1. Detroit Red Wings- No real surprise here. The Wings are deep, loaded and have enough veterans to keep the team hungry for another championship. Coach Babcock is smart and able to keep his team interested throughout the regular season. There are really no glaring weaknesses on the team. On the off chance they do get knocked off their perch, it will be the 2nd ranked team that does it.
2. San Jose Sharks- The Sharks have been bolstered by the additions of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, who should provide the offense from the point that new head coach Todd McLellan desires. They have talent and depth up front and excellent goaltending. The Pacific Division will be tough, but I think the Sharks have the tools to win it.
3. Edmonton Oilers- By way of disclosure, I am in fact an Oilers fans. Despite their disappointing pre-season, the Oilers are my pick to win the NW. The team is healthy, they have added offensive weapons and boast two competent goaltending options. The Oilers also have a deep prospect pool that they can dangle in a trade if they feel they need another piece. If the team can stay healthy and avoid a prolonged slump, they should be able to hold off the Flames and Wild.
4. Dallas Stars- Another contender in the Pacific Division, the Stars should benefit from the addition of Sean Avery. He did wonders for the Rangers when he was in the lineup and he should make all the Stars feel and play a little bit bigger. He is just the guy they need for what will likely be tough battles with Anaheim and San Jose. The Stars still have some good forwards and a solid defense, not to mention Marty Turco.
5. Calgary Flames- Though I am loathe to do so, its hard to bet against a team led by Jarome Iginla. Criminally ugly Dion Phaneuf also brings something to the table, and should be in contention for the Norris again this year. The decision by Mike Keenan to jettison veteran defenseman should pay dividends as well. It never hurts to have fresh legs manning the point. If Kiprusoff continues his slow but steady decline, the Flames playoff position may slip, but I still see them making the post-season dance.
6. Anaheim- The Ducks are still an excellent team, but I see them finishing 3rd in what should be an ultra-competitive Pacific Division. They will have Selanne and Niedermayer from the start of the season, which will be a boon, but I can’t see them overcoming Dallas and San Jose. Disagree? Tell me why in the comments.
7. Chicago- Big things are expected from this team. The Chicago faithful are back on board and the hopes of a city once again crushed by the Cubs are resting on two kids, of whom isn’t yet 20. They should be able to score goals in bunches, they have a young and mobile defensive corps and Cristobal Huet is no slouch in net. They won’t catch the Wings in the Central, but they will return to the playoffs.
8. Minnesota- This team is a Marion Gaborik injury away from missing the post-season, but I think they have enough good things going on (Backstrom, Burns and Brunette) to at least remain competitive in the Northwest. If Gabby goes down long term, they could be in trouble.
9. Columbus- It will be another year of close but no cigar for Scott Howson’s crew. Their top line should be much improved, as should their defense. My concern is that if Jan Hejda is on the power play, they may struggle to score much. That being said, I wouldn’t be shocked if they did claim a spot.
10. Nashville- Definitely not a sexy pic to make the playoffs, or even get close, the Predators are still a gritty bunch who can outwork teams. They don’t have to live up to any expectations and may surprise a few teams along the way. Dan Ellis may be a question mark in net and they will suffer from Radulov’s lost offense.
11. Vancouver- Goaltending and defense should be their strengths, but their cast of forwards is anything but awe inspiring. Once you get past the Sedins and Demitra, it looks an awful lot like the Manitoba Moose roster. Can someone explain why Michel Ouellet was assigned to Winnipeg?
12. Phoenix- This team will most certainly be better and will be a force in a couple years. Right now, I am not convinced that they can claw their way out of the Pacific. However, if you are looking for a surprise team, the Coyotes may fit the bill.
13. Colorado- I think this team will live and die with its goalies. The problem is those goalies are Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft. If either of them turns in a good season, the Avs may exceed expectations, if not it could be a long swan song for Joe Sakic. The defense is still good, but the forwards (with a few exceptions) strike me as an aging bunch. Coach Granato will have his hands full.
14. Los Angeles- The youth movement is in full swing in LA, but these kids and play and may just outscore a few teams on their way to some wins. Their time is still a couple years and a goalie away. Should still be fun to watch and Rachel Hunter at home games will be a treat.
15. St. Louis- The injury to Erik Johnson means another long year in Missouri. They have some good young players but the leadership group is past its prime.