Northeast

Buffalo Sabres:

This season comes down to three thrings, and two of them are Ryan Miller. One he must be healthy, and two he must be Ryan Miller, also known as the best goalie on the planet. The rest is pulling together consistent play. I doubt even a small percentage of fans realize they were tenth in goal scoring last season. No big changes, they did resign a few guys, and added Rob Niedermayer to help flesh out the penalty kill. Still weak down the middle, and not great on defense either.

Ottawa Senators:

This seasons edition is weaker than last years. With the departure of their best defenseman, and a giant question mark between the pipes Alfredsson and Spezza will have to work miracles at least once a week to get this team into the playoffs. While Gonchar will, when healthy, add to the teams offense the team was utterly average in both offense and defense last year and lost more talent off it’s blueline than offensive core.

Montreal Canadiens:

The boo birds are clearly year round residents of La Bella Province, they had their distinct calls aimed at Carey Price early in the preseason and will likely find cause to keep the noise level high, even when it’s undeserved. The splashiest move in Habland in the off season was the departure of playoff powerhouse Halak. To fill his void they brought in the well traveled Alex Auld. In the category of addition by subtraction the seditious Sergei Kostitsyn was sent packing for packing peanuts,

Toronto Maple Leafs

Despite having one legitimate first line forward, and a half dozen marginal second line forwards, Toronto will not be an easy two points if they have anything like cohesion this season. With the additions of Versteeg, Armstrong, they can’t be worse offensively or in energy. While it’s clear the leadership has a plan, how confident of it can we be when they pay Colton Orr a cool million a year, and let Komisarek rake in about twice what he’s worth? I don’t expect this team to either make the playoffs or land in the lottery.

Boston Bruins:

Despite all the off season hot air, Tim Thomas and Marc Savard are still members of the Boston Bruins. With Savard and Sturm starting the season on the LTIR, and Thomas recovering from off season injury, its clear the Bruins have some work to do. With the addition of fist rounder Tyler Seguin, and former first rounder Jordan Caron, not to mention one Nathan Horton its going to interesting here in the Hub to see if these three can give the team some of the bounce it had in the 08-09 season. The off season also saw the eviction of Denis Wideman from the Bruins roster this change alone is probably good for adding 10 points to the Bruin’s total of last season.

Northwest:

Vancouver

The Canucks may just be the best team in hockey. They upgraded their defense, already had a solid offense and if they can give Luongo less starts than he had last year, winning the division won’t be a question. The biggest question will be how much they win a pretty thin division by. The Flames and Avalanche should provide enough pressure to keep them honest, but the Canucks are the class of their division at the very least.

Minnesota:

The state of hockey is probably in for another year of a sad state of hockey. Mikko Kiouvu was their most important signing of the off season, and about the only one that will have an impact on the roster this year. They were twenty first and twenty second in goals against and for last year and with only the hopeful heath of “No Luck Chuck Kobasew” added to the offense and late season trade acquisition Cam Barker woven into the defense there’s not much to hope for aside from good drafting or a blockbuster trade or three.

Calgary:

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. It would be one thing if Olli Jokinen had proved useful in his first stay, but that was hardly the case. The team lacks a legitimate first line center and without that they probably can’t expect to much improve on last seasons bare three twenty goal scorers. Who knows, maybe youngster Mikael Backlund will rise to that position and help Jarome Iginla hoist the cup before he retires.

Colorado:

Will the “Babylanche” grow up after their short and painful playoff run? Who knows! The team has been up and down as injuries and inconsistency robbed them of any momentum in the last three seasons. Maybe the Avalance are the plucky team that will duplicate the Chicago phenomenon. They have the talent and have a similar makeup with a better goalie, although a weaker defense. I think one of the things that made the Blackhawks run possible was the positive knowledge that they would not be together the next year no matter what happened thanks to intriguing cap management. The same pressure doesn’t exist for the Avs, but they are not a team to write off, especially not with the weakening of San Jose, Chicago and Detroit.

Edmonton:

Yee-ha they drafted well! Make no mistake about it, even if Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi are the three names on the Calder Trophy finalist list, the Oilers aren’t going anywhere this year. Their defense is still not going to strike terror, or even tepid respect into the hearts of opposing forwards, and Khabibulin’s back and legal problems leave them with a backend that is wholly uninspiring. Almost certainly still a lottery team.

Coming up ranking the playoff locks, bubble teams, and lottery bound…

Atlantic

New Jersey:

Barring an injury bug that puts fifty percent of the roster on the shelf for six weeks all at once, mass alien abduction, or being forced to play blind folded there’s not really any reason this team shouldn’t win the division and be within a handful of points of the conferences top slot. An offense starring Kovalchuk, Zajak, Rolston, Elias and Arnott should be enough to keep Broduer’s win total climbing, and the defenses job reasonably easy.

New York Rangers:

The Rangers need to do something that isn’t average this year. In goals for and against, even by period they were utterly average. They ranked between eleven and twenty in most offensive and defensive areas, with their penalty kill achieving a high water mark of seventh.  In a division with two teams that have been to the big dance in the last two seasons, and the reinvigorated New Jersey Devils. Probably not a playoff team unless one of the divisions big three has a protracted period of major suckage, but better than some of the teams out west that will sneak in.

Philadelphia:

The Flyers are in a similar position to the Penguins two seasons ago. Working against them is a rumored rift in the locker room between captain Mike Richards and defensive stud Chris Pronger. Worse, from their prospective the two biggest reasons for their failure to raise the Cup were not addressed. Goaltending and conditioning. The Flyers forwards, starting with their captain looked lung a wrung out bar rag by the middle of game five of the Stanley Cup playoffs, by the end of the first period of game six it was nearly a forgone conclusion. All that saved them from going down and out early was the titanic effort of their top four defensemen who played huge minutes and came up huge. While it can be argued the goal position will have been solidified by experience and better health, well, let’s say I’m not a buyer of that particular bill of goods. That said, the Flyers are still deeper on both offense and defense than anyone but the Devils within the Atlantic division,

Pittsburgh:

Last years Penguins had a whole host of issues to keep them down, injuries to their most offensively talented center in Geno Malkin, the Olympic melodrama that had the roster running about in Vancouver to no good for an already thin roster, and the continued feud between Crosby and Ovechkin that took Crosby away from what he’s supposed to be doing; exploiting and developing his wingers offensive capabilities, and left him concentrating on a goal scoring race that hurt the team. On top of that you had a defense mostly made up of mispositioned wingers and of course they started the season with the second worst goalie to hoist the Cup in the past decade or two. Fortunately for Fluery Niemi proved to be notably worse, but was carried by a very, strong team and Fluery can now claim third on that list. Even if they didn’t make much move to bolster the goal scoring on their wings, they did ad Zbynek Michalek to the defense that allowed more goals than all but one team to make the playoffs last year. Michalek alone should double the quality of play in their defensive zone by himself.

New York Islanders:

Oh the poor Isles, this will sound like a slam, but it really isn’t: The Islanders will challenge for the fourth spot in what may be the best division in the NHL this year. Despite the loss of Streit for a long period, the young team spent last year making life miserable for any team that marked a game against Hampstead’s warriors as easy two points. Pop Quiz, what do last years Montreal, New Jersey and Boston squads have in common with last years Islanders? Answer they each scored the same number or less goals. I think the Islanders are two years, and some shrewd free agent signings from being able to make the same sort of noise the Coyotes did last year.

Pacific

Arizona

The Coyotes should win their division this year. They had one less win than the Sharks last year, and are better balanced than the Kings. No major talent losses, and a great mix of youth and veterans. I can’t imagine the team failing to make the playoffs for the second straight year. The biggest impact on their early season will not be how they play in Europe, but that they play in Europe. I won’t be surprised if they have a lukewarm start and steadily grind their way into the playoffs after catching their breath.

San Jose:

What a turn around in playoff performances last year. They showed grit, determination and that Joe Thornton can not be blamed for previous failures to flourish. Pavelski and the rest of supporting cast were fun to watch. Sadly, they will not have a repeated conference win in the regular season without an early reinforcement of their defense and finding a legitimate top tier NHL goalie. I’ll be interested to see what moves they make after the holidays.

Anaheim:

Yee-ha they drafted well! While undeniably more talented than the other team I had the same introduction for, they are clearly a weaker team than the top three in the division. The most interesting stories in Duckville will be the development of Fowler without a clear mentor, and how (if at all), George Parros, some old guys, and a bunch of guys with Ryan in their name can keep the journey to golfing season interesting. Roughly speaking their eastern conference equivalent is probably the New York Rangers.

Los Angeles:

Funny thing about this team their damn good. Sadly no one seems to know this. Kopitar is probably the most under rated forward in the NHL, Dustin Brown is as good as (or better) Jonathan Toews (and I’m a big fan of Captain Toews), and Drew Doughty is the closest thing to this generations Ray Bourque that exists in the NHL, and yet no one seems to know this. I was laughed at when I said before last season started that they would probably make the playoffs. The only thing holding this team down is a left wing that is a touch shaky. Ryan Smyth is solid, but Ponikarovsky has yet to prove himself. Look for sparks to fly when they play Vancouver this year, and for them to play two rounds in the second season.

Dallas:

Fans of the Stars should be cheering the Oilers, Wild, and Blue Jackets at every opportunity. Those teams success this season will allow the Stars a better lottery position and a brighter future. With a defense that could have it’s pairings picked from a hat, and a goalie situation headlined by the oft injured and not quite spectacular Kari Lehtonen this team is not much to write home about even with a reasonably talented young forward cadre.

Central:

Detroit:

The Grey Red Wings are hands down the oldest team in the NHL. With nine players 35 or older on the roster to start the season one has to wonder if there is enough heat left to make the team viable. I suspect the answer to that is no, certainly they are no longer contenders, but they are savvy enough to expose younger teams like Colorado, Nashville, and Columbus on a regular basis. They are also deep into “cap jail” with less than a million in cap space. Last years 102 points is probably they last time they hit the century mark for a season or two.

Columbus:

This teams position is improved almost without their own efforts. Detroit is older and creakier, Chicago is less deep and in theory sated and exhausted by a championship winning post season. Nashville had their captain and best offensive player smacked around by the oh-so-rugged Evgani Malkin in the preseason and who knows what’s going on in Saint Louis… That said they got back Nikita Filatov and his explosive speed and shot and Steve Mason’s likely looking to build on his reemergence late last season.

Chicago:

With the long discussed post Cup salary dump the BlackHawks are undeniably a much different team than the one who brought the rest of the hockey world to it’s knees. It remains to be seen if they are as capable. They have improved their goaltending by jettisoning Niemi and picking up the still hungry, Turco. And their true core is still largely in tact with Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook all still ready to answer the bell. Sharp, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, the rest will have to see if they can replace the contributions of the traded Sopel, Byfuglien, and Versteeg.

Nashville

This is a make or break year for the Music City. With years of failing to make the playoffs and then being knocked out early, there have to be major changes if the core of the team can’t drag it into at least the second round. This probably means that there will be major off season changes come next June. A forward group that features Flames and Leafs castoff Jamie Lundmark, the always news worthy Sergei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo to support Weber, Suter, Hornquist, and Erat isn’t exactly inspiring. And yet, last season they finished with a strong 100 points. Don’t be surprised by this team, good or bad. They may not have much up front, but they arguably have the best top defensive pairing in the NHL.

Saint Louis

After a legendary run to vault from last place to sixth in the west they fell short of the playoffs last year with play that was mostly mediocre. Not much changed in the off season. Well, except they picked up a goal tender who can just short of win playoff series himself. Jaroslav Halak is probably the single biggest reason to expect this team to make the post season. The biggest reason to expect them to miss out again is their hot and cold running forwards. Brad Boyes went from 33 goals to 14 over the last two seasons, and newly acquired Vladimir Sobotka is capable of playing well enough to make a fierce claim upon a number two center spot on most NHL rosters, and also of making one wonder how he ever got called up. On top of that last season offensive bulwarks MacDonald and Perron were a combined -19 on a team that despite mediocre goaltending managed to score more than it allowed.

Southeast:

Atlanta:

When there’s a post Cup fire sale, there’s always a team that benefits most. Atlanta is that team. They grabbed defenseman Brent Sopel, defenseman turned forward turned defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Eager for in exchange for spare parts and acquired draft picks. That said, the Caps and Panthers had better defense in the division last season, and with the additions to their defense, particularly as both men can skate they have a very good chance of making the playoffs. Alexander Burmistrov’s signing adds yet more spice to the Evander Kane, Little, Bergfors contingent. Anyone who writes this team off for lacking a superstar is probably doomed to fall to them.

Florida:

Well, they drafted well, but they still gave up a solid fourth line center and penalty killer in Greg Campbell, and former 30 goal scoring Nathan Horton. On top of this they lost hit machine Dennis Siedenberg, and shot blocking maestro Jordan Leopold. Their supposedly notable acquisitions include, Marty Reasoner, Chris Higgins, and the redoubtable Denis Wideman, sounds like a roster made for the lottery. Almost certainly the worst team in the NHL as their roster stands.

Tampa Bay

A lot of this teams fortunes depend on three people. One, Vincent Lecavelier. Can he return to the form that had him earning mention as one of the top players in the NHL? And can Mike Smith and Dan Ellis put together a backstop to a shaky defense and make the team a playoff contender? If the answer is yes, to each question their climb out of the basement might be quick enough to save us yet another season of the “Vinny to Montreal” rumors we all know and love, and possibly even spare us a fresh round of “relocate the sunbelt teams to Canada”, I’m slotting them into third in the division.

Carolina:

With the injury buy already gnawing the bones of the Canes roster, its tough to see how this already thin team can make any positive moves this year. Staal will be again expected to throw the team, and hockey in the entire state on his shoulders and carry them to the playoffs. With a defense that has to rely on Joe Corvo for name recognition, and probably the ceiling for it’s quality its doubtful the Canes can combine that and an offense that starts, and nearly stops with Staal to do anything worthwhile in front of the enigmatic and mercurial Cam Ward.

Washington:

The Capitals are largely unchanged from last season. Ovechkin being named captain probably counts as the biggest change from the start of last season to this one. Knowledgeable Capitals fans probably watched the playoffs and off season in horror as GM George McFee did squat to implement a defense worthy of the name. Sure the front office can point to youngsters Alzner and Carlson and call it improvement via draft and development, but this is a bill of goods unrivaled in the NHL this season. Well, except maybe for Backstrom being named a top ten star in the NHL.

More to come: The four other divisions, and how the top and bottom of the NHL will look.

If today’s date were May fourth 2010 no one in the hockey world would doubt that the race for the Calder Trophy would come down to Taylor Hall vs Tyler Seguin with some token references to other players just to avoid the (deserved) impression of tunnel vision. But today is October fourth, and boy have our eyes been opened in the last six months. In the next few weeks hockey fans will discover what scribes, coaches, and players have been awakening to since training camp began; Not only may Hall or Seguin prove not to be the best rookie in the NHL, they may not prove to be the best rookies on their teams.

In Boston, Seguin has bounced between wing and center, landing in the third line center slot between Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler, two players who the Bruins and Bruins Nation can only hope recover from their substandard years last year. His faceoff winning percentage has been in the twenties and thirties, and he’s been consistently out muscled by other players. Until the demotion of Suave to Providence and the return of Spooner to his junior team, it would be hard to call Seguin the most impressive rookie in camp. In truth, I don’t think it’s reasonable to do so now, but it it much closer to the truth.

In Edmonton Hall has recently earned a grade that is less than average. David Staples, who pulls no punches and writes fairly, had this to say about Tyler Hall’s play during a recent tilt in the legendary “Battle of Alberta” :

Taylor Hall, 3. A poor game. Often stripped of the puck. Looking a bit tentative, not unexpected for a rook. Flashes of skill, but not effective in this game.

Hall helped create one good scoring chance and was a culprit on three scoring chances against the Oilers, -2 overall at even strength, a  poor score for a winger (I define a scoring chance as a hard shot from the slot, the same definition as Buffalo Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi. I also break down the videotape to ascertain which players were involved in scoring chances for and against, and which players were not. Only those who made a significant contribution to the chance get a plus mark, and only the culprits get a minus.).

Which is not quite the endorsement that one might expect for the man expected to be the savior of the franchise, the second coming of Gretzky & Howe in one, and probably solve global climate change and the worldwide economic slow down all before the All Star game.

Fortunately for hockey fans on both ends of the continent, there is still hope for bringing home the Calder. David Staples makes mention of another left winger recently drafted by the Oilers, and Bruins fans have been warming towards a right winger since prospect camp opened. The son of Sayabec, Quebec Jordan Caron looks to have eclipsed both Joe Colborne, and Tyler Seguin going all the way from bubble player who was expected to toil in the AHL until a reason to recall him could be made to sliding straight onto a line with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi. The coveted spot with the Olympic Gold Medalist and Future Hall of Famer was projected to be Seguin’s. In their tuneup match against the Belfast Giant’s Select team, Caron rode shotgun on the top line, Seguin was on the third. Further with a coach who as conservative and defensive as they come, Caron has earned penalty kill time right and left in his appearances, and enjoyed some powerplay time. Seguin has rode the so far ineffectual power-play only.

Edmonton will likely see Paajarvi overshadow Hall before years end. In the same game in which the better known draftee was given a humbling grade of three, Paajarvi earned himself a game score more than twice as high. During their recent collision with fellow bottom feeding Tampa Bay, Paajarvi earned himself four points with a short handed goal in the mix while going plus two, Hall was limited to one goal and an even plus/minus.

While you will undoubtedly be treated to a sea of Hall vs Seguin headlines and articles this year, just as we all were early this year and right up until the NHL entry draft, it looks like the more interesting story lines will be Caron vs Seguin and Paajarvi vs Hall.