1. Pittsburgh Penguins (last season final rank 3): Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 Stanley Cup champion. Simply the best. Better than all the rest.
2. NY Rangers (last season final rank 5): They'll have some problems with the salary cap next season, but for this shortened campaign, look-out. This will be a tough team to play. They are loaded at every position and have a fantastic mix of youth and experience. A top competitor to be sure.
3. Los Angeles Kings (last season final rank 13): It is unreal what they did in the playoffs. As I think back to last spring, it makes less and less sense. That being said, they are the champions. They have to be a favourite as the NHL returns, retaining most of their roster. Quick's back is a concern, especially if it is worse than is being reported. His back might have been hurt when he was carrying his team on it last spring.
4. St. Louis Blues (last season final rank 2): Will the Blues get better or worse in their second season under Hitchcock? Most teams experience diminishing marginal returns under Hitchcock, but this team is very young and might buy the Hitchcock agenda for a few more years. Smart money says they are going to be really good again.
5. Boston Bruins (last season final rank 4): The 2011 Stanley Cup champion will not be as tough with Tuuka Rask taking over for Tim Thomas, but they will be a powerhouse nonetheless. Too much talent on this roster, even if Nathan Horton never plays again.
6. Philadelphia Flyers (last season final rank 6): Ilya Bryzgalov was a train wreck last season and Philly was still a top team. It can't get any worse, infact it will probably be a little bit better. Claude Giroux is now a top 5 player in this league. Their defense is not as good as it was, but Luke Schenn was a smart addition.
7. Vancouver Canucks (last season final rank 1): Last year's President trophy winner is not any better, and might miss 2/3 of their second line for 10-20 games. They are a playoff team, but no chance that they finish in first place. Gillis is trying to put on a brave poker face that he's content to keep Luongo all season, but his team has serious holes and he should be desperate to make a deal. Nonis would be smart to call his bluff.
8. Chicago Blackhawks (last season final rank 10): There is too much talent on this team not to be a contender. Corey Crawford is a better goaltender than many give him credit for, with Razor Ray Emery holding back-up duties. Any team with Toews, Kane, Keith, and Seabrook always has a chance to win. Let the other pieces fall into place as they may.
9. Edmonton Oilers (last season final rank 27): I was in an AHL pool this fall before the NHL lockout. The Oilers young guns where destroying the competition. If Devan Dubnyk is decent, this is not just a playoff team, but a potential contender. The best collection of young talent that I have seen in a long time. If they get weak goaltending, they will struggle.
10. San Jose Sharks (last season final rank 12): Why does it feel like every year I think this team has a chance to win the Cup, but yet they're never able to sustain post-season success? Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me 7 times, well you can't fool me 7 times. Smart money says their window has passed, but in a shortened season, I'm telling you there's a chance...
11. Washington Capitals (last season final rank 14): I can't logically explain why, but it feels like Adam Oates is made of magic. Like Dale Hunter was Julius Caesar, and Adam Oates is Merlin. Call it a hunch. I think this is a very good team that will score a lot of goals.
12. Nashville Predators (last season final rank 7): They certainly are not better than last season. Kept Weber, lost Suter. They are not as good. Last year was their year, and they lost to Phoenix. They will be a marginal playoff team for at least a few more seasons, but their window is closing shut very quickly.
13. Detroit Red Wings (last season final rank 8): As with the Preds, the Red Wings only got worse in the off-season. As we enter the post-Lidstrom era, there are maybe 2-3 years of competitiveness before the bottom falls out completely. As a Wings fan, I'll just enjoy the Datsyuk years while they are left. Would Lidstrom donate his DNA for cloning?
14. New Jersey Devils (last season final rank 9): Another team that only got worse in the off-season, Brodeur is another year older, and they lost Adam Oates and Larry Robinson from their bench. Sorry Devils, you are taking a step backwards this season, despite your recent appearance in the finals. It will be at least a decade before the Devils make it to another final.
15. Carolina Hurricanes (last season final rank 25): Add Jordan Staal and Alex Semin to a young line-up that is only going to improve with experience, and you should have a playoff team in Carolina. Cam Ward has proven he take a team to a Stanley Cup, the biggest question is who quickly will their young defense reach their potential?
16. Ottawa Senators (last season final rank 15): They aren't any worse than last season, in fact they're just about the same. Alfredsson is back for the last year of his back-diving contract, as it was clear at the end of last season that his heart is still in the NHL. I'm not sure quantity is better than quality in the Ottawa net.
17. Colorado Avalanche (last season final rank 20): Loads of potential, but this might be a season too soon for the Avalanche. Landeskog is a stud. How good this team actually performs depends much on Semeon Varlamov and Erik Johnson. If those two are big, this team could make some noise.
18. Minnesota Wild (last season final rank 28): I'm not convinced that they make the playoffs, but they are a better team than last season. They have some very obstructive long term contracts, but a talented line-up with a solid coaching staff. Their blueline is just too green. Suter is only one man. They'd need to clone an army or Suters.
19. Phoenix Coyotes (last season final rank 11): They advanced to the conference finals last season before losing to Los Angeles. Some would say that they over-achieved making it that far, and I am one of those people. May this team move to Hamilton already!
20. Buffalo Sabres (last season final rank 16): I'm waiting for this team to be good. They have a high upside and could come out of nowhere to make a playoff run. It's just as likely they suck and don't make the playoffs. It's 50-50.
21. Calgary Flames (last season final rank 19): Jay Feester has to be one of the 5 worst General Managers employed in the NHL. This is a team in dire need of a rebuild that keeps trying to win a championship. They'll be in the fight for a playoff spot until the last week of the season, falling just inches short, then once again drafting accordingly.
22. Tampa Bay Lightning (last season final rank 24): Steve Yzerman is probably my greatest childhood hero, even more so than Spiderman or the Ghostbusters. Tampa had a tremendous year in 2011, but fell off a cliff in 2012. Talented young players mixed with some older championship experience. They should be decent, just a few cards short of a winning hand.
23. Toronto Maple Leafs (last season final rank 26): With Brian Burke getting fired, who knows what's going to happen. Dave Nonis has moved to drop Lombardi and Connolly, so it's not like he's taking a run at this season. If they are taking a shot a a rebuild, then they wouldn't want Luongo.
24. Florida Panthers (last season final rank 18): They made the playoffs last season and I declared them the worst team to make the playoffs. Are they any better? It depends how quickly their young stars start contributing to playoff worthy success.
25. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (last season final rank 23): If ever there was a dynasty here, it's over. Perry and Getzlaf are pending unrestricted free agents, but clearly the loss of Pronger and Niedermayer were a deathblow to this team's elite status. It will be a long time before they win another Cup.
26. Dallas Stars (last season final rank 17): Management playing hardball with Jamie Benn doesn't make much sense to me, given that he should be the focus of the franchise. Are they trying their best to win, or are they in a rebuilding mode? They brought in some old bodies like Jagr/Whitney, and the jury is still out on how good they'll be another year older.
27. Winnipeg Jets (last season final rank 21): If your future is Andrej Pavelic, I'm not sure that future is very bright. Evander Kane stunk it up in the KHL, and the season will be half over before Byfuglien finally plays his way into shape. Maybe next season they play their way into a playoff spot, but it won't be in 2013.
28. Montreal Canadiens (last season final rank 22): Some say "accelerated compliance buyout" others say the "Scott Gomez rule". Scotty is gone, this team will compete for a playoff spot until the end of the regular season, but they will fall short.
29. NY Islanders (last season final rank 29): There's a good chance this team proves me wrong and are actually decent. Loaded with skilled young talent. Better chance they suck for another year.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets (last season final rank 30): They suck.