This week Alex Ovechkin will take on the job of Olympic Torchbearer. It isn’t a job they give out randomly, you have to be the best, the best and the best known. You have to exude the essence of your sport. The Alex Ovechkin who fulfilled NHL fans dreams of a more exciting game coming out of the dead puck era was exactly that man. He dominated defenses and gouged goaltenders from day one. That is the man who was selected to be a torchbearer.

For the first five years of his career Alex Ovechkin was the torchbearer, the icon, the beacon of scoring prowess, love of game, and over powering exuberance. You couldn’t go a game without some jaw dropping display of hand eye coordination and athleticism. His goal celebrations were legend. More remarkable was how hard it was to know if he’d scored or a teammate, he just loved goals.

Two season back, he a wall. His goal production dropped twenty goals in just one year. Their were rumors, all sorts of rumors. Some of it was the usual anti-Russisan xenophobia so typical north of the 49th parallel. A closer look at the dip will reveal personal problems off the ice, and injuries to both himself and key pieces of the Washington Capitals offense. About the same time a coach ran out of tricks for motivating teams. A new coach came in, and he wasn’t that good.

This year we’ll see Alex Ovechkin playing under a hall of fame player turned coach. Better still, we’ll see him playing under a coach who respects him and understands offense as well anyone who has ever played the game. Backstrom is healthy. Green is healthy. Laich is healthy too. Grabovski has something to prove. The team is poised for 90+ points and another playoff appearance.

But will we see Alex Ovechkin regain the top rung? In recent years Stamkos among others have grabbed the headlines and bright lights. Can the 28 year old dynamo from Moscow compete with the fresh young (Canadian)  faces? With a healthy team, and a wide open division what is a good benchmark for success? Will 40 goals be good enough for the man who averaged over 53 goals a season his first five years? Does he need to eclipse the 50 goal mark? We know the great 8 will take up the Olympic torch in Greece, what we don’t know is if he can reignite the NHL torch and once more be its frontrunner.

The Winnipeg Jets lost three of their last five games to end the season. Two of them were to the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders who they were chasing for a playoff berth. They finished four points short of returning post season hockey NHL to Manitoba. In the process, some things became clear. Their depth at center was inadequate. Their goaltending was something short of iffy, and their resolve wasn’t quite enough to make them a playoff team.

Since last season the two most notable on ice changes are the loss of Ron Hainsey on their blueline, and the addition of Devin Setoguchi. There are youngsters like Mark Schiefele and Jacob Trouba vying for roster spots but the off season saw more in the way of extensions than big new contracts. Off the ice, their transition to the revamped western conference was completed in time to start this new year. With Hainsey gone, this could be the year Zach Bogosion jumps into the spotlight. Evander Kane only needed 74 games to notch his first 30 goal season, it would not be surprise to see him surpass that mark this year.

The Winnipeg Jet’s first season in the western conference opens when they travel just a bit further west to visit the Taylor Hall, Andrew Ference and Jordan Eberle led Edmonton Oiler on October first. They nights later they will be home to host the Los Angeles Kings and then the Anaheim Ducks. October 10th has them in Minnesota to trade chances with the Wild before returning home the next night to engage Alex Goligoski and the Dallas Stars.

Number of days 1-5: 10

Number of cites: 3

Best opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest opponent: Edmonton Oilers

Home games: 3

Projected points: 5

The Anaheim Ducks who have Teemu Selanne in the fold for another year, and the Los Angeles Kings who have a very, very crowded blueline will present stiff challenges to the Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and the rest of the squadron. The other three teams are playing at about or slightly below the Winnipeg Jets level. If one or two of the young players can not just make the roster but make a difference early, the Jets have a very solid chance at claiming one of the West’s eight playoff spots. For not just Zach Bogosian, but Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Eric Tangradi the future is now.

The Washington Capitals welcomed the sixth coach of the George McPhee era. This one is hall of fame inductee Adam Oates. With no real training camp or exhibition period, the Capitals were trying to absorb their new system for at leas the first month of the season. Among his other innovations was moving Left and Right Wing All-Star Alex Ovechkin from the former to the latter. The first half of the season was not pretty.

With guile, wisdom and no doubt some threats Oates got the team to the playoffs. Since last season, the Capitals have waived good-bye to Roman Hamerlik, Tom Poti, Mike Ribeiro and a few other well known faces. Perhaps the best signing this off season was the Capitals picking up Mikhail Grabovski. As compelling in terms of addition is having Brooks Laich and Mike Green both entering the season healthy.

Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and the crew will open the season with a roadtrip to the windy city where they’ll get to watch the Chicago Blackhawks raise their newest banner. After returning home for a game they will hows the Calgary Flames who start the season without Jarome Iginla for the first time in well over a decade. The Dallas Stars will be their next port of call and they’ll face Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the revamped forward group in the Lonestar state. Back home they will have showdowns with Eric Staal and his Carolina Hurricanes and Gabriel Landeskog’s Colorado Avalanche.

Number of days 1-5: 11

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Chicago Blackhawks

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7

The Metropolitan division will be brutally tough.  I have no doubt Adam Oates will do everything he can to motivate the team and let them jump on the division lead early. They don’t have any really stiff competition other than the Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. While the Dallas Stars are no longer pushovers, and even the Avalanche aren’t a gimmie, this is a better team than four of their first five opponents on paper. They need to prove it on the ice.

Last year the Vancouver  Canucks once again marched through the Northwest Division, and claimed its crown for the regular season. The main event for the shortened 48 game season was not the on ice product, but the circus surrounding Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo the teams “1A” and “1B” starting goaltenders. A shortened year was spent with neither able to wrest the job firmly from the other, and no trade to save the media beating the story to death.

At the NHL entry draft an amazing thing happened, Schneider ended up getting traded. Mike Gillis sold out his best crease man not for thirty silvers but for just one first round pick, which was used for Bo Hovart. Alain Vigneault was discarded and John Tortorella brought in. Mike Santorelli the former Nashville Predator and Florida Panther were brought in to deepen the pool at center on the cheap. Keith Ballard was paid to go away.

This year the team will open the season with two players suspended, and David Booth on injured reserve. Former Montreal Canadien Yannick Weber will be looking for a blueline job, and both Bo Hovart and Hunter Shinkaruk continue their fight for a roster spot. The young guns may get their shot with the temporary openings, but whether they cross the 10 game threshold is anyone’s guess. The opening fistful of games see’s the Canucks kickoff their season visiting the San Jose Sharks. With just one night rest they will head home to square off with the Edmonton Oilers, before scurrying off to face the Calgary Flames less than 24 hours later. Finally they’ll have a short home stand with a pair of games against the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks.

Number of days 1-5: 7

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: San Jose Sharks (twice)

Weakest opponent:  Calgary Flames

Home games: 3

Projected points:  5

The pace of the first five games, and the unfamiliarity with the new system mixed with the possible inclusion of two rookies makes the opening handful of games really rough. With just one proven NHL goaltender, the question will loom all season long over how much they can afford to rest Roberto Luongo. The Canucks are actually in a competitive division for the first time in the career of any of their core players. It is probable they are a better than .500 team, but that depends on their goaltending and the Sedin’s staying the entire season and bouncing back to something like  the level they played at leading to their run to the Stanley Cup finals.

Goalie may be the most important position in all of sports. In hockey they are not only the last line of defense, playing more minutes a year than any skater, they are often the spark plug for offensive breakouts. Some teams have impressive goaltenders who not have played well in the past, but have done so in their system.

Philadelphia Flyers

The last half dozen years have served as a great example of why this team needs solid goaltenders who can play that way in their system. Ilya Bryzgalov was great in Phoenix. In Philadelphia he was bought out two years into a forever contract. When they squared off with the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals a few years back they used three different goalies in one post season. It isn’t hard to make the case that a goalie better than Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher or Johan Backlund might have had them hoisting the Cup and not Chicago. This year we will see if their cursed crease can bring down the resurgent Ray Emery, and Columbus Blue Jackets discard Steve Mason. I doubt either goaltender gets taken in first five rounds of any fantasy hockey draft.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The serial meltdowns of Marc-Andre Fleury are too much for all but the willfully blind to ignore. If once is chance, twice is coincidence, and three times is a certainty, four consecutive playoff flame-outs should be enough for anyone. In the last four seasons his save percentages are .891 following the Stanley Cup win, .899, .834, and most recent .883. Those numbers won’t keep you employed in the regular season. Last year Fleury forfeited the crease to the 36 year old Vokoun who’s first playoff appearance came the year Fleury was drafted, turned in a Sv% of .933 behind the exact same defense, Vokoun is now out recovering from a blood clot.

Calgary Flames

When most of your fans can’t name your goaltenders you’ve either found the new sexy netminder or you found someone willing to get peppered for a pay check. Joey MacDonald is career backup who since entering the NHL in the 2006-7 season has only played in 122 games. Forty-nine of them were in 2008-9 for the New York Islanders. He has a career save % of .903. The likely starter broke into the NHL the same season. He then spent three seasons on the shuttle between the AHL and NHL before fleeing to Europe. While in the KHL Karri Romo never topped 45 games. In the KHL playoffs, all but one post season his Sv% dropped from the regular season. To make it worse, Romo and MacDonald are playing behind a defense that just isn’t good. You could as accurately name the player best in their own end with stats as by picking a name from a hat.

Florida Panthers

New owners, old owners the story has been the same in Sunrise for years: not much quality. If the aim is to improve, at minimum a quality, healthy backup for Jacob Markstrom is needed. Last year Markstrom split 56 games between the AHL and NHL, and tacked on three more world cup games for good measure. The other goalie under NHL contract is Scott Clemmensen the less said about his play last season the better. They’ve brought in Tim Thomas on a professional tryout, but however good he has played in the past hasn’t been signed, and hasn’t played in a year.

Some o these teams are doomed from the start, for others their weakness won’t be exposed until the post season, all of these teams have some form of crease crisis.

After years, and years of futility, questionable contracts, and slow incremental improvement, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally made the playoffs. Better still, they didn’t even back in on a last game overtime loss, they snagged the five spot in the conference, in regulation or overtime wins they were tied for second in the east.

Which makes the dismantling of the team even more baffling. They dumped Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens and picked up Jonathan Bernier. They shipped out 3 picks for the Dave Bolland. Former New Jersey Devil David Clarkson was signed to a weighty deal. And most puzzling of all, Mikhail Grabovski was bought out. This is a guy who wanted to retire there, never took nights off, and was one of the better two way player in the NHL last season.

This year the team once know as the Toronto St Patrick’s, will open on the road against the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday October first, then head south to square off with the Philadelphia Flyers the next evening. A two set will open their season at home when they host the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche. Game five sees them back on the road against Seth Jones and the Nashville Predators.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 4

Best opponent: Montreal Canadiens

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4+

With all the changes on the roster, chemistry will take time. New lines are the order of the day, and new defensive pairings as well. Jonathan Bernier will have to learn the habits of all his defensemen, and they his. James Reimer will need to show he has bounced back completely from the late game collapse against the Boston Bruins. Whatever you may think of their talents, Nazim Kadri and Tyler Bozak are going to be known quantities as the likely centers of the first and second lines, that will make a difference in how teams play them. How will they adjust? Who will end up in Randy Carlyle’s dog house this year? The answers to those questions will tell us if the Toronto Maple Leafs have games after April 12th. The other weighty questions for the team are how well will Kessel and Phanuef play in their contract year? Phanuef is 28, he can reasonably expect to play at or near his current level at least five to seven more years. Will he play conservatively so as not to risk injury? Will Kessel play selfishly trying to inflate his goal total so he can sign a another long deal? For Phil Kessel if he stays healthy he could be contributing as much as much as Chris Kunitz or more in 8 years. If the team feels the can’t sign one or both players and trades them, how is that going to affect the dressing room?

The expansion of the NHL is is as inevitable as some back office hack coming up with a rule change like the jersey tuck penalty to justify their salary. Seattle is the new sexy but it is hardly the only city that might do right by a franchise.

The first question is where would teams go after Seattle or whoever is #31 go?

Las Vegas has the appeal of being without a single other top tier sports franchise. Currently the Wrangers of the ECHL and a AAA baseball team are it for non collegiate sports. The tourism industry there has to be considered a plus, or would be if the NHL was good at marketing. A second Chicago area team would also make a great deal of sense, the Second City hosts two MLB and has its own NFL team and two teams close enough they’re nearly the same market, why not give a huge, sprawling sports mad city another outlet for their enjoyment? Saskatchewan, Kansas City, Houston and Salt Lake City can all put in a claim based on their size, cash on hand, or corporate presence.  But with the leagues current configuration, it is unlikely the Greater Toronto Area or Quebec City see a new franchise.

Can the feeder system handle it?

This isn’t just a question of the AHL which finally reach 30 teams again or the ECHL. It goes down to top tier Junior hockey and below, both in North America, Europe, and potentially elsewhere. NHL owners, the NHLPA and sponsors would need to take a hand in expanding the USHL, CHL, and other development leagues. As hockey mad as the northeast US is, the fact that there are zero CHL, USHL or NAHL teams in the six New England states or New York is unfathomable. Yes the EJHL, and to an extent the MWEHL cover some ground, but not enough. The Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey league may need to expand as well.

Will the league push for sensible arena deals?

The biggest bar to success off the ice to teams in the last twenty years has been being shackled to a poor arena deal. The New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and other teams have suffered, and the league would be better if they hadn’t. Teams that control their arena control their destiny.

Can we please ensure catchy names for the teams?

This is really a marketing issue. The Minnesota Wild have superb fans and the single dumbest name in professional sports. Seriously, the Wild Hunt would have been cool, the Wild Hogs or Wild Dogs or Howe help us all the Wildcats would have been acceptable too, but just “wild” is so bland the team might as well not have a name. New teams in a market that may or may not have a strong hockey tradition will need marketing to start at point zero and that is the name.

With expansion will the league make better use of the NHL network?

Currently there is not an NHL game on the NHL Network most nights of the season. That’s just baffling. The more exposure various teams get, the more they can charge for in arena marketing the better the league does. The more people who can keep up with teams outside their area, the better. Even if the league goes to 40 teams in the next decade, that’s only 40 teams with 360 or more people, 60+ states, provinces, and territories and that’s means a lot of cities still won’t have a local team.

Last season was not the best year in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was also not the worst. This year for the first time since the 1998-99 season the Lightning will be without Vincent Lecavalier. The former 100 point man, part of the team’s only Cup win, was bought out. Regardless of who is named captain in his void, the player that will be matched in most minds with the is Steven Stamkos. To be successful this year, the team needs more from everyone who isn’t named Martin Saint Louis. Matt Taormina will have to contribute more than he did for the New Jersey Devils, Victor Hedman will again have to justify his 2nd overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft. Sami Salo, and Mattias Ohlund will have to not just roll the clock back but impart what they know about the NHL game to younger players.

While Jonathan Drouin is the crown jewel of their off season, what success the team has this year will come from other sources. Two of those are Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. Without at least one of these goalies stepping up and delivering 45 or so games of .920 sv% goaltending this team has little chance of making the playoffs. Ryan Malone, Eric Brewer and Valterri Filppula are all valuable veterans, and they need to take the game to their opponents end this season and keep it there.

The Lightning will open the season with a three game trip. First up are the Boston Bruins and their Stanley Cup finals opponents the Chicago BlackHawks. The final stop on the road is a 7:30 date with the Buffalo Sabres. When they get home their cross state rivals the Florida Panthers will greet them. Finishing up the opening gamut are the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is by no means an easy way to open the year, but there are winnable games.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities:  4

Best opponent: Chicago BlackHawks or Boston Bruins

Weakest Opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4

If head coach John Cooper can get everyone playing well, the team will no doubt improve over last years 14th placing in the east.  The turnover in forwards and the introduction of Cooper’s style last year will no doubt help the transition, but the roster isn’t isn’t overwheming, but it isn’t among the NHL’s very best, but they won’t be a bottom five team if things go well. Developing the young players like Drouin and any other prospects who make the team should be priority one this year.

The most engaging opening round series game for game last spring was the Saint Louis Blues squaring off with the Los Angeles Kings. Unfortunately for the Blues the series ended with them breaking down and not packing for another series. The bottom line was a lack of scoring, their regular season average was cut almost in half when the playoffs rolled around. In a six game series they scored just nine goals, and only TJ Oshie and Alex Steen had more than one.

In the off season they took care of some business. Alex Pietrangelo was extended, as was the new guy Jay Bouwmeester. One look at the roster, and with one exception, it becomes clear the team is looking to improve from within. The most notable change for fans will be the absence of David Perron who was moved for Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, and a draft pick. Also new to the lineup is former Buffalo Sabre, Dallas Star, and Vancouver Canuck Derek Roy. Those players were brought in to augment David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko and Chris Stewart, and maybe, just maybe drag the teams offense into the top half of the NHL.

As an opening fistful, the Blues can’t complain. They have their first five games spread out over twelve days, and are home for all five. Games one and two are against the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers. As of right now the goal situation for both franchises is iffy. Next up are the Chicago Blackhawks, a team they know well even if they now have several new faces on their roster. Rounding things out are the New York Rangers and San Jose Sharks. All five games are at home.

Number of days 1-5: 12

Number of cities: 1

Best opponent: Chicago BlackHawks

Weakest opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 5

Projected points: 5+

These first five games are a great opportunity for the Blues. If they can get manage to get three goals in three or four of their first five, they are aimed straight at the post season, and arguably challenging for the division crown. With their three netminders and stringy defensive style, they don’t really have an excuse not to be in the playoffs. Of the other teams in their division, only the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks were in the playoffs last season, and while the other teams have made changes it is hard to say any of them are better teams than the Blues.