"It will be a happy day for me when that guy retires."
—CHICAGO'S PATRICK KANE ON DETROIT'S NICKLAS LIDSTROM
LAST SEASON 46-24-12 (4th in West); lost in conference finals to Detroit
KEY ADDITIONS RW Marian Hossa, C Tomas Kopecky, C John Madden
KEY LOSSES RW Martin Havlat, G Nikolai Khabibulin, D Matt Walker
For the second straight year high-scoring forward Marian Hossa has changed teams as a free agent, and for the second straight year he has chosen his new club based on his belief that it can win the Stanley Cup. (Question: Will the Slovak star jump to the Czech Republic national team because it has a better chance at Olympic gold in Vancouver?) And for the second straight year Hossa has a superb chance of reaching his championship goal.
The Blackhawks, Hossa's new team, lost to the Red Wings, his old one, in a hotly contested conference finals last spring in which two of Detroit's wins came in overtime. (The Wings then fell to Hossa's previous team, Pittsburgh, in the Cup finals. Oh, snap, Marian!) Now Chicago's young and dashing group returns more seasoned and bolstered not just by the arrival of Hossa (out until at least next month after having rotator-cuff surgery) but also by former Devil John Madden, at 36 still a tenacious defensive center and a burr on the penalty kill.
"We want everything done quickly," says coach Joel Quenneville, who's in his second season in Chicago. "A speed game is the game we have to play."
The Blackhawks have plenty of sizzle, even beyond the sprightly pair of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who combined for 139 points last season. Hossa and forward Patrick Sharp can fly, and slippery second-liners Kris Versteeg and Dave Bolland each have a deceptive second gear. All-Star-caliber defenseman Brian Campbell leaves a trail of smoke behind him and at age 30 should return to form after stalling slightly upon signing a mammoth long-term contract before last season. Chicago's pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook may be the smoothest skating defensive unit in the league.
Madden says that Blackhawks training camp called for "longer days and tougher practices" than he was used to in New Jersey—and there's a reason for that. "Expectations are higher," says 6'3", 246-pound winger Dustin Byfuglien, the muscle behind Chicago's hustle. "Now we have to make it at least to the [Cup] finals."
A berth in the Cup finals is not all that Hossa, and the Chicago fans who have been titleless for 48 years, have in mind.
LAST SEASON 51-21-10 (2nd in West); lost in Cup finals to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDITIONS RW Todd Bertuzzi, RW Patrick Eaves, C Jason Williams
KEY LOSSES RW Marian Hossa, C Jiri Hudler, RW Tomas Kopecky, RW Mikael Samuelsson
Has Nicklas Lidstrom, who's nearly 40 and who last season suffered the indignity of finishing as a Norris Trophy finalist after winning it in six of seven years, begun to slip? Can goalie Chris Osgood keep treating the regular season like an extended exhibition run and then buckle down in the playoffs? Is lightly tested forward Ville Leino ready for big minutes on the second line? And how on earth can Detroit make up for the loss of 88 goals (about 30% of its regular-season output) to player departures?
After another dominant season and a postseason surge that brought them to the verge of their fifth Stanley Cup in 12 seasons, the Red Wings closed the 2008--09 playoffs with a galling failure—three straight losses, two at home—that has left them open to questioning. Detroit is still loaded (Henrik Zetterberg; Pavel Datsyuk, above; Johan Franzen; Niklas Kronwall) and remains, as Blues coach Andy Murray says, the team "everybody's chasing," but in an improved division Detroit, for the first time this century, is not a prohibitive favorite.
LAST SEASON 41-31-10 (6th in West); lost in first round to Vancouver
KEY ADDITION G Ty Conklin
KEY LOSSES G Manny Legace, D Jay McKee
After a remarkable run (20-7-4 in their last 31 games, 9-1-1 in the final 11) lifted the Blues into the playoffs for the first time in five years, they benefited from the most significant addition of a defenseman west of Philadelphia—and did it without spending an extra dime. Erik Johnson (below), the 2006 No. 1 draft pick who at 6'4" and 219 pounds personifies a poor man's Chris Pronger, is back after missing all of 2008--09 with a knee injury. Among other things, his return should raise the Blues' power play to a place among the league's best. "When he shoots the puck," says goalie Chris Mason, "it leaves a mark."
In his first season in St. Louis, Mason, 33, left a mark of his own, stopping nearly 92% of the shots against him over those final 31 games. He and St. Louis's core of young stars—Johnson, plus forwards Patrik Berglund, David Perron and T.J. Oshie—made G.M. John Davidson, who continued to spout optimistically even as his team sank to last place in the conference early last season, look prophetic. The Blues can't count on a run like last season's to get into the playoffs, but in 2009--10 they shouldn't need it.
LAST SEASON 41-31-10 (7th in West); lost to Detroit in first round
KEY ADDITIONS G Mathieu Garon, C Sami Pahlsson
KEY LOSSES C Manny Malhotra, C Michael Peca, RW Jason Williams
Hell-bent practices rife with painful drills. Hours analyzing video of grown men flicking pucks down ice. An offensive system that stresses defense, defense and defense. Guaranteed time on a power play that's the worst—by a long shot—in the league. And life in the NHL's second-smallest U.S. market. These are some of the perks that superstar left wing Rick Nash (above) signed on for in July when he put his name on an eight-year, $62.4 million contract to stay with the Blue Jackets.
There's another incentive that comes with playing for Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock: winning. One of the NHL's most exacting and detail-oriented leaders, Hitchcock last season goaded the Blue Jackets to their first playoff spot in the team's nine-year history. Adhering to a dump-and-chase philosophy, he leans heavily upon Nash (40 goals), goalie Steve Mason (NHL-best 10 shutouts) and a corps of responsible defensemen. That Columbus sold out six of its final 16 home games—a stretch in which it beat the Sharks, Red Wings, Penguins and Blackhawks—is testament both to Nash's brilliance on the ice and to Hitchcock's brilliance behind the bench.
LAST SEASON 40-34-8 (10th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS None
KEY LOSSES D Greg de Vries, LW Vernon Fiddler, D Greg Zanon
The biggest story surrounding this club over the past year—with all due respect to the emergence of franchise defenseman Shea Weber (below)—was generated by William (Boots) Del Biaggio III, the scamming Silicon Valley venture capitalist who in 2007 bought 27% of the team. Del Biaggio's house of cards toppled last December, and on Sept. 8 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for securities fraud. (The status of his ownership share is unresolved.) The Predators are still standing—for now. The team finished in the red last year, and if it loses enough money ($20 million) and averages fewer than 14,000 fans, it could break its arena lease and move.
On the ice Nashville has declined steadily since its 110-point season of 2006--07. That the team's been competitive on a shoestring is thanks to G.M. David Poile and coach Barry Trotz. But it lacks a prime-time star on offense and, aside from Weber and his partner Ryan Suter, has a middling group of defensemen that was weakened by the loss of lunch-pailers Greg de Vries and Greg Zanon. As the Predators try to claw their way to the playoffs, what may really be at stake is whether the NHL's Nashville experiment can last.
The Blues' forward moved without a whimper from wing to center last season and wound up as one of two NHL players (with Alex Ovechkin) to score more than 30 goals and deliver more than 200 hits. He's a captain-in-waiting.
ON THE SPOT
Chicago's high-priced goalie (due $17 million over the next three years) has a clear role now that co--No. 1 Nikolai Khabibulin has moved on. Huet's the Blackhawks' only option as a starter—and, many feel, the team's lone Achilles' heel.
ON THE VERGE
The Detroit winger has good speed and, as he showed by netting four goals despite limited ice time in the postseason last spring, a little scoring punch. With his two-way play and an increased role, Helm, 22, can be a difference-maker.
IN THE CREASE
Priority in Detroit: improvement on the penalty kill, which ranked 25th last season due largely to spotty play in goal.... Unlike most NHL netminders, who tend to separate themselves from the rest of the club, the Blues' Chris Mason (below) is a very involved team guy with his finger on the pulse of the locker room. Teammates call him "a player who happens to be a goalie."... Nashville still hasn't recovered from forward Alexander Radulov's bolting for Russia before last year. He was the best pure offensive player the 11-year-old team ever had.... Columbus's newly acquired Sami Pahlsson is one of the best matchup centers in the league and fits perfectly into coach Ken Hitchcock's game plan.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (BYFUGLIEN)
BIG RED MACHINE A converted defenseman, Byfuglien has become a powerful force on the wing.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (DATSYUK)
DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (NASH)
JOHN RUSSELL/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (WEBER)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (BACKES)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (HUET)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (MASON)
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (HELM)