1. Chicago Blackhawks – Clearly, this is the most obvious choice of these preseason rankings. The Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in the last six years in June and they return most of their championship roster . Young forward Brandon Saad is gone but they added center Artem Anisimov from Columbus and defenseman Trevor Daley from Dallas. Patrick Kane’s ongoing legal situation has been one of the biggest storylines in the NHL this past off-season, however, and will continue to be monitored.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning– This placement stems from more than the fact that the Lightning battled Chicago for six tight games before falling in the Stanley Cup Final. This is a loaded young team that looks like the class of the Eastern Conference. Everyone knew about Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, but center Tyler Johnson (13 goals, 10 assists) was Tampa Bay’s breakout star of last postseason’s run.
3. New York Rangers – Everything lined up right for the Rangers to return to the Stanley Cup Final last season but then they fell at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Tampa Bay. New York didn’t change much to its roster, but that’s a good thing. Henrik Lundqvist is coming off arguably the best season of his career and he might be the top goaltender in the NHL.
4. Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks were the top team in the Western Conference last season but like the Rangers, they fell in Game 7 of the Conference Finals on their home ice. Anaheim still boasts perhaps the most dangerous center and winger combination in the league - Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Speedy former Ranger Carl Hagelin should be a nice addition at left wing for the Ducks.
5. Montreal Canadiens – In the spring, the Canadiens looked poised to end Canada’s long Cup drought (22 years and counting) but they meekly fizzled out in the second round against Tampa Bay. Still, this is a very good team led by goaltender Carey Price, who won his first Vezina Trophy. Mercurial right wing Alexander Semin gets a (final) chance to revitalize his career after completely disappearing in Carolina last season.
6. Washington Capitals – The Capitals definitely improved under Barry Trotz but they fell in the playoffs to the Rangers in a seven-game second round series. Goaltender Braden Holtby became a star last season and Alex Ovechkin continues to be a force of nature. Center Niklas Backstrom’s (hip) health is their biggest issue as he’ll be sidelined to start this campaign.
7. Nashville Predators – There is a lot to like about the Predators and they are probably better than their first-round exit in the playoffs would indicate since they ran into the buzzsaw Blackhawks. Nashville is strong at every position with Pekka Rinne in goal, Shea Weber on defense and budding star Filip Forsberg up front. Entering his third NHL season, look for defenseman Seth Jones to continue to develop his limitless potential.
8. Minnesota Wild – Speaking of teams that got steamrolled by Chicago in the playoffs, Minnesota got swept by them in the second-round after they upset St. Louis in six games. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk literally came out of nowhere to lead the Wild to an improbable postseason berth. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still be that guy in a full season as their starter.
9. St. Louis Blues – It was the same old story for the Blues (insert a lame music joke here) last season as they were great in the regular season but then quickly folded in the playoffs. This is an outstanding roster, other than the key hole at goaltender (sorry Jake Allen and Brian Elliott). Unless either of those guys step up, it’s hard to see St. Louis faring much better this time around.
10. New York Islanders– Hipsters beware, an NHL team is coming to Brooklyn this season. The Islanders have a team worthy of their new home (Barclays Center) and deep down, I’m sure they are happy to get out of dumpy Nassau Coliseum. Center John Tavares is still only 25 but he is unquestionably one of the most valuable players in the NHL.
11. Los Angeles Kings – The defending champs missed out of the playoffs last season but don’t bet on that becoming a habit in LA. An extended summer break for goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty and center Anze Kopitar among others should make for a world of difference in this season’s results. Former Bruin Milan Lucic appears to be a good fit for this big and physical team.
12. Calgary Flames – Going into last season, nobody picked the Flames to make the playoffs. However, this inexperienced team arrived ahead of schedule and even knocked off eternally fraudulent Vancouver in the first-round before losing to Anaheim in five games. The good times should continue in Calgary with skilled forwards like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan not to mention lockdown defensemen such as Mark Giordano and Kris Russell.
13. Detroit Red Wings – The Red Wings were underrated last season as they pushed Tampa Bay to seven games in the first-round before losing. When goaltender Jimmy Howard struggled, rookie Petr Mrazek came in and played great. Who knows how that’ll be sorted out this season but you can never have too many quality goaltenders.
14. Ottawa Senators – The Senators were another team that snuck up on people but lost to Montreal in the first-round of the playoffs. Goaltender Andrew Hammond is out for the first few weeks with a groin injury but veteran Craig Anderson could be the best backup in the league. Defenseman Erik Karlsson’s position is a misnomer but he is undoubtedly one of the most exciting players to watch.
15. Pittsburgh Penguins – The words Phil Kessel and sexy are rarely found in the same sentence but the Penguins certainly made a splash by acquiring him over the summer. Along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh’s possible power play groups sound amazing. As always with the Penguins, their fortunes likely will be decided by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury-the most up-and-down player in the NHL.
16. Winnipeg Jets – I wouldn’t say this for most clubs but just getting into the playoffs last season was a major accomplishment for Winnipeg. Their next step is to win some games in the postseason. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien remains a total game-changer, when he wants to be.
17. Florida Panthers – They didn’t make the playoffs last season but everyone could see the huge amount of progress that Florida has made. They have an appealing mix of young (Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau) along with old (ageless Jaromir Jagr and Brian Campbell). Look for them to be in the mix once again for a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
18. Boston Bruins – After making the postseason seven years in a row, the B’s unexpectedly missed out on the fun last season. They have a new GM in Don Sweeney and some new players like Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes that will be counted on right away. They still possess a strong nucleus (Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron) which should help them return to the playoffs this spring.
19. Edmonton Oilers – Think of this as more of a futures bet. The Oilers have been a joke for a decade but with another heavily hyped No. 1 pick-Connor McDavid-they are due to be good again at some point, right? Goaltender Cam Talbot fills their biggest hole but leading scorer Jordan Eberle being out for four-to-six weeks with a shoulder injury doesn’t help.
20. Buffalo Sabres – This is basically the same idea as Edmonton, Buffalo was a disgrace the last few seasons but No. 2 draft pick Jack Eichel is the real deal. It takes more than one guy to turn around a cesspool of losing like the Sabres but he won’t be alone with new additions like center Ryan O’Reilly and left wing Evander Kane there as well. Not to get too ahead of ourselves but the McDavid-Eichel rivalry could be something special.