The NHL season will officially get underway on Thursday night, with each team opening up their 2011-2012 campaign at some point over the weekend. For some teams, the expectations remain the same, with several top clubs vying for the Cup title, carrying more of an expectation than a dream. For others, the new season marks the start of positive change in an organization, and a look towards a bright future.
These are Rant Sports inaugural power rankings for the NHL. Each week, we will be coming to you with the top teams in the league, the middle-of-the-road types, and the flat out disappointments. Being the first week, these rankings could easily change very quickly over the past few months, as teams begin to establish themselves.
1. Boston Bruins – As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Bruins automatically grab the top spot. They’ll raise the banner on Thursday night, but will quickly be forced to answer questions about a possible repeat performance from Tim Thomas, as well as avoiding that infamous Cup Hangover.
2. Washington Capitals – The Caps struggled early last year, but turned it on late on their way to grabbing the no. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive year. Notorious for fizzling out in the postseason, the Caps added some grit to go along with the scoring power from Alex Ovechkin, bringing in guys like Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward in hopes of finally finding some postseason succcess.
3. Vancouver Canucks – Defending Western Conference champs should once again cruise through the Northwest Division as the other four teams try to catch up.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins – We all know the questions surrounding the Penguins’ star Sidney Crosby, but they are loaded with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal leading the offense until he returns. If Marc Andre-Fleury performs as a top ten goaltender all year, look out.
5. San Jose Sharks – Similar to Washington in their postseason failures, but made two of the biggest trades of the offseason, acquiring Martin Havlat and bolstering the blue line with Brent Burns in hopes of finally advancing past the Western Conference finals.
6. Philadelphia Flyers – One of the most intriguing stories heading into the season will be whether dumping Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to get an established goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov will pay off for Philly.
7. Chicago Blackhawks – After Cup hangover, Hawks’ young core is joined by a group of gritty veterans, along with a solid situation in net with Corey Crawford, as they hope to get back to serious Stanley Cup contenion.
8. Detroit Red Wings – Aging like a fine win, it’s impossible to count the Red Wings out. Loss of Brian Rafalski will hurt, but look for them to make another solid run in what could be Nicklas Lidstrom‘s final year.
9. Los Angeles Kings – The team that could quickly ascend up the rankings, Los Angeles looks like they are ready to make a deep run into the postseason. They are solid on the blue line, added Mike Richards to the offense, and could have a Vezina candidate in Jonathan Quick.
10. Anaheim Ducks – That top line can score on anyone, and their defense could be much improved if Cam Fowler takes another step. The only question is whether or not Jonas Hiller is completely recovered and ready to go after experiencing vertigo for much of the second half of last year.
11. New York Rangers – With Brad Richards added in the offseason, fans of the Blueshirts are hoping for a team to go deep into the postseason. If Richards performs as expected next to Marian Gaborik, and with Henrik Lundqvist in goal, expecations are certainly high in the Big Apple.
12. Buffalo Sabres – One of the most active teams during the summer, it will be interesting to see how all the new faces mesh. If Ryan Miller has the Vezina-type campaign that many are expected, they could be a team in the top half of the East, if the new pieces come together quickly.
13. Tampa Bay Lightning – They took care of the most important piece of business in the offseason by signing Steven Stamkos to a new deal. But can the replicate their success from last year, especially with Dwyane Roloson in goal?
14. Minnesota Wild – “The State of Hockey” added some star power in the offseason with Dany Heatley and Devon Setoguchi. The big question is whether or not their new head coach, Mike Yeo, could get them back into contention for the first time in three seasons.
15. Montreal Canadiens – Erik Cole was their big offseason prize, and they just added the league’s best penalty killer in Blair Betts. If Carey Price can repeat his success from last year, the Habs should be dangerous come playoff time next year.
16. St. Louis Blues – They added a veteran presence in the offseason, with Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, to go along with an emerging core group. If they can stay healthy, they’re a playoff team.
17. Nashville Predators – It will be tough to pony up the dough for Shea Weber beyond this year, but he returns for a group that is strong defensively, and is led by one of the league’s best goaltenders in Pekka Rinne. Their biggest question is who is going to provide the offense?
18. Carolina Hurricanes – They made a late run last year, falling just short of the postseason. Jeff Skinner is a rising star, and Cam Ward is quietly one of the stronger goaltenders in the league. They’re a young group, but could make some noise in the East.
19. New Jersey Devils – The Devils haven’t gotten much love from the press, but this is still a very talented team, which will get a big boost from a full season of Zach Parise and rookie Adam Larsson will be intriguing to watch on the blue line. There are questions in the middle, as well as Martin Brodeur‘s age, but the Devils should still be a playoff team in the East.
20. Florida Panthers – No team added more pieces this summer than Dale Tallon‘s club on South Beach. There are some big names there now, to be sure, such as Brian Campbell and Scottie Upshall, but how quickly can the new guys mesh and finally bring some success to the club?
21. Colorado Avalanche – If Semyon Varlamov stays healthy and is strong in net, the Avalanche have the offensive talent to make some noise in a tight Western Conference.
22. New York Islanders – Finally some hope is coming for the Isles and their fans, as the young core of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Michael Grabner have been pegged by many to be a sleeper team in the East. Their goaltending situation is unsettling, though.
23. Toronto Maple Leafs – They were close to a spot in the postseason last year, after a strong run in the spring, but still fell short. They added some pieces this summer, but still lack a strong presence in the middle that would help them take the next step.
24. Calgary Flames – Jarome Iginla is still as good as ever, but the Flames need others to perform if they want to avoid another disappointing season.
25. Winnipeg Jets – It will be tough to top the excitement from the Jets fans about hockey being back, but this team is still very similar to the Thrashers team from last year. They’ll need a big year from Evander Kane if they want to be noticed in the Eastern Conference.
26. Colombus Blue Jackets – They finally added a bit of star power to go along with Rick Nash by acquiring Jeff Carter, so they’ll be able to score and will have a top notch power play. But there’s simply not enough talent and depth overall for them to keep up with the rest of the Central Division.
27. Dallas Stars – Kari Lehtonen as a franchise goaltender? No more Brad Richards? The Stars will need a bunch of guys to step up if they want to avoid falling too far behind in a division that will be dominated by the Sharks and Kings.
28. Edmonton Oilers – Along with the Islanders, the Oilers will be one of the more exciting teams to watch as they move forward, with a plethora of young talent. The biggest storyline in the early going is whether or not first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will last more than the nine games with the team, or if he’ll be sent back to juniors.
29. Phoenix Coyotes – They’re offensively challenged and lost their best player in goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. They will need a combination of Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera to step up in his place. It’s a tall order to be sure, but the Coyotes have surprised us the past couple years, as well.
30. Ottawa Senators – The Sens are on the route that the Oilers and Islanders are well into, meaning their fans will have to be patient as the youth movement continues down the Senators’ road back to respectability.