There's nothing like Opening Night in the National Hockey League. Past playoff failures become clean slates and suddenly fans of every NHL team becomes optimistic again, if only for one day.
The longest playoff drought in the NHL now belongs to the Calgary Flames at seven long years. Flames fans, however, are still coming out in droves to watch the hockey club and many are optimistic that this is the year the club returns to the postseason.
Of course, fans in Florida have been waiting several seasons as well and may feel that under the leadership of new captain Olli Jokinen and a defence core that's one-year-older this might be their year. Hurricane fans yearn for another shot at the Stanley Cup. In Buffalo, Sabre fans are sensing a turnaround as well.
Meanwhile, in cities like Anaheim, Minnesota and Edmonton the fans are hoping their clubs can maintain the status quo despite a whirlwind of off-season activity that has arguably weakened each club. The NHL playoffs might look a little bit different come next April.
1. Detroit In the end, the Red Wings are going to have to pick up a good chunk of Curtis Joseph's salary. But this also means that they're probably going to be able to acquire another asset. Add Ray Whitney and Derian Hatcher into the mix along with a healthier Steve Yzerman and suddenly this is a very dangerous team.
2. Colorado Colorado will be one of the most fun teams to watch this season, with Kariya, Selanne, Sakic, Forsberg, Hejduk and Tanguay. The top-four defence is very solid as well. The Avs are suspect in goal and may struggle the first few months because of this but trust Lacroix will fix that problem when it counts.
3. Dallas The Stars will likely be in a three-way battle for first place in their division all season long. With their losses on defence they've been taken down a notch but as long as Turco remains one of the top goalies in the league they should win their division.
4. St. Louis The Blues have always had concerns in goal but overall they play a strong team defence. Couple that with a healthy Keith Tkachuk and the Blues should make the playoffs no problem.
5. Anaheim The key to the Mighty Ducks playoff run last spring wasn't so much the playoff performance of Giguere as it was the team's commitment to team defence. That won't change this season and the Ducks will remain a difficult team to play against.
6. San Jose Around this time last year San Jose was predicted by some to perhaps break through the barrier and win the Stanley Cup. Instead, they took a huge step back. I see them taking a small step forward once again in 2003-04. The goaltending is there, the defence is strong and although the forwards featured aren't nearly as impressive they should get them enough goals to compete in the West.
7. Vancouver So many things have gone right for the Canucks over the past three seasons that the law of averages says the club might see a bit of a correction this year. Fact is, they're only a Naslund or Bertuzzi injury away from being no better than the L.A's, San Joses and Chicagos of the league.
8. Calgary - On the ice, I don't think they're a better team than last year, though Turek leading the league in preseason GAA and save percentage is very promising. However, Daryl Sutter will make a big difference, and if he can keep this team on the happy side of .500 (he was one game over during his tenure last season), I think 8th place is realistic. I'm still concerned about the goaltending situation and offense from blueline, but I think the Flames have enough to edge out the competition. Then again, I said that last year and the year before.
9. Los Angeles How vital was Roman Cechmanek to the success of the Philadelphia Flyers last season? The Kings are about to find out, whether they like it or not. Always a solid regular season goaltender, he's going to face a lot more shots this year. He'll make the Kings better but with other injuries to worry about, still not playoff bound.
10. Minnesota All last season fans and media alike waited for the Minnesota Wild to return back to reality. Now, with Gaborik and Ronning gone from a line-up that had problems scoring goals last year, they will be in tough to get 200 goals.
11. Chicago The Blackhawks will have an early run but will fall off the earth later in the season. It will be a big help to not have the distraction of Fleury around.
12. Phoenix New uniforms, same result.
13. Columbus The Blue Jackets will be competitive most nights but unfortunately they won't have enough firepower to win on a regular basis, especially with Geoff Sanderson and Andrew Cassels in decline.
14. Nashville The Preds had a great run at the end of last season, and one of the lowest payrolls in the league so they gutted their team? A very puzzling move to say the least and one that may cost them dearly in terms of performance and fan support.
15. Edmonton Why not?
1. Ottawa The Sens finally had a taste of playoff success last season and with essentially the same team this year they'll be on a mission. This will be a very difficult team for anyone to beat.
2. New Jersey No matter who's wearing the red and black of the New Jersey Devils you can assure that they will always be in the Eastern Conference mix. The Flyers will pose the greatest threat
3. Tampa Bay The best of the worst division in hockey. The hockey world will soon find out that it was the cast of Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis that carried Prospal, not the other way around.
4. Philadelphia So last season everyone in the Flyers organization blamed Cechmanek for their troubles and seemed to think Jeff Hackett would fix everything. What will be their excuse this season?
5. New York Rangers You would think that eventually, throwing around insane dollars to bring in some of the best talent in hockey at practically every position would eventually result in a playoff position at the very least. Ironically, the Rangers have the second-longest current postseason drought in the league behind the Flames. It'll end this year with Sather behind the bench.
6. Boston The two biggest question marks for the Bruins are can Samsonov stay healthy? And will Potvin be enough in goal? Potvin will have a very hard time getting this team out of the first round of the playoffs but should at least get them in.
7. New York Islanders The Islanders have loads of potential but remain a question mark at every position. What will get them into the playoffs is Rick DiPietro. He's ready to become an elite NHL puckstopper. He looked a step ahead in his stints last season in the American Hockey League.
8. Montreal Jose Theodore is the key to the Canadiens making noise. He was well below average last year after his magical 2001-02 season. Sometimes young goaltenders do see a large fluctuation in their performance but you have to think that it's something from which he'll recover. If he doesn't, Gainey won't hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal that might give the team some life.
9. Toronto The Leafs are a year older and haven't brought in any impact players to help make them any better with the exception of an aging Joe Nieuwendyk. Ed Belfour made an incredible turnaround with his play last season but it may be asking too much of him to do it again. Injuries on the blueline could see the club in a hole right from the start.
10. Carolina Won't be as bad as some people think and just might sneak into that eighth playoff spot.
11. Buffalo They'll have some pop up front with Drury, Satan and Briere but the back end is a little suspect, especially considering the young goaltenders.
12. Washington The heart of the Caps' squad is Jaromir Jagr and unfortunately most nights he plays with no heart. If he can get motivated the Caps will make a big rise up the standings but that's a big if.
13. Florida The Panthers are one of the best young teams in the game today, unfortunately they are a little too young and in addition to that Mike Keenan's strength does not lie in coaching youth.
14. Atlanta A tragic start to the season may actually give the team some life in the first few months but once the season gets going the fact will remain that they are without their best player and the Thrashers will start sinking fast.
15. Pittsburgh They may as well open negotiations with Ovechkin right now.
Stanley Cup Winner Colorado Avalanche. Pierre Lacroix has always shown that he will do whatever possible to put his team over the edge. As the club stands, currently goaltending is the biggest concern but rest assured he will bring someone in before the March deadline.
Rookie of the Year Tuomo Ruutu. The self-proclaimed best player outside of the NHL last season just might show everyone that in fact he was as he marches to a 20-goal year.
Comeback Player of the Year Keith Tkachuk. After several injury-plagued seasons Tkachuk will play at least 70 games with the Blues this season and finish in the top five in league scoring.
Surprise Team of the Year Carolina Hurricanes. The 'Canes are not as bad as they showed last season, nor are they as good as they were two years ago. In a weak division they will rise to the top once again.
Team That Doesn't Live Up to Hype Vancouver Canucks. A quick look up and down their lineup sees a dynamite first line and three third lines. If Cloutier doesn't hold up, they might be looking at a slide down the standings. The defence is a bit suspect, too, with Bryan Allen holding down the sixth spot.