COACH Joel Quenneville (4th season)
LAST SEASON 44-29-9 (8th in West); lost in first round to Canucks
KEY ADDITIONS LW Andrew Brunette, LW Daniel Carcillo, D Steve Montador
KEY LOSSES RW Troy Brouwer, D Brian Campbell, RW Tomas Kopecky
THE AFTEREFFECTS of winning the Stanley Cup left an unmistakable imprint on the Blackhawks, which revealed itself in an 8-9-2 start last season. The short summer and the target on their backs as defending champs both had something to do with it. But nothing affected the team more than the salary-cap-induced makeover that decimated their depth. Gone were postseason heroes Dustin Byfuglien and Antti Niemi, as well as such valuable role players as winger Kris Versteeg. "We had so many new faces that nobody really knew what their role was," G.M. Stan Bowman says. "And by the time we sorted that all out, we were in December."
It took 82 games for Chicago to clinch the final seed in the West, and though the Blackhawks pushed the Canucks to seven games in the first round, their summer started early.
With a cadre of talented young players locked up, Bowman has focused on filling the supporting cast with more grit, picking up pesky winger Daniel Carcillo, rugged defenseman Steve Montador and veteran blueliner Sean O'Donnell.
An enviable group of forwards, including shifty winger Patrick Kane, center Jonathan Toews and sniper Marian Hossa means the Blackhawks won't have trouble finding the back of the net. (They ranked third in the conference in scoring last season.) But Chicago will also need a bounce-back year from top defenseman Duncan Keith, the 2010 Norris Trophy winner who by his standards had a down season, finishing -1. The veteran additions on the back end should help alleviate some of Keith's workload a year after he averaged an NHL-high 26:53 minutes per game.
The Blackhawks' long hiatus should also help. "A lot of our players had longer summers than they've had in a long time," Bowman says. "So they're ready to go and hungry to get back to the level we were at the year before."
COACH Mike Babcock (7th season)
LAST SEASON 47-25-10 (3rd in West); lost in second round to Sharks
KEY ADDITIONS D Mike Commodore, G Ty Conklin, D Ian White
KEY LOSSES C Kris Draper, G Chris Osgood, D Brian Rafalski
For the Red Wings, the embodiment of excellence with 20 straight playoff appearances and two Stanley Cups in the last decade, watching three mainstays retire constitutes a tumultuous off-season. Detroit bade farewell to center Kris Draper, goalie Chris Osgood and defenseman Brian Rafalski, but could at least rejoice in the knowledge that 41-year-old defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who won his seventh Norris Trophy last season, would be back for another year.
"Getting Lidstrom back was obviously a significant, positive decision for us," G.M. Ken Holland says. "It'd be incredibly difficult to think we'd lose Brian Rafalski and Nick Lidstrom in one off-season and not experience some sort of significant dip."
Changes are in store for the Red Wings. Lidstrom (below) will now pair with 27-year-old Ian White, a free agent who may not have Rafalski's touch but who adds a physical edge.
While the defense evolves, expect Detroit's forwards to again be excellent. With awe-inspiring center Pavel Datsyuk back to full health—he was limited to 56 games last season due to a broken hand—the Wings' offense, which was second best in the league, should get even better.
COACH Barry Trotz (13th season)
LAST SEASON 44-27-11 (5th in West); lost in second round to Canucks
KEY ADDITIONS RW Niclas Bergfors, D Jack Hillen
KEY LOSSES D Cody Franson, LW Steve Sullivan, RW Joel Ward
Nobody on the Predators has expressed any surprise about the emergence of goalie Pekka Rinne as an NHL star. "People are only beginning to recognize what we've known for a couple of years," coach Barry Trotz says.
In his third year as Nashville's No. 1 netminder, the athletic 6'5" Rinne (below) was a Vezina finalist, with a .930 save percentage (the second highest in the NHL) and 2.12 GAA (the third lowest). He was the linchpin of one of the league's stoutest defenses, fronted by the shutdown pairing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Nashville may start the season with as many as three rookie defensemen, but the blue line is rarely a problem for Trotz's teams. The Predators' scoring depth, however, will be an issue now that the club has parted ways with four 20-point scorers during the off-season. It will be up to callow forwards such as 25-year-old Cal O'Reilly (six goals in 38 games in 2010--11) and 21-year-old Colin Wilson (16 goals in 82 games) to fill the void.
COACH Davis Payne (3rd season)
LAST SEASON 38-33-11 (11th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS C Jason Arnott, D Kent Huskins, RW Jamie Langenbrunner
KEY LOSSES G Ty Conklin, RW Cam Janssen
The Blues' youth movement may finally be over. "Our younger players aren't all that young [anymore]," G.M. Doug Armstrong says. "They're third-, fourth- and fifth-year pros, and for our forwards now, we can't look at youth as any type of excuse."
St. Louis endured yet another season of growing pains in 2010--11, emphasis on pains. During a campaign in which they failed to make the postseason for the fifth time in the last six years, the Blues lost forwards T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Andy McDonald to long-term injuries, and a 20-12-5 start ended in an 18-21-6 finish.
That prompted Armstrong to look for more experienced and mature players to round out his roster. He signed free-agent veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, both forwards, as well as defenseman Kent Huskins—all three Stanley Cup champions. Armstrong also added center Scott Nichol, who as a member of the Sharks played in the last two Western Conference finals.
Of course, it will still be up to the youngsters—or rather, the not-so-youngsters—to carry this team. "[After] the pain you have to go through building [a club] through the draft," Armstrong says, "it's time now to reap the rewards of that patience."
COACH Scott Arniel (2nd season)
LAST SEASON 34-35-13 (13th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS C Jeff Carter, LW Vinny Prospal, D James Wisniewski
KEY LOSSES D Jan Hejda, RW Scottie Upshall, RW Jakub Voracek
After a glittering rookie season in 2008--09, one that earned him a Calder Trophy, goalie Steve Mason fell victim to the dreaded sophomore slump. Only it didn't end there—it extending into his third year. Mason's struggles (.901 save percentage, 3.03 GAA) forced the Blue Jackets to look for a solution.
In June they hired a full-time goalie coach, Ian Clark, from the Canucks—the man who successfully overhauled the technique of Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo—and charged him with helping Mason, 23, recapture the magic of his rookie season, when he won 33 games with a 2.29 GAA and a .916 save percentage. "We need him to be at his best," coach Scott Arniel says. "We're not going to get to the playoffs unless Steve Mason is a big part of that ... [but] hopefully we score more goals and we defend better, help him maybe not see [so many quality shots]."
With the personnel upgrades Columbus picked up in front of its goalie, both scoring and defending should be better. The Blue Jackets traded for big-bodied center Jeff Carter of the Flyers in June and beefed up a defense that allowed the fifth-most goals in the league last season by signing 6-foot, 208-pound James Wisniewski and 6'2", 210-pound Radek Martinek. "Having a good defense in front of your goaltender is the first place to start [when you're trying to improve]," Arniel says. "We were thin back there."
ON THE VERGE
The 5'11", 193-pound defenseman combines mobility with a keen ice sense. After being traded to the Blues last February, the 22-year-old rookie had 17 points in 26 games.
THE HOT SEAT
He's in the final year of his contract, and with the Blues' ownership issues he may not get much slack. St. Louis has added skill and leadership to its lineup, but if the club doesn't contend, Payne, who has yet to reach the postseason, may pay the price.
A superb checking center on a Blackhawks team full of emerging stars he has stifled the likes of the Canucks' Henrik Sedin and the Sharks' Joe Thornton. Bolland returned last spring from a concussion to score six points in four playoff games.
IN THE CREASE
The Red Wings draft so well that the club always seems to have players ready to step up. Expect smooth, speedy two-way forward Cory Emmerton (a 2006 second-round pick) and defenseman Jakub Kindl (round 1, '05) to make significant contributions this season. Both have spent time in the AHL learning the Detroit system and should help the Wings remain one of the game's fastest and most dynamic teams... . People around the league can't wait to see how center Jeff Carter, whom the Blue Jackets picked up in a blockbuster trade with the Flyers in June, will play alongside star right wing Rick Nash. Both are pure scorers and dynamic passers. It's a potent combination.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (KANE)
HAWK OF THE TOWN Cap-induced upheaval brought Chicago down in '10--11, but Kane will carry the club back to elite status.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (LIDSTROM)
TONY DING/ICON SMI (SHATTENKIRK)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (RINNE)
VINCENT MUZIK/ICON SMI (NASH)