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Posted: Wednesday October 1, 2008 1:47PM; Updated: Wednesday October 1, 2008 9:37PM
Scott Wraight Scott Wraight >
NHL POWER RANKINGS

Mighty get mightier

Red Wings begin season at the top; Blackhawks, Coyotes could be big surprises

Ladies and gentlemen, sorry to disappoint those of you who can't help taking exception with my rankings, but I'm back for Year 4 and questions abound.

Will the Red Wings be the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since they turned the feat in 1997 and '98? Will this year's Winter Classic (at Wrigley Field) be another impressive showing? Will Alex Ovechkin score 70? The fun gets started Oct. 4 in Prague, Czech Republic, with the Jagr-less Rangers taking on Barry Melrose's rebuilt Lightning. Three hours later, the Senators battle El Sid (see below) and the Penguins. North America gets in on the action Oct. 9 with the Leafs and Wings squaring off at Joe Louis Arena.

As for my Cup prediction? I'm picking the Stars over the Canadiens in six games. And I'll stick to that all season. I swear. Let the quest for Lord Stanley begin.

A reminder: these Rankings are based mainly on quality of play (with an emphasis on recent games), overall record and my gut instinct.

Note: Want to send me a comment about the rankings? Scroll to the bottom of this page for my Mailbag.

NHL Power Rankings
1Wings
Last Week: -
The mighty get mightier. That was the sentiment around the league after the Red Wings snagged Marian Hossa in free agency. Sometimes things just aren't fair. According to the Edmonton Journal, coach Mike Babcock told Hossa "see you soon" during the ceremonial handshake at the end of last season's Cup Final. Veteran Chris Chelios also reportedly called Hoss to convince him to come to Motown for more than just a chance to win a title. I won't be surprised one bit if the Wings end up winning back-to-back Cups.
 
2Stars
Last Week: -
There's more than a few reasons to like the Stars. Marty Turco will again be solid. New superpest Sean Avery will disrupt the opposition. Brenden Morrow will take another step toward becoming a household name. And Brad Richards will be around for an entire season and return to the 90-point level. "I look at it as I'm 28, I've been in the 90s before, so why can't I get back there," Richards told the Dallas Morning News. The last time a Stars player scored 90 points was Mike Modano in 1993-94, with 93.
 
3Habs
Last Week: -
Last year wasn't a fluke. The Habs have developed their young talent quicker than most expected. And it couldn't have come at a better time as the franchise celebrates its 100th year. What makes them intriguing is their blend of speed, skill and youth. That starts between the pipes with future star Carey Price. Despite his flameout in the playoffs, the 21-year-old netminder will finish the season as one of the best in the league and guide Montreal to the top seed in the East.
 
4Pens
Last Week: -
Sergei Gonchar's absence (4-6 months with a dislocated shoulder) will definitely be felt. As will Ryan Whitney's (two months, foot). But what makes the Pens solid is impressive depth and superior talent. It all starts with Sidney Crosby, who may be up to bigger and even better things in Season 4 after managing 294 points in his first 213 career games. Another 100-point season should come easy. But since Sid The Kid is now 21, that moniker doesn't really work. How about El Sid?
 
5Sharks
Last Week: -
What happened to Jonathan Cheechoo? After securing career-highs with 56 goals and 93 points in 2005-06, he slipped to 37 and 69 in '06-07. Last season was one to forget: 23 goals and 37 points in 69 games. The Cheechoo train has definitely come off its track, but the 28-year-old hopes that adjusting his diet will get him off to a fast start. If he can return to the 70-point level and Joe Thornton plays to his potential, the Sharks will again be a feared foe -- at least in the regular season (as always).
 
6Rangers
Last Week: -
Despite the departures of Jaromir Jagr, Sean Avery and Martin Straka, this year's squad may be a tad better with newbies Wade Redden, Nikolai Zherdev and Markus Naslund. But all three must play to their potential, and in Zherdev's case, stay motivated for all 82 games. If Brandon Dubinsky can build on his solid rookie campaign, the Blueshirts should give the Pens a run for their money in the Atlantic.
 
7Flyers
Last Week: -
Year 1 under John Stevens was a smashing success as the Flyers earned 95 points, a 39-point turnaround from the previous season. It figures that Year 2 will be much of the same, especially if Simon Gagne returns to health. Forced by concussion symptoms to end last season in February, the talented winger has undergone extensive treatment just to reach the point where he can go an entire day without headaches and neck pain.
 
8Ducks
Last Week: -
Last season started rough for the Ducks, who began play in London and appeared lost for the first few weeks after returning to the States. Then there was the waiting game with Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne. Top that off with J-S Giguere being injured and the Ducks stumbled out of gate with a 19-17-5 mark heading into January. But this season has been, for the most part, free of distractions. Other than the obvious big names, keep an eye on Bobby Ryan, who Selanne says "is going to have his breakout year."
 
9Flames
Last Week: -
In an effort to regain his Vezina-winning form, Miikka Kiprusoff changed his summer regimen by hitting the pavement. "I was running a little more than I used to," he told the Calgary Herald. "I feel pretty good right now. I don't know what [the fitness testing] scores will be, but hopefully they'll be better." In each of his last four seasons, Kipper has seen his GAA climb from 1.70 in 2003-04 to 2.69 last year. Same for his save percentage. Sorry, Flames fans, but I see a fourth consecutive first-round playoff exit.
 
10Caps
Last Week: -
The renewal rate for season ticket holders is about 93 percent, the highest since Ted Leonsis purchased the team in 1999. That's bound to happen when you make the playoffs and boast the league's most exciting player in Alex Ovechkin. But even if A.O. sets career highs in goals and points, this team will need Jose Theodore to be solid in net -- especially with just an average group of blueliners in front of him. The Caps are banking on him, since Cristobal Huet and Olaf Kolzig are gone.
 
11Sabres
Last Week: -
It looks like Sabres fans have a big reason to smile: team management seems to be changing its wicked ways of the past. Last year, the higher-ups decided to let Chris Drury and Daniel Briere leave town. This year? Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller became two of the six players who have signed long-term contracts in the past 14 months. Prospects are definitely looking up for a team that is talented enough to make it back into the playoffs.
 
12Blackhawks
Last Week: -
Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brian Campbell, Patrick Sharp and Cristobal Huet. Just five reasons for Hawks fans to be excited. No wonder the club in early September surpassed its franchise record of 13,425 season tickets -- up 300 percent from last year. "You look at the sports that are going on in the city of Chicago and it shows that there's room for lots of sports here and people are hungry for it," Campbell told the Chicago Tribune. The Hawks have a real shot at being one of the better teams in the West.
 
13Bruins
Last Week: -
For the Bruins to build on last season's surprising late run, they'll need two players in particular to stay healthy: Manny Fernandez and Patrice Bergeron. If those two can stay on the ice for 70-plus games and Phil Kessel climbs to the next rung on his NHL growth chart, the Bruins may be able to stay within shouting distance of the Habs in the Northeast. Despite the ifs, there's enough talent and depth to keep this squad relevant in the East.
 
14Devils
Last Week: -
Some have suggested this will be the season the Devils miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season. I'm not buying it. Not while Marty Brodeur is between the pipes. Sure, they'll have to scratch and claw their way to one of the final spots, but they'll have their tickets punched. One reason I'm confident N.J. will make the postseason is the possibilities that surround its top line of Brian Rolston, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta.
 
15Bolts
Last Week: -
The Lightning are the toughest team to figure. With so much turnover, they could be the biggest surprise in the league or a huge bust. But with Barry Melrose behind the bench, they're sure to be exciting. A lot will depend on goalie Mike Smith. Acquired last season from the Stars as the centerpiece of the Brad Richards deal, the 26-year-old gets his chance to be a No. 1 guy. "We thought he was a great guy and would become the goalie we envisioned, so we took a chance," Melrose told the St. Pete Times.
 
16Coyotes
Last Week: -
Wayne Gretzky will be going to the playoffs for the first time as a head coach. You heard me right. The Coyotes will slip in as the eighth seed and give the top seed a real scare. It would only be fitting that this team make the postseason, considering Shane Doan and Olli Jokinen have combined to go 1,119 games without a taste of the playoffs. But even if that duo is lights-out all season, it will all come down to Ilya Bryzgalov in net.
 
17Wild
Last Week: -
He's oft-injured. He's enigmatic. He's one of the most talented players in the NHL. Yes, I'm talking about Marian Gaborik. This is the Wild's dilemma: Sign him to a long-term deal and cross your fingers that he doesn't suffer any more significant injuries, or let him leave and face constant, unyielding criticism from your fans. It's not my money, but I say sign him and pray long and hard. Imagine what this offense would be sans Gaborik. Scary stuff.
 
18Canes
Last Week: -
It took 10 years, but the Canes are going black. Since the team arrived in Raleigh in 1998, its uniform colors have always been red and white. Realizing black has become a popular choice and hot seller across all major sports, Carolina decided to make the change for its third jersey. The Canes will have a different look for at least 15 games, but the results this season will be much the same: shaky goaltending, mediocre defense and streaky offense.
 
19Sens
Last Week: -
An NHL redux for the city of Goteborg, Sweden. Fourteen years ago, Daniel Alfredsson was playing for club team Frolunda when Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull were part of an NHL touring team that rolled into Goteborg during the strike. This time around, it's Alfredsson leading his Senators in an exhibition game against his former club. Just a couple days after that, Ottawa plays for real against the Penguins in Stockholm and the questions about the quality of the Sens' goaltending (Martin Gerber and Alex Auld begin.
 
20Avs
Last Week: -
Jose Theodore's departure means it's Peter Budaj's time. In four seasons with the Avs, the 26-year-old has had runs at the No. 1 job but stumbled each time. Given his 61-36-16 career record, it's about time that the Slovak made the most of his chances. Of course, the club brought in former Calder-winner Andrew Raycroft in case Budaj doesn't. I'll go out on a limb and say Budaj starts better than 65 percent of Colorado's games.
 
21Panthers
Last Week: -
It'll be interesting to see how this team plays in Year 1 A.O. (after Olli). Olli Jokinen, the longtime captain, was dealt to Phoenix, meaning it'll be up to Nathan Horton to pick up the offensive slack. Veteran Cory Stillman decided to ink a three-year deal with the Panthers instead of a Cup contender. "It's a great opportunity to be the surprise team," he told the Sun-Sentinel. My money is on Florida finishing no higher than 11th in the East.
 
22Preds
Last Week: -
So who fills the void left by the losses of Alex Radulov and Steve Sullivan? Two possibilities are youngsters Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Jones. Even if they aren't in the mix at the beginning, it'll only be a matter of time before coach Barry Trotz brings them back and gives them decent ice time. Another player who'll help: Shea Weber. The 23-year-old blueliner was hampered by injuries last season (20 points in 54 games), but he's looking good for a return to the 40-point plateau.
 
23Canucks
Last Week: -
I'm sure I'll be hearing from Canucks fans over this ranking, but I have no faith in the offense, especially with veteran Markus Naslund taking his act to Broadway. With Naslund in the mix, Vancouver finished 23rd last season with an average of 2.52 goals per game. I doubt Steve Bernier is the offensive answer. All-world goalie Roberto Luongo, who is now captain, will keep this team out of the bottom five, but I see a whole bunch of 1-0 and 2-1 losses this season, meaning the Canucks will be on the outside when the playoffs come around.
 
24Oilers
Last Week: -
The Oilers can spin it however they want, but it was a demotion. Dustin Penner, the same guy Edmonton inked to a five-year, $21.25 million deal last year, looks like he'll start the season on the checking line. "Dustin looks at himself as more of a mucker," coach Craig MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal. "In talking to him, he's not disappointed where he's at right now." That's a duffle bag full of cash for a mucker. I'm wondering how Oilers fans feel about this situation.
 
25Jackets
Last Week: -
The Jackets appear to have a problem that won't solve itself anytime soon: finding someone capable of running a power-play unit that ranked 26th last season. Of the in-house candidates -- Christian Backman, Kris Russell, Fedor Tyutin and Rostislav Klesla -- none have stepped to the forefront. It'll be another long season in Columbus, which along with St. Louis appears to be going backward in the Central.
 
26Thrashers
Last Week: -
If not for the salary cap, veteran defenseman Mathieu Schneider would never have become a Thrasher. Because of his $5.625 million salary, the Ducks were forced to deal the two-time All-Star to Atlanta. One team's cap crunch is another's reward. But the 39-year-old backend can only do so much for a team that's still looking to replace Marian Hossa's offensive skills. One player who could step up is 20-year-old Bryan Little. But as is the case every year, this team's success depends on the play of the enigmatic Kari Lehtonen in net.
 
27Kings
Last Week: -
How do you know it's going to be a long, trying season? When the local paper can't identify one of your top players. A photo caption in the Los Angeles Times identified a player as Dustin Brown, who led the Kings last season with 32 goals. Unfortunately, the player in the pic was former King Tom Kostopoulos. Is it too early to dub Brown the Rodney Dangerfield of L.A.? No respect, indeed.
 
28Blues
Last Week: -
Erik Johnson is out for the season after tearing ligaments in his knee during an incident in a golf cart. Rumors continue to swirl that the 20-year-old was involved in horseplay that resulted in the season-ending injury. "It really bothers me when I hear things that are just so stupid," Johnson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He maintains he was injured when he got his foot caught between the accelerator and the brake. No matter how it happened, the Blues will be hurting without him.
 
29Isles
Last Week: -
Who's more tortured: Islanders fans or Mets fans? I think the Isles have this one won, and SI.com colleague and long-suffering Isles fan John Rolfe probably won't disagree. He says he's staring at another LONG season on the Island. But there's reason for optimism. The Isles get to enjoy 20-year-old power forward Kyle Okposo for the entire season. The future of the Isles begins with him, as he has everything the team lacks (skating and scoring ability, not to mention toughness).
 
30Leafs
Last Week: -
Webster's defines "agony" as extreme and generally prolonged pain. Leafs fans would classify agony as no postseason appearances since 2003-04 and no Cup since 1967. That won't change as management takes the long-term approach. "If you asked us if you were to pay for a Stanley Cup team this year, but you were to be lousy for the next five years, would you do it? The answer from the ownership point of view, absolutely not," co-owner Larry Tanenbaum told the Toronto Star. Is that really how Leafs fans feel?
 

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