver Canucks
Last season: 54-19-9, first
After a stellar season fell apart in Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup finals last year, the return of star Fs Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler and G Roberto Luongo should help the Canucks contend once again. The question remains whether they have the mental wherewithal to respond to the disappointment.
2. Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 46-30-6, seventh
Now that D Drew Doughty is back in the fold — to the tune of eight years and $56 million — the Kings should be able to refocus on taking the next step as an organization after injuries derailed the previous campaign. The blockbuster deal to bring in Mike Richards and the addition of Simon Gagne may finally give Anze Kopitar the support he needs up front.
3. Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 47-25-10, third
The return of D Nicklas Lidstrom for another season, along with Fs Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, should lessen the losses of G Chris Osgood, D Brian Rafalski and C Kris Draper to retirement. This may be evolving from an old to young team, but contention for a title is never out of the question. Jimmy Howard looks to take his next step in net.
4. San Jose Sharks
Last season: 48-25-9, second
GM Doug Wilson made major changes this summer to a team that is often compared to the Capitals for its inability to capture the Cup despite successful regular seasons. In came RW Martin Havlat and D Brent Burns to add depth to a club with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Could another disappointing result in another shakeup?
5. Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 44-29-9, eighth
Additional grit in Fs Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers and D Steve Montador gives the 2010 Cup winners a new edge as they look to be a serious contender again. D Duncan Keith needs a rebound season to complement the usual stars in Fs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but a lot will ride on G Corey Crawford's ability to build off his strong rookie season.
6. Anaheim Ducks
Last season: 47-30-5, fourth
The big line of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and defending Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry is one of the best trios in the NHL, if they can all stay healthy. The same goes for all-star G Jonas Hiller. Ageless RW Teemu Selanne decided to return, but the Ducks will need consistency to survive the competitive Pacific Division.
7. Nashville Predators
Last season: 44-27-11, fifth
Buoyed by another year with Shea Weber patrolling the blue line in one of the best pairings in the league with Ryan Suter, the Predators can't ever be counted out. While the offensive potential is questionable, particularly with C Mike Fisher still recovering from shoulder surgery, the defense and G?Pekka Rinne create a sturdy backbone.
8. St. Louis Blues
Last season: 38-33-11, 11th
Injuries proved to be the undoing in St. Louis, where the rebuild has yet to translate into regular playoff appearances. If they can stay healthy, though, a core of Fs T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Patrik Berglund should help turn the corner. Jaroslav Halak returns in net while veteran Fs Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner add experience.
Not ready for prime time
Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Phoenix Coyotes.
By Katie Carrera - The Washington Post. Published Oct. 6, 2011.