Under the new NHL format, the top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, plus two wild card teams indicated here by an asterisk. Here are predictions for the 2013-14 season:
1. Los Angeles Kings -- Maybe the Sharks should have won that second-round playoff series and are the better team. But with Raffi Torres about to miss half the season or more, it's hard to pick San Jose ahead of the Kings going forward. The Sharks only scored 10 goals in seven games against Jonathan Quick and until there's evidence that's changed, Los Angeles is still the Pacific team to beat. An improving Slava Voynov gives the Drew Doughty-led defense a little more offensive pop and the already strong forward corps led by Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter gets a little nastier with the arrival of Daniel Carcillo.
2. San Jose Sharks -- The knee injury to Torres makes the Sharks vulnerable if it taps into any lingering self-doubt after their playoff loss to the Kings. But GM Doug Wilson's "refresh and reset" roster should still be able to execute Coach Todd McLellan's high-energy, high-speed approach, and San Jose should still be a tough foe on most nights. Much will also depend on how the rookies come through as Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and Freddie Hamilton could all be in the opening night lineup. One area that should not be a concern is goal, where Antti Niemi has proven to be reliable and, at times, stellar.
3. Anaheim Ducks -- Another team with a split personality, the Ducks stormed out of the gate and won the Pacific last season despite finishing 8-9-2 down the stretch. Secured with eight-year contract extensions, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry still spearhead the offense and, now 43, Teemu Selanne is back for one more farewell tour. The biggest change? Motivated by salary cap economics, GM Bob Murray sent Bobby Ryan to Ottawa for promising and less expensive Jakob Silfverberg, 22. Defenseman Francois Beauchemin should again get the most minutes on the blue line. In goal, like last year, Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth should each see plenty of pucks.
**4. Edmonton Oilers -- One of these seasons, the Oilers will live up to the promise of the likes of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at forward and Justin Schulz on defense. Thanks to realignment it might be this one. With Detroit and Columbus parked in the East (yes, the Blue Jackets are good now), the playoff path in the West is a little easier. New GM Craig MacTavish added some useful experience by bringing in forward David Perron and d-man Andrew Ferrence to help new coach Dallas Eakins try to get the most of the young talent. Devin Dubnyk provides decent enough netminding.
5. Vancouver Canucks -- Acerbic coach John Tortorella has quite the challenge ahead. Goalie Roberto Luongo's monster contract made him un-tradeable so Vancouver had no choice but to deal Cory Schneider instead. Nobody, including Luongo, saw that coming. Swept by the Sharks in the playoffs, the Canucks looked exposed and vulnerable. The Sedins did not work their magic and even Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows weren't up to their usual standard of annoyance. The only off-season addition to a mediocre defense was Yanick Weber. Realignment did the Canucks no favor either, scuttling the softer Northwest Division they had dominated for five seasons and throwing the California teams in their path.
6. Phoenix Coyotes -- The most important development here is the fact the NHL found a buyer for the Coyotes and a new lease with suburban Glendale that puts relocation on the back burner, not the front one where it's been for three seasons now. The team's biggest asset continues to be Coach Dave Tippett, who will be reunited from their Dallas days with Mike Ribeiro, the biggest off-season pickup (four-year, $22 million). Second biggest asset? Goalie Mike Smith, edging out longtime captain Shane Doan and highly regarded defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Tippett's teams are always in the playoff hunt, but the competition could be too stiff for Phoenix.
7. Calgary Flames -- No Miika Kiprusoff in goal (retired). No Jarome Iginla at right wing (traded at deadline). And a city recovering from floods that dumped water and mud into the Saddledome's lower bowl. Poor Calgary, and, on the ice at least, that's not likely to change. The Flames' lineup has recognizable names up front — Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Hudler — but all are about one line too high in the depth chart. In goal, the Flames go from Kiprusoff to another Finn, Karri Ramo, who has had success in the KHL, but middling to poor stats in 48 previous NHL games. That four-year playoff drought is about to reach five.
1. Chicago Blackhawks -- When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, you knew they had to dismantle their lineup for cap purposes and you could see them sliding down the standings. Not this time. Yes, solid role players such as Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Mikhal Frolik are gone, but Chicago has the depth to fill in behind them. Goalie Corey Crawford now has Nikolai Khabibulin as his back-up, but that's about the only new face in the locker room. And the team's core including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook must have learned something from whatever cup hangover they had to deal with last time.
2. St. Louis Blues -- If any Central team will make things interesting for the Blackhawks, it's their longtime rivals in St. Louis. The Blues may drop off slightly on offense with Magnus Paajarvi and Derek Roy replacing David Perron and Andy McDonald, but there's still plenty of potential goals coming from Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund. And the addition of veteran Brenden Morrow in training camp was a big plus. Meanwhile, their imposing defense led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk is back in full. And the only problem in goal, presuming everyone's healthy, is which one of three capable netminders to play — Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak or Jake Allen.
3. Minnesota Wild -- The pricey free agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in 2012 paid only minimal dividends last season as the Wild squeaked into the playoffs, only to face Chicago in a first-round series that ended in five games. A full season with Jason Pominville in the lineup and the growth of onetime Sharks prospect Charlie Coyle should get the Wild to the post-season again. Gone is the NHL's hit-leader, Cal Clutterbuck, and in his place reformed bad-boy Matt Cooke. Also departing as the Wild dealt with the drop in salary cap was Devon Setoguchi, who was dealt to Winnipeg for a second-round draft pick.
**4. Dallas Stars -- New general manager, new coach and as many as five new faces in the starting lineup. Guess they draw line at that fifth year without a playoff appearance in Big D. But the new names at the top — GM Jim Null from Detroit and longtime Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff — have the proper pedigree. The acquisition of Tyler Seguin from Boston was a calculated risk with a big upside. Picking up Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverely were safe, but smart moves — though the addition of Sergei Gonchar seems more questionable. All in all, the Stars appear to be more competitive and could find themselves back in the post-season.
5. Colorado Avalanche -- The Avalanche are taking the "back to the future" route as they hope to avoid a fourth straight season out of the playoffs. Former All-Star Joe Sakic is now the executive vice-president of hockey operations. Legendary goalie Patrick Roy is his new coach. On the ice, former Avalanche forward Alex Tanguay returns, but the biggest addition could be Nathan MacKinnon, the first player taken overall in the 2013 NHL draft. Colorado still has significant talent including players such as Matt Duchene, P.A. Parenteau and Gabriel Landeskog. But Sakic and Roy may need more than one season to get things back on track.
6. Nashville Predators -- Nashville missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and still lacks a formidable offensive attack. But maybe offense isn't as important when you've got Pekka Rinne in net again. And the defense, which took a hit when Ryan Suter bailed for Minnesota a year ago, just may have another future all-star in rookie Seth Jones — the 6-foot-4, 205-pound son of former NBA star Popeye Jones. How big an impact Jones can have at 18, however, remains to be seen. Never rule out a team coached by Barry Trotz and Nashville could easily be in the hunt for a playoff spot. But it seems like a stretch
7. Winnipeg Jets -- The road to the playoffs isn't any easier for the Jets, but at least it makes more sense geographically as it doesn't go through the defunct Southeast. The Jets have hovered just over .500 their first two season back in Winnipeg — good, but on the golf course (if the snow had melted) when the post-season began. Winnipeg did poach two players from its new division rivals in acquiring Mikhal Frolic from Chicago and Devin Setoguchi from Minnesota, but otherwise stuck with the players that have gotten them this far. Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler provide the bulk of the goals and big Dustin Byfuglien anchors the defense.
1. Boston Bruins -- The Bruins, who lost the Stanley Cup finals to the Chicago Blackhawks in stunning fashion in Game 6, got a bit younger in the offseason as experienced players -- Andrew Ference and Jaromir Jagr -- left via free agency in the offseason and Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley were dealt to the Dallas Stars for Loui Eriksson and three prospects. Boston did sign Jarome Iginla as a free agent to bolster the offense, but will have a relatively young defense with Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton expected to play large roles. The forwards corps is led by Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and David Krejci. That said, goaltender Tuukka Rask will need to show the Bruins didn't make a big mistake when they signed him to an eight-year contract extension.
2. Montreal Canadiens -- Hockey's most decorated franchise had a big improvement in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, as the Canadiens overhauled their operations and went from missing the playoffs to finishing second in the now-defunct Northwest Division. Now Montreal, which lost to Ottawa in five games in the first round, is hoping a few more tweaks can take it to the next level, as the Canadiens brought in Daniel Briere and big bodies George Parros and former Shark Douglas Murray. Still, any success Montreal enjoys will come from its returning corps, which includes Norris Trophy winner PK Subban, and forwards Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov. Although the Canadiens are not favored to win the division title, they should still safely make the playoffs.
3. Detroit Red Wings -- The Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference, renewing regional rivalries and drastically cutting down their travel. But that doesn't necessarily mean Detroit, which squeaked into the Western conference playoffs in the spring, has an easy path to the postseason. The division already has several playoff-caliber teams and Valtteri Filppula, Damien Brunner and Dan Cleary are all gone. The Red Wings bolstered their second line with the addition of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss to go with Johan Franzen. But the first line of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, and goalie Jimmy Howard, will need to have a strong year to get the Red Wings back to the conference finals.
** 4. Toronto Maple Leafs -- The Leafs are coming off a bittersweet season in which they made the playoffs again after years of disappointment, but lost in the first round to Boston in a Game 7 they should have won. Toronto aims to take another step forward this season as Dave Bolland was acquired at the draft and David Clarkson was signed to a seven-year deal. Jonathan Bernier was acquired from Los Angeles to challenge James Reimer for the starting goaltender's job. If the Leafs' young players like Nazem Kadri can continue to develop, they should again be in the playoffs.
5. Ottawa Senators -- Few teams went through as much upheaval in the offseason as the Senators, who lost captain Daniel Alfredsson to Detroit in free agency and traded for Bobby Ryan in a massive deal with Anaheim. Clarke MacArthur was also signed from Toronto to boost an offense that ranked 27th in the NHL in goals scored. The big question for Ottawa will be if it can stay healthy, as Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson all missed significant time last season. Thanks to its defense, though, which was bolstered by the addition of Joe Corvo from Dallas, the Senators should be in the mix for a playoff spot this season.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning -- Despite handing a compliance buyout to Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay does appear to have enough offensive firepower to once again be one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. It appears third-overall draft pick Jonathan Drouin will play alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, and the signing of Valtteri Filppula gives the Lightning some depth down the middle. The questions for Tampa Bay will be on the defensive side. Victor Hedman and Sami Salo form a nice top pairing, but Ben Bishop still remains a question mark in goal.
7. Florida Panthers -- The Panthers finished with the worst record in the NHL last season and might need another year or two to get back into the playoff picture. Florida does have a tantalizing amount of young talent, led by Calder Trophy-winning winger Jonathan Huberdeau and 2013 first round selection Aleksander Barkov, and some veteran leadership with Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell and Scott Gomez. Although the signing of Tim Thomas could stabilize the goaltending situation, the Panthers need some more time to let their young players develop. They will surprise some teams, but chances are they won't be consistent enough to threaten for a playoff spot.
8. Buffalo Sabres -- The Sabres are going through a rebuilding phase and appear headed for another playoff-less spring. Veterans Jason Pominville, Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr were all dealt last season and UFAs-to-be Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek could be the next ones to go. Coach Ron Rolston had the interim tag removed from his title in the summer, and could be a good choice to shepherd Buffalo through its growing pains. Buffalo's special teams were awful last season, as the power play ranked 29th out of 30 teams and the penalty kill was 26th. In the meantime, look for Vanek, Cory Hodgson, Drew Stafford to lead the offense and Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers to lead the defensive corps.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins -- The Penguins went into an offseason with some unknowns, but came out of it having resigned Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz. Those players, along with Sidney Crosby, should make Pittsburgh the team to beat in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins' goaltending situation, though, is a little unsettled. Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely with a blood clot in his pelvis, so the onus is on Marc-Andre Fleury to regain the form that he showed in 2009 when Pittsburgh won the Cup. If he struggles, Pittsburgh's other option is Jeff Zatkoff, who has no NHL experience.
2. Washington Capitals -- Clearly, the Capitals need Alex Ovechkin to be a productive player if they hope to challenge for the division title. Because after a slow start last season, Ovechkin caught fire, finished with 56 points, led Washington to the playoffs and won the Hart Trophy. Washington lost Mike Ribeiro to free agency, but picked up Mikhail Grabovski for the second line. Defensively, Mike Green showed his value last season when he was healthy, and if goalie Braden Holtby can recapture the form he showed last season, the Capitals will challenge for the division crown.
3. New York Rangers -- After his coaching style wore thin in the dressing room and with the team's upper management, John Tortorella was shown the door and replaced by the more level-headed Alain Vigneault. The style of the former Canucks coach should rejuvenate Brad Richards, keep Rick Nash and Derek Stepan as offensive forces, and serve young players well. Having a healthy Marc Staal will make a big difference, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist is well-established as one of the best in the league. If New York stays healthy, a division title isn't out of the question.
** 4. New York Islanders -- The Islanders have stockpiled high draft choices for years and some of that talent started to mature last season, when New York made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Along with John Tavares, who had 28 goals in 2013 and was a nominee for the Hart Trophy, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo all became legitimate scorers. The defensive corps is also young, but does have Andrew MacDonald and Lubomir Visnovsky to lean on for experience. Goalie Evgeni Nabakov isn't getting any younger at 38, and as Sharks fans know, he has a ceiling in terms of playoff success. But if he can have another strong season, the Islanders may be in the playoffs back to back years for the first time since 2003 and 2004.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets -- Few people pegged the Blue Jackets to contend for a playoff spot at the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season. But thanks to the efforts of Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus finished strong and nearly made the postseason. The Blue Jackets need Bobrovsky to display that same magic touch to contend for a playoff spot this year, although they should be improved on offense with Marian Gaborik feeling more comfortable in his surroundings and the addition of Nathan Horton from Boston. Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov form a solid top line, but can Columbus' other forwards continue to contribute?
6. Philadelphia Flyers -- Although they signed Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit, the Flyers may benefit most by who they don't have anymore -- Ilya Bryzgalov. The enigmatic goalie could not live up to the expectations of his massive contract and the last seven years of his deal was bought out by the team. Leadership and goal-scoring aren't problems in Philadelphia, as Claude Giroux is a legitimate MVP candidate and Scott Hartnell should bounce back from an injury-shortened 2013 season. If young players such as Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier continue to grow, and Ray Emery and Steve Mason provide some consistent goaltending, the Flyers could surprise some people.
7. Carolina Hurricanes -- The Hurricanes should again have one of the better offenses in the Eastern Conference and Eric and Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and Jiri Tlusty. The question for Carolina will be in net, as it looks for Cam Ward to regain the form he showed at the start of last season before he went down with a knee injury -- torpedoing the Hurricanes' hopes for a playoff spot. If Alex Semin shows up on a regular basis to boost the power play, Ward stays healthy and some newcomers are able to contribute, Carolina could be a sleeper team in its new division.
8. New Jersey Devils -- It certainly doesn't appear as if the Devils will challenge for a playoff spot this season -- not after Ilya Kovalchuk retired (and signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL) and David Clarkson signed with Toronto. The bulk of New Jersey's offense will come from the top line of Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and the ageless Jaromir Jagr, who, along with Michael Ryder, was signed to make up for the absence of Kovalchuk. Former Shark Ryane Clowe will add needed toughness and New Jersey does have insurance in net, as Cory Schneider was acquired from Vancouver to spell Martin Brodeur and eventually take his spot as the No. 1 goalie. They'll need to be stellar for the Devils, because the goal-scoring could be in short supply.