Not many people were surprised when the eastern conference representative to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals was from the Atlantic division last year. Many were surprised that it was in fact the Kovalchuk/Broduer led Devils and not the Malkin lead Penguins, the Rangers coached by Mr Personality, or the Flyers with their goaltender and his Humongous Big contract.

Penguins: If Fluery plays at any point like he did in the playoffs last spring, the season could be over right there. Both Vokoun and Zatkoff will be salivating for the #1 spot if he slips up. Worse still, this teams  defense is not as good as it was last year. Kunitz, Adams, and Dupuis are all on the shady side of thirty and as we saw last spring, even a healthy Malkin and Crosby can’t carry this team without a lot of help. Brandon Sutter is a very promising young center, how well he fills Jordan Staal’s locker remains to be seen.

Rangers; With the Nash induced overhaul the chemistry of this team will have changed a lot. What won’t have changed is a goaltender who gets too much work for his body, and possibly his mind, who isn’t quite as good in the playoffs as Roberto Luongo. What also hasn’t changed is that a large chunk of the cap space, particularly at forward likes to take nights off, frequently.  The good news is that Marc Staal is healthy, Kris Krieder should be good go, and people will continue to ignore the enormous impact of Dan Girardi on this team despite the All Star’s constant excellence.

Islanders: In this short of a season, anything can happen. even Rick Dipietro not being the punchline of injury jokes. Nabokov is more than capable of taking this team of tomorrows stars to the playoffs with just a little help. Brad Boyes may find rejuvenation on Long Island, Thomas Hickey looks like he’ll finally get an NHL shot, and Vishnovsky is after Girardi the next best defensive defenseman in the division. I don’t actually expect to see John Tavares play his first NHL post season game this year, but I don’t expect the Islanders to be in the bottom of the standings.

Flyers: Bryzgalov has to be better and more consistent this season, right? Right? Even if he’s not, this team is a playoff lock without a colossal failure to show up. How well the Schenn’s play will impact the team a lot, Luke is used to playing in front of beer league goaltenders so that won’t be much of an adjustment, but playing with a highly talented offense will be. Where both of their minutes per game are at seasons end might be the most intriguing question about the regular season for this team.

Devils: Kovalchuk who last year led all forwards in ice time, was 5th in scoring, played huge short handed minutes and should have won the MVP will be back, hopefully sans the lower body injury that lamed him for two rounds last spring. Parise is gone, and while MB30 is back in crease, you have to ask how much is left in that tank, and if the lockout helped or hurt him. The two Adams can almost certainly look forward to even better years.

Top Dogs: I’m going to reluctantly pick the Penguins on the strength of having the best backup goaltender.

What an off season in the Central Division. Lidstrom retires, Suter defects, Weber signed to an offer sheet that was then matched, Kane coming to camp with “something to prove”, and more. This is now a much weaker division than it was last year, it is essentially a two horse race.

Detroit: Let the rebuild begin. While they have a good goaltender, Jimmy Howard is now the biggest star on the team, and that is an issue. Datsyuk has scored less goals each of the last four seasons, Lidstrom is gone, and while I like Colaiacovo more than some, I think he’s not going to restore this blueline to what it was even two seasons ago by himself. They may squeeze into seventh or eighth, but don’t expect them to stick around.

Chicago: The two biggest questions about this team after the health of Jonathan Toews aka the best center in the West, are: 1: Can they play on the road 2: Can their goaltending not suck. If they fixed these in the off season (unlikely given who they still have in goal), they are a monster, if not, the playoffs will not be kind.

Nashville: While they lost Suter, they still have Weber and Rinne. Yes their forward group still needs a smart upgrade, they may actually be the strongest team in the division. Rinne hasn’t done it in the playoffs yet, but he’s perfectly capable of playing 40 games in this shortened regular season and dragging the team into the post season with minimal support.

St Louis: With everybody healthy for the first time in a short eternity, the Blues might just be the strongest team in the West, they absolutely have to improve on their 21st overall in scoring last regular season. A healthy Andy McDonald, David Backes, and David Perron could go a long way in a short time. This year, maybe just maybe Alex Peitrangelo will get some recognition and respect outside of this site and Blues beat writers.

Columbus: While I don’t expect this team to be in the playoffs, their defense is now much better. With the addition of a hopefully resurgent Dubinsky to go with likely future Captain Jack Johnson, this team is on the right path.

Top Dogs: Nashville edges St Louis on the back of an angry Weber.

There were some sneaky changes in this division that make it quite interesting to watch. Hall of Famer Adam Oates is the newest coach in Washington, and the unification of Jordan and Eric Staal in Carolina among them.

Carolina: On the plus side they added Jordan Staal and have had time for a lot of guys to climb off the trainers table. On the down side, their defense is no better and almost certainly worse as a unit that it was last season. If we know anything about the southeast division it is that we know nothing about the southeast division. The Enigma on Ice that is Alex Semin is also signed to the Canes. In no particular order playing at 90%+ any of Jordan and Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner are a handful, if all of them can get going and sustain it for at least a month, the team has a damned good chance despite all its deficiencies of returning to the playoffs.

Florida: Panther Power or Sun Sickness? Which propelled the team into the playoffs last year? Their own power or simply teams falling prey to the sun and fun of Sunrise? Their elimination would seem to indicate the latter, but the fact they sustained such a high place in the division pecking order under a rookie coach, with waves and waves of injuries might point towards the former. I think this team is better than many gave it credit for, and maybe nearly as good as a division win all by itself makes them appear.

Tampa Bay: Two seasons ago they were in the eastern conference finals, last year they didn’t make the playoffs. The difference? Goaltending. The biggest problem: poor defense.While Matt Carle and Keith Aulie are certainly new integers to the equation, one wonders if they will add up to a better blueline, or at least better enough to make up for the ravages of time on several of the teams aging forwards.

Washington: Will the real Washington Capitals please stand up. This team has had coaching upheavals, roster tweaks, injuries, and then finally goalie stability (just not the guy anyone expected) and now the long layoff. If Oates hasn’t devised a system to maximize the talent of his roster and can’t generate buyin quickly Seth Jones could be greeting a new rookie coach next season. If he can, the sky is the limit.

Winnipeg:A suspect backend was one of the problems last season with the team allowing 8 more goals than they scored and still being 12th overall in goals for. Grant Clitsome is a serviceable defenseman we probably haven’t seen the best from yet, but their goaltending needs to be consistent, and certain skaters need to stop doing stunning impersonations of turnstiles before this team can go anywhere, an upgrade in the form of a two way or defensive defenseman for the #3 spot or higher would work wonders as well.

Top Dog: Pack Run, this division will look very similar to what the Pacific did in the regular season last year, every one of them with healthy stars can do damage, with contributions from lines three and four or stolen games in net, it is going to be a case of who breaks, blinks or draws an idiotic reactionary suspension from the league first.

This division had both western conference finalists last year, despite low point totals from all five teams.

Phoenix: The Coyotes had a really good going until the ran into Quick and Co. Their young players were maturing before the world’s eyes, some of the elder statesman were having career years, and Mike Smith was every bit as good as Quick. Some of their older players have moved on, but the next generation is more than ready to pick up the slack. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker will be household names in the Western Conference by seasons end.

Dallas: The Stars added several names in the off season; Whitney, Jagr, Roy up front should be a huge boost. In a shortened season where Jagr and Lehtonen’s injuries from last season should have had time to heal fully and the pair should have been able to get to full strength and range of motion in all body parts. Now if they’d just get Jamie Benn under contract or traded off for a kings ransom they’d have not only a shot at the division title, but seeing the second round.

Los Angeles; The Kings did it all, and then did nothing. They are returning almost their entire championship roster. One wonders if they lockout will help or hurt this team. Any Cup hangover should be long gone, but not many of the players have played overseas or in the AHL in the extended break. Even with an enormous wealth of talent of his own, and an unmatched blueline in front of him, it is unlikely J Quick has a repeat of last years numbers. This means for Orange County to see a second Cup parade this year, the offense has to actually work more often than one in five games.

San Jose: One way or the other, this is likely the end of the line for this core group. Last year was a big regression over previous seasons. It’s cup or bust, which oddly puts them in a similar position to the Chicago Blackhawks a couple years back, although with a much higher percentage of their roster on the downslope of their career. If Stuart slides into a #3 or #4 role, the team is in good shape, if he’s leading the team in minutes things are quite unlikely to be pretty.

Anaheim:  Last years Ducks were dead on a arrival, fueled partly by persistent scapegoating of Bobby Ryan in lieu of actually fixing the lack of depth at any position. While I like Bryan Allen as much as anyone, and Sheldon Souray was a big slice of what was right in Dallas last year, anyone who looks at this blueline and dreams of drafting thirtieth is probably indulging in a controlled substance. That said, Hiller is entirely capable of stealing a season this short and putting the team in the playoffs with little regard to how well his team plays in front of him, if he’s healthy, and the top forwards are motivated and in sync this team is very dangerous.

Top dog(s): Coyotes and Kings are too close to call.

With the tentative agreement in place, and on the presumption that both sides ratify it, there are some big questions that need answering, some short term, some long term.

First up, is how will players who were unsigned RFA’s under the old and expired CBA be treated under the new one. Some of those players have a significant amount of talent, and their hitting the free market and relocating could change the shape of the NHL. Michael Del Zotto and P.K. Subban are two blueliners who fit the bill, and Jaime Benn has stud written all over him up front.

Will the product that lands on the ice in three weeks or so be worth the wait? Some teams like the Minnesota Wild added a lot of new bodies on top of shuffling the roster running up to the trade deadline. With some players having played in Europe, some having played in the AHL, and others not at all, chemistry and fitness will vary far more widely than a normal early season game.

For markets that were struggling before this lockout, is it already too late? While all eyes have been on Phoenix since Atlanta went defunct, they are hardly the only team to struggle. The Blue Jackets may not be around to get their make up All Star game if they don’t get fans to return to a Nash-less team. I don’t recall as single season when both Florida teams made the playoffs. Then too there are the New York Islanders who could be playing in Brooklyn, Kansas City, Seattle or Quebec City in the next year or two. One can’t forget that the New Jersey Devils who lost Zach Parise about the same time the lost the Stanley Cup were losing their shirt before anyone was convinced they would even make the playoffs.

Are either expansion or contraction a part of the current NHL CBA? With the proximity of the three New York and New Jersey teams, and two of them in financial peril, it might be prudent to combine two of them. Other teams could face being permanently shuttered as well. More exciting though is the idea of expanding to more Canadian and northern markets like Seattle or Portland, Madison or Green Bay, or Ann Arbor. The KHL hasn’t been shy about expansion, and with the foothold they were allowed into North American minds by the lockout, expansions might be needed as a defensive measure as much as being market driven.