General managers, coaches and fans start to find out Thursday night if what looks good on paper looks equally good on the ice. The chase for two points begins in earnest as the NHL's 2009-10 season commences both in North America and in Europe.
The Pittsburgh Penguins start with a target on their backs. They and the Detroit Red Wings have played the final game of the season each of the last two years, but it was the young Penguins who turned the tables on the graceful Red Wings and snatched the Stanley Cup.
Are we already two years into a dynasty headlined by Sidney Crosby(notes), Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Marc-Andre Fleury(notes)? Or is Boston, San Jose, Washington, Chicago, Vancouver, Calgary, Detroit or Philadelphia poised to take it all?
These power rankings look at the expectations for each team, ranked 1-30 as the season starts.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins They'll have to be smart about going through a long regular season with a target on their backs and the fact they've had consecutive short offseasons. Oh, did we mention an Olympic year when all the big stars have two more weeks added to their schedule? Second place in the division, fourth in the conference and another long run. Don't count out a third straight visit to the Finals.
2. Vancouver Canucks Dark horse Stanley Cup winner. No, wait. Not a dark horse, they have a very good team, they're very well coached and they have as good a chance to win it all as anybody.
3. Boston Bruins Sure the B's will miss Phil Kessel's(notes) offense, but don't forget Marco Sturm(notes) is back and healthy. The Bruins are the class of the Northeast Division and will win the Presidents' Trophy. Stanley Cup? Let's not go that far.
4. San Jose Sharks Dany Heatley(notes) improves the power play, but the keys for this team are players such as Manny Malhotra(notes) and Torrey Mitchell(notes). If the third and fourth lines support the top two lines and Evgeni Nabokov(notes) has his head on straight all season San Jose will – gulp, dare we say it again – contend for the Stanley Cup.
5. Detroit Red Wings Out with the old (Chelios, Hossa, Samuelsson), in with the new (Helm, Leino, Abdelkader and Ericsson) and voila, the Wings are still among the elite. Either they, the Sharks or Canucks will represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals.
6. Chicago Blackhawks Be careful not to get carried away. Sometimes it's as difficult to handle success as failure. Then again, how many division titles can the Wings win in a row? The Hawks will take it on the final day of the season, then experience a letdown in the playoffs.
7. Calgary Flames The Flames will wage a war with Vancouver for Northwest supremacy with fourth place in the conference going to the second-best team in the division. Jay Bouwmeester(notes) will flourish in Calgary. Brent Sutter will be a nice fit working under brother and GM Darryl Sutter, and Calgary has the horses to win the West, too.
8. Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin(notes) wants to win the Stanley Cup. Alexander Ovechkin often gets what he wants. He has more help now, too. It's going to be a dogfight in the East. The Caps will win the division and at least reach the conference finals.
9. Philadelphia Flyers Chris Pronger(notes) and Ray Emery(notes) will be positive additions, and the Flyers will blossom as a team. They'll win the Atlantic Division and go into the East playoffs as the No. 3 seed. Anyone's guess what happens after that, the possibilities range from a first-round bow-out to reaching the Finals.
10. Carolina Hurricanes They're the real sleeper in the East, even though everyone should be singing their praises. They'll give the Caps a challenge in the Southeast, but finish second, significantly ahead of Florida, Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
11. Anaheim Ducks If Saku Koivu(notes) and Teemu Selanne(notes) click and the defense jells, the Ducks will give the Sharks all they can handle for division supremacy. Anaheim can be a factor in the West playoffs, too, but won't get out of the conference.
12. New Jersey Devils They're in for a fall. No really, this time they're going to struggle whether Martin Brodeur(notes) is in the lineup or not. Third place in the Atlantic, at best, and a borderline playoff team.
13. St. Louis Blues Watch out here. Just because the Blues overcame adversity to reach the playoffs last season doesn’t mean it's going to be easy since they get injured players back this time around. It's a tough division and Chris Mason(notes) has to prove he can string together consecutive solid seasons. Seventh in the West is as high as the Blues will finish, and they could slip lower.
14. Montreal Canadiens Bob Gainey changed a lot of pieces but didn't really improve the team. Goalie Carey Price(notes) faces a tremendous amount of pressure and maybe he's not as good as everyone projected. The only thing that saves Gainey's job and Price's status is the Habs slipping into the playoffs.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets The Blue Jackets will be a tough team to play every night because of Ken Hitchcock's system and Steve Mason's(notes) solid goaltending. Look for Columbus to finish third in the division and eighth in the West.
16. Florida Panthers The Panthers have been the best team the last three years to not make the playoffs. This time they'll miss Bouwmeester sorely, spend too much time in their own end and give up too many shots. Another non-playoff season is on tap. Oh, and look for the franchise to go up for sale, too.
17. Dallas Stars Firing Dave Tippett was a big mistake. Dallas' loss is Phoenix's gain. And wouldn't the Stars be shocked to have the Coyotes finish ahead of them? Just might happen. Either way, Dallas isn’t going to make the top eight in the West for the second straight year. And it'll be Marty Turco's(notes) last season in Big D.
18. Edmonton Oilers The Oilers seem to be spinning their wheels. They missed out on Dany Heatley, who would have rejuvenated the inconsistent offense. Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) has to get used to a new city, this one the most demanding in which he will have played. Might not be a good mix. The Oilers will finish third in the Northwest and battle St. Louis for the final playoff spot.
19. Ottawa Senators The Sens honored Dany Heatley's request and shipped him out of town. In his place they hope Milan Michalek(notes) and Jonathan Cheechoo(notes) change the team's luck, but it's on defense and in goal where there are big questions. Ottawa just doesn't have enough to hang among the East's top eight.
20. Phoenix Coyotes Watch out here. Everyone thinks the disaster off the ice will make the Coyotes an easy mark. Not so. Dave Tippett is a solid coach who knows the Pacific Division very well. Phoenix is going to surprise even if they don't finish in the top eight.
21. Tampa Bay Lightning At least the defense makes a lot more sense, and the front line looks good on paper. If there's one team that potentially could take a jump it's this one, but our guess is third place in the division is as good as it gets and maybe ninth or 10th in the conference at best.
22. New York Rangers Too many problems on the horizon – Marian Gaborik's(notes) health issues, soft defense, questionable offensive support. The only constant is Henrik Lundqvist's(notes) stellar goaltending. What if he has an off-year? The Rangers are looking at fourth and missing out on the postseason.
23. Minnesota Wild New coach, new system and not enough horses to get it done. The Wild will be thankful for Colorado because only the Avalanche will prevent Minnesota from finishing last in the division.
24. Buffalo Sabres The Sabres are committed to their young core, which is untested. Buffalo wasn't active in the free-agent market – whether by design or the fact they have trouble recruiting isn't clear. They may pay for it this season, although with Ottawa and Toronto in the division the Sabres still could finish third and second isn't out of the question if Montreal struggles. The playoffs, however, are a stretch.
25. Los Angeles Kings Even if they don't win enough games to reach the playoffs, the Kings should be exciting to watch. Good young talent on display here. GM Dean Lombardi better hope ownership has patience.
26. Toronto Maple Leafs As advertised, the Maple Leafs will be physical and play with a short fuse. That means Toronto better be darn good on the penalty kill. The Leafs won't be good enough offensively to crack the East's top eight so it'll be a fifth straight non-playoff year.
27. New York Islanders Islanders fans can sit back and watch the future – John Tavares(notes) – as he works his way through a rookie season that will be under the microscope. What's a reasonable expectation, 25 goals and 50-55 points? The team might surprise, but it'll take some faltering from their Broadway rivals to move out of the cellar.
28. Atlanta Thrashers This isn't going to be pretty. Keep an eye on the attendance here, this market could take a hit between the economy and apathy.
29. Nashville Predators The Preds just can't recruit any free agents. Drafting and developing is everything for this franchise, which really misses Alexander Radulov's(notes) skills. It's going to be a long season in Nashville, last in the Central and 14th in the West.
30. Colorado Avalanche Unfamiliar territory for the Avs, they're in full rebuilding mode but carrying a number of older vets who are unmovable early in the season. It's going to be a long season in Denver, ending in a 15th-place finish in the West if not 30th overall.