For the third time in six years, Chicago begins a season as the defending champion. This time, the Blackhawks are in their best position ever to repeat. Chicago’s most likely challenger is Anaheim, which underwent a serious off-season overhaul after falling one win short of the 2015 Final. Helping the Ducks is the team’s station as the best in the Pacific Division, which is surprisingly the weakest in the league.
Overall, the parity-based NHL suffers from a serious imbalance in both conferences. The Central and Metropolitan divisions are far stronger top to bottom than either the Atlantic or the Pacific. A team with a better record (a sixth-place team, likely in the Central) might be left out of the postseason in favor of a third-place team with a weaker record.
How will 2015-16 shake out? Here is my 30-team season preview, broken down in 30 words or less:
Team order is based on projected finish
The Stanley Cup Contenders (Teams 1-10)
1. Anaheim Ducks (1st in Pacific): Though vulnerable in goal with Frederik Andersen, the reimigined Ducks are primed for glory. Captain Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry lead an elite group of forwards, while the defense took a huge leap forward.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (1st in Central): Amazingly, Chicago’s core six is still intact, led by captain Jonathan Toews. Goaltender Corey Crawford is solid and forward Marian Hossa is ageless. Patrick Kane’s ongoing saga is worth monitoring.
3. Tampa Bay (1st in Atlantic): The Triplets comprise the best group of young forwards in the league. Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy are an awesome 1-2 in goal. Biggest question: Will captain Steven Stamkos re-sign?
4. New York Rangers (1st in Metropolitan): Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is the backbone of the postseason-tested Rangers. New York endured off-season turnover, but the blue line remains stout. Will Rick Nash and company provide enough offense?
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd in Metropolitan): The addition of Phil Kessel to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin affords the Penguins a freakishly potent offense. The young defense and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury are the big questions.
6. Minnesota Wild (2nd in Central): With Devan Dubnyk finally settling the goaltending situation, Minnesota seems ready for big things. Defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise are the straws that stir the Wild’s drink.
7. Montreal Canadians (2nd in Atlantic): Led by the NHL’s best goaltender, Carey Price, Montreal is poised for a long run. Defenseman P.K. Subban and captain Max Pacioretty offer star power on a mostly anonymous roster.
8. St. Louis Blues (3rd in Central): Except on defense (and coach), the Blues are experimenting with big changes. Vladimir Tarasenko’s maturing into one of the league’s best snipers, but is Jake Allen the right goaltending choice?
9. Washington Capitals (3rd in Metropolitan): The well-rounded and physical Capitals are poised to go deep. Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie are a fun forward combo, but goaltender Braden Holtby is the reason for D.C. optimism.
10. New York Islanders (4th in Metropolitan): Brooklyn’s newest team is absolutely stacked offensively. John Tavares is arguably the NHL’s top weapon. Defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, plus goalie Jaroslav Halak, were great additions in 2014.
The Playoff Dark Horses (Teams 10-20)
11. Los Angeles Kings (2nd in Pacific): The Kings went sideways for all the wrong reasons last year. Rested and retooled (hello, Milan Lucic!), defenseman Drew Doughty, goaltender Jonathan Quick and company still expect great things.
12. Dallas Stars (4th in Central): Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin headline the league’s most electric offense. Often Dallas gets held back by weak goaltending and a porous blue line. Experienced defenseman Johnny Oduya should help.
13. Nashville Predators (5th in Central): Nashville added some offense to a foundation built on the league’s best defensive core, led by captain Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne. Filip Forsberg’s breakthrough is for real.
14. Winnipeg Jets (6th in Central): Winnipeg’s hulking squad had a breakout 2014-15. A young team offensively featuring a stout defense led by Dustin Byfuglien, the Jets are not quite elite yet. The goaltending remains worrisome.
15. Calgary Flames (3rd in Pacific): It’s easy to hype the exciting Flames, who came out of nowhere last season. With Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton, the defense is loaded and its division is bad.
16. San Jose Sharks (4th in Pacific): A summer retooling could return San Jose to the playoffs. This might be the last call for forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and the first for goaltender Martin Jones.
17. Florida Panthers (3rd in Atlantic): The upstart Panthers might not get many fans. However, with ageless Jaromir Jagr leading aggressive young forwards and Aaron Ekblad emerging on defense, the future might be now in Sunrise.
18. Columbus Blue Jackets (5th in Metropolitan): With Brandon Saad’s addition, Columbus is a compelling team to watch. Ryan Johnasen, Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky lead an explosive offense, while goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is hitting his prime.
19. Detroit Red Wings (4th in Atlantic): Replacing coach Mike Babcock is the biggest challenge facing Detroit, whose young core must shoulder more of the load that forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have carried for years.
20. Ottawa Senators (5th in Atlantic): A great story last year, Ottawa must wait for sustained success. Erik Karlsson leads a tough defense, while forward Mark Stone was a terrific rookie scorer.
The Unlikely Playoff Teams (Teams 21-30)
21. Boston Bruins (6th in Atlantic): What direction is captain Zdeno Chara and Boston going after a tumultuous offseason? Conference championship runs are distant memories for a team that must get younger and less expensive.
22. Colorado Avalanche (7th in Central): The Avalanche offense, led by Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Jarome Iginla and Nathan MacKinnon is dynamic, but the defense is weak. Colorado is an interesting sleeper in the Central Division.
23. Vancouver Canucks (5th in Pacific): A playoff team last year, Vancouver is going up in age and down in the standings. The Canucks are talented but the Sedins and goaltender Ryan Miller are all 35 years old.
24. Buffalo Sabres (7th in Atlantic): After tanking in 2014-15, Buffalo should be back with a vengeance. Adding forward Ryan O’Reilly, rookie Jack Eichel and goaltender Robin Lehner should pay off immediately.
25. Edmonton Oilers (6th in Pacific): The Connor McDavid era begins for the usually disappointing Oilers. If leader Taylor Hall can stay healthy and Cam Talbot is the real deal in goal, opinions might finally change.
26. Philadelphia Flyers (6th in Metropolitan): It’s going to be long year for developing Philadelphia. New coach Dave Hakstol inherits a squad with one great line featuring Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, and not much else.
27. Toronto Maple Leafs (8th in Atlantic): New coach Mike Babcock should improve the pathetic Leafs, which must start over from scratch. As Toronto rebuilds, will defenseman Dion Phaneuf, goaltender Jonathan Bernier and others stick around?
28. Arizona Coyotes (7th in Pacific): Though Arizona stunk in 2014-15, there is some talent here, like defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larssen and goaltender Mike Smith. The question is how many prospects can make their mark on offense?
29. New Jersey Devils (7th in Metropolitan): Remember 2012? New Jersey’s last trip to the Finals seems more than three years old. Cory Schneider, Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique are bright spots on the otherwise putrid Devils.
30. Carolina Hurricanes (8th in Metropolitan): Eric Staal’s contract situation looms over Carolina, which needs a massive overhaul. The 2006 championship is a distant memory for a ‘Canes team that plays more like a tropical depression.
Projected Standings (Playoff Teams in Bold)
1. Tampa Bay
1. New York Rangers
4. New York Islanders
7. New Jersey
3. St. Louis
2. Los Angeles
4. San Jose
Stanley Cup and Conference Finals Prediction (in 30 words): Anaheim will beat Tampa Bay in a thrilling six-game Stanley Cup Final. In the East, the Lightning will oust Pittsburgh, while out West the Ducks knock off defending champ Chicago.