Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It has been nearly four months since Patrick Kane's overtime winner ended a lengthy Stanley Cup drought for the Chicago Blackhawks, and a great deal has changed in the NHL landscape during that time, including the roster of the defending champions.
Just weeks after the Blackhawks won their first title since 1961, general manager Stan Bowman began to slash payroll from his Cup-winning team. Bowman, perhaps taking a cue from the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, decided to make drastic cuts to his NHL roster, as Chicago waved goodbye to playoff heroes like bulky forward Dustin Byfuglien and starting goaltender Antti Niemi.
The goal is to hold onto Chicago's core group in this salary-cap era while ridding the team of other effective, but ultimately non-essential parts. In the long run, the cuts will help the Blackhawks keep players like Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, but the salary purge may keep Chicago from making another deep postseason run this spring.
While the Blackhawks' offseason cuts will likely prevent them from claiming back-to-back titles, it leaves an opening for several other NHL teams to win it all in 2010-11. Western Conference teams like San Jose and Vancouver, which both bowed out to Chicago in last year's playoffs, are now champing at the bit to stake their claim as the West's best club.
In the East, a trio of teams from the Atlantic Division -- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Jersey -- along with Buffalo and Boston in the Northeast and Washington in the Southeast make it anybody's guess as to who is going to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
But, the championship round is about eight months away and there is, as always, plenty of hockey to keep us occupied for now, beginning with the first official game of the year on Thursday at 12 p.m. (et), a battle in Helsinki, Finland between Carolina and Minnesota.
1. Washington (Southeast Division winner)
2. New Jersey (Atlantic)
3. Boston (Northeast)
7. Tampa Bay
EAST CHAMPION: Pittsburgh
Evgeni Malkin will once again give the Penguins one of the best 1-2 centermen combos in the NHL.
Last year, the Penguins failed to win the Eastern Conference for a third straight year when they bowed out to the surprising Montreal Canadiens in Round 2. Pittsburgh appeared burned out last spring and that was especially true of superstar center Evgeni Malkin, who was the Conn Smythe winner for the 2009 champions, but appeared a bit off throughout the 2009-10 campaign. If Malkin returns to the dominating form he displayed in the 2009 postseason, he will once again combine with the indomitable Sidney Crosby to give the Penguins one of the best 1-2 centermen combos the NHL has ever seen. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is also in need of a rebound year as well, but if Malkin gets back on track and Crosby continues his upward career trajectory, Pittsburgh should be able to weather any problems at the back end.
1. Vancouver (Northwest)
2. San Jose (Pacific)
4. Los Angeles
8. St. Louis
WEST CHAMPION: Vancouver
The Canucks were eliminated in six games by the Blackhawks last spring, but with GM Mike Gillis calling the shots, the club seems to be continuing on the right path to land the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup title. Vancouver has excellent depth up front with the Sedin twins, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson joining offseason addition Manny Malhotra. Meanwhile, veteran defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard were also brought in this summer to give Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo a better defensive corps to play behind. The Canucks will benefit from Chicago's roster upheaval more than any other Western team, but Vancouver and head coach Alain Vigneault ultimately needs to prove it can win battles on the ice and not just during the offseason. The Canucks appear ready to take that next step.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Pittsburgh
There is simply no reason to believe Malkin won't return to form in 2010-11 and it's not like he has far to go either. The 24-year-old Russian's "worst" NHL season was last year's 77-point (28 goals, 49 assists) performance, but he'll once again approach or surpass 100 points this year. The ever-improving Crosby, meanwhile, expanded his game last year to become a lethal goal-scorer and he is as bankable a player as there is in the NHL. Pittsburgh will not have superb defenseman Sergei Gonchar on the blue line this year as the Russian jumped ship to sign with Ottawa, but the addition of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek should combine to make up for that loss. It's always difficult to pick a Cup winner in October, but with Crosby and Malkin and eventually Jordan Staal -- Pittsburgh's excellent third-line centerman who will begin the season on the shelf with a foot ailment -- nobody can match up with Pittsburgh down the middle. It's called playing the odds, and the Penguins are still very young and have proven they have what it takes to lift the famous silver trophy. It's almost a given that there will be more championship for Crosby and Malkin and this season seems as good as any to add the duo's second Cup to the trophy case.
HART TROPHY (MVP): Alex Ovechkin, Washington
Ovechkin should have plenty to prove after his team won the Presidents' Trophy last year before being knocked out in the opening round of the playoffs by the Canadiens. However, the Russian winger simply owns the regular season and it took a surprising win by Vancouver's Henrik Sedin to deny Ovechkin his third straight Hart Trophy. Still, Ovie has been named the league's best player by his peers in three consecutive seasons as he won the award now named for Ted Lindsay this summer in Las Vegas. Ovechkin is the game's most lethal scorer and one of the league's most vicious hitters. He may not ever match the postseason credentials of Crosby or Malkin, but that shouldn't keep him from winning the NHL's most coveted personal trophy in 2010-11.
Honorable Mention: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh; Joe Thornton, San Jose
VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender): Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
Vancouver's former captain was knocked down a peg last season as Buffalo and Team USA backstop Ryan Miller appeared to grab the unofficial title of the world's best goaltender, winning both the Vezina and MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament. But, Luongo has an improved defense in front of him this year and is an excellent candidate to lead the league in victories. Also, being forced to relinquish his captaincy may have a positive effect on his play in goal. It simply seems unnatural for a goaltender to wear the 'C' and the experiment was less than a success the last few years in Vancouver. A former Hart Trophy finalist, Luongo is too talented to not eventually win the Vezina. This season will finally be the year "Bobby Lu" gets his name etched on the trophy.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Miller, Buffalo; Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix
NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman): Drew Doughty, Los Angeles
The 2009-10 season was Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith's year to shine, but this year will belong to Doughty, who won't even be of legal drinking age in the U.S. until December 8. However, the second overall pick of the 2008 draft is coming off a 59-point season and Doughty was often the best player on the ice last spring during LA's opening-round playoff loss to Vancouver. If the Kings are truly on the cusp of a golden age, Doughty is the prized prospect who will lead them to glory.
Honorable Mentions: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit; Zdeno Chara, Boston
CALDER TROPHY (top rookie): Jordan Eberle, Edmonton
It is not completely out of the realm of possibility that all three Calder finalists could come from one team, the Edmonton Oilers. The fact that the Oilers are relying so heavily on first-year players like Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and this summer's No. 1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall, may not bode well for their postseason chances in 2010-11, but it is a heck of a way to begin a rebuilding process. While Hall projects as the face of Edmonton's long-term success, Eberle, 20, could be the better player in the short term. With lightning-quick hands, Eberle also makes excellent offensive decisions and a 70-to-80-point season is not out of his reach this year.
Honorable Mentions: Taylor Hall, Edmonton; P.K. Subban, Montreal