1. Los Angeles Kings – History isn’t on their side since the last team to repeat as Cup champion was the Red Wings back in 1998. Still, it has to happen again at some point and the Kings are in very good shape heading into the season. It’s going to be tough to knock off a team with established stars like goaltender Jonathan Quick, center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty, supplemented by clutch guys like last year’s playoff MVP Justin Williams.
2. Chicago Blackhawks – The Blackhawks are still the most talented team in the NHL not named the Kings and they return a star-studded roster (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, etc.), many of whom helped them win a Cup in 2010 and 2013. Perhaps losing in an epic seven-game Western Conference Final to Los Angels will be the extra motivation that they need. The extra time off can’t hurt either after a short summer last year.
3. Boston Bruins – The President’s Trophy winner (most points in the regular season) from last season, the Bruins had no excuse for playing so poorly against Montreal and getting knocked out in the second round of the playoffs. Most of the same solid team returns, although replacing Jarome Iginla’s production and Johnny Boychuk’s dependability will be two major issues. The Eastern Conference still looks far worse than the Western Conference, which obviously works to Boston’s advantage.
4. New York Rangers – The Rangers making the Stanley Cup Final last season might have been a complete fluke, but what else do we have to go on at this juncture? Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played the best hockey of his NHL career and the Rangers grinded out series wins over Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal before being overmatched by Los Angeles. Heading into his second full season with New York, left wing Chris Kreider looks to be on the verge of stardom.
5. Montreal Canadiens – After beating the Bruins, the Canadiens appeared primed to get to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993 (also the last time they won a Cup). They fell apart against the Rangers, but with Carey Price in net and the league’s highest paid defenseman – P.K. Subban – Montreal isn’t going anywhere. The Habs still represent the biggest threat to Boston in the Eastern Conference, and they can get in the B’s heads like no other.
6. Anaheim Ducks – Stop us if you’ve heard this before: a favored Bruce Boudreau team falls short in the postseason. Yes, it happened again last spring as the Ducks lost to their California neighbors, the Kings, in the second-round (they led the series 3-2 and crumbled). Ryan Kesler gets a fresh start in Anaheim and goaltender John Gibson appears ready to take over.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins – This feels like a big year for the Penguins, in the sense that they haven’t done all that much in the last few postseasons. Sidney Crosby, still widely regarded as the best player in the NHL, as well as Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are all still there. Christian Ehrhoff should help their shaky defense and better health for Pascal Dupuis is important for their top-heavy forward lines.
8. Colorado Avalanche – For our money, the Avs are the unofficial best young team in the NHL. Head coach Patrick Roy helped them overachieve a bit last season before they fell in a seven-game first round series to Minnesota. Jarome Iginla can only help Nathan McKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog reach another level.
9. Minnesota Wild – The Wild probably went about as far as they’ll ever go in the loaded West last season, losing in the second round to Chicago. Thomas Vanek should really help them since they always seem to struggle to put the puck in the net. Their mess in goal, however, will probably be their undoing.
10. San Jose Sharks – This feels way too high for a team that pulled off another monumental choke job in the playoffs (their specialty), losing to the Kings in the first round after having a 3-0 series advantage. It’s unfathomable as to how Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau remain Sharks. That has to change at some point this season if they struggle. A healthy Tomas Hertl is one of the most exciting players to watch in the NHL.
11. St. Louis Blues – The Blues are another team that always look better on paper than the ice. Trading for Ryan Miller was the right move at the time, but it never really panned out. Now it’s Jake Allen’s turn to try to solve St. Louis’ black hole in net.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning – This might be a shot in the dark but we think a healthy Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop make Tampa Bay a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. A full season of Ryan Callahan is a good thing and the Lightning can’t wait to get left wing Jonathan Drouin (third overall pick in 2013) in the lineup. He could be the Rookie of the Year.
13. Dallas Stars – The Stars took the first step back to relevance last season by just making the playoffs. Their next goal has to be actually winning a series. Expect Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to rack up the points while ex-Senator Jason Spezza figures to benefit from a change in scenery.
14. Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers have been stuck in neutral the past few years. They’ve made the playoffs from time-to-time, but have not done much when they get there. They will only go as far as Claude Giroux will take them so it would help if he started to become more of a leader.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets – We would have ranked them much higher, but coming into the season without their top line thanks to injuries to Nathan Horton and Boone Jenner along with Ryan Johansen’s holdout means that Columbus could struggle until they all return. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will have to pick up his game for the shorthanded club.
16. Detroit Red Wings – Detroit is a proud team with many holes. Injuries to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg before the regular season has even started have halted high expectations. Detroit needs its promising youngsters like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Danny DeKeyser to continue to develop. Jimmy Howard figures to have a bounce-back year as well in goal.
17. Nashville Predators – We’re betting on a healthy Pekka Rinne turning around Nashville. Also, Seth Jones is going to improve and Shea Weber is still one of the best defensemen in the league. As usual with the Predators, scoring goals has to be their main issue.
18. New York Islanders – Call it a hunch, but it feels like the Islanders will do something memorable in their last season at dumpy Nassau Coliseum. Whether that means making the playoffs or being a complete embarrassment is anyone’s guess. They certainly tightened up their defense by trading for Johnny Boychuk from Boston and Nick Leddy from Chicago.
19. Ottawa Senators – Like the Islanders, the Senators are a team that missed the postseason last year but were there the year before, so it’s not a stretch to envision them returning. Signing Bobby Ryan to a long-term deal is fine and naming Erik Karlsson captain makes sense. Will goaltender Craig Anderson and head coach Paul MacLean find their magic again?
20. New Jersey Devils – No goaltender in the NHL was better last season with less to show for it than Cory Schneider. That has to balance out more this season and the Devils just missed out on the playoffs in the JV Eastern Conference. The ageless Jaromir Jagr is back to break more incredible records.
21. Washington Capitals – It’s tough to say how much a good head coach means in the NHL but we guess Washington will be a good test for that. Barry Trotz, longtime Predators boss, comes to the nation’s capital to get something more out of Alex Ovechkin and Co.. It would help if young goaltender Braden Holtby would be more consistent.
22. Toronto Maple Leafs – Nothing seems to ever go right for the Leafs, so why expect anything different this time around? They certainly have some skilled players like Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. The key will be if Jonathan Bernier can handle a full role as a starting goaltender.
23. Arizona Coyotes – You probably forgot that the Coyotes changed their name from Phoenix to Arizona, but really who cares? It should be another long season in the desert unless goaltender Mike Smith regains his form and defenseman Keith Yandle takes his game up a notch. With talks of expansion shot down by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the Coyotes are stuck in Arizona for the time being.
24. Carolina Hurricanes – Hey, remember when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006? That might as well have been a lifetime ago since we’ve heard barely a peep from the franchise since then. Don’t expect that to change this season, assistant captain Jordan Staal broke his leg in the preseason – an ominous sign for a not-too-promising-campaign.
25. Edmonton Oilers – Speaking of teams that have been off the map for years, will the Oilers ever start to win again with their plethora of high draft picks? They signed some decent veterans like right wing Teddy Purcell, defenseman Mark Fayne and goaltender Viktor Fasth that will get big minutes from day one. Will Taylor Hall take the next step and become an All-Star?
26. Vancouver Canucks – It’s been a long fall for a club that was in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 vs. Boston. The Canucks should be in full-fledged rebuilding mode yet they still have both Sedins and they signed Ryan Miller – so riddle me that. At least new acquisitions like Nick Bonino and Radim Vrbata give their forward lines some much needed depth.
27. Winnipeg Jets – What exactly is the Jets’ identity? They haven’t made the playoffs since moving back to Winnipeg in 2011 and we can’t see that changing this season. Power forward Evander Kane is a valuable trade chip wasting away in frigid Winnipeg. He could be a gamebreaker in many other locations.
28. Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres might have the worst roster in the NHL so this might be a generous spot for them. Other than Matt Moulson, who can score goals for them? Also, the prospect of Jhonas Enroth being your number one goaltender is horrifying.
29. Calgary Flames – Another Canadian team that is going nowhere, the Flames at least will be interesting to watch with rookie left wing Johnny Gaudreau joining the team after three amazing years at Boston College. Young center Sam Bennett, the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft, is an intriguing player as well. As usual with Calgary, it’s about the future (or the past) but not the miserable present.
30. Florida Panthers – Did you know that the Panthers are still a thing? I bet that you didn’t. Where are you now, Pavel Bure? They do employ Twitter icon Roberto Luongo – so all is not lost.
Follow Metro NHL writer Richard Slate on Twitter: @RichSlate