COACH Alain Vigneault (6th season)
LAST SEASON 54-19-9 (1st in West); lost in Stanley Cup finals to Bruins
KEY ADDITIONS LW Marco Sturm
KEY LOSSES D Christian Ehrhoff, LW Tanner Glass, LW Raffi Torres
FORWARD RYAN KESLER chooses to remember the quick recovery rather than the carnage. A day after the Vancouver riots that followed the Canucks' Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup finals, Kesler saw hundreds of citizens on the streets, sweeping, cleaning, trying to make the city whole again. "The response of our real fans was great," Kesler says.
Now it's up to the Canucks to rebound from the on-ice disaster that ended their season. Until the finals, they were the NHL's best team: Their 117 regular-season points were 10 more than anyone else, and they led the league in goals scored (258), fewest allowed (180) and power-play efficiency (24.3%) and had the best penalty kill (85.6%) in the West. Left wing Daniel Sedin won the scoring title with 104 points and led with 18 power-play goals, while his twin brother, center Henrik, had the most assists (75).
All that firepower disappeared in June, when the Canucks squeaked out three one-goal victories against Boston but were stomped, 21--3, in their four losses. "It was the best season this organization has ever had," says Kesler, "but Game 7 is going to be with me."
But the franchise's first championship is still within reach. Unlike the Blackhawks of 2010, Vancouver didn't need to upend its roster to stay under the salary cap. The team did trade Christian Ehrhoff, its top-scoring defenseman, and lose a handful of third- and fourth-liners, but the team that dominated last season is otherwise intact.
The Canucks return eight defensemen who saw playoff action last spring and Roberto Luongo, the mercurial goaltender who is by turns brilliant and self-destructive, sometimes both on the same shift. The Canucks are good enough to win the Northwest without worrying about Luongo. But come springtime, they'll need him to conquer his tendency to allow untimely soft goals. If Luongo holds up, Vancouverites could well take to the streets in celebration next June.
COACH Mike Yeo (1st season)
LAST SEASON 39-35-8 (12th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS LW Dany Heatley, C Darroll Powe, RW Devin Setoguchi
KEY LOSSES D Brent Burns, LW Andrew Brunette, RW Martin Havlat
THE OFF-SEASON acquisition of Dany Heatley (26 goals and 38 assists last season) from the Sharks gives the Wild something the 11-year-old franchise has rarely had: a sniper. The 30-year-old Heatley, who is entering his 10th NHL season, has six seasons of at least 39 goals and has twice scored 50, something no Wild player has ever accomplished. Minnesota sent its leading goal scorer from last season, Martin Havlat (22 goals), and top defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose to get Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, who has 73 goals over his last three seasons. "It's a new look," says Mikko Koivu (below), who will most likely center the top line, with Heatley and Setoguchi on the wings. "We will be a different team."
Rookie coach Mike Yeo can only hope. The defensive-minded Wild has never finished in the league's top half in goal scoring: Last season it let loose with the fewest shots per game (26.2) and put just 203 in the net, the second-lowest total in the Western Conference. Minnesota still doesn't have enough balance to make the playoffs, but now it does have enough firepower to make things interesting.
COACH Joe Sacco (3rd season)
LAST SEASON 30-44-8 (14th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS LW Gabriel Landeskog, D Shane O'Brien, G Semyon Varlamov
KEY LOSSES LW Tomas Fleischmann, D Adam Foote, D John-Michael Liles
THE AVALANCHE ADDED one of the league's most talented young goaltenders over the summer, acquiring 23-year-old Semyon Varlamov from Washington for first- and second-round draft picks. Varlamov had a 30-13-5 record and .917 save percentage in limited time over three seasons with the Caps. In Colorado he'll be the starter—and undergo a baptism by (rapid) fire. The 2010--11 Avs gave up a league-high 287 goals and finished 29th in the NHL with 68 points, thanks in large part to the league's worst penalty-kill unit (76.1%). It was a sharp fall for Colorado: Two seasons ago, in Joe Sacco's first as coach, the team boasted a 26-point improvement, the second-best year-over-year upswing since 2001, and went to the playoffs. There are a few Avs who can score—forwards Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny (above) and Milan Hejduk, for example—but on many nights the team's defensive shortcomings will be too much for Varlamov to overcome.
COACH Brent Sutter (3rd season)
LAST SEASON 41-29-12 (10th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS D Chris Butler, RW Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, RW Lee Stempniak
KEY LOSSES RW Ales Kotalik, C Daymond Langkow, D Robyn Regehr
JAY BOUWMEESTER HAS a great streak going. The defenseman has played in 506 straight games, more than any backliner in NHL history, and last season he logged more minutes per game (25:59) than all but two players in the league. Jay Bouwmeester has a terrible streak going, too: The 28-year-old has played 635 regular-season games in his eight seasons without seeing the playoffs. Another year of that and he'll be dangerously close to Guy Charron's career playoff futility mark of 734 games. Might his streak end next spring? In short, look out, Guy.
The Flames have missed the postseason in the two seasons that Brent Sutter has been behind the bench, yet they did little during the summer to upgrade. They will audition several centers—top 2007 draft pick Mikael Backlund, most notably—to play between veteran wingers Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla. And as usual, the brass is promising to lighten the workload of 35-year-old goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who has played at least 70 games for six straight seasons. Don't bet on it happening. Even if the Flames slip into the playoffs, they won't go far. It will still feel as though nothing has changed in Calgary.
COACH Tom Renney (2nd season)
LAST SEASON: 25-45-12 (15th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, LW Ryan Smyth, D Andy Sutton
KEY LOSSES C Andrew Cogliano, C Colin Fraser, D Sheldon Souray
OILERS LEFT WING Taylor Hall, who doesn't turn 20 until November, appreciates what he learned as a rookie last season. "I had to get used to the reactions, the speed of the game," says Hall, a diamond in what turned out to be a very rough campaign for Edmonton. The Oilers finished with 62 points, the lowest total in the NHL. The once-proud franchise certainly earned its place in the cellar, finishing in the bottom five in the league in power-play efficiency (14.5%), penalty killing (76.9%), goals scored (191), goals against (260), shots taken (2,188) and face-off percentage (44.2%), while leading the NHL in giveaways (972).
Hall was worth watching, though: He had 42 points and 22 goals, four of them game-winners, and showed off his scoring flair with a hat trick in February against Atlanta. This summer the Oilers traded for veteran Ryan Smyth, who spent the first 111/2 seasons of his career in Edmonton before being dealt to the Islanders during the 2006--07 season. That was the last time Smyth had a 30-goal season, but the Oilers brought back the 35-year-old to mentor Hall, who is likely to play on a line with veterans Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky. There's also an even younger gun in town: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Oilers' kids will keep growing, but it will take at least another year for them to learn about the playoffs.
ON THE VERGE
The 22-year-old (10 goals, 15 assists last season) could emerge as the Flames' No. 1 center. He has quick hands and feet, and playing with Jarome Iginla should speed his development.
THE HOT SEAT
Sutter's brother Darryl stepped down as Flames G.M. last December, leaving a mess in his wake. As new G.M. Jay Feaster tries to right the ship, there's pressure on Brent to get Calgary to the playoffs. If the team stumbles again, it could be adieu for another Sutter.
The rugged defenseman had a +29 rating and was a big reason the Canucks allowed the fewest goals in the league. Unfortunately he was also a reason the team came apart in the Cup finals: Hamhuis went down in Game 1 with a leg injury and was lost for the series.
IN THE CREASE
The Canucks' Roberto Luongo was a Vezina finalist, but after a Stanley Cup collapse, doubts linger. Vancouver needs to decide if backup Cory Schneider should play more... . The Oilers will be fun to watch, with a high-octane offense and lots of young speed. Gifted winger Jordan Eberle (18 goals, 25 assists as a rookie in 2010--11) lost weight during the off-season and should be quicker and, paired with second-year center Taylor Hall, even better... . Calgary's Jarome Iginla still lacks a top-line center. Looks like at first the winger will be paired with Olli Jokinen, a former 30-goal scorer whose production has dropped in recent years. He must improve or Iginla could struggle.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (KESLER)
RYAN'S HOPE Kesler and the Canucks know they can dominate the regular season; the next step is taking care of business in June.
CHARLES LECLAIRE/USPRESSWIRE (KOIVU)
GERRY THOMAS/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (BACKLUND)
RON CHENOY/US PRESSWIRE (STASTNY)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (SCHNEIDER)