NHL preview: Red Wings, Kings poised to challenge champs

The meek inherited the East, if not the earth, in the playoffs last spring.

The top-seeded Capitals were upset by the eighth-seeded Canadiens, who then eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. In the conference finals the Canadiens faced the seventh-seeded Flyers, who had upset the Devils and rallied from an 0-3 deficit against the Bruins to become only the third team in Stanley Cup playoff history to erase that deficit in a best-of-seven series. The Flyers won the East but lost the Cup finals to the Blackhawks in six games.

Last season proves there are no sure picks in this conference.

Meanwhile, seven of last season's top 10 teams, including the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, came from the West, which should be highly competitive again this season.

Here are some storylines heading into the season:

Break up the Blackhawks! Oh, wait … the Stanley Cup champions did that themselves.

Salary-cap concerns, worsened by a high arbitration award to goalie Antti Niemi, forced general manager Stan Bowman to disperse about a third of last season's team. They have their core — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — but they'll miss gritty players such as Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and John Madden.

Marty Turco, hoping a change of scenery from Dallas to Chicago will revive his career, will take over the goaltending while Cristobal Huet gets paid $5.625 million to play in Switzerland and not count against the Hawks' salary cap. What a world.

What do the Flyers do for an encore? The Flyers made the playoffs by winning a shootout in their season finale, after overcoming a December coaching change and questions about their leadership and so-so goaltending. They repeatedly banded together when pressure could have driven them apart.

But they'll have a tough road to repeat. Goalie Michael Leighton will miss the start of the season because of an injured back, defenseman Chris Pronger is recovering from knee surgery and spunky forward Ian Laperriere is out because of post-concussion syndrome. A long playoff push that ends short of the Cup can make it emotionally tough to return to that peak the following season.

Seeing red: Write the Red Wings off at your peril. They manage to find gems in the late rounds of the draft, let players get seasoned and learn their system to perfection, and then blend newcomers into the lineup gradually. They were thinned by injuries early last season but were nearly unstoppable after the Olympic break. If they can avoid injuries they could go deep in the playoffs.

What price success? The Canadiens rode Jaroslav Halak's spectacular goaltending to the East finals but traded him to St. Louis and gave the starting job to Carey Price. General manager Pierre Gauthier might soon regret that decision. Price had a rocky preseason and fans wasted no time booing him. He told them to chill. They'll tell him — in French and English — what they think of that idea if he doesn't keep the Canadiens in playoff contention.

Capital idea: The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with a league-leading 121 points, but that became a footnote after they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom finished 3-4 in scoring with 109 and 101 points, respectively. Mike Green led was a Norris Trophy finalist. The Capitals scored a league-leading 318 goals and should be up there again. The question is whether Ovechkin and Co. will channel their anger over their early exit into intensity or become the best team that hasn't won the Cup.

An Ilya wind blows: It nearly took all summer, but the Devils retained winger Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHL's rejection of their initial 17-year, $102 million contract was upheld by an arbitrator; their 15-year, $100 million deal was accepted only after the league and the players' union agreed to amend the collective bargaining agreement so long-term contracts can't be front-loaded. If Kovalchuk can score 40-plus goals, Zach Parise (38 goals, 82 points) continues to blossom and a restructured defense can help protect slowing goalie Martin Brodeur, the Devils might have a Cup run in them.

Once and future Kings: The Kings might be grateful they lost the Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Instead of investing $100 million in one scorer, prolific though he is, they can instead retain players in their rapidly maturing young core. Defenseman Drew Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy last season, will have more freedom to push up ice as the Kings try to generate more five-on-five scoring. If a few things fall right they could be dangerous.

Winning in Tampa Bay? Steve Yzerman spent his entire career in the Red Wings' organization but left to become general manager of the Lightning, a move that already has paid off. He has brought credibility and stability to a club that needed both and traded for prolific winger Simon Gagne. Steven Stamkos, 20, tied the Penguins' Sidney Crosby for the league goal-scoring lead last season with 51. He might have only scratched the surface of his potential. Yzerman has enough good pieces to turn around a team that was 12th in the East last season.

Desert dogs: The Coyotes were the feel-good story of the NHL last season. Despite uncertainty over their ownership and their future — they're still being operated by the league and awaiting a sale — they racked up 50 wins and 107 points behind coach of the year Dave Tippett. They're fun to watch, but unless a buyer steps up by the end of the year and reaches a lease agreement with the city of Glendale, Ariz., they could move next summer.

A nation turns its lonely eyes: The Canucks are a popular pick to bring the Stanley Cup home to Canada for the first time since 1993, and it's easy to see why. Henrik Sedin won the scoring title with 112 points and was voted the league's MVP. Defenseman Dan Hamhuis, signed as a free agent, is an excellent puck mover, and Alexander Edler is an emerging star. But the defense is kind of thin after those two, and there's not a lot of muscle.

helliott@tribune.com

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