That means it's time for NHL.com staffers to go public with their predictions for the 2011-12 NHL season. Here's a look at how our experts size up who makes it out of the Eastern and Western conferences, plus which team wins the Stanley Cup, and which most valuable player who will take home the Conn Smythe Trophy.
We have added an escape clause -- of sorts. Each pick for the conference winners comes with a "Wrong Turn" comment that allows how the predicted conference winner might not make it to the Stanley Cup Final. That said, let's just say there was a run on Penguins, Blackhawks and Sharks, but the Kings, Rangers and Canadiens have reasons for optimism, too. And if you are hoping for an all-Canada Stanley Cup Final, well, that's in the NHL crystal ball for one staffer.
Why they win: Despite catastrophic injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins still found their way to a 106-point season in 2010-11. They did that because they've been built right by GM Ray Shero. This season, Malkin is back and poised for a big season, and Crosby seems on a similar path. The defense is strong and balanced. And in goal, Marc-Andre Fleury already has a Stanley Cup on his resume.
** Wrong Turn: Injuries, which you can't predict, will slow down even the best of teams. If Malkin and Crosby find themselves back on the IR, the Pens will find themselves at a major disadvantage come playoff time.
Why they win: In the past, I felt the Sharks came up a bit short on defense when they waded into elite-level competition. GM Doug Wilson addressed that weakness in the offseason, acquiring legit top-pair defenseman Brent Burns from the Wild. Burns is a big guy who'll eat minutes, play in all game situations and take some of the pressure off star puck-mover Dan Boyle. The Sharks' offense, led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and new arrival Martin Havlat, should provide plenty of goal support for starting goalie Antti Niemi, who already owns a Stanley Cup ring.
** Wrong turn: If Burns doesn't live up to expectations, San Jose likely will be cast in the role of bridesmaid again in the West.
Penguins, 6 games
When healthy, the Penguins are just too strong. I mean, where are the weaknesses? Even their arena is state of the art. In a thrilling final series, I feel they'll wear down the Sharks, who likely will be a little battered from a tough playoff run in the West. I see Marc-Andre Fleury making a big save late to secure the franchise's fourth Cup.
Jordan Staal, Penguins
It would be easy to pick Crosby or Malkin, and no doubt those two will have a major impact on the Penguins' Cup success. But I'll take Staal, who's a terrific compliment to the club's big dogs. The fact that coach Dan Bylsma uses Staal in important game situations isn't a coincidence. Staal is one of those players who finds different ways to help you win. He'll be rewarded for those efforts with the Conn Smythe.
Marc Staal gets healthy, their blue line is young and mobile. And Henrik Lundqvist remains of the game's best goaltenders. It won't be easy, and Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards will have to develop fast chemistry, but I think the Rangers could be the class of the East.
** Wrong turn: If Gaborik suffers through another injury-plagued season, Staal's headaches continue and that young defense doesn't hold up under pressure, it could be a long season at the Garden
Why they win: When Rob Blake retired following the 2010 playoffs, the Sharks never really replaced him -- until this summer, when they added Brent Burns. The All-Star blueliner had 17 goals last season and plays with an edge. With Burns and Dan Boyle on the back end, and a cavalcade of stars up front -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture -- this is the season San Jose takes the next step.
** Wrong turn: Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki are battling injuries, leaving unproven Thomas Greiss the starter in net. If Greiss can't hold the fort, a slow start could doom the Sharks in the ultra-tough Western Conference.
Sharks, 6 games
After a tough six-game series, Sharks captain Joe Thornton receives the honor of parading the Stanley Cup around Madison Square Garden. The series turns in Game 5 in San Jose as Pavelski scores in the second overtime to put the Sharks one game away from winning the Cup.
Joe Thornton, Sharks
Thornton showed last season he can be a solid defensive presence, as well as a top-line offensive threat. In leading the Sharks to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, he puts it all together, scoring big goals and helping shut down opposing offenses. It's what earns his team a championship and the San Jose captain the playoff MVP award.
Why they win: They won't enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, but the Montreal Canadiens will find themselves representing the East in the Stanley Cup Final. With Andrei Markov (eventually) and Josh Gorges back after their injury-riddled 2010-11 seasons, the Canadiens will have an improved defense corps in front of goalie Carey Price, who will challenge for the Vezina Trophy. Price will have a Tim Thomas-esque run in the postseason, much like Jaroslav Halak did when the Canadiens reached the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago. Don't forget -- the Habs were one goal away from beating the eventual Cup-champion Bruins in the first round last season.
** Wrong turn: Of course, all of that won't happen if the Canadiens' young players like P.K. Subban and Lars Eller don't improve. They'll also need Scott Gomez to bounce back from the worst season of his career in 2010-11. All of that -- along with good health for the defensemen -- needs to happen for the Habs to make their run.
Why they win: It seems people have forgotten about just how dominant the Canucks were last season, and it will be much of the same in 2011-12. For many of their players, that run to the Cup Final was the deepest they've been in the postseason, and that experience will benefit them greatly this season. The Canucks possess the best goaltending tandem in the League with Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, and the two of them will be instrumental in getting the Canucks back to a Cup Final that will make Canada proud.
** Wrong turn: It all hinges on the goaltending of Luongo and the psyche of the team. Schneider is a capable backup with loads of potential, but Luongo can't have the meltdown he did against the Bruins. And if the rest of the team doesn't become tougher from their seven-game win against the Blackhawks in the first round and seven-game loss in the Final, there could be an early exit from the postseason.
Canucks, 5 games
In the end, the Canucks' depth and experience will be too much for the Canadiens. Expect the series to turn when Schneider -- not Luongo -- and outduels Price in a game in Montreal. The series will end in five games when Vancouver wraps it up on home ice.
Carey Price, Canadiens
The Conn Smythe winner will be an Eastern Conference goaltender for the second season in a row, only this time it will be in a losing effort. For the Canadiens to pull the surprise and reach the Final, Price will have to be brilliant. However, he won't be enough to vanquish the hungry Canucks.
Why they win: While I think the Washington Capitals will cruise to the No. 1 seed in the conference for the third straight season and probably collect another Presidents' Trophy, it says here that the Buffalo Sabres will claim the Prince of Wales Trophy for the second time in the Lindy Ruff Era. Buffalo may lack the world-class talent at forward that other teams in the East possess, but Derek Roy is healthy again and Ville Leino adds depth. The strength of this team will be goal prevention. Ryan Miller will have a Vezina Trophy-quality season now that he has Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff leading a revamped defense corps.
** Wrong turn: The Sabres will rely on three similarly-skilled forward lines to create scoring depth, but another injury to Derek Roy or inconsistent play from Thomas Vanek -- the two players with elite talent up front -- could be too much for Miller and the improved defense to overcome.
Why they win: The Los Angeles Kings have been close to being an elite team in the Western Conference, and the addition of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne up front will prove to be the difference when they collect a Pacific Division crown and defeat the Anaheim Ducks in a surprise conference final that will take the Southern California rivalry to a new level. Drew Doughty will challenge for the Norris Trophy again, and the two Jonathan's in net (Quick and Bernier) will prove to be a potent 1-2 punch. Richards, Anze Kopitar and Jarrett Stoll will be the closest thing the West has seen to replicating the success of Pittsburgh's big three in the middle.
** Wrong turn: The Kings have assembled one of the most talented rosters in the West, but there are some question marks: Can Simon Gagne stay healthy? Can unproven playoff performers like Dustin Penner and even Quick prove they are capable of helping Los Angeles deep into the postseason? If not, it could mean another early exit.
Kings, 6 games
While the conference finals will start with people talking about the 1993 Cup Final that wasn't between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, the Sabres will best the Pittsburgh Penguins and face the Kings, ensuring a city will claim the Cup for the first time. In a matchup similar to last season, Ryan Miller and a sturdy defense will try to defeat a team with many talented forwards -- just as Tim Thomas did with the Boston Bruins against the Canucks. Miller will steal a couple of games, but the series will turn on a Dustin Brown overtime goal in Game 5 at First Niagara Center -- not far from home for the Rochester, N.Y., native -- and Los Angeles will collect the Cup at Staples Center in Game 6.
Anze Kopitar, Kings
There will be a serious push to give the award to Miller, who could have a postseason approaching what Thomas did last season. Doughty also will be a deserving candidate, but it is hard for a defenseman to win that award. Kopitar, fresh off his first 100-point season, will cement his place among the great young players in the League by winning the Conn Smythe. Kopitar's day with the Cup in Slovenia will be an emotional one, and the Kings will have Los Angeles buzzing about hockey in a way that hasn't been seen since The Great One arrived more than two decades ago.
Why they win: It's hard to ignore the job Penguins coach Dan Bylsma did last season when his team finished fourth in the conference despite not having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for large chunks of the season. Malkin and Staal appear good to go to open this season, and Crosby, who hasn't played since last Jan. 5 due to a concussion, is close but not quite there … yet. Having two-thirds of that trio back in the lineup opening night certainly will benefit the club from the get-go, particularly since Malkin and Staal are so good defensively. The strength of this team resides along the blue line, however, with Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy providing a solid group in front of reliable goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
** Wrong turn: While the Penguins do have a lot to get excited about, it's imperative that Crosby is in the lineup and in good health at some point in order for the Pens to win the East and advance beyond the first round.
Why they win: The Hawks did a fine job upgrading their roster in the offseason, acquiring several free agents to fulfill a need in getting bigger and stronger along the boards. In particular, forwards Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers and defensemen Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell should help create time and space for stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook. Look for veteran Andrew Brunette, also signed this offseason, to impact the first or second line. Defensively, they don't come any better than the duo of Keith and Seabrook.
** Wrong turn: While the Blackhawks certainly are in a better situation entering this season than last, when the salary cap limited them, their hopes hinge on the play of second-year goalie Corey Crawford, who needs to prove his 33-win season in 2010-11 was no fluke.
Blackhawks, 7 games
The Blackhawks ultimately celebrate their second Stanley Cup in three seasons come June after winning a seven-game thriller against the Penguins. The turning point will come in Game 6 when Crawford posts a shutout in Pittsburgh to even the series and send it back to the Windy City for a seventh game.
Duncan Keith, Blackhawks
The Chicago defenseman will have a Conn Smythe Trophy to place next to his Norris Trophy. Keith is a workhorse -- he logs a ton of minutes, has produced consistently on offense and has become one of the team leaders in the locker room. He has 6 goals and 23 points in his last 29 playoff games. If Keith does get the nod, he would become the first defensemen to win the trophy since Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer in 2007.
SHAWN P. ROARKE
Why they win: Yes, it is near impossible to return to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons. However, the Bruins have the team to do it. They are deep and experienced and their best players are in the power positions. In goal, it's all-world Tim Thomas. On the blue line, it is perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara. Up front, Patrice Bergeron has won everything there is to win in hockey.
** Wrong Turn: There are a few, but the biggest is an injury or a slump from Thomas. This team, more than any other, feeds off its goaltending.
Why they win: For those of you with keen memories, I picked the Sharks (and Bruins) last season. In fact, I have picked the Sharks to win the West for several years running. The window is closing rapidly on this team and management realized it by making several bold moves -- including the acquisitions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat -- to give this team its best chance to win. Will it be enough? That is always the question, but in this corner, it has been answered affirmatively.
** Wrong Turn: The Sharks begin reading their own press and buy into the fact that this group does not have a winning pedigree and therefore is doomed to failure. The pieces are in place for this team to win now. It just has to believe.
Bruins, 6 games
I didn't see this coming, but my rationale has led me to this conclusion, which, if correct, would mean first back-to-back champion in 13 years. If the Bruins can avoid a Stanley Cup hangover and navigate past the wrong turn discussed above, they likely will be the better, deeper team. And they will have the better goalie in Thomas, who will steal this series at some point, just like he did the Vancouver series in Game 6
Zdeno Chara, Bruins
If the Bruins win the Cup again, Thomas will have to be a monster again. But I'm hoping voters will see there are other worthy candidates out there. And if form holds true, Chara will be among the leading candidates. The Bruins captain dominates the game in so many ways and can shut down an opposition's top line on a regular basis. He also dominates the Bruins' locker room with steely-eyed reserve. And if you don't think his presence last season was a part of Boston's first Stanley Cup in 39 years, you are wrong. It's that simple.
Why they win: All signs are pointing to Sidney Crosby eventually returning to the Penguins at some point this season. When he does, even if it takes him weeks to get back to being the player we all know, he should be ready to have a huge impact. Fortunately, Pittsburgh is good enough to compete for the Atlantic Division title even without Crosby. But we're talking playoffs here, and this scribe says Crosby will be ready to go by then. It'll be perfect timing for the Penguins -- instead of needing No. 87 to get them there, he'll be the player that gets them over the top.
** Wrong turn: As much as I think Crosby will be a reason why the Penguins win the East, there remains the possibility that his post-concussion symptoms don't go away and he is not able to play. Pittsburgh is good enough to win a lot of games without Crosby, but not good enough to get to the Stanley Cup Final.
Why they win: The Blackhawks will go to the Stanley Cup Final because of their depth. They have an enviable group of forwards and a defense that is as good as any in the League. Goaltender Corey Crawford knows how to win in the NHL now after becoming the backbone of this club down the stretch last season. The Hawks also added some muscle and in-your-face grit; both were lacking last season. Put it all together and you've got a championship club.
** Wrong turn: If Crawford is a one-hit wonder, the Blackhawks will go nowhere this season. He still has to prove he can do it again in the NHL. Once is nice, but twice means you're for real. Crawford has to knock it out of the park this season.
Blackhawks, 7 games
Pittsburgh vs. Chicago has the makings of an epic, star-driven Cup Final. However, putting aside power players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane -- the most intriguing players to watch are centers Jordan Staal and Dave Bolland. Provided both are healthy, I give the edge to Bolland. His offensive skill, defensive intelligence and in-your-face intangibles make him such a big part of why Chicago is so good. Bolland thrives on limiting the opposition's best players. It'll work against Pittsburgh, and the Blackhawks will win the Cup again, only this time on home ice in Game 7.
Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks
Dave Bolland is the behind-the-scenes, under-the-radar MVP of the club, but Toews is the front-and-center MVP, and will be throughout the entire postseason. The Blackhawks don't go anywhere unless Toews is in front of the flock, leading the charge. His dynamic ability on the ice and his louder and more pronounced voice in the dressing room are two reasons why he'll have yet another huge postseason and win his second Conn Smythe Trophy. His knack for coming up big in the most pressurized moments will be key to the Hawks' run.
Why they win: Joel Ward was a great pick-up for the Caps; he was a playoff stud last season. Troy Brouwer has won a Cup and will bring that to the Washington room. The Caps changed the way they played defense for the 2011 playoffs and the defense was better. They were a great offensive team in 2010; this season they'll hit the sweet spot for both the offense and defense in Washington.
** Wrong turn: If the Caps can't maintain the better defense they played last season, it will make it hard to emerge from the East.
Why they win: The Canucks are going to be hard to beat. I thought about San Jose but don't think the Sharks can quite do it. You can't overlook the Sedins and Ryan Kesler's complete game. If Kesler stays healthy, Vancouver will win the West again.
** Wrong turn: The Canucks need grit from their third and fourth lines, players willing to be physical and put their bodies on the line for the team. If Vancouver doesn't find the right combinations among the bottom six, that could spell opportunity for another team out West
Capitals, 7 games
The superstars come through for Washington, especially Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. I really like the Caps' goaltending, too, both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Those players will make the difference in a tight, entertaining seven-game series.
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals
It has to be Ovi, right? He will deliver on all of his promise this spring.
Why they win: For a Stanley Cup defending champion, the Bruins will fly under the radar, relatively speaking, when compared to other Cup contenders such as Philadelphia (Winter Classic, HBO), Pittsburgh (Crosby status) and Washington (Ovechkin's quest for the elusive Cup). Boston basically has two No. 1 goalies, an all-world captain in Zdeno Chara and enough scoring power up front to get to the playoffs with home ice for at least the early rounds. This team impressed in the tightest situations last year (remember the Bruins were down 0-2 in the Final) and learned tons while winning the Cup.
** Wrong turn: Too many injuries on the blue line would doom the Bruins, even with Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in goal.
Why they win: Los Angeles and Chicago, that's the Western Conference Final. Corey Crawford outplays Young Goalie of Choice for the Kings in a big-market battle that will have Los Angeles buzzing. The Blackhawks are clear that last season's No. 8 squeak-in can't be tolerated. The veterans added for their physical games will be a strong boost for the stretch run, but what might really turbo-charge Chicago is Brandon Saad setting up as a left wing linemate with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp.
** Wrong turn: Chicago needs to win the Central Division rather than finish behind Detroit and maybe even Nashville. Getting home ice for as much of the postseason as possible will be vital.
Bruins, 7 games
This series will be well-coached, physical, gut-wrenching and fun. There will be no blowouts. There will be multiple overtime games and multiple overtimes. Boston wins on the strength of four games on home ice.
Milan Lucic, Bruins
Can Tim Thomas do it again? Nope; it's even possible Tuukka Rask is the hot goalie come June (not likely, but possible). Lucic, for his clutch goals throughout the postseason and especially the Final, will get the nod among a number of legitimate candidates for both teams.