SUN Hockey Pool

Six storylines for the NHL season

MATT SHOTT, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 5:14 PM ET

TORONTO -- The 2010-11 season is just a few days away from beginning and it promises to be a better, more exciting season than the year before.

In order to better prepare you for the upcoming season, here is a list of the six storylines to look forward to:

1. After their makeover, can the Chicago Blackhawks repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

The first question on any hockey fan's mind when discussing an upcoming season is whether the current champs can repeat. This year is obviously no different.

In order to accommodate the new contracts of Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks traded away 80 goals from their team last year.

The goaltending underwent a drastic change as well. The Hawks elected to sign veteran goaltender Marty Turco to a one-year contract, instead of keeping the goalie that led the team to their first Stanley Cup in almost half a century.

Only time will tell whether the Hawks made the right decision, but when you boast a top five of Marian Hossa, Toews, Kane, Keith, and Brent Seabrook, the consequences can't be too severe.

2. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs finally make the playoffs again?

Since the lockout ended, only two teams have failed to qualify for the playoffs, those teams being the Florida Panthers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Being considered the hockey capital of the world, the Toronto Maple Leafs going five seasons without a playoff berth is unacceptable and the fans are starting to get restless.

Brian Burke was brought in as the General Manager to help bring the Leafs back to respectability and during his time he has added Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and J.S. Giguere to mentor Jonas Gustavsson, and a wealth of young talent.

The Leafs are likely a good year away from qualifying for the playoffs, but the team is definitely better than last year's squad, and will have a stronger start than last season. With reliable goaltending and a solid defensive core, the Leafs are definitely taking steps, albeit baby ones, in the right direction.

3. Can the Kings, Coyotes, and Avalanche replicate their surprising seasons last year?

At the beginning of last season, not even most optimistic fans of LA, Phoenix, or Colorado ever thought their teams would have even come close to contending for a playoff spot.

Unfortunately, none of the teams really improved enough to ensure their shocking runs were no fluke. The Avalanche only re-signed from within, the Kings failed to sign superstar Ilya Kovalchuck but did add Willie Mitchell and Alex Ponikarovsky, and the Coyotes added Ray Whitney and lost defenseman Zbynek Michalek and center Matthew Lombardi, which will definitely hurt them.

The good thing for each team is they are loaded with prospects and gave their young guns a feel for what playoff hockey is like, something that is important to their growth.

All three teams will be banking on their crop of youth to help repeat the success of last season, but as has been the case in the Western Conference, it's really anybody's game.

4. Will the Capitals and Sharks finally meet in the Cup Finals like experts have predicted for years?

For years, the 'experts' have predicted San Jose to make it to the Cup finals and each year the team fails to meet expectations and further establishes themselves as playoff choke artists.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the Washington Capitals have claimed a top-three spot in the Eastern Conference the past three seasons, leading many people to believe that Alex Ovechkin and his crew of comrades can bring the Capitals their first Stanley Cup.

Will this finally be the year when these two teams square off for hockey's Holy Grail? Both teams boast an impressive top line with such superstars such as Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle, Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. With star power like that, its crazy that neither team has even reached the final.

The Sharks think they may have found the fix by deciding against re-signing goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and going with ex-Blackhawk Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki in a time share, while the Capitals are deciding to give Semyon Varlamov a shot as starter.

For both teams' sake, this is the year to finally get over that hump as regular season juggernauts and playoff duds, and realize the ultimate prize.

5. Might there be only one Canadian team in the postseason?

This year may be a difficult year for Canadian hockey fan, with only one team in the country that is an absolute shoo-in for the playoffs. That team is the Vancouver Canucks.

Two teams are currently undergoing a rebuilding process, the Edmonton Oilers and the Leafs, while the other three teams are filled with question marks about consistency.

The Ottawa Senators lost Anton Volchenkov to free agency but signed Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar is a good offensive defenseman, but his defensive skills are nowhere near the same level as Volchenkov's and he's also eight years older.

The goaltending is a huge question mark since Pascal Leclaire can't even sit on the bench without getting hurt, and Brian Elliot has not proven to be a reliable replacement, thus making the Senators' hopes for another playoff appearance seem rather bleak.

The Montreal Canadiens squeaked into the playoffs and went on a tear last year, defeating the top-seeded Capitals and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins thanks to the miraculous goaltending of Jaroslav Halak.

Yet the Habs' only major move this offseason was trading Halak, giving Carey Price the reigns as starter. And with their lack of scoring depth and size down the middle, Le Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge might want to start praying for another miracle.

And then there's the Calgary Flames. With by far the most confusing offseason of all 30 teams, GM Darryl Sutter chose to sign Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay.

Both moves perplexed Flames fans, as both players left Calgary after their worst offensive outputs of their careers, and Tanguay has since continued his declining trend.

With Matt Stajan and Daymond Langkow now out indefinitely with injuries, it looks like their depth down the middle is pretty thin, just like their chances of making the playoffs this year - unless the 2006-07 versions of Tanguay and Jokinen show up.

6. How will Steve Yzerman's first year as a GM pan out?

The Tampa Bay Lightning hired former Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman as their general manager, and has had a rather busy offseason acquiring Simon Gagne, Dan Ellis, Pavel Kubina, drafting Brett Connolly, in addition to adding Guy Boucher as the head coach and hoping the new trend of successful AHL-to-NHL coaches continues.

Yzerman also locked up Martin St. Louis to a contract extension after St. Louis claimed he did not want to go through another rebuilding process. This is huge for not just the team, but the fans as well since St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are the heart and soul of this team.

The Lightning have been progressively getting better ever since they plummeted to the bottom of the standings, getting rewarded with Steven Stamkos and this year the team hopes Yzerman has put the right pieces together in order to return the team to the playoffs and challenge for the team's second Stanley Cup.


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