1. Pittsburgh Penguins (last season final rank 2): The biggest obstacle coming between the power-house Penguins and the Stanley Cup is goaltender MA Fleury. The last two playoffs have seen the normally solid keeper fall apart, last year even losing the starting job to Vokoun. So long as Fleury can't stop a beach ball when it matters the most, he probably won't be drinking from Lord Stanley's mug anytime soon. Fleury will be given every opportunity to succeed or fail, now that Vokoun has a blood clot issue that could threaten his career. Either way, the Pens will score more than enough goals to make up the difference if their goaltending struggles. I have the Pittsburgh Penguins as my 2014 Stanley Cup Champion.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (last season final rank 1): They have lost some quality players from last season's championship roster, but retain enough talent that they are my favourite to emerge from the Western Conference. We'll see if Corey Crawford can provide the same quality of goaltending, or if NHL snipers start exposing a supposedly weak glove hand. They boast probably the best defensive pairing in the league with Keith and Seabrook, which can solve a lot of problems. Jon Toews should be considered a Hart Trophy contender every year for at least the next 7 years. Pittsburgh will beat Chicago in the finals.
3. Boston Bruins (last season final rank 5): They finally got their man Jarome Iginla, so we (and Aaron Ward) will finally get to see if he makes this team any better. Bruins fans will learn to love Loui Eriksson (whom I have described as the best player you've never heard of), but the biggest question is whether or not Dougie Hamilton is ready to step into the void left by Andrew Ference. Will age finally start to catch up with Zdeno Chara? He logged a lifetime's worth of minutes in the playoffs. I think there might have even been a game when he never left the ice. The Bruins time as a top 5 team will last about as long as the big man's legs.
4. St. Louis Blues (last season final rank 9): They have the best blueline in hockey, when added to a tough and talented forward group managed by coach Ken Hitchcock, and you have a contender. We'll see if Brian Elliot and Jaro Halak can stay healthy enough and effective enough to take this franchise to the promised land. Word on the street is that Halak stayed in St.Louis over the summer and got himself into phenomenal physical condition. With Elliot struggling in the last two playoffs with Halak hurt, they will need Jaroslav to have a big year.
5. Los Angeles Kings (last season final rank 6): They won the Stanley Cup and followed it up with a trip to the conference finals. That's a lot of miles on this roster over the last two seasons. Despite a talented roster, they're only going to go as far in the playoffs as Jonathon Quick can carry them. Their star goalie had an off year by his standards, but the team was still successful. Slava Voynov took a giant leap forward last season, and if Willie Mitchell comes back, that gives the Kings a very strong blueline.
6. Washington Capitals (last season final rank 8): There is no question that they have a very talented roster, but we will see how well they perform without the cake division they feasted on last season. Ovechkin may have won the MVP, but if you did not count all those goals he scored against Florida, Tampa, and Carolina, his season looks far less impressive. They struggled early in the season, then once the Adam Oates system started to sink in, the team turned around their fortunes. They should easily make the playoffs, even moving to a tough Metropolis division.
7. Detroit Red Wings (last season final rank 11): The Red Wings have enough forwards to put together 6 NHL caliber lines. They never really replaced Nick Lidstrom, and instead have relied on very talented forwards to survive losing one of the best defensemen to have ever played. With no game breaking blueliners available via free agency, they doubled down on their forwards. If Jimmy Howard can play like he did last season over an 82 game schedule, if the older forwards can keep getting the job done and the young D continue to improve, they're not a team you want to face in the playoffs.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs (last season final rank 7): They made the playoffs last season for the first time in a long time, after which everyone was singing the praises of goaltender James Reimer. So what do they do? They go get another promising young goalie in the offseason to push Reimer for the top job. I have my doubts about how this experiment turns out, but certainly if Reimer falters or succumbs to injury, Bernier is a giant leap better than Ben Scrivens. They will make the playoffs again, and have a shot to win a series, but don't expect them to win the division.
9. San Jose Sharks (last season final rank 14): It may be a stretch to say San Jose will be better than last season, when they ran extremely hot or cold. They did manage to shock many pundits by sweeping the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, when Logan Couture emerged as a super star player. It feels like every year the Sharks are considered a legit contender only to disappoint in the playoffs, but this year I'm a believer...
10. Montreal Canadiens (last season final rank 3): This team finished the regular season last spring in the 3rd overall spot in my power rankings, a spot they earned statistically, not by my personal preference. They were easily dispatched by the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs, as Carey Price's play deteriorated near the end of the season. It is difficult to trust this franchise goaltender, but they do boast a talented and deep defense corps. They hit a home run with Brendan Gallagher, but will sorely miss Alexei Emelin for as long as he continues to recover from a torn knee. That guy was a hitting machine. He reminds me of Vladimir Konstantinov. *bleep* I loved that player.
11. Ottawa Senators (last season final rank 12): If they did what they did last season after being devastated by injuries, how will things go if they can keep their core healthy? Gone is long time captain Daniel Alfredsson, but they have plenty of young talent to fill the void. Adding Bobby Ryan is an improvement over Alfie, and a healthy Jason Spezza will be a tremendous boost to the offense.
12. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (last season final rank 4): Perhaps I'm over-estimating the impact of losing Bobby Ryan, but also Teemu wasn't Teemu last year. Father time may have finally caught up with one of the NHL's all-time greatest goal scorers. The biggest question mark will their defense, and the health of Francois Beauchemin (who quietly had a Norris caliber season before blowing out his knee). Can Cam Fowler carry the load? They lost to the Red Wings in the playoffs, in large part due to their slow D being unable to keep up with Detroit's speedy forwards.
13. New York Rangers (last season final rank 10): It is difficult to judge if this team is better or worse than last season, after trading coaches with the Canucks. Will Henrik Lundqvist be as effective without his teammates diving in front of every shot? Having Derek Stepan in the line-up will help, their leading scorer who kills penalties and plays the power play. They will make the playoffs, and probably lose in the first round.
14. Vancouver Canucks (last season final rank 13): The team is starting to get old, but they are still pretty good. The fate of this team rests on the shoulders of Ryan Kesler, who hasn't been healthy since 2011. The Sedins have clearly lost a step, despite being among the best conditioned athletes on the roster. Is their puck possession style as effective when they are easier to catch? We'll see, but last year may have been a preview of things to come. The twins are still their best offensive players, but their best years are behind them.
15. Philadelphia Flyers (last season final rank 18): Hopefully Claude Giroux has recovered from that devastating golf injury, because they are going to need him. I'm not convinced the team is better off dumping Bryzgalov for Ray Emery and Steve Mason, but I keep hearing Flyer pundits praising their new goalie situation. I'll believe it when I see it. Will Mark Streit be the answer to their problems on defense? He will produce offense and he is an underrated player, but he's not Chris Pronger. He's not a giant, scary presence like Chris. They should make the playoffs, and if they play the Penguins, it will be the most entertaining hockey you could possibly watch.
16. Carolina Hurricanes (last season final rank 27): It was absurd how much Carolina sucked after the injury to Cam Ward. Assuming their goalie is back and healthy, there is far too much talent on the roster to be that bad again. We'll see which Alex Semin shows up, now that he's been locked up to a rich long-term contract instead of repeating 1 year deals. Will he show up motivated to produce, or will the Alex who fell out of favour with his teammates in Washington lace'em up this week? They are loaded at forward, very weak on the blueline. Losing Pitkanen hurts them more than it should hurt a team that loses Pitkanen, if that makes any sense.
17. Minnesota Wild (last season final rank 17):Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Danny Heatley combined will make nearly 30 million dollars over the next 82 games. They will challenge to return to the playoffs, but forgive me if I've got my doubts that this is the beginning of a dynasty.
18. Dallas Stars (last season final rank 21): This could be an interesting year for the Dallas Stars. Jamie Benn will lead the team in scoring, while many interested people watch to see what kind of next step Tyler Seguin can make. They will be competitive and challenge for a playoff spot, but don't count on them winning a playoff series this season. My darkhorse player of the year is Alex Chiasson, who came to the NHL late in the season after leaving the NCAA, and in just 7 games played helped me win a series in my fantasy hockey playoffs. I snagged him 282nd overall in my draft last week.
19. NY Islanders (last season final rank 15): The greatest obstacle facing this up and coming young team is playing in the very tough Metropolis division. I drafted John Tavares 7th overall in my 18 team fantasy hockey Superleague. There is no question that he now belongs in the top 5 players in the NHL, and he will absolutely carry this team on his shoulders for the foreseeable future. His play pushed them into the playoffs, where they managed to give the Penguins a scare after another MA Fleury meltdown. The future looks bright for the Bronx Islanders. (update: I just traded Tavares for Pavel Datsyuk. I'm a Red Wings fan who was angry when Datsyuk was drafted 5th overall)
20. Edmonton Oilers (last season final rank 23): The Oilers played fantastic hockey during the preseason, so we'll see if they can keep that up when the games matter. I thought Edmonton was going to be a breakout team last season, but they proved me wrong, so I'm going to somewhat temper my expectations. If they had Corey Schneider instead of Devan Dubnyk, they would probably be ranked as a top ten team. It's possible that Dubnyk continues to improve and finally reaches a level that can make the Oilers a contender, but like I've said before, I'll believe it when I see it.
21. Columbus Blue Jackets (last season final rank 16): It was a magical season for the Blue Jackets once Sergei Bobrovsky rounded into Vezina form, and they managed to keep their new star from bolting to the KHL. Gaborik and Dubinsky lit the NHL on fire during the preseason, and if the previously mentioned 3 players have excellent seasons, then my rank is too low. I won my fantasy league last season on Bobrovsky's shoulders after drafting him in the 12th round of a 20 team league. He's back on my roster again, this time costing me a 2nd round pick. The oddity of it all was that the Vezina winner was the 10th goalie taken in the draft. Few people have been as strong an advocate for Bobrovsky over his career as I have been, to the point where I would like a miniature replica of his Vezina Trophy to display on my mantle.
22. Winnipeg Jets (last season final rank 20): I want to believe. Nothing would please me more than seeing the Jets make the playoffs, I just have a very difficult time believing in their goaltending. Pavelec runs hot and cold, and in important situations, it often feels like somebody flushed the toilet while you're in the shower. I'll never trust the goalie who once fainted at the start of a game to start the regular season. See clip below, fast forward to the 2 minute mark.
23. Tampa Bay Lightning (last season final rank 24): Steve Yzerman paid big money to bring in Valterri Fillpulla, and as a Red Wings fan, I won't miss the enigmatic winger at all. The biggest question, can Fillpulla play goal? It pains me to say this, but if he can't play net, Stevie Wonder blindly spent the LeCavalier money on the wrong position. They are going to play in a very tough division this season, so my prediction is that the Tampa Bay Lightning miss the playoffs.
24. Phoenix Coyotes (last season final rank 19): Oh great, they saved the franchise! Yeah well, that was done mostly with borrowed money, and we'll see what happens once they have to start making payments with a franchise bleeding money. Ever hear of sub-prime mortgages? The Phoenix Coyotes new ownership group basically acquired the team with a pseudo sub prime mortgage. The price is cheap for the first couple years, then when they have to pay the Piper with no increase in income, the bottom falls out. We'll see how much they like paying Mike Ribeiro many millions of dollars the first time they draw only a thousand people on a Tuesday. To any pundit who says "they put their ownership issues behind them", the answer is no, they punted their issues 2-4 years in front of them. I say to Quebec City, Markham, or even Seattle, if you build it, they will come...
25. Nashville Predators (last season final rank 28): I'm not sure that I have ever seen a GM as happy as David Poile when Seth Jones fell to the 4th spot in the draft, which is a far more rational investment than 13 years at $8M for Ryan Suter. Have you ever seen those Enzyte commercials for natural male enhancement? That's what Poile reminded me of as he gleefully trotted down to the podium to draft Jones. It won't be enough to make this a playoff team in 2014, but the long term future looks bright. Poile can at least expect more respect from the neighbourhood...
26. New Jersey Devils (last season final rank 22): Can Jaromir Jagr and Damien Brunner fill the giant void left by the departing Ilya Kovalchuck? Don't count on it. They will challenge for dead last the same season that they have to give up a 1st round draft pick as a penalty for salary cap circumvention from the original Kovalchuck contract! What a story that would be, for the Devils to forfeit the 1st pick as a penalty for signing Kovalchuck, a pick they'd only have earned because Ilya went home. If the Devils finish in dead last, then I officially believe in karma.
27. Buffalo Sabres (last season final rank 25): For about the first three weeks of the lockout shortened season, Tomas Vanek was a serious contender for the Hart Trophy, but eventually fell back to earth. A team that was supposed to be a contender (at least in their owner's eyes) turned out to suck and is now firmly entrenched in a rebuild. They went from contender to rebuild just about as fast as you'll see in the modern NHL. The smart money says that they will trade Ryan Miller, even if they are having a decent season. That Jonas Enroth might be good. The Sabres should temper their expectations about what they might get in return for Miller. The goalie market ain't what it used to be. Too many teams have goalies they like. Supply and demand dictates low returns, like the Canucks only getting the 9th pick for Schneider.
28. Colorado Avalanche (last season final rank 29): Joe Sakic is going to need to trade some of his impressive forward depth for blueline help, sooner rather than later if they have any desire to make the playoffs. They have some very talented young forwards for new GM Joe Sakic to be excited about, but the team as currently constituted will not come close to making the playoffs this season. I hate Patrick Roy more than any athlete that I have ever hated before in my life. Nothing would please me more than seeing him fail. I'll never forget that pre-game interview in 1997 against Detroit when he claimed "the series starts tonight", the Wings won 6-0 and went on to win the Cup.
29. Florida Panthers (last season final rank 30): They are going to suck, but Tim Thomas might just be good enough to keep this team out of last place. He doesn't make them a playoff team, but he does cost them ping pong balls in the draft lottery. Dale Tallon's 2011 spending spree was largely a waste of money, but they do have a number of blue chip prospects to provide some hope for the future. By the time this franchise moves to Quebec City, they just might be a legitimate championship contender.
30. Calgary Flames (last season final rank 26): It remains to be seen how effective the youth movement in Calgary will be, but rest assured Brian Burke will be aggressive on the trade market when he inevitably takes Jay Feaster's job. The sooner that happens, the better. Not that Burkie has ambitions on sending Uncle Fester to the unemployment line, but many people think (and I am among them) that Jay is the worst General Manager in the NHL.