Hurricanes and Oilers among teams to watch heading into 2006-07 season

Ditto for the Edmonton Oilers, who slipped into the post-season by finishing eighth in the West before falling one win short of the NHL championship.

There’s a growing feeling around the league that almost any team can come out of the pack and rise to the top.

A list of teams to watch this year must first start with the Hurricanes and Oilers, but there are plenty of others worth a look.

Here’s 10 we’ll be keeping an eye on:

1. Carolina Hurricanes. They’ll watch the Stanley Cup banner get raised to the rafters at the RBC Center and then set out on the tough task of defending it. The ‘Canes won’t surprise anyone this season. It will be interesting to see how playoff MVP Cam Ward handles the starting role for an entire year and if younger players like Andrew Ladd can fill the void of a few departed veterans.

2. Edmonton Oilers. Losing top defenceman Chris Pronger really stings, but starting goalie Dwayne Roloson can help soothe that pain. If Roloson plays as well as he did during last season’s playoff run then the Oilers will be OK. Newcomers Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora give Edmonton two solid forward lines that can really fly on the fast Rexall Place ice.

3. New Jersey Devils. They might emerge as the best team in the wide-open Eastern Conference if they can sign Brian Gionta and stay under the salary cap. The Devils won 15 games in a row late last year and will have a healthy Patrik Elias to start the season. The salary cap is the only sticking point as GM Lou Lamoriello – one of the best in the business – still has to find enough money to retain Gionta and a few others.

4. Nashville Predators. Good Vibrations are echoing through the Music City. The Predators, led by Dan Hamhuis, Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen, have perhaps the best group of six defenceman in the league. They also have a healthy goalie in Tomas Vokoun and plenty of firepower up front, including recently acquired forwards Jason Arnott, Josef Vasicek and J.P. Dumont. They’re thinking Stanley Cup.

5. Ottawa Senators. One of the NHL’s top teams a year ago, what should we expect this season? Goalie Dominik Hasek is gone but has been replaced by Martin Gerber. Defenceman Zdeno Chara took big money in Boston while Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing were brought in. Speedy winger Martin Havlat is a Blackhawk but the Sens shouldn’t lack scoring. The jury is still out – but Ottawa is certainly still a playoff team.

READ ALSO:  Luongo stops 25 shots for Canucks, runs regulation unbeaten streak to 12 games

6. Anaheim Ducks. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that having Pronger and former Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer on the same blue-line is a good thing. The Ducks also have a bevy of skilled young forwards, including Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Penner, to complement a revitalized Teemu Selanne. Coach Randy Carlyle will need to make sure the goaltending situation doesn’t become a distraction – former No. 1 J.S. Giguere remains a Duck even though Ilya Bryzgalov has taken his job.

7. Calgary Flames. Get the Red Mile ready. The arrival of Alex Tanguay to play on the top line with Jarome Iginla and Matthew Lombardi has fuelled Flames fever. And why not? Calgary still has Vezina Trophy goalie Mikka Kiprusoff and a top-rate defence. Look out.

8. Philadelphia Flyers. Coach Ken Hitchcock is just happy to have a semi-healthy team, although the Flyers will start the year without No. 1 goalie Antero Nittymaki (hip). At least Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne are both healthy on the top line and will have plenty of help behind them – newcomer Kyle Calder has been teamed with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on a line that had plenty of chemistry for Canada at the IIHF world hockey championship in Latvia last May.

9. Dallas Stars. A perennial contender, but there isn’t much buzz about this team. Be careful. GM Doug Armstrong has added centres Eric Lindros, Jeff Halpern and Patrik Stefan, rugged winger Matthew Barnaby and top-four defencemen Darryl Sydor and Jaroslav Modry. That’s pretty good, even though the Stars lost Arnott and defenceman Willie Mitchell to free agency. Expect them to be a force in the West.

10. New York Islanders. You might not want to let the kids watch this mess because there will be plenty of wreckage to see if you do. It’s been a headline-grabbing off-season on Long Island and now it’s time to watch everything play out. How will goalie Rick DiPietro play after signing his massive 15-year contract? Will the signings of Brendan Witt, Sean Hill, Tom Poti, Chris Simon and Mike York help a below-average team? What will happen during coach Ted Nolan’s long-awaited return to the NHL? Stay tuned.