Oh, yeah. Time to start looking at the season ahead, and look at who will wind up where. With that, here they are (in order of predicted finish, and a few comments on each):
Update: Western Conference coming Friday evening, Oct. 2nd...
1. Washington Capitals. No other team in the East (maybe the entire NHL) has the firepower and the speed of the Caps. Ovechkin, Semin & Co., will run thru most teams and certainly 3 of the other 4 in the NHL's weakest division, the Southeast. The missing quotient will be goaltending: will Semyon Varlamov be up to last year's playoff standard?
2. Boston Bruins. The best combination of grit, talent and hunger in the conference. Fattening up on Buffalo, Ottawa and Toronto won't hurt, either, as the B's eliminated a major headache by trading Phil Kessel to Toronto for three top draft picks.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins. The defending Eastern Conference champs will have their hands full, especially with everyone gunning for them. The last season at the antiquated Mellon Arena will be another fun one in Western PA.
4. New Jersey Devils. New head coach Jacques Lemaire will not let last season's disasterous Game 7 ending happen again in Newark. The biggest move for the Devils this off-season? Getting Martin Brodeur healthy.
5. Philadelphia Flyers. This is a crapshoot, admittedly, as the positive of having Chris Pronger on the roster, is tempered by the negative of having Ray Emery on the roster. Get ready for lots of long nights in South Philly.
6. Montreal Canadiens. Bob Gainey is betting millions of Molson family dollars on the smallest first line (in size) in the NHL. Hopefully, Scott Gomez and linemates can hold up. More hopefully, Bob Gainey will actually crack a smile sometime this decade.
7. Carolina Hurricanes. Being No. 2 to the Caps' whirlwind isn't really all that bad. They still get to play Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay six times each. That's good for something.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs. Never bet against a Brian Burke team. New front office, new talent, new attitude, hopefully won't bring same old results.
9. New York Rangers. The Rangers were one of the biggest free agent dealers (aren't they always?) but the decision to give Marian Gaborik a five-year, $37.5 million deal will come back to haunt them. Too many eggs in a wonky groin basket.
10. Ottawa Senators. The Sens' problems can no longer be blamed on Dany Heatley, who was shipped off to San Jose in September. You just wish the rest of the Sens would suck it up and play. And, get rid of Filip Kuba, the 'Human Off-Ramp'.
11. Buffalo Sabres. Which Sabres team will show up on any given night is anyone's guess. The fans in western NY deserve better than this year's Sabres. Ryan Miller will get tired of carrying this bunch.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning. The 'Bolts would have moved up except for their ongoing ownership squabbles (the two principal owners hate each other). Hopefully, the addition of two ex-Wild players (Kurtis Foster, Stephane Veilleux) will make Tampa Bay fans forget that Kuba was also a 'Bolt.
13. Florida Panthers. The South Florida hockey team will not be in a position to contend, and that's too bad for their young stars, as David Ballard and teammates deserve better than this.
14. Atlanta Thrashers. Another winter, another season of discontent in the Capital of the New South, as Ilya Kovalchuk's impending free agency will be an ongoing sore spot across a shrinking Blueland this winter.
15. New York Islanders. It truly is sad to see the Long Island faithful put up with a crappy team like this. It may turn around someday. Too bad it won't be this season.