So who can the Sabres pass? The Red Wings seem on the decline while the Bruins and Senators seem stuck in the mud and the Canadiens might be stuck in transition. Buffalo will need to beat some of them head-to-head -- and stay in front of the improving Maple Leafs -- to escape a three-year rut that has seen it finish eighth, eighth and seventh in the division.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman gets a Rex Award for winning the offseason. He kept Steven Stamkos, extended Victor Hedman and has Andrei Vasilevskiy ready to go in goal if he wants to deal Ben Bishop at some point. Now to figure out Nikita Kucherov's deal. Tampa is the team to beat in the division and maybe, in fact, in the East.
Auston Matthews is the real deal. Going from the 13th forward to the top line in two weeks at the World Cup showed how much fun Toronto fans will have watching the No. 1 overall pick. Of course, he won't have Connor McDavid centering for him, either. The runaway choice as the preseason Calder Trophy favorite will need more help, though, and Mike Babcock's team needs to improve its defense to start thinking playoffs.
How hot is Michel Therrien's seat in Montreal? If things go poorly early, injuries can't be an excuse anymore. The Habs traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber to get the kind of defenseman Therrien likes better. The coach denied saying Max Pacioretty is the worst captain in team history during a September golf outing, but controversy could implode the team if it gets off to a slow start.
What are the Panthers thinking? You wonder if defending champion Florida is in for the long haul at the top of the pack or looking at a one-year wonder and a quick Colorado-like freefall. The Panthers were dynamite in one-goal games and relied heavily on ageless Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo. The front office, scouting and equipment staffs were shuffled and free agent Keith Yandle was woefully overpaid. But there are great young players such as Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck. The fans are back, too. This group could look really smart, or like a group that fixed something that wasn't broken.
Chumps to champs to chumps? The Penguins bear the burden of trying to repeat, something not done since we hit the 21st century. Phil Kessel is rebounding from offseason hand surgery and Matt Murray is down to start with a World Cup hand injury. Let's see how Marc-Andre Fleury holds up in goal and how the defense will handle the nightly grind. The Pens get a full season of Mike Sullivan behind the bench, and could have a strong chance to repeat – but any long-term loss of concussed Sidney Crosby eliminates that chance.
Will the Capitals ever go the distance? Repeating our oft-stated cautionary tale about top draft choices: Alex Ovechkin has never played in a conference final in his 11 seasons, let alone make a Stanley Cup final. (Neither has coach Barry Trotz in a career that started in Nashville in 1998). If it didn't happen last season, in the best year of Braden Holtby's career, will it ever happen?
New York, New York: Both the Rangers and Islanders have their boosters who say they're contenders and their detractors who say they're regressing. The Rangers have big-ticket items such as Rick Nash, Dan Girardi and Chris Kreider, who don't play nearly to the level of their contracts, but made an interesting deal for Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad and won the Jimmy Vesey Sweepstakes. The Islanders, meanwhile, lost Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen to free agency, have to deal with continued questions about John Tavares perhaps coming home to Toronto in two years and with the lingering discussion about how viable it is to stay at the basketball-first Barclays Center in Brooklyn. One probably makes the playoffs, but which one?
Healthy scratch to healthy star: Philadelphia's Claude Giroux leads the NHL in scoring over the last five years but was a scratch with Team Canada for all by one game of the World Cup. That should motivate him even more to have another big year and combine with Jakub Voracek for plenty of offense. With Shayne Gostisbehere on defense and former Sabre Michal Neuvirth sharing the net with Steve Mason, the Flyers could be the division surprise.
The Devils' duty: You can find predictions of New Jersey in the playoffs -- and in the division cellar. No one really knows what to expect of the Devils now that they've added Taylor Hall from Edmonton to the likes of Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri. Cory Schneider is the best goalie in the league nobody talks about. That should be worth something, too. Figure them much closer to the playoffs than the basement.
The playoff scramble: It's a good bet five teams will make the playoffs for the second straight year, given the depth of this group. The pick here would be Nashville, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis and a rebounding Colorado, with Minnesota and Winnipeg not far behind. Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago had 100-point seasons last year and Nashville is a good bet to be in that group this season.
PK will be OK: If Montreal was going to send P.K. Subban packing, a bizarre decision to begin with, shipping him to Nashville might have been a perfect scenario. The outgoing Subban fits right in with the honky-tonk atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena and its environs on the city's Broadway, as well with its deep defense corps. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm comprise a top four to envy, especially in front of a goalie like Pekka Rinne and playing for a sound coach in Peter Laviolette. A deep run is possible.
Chelsea Dagger will get a workout: The Blackhawks' goal song was silenced in the first round for the first time since 2011, so it stands to reason the Hawks will be more than a bit cranky this time around. They'll also be plenty refreshed after playing a lot of hockey the previous three seasons. The forward group looks a little thinner than in the past, but you're still talking Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin, among others. The defense and power play should benefit from the return of old friend Brian Campbell, and Corey Crawford remains a rock in the net.
The Blues may strike: Does that mean success or sadness in St. Louis? Coach Ken Hitchcock's crew fell two wins shy of its first Cup final since 1970 but will be hard-pressed to get back to that spot in his final season. The loss of David Backes is huge in the dressing room, and Jake Allen has to show he's ready in goal with the trade of Brian Elliott to Calgary. Trade rumors continue to hound Kevin Shattenkirk. You sense last year was a huge opportunity lost.
Boudreau looks to go Wild: After a playoff flame-out in Anaheim, Bruce Boudreau has come to Minnesota and brought his six career 100-point seasons with him. The Wild went from 100 to 87 points last season, worst among playoff teams. That won't be good enough this time.
Shark bites: The end of an era was at hand in San Jose, with Joe Thornton stripped of his captaincy and replaced by Joe Pavelski. Instead of breaking up the team, Peter DeBoer did the job by leading the Sharks to their first Cup final. They enter this year as the favorite in the Pacific and the team the Kings and Ducks are looking up to.
McDavid magic: It's Edmonton's first season in Rogers Place and the Oilers are desperate to crack their 11-year playoff drought, the longest in the NHL. They need Connor McDavid to stay healthy. After a fabulous World Cup, McDavid seems poised to push high into the scoring race at age 19. Milan Lucic riding shotgun next to McDavid was a potentially significant signing. The trade of Taylor Hall was a bizarre one, but perhaps the arrival of Adam Larsson can give the defense the boost it needs.
California dreaming: The Kings won their second Cup in three years in 2014 and have won one playoff game since. The Ducks ditched Bruce Boudreau behind the bench and made the strange move to go retro with Randy Carlyle. How many more years will they keep going with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry? Will Cam Fowler ever get traded? A playoff miss by either team this year could lead to a housecleaning of some key parts to their cores.
Wither Johnny Hockey: Flames star Johnny Gaudreau flourished in the World Cup while playing with both Jack Eichel and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and wanted the Flames to pay full value. You wonder how the balking the team did about his contract will affect things in the dressing room. The Flames solved their goaltending issues by acquiring Brian Elliott and former Sabre Chad Johnson but now seem to have an even bigger issue on their hands.
Young guns: The Coyotes are an interesting group, with a veteran coach in Dave Tippett and a 27-year-old GM in John Chayka. Great young players such as Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Anthony Duclair and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are in a nice mix with the likes of Shane Doan, former Sabre Jame McGinn, free agent signee Alex Goligolski and veteran goalie Mike Smith. They might be a year away still, but they could be ready to make the playoff push right now.