This could be a very special season in the National Hockey League, or at least it should be treated that way by fans across the continent.
If labour strife strikes to the magnitude that many have predicted, each and every game this year should be savoured like an expensive appetizer in a sheik restaurant. This could be it for a year, maybe more.
With the impending labour doom comes a few wrinkles that should make this NHL season fun to watch. Teams are looking to unload salary, suggesting one of the wackiest March trade deadlines in league history. Teams that want to win now will be given every opportunity if they just sign on the dotted line and take the salary load.
In Calgary the Flames have a new look in terms of roster, a new look in terms of off ice personnel, and a new look in terms of uniform, as they hope to shed the anvil of playoff failure that has plagued this franchise for the past seven years.
You know, it would be just like the Flames make the grade then watch the league disintegrate for the conceivable future.
Such is life in Calgary.
With all the western focus on the high octane Avalanche, the Wings slip into first place on the strength of team defence led by the return of The Dominator and the addition of Darrian Hatcher
Colorado manages to hold their division crown yet another season by edging out the Canucks on the last weekend again. This regular season built team falls on its collective face in the playoffs however.
The third place Stars pull a Lightning by snagging home ice on a technically while finishing more than ten points behind the Canucks.
Another solid season for the Canucks gives them home ice and a return engagement with the Blues in the first round.
St. Louis -
The Blues are the best of the rest, and a long way back of the top four clubs in the West. Someone get this team a goalie.
A well tanned Sergei Fedorov leads the Ducks up another rung in the West and into the playoffs for the second straight year. "Cinderella II: The Ducks at the Dance"
I hate myself for doing this, but I'll finally predict the Flames in the playoffs (a first for this writer). And you know what? It won't even be that nerve wracking.
Los Angeles -
The Kings recover from a brutal first half of injuries to squeak into the playoffs.
San Jose -
The Sharks rebound up the standings after a brutal 2002-03 season, but come up just short to their California rivals.
No Niinimma, no Commrie, no Carter ... no chance. The annual smoke and mirror show in Edmonton just can't get it done this time around.
One of the West's most improved teams, the Jackets prove to be on the right track for a bright future.
I predict doom for the Hawks based on Karma. An adult NHL general manager should never come out and blame an entire season on one night at a pub. Shame on you Mr. Smith.
The tight system only works with a contributing Marian Gaborik. That and nobody takes this team lightly anymore.
The Coyotoes are a key injury to Sean Burke away from challenging Pittsburgh for the Alexander Ovechkin sweepstakes.
Memo to David Poile, you need to have at least six defenceman on your roster.
The Senators are a great regular season team, that won't change. The real proof will be in their playoff pudding.
New Jersey -
The Devils are well the Devils. In a conference that appears to have a slip at the top, the Cup Champs should coast to the second seed.
*Tampa Bay -
The Bolts will land third based on their cushy division, but may finish in that spot due to total points as well.
The Flyers have more question marks in goal, a rookie defenceman to break in, and a feud between their best player and coach. Still too much talent not to gain home ice.
The Isles will be breaking in a new coach this year, but should finish well within the playoffs if Peca can stay healthy and DiPietro proves he can play.
This year's shock team will prove that bankruptcy distraction was the primary reason for their plummet down the standings last season.
The Leafs always make the playoffs, and with a veteran cast they should again this year.
Felix Potvin in net means a battle to the end to make the playoffs. They just get in.
Without the Heatly/Snyder tragedy this could have been the Thrashers year to bust through into the playoffs. It will happen soon.
Team Nondescript will once again be on the outside looking in, that is until they find a way to move Jaromir Jagr.
It's always tempting to put this talented roster into the playoffs, but every year they find a way NOT to do it. Mr. Cigar will fall short again this year as well.
The Hurricanes will move a good eight or so spots up the overall standings this year, but won't be able to turn the old legs of Rod Brind'amour and Ron Francis into a playoff spot.
The Panthers have a new look roster with a bunch of new faces up front, but any team with Val Bure on their roster can't play a game past March 31st.
Jose Theadore will bounce back this season to show the world that his all world season wasn't a fluke - still won't be enough to put the Habs in the playoffs.
The Penguins were one of those clubs that didn't play an inter-camp game against their AHL club this season. They would have lost.
Stanley Cup Winner - The Detroit Red Wings. The Dominator returns triumphantly to capture Lord Stanley again.
Rookie of the Year - Eric Staal, Carolina. Bad team, good mentors, shiny hardware.
Comeback Player of the Year - Eric Lindros. Lindros has gone from a reckless force that got hurt all the time, to a perimeter player that lost his star power. The rugged pivot throws caution to the wind and returns to his old dominant ways.
Surprise Team of the Year - The Buffalo Sabres. From near the bottom to a comfortable playoff spot in just 12 calendar months, the Sabres will be an exciting team to watch this seaosn.
Team That Doesn't Live Up to Hype - The Colorado Avalanche. Team high octane. The Oilers of the new millennium. Forget it, there is only one puck on the ice and things just don't run as smoothly in Denver as expected.