1. Detroit Red Wings
My biggest regret with slacking on these updates is that I didn't get to jump on the "You're Crazy for Counting Out the Red Wings" bandwagon before a ton of people already refuted the annual "this is the year Detroit won't make it" hoopla. Darn.
Naturally it's not good that the Wings replaced Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler with the likes of Todd effin' Bertuzzi, but few teams can match the Red Wings defense (Lidstrom-Rafalski-Kronwall) and unstoppable winning tradition.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
I haven't been shy about criticizing Chicago's off-season moves, but those mistakes will hurt the team from a longterm perspective more than anything else. Chances are the 'Hawks will move some personnel before next summer, but as is, the team is loaded.
Brodeur is a Fraud has a way of consistently flipping the script on my goalie assumptions and the Contrarian Goaltender did just that with his "No Respect for Huet" piece. While tCG's powers of numerical persuasion cannot change me from anti-Huet to Cristobal-iever (hey-o!), the posts did at least make me hesitate in calling him a true problem.
With scoring depth, solid defense and their three best players entering contract years it is difficult to imagine Chicago having a total meltdown.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
As a Faceoff dork, CBJ could have been a dream team in the circle if they kept Manny Malholtra. Still, the team is strong down the middle and has that Rick Nash guy people seem to really care about. When you combine an improving fleet of forwards and a good young goalie in Steve Mason with Ken Hitchock's top-notch defensive system, it's tempting to put Columbus above Chicago.
That would be hasty, though, since their ceiling falls considerably if Derick Brassard deals with more injury problems.
4. St. Louis Blues
The Central division is good enough to send four teams to the playoffs (not to say that will happen), so this isn't meant to be a slight to the Blue-notes. The team is jam packed with young forwards and could really see a nice jump with the (hopefully healthy) return of Erik Johnson. Factor in the remote possibility of a Paul Kariya renaissance and it's hard not to be excited about St. Louis.
In fact, the more I talk about this the less comfortable I feel with this prediction. Let's move on.
5. Nashville Predators
Barry Trotz must be an awesome coach, right? No one ever sees much in the Predators, yet they always seem to scrap their way to competitiveness.
Unfortunately, their division isn't "Detroit + awful + awful + awful + Nashville" any longer. You've gotta love Shea Weber, but it just doesn't look like they have the horses to grind out a playoff berth any more.