I've never been happier to see hockey season start. The tragedies of the summer didn't hit home for the college hockey universe as much, but they hit home for those of us who have grown to really appreciate this sport and what makes it great at all levels.
As we get set for Thursday's season openers -- as well as Justin Faulk's NHL debut Friday, the Wild season opener Saturday, and Sunday's celebration in Winnipeg -- here is a look at a few things that make this season tough to predict.
Someone from the Pacific Division will be pretty good and miss the playoffs
A division largely dominated in recent years by San Jose will be ridiculously competitive this year. Reigning Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry leads the Ducks, who should have the services of Ryan Getzlaf for the full season. Anaheim also benefits from the return of Jonas Hiller in goal. But is their forward depth and defense enough?
Los Angeles has some amazing young players, but do they have enough goaltending, consistency, and leadership to make a Cup run?
It's easy to forget Phoenix now that Ilya Bryzgalov is gone, but he wasn't terribly consistent during the the last two regular seasons, and they found ways to win and compile 100 points anyway.
And Dallas will be better, even without Brad Richards, as their young kids round into better form.
Vancouver won't dominate the Northwest like it did a year ago
Not sure what this will ultimately mean to the playoff picture, but I just don't see a banged-up and possibly not-as-good Canucks team blowing through this division again. Minnesota, Edmonton, and Calgary are all better, and Colorado picked up a significant piece to help its goaltending.
I don't think any of these teams can say it's positioned to make a serious run at the Canucks, but they will close the collective gap enough to make Vancouver sweat for the top seed in the conference, something none of them were capable of doing a year ago.
The Southeast Division will keep getting better
Last year, Tampa Bay and champion Washington made the playoffs, and then the Lightning pantsed the favored Capitals in the playoffs. What might be forgotten is that Carolina barely missed out on a spot, and the Hurricanes will be a team to watch for a potential breakthrough this year.
They still have Staal, Ward, Pitkanen, and Skinner. Throw in some dynamic young players, and you have a dangerous team. If Faulk can help solidify the defense and the second power play, look out.
The team I'm intrigued by is Florida. I don't think they have enough there to be a playoff team, but Dale Tallon signed some high-character players who can play at a high level. I just don't know that the Panthers have enough front-line talent to contend.
I have more questions and lots of thoughts, so follow on Twitter for that stream of consciousness. Since I have a job to tend to (game Friday!!!), here are the picks. They weren't drawn out of a hat, but I fully acknowledge I'm probably wrong about a lot of this.
3. St. Louis
1. San Jose
3. Los Angeles
In the playoffs ...
3. San Jose
6. Los Angeles
7. St. Louis
3. New Jersey
4. N.Y. Rangers
5. N.Y. Islanders
3. Tampa Bay
In the playoffs ...
8. Tampa Bay
10. New Jersey
12. N.Y. Rangers
13. N.Y. Islanders
Stanley Cup Finals
Detroit over Buffalo