So unexciting to go the repeat route, but we agree with BLACKHAWKS 1 captain Jonathan Toews's sentiment that this season will go better than 2010--11, the last time Chicago defended the Stanley Cup. For one, salary-cap constraints have not forced the team to dismantle half of its championship lineup, as they did in the summer of '10. Just as important, the young stars from that Blackhawks team—Chicago stumbled to an 8-9-2 start and finished eighth in the West—have learned an important lesson about rest.
"It felt like I was in different cities every week," Toews, 25, says of his first post-Cup summer. "I think that's the biggest thing I changed this summer. I feel refreshed. I don't feel run-down or stressed like I did last time."
Given how the Presidents' Trophy winners dominated the West in 2013, and with the minimal changes to their roster, the Blackhawks are clear favorites to become the first team to repeat as Cup champs since the 1997--98 Red Wings. Up front, the development of young forwards Brandon Saad, 20 (10 goals, 27 points), and Andrew Shaw, 22 (five postseason goals, including two game-winners), made the loss of veterans Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg this off-season easier to stomach. Chicago also retained its entire corps of blueliners, who helped limit opponents to a league-low 97 goals last year.
The Blackhawks will benefit from playing in the weak (now that Detroit is gone) Central Division. Oh, yes, Toews and Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane, 24 (23 goals, 55 points), are entering their prime. There's no other pick. Not even close.
ON THE DOORSTEP
A physical team that wears opponents down, the KINGS 2 have a streaky offense. But their excellent nucleus of defensemen, led by the gifted Drew Doughty, shuts opponents down through a blend of strength and deft puck movement. Goalie Jonathan Quick was inconsistent last season (.902 save percentage), but he regained his form during the playoffs (.934), proving he's at his best when the stakes are high. Will he start for the U.S. in Sochi? That carrot for Quick should be a boon for L.A.
Midway through last season the SHARKS 3 moved 6'5", 230-pound defenseman Brent Burns to right wing, and he had 20 points in 23 games. San Jose will make the switch permanent this year, putting the towering Burns alongside veteran center Joe Thornton. Burns's size and advantage along the boards will complement the bullishly crafty Thornton and opportunistic winger Tyler Kennedy.
The BLUES 4 allowed the second-fewest shots on goal in the NHL last season. A full year of defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, a deadline acquisition from the Flames whose arrival last April coincided with an 11-3-0 run, lifts the Blues into the upper tier of contenders. Vladimir Tarasenko, the 21-year-old phenom who burst into the NHL with five goals in his first seven games last January, is expected to see more ice time, which should boost the offense. Scoring hasn't been a strength—2.58 goals per game ranked 17th in the league in 2013—but with their defense, the Blues keep games close and are 32-9-13 in one-goal games under coach Ken Hitchcock.
While the Blues' window of opportunity seems to be opening, the CANUCKS' 5 appears to be closing. Since losing to Boston in the Cup finals in 2011, Vancouver has won just one playoff game. "Things just got a little stale," center Ryan Kesler says. So the Canucks, for rejuvenation, have turned to acerbic coach John Tortorella, who will install his rugged style on a team that has always thrived more on finesse. Goalie Roberto Luongo, who's—surprise!—still in Vancouver, will meanwhile have to find a way to pretend that the Canucks' brass wants him (and the $40.5 million left on his contract) around.
ONE PLAYER AWAY
In July 2012 the WILD 6 spent a fortune in free agency—matching 13-year, $98 million contracts for winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. The team's fortunes were bound to the pair, who scored at least one point in 24 of Minnesota's 26 wins; on nights when both were held off the score sheet, the Wild were 2-12-0. Minnesota is good enough to make it out of the Central Division, but for the team to take the next step—a playoff series win, for example—the Wild need production from the rest of their lineup, especially from former first-round forwards Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle.
The OILERS 7 will take the biggest leap in the conference. Edmonton has had six top 10 draft picks, including three No. 1 selections, in seven years, but it has zero playoff games to show for them. New coach Dallas Eakins, highly regarded for his ability to develop young talent, inherits plenty of it—forwards Taylor Hall, 21; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 20; and Jordan Eberle, 23, and defenseman Justin Schultz, 23. Defensive accountability has to be a high priority for the Oilers, who turned the puck over more than any other team in the West last year.
Last season's 22-3-4 start by the DUCKS 8 can be traced to the surprising play of its young players. But Anaheim must hope that its old guys can stand up to Father Time. Winger Teemu Selanne, 43—who "still skates like the wind," as captain Ryan Getzlaf says—put off retirement to stick with linemate (and fellow Finn) Saku Koivu, who will turn 39 in November. The two combined for 20 goals in 2013, but they were also a combined -16 during the Ducks' 8-9-2 finish. Anaheim will still have its saving graces in net, where Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth (.913 and .921 save percentages, respectively) are the strongest goalie tandem in the conference.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
It was somewhat curious that the PREDATORS 9 landed top defense prospect Seth Jones in June with the fourth pick in the draft. Though Nashville has long been a breeding ground for blue-chip blueliners, what the team desperately needs is more scoring. The Predators' offense, which averaged an NHL-worst 2.27 goals per game in 2013, will get a mild upgrade from free-agent forwards Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom and Matt Cullen (who scored a combined 23 goals last season), but they need more than that.
The JETS 10 spent $93.1 million during the off-season to sign defenseman Zach Bogosian, center Bryan Little and winger Blake Wheeler to long-term extensions. Winnipeg could be in a strong position for years to come, but it's not ready yet; getting acquainted with a new conference will most likely set the team back this year.
The beleaguered COYOTES 11 (now with owners!) are still waiting for the day when their financial handcuffs are taken off. New CEO Anthony LeBlanc, who led the group that purchased the franchise for $170 million in August, vows to put more money into player payroll. In July, Phoenix signed center Mike Ribeiro to a four-year, $22 million deal, but the team's most important signing this off-season was coach Dave Tippett, who re-upped his contract for a reported five years. The Coyotes missed the playoffs last season, the first time that has happened since Tippett took over in 2009.
WAIT TILL 2017
The STARS 12 tapped longtime Red Wings assistant G.M. Jim Nill and former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff to lead their rebuilding effort. Nill started by overhauling the middle of the lineup, trading sniper Loui Eriksson to the Bruins for centers Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley, and by shoring up the defense with the signing of Sergei Gonchar, 39, whose game has faded since he left the Penguins in 2010. Beyond Seguin and winger Jamie Benn, the Stars have few offensive threats, and their defense, which allowed 2.94 goals per game last season, is still porous.
The AVALANCHE 13 brought back Hall of Famers Joe Sakic (executive VP of hockey operations) and Patrick Roy (coach). The two won Stanley Cups with Colorado in 1996 and 2001, but turning today's Avalanche into a contending team will be a tough task. Thanks to draft picks, the Avalanche now have enviable depth up front with center Matt Duchene (No. 3 in '09), left wing Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2 in '11) and 18-year-old Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 in '13) expected to play. But there are still gaping holes on a defense that allowed 3.12 goals per game last season.
At least the Avalanche aren't the FLAMES 14. The questions looming for Calgary suggest that it's going to be a long year: Who will be in net now that 12-year veteran Miikka Kiprusoff has retired? Who will replace Jarome Iginla's scoring over a full season? Where is the depth at center? With former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke on board as the executive VP of hockey operations, there is at least hope that a quality rebuild is afoot.
The Canucks' window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup appears to be closing.
The Ducks must hope that their old guys, including 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, can stand up to Father Time.
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES (DOUGHTY)
LORD OF THE KINGS L.A.'s Doughty (8), anchors one of the league's most gifted corps of blueliners.
BRUCE KLUCKHOHN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (PARISE)
WILD WINGS Minnesota's Parise (in red) and Winnipeg's Kane (far left, 9) are two of the West's best power forwards, but both need more scoring help.
SCOTT LEVY/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KANE)
[See caption above]