Everyone else has their views on how the season will go, from pundits to average fans and back again. Here's how I see things breaking down, and why:
15. Florida Panthers
The Panthers are in the midst of a complete roster overhaul, disassembling the teams that we've been familiar with over the past several seasons and starting from scratch. Two years ago, the Panthers narrowly missed the playoffs, and then lost defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to free agency. Last season, the Panthers fell all the way to 14th in the East, and proceeded to ship out Nathan Horton to Boston as part of the re-build. GM Dale Tallon has a sizable task on his hands, and one imagines the Panthers are not done tearing down the club and creating a fresh foundation.
Most Important Player: Tomas Vokoun. He's a good enough goaltender, and can keep a young club in games and steal the odd win here or there. He's also Florida's best trading chip, as he is in the final year of his contract.... although there's a No Movement Clause that could handicap things.
Best Case Scenario: The kids develop faster than expected and a foundation is put in place. Vokoun and several other veterans (such as Bryan McCabe) are traded for robust returns that accelerate the re-building process.
Worst Case Scenario: The kids don't develop at all. The tradable veterans use their NTCs and NMCs to block moves to other clubs, or get injured and can't be traded at all.
Don't Be Surprised If: Scott Clemmensen approaches several of his career high marks as the season progresses. While not a #1 goaltender, Scott is a capable backup and can hold the fort if and when Vokoun is traded.
Prognosis: This is going to be the worst team in the NHL this season, but there's nowhere to go but up afterwards. With the Miami Heat sharing the town, most of South Florida won't even notice the Panthers.
14. New York Islanders
The Islanders are a team on the rise, but one that has already been struck repeatedly by the injury bug before the season even begins. A fashionable dark horse pick for the playoffs just a few weeks ago, the team has to cope with the absence of forward Kyle Okposo and workhorse defenseman Mark Streit. There's a foundation in place with John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Trent Hunter, plus the aforementioned Streit and Okposo, but the injuries appear to have set this team back at least in the short term.
Most Important Player: Matt Moulson. John Tavares will be fine, although he might go through some growing pains and his sophomore slump. Moulson was a pleasant surprise on the Island last year, providing a secondary threat, and he will be relied upon to continue in that role. If Matt Moulson regresses, opponents will be free to focus everything upon Tavares and his line.
Best Case Scenario: The kids continue to develop, and Mark Streit returns ahead of schedule to a club still battling for the playoffs. GM Garth Snow uses his salary cap space to absorb a bad contract or two in return for picking up useful assets for the short-term and/or future.
Worst Case Scenario: They're already close with the Okposo and Streit injuries. More injuries, plus distractions off-the-ice related to the Lighthouse Project and the team's future on Long Island might be about all that is left.
Don't Be Surprised If: GM Garth Snow is aggressive in upgrading this club for the future, with less concern on the 2010-2011 season. The Islanders have cap space to play with and an owner who is willing to spend if there's reason to, which makes the Islanders an attractive partner for teams that need some cap flexibility.
Prognosis: The Isles would have been hard-pressed to make the playoffs if they were entirely healthy. Considering the injury situation and how long those players are gone for, this is your Atlantic Division cellar-dwellars and shouldn't be considered a serious threat.
13. Atlanta Thrashers
Another team in the midst of a rebuilding process, as they've now completely disassembled the core of the club they built up in the last decade with last season's trades of Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen. They've taken advantage of the Great Chicago Fire Sale to add useful pieces, and they've picked up a number of young players in return for their superstars in years past. Now it is a question of how all those pieces fit together and what comes next.
Most Important Player: Dustin Byfuglien. One of Chicago's salary cap casualties from last summer, Byfuglien is versatile and the type of player teams salivate over. He's big, he has offensive skills, and he plays with a snarl. He really made a name for himself in last season's playoffs, leading many to predict bigger and better things for him. A lot rides on whether or not he can live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him.
Best Case Scenario: The Chicago imports maintain their high level of play, veterans such as Bryan Little return to form, and the young forwards make progress. This team can contend for a playoff spot, but a lot has to go right for that to happen.
Worst Case Scenario: The forward units can't come up with a whole lot of offense, including the failure of the prospects to mature and the veterans regressing. The Thrashers are locked into several veterans with contracts that may be difficult to move if things go south, so it may be a case of sinking or swimming with what they've got.
Don't Be Surprised If: Dustin Byfuglien is playing forward on the top line by the All-Star Break. The Thrashers are deep on the blue line with or without Byfuglien, but there are significantly more question marks up front.
Prognosis: They'll be an improved team from the roster they iced at the tail end of last season, but there isn't enough talent there to make the playoffs. Even as weak as the Southeast and Northeast are, there are enough teams ahead of them that it will be another spring without playoff hockey in Atlanta.
12. Toronto Maple Leafs
Yet another re-building project, although one with a couple of the big pieces in place when one considers sniper Phil Kessel and rugged blue-liner Dion Phaneuf. Brian Burke is certainly building a club in his image, a rough-and-tumble team similar to the Anaheim team that fought to the 2007 Stanley Cup, but there's still much work to be done going forward as the Leafs try and figure out who belongs for the long-term.
Most Important Player: Tomas Kaberle. A talented offensive defenseman, and probably the most attractive option in that mold for teams looking at an in-season upgrade. Brian Burke has been trying to trade Kaberle since his arrival, but a combination of teams unwilling to meet Burke's alleged high asking price and Kaberle's refusal thus far to waive his no-trade clause have stymied those efforts. With Kaberle, Toronto has a significant one-two punch on defense, but the Leafs have made it clear that they wouldn't object to cashing him in.
Best Case Scenario: The youth movement takes another leap forward, and the defense corps led by Phaneuf, Kaberle, and Luke Schenn demonstrates itself to be among the best in the game. The Northeast Division is ripe for the taking, and it isn't out of the question that the Maple Leafs could take a quantum leap forward and put themselves into the discussion.
Worst Case Scenario: The Maple Leafs demonstrate themselves to be a team of Kessel and little else, and the Leafs are physically intimidating but not overly skilled. Kaberle rejects any and all pleas to waive his no-trade clause, simply walking away at the end of the season and leaving the Leafs with nothing.
Don't Be Surprised If: There is another year of significant roster churn in Toronto as Brian Burke falls in and out of love with players and the team struggles.
Prognosis: The Leafs will use their ample resources to try and stockpile more assets for the long haul. The playoffs aren't out of reach, but they are probably a serious long shot. Maple Leaf fans should be happy if the team is competitive on a nightly basis and develops a significant piece to take some of the pressure off of Phil Kessel.
11. Montreal Canadiens
Expectations are always very high with Montreal, even if the results aren't always there. Despite entering the spring as the #8 seed, they were one of the pleasant surprises of last season's playoffs as they knocked off Washington and Pittsburgh in successive rounds before falling in the Eastern Conference Finals. Playoff hero Jaroslav Halak has been shipped out, but much of last season's team remains.
Most Important Player: Carey Price. Now that Halak is a St. Louis Blue, the hopes of an entire province lie on Price's shoulders. Whether or not he can live up to those responsibilities will have a lot to say about how Montreal's season turns out: if he's good, the team will be as well.
Best Case Scenario: Price lives up to the lofty expectations, and Montreal's veterans live up to their pay grades. If this happens, there's no reason why the Canadiens can't win the #3 seed in the East and make another lengthy playoff run.
Worst Case Scenario: Price can't handle the pressure, with most of Canada turning on him in the process. Tomas Plekanec regresses now that he has his new contract, while players such as Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta demonstrate themselves to be vastly overpaid. The Canadiens are a very top-heavy team as far as salary structure goes -- if those players don't produce, the media and fans will go into a feeding frenzy.
Don't Be Surprised If: Montreal attempts to move one of their big defensemen to patch other holes on the roster. They've got a number of expiring contracts that will be attractive to other teams, and the type of return the Canadiens seek will depend largely on the kind of season they have. It could be a trade for other veterans, or a fire sale to try and restock the system.
Prognosis: Carey Price has been given several chances to be the team's #1 goalie and has yet to run with it. There are four forwards with cap hits at or above $5 million under contract until at least 2014. Expectations are going to be high, but it is doubtful that this team has the talent to live up to them. This is a train wreck waiting to happen.
10. New York Rangers
Ah.... Our Hated Rivals. Similar to the team immediately above them in these predictions, this is a team with expectations that looks to be on the playoff bubble. Last season they were a team with good defense and anemic offense. This season appears to be more of the same at first blush, given their salary cap situation. A few breaks would have gotten them into the postseason tournament, but how much has really changed on Broadway?
Most Important Player: Marian Gaborik. Gabby might be the most important player to his own team in the entire National Hockey League, considering what else the Rangers' offense has to offer. Gaborik, if healthy, can be counted on for 40 goals.... but health has always been a question with him.
Best Case Scenario: Gaborik remains healthy, and players such as Alexander Frolov and Brandon Dubinsky provide the necessary secondary scoring to make the Blueshirts more than a one-man show. The defensive corps and the goaltending hold up their end, and the Rangers coast comfortably into the playoffs instead of biting their fingernails in April.
Worst Case Scenario: Gaborik gets hurt, and secondary scoring simply does not materialize, leading to a season where the Rangers can only win on nights their goaltending steals a game for them. By mid-January, the fans actively call for Mark Messier to take over as coach/GM, and there's an attempted fire sale of any and all parts buyers are interested in.
Don't Be Surprised If: GM Glen Sather is very active and creative in acquiring a second proven scorer when one hits the market, even if it means mortgaging the farm system. After eleven seasons at the helm and little to show for it, and with a successor in the wings, the seat may be getting awfully hot.
Prognosis: This team goes as far as Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist carry them, same as last season. Considering Gaborik's injury history and the lack of maneuverability the Rangers have under the cap, it probably won't be very far. Look for the Rangers to be competitive into April, but ultimately fall short once again.
9. Boston Bruins
The departure of Phil Kessel before the 2009-2010 campaign left a team that was atrocious offensively, but very good defensively, riding Tuuka Rask's sensational play to the #6 seed and a first-round playoff win over Buffalo. Management has taken steps to improve the offense, bringing in Nathan Horton from Florida and drafting Tyler Seguin with one of the picks obtained from Toronto. The offense should be better this season.
Most Important Player: Nathan Horton. The acquisition of Horton and the return to health of Marc Savard were meant to inject life into the League's worst offense from a year ago. Savard is out indefinitely from the after-effects of last season's concussion, so the pressure will be on Horton to light the lamp.
Best Case Scenario: The offense gets a boost from Horton, Seguin is a rookie revelation, Savard makes a timely return from concussion and is the Savard of old. The defense and goaltending continues to be as good as last season, and the combination of it all leads to a Northeast Division title.
Worst Case Scenario: The offense isn't much improved from last season, Tuuka Rask regresses from last season's form, and the defense isn't as good as it was last season. Claude Julien gets axed as a result, with Beantown turning their attention to the Red Sox by the time the NHL playoffs arrive.
Don't Be Surprised If: Tim Thomas reclaims the #1 goaltending job by mid-season. Rask was heavily protected last season, and his numbers were substantially better than anything he had put up earlier in his career. Unless the improvement was a quantum leap in ability, the law of averages says he won't put up the same numbers twice in succession.
Prognosis: The offense will be better, but still won't come up to the league average. The goalie situation turns into a distraction, rumblings arise about the job security of the head coach, and the Bruins find themselves clawing for a playoff spot, ultimately coming up short the last weekend of the season.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Last season, the 'Canes fell flat on their face out of the gate and ran out of time trying to make up the difference between them and the playoff pack. The reins have been turned over to the next generation, with many of the familiar faces of the 2006 champs gone in one form or another. A terrific finish raised hopes for the upcoming season, but it remains to see if that was a true representation of the team on hand or simply a case of getting hot when the pressure was off.
Most Important Player: Eric Staal. Carolina is his team now, and he's got the contract to prove it. A proven scorer, and one of the remaining veterans from the 2006 team, the young Hurricanes will look to him to lead the way and score the big goals.
Best Case Scenario: The late-season run from a year ago was a result of the young 'Canes coming into their own. The prospects continue to mature, the team stays relatively healthy, and Cam Ward bounces back to his All-Star form. Carolina doesn't win their division, but they put a scare into Washington and coast into the post-season.
Worst Case Scenario: The injury bug returns with a vengeance, while the prospects disappoint. The team goes through a stretch where they have trouble winning for an extended period of time, which demoralizes the players and the fanbase while the team skids into the cellar.
Don't Be Surprised If: Major contributions are made by players and prospects nobody is considering. The 'Canes are among the League's youngest teams, and have a knack for integrating disparate parts into their system and making it work.
Prognosis: Their fate comes down to the final few games, part of the pack contending for the last few playoff spots. It says here that they sneak in, although their post-season stay won't last long enough for the players to unpack.
7. Ottawa Senators
Much of last season's team is back for another go-round, although rugged blue-liner Anton Volchenkov departed and was replaced by the offensively gifted Sergei Gonchar. The goaltending remains unproven, but the rest of the club is very solid even if it is also unspectacular.
Most Important Player: Sergei Gonchar. The forwards should be fine, as they are a deep group even if they don't have the talent of some other groupings. Gonchar was imported to provide an offensive spark from the backline, and paid handsomely to do so. If he can provide that, the Senators should light the lamp. If he can't, he'll be a lodestone weighing down the franchise.
Best Case Scenario: Gonchar is everything he's advertised to be, and either Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire establishes themselves as a bonafide number one goaltender. With an above average team in every phase, Ottawa finds themselves atop the Northeast Division and dreaming of a playoff run to rival 2007's trip to the Finals.
Worst Case Scenario: The goaltending continues to be a mess, and Sergei Gonchar fails to provide the boost the Ottawa offense is looking for. An aging team plus off-ice distractions submarines the entire season, and the Senators are picked apart by the vultures at the trade deadline.
Don't Be Surprised If: Ottawa makes a trade involving a goaltender, whether bringing one in to backstop the team or shipping out the loser of the in-season goaltending competition. With both netminders due for free agency at the end of the season, a decision will have to be made going forward.
Prognosis: Every year, it appears the Senators are set to fall off the map, and every year they seem to find a way to hang around and make it into the post-season tournament. While they aren't the elite team from the years surrounding the lockout, the script plays out the same year after year. They'll still be around when the field is cut to sixteen.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa's re-build appears to be nearing its completion, with the Lightning now a fashionable pick to make the jump into the playoffs by many. The old guard of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis remain, with youngsters such as NHL goal-scoring champ Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman around for support. Simon Gagne was acquired to provide more offensive depth, and expectations are rising for a team that hasn't been to the postseason in a few years.
Most Important Player: Dan Ellis. The offense should be there, but Ellis will be expected to keep the puck out of the net and give the team a chance to win on a nightly basis. If he can't handle the job, another solution will have to be found.
Best Case Scenario: Ellis is good enough, and the addition of Simon Gagne gives the Lightning two talented lines for other teams to try and deal with. The 'Ning put a scare into Washington and cruise into the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario: The goaltending is subpar, the defense is inadequate, and Simon Gagne repeats his injury history leaving the Lightning without enough firepower to keep up.
Don't Be Surprised If: GM Steve Yzerman is aggressive in-season to augment the club further. If the money is there to spend on payroll, the Lightning have the cap space to improve the club and a GM willing to be pro-active in doing so.
Prognosis: Challenging Washington is probably a fantasy, but there's enough talent there to carry the Lightning back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007. There will be playoff hockey in Central Florida.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
A team built in the mold of the Broad Street Bullies of yesteryear. The Flyers are a deep and talented bunch on offense, and physical to the point of intimidation of other clubs. The goaltending remains a question mark, but that has remained unchanged since the first reign of Ron Hextall between the pipes. The Flyers barely squeezed into the postseason last year, but made it all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals before falling.
Most Important Player: Chris Pronger. The offense isn't an issue, and the goaltending will forever seem to be a work-in-progress. Pronger, however, makes the entire thing work. He's as complete a defenseman as exists in the NHL, and his ability to shut down the opposition's top player while logging thirty minutes a night makes him invaluble on the ice. As Pronger goes, so will the Flyers.
Best Case Scenario: The Flyers aren't nearly as injury-ravaged as last season, and the goalie situation finds a way to sort itself out in a positive light. If the Devils and/or Penguins struggle, the Flyers have the talent to make a run at the top of the Atlantic Division.
Worst Case Scenario: Chris Pronger is hurt and/or is hit with a lengthy suspension -- Pronger (and Mike Richards, too) is likely one questionable hit from an enforced vacation with his history. Goaltending and injuries could also be a handicap for the Flyers, especially as the salary cap will make it difficult for them to re-tool.... but losing Pronger could devestate the club.
Don't Be Surprised If: The starting goaltender for the Flyers come playoff time is currently minding the nets for another franchise. The shelf life of a goalie in Philly is very short, and neither Michael Leighton nor Brian Boucher provides much in the way of re-assurances. Even if they don't do anything else, a trade for someone like Tomas Vokoun could be seen as their panacea.
Prognosis: Probably the fourth-best team in the East, but third-best in their own division. They'll be in the lower half of the playoff draw, and the one team nobody wants to face in the first round.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
An elite team, with a number of familiar faces from years past, but also a group that has undergone a makeover on the blue line. The familiar names are up front, led by the 1-2-3 punch of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, while Marc-Andre Fleury guards the net. It was an off-season of change on the blue line, however, as Sergei Gonchar departed and was replaced by ex-Devil Paul Martin and ex-Coyote Zbynek Michalek. Nobody doubts this team has immense talent, but do they have the depth to make it all work?
Most Important Player: Jordan Staal. In an attempt to get more offense this season, Staal has been promoted to the second line while former league scoring champ Evgeni Malkin shifts to wing. Staal has established his bonafides as one of the league's top defensive forwards, but now he's being put in a situation where they expect him to score. The ongoing problem in Pittsburgh is finding players to skate with Crosby and Malkin -- this is a significant attempt to fix that.
Best Case Scenario: The Staal-Malkin pairing is everything the Penguins hope for, Paul Martin replaces all the offense lost when Sergei Gonchar departs, and secondary scoring materializes from players such as Michael Rupp and Mike Comrie. The Penguins ride the wave of offense into the conference's top seed.
Worst Case Scenario: The Staal-Malkin pairing is a disaster and the experiment is scrapped. Goaltending becomes an issue when Fleury is either hurt or ineffective, and the defense has trouble integrating its newcomers properly. Rather than spending March fighting for a top seed, the Penguins spend the month battling just to get into the postseason.
Don't Be Surprised If: The Penguins put Crosby and Malkin on the same line at some point for an extended period. While the NHL is moving away from such "superstar" lines in practice, it might also be the only solution to finding Crosby and Malkin top-flight linemates. Depth becomes an issue at that point, but at least there will be offense from that unit.
Prognosis: The Penguins will spend half the season figuring out how to make the pieces fit with one another, and may shuffle players back-and-forth from their minor league affiliate at Wilkes-Barre or make some trades trying to make it work. Even if they can't come to an ideal solution, this team has enough talent that they'll be there in the end, one way or another.
3. Buffalo Sabres
Division champs a year ago, the Sabres continue to swap parts in and out from season-to-season. USA Olympic hero Ryan Miller is the most recognizable face, and last season's Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers leads a good, if relatively anonymous defense corps, but the question remains where the team will find offense to win games, and how the Sabres will replace free agent defections such as defensemen Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder. Head coach Lindy Ruff and GM Darcy Regier always seem to find a way, however, and they may be the best tandem in the business.
Most Important Player: Ryan Miller. The fortunes of the Sabres rest on the Olympian. If he is hurt or ineffective, this team is a catastrophe waiting to happen. If he comes close to his silver medal and Vezina form, he'll win Buffalo a lot of games and take pressure off players such as Thomas Vanek.
Best Case Scenario: Vanek returns to form, while the Sabres manufacture scoring from other spots in the lineup. While it is something of a dogfight most of the way, the Sabres pull away and win another division title in the end.
Worst Case Scenario: Miller is hurt, Vanek continues to struggle under the weight of expectations his huge contract lays upon him, and Tyler Myers suffers a sophomore slump. With a porous defense and uneven scoring, the Sabres struggle throughout much of the year, spending the trade deadline as sellers and the playoffs on the golf course.
Don't Be Surprised If: Tim Connolly isn't playing for the Sabres at the end of the season, one way or another. The forward is injury prone and rarely makes it through a full season intact. If healthy, however, he is Buffalo's best trade chip to address other issues, or a desirable pickup by a contending team if the Sabres are out of it.
Prognosis: Miller is one of the top goalies in the world, and the Northeast Division isn't particularly strong. There aren't off-ice distractions surrounding the coach and GM as there will be in the other four cities in the division, so there's no reason the Sabres can't be the #3 seed once again. Teams at the bottom of the draw will want to play them in the first round, but anything can happen come playoff time.
2. New Jersey Devils
The Devils were the focus of everyone's attention this summer, with the two month-plus Ilya Kovalchuk saga captivating fans and pundits alike. One of the most intriguing teams in the league; the Devils are loaded with talent like few times in their past, although their salary cap situation will bear watching as they go along. Seemingly contenders every season, it is another year of great expectations in New Jersey.
Most Important Player: Jason Arnott. If there is one area where the Devils are significantly weaker, it is down the middle. Arnott was brought in to address the lack of a second-line center and to provide secondary scoring to take the pressure off Travis Zajac and Zach Parise. If he is hurt, or the second line doesn't perform, the Devils will have problems filling his shoes and balancing out their scoring.
Best Case Scenario: The offense is everything it is advertsied to be, and the defense is as stingy as it has been in years past. The Devils ride this wave all the way to the President's Trophy and a lengthy playoff run to boot.
Worst Case Scenario: Dissension in the locker room, plus a salary cap situation where the Devils are caught in a bind unable to make any positive moves to cope with injury and ineffectiveness. Poor chemistry with the forward lines leaves this a club having difficulty lighting the lamp, and the Devils are left to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs and a quick ouster once there.
Don't Be Surprised If: What you see is what you get. Lou Lamorello has almost no room to maneuver under the cap, and not a whole lot of assets to include in trades for upgrades. The Devils may end up sitting out the trade deadline while watching everyone else around them scramble to patch holes.
Prognosis: The Devils will be fine, one way or another, and will battle the Penguins for the Atlantic Division crown and the #2 seed. The success of this season, however, comes down to how many rounds they win the playoffs.
1. Washington Capitals
A prolific offense, a questionable defense, and postseason collapses have been the Capitals' calling card the past few years. Perhaps you've heard of them a time or two, and a superstar winger by the name of Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals will score goals, and they may even run away with the Southeast Division once again, but the expectations are sky-high in Washington and patience is seemingly dwindling as well. One way or another, this might be the last hurrah for the gang as presently constituted.
Most Important Player: Mike Green. Perhaps the premiere offensive defenseman in the game today, Green and his goal-scoring ability are a significant part in what makes the Caps' attack work. If he falters, or if his defensive lapses start becoming an issue, Washington will find itself in a lot of tight, high-scoring games.... and they probably won't win all of them, either.
Best Case Scenario: The goaltending tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov is good, if not necessarily great, and Washington rides a wave of scoring into the playoffs. Once there, the Capitals overcome the ghosts of seasons past and win many, many playoff games.
Worst Case Scenario: The goaltending and defense are sieves, with the offense unable to keep pace on many a night. While it might take an Act of Congress to deny the Capitals the division, considering the talent they have, it becomes a grueling battle that takes a lot out of the team and leaves little left in the tank for the playoffs. Another first-round exit follows.
Don't Be Surprised If: Alexander Semin is wearing another uniform come the trade deadline. He's an unrestricted free agent following the season and all signs point to his wanting to be the alpha dog on his own club. Semin would be the most attractive player on the trade market, and GM George McPhee could use such a trade to address any issues on his own club.
Prognosis: As with the Devils, Washington will be judged based on how many rounds they win in the playoffs. The Capitals will be the #1 seed, but another disappointing April could lead to big changes in D.C.
And there you have it, how I see the East and why I see it the way it is.