After raising the Stanley Cup in June, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews praised the Ducks as the toughest challenge his team had faced. A gracious sentiment, but after three consecutive Pacific Division titles, Anaheim aspires to be more than a memorable speed bump.
Recognizing core forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler are all 30 or older, GM Bob Murray acted boldly this summer, using a glut of cap space to shore up the team's depth at every position. He brought in Kevin Bieksa to lend belligerence to the blue line, and wingers Carl Hagelin and Chris Stewart to add punch to an offense that ranked a middling 11th. To support No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen, Murray traded for Anton Khudobin, buying time for 22-year-old John Gibson, who will start in the AHL.
Defenseman Hampus Lindholm, whose poise on both ends of the rink allowed Anaheim to part with François Beauchemin, could emerge as the year's breakout star. The 21-year-old is silky smooth, and come next spring, he just might be the one to return the compliment to Toews.
ON THE DOORSTEP
Any other year and the defending champs would be an automatic for the top spot, but salary-cap issues in Chicago forced a significant roster overhaul. Key performers Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya have been replaced by budget-friendly newcomers: center Artem Anisimov, left wing Artemi Panarin and defenseman Trevor Daley. Meanwhile, star winger Patrick Kane remains the subject of an ongoing sexual assault investigation in Hamburg, N.Y. Though no charges have been brought, the inquiry has been an unwelcome distraction for Chicago.
The Central Division--winning Blues finished in the top five in both scoring (2.91 goals per game) and defense (2.40 goals against) in 2014--15. With a potential 50-goal scorer in 23-year-old winger Vladimir Tarasenko and a healthy Kevin Shattenkirk leading the defense, St. Louis should challenge for the Presidents' Trophy. But reversing the trend of first-round flameouts will be what matters most.
Led by Art Ross winner Jamie Benn (87 points), the Stars' conference-leading offense will be even deadlier in 2015--16 with a healthy Tyler Seguin (77 points in 71 games), new winger Sharp and Valeri Nichushkin, who missed most of last season with a groin injury. The blue line is stout with Oduya and John Klingberg—the West's answer to Ottawa's Norris winner, Erik Karlsson—but neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi inspires much confidence between the pipes.
ONE PLAYER AWAY
The Predators stood atop the league standings in mid-March but stumbled to the finish line, winning just six of their final 20 games. So who are they, really? Goalie Pekka Rinne and Norris-caliber defensemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi make Nashville fearsome in its own end. But the offense leans too heavily on centers Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher, diminishing 35-year-old assets, for the Preds to be considered elite.
Don't buy forecasts of regression from the #fancystats crowd. After stealing defenseman Dougie Hamilton from Boston in a draft-day trade, the Flames now dress the best young defense in the game. They lack similar depth up front, but Calder finalist Johnny Gaudreau (64 points) and dynamic center Sean Monahan (31 goals) bring enough firepower to make last spring's playoff run a recurring theme.
The best defensive effort in franchise history powered the Jets to their first playoff berth since moving to Winnipeg. But the offense, which relies on a scoring-by-committee approach, needs a breakthrough from a youngster like 22-year-old center Mark Scheifele.
The Kings: Stanley Cup champs in 2014; playoff DNQ in '15. Throw in a tumultuous off-season, and Los Angeles remains the West's ultimate wild card. Hulking winger Milan Lucic adds a physical presence with 30-goal potential to the top six, but attrition issues on the back end, highlighted by defenseman Slava Voynov's return to Russia after serving 58 days in a California jail for domestic assault, suggest it'll be touch-and-go for this team.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
After being dealt to Minnesota last January and then single-handedly salvaging the Wild's season, what will netminder Devan Dubnyk offer as an encore to his MVP-worthy 2014--15? It's unfair to expect the 29-year-old journeyman to equal his posttrade 1.78 GAA and .936 save percentage, but anything less will most likely leave Minnesota out in the cold.
A coaching shake-up—Pete DeBoer replaces Todd McLellan—won't be enough to reverse the Sharks' descent into obsolescence. The decision to buttress an aging core (forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are 36) with aging free agents (winger Joel Ward and defenseman Paul Martin are 34) highlights the team's talent development problem. And after ranking 24th in goals against last season, GM Doug Wilson is gambling on Kings backup Martin Jones (career: 16-11-2) as his No. 1 netminder. The playoffs have never felt further out of reach in San Jose.
There isn't enough tread left on the tires of 34-year-old forwards Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Radim Vrbata and Alex Burrows and 35-year-old goalie Ryan Miller to carry the Canucks back into the postseason. Vancouver was a lousy possession team last year, and aging legs will only exacerbate that problem.
WAIT TILL 2019
Edmonton is giddy over the arrival of top pick Connor McDavid—a player Wayne Gretzky called the best prospect since Sidney Crosby—but even Gretzky wouldn't be able to compensate for a defense that allowed a league-worst 276 goals. The pressure to improve there falls largely on former Rangers backup Cam Talbot, who won a No. 1 job with his performance in relief of injured Henrik Lundqvist last year (2.25 GAA and .924 save percentage in 34 starts). But the Oilers' defense is nowhere near as good as New York's.
The Avalanche are counting on forwards Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon to propel them back to the playoffs, but Colorado's supporting cast isn't there yet. The Avs' 21st-ranked defense needs to vastly improve.
Winger Max Domi, the Coyotes' first-round pick from 2013, could provide evidence that better days lie ahead. But otherwise, all eyes are focused on the 2016 draft and the prospect of selecting Scottsdale, Ariz., native Auston Matthews with the first pick.
HOW THEY RANK
JAE C. HONG/AP