So unexciting to go the repeat route, but we agree with BLACKHAWKS 1 captain Jonathan Toews's sentiment that this season will go better than 2010--11, the last time Chicago defended the Stanley Cup. For one, salary-cap constraints have not forced the team to dismantle half of its championship lineup, as they did in the summer of '10. Just as important, the young stars from that Blackhawks team—Chicago stumbled to an 8-9-2 start and finished eighth in the West—have learned an important lesson about rest.
"It felt like I was in different cities every week," Toews, 25, says of his first post-Cup summer. "I think that's the biggest thing I changed this summer. I feel refreshed. I don't feel run-down or stressed like I did last time."
Given how the Presidents' Trophy winners dominated the West in 2013, and with the minimal changes to their roster, the Blackhawks are clear favorites to become the first team to repeat as Cup champs since the 1997--98 Red Wings. Up front, the development of young forwards Brandon Saad, 20 (10 goals, 27 points), and Andrew Shaw, 22 (five postseason goals, including two game-winners), made the loss of veterans Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg this off-season easier to stomach. Chicago also retained its entire corps of blueliners, who helped limit opponents to a league-low 97 goals last year.
The Blackhawks will benefit from playing in the weak (now that Detroit is gone) Central Division. Oh, yes, Toews and Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane, 24 (23 goals, 55 points), are entering their prime. There's no other pick. Not even close.
ON THE DOORSTEP
A physical team that wears opponents down, the KINGS 2 have a streaky offense. But their excellent nucleus of defensemen, led by the gifted Drew Doughty, shuts opponents down through a blend of strength and deft puck movement. Goalie Jonathan Quick was inconsistent last season (.902 save percentage), but he regained his form during the playoffs (.934), proving he's at his best when the stakes are high. Will he start for the U.S. in Sochi? That carrot for Quick should be a boon for L.A.
Midway through last season the SHARKS 3 moved 6'5", 230-pound defenseman Brent Burns to right wing, and he had 20 points in 23 games. San Jose will make the switch permanent this year, putting the towering Burns alongside veteran center Joe Thornton. Burns's size and advantage along the boards will complement the bullishly crafty Thornton and opportunistic winger Tyler Kennedy.
The BLUES 4 allowed the second-fewest shots on goal in the NHL last season. A full year of defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, a deadline acquisition from the Flames whose arrival last April coincided with an 11-3-0 run, lifts the Blues into the upper tier of contenders. Vladimir Tarasenko, the 21-year-old phenom who burst into the NHL with five goals in his first seven games last January, is expected to see more ice time, which should boost the offense. Scoring hasn't been a strength—2.58 goals per game ranked 17th in the league in 2013—but with their defense, the Blues keep games close and are 32-9-13 in one-goal games under coach Ken Hitchcock.
While the Blues' window of opportunity seems to be opening, the CANUCKS' 5 appears to be closing. Since losing to Boston in the Cup finals in 2011, Vancouver has won just one playoff game. "Things just got a little stale," center Ryan Kesler says. So the Canucks, for rejuvenation, have turned to acerbic coach John Tortorella, who will install his rugged style on a team that has always thrived more on finesse. Goalie Roberto Luongo, who's—surprise!—still in Vancouver, will meanwhile have to find a way to pretend that the Canucks' brass wants him (and the $40.5 million left on his contract) around.