The National Hockey League drops the puck on a new season today, but of the league's 30 teams only a handful will have a legitimate shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.
League champion Carolina Hurricanes are one of six teams in action on opening day when NHL returns to the ice for the 2006-2007 campaign.
But the Hurricanes will be hard pressed to be included in the elite group with San Jose, Buffalo, Anaheim, Ottawa and Calgary as a frenzy of off-season player movements appear to have downgraded them to a tropical storm. Carolina used a talented core of veterans to win a dynamic seven-game series over the Edmonton Oilers in the finals but they may now be victims of their own success.
With goalie Martin Gerber, defenseman Aaron Ward, forwards Doug Weight, Matt Cullen and Mark Recchi gone, their lineup has been stripped of several key components.
Carolina forward Eric Staal isn't worried about the exodus and reminds people what happened last year when some counted them out. Staal says there is no reason why the 'Canes can't be the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997-1998.
"I like our group again," Staal said. "We feel confident again in our team and in our own room.
"Doesn't really matter what anyone else has to say, same as last year. We have our own inner confidence and we want to continue to get better," he said.
Last season was one of unprecedented change after the league decided to revamp its product after losing the 2004-2005 season owing to a labor dispute.
The most noticeable one was that scoring was up with seven players reaching at least 100 points and 11 players hitting the elite 40-goal plateau.
The offensive boost was a result of a successful crackdown on obstruction but the major challenge now facing referees is to get more consistent with their calls.
Eight teams have new coaches and six clubs have new general managers. One of those eight is former Vancouver Canuck coach Marc Crawford who now has the task of rebuilding the Los Angeles Kings.