If fan reaction and television ratings are a good indicator, then the NHL is back stronger than it has been in years. There were both surprises and upsets in this first week. There were some impressive debuts by young players ( Damien Brunner and Jonathan Huberdeau ), along with great games by some of the league’s old guard. Teemu Selanne, 42, and Jaromir Jagr, 40, both had two goals and two assists over the weekend. Martin Brodeur, 40, picked up a win for the New Jersey Devils on opening day, as well. The competition will be fierce and every game will have a playoff feel, as the teams battle during a lockout-shortened season. Goalies will be put to the test and teams can ill afford to stay in a rut for too long. Here is how I see things, now that we have a few games in the books.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins- With a lineup featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal, the Pengiuns are as good a bet as any to win the championship. They beat the Flyers and Rangers on the road, despite 0-10 shooting from Crosby and Malkin. Along with having strong scorers, their defense also begins the season on fire.
2. Chicago Blackhawks- Corey Crawford, something of a question mark at goalie after his playoff showing last season, is off to a great start. As is, Marian Hossa. Getting out of the gate strong is important for Chicago, who have a slew of road games scheduled at the start of the season.
3. St. Louis Blues- Many people’s pick to win the Stanley Cup, the Blues exploded out of the blocks, sending the Redwings reeling in a 6-0 opening night shutout. G Jaroslav Halek can be up and down, so look for Brian Elliot to get plenty of ice time as well, as the Blues may ride the hot hand at times. T.J. Oshie is primed for a breakout season.
4. Boston Bruins- The Bruins are big and fast. Tuukaa Rask should take over nicely for a retired (at least for the moment) Tim Thomas. They have a pretty soft schedule to begin the year, too. Tyler Seguin is expected to have a good year.
5. Los Angeles Kings- Sure, they’re off to a slow start, but there is too much talent on this team to slip too far down the list. G Jonathan Quick needs to step it up, and they’ve suffered some early injuries ( Anze Kopitar and Willie Mitchell ), but the Kings aren’t ready to give up their crown just yet.
6. Minnesota Wild- Newcomers Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have the Wild feeling pretty optimistic about their chances. The youngster, Mikael Granlund, is another player to watch.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning- Steve Stamkos and Martin St.Louis lead a team that many are pegging as a sleeper pick.
8. San Jose Sharks- If Antti Niemi can hold his own, the Sharks could really surprise. Patrick Marleau will again be a force to reckon with.
9. New York Rangers- The Rangers acquired Rick Nash and are considered a real contender as the season begins. They have stumbled out of the gate defensively, but Henrik Lundqvist will keep them in most games. They always start slow, so I wouldn’t panic just yet.
10. Buffalo Sabres- Thomas Vanek began the season like a man possessed, with two goals and three assists vs. the Flyers on Sunday. Ryan Miller is one of my favorite goalies and I look for a big year from him.
11. Anaheim Ducks- I think this team is better than a lot of people give them credit for. They have a kid named Kyle Palmieri, who can become one of the league’s top new stars, in my opinion. He’s joined by Selanne and Corey Perry on a talented Ducks squad.
12. Philadelphia Flyers- This is a team that should have no problem making the playoffs. They have definitely played poorly thus far, but like most of the teams on here, it’s hard to gage them over just two or three games. If they have a clear weak spot, I’d say it is Ilya Bryzgalov at goalie. He has never impressed me much.
13. Vancouver Canucks- This team is one of the better defensive teams out there, but you wouldn’t know it from their first couple of games. A trade of goalie Roberto Luongo is reported to happen soon, so maybe they can improve themselves a bit.
14. Phoenix Coyotes- This team went to the Western Conference finals last year. They can put up some points and normally boast a stellar defense. Look for goalie Mike Smith to overcome a slow start.
15. New Jersey Devils- Martin Brodeur is still an elite goalie and the team plays excellent defense. The team will get a boost when Adam Henrique returns from thumb surgery.
16. Detroit Redwings- There is no way around it, The Redwings are going to miss Niklas Lidstrom more than they may have even realized. The defense also just took another hit with an injury to Ian White. The bright spot is Swiss forward, Damien “Blade” Brunner, who is already a fan favorite after three games. Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Franzen still have some gas in the tank too, make no mistake about it.
17. Washington Capitols- Alex Ovechkin is no longer the best player in the league, but Washington needs a big year from him to truly contend. Nicklas Backstrom says he is healthy, and the goalie situation will play itself out as the season progresses.
18. Florida Panthers- Florida is a team to watch in the tightly contested Southeast Division. Jose Theodore is an up and coming goalie, and Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in 2011, is one of the league’s top prospects.
19. Ottawa Senators- The Senators have the best defensive player in the league in Erik Karlsson and an under-rated goalie in Craig Anderson. They, along with one of the better coaches in the league in Paul MacLean, will enable the Senators to contend in the Northeast Division.
20. Dallas Stars- Jaromir Jagr has paced the team so far and the Stars have also added Ray Whitney and Derek Roy. Now if they can get Jamie Benn signed, we’ll see if they have adequately addressed their offensive concerns.
21. Colorado Avalanche- A good, young team. However, Semyon Varlamov is an unproven goalie and Ryan O’Reilly remains unsigned.
22. Carolina Hurricanes- Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin have become stars and I really like their coach, Kirk Muller. There are questions at goalie and the Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs since 2009.
23. Edmonton Oilers- You’d think with as many top draft picks as the Oilers have garnered in the last several years, that they would be a cinch for the playoffs. Devan Dubnyk and Justin Schultz might help return the team to prominence.
24. Toronto Maple Leafs- It’s been a long playoff drought for Toronto, but if they can land Roberto Luongo, that would be a big help.
25. Columbus Blue Jackets- New President Of Hockey Operations, John Davidson, has his work cut out for him. Rick Nash is gone to the Big Apple, but maybe young stars Artem Anisimov and Ryan Johansen will provide some punch.
26. Winnepeg Jets- It’s time for Dustin Byfuglien, Ondrej Pavelec, and Evander Kane to show if they can take the Jets to the next level. They are a bad road team that will be under the gun in this shortened season.
27. Calgary Flames- Jarome Iginla is not yet 100%, and workhorse goalie Miikka Kiprusoff will again be used and abused. This team fades a bit more every year, it seems.
28. Nashville Predators- The loss of Ryan Suter is huge and this team will have to really step it up offensively to seriously contend.
29. Montreal Canadiens- Stellar defenseman P.K. Subban remains unsigned. Promising youngster Alex Galchenyuk is up with the big boys, but may not be ready just yet.
30. New York Islanders- The Islanders have one of the league’s poorer defenses, and even at 48 games, this should be a long season for them.