Detroit Red Wings
After consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup final, the Red Wings are surprisingly in transition with the departures of three regulars (and their 82 goals last year) up front: Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson. Ville Leino, Justin Abdelkader and newcomers Jason Williams and Todd Bertuzzi may pick up some of the scoring slack, but the Red Wings' emphasis will be on improving a defence that slipped from first overall in 2007-08 to 20th last season, partly because of goalie Chris Osgood's regular-season struggles.
Marian Hossa's absence for the first two months, recovering from rotator cuff surgery, means the Blackhawks won't really know what kind of team they have until well into the season. But this much is known: Chicago possesses a balanced and deep defence corps, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and two of the most marketable young stars in the league in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The key to knocking off eight-time division champion Detroit will be how well Cristobal Huet adapts to his role as the new and undisputed No. 1 goalie, following Nikolai Khabibulin's departure.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues were a compelling second-half success story last season - they surged to sixth from 15th in the Western Conference after the all-star streak. But they are actually stronger on paper now than they were then, with both Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson back from season-long injuries. Chris Mason (24-8-6 after a 3-13-1 start) eventually emerged as the No. 1 goalie; he'll be spelled occasionally by Ty Conklin. The Blues are well coached, as is evidenced by strong special teams (eighth overall on the power play, third on the penalty kill). The key will be to rediscover all that forward momentum that ground to a halt in a playoff sweep at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks.
Columbus Blue Jackets
There is an aura of professionalism around the Blue Jackets these days, thanks to general manager Scott Howson, who makes the most of a limited budget, and coach Ken Hitchcock, who gets the most out of a team that is usually greater than the sum of its parts. Hitchcock's system requires a solid No.3 checking centre; free-agent acquisition Sami Pahlsson might just be the ticket. If centre Derrick Brassard comes back from a season-ending shoulder injury and shows that the 25 points he scored in 31 games were no fluke, then the Blue Jackets - built around the scoring of Rick Nash and Steve Mason's goaltending - should be in the playoff mix once again.
Pity the poor Predators. Stuck in the toughest division in the conference, which produced four playoff teams last year, they had no money to spend on upgrades, and were lucky to get Steve Sullivan to re-sign following a splashy 32 points in 41 games after returning from injury. Shea Weber is one of the NHL's top emerging defencemen. Jason Arnott is a reliable point-a-game producer, and coach Barry Trotz always gets the most out of a roster that makes up in hard work what it lacks in talent. Still, it doesn't appear to add up to a playoff spot unless rookie forward Colin Wilson - son of former NHLer Carey - has a monster debut or centre David Legwand shows he's more than a 42-point scorer.