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Prediction City

I really enjoy making predictions, even if they don't always work out so well. In last year's playoffs I made fifteen predictions and only got nine right. If I'd just picked the team with the most regular season points in each instance, I'd have had eight out of fifteen, so I'm certainly no seer, but that's not going to stop me from making more (hopefully educated) guesses for the upcoming season! Now, the traditional method, which is a lot of fun, is to predict teams finishing first through thirtieth, but that seems hard to evaluate at the end of the year because a team with an even goal differential can be good for anything from fifth to tenth in either conference. That kind of variance can make a good prediction look foolish, and a bad one look great. So what I've decided to do is stil rank the teams from one to thirty, but also offer an estimate of their goal differential at the end of the year, which is the number I'll use to evaluate how these predictions turned out at the end of the season. Now let's have some fun!

#30 - Edmonton Oilers (5th in the Northwest, 15th in the Western Conference) - I should be clear and say that no team is actually likely to finish in last place. Someone is bound to get a slew of injuries, or a long run of bad luck and finish below the Oilers, but on paper, this team is one of the worst in the league. This isn't last year's team healthy again. There's no Sheldon Souray, no Denis Grebeshkov, no Lubomir Visnovsky, and no veterans up front other than the big three. The goaltending is already bad, and will almost certainly get worse if and when Khabibulin goes down to injury; the defenders are all being asked to play a bigger role than they've been capable of; and there are three raw rookies in the top nine, with nothing for NHL-level support behind them if they struggle. Goal differential prediction: -60 (Change from 2009-10: +17)

#29 - Florida Panthers (5th in the Southeast, 15th in the Eastern Conference) - Dale Tallon is building a team the only way he knows how - sucking hard. A team that was already bad moved two of its best players in the off-season (Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard), and replaced them with lesser versions (Chris Higgins and Dennis Wideman). The only reason this team isn't projected to finish lower than the Oilers is Tomas Vokoun, one of the better goaltenders in the NHL. With a defense that includes exactly zero players capable of successfully taking on tough competition paired with non-Zdeno Chara, this team is going to give up a tonne of chances. Goal differential prediction: -55 (Change from 2009-10: -19)

#28 - Colorado Avalanche (4th in the Northwest, 14th in the Western Conference) - I watched this team an awful lot last year, and believe me, they were awful. With the score tied, no other team was has a worse Corsi performance than Colorado (44.4%), but managed to cover that over by finishing their chances at an incredible rate, something that's unlikely to repeat this season, especially when the mid-season departure of Wojtek Wolski and off-season departure of Brett Clark are taken into consideration. Those wouldn't be such a big deal if the team had added someone of consequence in the off-season, but they did not. The Avalanche now also have the lowest payroll in the league, generally not all that helpful when it comes to winning games. Look, I believe Craig Anderson is "for realz", but I don't think he'll be close to enough for this team to get close to the playoffs. Then again, maybe they make me look the fool and continue rolling sevens. Goal differential prediction: -45 (Change from 2009-10: -56)

#27 - New York Islanders (5th in the Atlantic, 14th in the Eastern Conference) - Believe it or not, I like the job Garth Snow has done with this team. They've accumulated a lot of young talent up front (John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and the unheralded Frans Nielsen), and have added to that with a couple of very nice offseason buys on the back end (Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau). What they don't have is a player at any position who can take control of a game, no one who they can turn to and say, "You are one of the very best players in this league." But with so many young and talented forwards, it seems like only a matter of time before one establishes himself as just that. I don't think it will be this year, but then again, young teams (and players) never look good until they are. Goal differential prediction: -40 (Change from 2009-10: +2)

#26 - Carolina Hurricanes (4th in the Southeast, 13th in the Eastern Conference) - The aging team was torn apart last year and has been infused with plenty of youth. As in, probably a bit too much youth, players with little, if any, NHL experience. Of the fourteen forwards on the roster, only eight have played in at least 150 games (i.e. two full NHL seasons). Of the eight defenders, only four meet that criteria. In net, the team is counting on Justin Peters (AHL save percentage over the last four seasons: .902) to be an adequate backup. All in all, the Hurricanes will be exposed at every position. Goal differential prediction: -35 (Change from 2009-10: -9)

#25 - Columbus Blue Jackets (5th in the Central, 12th in the Western Conference) - The Blue Jackets aren't really bad, but they do seem to have overpayments up and down the roster. In fact, looking at Scott Howson's team is a lot like looking at Kevin Lowe's post-lockout Oilers in terms of construction: eight forwards with a cap hit of $2M or more, including all three members of the designated "checking" line; all seven defenders making at least $1M, including a veteran on a contract two or three years too long; and after being burned by the duo of Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon, an unwillingness to address the problem... unless you count giving Mason an unnecessarily fat contract a solution (I don't). Let's face it: if you didn't make the playoffs last year and your big off-season acquisition is Ethan Moreau, something has gone seriously wrong. Goal differential prediction: -35 (Change from 2009-10: +8)

#24 - Atlanta Thrashers (3rd in the Southeast, 12th in the Eastern Conference) - The Thrashers have made a lot of changes this year. There's a new coach, a new general manager, and a bunch of new players, but what hasn't changed is the tight budget. That makes it very difficult to pay for offense, and in fact, only one player on the team has ever scored thirty goals in his career (Bryan Little). The goaltending tandem of Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec would be adequate for a good team, but isn't good enough to steal games for an Atlanta club that will very likely have trouble scoring. The Thrashers do have some very good bargains in Rich Peverley, Nigel Dawes, and Niklas Bergfors, and have added strong two-way veterans like Andrew Ladd and Fredrik Modin, but all I see is last year's Blackhawks minus all of the major difference-makers. Goal differential prediction: -30 (Change from 2009-10: -8)

#23 - Dallas Stars (5th in the Pacific, 13th in the Western Conference) - I took great pleasure in predicting this team to be bad in 2009-10, and it gives me great pleasure to do so again for 2010-11. Do the Stars have some nice pieces? Absolutely. Players like James Neal, Jamie Benn, and Tom Wandell provide very real hope for their future, and veterans like Brendan Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, and Brad Richards are capable hands in the present. But that talented group of forwards doesn't have much support on the behind them. Last year's top pairing of Stephane Robidas and Nicklas Grossman is still solid, but the Stars don't have anyone after that who can be relied upon in a top four role. The goaltending is anchored by the talented but oft-injured Kari Lehtonen. If he goes down, as seems likely, the Stars have Andrew Raycroft waiting. That's no good. Goal differential prediction: -30 (Change from 2009-10: -13)

#22 - Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd in the Southeast, 11th in the Eastern Conference) - This is a pick that could make me look foolish. On the one hand, I really like what Steve Yzerman has done. Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark are solid additions on the blueline, and Simon Gagne and Dominic Moore are solid additions up front. Yzerman has made a lot of low risk bets this summer, and some are bound to pay off. What I just can't shake is the fact that the big contributors are the same as they have been in each of the last two seasons when the team was terrible. Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Ryan Malone will earn $20M this year, or about 35% to 40% of the team's payroll. That's a lot of coin for three forwards who have had trouble outplaying their opposition despite pretty favourable starting positions. Last season, that struggle meant the Lightning, as a team, managed to earn only 45.2% of Corsi events with the score tied, one of the worst performances in the NHL. I think they'll be better this year, but I don't know that they project to be a lot better. I actually thought about putting the Lightning in the playoffs, mostly because of their weak division, but in the end, I settled on a modest improvement over last season. Goal differential prediction: -25 (Change from 2009-10: +18)

#21 - Minnesota Wild (3rd in the Northwest, 11th in the Western Conference) - I thought that the Wild would do more to improve their lineup during off-season, but instead they added (and probably overpaid) Matt Cullen and (definitely overpaid) the former Flame fourth-liner, Eric Nystrom. After thinking about last season, I'm also not confident that Todd Richards will get the most out of his roster. Last year he took Nick Schultz, a defensive blueliner, away from his tough minutes role, and put Marek Zidlicky in his place. Zidlicky performed well, but paying a player with almost no offensive upside $3M to play second minutes is a poor allocation of resources. The same is true of his use of Mikko Koivu who was given much easier minutes in 2009-10 than he has in a long time. Koivu's counting numbers (predictably) increased, but the team struggled. Add to that the fact that Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still out with an injury, and I think the Wild will be pretty underwhelming. (It's either that or I'm just bitter for saying they'd win the division last year). Goal differential prediction: -20 (Change from 2009-10: +7)

#20 - Anaheim Ducks (4th in the Pacific, 10th in the Western Conference) - If you looked at just the fifteen worst players on this roster, you's have this team in 30th with a bullet. The Ducks have five top nine forwards - which is a problem, since you need nine of them - and their defense looked atrocious even before Toni Lydman started having trouble with his vision. If Lydman can't go, the Ducks will open the season with both Andy Sutton and one of Luca Sbisa (the Ladislav Smid of the second Chris Pronger trade), Cam Fowler, or Sheldon Brookbank in their top four on opening night. That's terrible. So what on earth pushes them to 20th? (Aside: you know you suck when 20th overall is optimistic) Two things: the five good forwards are all very good, and Jonas Hiller is the best goalie in the world today. That's enough to get them out of the basement, but not enough to make the playoffs. Goal differential prediction: -15 (Change from 2009-10: -2)

#19 - Nashville Predators (4th in the Central, 9th in the Western Conference) - This roster would be ranked lower if it hadn't been assembled by David Poile, and if it wasn't going to be coached by Barry Trotz. Last year I looked at this team and thought they'd be awful. My initial reaction today is the same. Shane O'Brien as a top four defender is preposterous. Playing a rookie out of Sweden behind a goalie with less than 3,500 career shots against seems a touch risky. Replacing Jason Arnott with Matthew Lombardi doesn't strike me as being an improvement. But these are the Predators. Despite one of the lowest payrolls in the league, and a tendency to replace aging stars with younger (and cheaper) alternatives, they always stay competitive. After watching the Oilers do the same for so many years as I got older, the Nashville Predators are definitely my second-favourite team. In fact, if all those ex-Oilers on the Kings were Predators instead, they might even be my favourite team. I can relate to the community coming together to fend off threats of relocation, to the constant need to move players along, and to the work ethic exhibited by the players every time they step on the ice. I hope they make the playoffs and go on a run, but I think they'll be on the outside looking in. Goal differential prediction: -10 (Change from 2009-10: -10)

#18 - Montreal Canadiens (5th in the Northeast, 10th in the Eastern Conference) - This is basically the same group as last year, but one year older and without Jaroslav Halak. Now, the Canadiens still have a good goaltender in Carey Price, but replacing half (or so) of Halak's starts with Alex Auld is a pretty big step back, and considering that most of the Canadiens' top defenders are on the wrong side of 30 (Andrei Markov is 31, Hal Gill is 35, Jaroslav Spacek is 36, and Roman Hamrlik is also 36), it's likely that they're less effective this year than they were one year ago. It will help to have Markov all season (if he can stay healthy), but even a small step back likely means the Canadiens are on the outside looking in. Goal differential prediction: -10 (Change from 2009-10: -4)

#17 - Ottawa Senators (4th in the Northeast, 9th in the Eastern Conference) - The Senators are a pretty good team, truth be told. With the addition of Sergei Gonchar, their power play - which was average a year ago - could be a force in 2010-11. The departure of Anton Volchenkov may leave them somewhat exposed on the blue if Gonchar is used in offensive situations, but the forward corps is at least nine deep in established NHL players, and a couple of those are stars. There's no doubt in my mind that the Senators would be a playoff team if only they had passable goaltending, even below average would suffice. Unfortunately, they've got the worst goalie tandem in the entire league (Aside: Go Khabibulin, Deslauriers, and Dubnyk! Way to not be the worst!). Goal differential prediction: -10 (Change from 2009-10: +3)

#16 - Buffalo Sabres (3rd in the Northeast, 8th in the Eastern Conference) - The Sabres are a solid club. There are ten solid forwards, and the two other spots are being filled by two rookies who already have at least one year of good results in the AHL. The defense isn't quite that good. Last season's penalty killing unit boasted the third-best goal differential in the NHL, and two of the key contributors aren't returning: defenders Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder have both left the organization and left a big hole on the PK and at EV. Their replacements - Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn - simply aren't as good, which is one of the main reasons I have this team taking a step back. The other big reason is Ryan Miller. I like Miller, and rate him as one of the better goaltenders in the league, but after such a strong performance in 2009-10, it seems likely that he'll regress at least somewhat in 2010-11. Goal differential prediction: +5 (Change from 2009-10: -23)

#15 - New York Rangers (4th in the Atlantic, 7th in the Eastern Conference) - This team certainly isn't afraid to spend. Wade Redden is now collecting a paycheck in the AHL, and as a result, the Rangers have some extra money to spend under the cap. With a couple of teams looking to dump money, the Rangers could still get better. But even if they don't, the team is pretty solid. The defense is anchored by strong shutdown men Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. The forwards are a deep group of some quality, and most of this summer's additions came at very good prices (Alex Frolov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Vinny Prospal, Martin Biron). The Derek Boogaard gaffe is a nice reminder that Glen Sather hasn't totally smartened up, but overall, the Rangers look like a better team today than they were one year ago. Goal differential prediction: +5 (Change from 2009-10: +1)

#14 - Toronto Maple Leafs (2nd in the Northeast, 6th in the Eastern Conference) - I almost feel like ridiculing myself for this pick. I mean, the Leafs were awful last year. They finished dead last in power play efficiency (14.0%), and in penalty killing efficiency (74.6%). They had terrible goaltending. They couldn't finish. But that's the thing. A bunch of that stuff should get better. The penalty killing number was the worst since the league expanded to 30 teams. It should improve. The power play is operating below replacement level despite the presence of a few guys who have a history of PP success. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a fine netminder who should provide the Leafs with adequate goaltending all year long. The team still has a lot of problems (the defenders are almost all overpaid, and not many forwards have scored well at the NHL level), but this team looks a lot more average than awful to me. Goal differential prediction: +5 (Change from 2009-10: +58)

#13 - Phoenix Coyotes (3rd in the Pacific, 8th in the Western Conference) - I do think this team will take a step back this season, but the gap between the Coyotes and Predators is pretty significant. Looking over the roster, there are bargains in every position: Wojtek Wolski has a new contract for under $4M, Scottie Upshall is raking in $2.25M for his "show-me-it-wasn't-a-fluke" season, Eric Belanger is a wonderful signing at less than $1M, and Martin Hanzal may just be the most underpaid non-superstar forward in the entire league. On defense, the team is still without the injured Kurt Sauer, but do have a couple of beauty value deals from Derek Morris and Keith Yandle. The goaltending may not be cheap, but Ilya Bryzgalov and Jason LaBarbera should be very strong. I'm nicking them a bit because they won so many games last season in overtime (or the shoot-out), were only slightly better than average in games decided by two or more goals (21-19), and lost their best shut-down defender, Zbynek Michalek, to free agency. Goal differential prediction: +10 (Change from 2009-10: -13)

#12 - San Jose Sharks (2nd in the Pacific, 7th in the Western Conference) - I didn't think the Sharks were going to be as good as they were a year ago, but their star-studded top seven forwards and great goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov carried them to the top of the Western Conference. This year, Nabokov is gone and I have pretty low expectations for the combination of Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi. League average goaltending from that duo is a pretty fair expectation (although I'd take the "under" if that was the line), but last year's combination of Nabokov and Thomas Greiss put the Sharks among the league leaders at both EV (.927) and on the PK (.897). A regression to league average is a sharp fall indeed. The club also lost key cog Manny Malhotra in the off-season, and has replaced him, seemingly, with blue-chipper Logan Couture. The elevation of Couture is natural, but he's one of six players on an ELC currently on the twenty-three man roster. In other words, the Sharks need to hope for their money guys to stay healthy, because there isn't a lot of depth, and the security blanket in goal is gone. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2009-10: -34)

#11 - St. Louis Blues (3rd in the Central, 6th in the Western Conference) - This team is filled with quality all over the roster. The combination of Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin should provide them with outstanding goaltending, the defense is a young group of strong defenders that's being joined this year by Alex Pietrangelo who will likely start on the bottom pairing alongside a good NHL veteran. Up front the team is about nine deep in quality players. They don't have any superstars, but they do have six players who have scored twenty goals in at least one of the last two seasons. If this team had spent $7M more (i.e. the league average of about $56M) on two or three mid-level free agents or one of the big fish, they might have been one of the favourites in the Western Conference. As it stands, the Blues are very good team a bit short on depth considering the lack of star power. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2009-10: +13)

#10 - Philadelphia Flyers (3rd in the Atlantic, 5th in the Eastern Conference) - The Flyers are a very interesting crew. I think Paul Holmgren's moves over the summer have been pretty foolish for the most part. Did he really need five $3M defensemen? Was Michael Leighton really the best choice for a $1.75M goaltender? Was Simon Gagne - a man with a track record of EV outscoring - really the best way to trim salary? Did he really give Jody Shelley a three year deal for more than $1M? That's a lot of very bad decisions right there, and yet I'm predicting them to marginally improve their goal differential and position in the standings relative to last season. The top end of the lineup (Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter) just seems too good to be mediocre, especially since the forward corps is one of the deepest in the Eastern Conference despite all of the money invested in defensemen. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2009-10: +4)

#9 - Calgary Flames (2nd in the Northwest, 5th in the Western Conference) - It pains me to say it, but despite missing the playoffs, the Flames were one of the eight best teams in the Western Conference last year, and it seems to me that they will be again this season. Last year's team was in the top third of the NHL in terms of Corsi with the score tied, and got good goaltending too. So what went wrong? Some of it was probably just bad luck: their record in games decided by two or more was a very respectable 22-17, but they lost a lot of close games and shoot-outs. Furthermore, the team's shooting percentage lagged slightly behind the league average at EV. But it wasn't all bad fortune. The Flames struggled to draw penalties, finishing well below the league median (308.5) with only 268 power play chances. If they can improve on that number (they were near the top of the league in 2008-09), and get another year of strong goaltending from Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames should be back in the playoffs. They may not be quite as good as teams like the Blues and Sharks, but the Northwest is clearly the weakest division in the West, and in my view, that will help the Flames pick up a few extra points. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2009-10: +21)

#8 - Los Angeles Kings (1st in the Pacific, 4th in the Western Conference) - The Kings were a good team last year, and have made a couple of important improvements that should make the team better. The key moves are on the back end and in goal where Willie Mitchell represents a big upgrade on Sean O'Donell, and Jonathan Bernier a substantial improvement on Erik Ersberg and possibly even Jonathan Quick. The goaltending situation in particular looks solid with the combination of an established NHL goalie and a blue-chip prospect. If Bernier steals the job this year, that's great! If he's not quite ready, the Kings have a reliable man in Quick. The other improvements will likely be "organic". Drew Doughty was a finalist for the Norris trophy and is still on his ELC. Other entry-level forwards include the established Wayne Simmonds and another blue-chipper in Brayden Schenn. With some established stars already on the roster (Drew Doughty, Ryan Smyth, Anze Kopitar), and a steady stream of strong rookies still to come (Schenn, Thomas Hickey, Andrei Loktionov), the Kings' window for a championship is now open. Goal differential prediction: +30 (Change from 2009-10: +8)

#7 - Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd in the Atlantic, 4th in the Eastern Conference) - The gap between fourth and fifth in the East is a large one. The Penguins still have some gaps in their lineup, but Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game, Evgeni Malkin is in the conversation for being in the top twenty, and Jordan Staal is another difference-maker up front. With those three anchoring the top nine, you don't need much else up front to have success... which is a good thing... because the Penguins don't have much else up front. Ray Shero had money to spend this summer and he spent it all on improving the defense. Both Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek are very good players at a good price, and the forward ranks were filled in quite nicely on the cheap, so I don't want to be too critical, but it's hard not to wish Crosby had some better linemates. The only thing on the roster that stands out as a negative is Marc-Andre Fleury's big contract. The amount he's getting paid is high for almost anyone given the goaltending market, but it's especially so for a guy who hasn't been better than average over the last four years combined. Goal differential prediction: +30 (Change from 2009-10: +10)

#6 - New Jersey Devils (1st in the Atlantic, 3rd in the Eastern Conference) - This is a pretty screwed up situation. The Devils are under the cap only because a couple of players are injured ("injured"?), and for a while it looked like they would start the season with only eleven forwards on the active roster. It's tempting to call that mismanagement, but then you see the club's history, and the talent they've assembled this year, and any accusation along those line is out the window. The only player of consequence the Devils lost in the off-season was defender Paul Martin, but they somehow managed to add all of Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, and Jason Arnott, while retaining the services of Ilya Kovalchuk. That's an enormous amount of established talent to add to a group that was already extremely good. With a solid defense and one of the better top nine forward groups in the league, New Jersey is absolutely a contender. Goal differential prediction: +35 (Change from 2009-10: +4)

#5 - Vancouver Canucks (1st in the Northwest, 3rd in the Western Conference) - The Canucks are a much better team than they were at this time last season, and have (somewhat perversely) benefited from injuries to Sami Salo and Alexandre Burrows that have allowed them to keep more talent on the roster than they would have otherwise been able. The top nine forwards are fantastic and Alain Vigneault has shown that he knows how to get the most out of the hand he's been dealt. Another potential tough minutes center in the form of Manny Malhotra will allow him to feed offensive ice time to the Sedins yet again, but this time without getting hammered quite so badly on the other side. When the playoffs rolled around, last season's squad had trouble with injuries to defensemen, so Mike Gillis went out and got depth. The Canucks now boast six top four defensemen and four more who can play on the bottom pairing without looking foolish. None of them are among the ten best in the league, but the group as a whole is very solid. There's a certain kind of strength available in numbers. When the defense does break down, the Canucks have one of the best goalies in the game waiting in the crease. I thought that the Canucks were lucky to do as well as they did a year ago, what with all six of their top six scorers shooting above their career average and three of them setting a new career high, but that doesn't mean this team isn't good, and better this year than they were last. I have their goal differential declining slightly from a year ago, but this year, they'll be full value for it. If they shoot like they did last year, they'll blow my prediction out of the water. Goal differential prediction: +40 (Change from 2009-10: -10)

#4 - Washington Capitals (1st in the Southeast, 2nd in the Eastern Conference) - This team is one of the reasons the goal differential prediction is helpful. They're so much better than the other teams in their division it is to laugh, so slotting them somewhere in the top three or four teams is pretty easy, and indeed, I have them coming in second in the Eastern Conference. But I also have the Capitals taking a huge step back. I'll say right off the top that this has nothing to do with the playoff loss to the Canadiens. The Capitals were and are a better team than Montreal, but got stonewalled by a hot goaltender. It happens. But that's not to say there aren't some problems. The Capitals weren't particularly good at driving possession a year ago. They were good (52.2% of Corsi events with the score tied), but certainly weren't running away from the rest of the league. Where they generated all those surplus goals was burying their chances at a ridiculous clip, and I don't see any reason to believe that's going to continue. Furthermore, this year's team is counting on two very young goalies who haven't had enough reps for us to know what they are. I think they'll be slightly above average, but there's some risk that one of them isn't very good and just hasn't been given enough rope to hang himself until now. They're still a fantastic team, but I'll be surprised if they finish at the top of the league again. Goal differential prediction: +45 (Change from 2009-10: -40)

#3 - Chicago Blackhawks (2nd in the Central, 2nd in the Western Conference) - We all know what happened here. The Blackhawks core remains in tact but everything around the edges is new. The central question is how much worse are the Hawks today with Viktor Stalberg, Jack Skille, Bryan Bickell, Fernando Pisani, Jake Dowell, Nick Leddy, John Scott, Marty Turco, and Corey Crawford than they were with Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, John Madden, Ben Eager, Adam Burish, Cam Barker, Brent Sopel, Antti Niemi, and Cristobal Huet. We all know they're worse, but how much difference do these players make? We'll start with the good news: the goaltending is a wash at worst. Marty Turco takes a lot of crap for one reason or another, but he's a much better bet to be a league average goalie than Antti Niemi, and replacing Cristobal Huet's contribution - the third worst save percentage in the league among goalies with 40 or more games - will not be challenging. The Hawks project to be (quite a bit) better in goal than they were a year ago. After that, things get shaky. Barker and Sopel may have been overpaid, but both guys are much more talented on the back end than what the Hawks brought in. That there are forwards on the departing list better than anyone on the incoming list suggests that the Hawks' forward depth has also taken a big hit. The improved goaltending should offset some of the losses, but the Hawks can no longer beat teams senseless with their superior depth. All of a sudden, they're not so different from everybody else. Goal differential prediction: +45 (Change from 2009-10: -17)

#2 - Detroit Red Wings (1st in the Central, 1st in the Western Conference) - Mike Babcock was feeling a bit cocky over the summer: "Chicago's going to be thinner as we all know and I think we're going to be better. I like what has happened for the Red Wings as far as the dispersal of talent goes in the Western Conference. I like our team." Damn, that's some high-level hubris. But you know what, he's absolutely right. Top players like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, and Johan Franzen are in their prime, and the rest of the team is comprised mostly of veterans who have ironed out the youthful glitches (Todd Bertuzzi not withstanding). I understand that Kirk Maltby is past his prime, but when he's (at best) your 15th forward (and Maltby doesn't need to clear re-entry waivers to join the Wings because he makes $105,000 or less in the minors), you've got a pretty deep team. The blueline is anchored by one of the five best defenders in the history of the game, and is supported by several veterans who have already proven themselves capable of the role they're assigned this year in previous NHL seasons. The club's only rookie is 23-year-old defender Jakub Kindl who has already had some success at the AHL level and will begin the year as the seventh man. It's a phenomenal team. The only potential hiccup is the goaltending. I'm not a believer in Jimmy Howard, and Chris Osgood has certainly seen better days, but I am a believer in the team being good enough to overcome difficulties in the crease, and confident that the general manager will address the concerns in goal if they become persistent. Goal differential prediction: +55 (Change from 2009-10: +42)

#1 - Boston Bruins (1st in the Northeast, 1st in the Eastern Conference) - Much like the Oilers pick for dead last, the Boston Bruins probably won't finish in first place this year. I don't even think they're the best team in the league, but gave them the slight edge here because I they should earn more easy points than the Red Wings playing in the weaker Eastern Conference. All that said, Boston is a very good team, and was a very good team last year too. They were one of the more dominant clubs territorially at EV, and were good at keeping the game even (they drew fewer penalties than any team in the league except the Montreal Candiens, and were the fifth least penalized team themselves) but were done in by a poor shooting percentage. In 2008-09, the team made more of their shots and finished with 116 points. I think this version is better than either of the last two. Their forward depth isn't what Chicago's was last year, but it's still excellent (although the injury to Savard is a concern), and Zdeno Chara is, if anything, underrated for what he brings on the blueline; the goaltending tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask is very expensive, but also very good. Last season ended in devastation for the Bruins, but with young players like Tyler Seguin and Joe Colborne looking to prove they belong on a roster filled with talent, the Bruins should contend for the Cup. Goal differential prediction: +55 (Change from 2009-10: +49)