I know that this is a very bold thing to do, but here is how I feel the Eastern and Western Conferences will end up after the regular season. This is purely speculation but bear with me and I will explain my reasoning.
Eastern Conference Western Conference
The Eastern Conference
Looking at the Eastern Conference I feel the front runners and the bottom dwellers are pretty clear. The question marks exist mostly in the middle. So let's start from the bottom and work our way up. The Islander and Maple Leaf should get ready for a rough season that only has silver lining in the fact that they will get some good draft picks, which at least Toronto sorely needs. Ottawa cracks the bottom five because despite some excellent players the team just lacks the ability to win consistently since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Atlanta and Tampa Bay could flop back and forth but I can't see either doing better than .500.
The Lightning: Tampa is still putting all the pieces together, and despite the fact that I think they made some good moves this off season and drafted a quality defenseman in Hedman, they just aren't a playoff team at least until their prospects develop a little more and they get a solid goaltender. No knocks against Smith, who I think has the potential to fill that role for Tampa, but if he goes down with another injury Tampa doesn't really have a top-tier backup.
The Thrashers: Atlanta keeps plugging away and in a few years I will be very scared of them. But they need another year or two to develop the core of the team that I believe will pull them out of the dregs of the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers: Florida gets a vote of confidence simply because they are perennially underestimated. They have a very solid goaltender in Vokoun and I think Clemensen was a quality addition to back him up. But their blueline is going to suffer from the loss of Jay Bouwmeester. They are stuck on the cusp for another year.
Now here is where things get interesting.
The Canadiens: Montreal lands just outside the playoff race for 2 reasons. First because of the amount of new faces. Chemistry is not something instantaneous, usually and a slow/rough start will hurt them. Secondly because they are not big enough. They have plenty of firepower, assuming that everyone they have and brought in comes back into form. I just can't see them being rough enough to do much of anything. We'll see if I'm proven wrong. One last note on the Canadiens, I think Carey Price is a good goaltender, but I don't think he will ever amount to the guy that carries a team to the Cup.
The Sabres:Buffalo makes the playoffs after a two year hiatus because I think they're injury problems are over. Connelly will finally be back for a full season, and Ryan Miller will be back to old form. Let's not forget they were in the hunt last year until Miller went down with an injury and missed 13 games. That said if injuries to persist into this season, the Sabres fall out and my guess is Montreal or Florida takes their place.
The Hurricanes: Carolina is a solid hockey team. They made one hell of a run last year in the playoffs and I don't see why that won't continue into this season. My doubts about them being in contention for the division title are simple. Carolina is good, but Washington is better. I think they are missing a couple pieces from being a serious contender for the Cup, Conference, and Division Titles. But I also don't think they will address any of those missing pieces.
The Devils: New Jersey is sliding into familiar territory. With Lemaire back and Brodeur in net I can't imagine they won't be a playoff team. The biggest question is where will the scoring come from with the loss of Gionta. I don't doubt that Lou will pull some magic but Brodeur isn't as young as he used to be.
The Flyers: Philly is tough and has some definite scoring. My bet is that Briere is going to come back big time and score 80+ points this season. The big question mark is in net. Ray Emery was great a few years ago for Ottawa in their run to the Cup but can he shake off all the problems that surrounded him when he left the league for Russia and be a top-tier goaltender, I have my doubts. And that is why the land outside the top 4.
The Rangers: New York can only improve with the additions they have made on the offensive end. The defense has a solid top four. Redden and Roszival will get better numbers under Torterella. I know this is being very optimistic but with a 3 time Vezina Finalist in net and a "healthy" Marian Gaborik. The Rangers are a threat for the division.
The Bruins: The Bruins have one big issue to take care of, Phil Kessel. If they can work that out and secure him they are poised to be on the Stanley Cup watch. But no matter if they sign him or not he will be out for the beginning of the season and this will hurt the Bruins early, after all he was their leading scorer last year. They still easily take the division the question is if they are going to be able to overtake the Pens and Caps.
The Penguins: Pittsburgh is set for another run at the Cup. They lost a few guys but made a few quality signings. No reason to believe they won't be top 2 in the conference.
The Capitals: D.C. is in my humble opinion at the point where they will seriously contend for a cup. With the amount of firepower they all ready possessed they added Mike Knuble. He will bolster their offense and give them a good veteran presence up front. Also Varlamov will give serious competition to Theodore and will be poised to make the goaltending excellent with a tandem approach a la San Jose when they had Toskala and Nabokov.
The Western Conference
I know this is getting long but bear with me, I'm trying to be brief. Much like the Eastern conference I feel that the front runners and bottom dwellers are pretty clear, however I feel that the questions surrounding many of the teams will be important to the standings.
The Avalanche: Colorado is in rebuild mode. Without Sakic and lacking a proper #1 goaltender they are going to hit rock bottom but should get someone nice to compliment Matt Duchene for their suffering. Yes I doubt Anderson, he is not a number one goaltender, at least on a team that isn't expecting a playoff run anytime soon.
The Coyotes: Aside from the ownership issues, which should and would shake any team at least a little, the 'Yotes are questionable in between the pipes. Then add in the fact that despite the amount of talent they seem to possess in their youth that they have failed to make the playoffs in recent memory, I see another year in limbo for Phoenix/Hamilton.
The Kings: They are creeping into the spotlight ever so slowly. Give them two years and they may just prove to be a playoff team.
The Oilers: There is a lot of rust in between the pipes in Edmonton. Aside from that its obvious that they feel they are lacking a legitimate superstar in the way they threw themselves at Dany Heatley. They need a superstar to propel them from maybe to definite playoff contender.
The Predators: Nashville is in a tough division, and I think their record will reflect it. Look for Ellis to get back to form but if not then it will be time for another new face in net. Stability starts with the goaltender. Until they can get a rock in net I don't see them being anything but a possible threat. All though they could surprise since it is Sullivan's possible first full season in some time.
The Wild: Minny is going to miss Gaborik whether or not they like to admit it. All though Havlat is a comparable substitution. The overhaul is going to take time to show results. Look for them to be the surprise 8 slot if they can find a nitch. But my gut says they miss the playoffs this season.
The Stars: Dallas need Turco to be better, and I'd bet good money that he will be better this season. That being said I think they need to add a few pieces to be a definite playoff team. If Morrow steps up and gets a fair amount of help then they may have a chance to squeak into the playoffs. But for now they sit on the cusp.
The Blue Jackets: They did it last year and with a similar lineup showing up again I can't see why they won't do it again. This all depends on if Mason can avoid the sophmore slump and they can stay healthy up the middle. But things look pretty good in Columbus.
The Flames:Calgary adds a big time play in Bouwmeester and have a very good looking top four on the blueline. Kiprusoff is going to have to return to old form for them to be a contender. They also need to address the loss of Camalleri in the scoring department. But improved defense should make up for some of that lack of scoring. Look for the Flames to sneak into the post season.
The Blues: St. Louis made a nice run into the playoffs and played admirably in the playoffs. Things should only get better with Johnson and Kariya being healthy. This team is very good. They play in a tough division and that is why they don't crack the top 5 in my opinion.
The Ducks: Anaheim may have lost Pronger but they are still going to be the dark horse of the Western Conference. The addition of Saku Koivu is very intriguing to me. They have solid goaltending and defense and a couple bonified scorers in Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan. They have a good chance of getting a little revenge for their seven game series loss to Detroit if things pan out as I'm guessing they will.
The Red Wings: Lots of scoring walked away from the Wings but knowing Detroit and its ability to get a great return from they're draft picks the youngsters should at least mostly make up for the loss of players like Kopecky and Hossa. Osgood is still a great netminder and they have a solid blue line.
The Canucks: The Northwest division in my opinion has lost a lot of its pop and the only team I can see winning it is Vancouver. With Luongo and the Sedin Twins locked up they are bound for another year in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks: This is the year for Chicago to go all the way. I believe they will surpass the Red Wings as the Central big boss. The only question seems to be in net. But Huet has proven that he can play well enough. And with a lineup that boasts Toews, Kane, Hossa, and numerous others they have to win.
The Sharks: They stood pat in San Jose, which is not really that bad. After all the squad that is sitting in the locker room won the President's trophy last year. Look for them to pick someone up at the trade deadline that will finally blow the lid off things and propel them past the first round of the playoffs.
So there you have it my very bold prediction for the conferences this coming season. Let me know what you think.