Welcome to the 2010-11 season where, half a decade into the salary-cap era, parity reigns. The race for a playoff spot starts on opening night as the two points earned in October are every bit as important as those precious ones doled out in March and early April.
There are six teams in Europe to open the season, double the pleasure of outdoor games – one in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day and another in Calgary in late February – and new rules to regulate goalie gear, hits to the head and long-term contracts.
As the season starts, the playoff struggles of the Washington Capitals are washed away like a Zdeno Chara(notes) clearing attempt. Alex Ovechkin(notes) & Co. are on top of a heap that will certainly feature plenty of movement as the schedule unfolds.
Let the fun and conjecture begin …
1. Washington Capitals – This … is … the … year. Seriously.
3. Detroit Red Wings – The more I think about it, the more I wonder why this team isn’t the team to beat in the West.
6. Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are probably really happy they don’t have a 14-game road trip this season.
9. Los Angeles Kings – It appears all set up for the Kings to challenge the Sharks and be a major player in the West. Anyone else get the feeling it won’t be that easy?
12. Phoenix Coyotes – Here’s hoping the fans flock way the heck out to Glendale because this is a pretty fun team to watch and support. And who knows how much longer they’ll be in the desert?
14. Buffalo Sabres – I can’t wait to see what Tyler Myers(notes) does this season. Yeah, Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty(notes) is real good, but Myers is the next best superstar-in-waiting D-man in the league.
17. Colorado Avalanche – As much as everything fell into place last season, you just get the feeling the Avs aren’t going to surprise anyone this time around and it’s going to be tougher.
18. New York Rangers – Glen Sather enters his 11th season as president and GM of the Rangers. Who could have guessed it would last this long?
19. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs are going to surprise some people. You have to like the goaltending and defense. Good things happen when that part of the ice is solid.
20. Tampa Bay Lightning – Here’s to a little stability in Tampa, where the team has missed the playoffs for three straight years with three different coaches, three different GMs and two owners.
21. New York Islanders – Lots of young talent here, and it just might come together in time to keep the Isles in the race longer than most predict.
23. Florida Panthers – Almost a given: The Panthers will become the first team in league history to miss the playoffs 10 straight seasons. They tied the record with No. 9 last year.
24. Nashville Predators – The Preds are feeling their usual lack of respect. Odds-makers put them 50-to-1 to win the Cup, and finish ahead of only Columbus in the Central Division. Actually, that sound about right.
25. Dallas Stars – Kari Lehtonen(notes) and Andrew Raycroft(notes) start the season as minders of Dallas’ net. Something suggests that’s not the way the depth chart will look by midseason, and certainly not at season’s end.
26. Carolina Hurricanes – Team is in transition and have as many holes as Swiss cheese. No playoffs for a second straight year is in the offing.
27. Edmonton Oilers – The scary thing is even a 20-point improvement over last season leaves the Oil well short of eighth place. And improving by 20 points will not be easy.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets – Maybe we’re wrong, but this ship has sailed and it could be another long drought before the Jackets experience the postseason.
29. Minnesota Wild – Bless the loyal fans, a different breed than those (and those who didn’t) support the North Stars. It’s going to be a looooooong year.