The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks will open their respective seasons on Thursday night. What comes after the regular season, however, is where these teams will ultimately be judged.
Two of the league's elite face off at HP Pavilion as Todd McLellan makes his debut as Sharks coach against the Pacific Division rival Ducks.
Every team enters a new season with the hope of winning a Stanley Cup, but the reality is only a select few have a legitimate chance at raising hockey's holy grail. Defending champion Detroit is at the top of that list this year, with San Jose, Anaheim and several other clubs also in the running.
Despite totaling 99 points or more in each of the past four seasons, playoff success has eluded San Jose (49-23-10). The Sharks haven't won more than one playoff round in a season since 2004, losing in the Western Conference semifinals in 2007-08 to Dallas. San Jose had the NHL's second-best regular-season record last year with 49 wins and 108 points, but begins 2008-09 with a new coach and several new players.
The biggest change for the Sharks will be behind the bench where McLellan takes over for Ron Wilson, who guided the team for the past 4 1/2 seasons.
McLellan is no stranger to success, having spent three seasons as a member of Detroit's coaching staff before being hired by San Jose on June 12. He has earned a reputation as an offensive coach after leading the Red Wings' very successful power-play unit last season.
He has installed a system that emphasizes puck control, fluid movement and general aggression.
"I just don't want our hockey club to be mechanical," McLellan said. "I want them to use the skill and talent that they have, and the system will take care of itself eventually."
McLellan has plenty of talent to work with, most notably 2005-06 MVP Joe Thornton, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov - a Vezina Trophy finalist - and recent All-Star Patrick Marleau. Thornton had a team-leading 29 goals, 67 assists and 96 points last season, but Marleau is coming off a very disappointing campaign that saw him total 48 points - his lowest total since 2001-02.
"I think we're going the right direction with a lot of things Todd is doing," Thornton said. "You can't know too much in October, though."
New to the Sharks this season are high-profile defensemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle - both former Stanley Cup winners.
Blake, entering his 18th season, had 31 points last year for Los Angeles and should improve an already strong defense. Boyle, one of the game's top puck-moving defensemen, missed the first half of 2007-08 with a wrist injury, but returned to score 25 points in 37 games for Tampa Bay.
One season removed from a Stanley Cup title, the Ducks (47-27-8) started slowly last season before finishing on a 20-5-1 run that led them a second-place finish in the Pacific, six points behind the Sharks. Anaheim eclipsed the 100-point mark for the second consecutive year while setting franchise records for fewest goals allowed (184) and most home wins (28).
Any thoughts of repeating as Stanley Cup champions, however, were quickly dashed as the Ducks lost in the first round to the Stars.
Anaheim again appears to have all the necessary ingredients to make a strong run at a second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons.
"It's back to work. It's a game we love to play," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "This is a very exciting time for our club, we have some new personnel. If you don't enjoy opening night, there's a lot wrong with you if you're in a coaching position or an athlete."
Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere remains one of the league's best after reaching the 30-win mark for the third straight season and finishing with a career-best 2.12 goals-against average. Captain Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, both former Norris Trophy winners, anchor a formidable defense that will be without Mathieu Schneider after he was traded to Atlanta on Sept. 26.
Emerging star Ryan Getzlaf had a career-high 82 points last season while linemate Corey Perry improved from 17 goals in 2006-07 to 29 last year despite missing the final 12 games with a leg injury.
Brendan Morrison - Anaheim's biggest offseason acquisition - will be asked to center a second line that likely will feature 37-year-old Teemu Selanne, who scored 12 goals in 26 games last season after contemplating retirement. Morrison, however, is coming off his fourth surgery since 2006, an April procedure to repair his right ACL.
The Ducks are 4-10-0 in season openers while the Sharks are 3-9-2 with two ties.