NHL Previews

NHL Previews

2007-08 Anaheim Ducks Preview

(Sports Network) - The Anaheim Ducks have a tough act to follow this year after putting together a historic 2006-07 campaign that saw them become the first-ever West Coast team to win the Stanley Cup.

The Ducks bullied their way to the title, as they used a physical brand of hockey that no other team in the tournament was able to match. The good thing for head coach Randy Carlyle's squad is that most of the key players in the championship season will be back for another run at the title in 2007-08.

Anaheim does have a few question marks heading into this season, as two big pieces of its championship squad mull over the possibility of retirement.

Scott Niedermayer, the Ducks captain since joining the team for the 2005-06 season, is still undecided about whether or not he wants to play this year. The 34-year-old defenseman would once again be considered one of the top blueliners in the league should he choose to return for another year.

The other player yet to make a final decision on his future is right wing Teemu Selanne. The 37-year-old Finn finally fulfilled a dream by winning his first Stanley Cup in 2007, and after posting 48 goals and 94 points during the regular season, it's obvious that he could still help the Ducks.

While Niedermayer is still under contract with the Ducks, Selanne is an unrestricted free agent. However, Selanne has stated that if he does decide to come back for another year it would only be to play for the Ducks.

Even if Niedermayer and Selanne decide to retire, the Ducks will still have defenseman Chris Pronger and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, two of the best players in the league at their respective positions. In fact, Giguere figures to be in Anaheim's plans for the foreseeable future, as he signed a multi-year contract this offseason.

Hockey has never looked this good in Southern California, and the Ducks have the talent to become a perennial Cup contender.

FORWARDS - The trio of Niedermayer, Pronger and Giguere is usually what comes to mind when speaking about the Ducks, but Anaheim also has a solid cast of players on the front line.

Selanne's 94 points led the Ducks last season, so it will clearly be unfortunate for Anaheim if the "Finnish Flash" decides to retire. Still, the defending champions have excellent depth at the center position and that should provide some stability for the offense.

Andy McDonald, the Ducks top centerman, has posted 51 assists in back-to-back seasons and ended last year with 78 total points (27 goals, 51 assists). The 30-year-old Ontario native has developed into an excellent playmaker and solid all-around player.

Making a huge leap forward in 2006-07 was second-line center Ryan Getzlaf, who played in all 82 games in his second NHL campaign and notched 25 goals and 33 helpers. The 22-year-old also led Anaheim in the postseason with 17 points (7g, 10a) in 21 playoff tests.

Just in case Selanne opts to call it quits, Ducks general manager Brian Burke signed veteran power forward Todd Bertuzzi in the offseason. The bulky right wing played in a total of 15 regular-season games with Florida and Detroit in 2006-07, as he battled back injuries for most of the season. He rebounded to score three goals and four assists in 16 postseason contests with the Red Wings. The Ducks hope the 32-year-old Bertuzzi can approach the form he displayed during his successful stint in Vancouver, where he played from 1997-2006.

One thing that was certain after watching the 2007 postseason is that the Ducks also possess one of the best checking units in the NHL. The line of centerman Samuel Pahlsson and wingers Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer, who is the younger brother of Scott. The trio does more than simply give the top two lines a rest, as it also provides Anaheim with energy and a physical brand of play.

One player to keep an eye on in 2007-08 will be 20-year-old winger Bobby Ryan, who was the second overall pick behind Sidney Crosby in the 2005 Entry Draft. Ryan, a native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is expected to make the Ducks roster this year and it should be interesting to see what kind of contribution he can make to this already talented club.

DEFENSE - Last year, the Ducks had the rare luxury of having two of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy on their blue line. While Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings ultimately won the award given annually to the league's best defenseman, the fact that Scott Niedermayer and Pronger led their team to the Stanley Cup title turned out to be a nice trade-off.

Scott Niedermayer, who won the Conn Smythe as the MVP of the 2007 playoffs, has been suspended by the team since training camp began, but that is simply so the defenseman's $6.75-million salary won't count against the cap. The Ducks chances at repeating as champions would greatly improve if the blueliner decides to return.

Pronger, who has won a Hart (MVP) and Norris Trophy, has the rare combination of offensive skill and the ability to physically intimidate the opposition. In fact, Pronger was suspended one game on two separate occasion in last year's playoffs for rough play. He had 59 points (13g, 46a) in 66 regular-season contests last year and added three goals and 12 assists in 19 playoff games.

In addition to Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, the Ducks also have Francois Beauchemin back on the blue line. The Quebec native posted seven goals and 21 assists in 2006-07 and is a solid player in the defensive zone.

In order to help offset the possible departure of Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim signed 38-year-old defenseman Mathieu Schneider over the summer. The American had a strong year for Detroit in 2006-07 as he recorded 52 points (11g, 41a) in 68 games. However, Schneider is expected to be out until late October after suffering a broken bone in his left ankle in his first preseason game with Anaheim.

The Ducks also added some depth to their blue line in the offseason by signing veteran defenseman Shane Hnidy, who played the last two seasons with Atlanta.

GOALTENDING - The signing of Giguere to a multi-year contract this offseason effectively ended any talk that the team was thinking about handing the starting job to Ilya Bryzgalov.

Now that Giguere, 30, is cemented as the team's No. 1 netminder the team would like him to be consistent in the regular season. The Montreal native has a 2.48 goals against average and .914 save percentage in 353 regular-season games. However, "Jiggy" always seems to kick it up a notch in the playoffs, as is witnessed by his 1.95 GAA, .929 save percentage and six shutouts in 45 career postseason contests.

Giguere is not as physically gifted as the other top goaltenders in the league, but his technical skill and sense for the game make him an elite puck- stopper in the NHL.

Bryzgalov will eventually leave Anaheim for a starting job, but for now he gives the Ducks a stellar option as a backup goaltender. He was used in 27 regular-season games last year and posted a 2.47 GAA and .907 save percentage in those contests. The Russian backstop also went 3-1 in starting the first four games of the 2007 postseason while Giguere had to tend to a family emergency. His ability to step in and perform at a high level when necessary makes him the best reserve goaltender in the league.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Ducks will once again battle the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars for the Pacific Division title, but if Anaheim stays healthy it should have the inside track at winning the division crown for the second straight season. Anaheim also has a very good chance at defending their Stanley Cup title, although no team has taken back-to-back championships since the Red Wings won it all in 1997 and '98. The Ducks have an excellent mix of veteran stars and young talent and that combination should make them one of the top teams in the league once again.

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2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers Preview

(Sports Network) - The Thrashers made a playoff appearance for the first time in team history last year and did it in style by winning the Southeast Division. However, it was a short-lived postseason run as the team was swept by the New York Rangers and only managed six goals while giving up 17.

Atlanta made several moves to get themselves into the playoffs last year. The team dealt promising young defender Braydon Coburn to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. In the biggest move the club made to get into the postseason, the Thrashers sent a first round draft choice in 2007, a third round draft choice in 2007, a second round draft choice in 2008, a conditional first round pick in 2008 and forward Glen Metropolit to St. Louis for power forward Keith Tkachuk. However, Atlanta got back the first-round pick in 2008 as the team shipped Tkachuk back to St. Louis.

While those moves helped to push Atlanta, which started off the season on fire, into the playoffs after a late-season slump, the team lost nine of 12 games in February, it did not come without cost as the team had to give up some of its youth and future building blocks.

Also, the team lost a veteran leader in the offseason as Scott Mellanby retired after 21 seasons in the NHL. In addition, there is still no certainty that center Steve Rucchin will be back to play. He suffered a concussion in February and missed the final 25 games and the playoffs. Rucchin has a history of concussions so it is possible that he might not return.

However, the strength of the team is still intact as the potent offense remains and will be the heart and soul of the club.

Led by Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, who had a career-high 100 points last season, the team also brought in Todd White, signing him away from Minnesota on the first day of free agency. Also, Brett Sterling, who was the rookie of the year in the AHL last season, will most likely make the big-league squad and a productive year for him will mean good things for the offense.

Goaltender Kari Lehtonen showed flashes of brilliance last season, but still blew several games for Atlanta. He broke franchise records in wins (34) and shutouts (four) last season and if he can keep his head, not let bad goals blow his concentration, and continue to improve his play he will help Atlanta compete for the division championship again and hopefully win a playoff game or two.

The big weaknesses on this team are lack of scoring depth and the defense. The second line has a top-notch scorer on it in Slava Kozlov, who finished last season with a career-high 80 points. Aside from that, though, there really is no threat left. Again, Sterling could change that if he can bring his minor- league success to the NHL.

Defense, though, is the major weakness of this club. It's undersized and there is not really a No. 1 guy back there. Zhitnik brings experience that is sorely lacking and Niclas Havelid is good, but aside from those guys it's mostly a crap shoot at the blueline. The team has brought over Tobias Enstrom from Sweden and he is viewed as a highly-skilled offensive-defenseman. He could wind up being a power-play quarterback on a team that sorely needs one.

Just like last season, this team will live and die with its top-scoring line and Lehtonen. If those key elements can stay consistent and the team gets a bit of help from the supporting cast, a playoff appearance, and hopefully a few wins in the playoffs, should be well within reach.

FORWARDS - Much of the success for Atlanta will rest with the Kovalchuk- White-Hossa line.

Kovalchuk appeared in every game for the Thrashers last season, but saw his production slip a bit. After producing 52 goals and 46 assists in 2005-06, he only managed 42 goals and 34 assists last year. However, with the addition of a playmaking center in White, Kovalchuk, one of the premier left wings in the league, should produce in the 50-goal, 100-point range.

White was signed in the offseason after spending the previous two years in Minnesota. He had 13 goals and 31 assists for the Wild last season.

Hossa, as mentioned earlier, had the best year of his nine-year career. He became the first Thrasher to eclipse the 100-point plateau and we can expect more of the same from this talented right wing this season.

Kozlov is a bona-fide threat and he led the team last season with eight game- winning goals. What would really help the team is for Bobby Holik to find his offensive game again. Despite playing all 82 games last season, Holik finished with just 11 goals and 18 assists, which is the lowest point total of his career. However, he is 36 years old and there might not be much gas left in his tank.

The third line should consist of Jim Slater centering Brad Larsen and possibly Eric Perrin to start. While the trio is competent, the line is not exactly going to scare opposing defenses.

Again, Sterling could change the equation amongst forwards. He posted 55 goals and 42 assists in 77 games with the AHL's Chicago Wolves last season and should he bring something close to those numbers it will give Atlanta some much-needed depth at forward.

DEFENSE
- There are three things that Atlanta is missing on defense: a No. 1 defenseman, as well as size and speed. Aside from that I guess you could say they are okay.

Zhitnik and Havelid will see the most action as both players averaged at least 25 minutes of ice-time per game and coach Bob Hartley will need them to shoulder the load again this season.

Garnet Exelby, who will be entering his fifth season, continues to improve his play while Ken Klee had a good season last year, but at 36 years old he can't be asked to pull as much ice time.

Mark Popovic, who spent most of last season with the Chicago Wolves, should be on the bench to start the season and good play from him will improve the club's defense.

As mentioned before, the club brought Enstrom in from Sweden and his offensive skills could help a power play that despite the offensive talent up front, finished tied for 22nd in the league last season. Also, the team ranked 26th on the penalty kill.

Trading Coburn for Zhitnik will hurt Atlanta in the long run as the kid is a potential No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman.

GOALTENDING - Lehtonen had his best year last season since the Thrashers took him with second overall pick in 2002.

He finished the season 34-24-9 in 68 games with four shutouts and a 2.79 goals against average.

However, he still shows signs of inconsistency as he lost seven of nine starts in February, which almost cost Atlanta the Southeast Division crown.

Also, his first playoff debut was less than spectacular as he gave up 11 goals in the two games he appeared in, but to be fair, no one played well in Atlanta's brief playoff run.

Lehtonen has the skills to be one of the premier goaltenders in the league. Another full year under his belt will do wonders for him and the humbling playoff experience will help in his maturation process. If he can keep his focus and kick his game up another notch, Lehtonen could help make up the slack from Atlanta's lackluster defense.

Reserve netminder Johan Hedberg came to the team as a free agent from Dallas last season and posted a 9-4-2 record in 21 games. He can be counted on as a competent backup to Lehtonen and can play full-time should Lehtonen falter or get injured.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Atlanta had been building its club through the draft, but last season the Thrashers traded away some of that youth and draft picks in an attempt to win in the present. Of course, that didn't exactly work out the way the franchise had planned.

Atlanta still has its core nucleus with Kovalchuk and Hossa, and should again compete for the division. However, the defense and special teams are suspect and Lehtonen still needs to prove his worth. If the weak spots on the team turn out worse than expected it could be a long season for the Thrashers, who could struggle to make the postseason, let alone win a playoff series.

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2007-08 Boston Bruins Preview

(Sports Network) - More than a few franchises have yet to figure out how to win in the post-lockout NHL, and unfortunately for Boston hockey fans, the Bruins have been of those clubs.

Boston has missed the playoffs in both campaigns since the 2004-05 season was wiped out due to the labor dispute. The Bruins have actually finished last in the tough Northeast Division in both years, marking the first time Boston has suffered back-to-back last-place finishes since the days of the Original Six. The Bruins were actually last in the NHL for five straight years from the 1960-61 campaign straight through to the 1965-66 season.

Last year was the first for the Bruins under general manager Peter Chiarelli and the club posted 76 points, a two-point increase from the previous season. The barely-noticeable improvement caused Chiarelli to fire head coach Dave Lewis after the season and bring in Claude Julien, who was let go by New Jersey with just three games remaining in the 2006-07 regular season despite leading the Devils to a 47-24-8 mark.

Chiarelli's biggest acquisition in his tenure was the signing of mammoth defenseman Zdeno Chara prior to the 2006-07 season, but the arrival of the 6-9 blueliner in Beantown failed to solidify the B's back-line.

The Bruins GM most significant move this offseason was trading for veteran goaltender Manny Fernandez, who played well in Minnesota under the defensive- minded system of Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire. Fernandez should emerge as the starter this year after a disappointing campaign from Tim Thomas in the No. 1 spot last season.

Boston does have a handful of talented young players at its disposal and the team hopes they will lead the Bruins out of the post-lockout funk.

FORWARDS - While Chiarelli's signing of Chara garnered most of the headlines, the inking of centerman Marc Savard had the bigger impact in 2006-07.

After posting a career-high 97 points for Atlanta in 2005-06, Savard played in 82 games last year and recorded 96 points (22 goals, 74 assists). The 30-year- old Ottawa native has proven himself to be a top-line center who has a knack for making his teammates better.

Last year, Savard helped wingers Glen Murray and Marco Sturm score 28 and 27 goals, respectively.

In addition to Savard, the Bruins have a pair of talented young centermen in Patrice Bergeron and Phil Kessel.

The 22-year-old Bergeron reached the 70-point plateau for the second straight season, as he registered 22 goals and 48 assists.

Kessel, who will turn 20 a few days before Boston's '07-08 season begins, notched 29 points (11g, 18a) in 70 games. The Madison, Wisconsin native missed the beginning of last year while recovering from surgery to combat testicular cancer. The youngster would wind up winning the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for displaying qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.

Both Bergeron and Kessel are extremely versatile players who can contribute from any forward position. In fact, Kessel's future in the league is most likely as a winger and not as a centerman.

The Bruins also added some scoring depth in the offseason when they acquired left wing Peter Schaefer from Ottawa in exchange for right wing Shean Donovan. Schaefer posted 12 goals and 34 assists in 77 games with the Senators last year.

DEFENSE - The signing of Chara was supposed to magically transform the Bruins defense into a force to be reckoned with, but the arrival of the giant Slovakian failed to make a big difference. In fact, Boston gave up 285 goals during the regular season last year to place them 29th out of 30 teams in that department.

Chara had a typical season offensively as he notched 43 points (11g, 32a), but he ended the year with a dismal minus-21 rating.

To be fair to Chara, the Bruins gave the big defenseman little help anywhere else on the blue line and the situation doesn't appear to have improved heading into this season.

Veterans Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward are the best of the rest at the blueline for the Bruins, and Boston still hopes that 23-year-old Mark Stuart can fulfill his potential. Stuart, who was a first-round pick by Boston in 2003, only played in 15 games last year while recovering from knee surgery.

GOALTENDING - The trade for the 33-year-old Fernandez made sense for the Bruins, who have apparently lost patience with last year's starting goaltender Tim Thomas.

Fernandez, 33, played well in the Lemaire system over the last six seasons and is worthy of the team's No. 1 goaltender spot. The Ontario native went 22-16-1 with a .911 save percentage and 2.55 goals against average in 44 games with Minnesota last season. With the arrival of Niklas Backstrom in St. Paul last year, the Wild could afford to trade Fernandez, who was part of a successful platoon with Dwayne Roloson in Minnesota for a few years.

As for Thomas, the Bruins simply couldn't have felt comfortable coming into this year with him as their starting goaltender. The 33-year-old American backstop posted dreadful numbers with Boston last season, as he went 30-29-4 with a 3.13 GAA and .905 save percentage.

Thomas provides some insurance if Fernandez gets hurt, or he could even reclaim the starting job if Fernandez fails to adjust to the Bruins.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Bruins failed to make any major personnel changes in the offseason and that makes it difficult to consider the club a serious contender for the postseason, especially since the team plays in a strong division. Boston has a handful of talented youngsters on its squad, but overall the team lacks the depth to win consistently. Another last-place finish in the Northeast could be on the horizon for the B's, barring a huge jump forward by Kessel and Bergeron.

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2007-08 Buffalo Sabres Preview

(Sports Network) - The Buffalo Sabres season ended earlier than expected for the second year in a row, and now the team has to regroup after free agency lured a few of its marquee players out of town.

The Sabres won their first-ever Presidents' Trophy in 2006-07, but were ousted in the Eastern Conference finals for the second consecutive season. Two years ago eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina sent Buffalo packing, and the rival Ottawa Senators downed the Sabres this past season.

Just a few weeks after watching the Senators lose to Anaheim in the Cup finals, the Sabres lost both of their co-captains to free agency, as Daniel Briere signed with the Philadelphia Flyers and later in the same day Chris Drury left to join the New York Rangers.

The centermen combined for 164 points during the 2006-07 regular season and their absence will certainly be felt in Buffalo.

Losing a pair of players such as Briere and Drury in one offseason is a tough pill to swallow, but the Sabres still have scoring depth in their lineup. An even more pressing issue for Buffalo will be how the team will make up for the departure of its two biggest leaders.

FORWARDS - As mentioned earlier the Sabres watched a great deal of offensive production walk out of the door this offseason, but they still have some solid young talent to help offset the exodus.

Overall, the Sabres have five players returning who scored 50-plus points in 2006-07 and that should help counter the departures, which also included the signing of Dainius Zubrus by New Jersey.

The large portion of the scoring load shouldered by Briere and Drury over the last few seasons will now be handed off to 23-year-old left wing Thomas Vanek. The Austrian had a breakout season in 2006-07, as he registered career-highs in goals (43) and assists (41) and was second only to Briere for the team lead in points.

Vanek and his agent played hardball with the Sabres in the offseason and scored a seven-year, $50 million contract. He originally worked the deal out with Edmonton and if the Sabres failed to match the offer they would have received four first-round draft picks as compensation. However, Buffalo decided to dish out the dough rather than explain to fans how they let another piece of the puzzle walk out the door.

The growth of Vanek's bank account may force him to take the role of leader on this Buffalo team. Whether or not the youngster is up to the task remains to be seen.

The next leading scorer from last year's Sabres is right wing Jason Pominville, who notched 34 goals and 34 assists in 82 games. Centerman Derek Roy was next with 63 points on 21 goals and 42 helpers.

The Sabres also hope right winger Drew Stafford takes a big step forward after a solid rookie campaign last year. The 21-year-old native of Milwaukee posted 13 goals and 14 assists in 41 contests for Buffalo.

Also, Buffalo is counting on a bounce-back year from Maxim Afinogenov, who recorded 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 56 games during an injury-plagued season.

DEFENSE - The Sabres defense avoided losing any key members in the offseason and should be a solid corps once again.

The No. 1 guy on the Buffalo blue line is Brian Campbell, who made his first All-Star game last season as a starting member of the Eastern Conference squad. The 28-year-old played in all 82 games and led Sabres defenseman with 48 points (6g, 42a).

Campbell has become a solid all-around defenseman, but his most important role is being the quarterback on the Sabres power play. Like most of Buffalo's defenseman, Campbell is not much of a physical presence in the defensive zone.

Back for a 19th NHL campaign in 2007-08 will be 39-year-old Teppo Numminen. The Finnish defenseman is known for his puck-moving skills and is coming off a solid season where he posted 29 points (2g, 27a) in 79 contests. However, Numminen will miss at least six weeks at the beginning of the season as he recovers from heart surgery. The veteran has undergone three procedures to try and correct an irregular heartbeat.

The Sabres have another pair of solid defensemen in Toni Lydman and Dmitri Kalinin. Both players are solid contributors on both ends and have decent size, but neither is all that interested in throwing that weight around. Kalinin notched 29 points (7g, 22a) and Lydman added two goals and 17 assists.

Also back for another season is veteran Jaroslav Spacek, who was disappointing in 2006-07 in his first year with Buffalo. The Czech native had just five goals and 16 assists in 65 games.

GOALTENDING - One thing the Sabres can be certain of is that they have a bona fide No. 1 goaltender at their disposal in Ryan Miller.

The American backstop was the starting netminder for the Eastern Conference All-Star team last year and finished the season with 40-16-6 record, 9.11 save percentage and 2.73 goals against average. It was the 27-year-old Miller's second campaign as the starting goaltender for Buffalo.

The Sabres traded away former starter Martin Biron to Philadelphia before last season's trade deadline, so the team went out and found a new backup netminder for this year by signing Jocelyn Thibault.

Thibault spent last year as a reserve in Pittsburgh and posted a .909 save percentage and 2.83 GAA while seeing action in 22 games.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Sabres were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup last season, but the loss of Briere and Drury will make a title run a bit difficult this season. However, just because Buffalo won't be considered an Eastern Conference powerhouse this season, doesn't mean the team will be left out of the playoffs. After all, head coach Lindy Ruff has taken less talented teams to the postseason.

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2007-08 Calgary Flames Preview

(Sports Network) - Ever since advancing to the Stanley Cup finals in the 2003-04 season, the Calgary Flames have simply underachieved.

After the dreaded lockout, the Flames went from Stanley Cup contenders to pretenders, suffering through back-to-back first-round losses in the past two postseasons.

During their cup run, the Flames outworked, out-hit and out-hustled teams along the way. Somewhere and sometime after, that "old time hockey" style of play disappeared along with their dreams of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup.

With Darryl Sutter and Jim Playfair unable to get the job done behind the bench, it came as no surprise this past offseason when the Flames brass brought in the one coach who simply does whatever it takes to get the most out of his players, Mike Keenan.

Keenan, who becomes the 13th head coach in franchise history, brings an impressive resume to Alberta. He has coached 1,014 NHL games, accumulating a 569-467-140 record with Philadelphia, Chicago, the New York Rangers, St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston and Florida. He currently ranks sixth all-time in wins, behind Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn and Bryan Murray. In addition, he has compiled a 91-69 postseason record, ranking him fifth on the all-time playoff victory list.

"Iron Mike" could be just the taskmaster that this underachieving, postseason disappearing act of a team needs, or completely backfire in the "new NHL" era.

One thing is for sure though, Keenan should bring some accountability as well as discipline to a team that sorely needs it. On the flip side, there has to be some concerns and issues along the way like how well a stern and stubborn Keenan meshes with a club mostly made up of veterans.

One of those veterans, team leader Jarome Iginla will likely be a side project for Keenan to work on. While Iginla, who signed a lucrative five-year extension in the offseason, puts up strong numbers in the regular season, he seems to unravel in the playoffs and lose his focus. For the Flames to be successful the light needs to go on for him, and Calgary's front office is hoping Keenan can be the guy to flip the switch for the franchise player.

The Flames didn't make a huge splash in free agency over the summer so Keenan basically has the same roster to work with as Sutter and Playfair did. Newcomers include defensemen Adrian Aucoin and Cory Sarich as well as veteran forward Owen Nolan. Meanwhile, defensemen Roman Hamrlik, Brad Stuart, Andrei Zyuzin, veteran forwards Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty as well as backup goaltender Jamie McLennan all departed Alberta.

FORWARDS - While Iginla is the go to guy on offense for the Flames, his solid supporting cast of Alex Tanguay, Matthew Lombardi, Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow returns.

Most of those players had career years last season and to think all of them will do that again is wishful thinking. Although the hope is that Keenan is the guy to not allow a letdown to occur.

After a slow start, Tanguay picked up his play as the season went on and led the team in assists (59) while finishing second behind Iginla in points (81). Calgary will need Tanguay to get off to a better start this season and contribute to wins.

Huselius and Langkow, career underachievers to say the least, finally emerged last season as they finished second and third respectively in goal scoring on the team. It will be interesting to see how these two players respond to Keenan's demanding coaching.

The 25-year-old Lombardi, who came into his own last season as a reliable two- way forward for Calgary, looks to build off his 46-point campaign.

The Flames also have a lot of character and depth on their third and fourth lines with veterans Craig Conroy, Nolan, Wayne Primeau. Marcus Nilson and Stephane Yelle bringing heart and experience to the table night after night.

DEFENSE - The biggest changes in the offseason for the Flames came on the blueline. With Hamrlik, Stuart and Zyuzin all gone, the Flames lost some fluid skaters and solid outlet passers that helped in transition.

With Aucoin and Sarich joining Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Rhett Warrener, Calgary seems to be going with a more physical brand of defense for this upcoming season. While this style of play worked for the Flames during their Stanley Cup finals appearance a few years back, it might come back to haunt them in the post-lockout era of the NHL which is focused on high-powered offense.

Phaneuf, who continues to emerge as one of the top two-way defensemen in the league, will log the most minutes out of this group and be used by Keenan in all situations. With his rare combination of power and speed, Phaneuf has the ability to quarterback the power play for Calgary and then check his man through the glass in his own end after clearing the crease.

Regehr, who had somewhat of an off year last season, is another reliable defenseman the Flames will use in all types of situations.

Warrener, Aucoin and Sarich are all pretty strong in their own end. Aucoin, who has battled several injuries the last two years with the Chicago Blackhawks, is hoping to stay healthy. If Aucoin can manage to stay out of the press box this season, Calgary should be pleasantly surprised as his booming shot could help out on the power play.

Anders Eriksson and David Hale will likely battle for the sixth defensive spot.

GOALTENDING - Miikka Kiprusoff, who captured the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder in '05-06, wasn't as dominant last year, but his 40 victories, 2.46 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and seven shutouts last season can hardly be considered substandard numbers.

Kiprusoff gives the Flames a chance to win each and every night and this upcoming season should be no different.

The workhouse played in 74 games last season and one thing Calgary hopes to do this year is not wear down its All-Star by the time postseason play comes around.

The responsibility of giving Kiprusoff a break here and there will fall to 25- year-old Brent Krahn, Calgary's first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 2000 NHL Draft, who will likely serve as Kiprusoff's backup this season with McLennan gone.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Winnipeg native has posted solid numbers in the American Hockey League, but has also battled several injuries.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Northwest Division is arguably the toughest in the entire league. The Flames will need to be on top of their game each and every night when battling Vancouver, Colorado and Minnesota. Calgary, which went 17-12-3 in its division last season, will need to do that again to stay in the playoff hunt. The Flames also need to get off to a great start this season and look to distance themselves in the division so they aren't playing catch up come the spring. Calgary can easily battle for first place in the Northwest and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them win the division. It also wouldn't be a shock to see them possibly finish behind the Canucks, Avalanche and Wild. In the end, "Iron Mike" will likely be able to light a fire and get this group into the playoffs, but to turn the Flames into a legit Cup contender is just too much to ask one coach to do. Even if that coach is Keenan.

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2007-08 Carolina Hurricanes Preview

(Sports Network) - If you think repeating as Stanley Cup champion is easy, a quick glance at the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes will change your mind.

The Hurricanes won the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup title in 2006 by surprising their way through the playoffs. However, when it was time for the 2007 postseason, Carolina was nowhere to be found.

Carolina became the third team in the expansion era to follow up a Cup-winning year by missing the playoffs. To make matters worse, the Hurricanes still had a chance to make the postseason late in 2006-07, but ended the year with losses in five of their last seven games.

Injuries naturally played a role in Carolina's demise last season, but the team struggled with consistency the entire year.

Things could get worse before they get better for the Hurricanes, as the team was forced to trade away a great deal of its top prospects two years ago in order to win the Cup. However, that drop-off may happen further down the road because head coach Peter Laviolette has pretty much the same roster to work with as he did last year.

If the 'Canes can just get a little bit more out of their squad this year, then maybe the team will get to play some hockey after the regular season ends.

FORWARDS - The Hurricanes had six players with 20 or more goals and 50-plus points in 2006-07 and all those skaters will be back with the club this season.

Carolina also had the 13th-best scoring offense in the league last year, as it found the back of the net on 241 occasions. The Hurricanes should keep up that pace this season.

The best overall player for the Hurricanes in 2006-07 was undoubtedly Rod Brind'Amour, who was second on the team with 82 points (26 goals, 56 assists). The 37-year-old centerman is also one of the best two-way forwards in the league and has won the last two Selke Awards as the league's top defensive forward.

Ray Whitney had the most surprising season for Carolina last year, as he set a career-high with 83 points (31g, 51a) in his 15th NHL campaign. It will be interesting to see if the veteran left wing can repeat those numbers this season.

Justin Williams also turned in a strong 2006-07, as the speedy winger posted 33 goals and 34 assists while playing in all 82 games.

Coming off a disappointing season is 22-year-old centerman Eric Staal, who recorded 30 goals and 40 assists in 82 games. That may not seem like a down year, but it marked a 30-point drop-off from 2005-06, when Staal notched 45 goals and 100 points. A return to his form of two years ago would go a long way to getting the 'Canes back into the playoffs.

Also trying to bounce back this year will be left wing Erik Cole, who still seems to be recovering from a serious neck injury that almost ended his career. Cole suffered a fractured vertebra in March of 2006 and was still able to return for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Cole played in 71 games in 2006-07 and posted 29 goals and 32 assists. He had 30 goals the previous year despite missing 22 contests due to the broken neck.

Carolina did make a solid addition to its offense over the summer when it acquired veteran forward Matt Cullen in a trade with the New York Rangers. Cullen, who had 16 goals and 25 assists with the Rangers last year, was a key member of the Hurricanes championship squad two years ago. He notched 25 goals and 49 points in 2005-06 for Carolina and added 18 more points in the postseason.

DEFENSE - The Hurricanes had difficulties on defense all season long in '06-07, as the team was 20th in the league with 248 goals allowed on the year.

The biggest reason for Carolina struggles at the blue line was the absence of Frantisek Kaberle, who played in just 22 games last year after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

Kaberle was coming off a career year in 2005-06, a season in which he recorded a career-high 44 points (6g, 38a). The 33-year-old Czech native added 13 points in the playoffs and scored the deciding goal in Carolina's 3-1 victory in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals against Edmonton.

Also hobbled by injuries last season was veteran blueliner Bret Hedican, who struggled through a hip injury through most of the year and played in just 50 games. The 37-year-old recorded 27 points and was a plus-11 in 2005-06, but last year he posted only 10 points and was a minus-8. Hedican looks like he's near the end of the road in terms of his playing career, but if he is healthy this year it should help Carolina's chances at rebounding.

Niclas Wallin, a 32-year-old Swede, has been an integral part of the Carolina blueline for the past several years and had another steady showing in 2006-07. The 6-3, 220-pound defenseman uses size and quick decision making to help out in the defensive zone, but isn't much of an offensive player. Wallin tied his career high with 10 points last season.

Also, back for a 20th NHL campaign this year will be Glen Wesley, a solid shutdown defenseman who still has some hockey left despite the fact that he will turn 39 years old the day before Carolina begins its regular season.

GOALTENDING - Cam Ward played a huge role in Carolina's Stanley Cup run in 2006, and his decline the following year certainly was a big reason the Hurricanes missed the postseason.

Ward, 23, played in just 28 games during the 2005-06 regular season, but took over the starting job from Martin Gerber early in the postseason and the rest was history. He went 15-8 with a 2.13 goals against average and .920 save percentage and was given the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the postseason.

However, the young backstop couldn't carry that playoff success into the following regular season, as Ward went 30-21-6 with an .897 save percentage and 2.93 GAA.

The Hurricanes still believe in Ward, a first-round pick of Carolina in 2002, and signed him to a three-year deal this offseason.

John Grahame will return as the backup to Ward after struggling to a 10-13-2 record last year.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Hurricanes will have plenty of motivation to get back to the playoffs this season, as they try to erase the memory of last year's freefall. The 2006 Cup run obviously took its toll on Carolina, but the team should be well-rested for the upcoming campaign. If the defense stays healthy and Ward gets back to his form of two years ago, the potent offense should be able to do the rest. The Hurricanes will not only make the playoffs this year, but they should challenge for the Southeast Division crown.

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2007-08 Chicago Blackhawks Preview

(Sports Network) - For once the future looks bright for the Chicago Blackhawks, but there is still some debate as to when that future will begin.

The Blackhawks have a bevy of highly-touted prospects ready to join the ranks of the NHL, but some of those players could be a few years away from making their mark in the league.

This year Chicago is taking the approach of a team that has its eyes fixed on what is to come, even if that means suffering another down season this year.

The Blackhawks are an Original Six franchise that has fallen on hard times in recent years. Chicago has made the playoffs just once in nine seasons and has been out of the postseason in four consecutive campaigns.

Last year the Blackhawks finished last in the Central Division, but their point total of 71 was the highest for the team since gaining 79 points in 2002-03. Denis Savard took over as head coach when Trent Yawney was fired after 21 games.

The Blackhawks' down years have allowed the team to stock up with a handful of high draft picks. Most recently, Patrick Kane was selected with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, and it looks like the 18-year-old right wing is going to make the team this season.

It could be another year of frustration for Blackhawk fans, but finally there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

FORWARDS - The Blackhawks had one of the worst offenses during the 2006-07 season, as they finished 29th in the NHL with just 195 goals scored. Only the Edmonton Oilers scored less last year.

For an example of how anemic Chicago's offense was just look at their leading scorer Martin Havlat, who paced the club in goals (25) and points (57) despite paling in just 56 games all year. The injury-prone right winger needs to stay healthy this year if the Blackhawks are going to have any chance at sneaking into the playoffs.

The Blackhawks did go out this summer and acquire a trio of veteran forwards to help Havlat with the scoring load. Chicago signed centermen Robert Lang and Yanic Perreault and picked up left wing Sergei Samsonov in a trade with Edmonton.

At the top of that list is Lang, who heads to the Windy City after spending parts of the last three seasons with Detroit. The 36-year-old Czech notched 52 points (19 goals, 33 assists) last year with the Red Wings and has compiled 581 points in 13 NHL campaigns. Expect Lang to center the top line for his countryman Havlat.

Perreault is one of the top faceoff men in the league and also had 21 goals and 17 assists last year while playing with Phoenix and Toronto. Samsonov, meanwhile, has been on a downward career trajectory and posted just nine goals and 17 assists in 63 games with Montreal a year ago. The Russian winger does have five 20-goal seasons to his credit and is still only 28 years old.

The leader of the Blackhawks youth movement at this stage is 24-year-old winger Tuomo Ruutu. The Finn burst onto the NHL scene with 23 goals and 21 assists in 2003-04, but injuries have slowed his progress a bit. After playing in just 15 contests in 2005-06, Ruutu bounced back with 17 goals and 21 helpers in 71 games last year. The addition of Lang could also be a great help to Ruutu.

At 5-10 and 160 pounds, the 18-year-old Kane doesn't seem physically ready for the NHL game, but the Blackhawks will likely throw the Buffalo, New York native into the fire this year. The right wing is said to possess superb playmaking and finishing skills, but it remains to be seen how his game will translate at the NHL level.

While Kane will need some time to adjust, Chicago expects rookie center Jonathan Toews to make an impact this year. Toews, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, is said to have an excellent all-around game and should see some time on the power play this year. However, the Toews' era will start a little later than expected as the youngster will miss the first few weeks of the 2007-08 season while recovering from a broken finger.

DEFENSE - The situation on the Blackhawks blue line is anything but certain, as the defensive corps features a handful of youngsters.

Brent Seabrook, 22, was the 14th overall pick in the 2003 draft, and has turned into the team's top defenseman. Seabrook played in 81 games last year and posted four goals and 20 assists. The 24-year-old Duncan Keith is more of an offensive weapon and notched 31 points (2g, 29a) in 82 contests.

Cam Barker was selected with the third overall pick in 2004, but the jury is still out on the 21-year-old after he played his first 36 games in the NHL last year.

Chicago general manager Dale Tallon added veteran blueliner Andrei Zyuzin in a trade with Calgary this offseason and that should give the Hawks a little more depth in the back end. The 29-year-old Zyuzin was bothered by injuries all last year and played in just 49 games for the Flames.

Tallon also signed relative unknown Magnus Johansson for this season. Johansson, 34, has played his entire professional career in Europe and it's uncertain what his role will be in Chicago.

James Wisniewski and Jim Vandermeer will also be back for Chicago. Wisniewski particularly has something to prove after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the end of last season.

GOALTENDING - The 2007-08 campaign marks the third season in a four-year deal for goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, but "The Bulin Wall" has yet to display the form that helped him win a Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay in 2004.

The 34-year-old Russian netminder played in 60 games last season and had less than impressive numbers, as he went 25-26-5 with a .902 save percentage and 2.86 goals against average. However, the Blackhawks offense should be improved this season and that could help Khabibulin be more effective.

The Blackhawks also possess a solid backup goaltender in Patrick Lalime. The 33-year-old backstop has started 344 games in his NHL career and provides an excellent insurance policy should Khabibulin go down to injury.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Blackhawks have not tasted the playoffs since the 2001-02 season and it will be hard for the team to get back into the postseason this year. Chicago is still too young and has some concerns in the overall depth department, but the offense will be better this year and that should allow the Hawks to stay near the playoff race. The time may not be now for the Blackhawks, but it's approaching quickly.

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2007-08 Colorado Avalanche Preview

(Sports Network) - The leading question facing the Avalanche this time around is, is this Year Two of a rebuilding phase, or Year One of a title run?

Colorado seems to want it both ways based on its off-season moves. Avs general manager Francois Giguere was proactive in stealing hard-hitting defenseman Scott Hannan from San Jose on a multi-year deal, and pulled off a major coup by inking unrestricted free-agent forward Ryan Smyth to a five-year pact.

Gritty veteran winger Ian Laperriere returns on a one-year extension, as do scrappy youngsters Tyler Arnason and Mark Rycroft. Backing them up are an impressive crop of skilled youngsters who will either succeed or fail on a steep learning curve.

Head coach Joel Quenneville, heading into his third full season behind the bench, has as much to work with as his Cup-winning predecessors Bob Hartley and Marc Crawford. His primary goal will be to return the team to the postseason, which the Avs missed by a single point -- but nothing in the franchise's 11-year tenure in Denver indicates that they'll settle for only that.

FORWARDS - Any year that captain Joe Sakic chooses to remain in uniform is a good year for the Avs. He'll be back for his 19th season with the franchise following a 100-point campaign, his third in Colorado and sixth in his storied career. If the rejuvenation holds, the top line of Sakic, Andrew Brunette and whoever else finishes the triumvirate will put a hurt on the opposition. Milan Hejduk can once again boost himself into elite status if he follows up a 35- goal campaign with a similar year this season.

Sakic will have his choice of two players to which he can pass the torch -- Smyth, dubbed "Captain Canada" by media throughout the nation, and Paul Stastny, who finished second to Evgeni Malkin in rookie scoring with 78 points.

Marek Svatos has the most at stake on the front lines. The 25-year-old Czech native scored just 15 goals in 66 games, a far cry from the 32 he scored two seasons ago before a shoulder injury cut his season short. Svatos was only brought back on a one-year deal, and if he doesn't deliver, the promise may transfer to 21-year-old Wojtek Wolski.

Laperriere, Arnason, Rycroft, and the returning Scott Parker should have fun in checking and enforcing roles battling and brawling with the league's best. When injuries hit, the Avalanche have added depth with Cody McCormick, Brad Richardson, Ben Guite and Wyatt Smith waiting in the wings.

DEFENSE - After transitional years where the back line didn't have much of an identity past Rob Blake's offensive talent and a stream of solid but unspectacular defensive-oriented players, the addition of Hannan gives the defense an edge it hasn't enjoyed since Adam Foote in his prime.

With his groin troubles hopefully behind him, last-season's acquisition Jordan Leopold must be able to play at a level which justified giving up speedy forward Alex Tanguay to Calgary in the summer of 2006.

John-Michael Liles and Brett Clark, used as the high-powered quarterbacks on the power play as well as puck-moving threats at even-strength (a combined 24 goals and 83 points), should continue to develop those roles this season while shoring up their defensive responsibilities.

Kurt Sauer and Karlis Skrastins return as the quiet men on defense, providing sold support in all three zones, this decade's version of Curtis Leschyshyn and Sylvain Lefebvre.

GOALTENDING - The Avalanche took another huge gamble that one more faded Montreal Canadiens goaltender could regain his form in Denver two seasons ago by acquiring Jose Theodore for the disappointing David Aebischer.

However, it was back-up Peter Budaj who truly proved his worth in Theodore's absence last year, winning 31 games. If Theodore stays healthy and consistent, he is capable of duplicating his 2002 and 2004 performances, and Budaj looks to be the solid backup Aebischer was but Phil Sauve couldn't be.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - It's too hard to predict where the Avalanche will finish in the ultra-competitive Northwest Division.

Last year's strong finish couldn't bring a largely green Avs club above fourth place and their mediocre first three-quarters of the campaign cost them a playoff berth. This season, all cylinders have to click from the get-go for Colorado to stay afloat in a tough division and Western Conference, and it still may not be enough. On the other hand, a few key division and conference wins at the right time can vault the Avs into the upper echelon once more. However the schedule plays out, it will be another exciting season at the foot of the Rockies.

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2007-08 Columbus Blue Jackets Preview

(Sports Network) - The 2007-08 campaign will be the Columbus Blue Jackets seventh as an NHL franchise, but does that lucky number mean that this will be the year the club finally makes it into the postseason?

Since coming into the league for the 2000-01 campaign, the Blue Jackets have never recorded more than 74 points in a season and have only finished higher than fourth place in the Central Division on one occasion. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild came into the NHL the same season and have three playoff appearances and a 100-point season to their credit.

The team is hoping that new leadership can lead the team in the right direction. Ken Hitchcock will begin his first full season as the Blue Jackets head coach after he took over for the fired Gerard Gallant early last year. Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup title with Dallas in 1999 and recently led Philadelphia to the conference finals in 2004.

Hitchcock had some good moments in his first year on the Columbus bench and actually led the team to its best-ever record in a month as the Blue Jackets went 9-5-2 in December. Still the team finished well out of a postseason spot once again.

Columbus also parted ways after the season with general manager Doug MacClean, who had held that position since the franchise's inception. Scott Howson, former assistant GM in Edmonton, took over the reins in the offseason and hopes to have a better plan for success than his predecessor.

FORWARDS - It's no secret that the key to the future success of Columbus hockey is held by power winger Rick Nash, who has made two All-Star Games by the age of 23 years old.

At 6-4, 215-pounds, Nash is an imposing physical presence who also happens to be an excellent skater and goal-scorer. However, since scoring 41 times to earn a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04, Nash has scored a total of 58 goals in the two seasons following that breakout year, and posted just 27 tallies last season.

This year, the Ontario native needs to stay healthy and reach the 40-goal plateau again if the Blue Jackets want to get to the postseason.

Sergei Fedorov could center the Nash line and Columbus hopes the former Detroit Red Wing has something left in the tank for his 17th NHL season. The 37-year-old Russian is a far cry from the terrific two-way player he once was in Detroit, but last year he managed to put up 42 points (18 goals, 24 assists).

The Blue Jackets also surprised many NHL insiders when they signed veteran center Michael Peca this offseason. Many folks had Peca pegged for a team with a better chance at contending, but the former two-time Selke Award winner chose to reside in Columbus.

The 33-year-old Peca played in just 35 games with Toronto last year after breaking a bone in his leg, but still has the potential to be one of the top two-way centers in the NHL. Peca is also a natural leader and has a great deal of hockey knowledge to impart on his young forwards.

David Vyborny has spent his entire career in Columbus and has been a solid contributor for the club since its inaugural 2000-01 campaign. The 32-year-old Czech winger has three 20-goal seasons to his credit and recorded 64 points (16g, 48a) last year.

Like Nash, winger Nikolai Zherdev is also hoping for a return to form this year. The 22-year-old posted 27 goals and 27 helpers two years ago, but dropped off considerably with just 10 tallies and 22 assists in 2006-07. A rebound year from Zherdev would take a great deal of pressure off young forwards Dan Fritsche and Gilbert Brule.

The Blue Jackets also signed promising centerman Jiri Novotny this offseason. The 24-year-old Czech was originally a first-round pick of Buffalo in 2001 and projects as a second or third-round center with solid playmaking ability. Novotny has played in a total of 82 games over two seasons and has eight goals and 14 helpers in that span.

DEFENSE - While the offense still has numerous question marks, the Blue Jackets feel much more confident about the team's defensive corps.

Columbus was 16th in the NHL in goals allowed last year, allowing 244 markers. The offense on the other hand put up just 196 goals, which placed them 28th in the NHL.

The Blue Jackets have a handful of big, hard-hitting defensemen and that should allow the team to wear down the opposition.

Adam Foote is the biggest name of the bunch, but at 36 years old is beginning to show the signs of age. Foote, the former Quebec/Colorado standout, missed 23 games to injury in 2006-07 and had just three goals and nine assists. However, he is still a physical presence on the blue line when healthy.

Rostislav Klesla, 25, is turning into a solid all-around defenseman. At 6-3, 216 pounds, the Czech native is a hard-hitter, but needs to work on his offensive game. Klesla played in 75 games last year and recorded 22 points (9g, 13a).

Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, a 23-year-old Norwegian, is another big body without a great deal of offensive upside.

Ron Hainsey took a big step forward for Columbus last year and was the team's best offensive weapon from the blue line. The 26-year-old posted nine goals, including seven on the power play, and ended the year with 34 points.

Howson also signed defenseman Jan Hejda to add depth at the back. Hejda, who played with Edmonton last year, is 29 years old, but has played in just 39 NHL games.

GOALTENDING - One of the bright spots for the Blue Jackets last season was the emergence of Fredrik Norrena as the club's No. 1 netminder.

The Finnish backstop was a 33-year-old rookie last year after many years as a successful goaltender in Europe. In 2006-07, Norrena went 24-23-3, the best- ever winning percentage for a Columbus goaltender, and had a .904 save percentage and 2.78 goals against average.

The Blue Jackets hope Norrena's performance last year wasn't a fluke, but just in case Columbus has held on to Pascal Leclaire, a former first-round pick by the team in 2001. Leclaire has struggled in 59 career games, but the 24-year- old may still have a future in the NHL.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Fans in Columbus should be excited about the start of the Hitchcock/Howson era, which almost certainly has to be more successful than the previous regime. The Blue Jackets still have too many holes in their lineup, but a healthy Peca would give the team a boost in the depth and experience department. So, will Columbus finally get to witness playoff hockey? A trip to the postseason is not likely to be in the cards this year, but the franchise seems to be on the way up.

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2007-08 Dallas Stars Preview

(Sports Network) - Calling the 2006-07 Dallas Stars a third-place team would be technically accurate, but in reality the team was much better than its standing in the Pacific Division would indicate.

The Stars piled up 107 points last season, but finished behind eventual Stanley Cup champs Anaheim and San Jose in the Pacific.

Even worse, Dallas was the sixth seed in the West and had to play Northeast Division champion Vancouver in the opening round. The Canucks, who had two less points than the Stars in the regular season, outlasted Dallas in seven games in one of the most entertaining matchups of the postseason.

The Stars are returning most of their key players from last season, but the Pacific still figures to be a tough division once again.

Dallas made the playoffs in all four years under head coach Dave Tippett, and the franchise has gained access to the second season in nine of the last 10 campaigns.

The Stars are truly a model of consistency and the club is poised to carry its success into another season.

FORWARDS - The Stars chances of success have long been tied to the play of franchise centerman Mike Modano, but Dallas showed last year that this version of the team relies on more of a balanced attack.

Modano began his career with the Minnesota North Stars in 1989-90 and has played all 17 of his NHL seasons with the Stars franchise. The seven-time All- Star owns just about every major club offensive record and is one of the best American players in league history.

However, Modano had a down year in 2006-07, as he battled injuries and posted just 43 points (22 goals, 21 assists) in 59 games. The 37-year-old also had a poor playoffs, as he notched just one goal and one helper in the seven-game set against the Canucks.

Luckily for the Stars they were able to find ample point production from various other sources, including defensemen. Still, Dallas was behind the curve in overall offense last year as it placed 22nd in the league with just 217 goals during the regular season.

Centerman Mike Ribeiro was the leading scorer for the Stars last season, notching 59 points (18g, 41a) in 81 games. Overall, it was a solid year for the 27-year-old Ribeiro, who was in his first season with Dallas after spending the previous six years in Montreal.

Finnish wingers Jussi Jokinen and Jere Lehtinen also pitched in with solid years for the Stars, as they posted 48 and 43 points, respectively. The 34- year-old Lehtinen also comes with the added bonus of being one of the top defensive forwards in the league.

Brendan Morrow was on his way to a career year before a wrist injury kept him sidelined for 33 games in the middle of the season. The veteran left wing ended the year with 16 goals and 15 assists in 40 games and will be a big boost if he stays healthy in 2007-08.

The Stars are also hoping left wing prospect Loui Eriksson takes a leap forward in his development this year. The 22-year-old Swede played in 59 games as a rookie in 2006-07 and recorded 19 points (6g, 13a),

DEFENSE - Dallas' strength over the past few years has been its play on defense and in goal. Last year was no different as the Stars tied for third in the NHL with just 193 goals allowed.

The backbone of the Stars blue line is 37-year-old Sergei Zubov, who overtook Darryl Sydor as the top defenseman on the team a few years back. Sydor left for Pittsburgh in the offseason, leaving no doubt as to who is the leader on defense for Dallas.

Zubov, a native of Moscow, is a solid all-around defenseman, but really shines as a puck-mover and offensive weapon. The team's power-play quarterback finished second on the club with 54 points (12g, 42a) last season.

The Stars have another excellent two-way defenseman in Philippe Boucher, who posted 19 goals and 32 assists from the blueline last year. At 6-3, 220 pounds, Boucher is bigger than Zubov and is used more often as the team's shutdown defenseman.

Stephane Robidas is also a puck-moving defenseman, but doesn't have the same type of offensive game as either Zubov or Boucher. The 30-year-old Quebec native put up 17 points (17a) in 75 games last year while playing a smart all- around game.

Dallas acquired Mattias Norstrom from Los Angeles at last year's trade deadline and he added even more size and experience to the club's blue line. The 35-year-old Norstrom is not much of a scorer, but he provides a steady, physical presence in his own zone.

Veteran defenseman Nolan Baumgartner will also add some experience and young Trevor Daley, who will turn 24 on October 9, hopes to continue his development.

GOALTENDING - While any goaltender would enjoy playing behind the Stars' solid defensive unit, the Dallas blueliners certainly feel the same way about standing in front of goaltender Marty Turco.

Turco has been the picture of consistency since emerging as the team's No. 1 goaltender in 2002-03, and he put up another stellar campaign last year. The 32-year-old backstop played in 67 games in 2006-07 and went 38-20-5 with a .910 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average.

The Ontario native is the franchise's all-time leader in wins (175) and shutouts (30).

Turco has averaged 64 stars a season over the last four years, so backup goaltender Mike Smith should get used to sitting on the bench. However, the 25-year-old Smith may have a future in the NHL yet, as he posted three shutouts in just 23 appearances for Dallas last year.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Stars seemed to be headed for their 10th playoff appearance in 11 years this season, but the club will still be hard- pressed to finish higher in the Pacific Standings than Anaheim and San Jose. Dallas defensive-minded strategy has made the team a tough opponent and has taken some of the pressure off Modano and the rest of the Stars offense. This club may not be a bona-fide Cup contender, but the Stars certainly have enough talent to make a run deep into the postseason.

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2007-08 Detroit Red Wings Preview

(Sports Network) - The Detroit Red Wings were supposed to be too old to matter in the playoffs anymore, but last year there were a few teams in the Western Conference that gained a new-found respect for their elders.

The Red Wings have gained 108 points or more in every campaign since 1999-2000 and the club posted a whopping 113 points last season. However, since winning the Stanley Cup in 2002, Detroit had failed to advance to the conference finals in each of its previous three postseasons and had been an opening-round victim twice during that span from 2002-06.

That all changed in the last postseason as the Red Wings rolled into the conference finals before losing in six games to Anaheim, the eventual Stanley Cup champions. It was a surprising run for Detroit, which counted a 42-year-old goaltender and a 45-year-old defenseman among its team's assets.

The goaltender (Dominik Hasek) and the defenseman (Chris Chelios) mentioned above are coming back in 2007-08 to take another shot at winning the Cup, and they'll be joined by an excellent cast of polished veterans and budding stars.

One thing is clear, if Detroit makes it into the playoffs this year, other teams would be silly to think that the club is going to simply cave in under the weight of its years.

FORWARDS - The Red Wings had an superb offensive year in 2006-07, as they scored 252 goals, the 10th-highest total during the regular season.

Centerman Pavel Datsyuk is the main weapon on offense for Detroit and has scored 87 points in each of the last two seasons. The 29-year-old Russian posted 27 goals and 60 assists last year and is the kind of player who makes everybody around him better.

Datsyuk is the Red Wings best playmaker, but for finishing the team often turns to left wing Henrik Zetterberg. The Swede has scored 30-plus goals in each of his last two seasons and he wound up with 68 points (33 goals, 35 assists) in 2006-07 despite playing in only 63 contests.

Zetterberg, who will turn 27 on October 9, struggled with back spasms last year, but could approach 50 goals if he manages to stay healthy in 2007-08.

Tomas Holmstrom has become a steady contributor on offense for the Red Wings in recent years. The Swedish winger makes a living getting the tough goals in front of the net and has potted quite a few of those over the last two seasons. Holmstrom has notched 59 of his 155 career tallies in years nine and 10 of his NHL career. He finished with 30 goals and 22 assists in 2006-07.

Right wing Daniel Cleary also had a solid season last year as the 28-year-old set career highs in goals (20) and points (40).

Detroit let a few veteran forwards (Todd Bertuzzi, Kyle Calder, Robert Lang) leave through free agency in the offseason and will rely on some younger players to fill those roles.

One of those emerging youngsters is 23-year-old centerman Valtteri Filppula, who should take over for Lang as the team's second-line anchor. The Finnish Filppula had just 10 goals and seven assists in 73 games as a rookie last season, but has the offensive skills to greatly improve upon those numbers.

DEFENSE - While Chelios gets a great deal of attention for still playing at his age, another veteran is actually the main man on the Red Wings blue line.

Nicklas Lidstrom has won five Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman and is pretty much a lock to make the Hall of Fame. Lidstrom won the Norris again last season after recording 62 points (13g, 49a) and posting a plus-40 rating in 80 contests.

The 37-year-old Swede also had a superb postseason as he notched four goals and 14 helpers in Detroit's 18-game playoff run.

The Red Wings added another top-notch defenseman this offseason in Brian Rafalski. The longtime New Jersey Devil signed as a free agent this summer to help replace the departed Mathieu Schneider, who signed with Anaheim.

The 33-year-old Rafalski, a native of Dearborn, Michigan, played in all 82 games with New Jersey last year and put up 55 points on eight goals and 47 assists. Rafalski is a smart player with excellent skating ability.

Chelios, who broke into the league with Montreal back in the 1983-84 campaign, is no longer an offensive weapon, but still contributes with his physical brand of defense. The American played in 71 games in 2006-07 and contributed 11 assists.

Niklas Kronwall, 26, is a rising star on the Detroit blue line and was the second-leading scorer on the Red Wings defense last year. Kronwall had one goal and 21 assists in 68 games, but Detroit expects him to contribute with more offense this year.

GOALTENDING - Hasek is back for another year and his $2 million salary for the upcoming season makes him one of the better bargains in the NHL.

The Czech legend has six Vezina Trophies to his credit as the league's best goaltender and put together another amazing campaign in 2006-07. Hasek played in 56 games, posted a 38-11-6 mark, was second in the NHL with a 2.05 goals against average and also notched eight shutouts.

Hasek, who helped the Red Wings win their last Stanley Cup in 2002, also played 18 postseason contests last year and was 10-8 with a 1.78 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Chris Osgood, who was the main goaltender for Detroit's 1998 Cup-winning team, will back up Hasek again this year. The 34-year-old played in 21 games last season and recorded a solid 11-3-6 mark.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Red Wings have made 16 straight playoff appearances, the longest current streak among teams in the four major North American sports, and it appears that Motown will witness postseason hockey again this year. Detroit is primed to win its seventh straight Central Division title with only Nashville posing a legitimate threat to that streak. However, the Red Wings are not judged by their regular season, but on how they perform in the playoffs. It's hard to say if another deep postseason run is in the cards for this year, but the Wings will be one of the main contenders by the time the NHL's second season rolls around.

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2007-08 Los Angeles Kings Preview

(Sports Network) - The Los Angeles Kings had to sit back last season and watch as the crosstown rival Anaheim Ducks became the first-ever West Coast team to win a Stanley Cup.

That's right, the fledgling franchise originally named after a Disney movie gained hockey bragging rights in California. It probably doesn't seem fair to Kings fans, after all LA is the place where Wayne Gretzky chose to play in the late 1980s/early 1990s and the Great One's tenure in the City of Angels is what solidified California as a feasible destination for expansion.

But, life isn't fair and it just so happens that the Ducks deserved to win the Cup last year because general manager Brian Burke put together the toughest team in the league. Kings GM Dean Lombardi may be years away from adding a Stanley Cup title to his resume, but his team did display a wealth of youthful talent in 2006-07.

The Kings missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive season last year, as they wound up finishing fourth in the Pacific Division. LA began the campaign with a 4-9-3 mark and never really recovered.

Los Angeles was a team with a great deal of young talent in 2006-07, but still had too many holes to build up any kind of momentum. The goal this year will be to fill some of those holes in order to get the team back into the postseason for the first time since 2002.

FORWARDS - The Kings had a decent season scoring the puck last year with 223 goals, but the scoring load was largely shouldered by a trio of players -- all of whom begin this season as 25 years old or younger.

Michael Cammalleri was the leading scorer for LA in 2006-07, as the 25-year- old forward set career highs in goals (34) and points (80).

Alexander Frolov, who is also 25 years old, had a breakout year last season as well and ended the campaign with personal bests in goals (35) and assists (36). The 6-3 Russian could take another step this year if he decides to use his size more often.

However, the brightest spot for the Kings last year had to be the play of centerman Anze Kopitar. The 6-4, 220-pound rookie burst onto the NHL scene in 2006-07 with 20 goals and 41 helpers. Kopitar, 20, is the first Slovenian-born player in the NHL and has the size and playmaking ability to become one of the best centermen in the league.

The play of winger Dustin Brown last year also bodes well for LA's future. The 22-year-old native of Ithaca, New York notched 17 goals and 46 points in his third NHL season.

The Kings made some smart moves in the offseason as they bolstered their scoring depth with the signings of Michael Handzus, Ladislav Nagy and Kyle Calder.

Handzus was traded from Philadelphia to Chicago for Calder before last season, but the change of scenery didn't help either player.

Handzus wound up playing in just eight games for the Blackhawks before suffering a season-ending knee injury in October. The 30-year-old Slovakian centerman is a three-time 20-goal scorer and an excellent two-player.

Calder was a big disappointment in Philadelphia and was sent away in a trade to Detroit before last season's deadline. The 28-year-old Calder, a scrappy left winger who has a knack for scoring in close, had 14 goals and 21 assists in 78 games with Detroit and Philly last year.

Nagy had the best 2006-07 campaign of the three additions as he recorded 55 points (12g, 43a) while playing in 80 games with Phoenix and Dallas. However, the 28-year-old left wing managed just one goal and one assist in seven playoff games for the Stars.

DEFENSE - The Kings have put together a solid defensive corps for this season, and plan on the blueline situation in LA to get even better as highly- touted prospect Jack Johnson gets set to begin his NHL career.

Lubomir Visnovsky is the best offensive weapon on LA's defense and is the team's undisputed No. 1 power-play quarterback. Visnovsky was fourth overall in scoring on the Kings last year, as he posted 18 goals and 40 helpers. The 31-year-old Slovakian also made his first All-Star Game in 2007.

Rob Blake brings his size and veteran leadership back to the Kings after putting together a solid year with LA in 2006-07. The 37-year-old Blake is not quite the same defenseman who won the Norris Trophy as the league's best blueliner in 1998, but still managed to put up 14 goals and 34 points last year. This is Blake's second stint in the City of Angels after he spent parts of five seasons with Colorado.

The Kings added a pair of solid defensemen this summer when they signed Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing. Stuart started last year in Boston before getting traded to Calgary and notched seven goals and 15 assists in 75 games.

Preissing was a key member of the Eastern Conference champion Ottawa Senators club last year and figures to be in LA for a while after signing a four-year deal with the Kings. The 28-year-old played in 80 games for the Senators last season and recorded 38 points (7g, 31a).

Also, the Kings hope they can get a boost this year from the arrival of the 20-year-old Johnson. The native of Indianapolis, Indiana was originally selected by Carolina third overall in the 2005 draft, but the Hurricanes traded Johnson and Oleg Tverdovsky to the Kings for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger. Many scouts believe Johnson will be one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league one day.

GOALTENDING - Goaltending was the biggest problem for the Kings last season and figures to be a trouble spot again this year.

Dan Cloutier was acquired in a trade with Vancouver prior to the start of last season, but had a terrible first year in LA. Cloutier played in just 24 games as he battled a hip injury all year and was just 6-14-2 with a lofty 3.98 goals against average and dismal .860 save percentage.

However, if Cloutier can put the hip ailments behind him this year then maybe he can give the Kings some level of stability in net.

The backup netminder is expected to be Jason LaBarbera, who has a chance to see a lot of action if Cloutier has another injury-plagued season. The 27- year-old LaBarbera was forced to spend the entire 2006-07 campaign in the AHL because the Kings were in danger of losing him on the waiver wire if he was recalled.

LaBarbera played in 29 games with LA two seasons ago and posted decent numbers with a 2.89 GAA and .900 save percentage.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Kings are certainly an up and coming club, but they, unfortunately, play in the extremely tough Pacific Division. While the Ducks, Sharks and Stars battle for the top three spots, LA should finish ahead of Phoenix to avoid the last-place finish. However, if Cloutier can find a way to stay healthy and be effective in net, the Kings could actually take a run at a playoff berth.

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2007-08 Minnesota Wild Preview

(Sports Network) - It seems like the same story every year for the Minnesota Wild. Head coach Jacques Lemaire takes a group of unheralded players and turns them into a defensive juggernaut that very few teams want to face.

It would be great for the Wild if the story ended there, but unfortunately the tragic twist always seems to involve the gimpy groin of the team's lone superstar, Marian Gaborik. The Slovakian winger has played in an average of 59 games per season over the past three years, and his club always misses his scoring touch.

To the credit of Lemaire, he has been able to offset the effects of Gaborik's absences and taken his boys to the postseason in three of the last four years.

Last year the Wild made it to the postseason once again, but had little chance against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. Gaborik was even available for that series, but his three goals didn't make a difference as Minnesota went down in five games to the Ducks.

This season, the Wild figure to be a strong defensive unit again under Lemaire, but all eyes are still on Gaborik, who must stay healthy in order to allow his team to play at optimum level.

FORWARDS - The frustration of Gaborik's injuries reached its peak last season, as the talented right winger managed to play in only 48 games. To his credit, Gaborik still reached the 30-goal plateau and ended the season with 57 points (30 goals, 27 assists).

Gaborik is blessed with such a wealth of natural-scoring ability that all he really needs to do is show up healthy to the rink and the points will come. His combination of speed, stickhandling and finishing ability makes him one of the most feared offensive weapons in the league and the Wild are a different team when Gaborik is skating.

The addition of veteran forward Pavol Demitra before the start of last season was a smart move, as his presence helped offset the scoring drought that comes whenever Gaborik gets injured. Demitra, who was acquired in a trade with Los Angeles, tied for the team lead in points with 64 (25g, 39a). The 32-year-old Czech is a gifted playmaker who can play any of the three forward positions.

Brian Rolston is a solid two-way winger who has developed into a consistent scoring threat. The 34-year-old Flint, Michigan native led the Wild with 31 goals last year and tied Demitra for the most points on the club. Rolston has eclipsed the 20-goal mark five times in his career and has tallied 30-plus goals on three occasions in the last five seasons.

Mikko Koivu took a big step forward in 2006-07 for the Wild and the club hopes his development continues. The 24-year-old centerman played in all 82 games last season and notched 20 goals and 34 assists. The rising Finn also comes with a pedigree, as his older brother is Canadians captain Saku Koivu.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard is another Wild youngster who is coming off a solid season. The 23-year-old Bouchard scored over 50 points for the second straight season in 2006-07, as he posted a career-high 20 goals and added 37 assists.

Minnesota also added some depth at center this offseason by signing Eric Belanger. The 29-year-old Quebec native began the year in Carolina, but was dealt to Atlanta before the trade deadline. Belanger, who is a strong two-way player and an excellent faceoff guy, recorded 17 goals and 18 assists in 80 total games with the Hurricanes and Thrashers.

DEFENSE - The Wild defense is probably the best-coached unit in the league and also enjoys the benefit of playing behind a group of defensively responsible forwards.

Minnesota uncharacteristically dished out big money to add a defenseman before last season, when they inked former Philadelphia Flyer Kim Johnsson to a four- year, $19 million deal. Johnsson plays a solid all-around defensive game, but his offensive stats suffered last year as he posted just 22 points (3g, 19a) in 76 games. The 31-year-old Swede had averaged 42 points a year in three straight seasons with Philly from 2001-02 to 2003-04.

The Wild have a rising star to pair with Johnsson in 25-year-old defenseman Nick Schultz. The Saskatchewan native played in all 82 games in 2006-07 and displayed the speed necessary to be a threat on offense, although he managed just 12 points (2g, 10a).

Another rising star on the Minnesota blue line is 22-year-old Brent Burns, who the Wild selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. At 6-4, 200 pounds the former winger proved to be an asset for the Wild as he led the team in scoring from defensemen with seven goals and 18 assists.

Martin Skoula had a decent year as a shutdown defenseman for the Wild in 2006-07, and Keith Carney led all Minnesota players with a plus-22 rating.

The Wild made a notable addition to their defensive unit this summer when they signed veteran blueliner Sean Hill. The 37-year-old Hill has registered 289 points in 841 career games. He garnered some unwanted headlines while playing with the New York Islanders last season when he was suspended 20 games for violating the league's drug policy. Hill will serve 19 games of the suspension to begin this year, but will be a nice fit in Minnesota's defense when he comes back.

GOALTENDING - The Wild found another diamond in the rough last season in goaltender Niklas Backstrom and the undrafted netminder will get his first chance to start a season as a No. 1 goaltender.

The 29-year-old native of Helsinki, Finland had never played in the NHL before the Wild signed him prior to last season. He was a proven backstop in his native country and Minnesota made the right decision in bringing him to the U.S.

Backstrom played sparingly behind starter Manny Fernandez early last season, but became the go-to guy in net when Fernandez went down with a knee injury in January. Backstrom wound up playing in 41 games (36 starts) and dazzled with a 23-8-6 mark, 1.97 goals against average and .929 save percentage.

The arrival of Backstrom allowed the Wild to trade Fernandez to the Bruins and that means the role of backup will fall to promising prospect Josh Harding. The 23-year-old was a second-round pick in 2002 and projects as Minnesota's goaltender of the future. Harding was 3-2-1 in seven games last year with a 1.16 GAA and .960 save percentage.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Wild have a solid chance at winning the tough Northwest Division this year, but they will likely need Gaborik to stay healthy if they want to achieve that goal. Still, if Gaborik misses a chunk of games this year, the Wild can count on Lemaire's system to keep the team afloat and in the running for a playoff berth. But, if the Wild are able to keep their superstar in the lineup, they could take a run at the franchise's best season since entering the league in 2000.

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2007-08 Montreal Canadiens Preview

(Sports Network) - Any time the Montreal Canadiens miss out on the playoffs it's considered a disappointment, and last year's failure will surely be stuck in the minds of Habs fans when this season gets underway.

The Canadiens had an excellent start to the 2006-07 campaign and at one point in late December the team was 21-8-5 and closing in on the first-place Buffalo Sabres. However, Montreal's fade began with the arrival of the New Year and when starting goaltender Cristobal Huet tore his hamstring in February the season seemed over.

However, the Habs rallied late in the year behind rookie goaltender Jaroslav Halak and was still in the postseason race until the final game of the season. In the end, the Canadiens were knocked out of the playoff picture by losing on the final day of the season to their bitter rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs. A sad way to end a season that once seemed so promising.

Montreal comes into this year having lost its best defenseman to free agency, as Sheldon Souray opted to sign with the Edmonton Oilers. The Canadiens tried to ease Souray's departure by inking veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik.

The Habs have made the playoffs just three times in the past eight seasons and if they miss out on the postseason again it could cost head coach Guy Carbonneau his job.

FORWARDS - Saku Koivu has been the heart and soul of the Canadiens franchise for a little over a decade now and the centerman will return this year for his 12th season in a Habs sweater.

Koivu famously battled cancer several years back and after missing most of the 2001-02 regular season with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the Finnish centerman has made a full recovery.

Koivu had a career year in 2006-07 as he led the team with 75 points and posted personal bests in goals (22) and assists (53).

Michael Ryder has become the main goal-scoring threat for the Canadiens as he is coming off consecutive 30-goal seasons. The 27-year-old right wing has notched 30 goals on the nose in the last two years and has 25-plus markers in all three of his NHL seasons. The Newfoundland native was third on Montreal with 58 total points in 2006-07.

However, Koivu and Ryder were the only two Montreal forwards to score over 50 points last season. The Habs hope to have a more balanced scoring attack in 2007-08.

An offseason addition could help the Canadiens in this regard as the team was able to add veteran center Bryan Smolinski as a free agent this summer. The 35-year-old Smolinski began the 2006-07 campaign with Chicago, but was traded to Vancouver before the deadline. Smolinski notched 18 goals and 44 points in 82 combined games with the Blackhawks and Canucks.

The Canadiens could also use a rebound year from enigmatic winger Alexei Kovalev. The Russian sniper has recorded 20-plus goals in 10 different seasons, but scored just 18 times in 73 games for Montreal last year. A big year from the 34-year-old would be a pleasant surprise for the Habs.

Montreal also has a handful of promising young forwards and a step forward by a few of these players could make a huge difference for the Habs this year.

Tomas Plekanec, a 24-year-old center from the Czech Republic, posted 20 goals and 27 assists in 81 games last year. Christopher Higgins, 24, is a talented two-way winger who recorded 22 goals and 38 points in just 61 games last season. Right wing Guillaume Latendresse played in 80 games as a 19-year-old rookie in 2006-07 and ended the year with 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists).

The Canadiens also have left wing Andrei Kostitsyn, a first-round pick out of Russia in 2003, and his younger brother Sergei. Andrei Kostitsyn, 22, played in just 22 games last year, but made his presence felt with one goal and 10 assists. Winger Sergei Kostitsyn, 20, has yet to play in an NHL game.

DEFENSE - The loss of Souray will certainly hurt the Canadiens this season, especially on the offensive side of the game.

Souray set an NHL-record for power-play goals by a defensemen last year, as he notched 19 markers on the man advantage and finished with 64 points. It's also important to note that Souray was not exactly stellar in his own zone, as he sported a minus-28 rating at the end of the 2006-07 campaign.

With Souray in Edmonton, the Habs will turn to Andrei Markov to be their top blueliner. Markov is not the offensive wizard that Souray is, but the 28-year- old Russian has enough skill to run an effective power-play unit. Markov, who is a solid two-way defenseman, was second amongst Montreal defensemen with 49 points (6g, 43a) last year.

Mark Streit also had a solid campaign last year for Montreal as he punched in 10 goals and 26 assists from the blue line. The 29-year-old Swiss is entering just his third season in the NHL after playing several years in his home country.

The addition of Hamrlik will add some veteran experience and leadership to the Canadiens blue line after the team traded defenseman Craig Rivet to San Jose last year. Rivet was a vocal member of the Montreal locker room and Hamrlik could help to fill that role this year.

Hamrlik, 33, had a solid season for Calgary in 2006-07 as he recorded seven goals and 31 helpers.

The Canadiens also have an imposing physical presence on defense in Mike Komisarek, a 6-4, 242-pound American. The 25-year-old Komisarek dishes out big hits and is a solid stay-at-home defenseman.

GOALTENDING - Montreal feels like it has some options at the goaltending position after both Huet and Halak turned in impressive seasons in 2006-07.

Huet will be the No. 1 guy heading into the season, but the Habs should feel safe in using Halak to give their top netminder some rest.

The 32-year-old Huet played in 42 games last year and went 19-16-3 with a 2.81 goals against average and solid .916 save percentage. Even with the hamstring injury, the native of St. Martin D'Heres, France set a career-high in games played.

The 22-year-old Halak played in 16 games with Montreal last year and was 10-6-0 with a .906 save percentage and 2.89 GAA.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Canadiens can make the playoffs this season, although it will be a tough task considering they play in the difficult Northeast Division. Scoring could be a problem in Montreal as many of the team's forwards are still too green, but the presence of solid goaltending should help the team pull out some close victories. The Habs are currently in limbo and don't seem to have enough veteran talent to win right now, but a boost from their young core could change their fortunes in a hurry.

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2007-08 Nashville Predators Preview

(Sports Network) - For the Nashville Predators, being a small market team in the post lockout era was supposed to be a good thing.

After advancing to the playoffs last season for the fourth straight year, the Preds were a victim of free agency this offseason as team captain and stalwart defenseman Kimmo Timonen, gritty forward Scott Hartnell and sniper Paul Kariya all left for greener pastures as ownership continued to say they were bleeding money.

Nashville was so convinced that they financially couldn't afford to sign its own free agents, Timonen and Hartnell's rights were traded to Philadelphia a week prior to the start of the free agency period in a desperation move.

The franchise also cut ties with longtime veteran Tomas Vokoun, shipping the Czech goaltender and his $5 million-plus contract to the Florida Panthers.

Peter Forsberg, who the Preds paid a hefty price for at the trade deadline, also looks as if he was just a playoff rental, as the Swedish superstar, who is a free agent, has not announced his plans for the upcoming season. Reports are that Forsberg will either retire or return to the league at mid-season, however, Nashville isn't listed as one his suitors if he does decide to return to the ice.

After compiling a franchise best record of 51-23-8 last season as well as establishing team records for points (110) and goals (274), this upcoming campaign was supposed to be an optimistic one, but instead it's filled with question after question.

One of the biggest question marks of the offseason for the Predators surrounded whether or not the franchise would even stay in the "Music City".

After a potential sale of the team to an owner who would have likely moved the club out of Nashville, Craig Leipold signed a letter of intent in the beginning of August to sell the team to a group of local investors for nearly $200 million. The new ownership group plans to keep the team in Nashville, although nothing is certain.

With enough drama surrounding the team, head coach Barry Trotz enters his ninth season with the club and will face some of his biggest challenges yet.

FORWARDS - With Kariya gone after signing with the St. Louis Blues, Nashville lost its top points leader from last season. He had 76 points and also led the team with 52 assists. His production will be sorely missed and almost impossible to replace.

The good news for the Predators though is that their offense was pretty spread out last year and while Kariya led the club in points, he wasn't necessarily the go-to guy up front.

David Legwand, the former second-overall pick, finally showed some life last season and tied for the team-high with 27 goals. He was also the plus-minus leader on the club at plus-23. With not as much depth this year up front for the Preds, Legwand will be counted on more then ever and the club needs him to play even better then last season.

J.P. Dumont was a pleasant surprise last year after he put together a career- high 66 points (21 goals, 45 assists) in his first season with the team. For the first time in his eight-year career, Dumont played a full season and avoided injury. The Predators need Dumont on the ice and can't afford for him to be injured as he usually is.

Steve Sullivan, the heart and soul of Nashville's offense, is another question mark, as the veteran will be sidelined for the first three months of the season due to lingering back problems. Since last February, Sullivan has undergone two operations, and at age 33 three months recovery seems a little too optimistic. Not having the competitive Sullivan around is another huge loss that the Preds need to overcome.

Jason Arnott, who was recently named captain for the upcoming season, netted 27 goals and added 27 helpers last season. Arnott has a huge responsibility this year, as with so many key players gone, the team desperately needs a veteran presence to keep the locker room together.

Players like Martin Erat, Vernon Fiddler and Alexander Radulov were all efficient role players last season. This year though they will be counted on heavily to add more scoring depth.

Keep your eyes on Radulov, who notched 37 points in 64 games last season, as he looks like he is poised to develop into a top-scoring winger for many years to come.

The Predators came up small in attempting to replace Hartnell, Forsberg and Kariya in the lineup through free agency. Radek Bonk and Martin Gelinas were added to the fold and shouldn't be counted on to do much and will likely be third and fourth line role players.

DEFENSE - While the forward group lost Kariya, the loss of Timonen on the blueline could be Nashville's biggest setback of the offseason. Timonen logged a ton of minutes last year and was used in all situations. Not only will the Preds struggle this season at even strength without him, they will also miss his quarterbacking of the power play and penalty killing ability. Not to mention, his 55 points will be tough to replace along with his veteran leadership to a rather young defense corps.

With Timonen gone, Nashville will be looking for impressive youngsters Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and Kevin Klein all to take on much more responsibility and step up in the absence of their former captain.

Weber burst onto the scene last year and tallied 17 goals and 23 assists while Hamhuis and Suter both played extremely well in their own end and chipped in moderately offensively.

Klein, who is chock full of offensive potential, will be given every chance in training camp to make the team with the Preds sorely looking for more offense from the back end with the departure of Timonen.

The normally reliable Marek Zidlicky had an off year last season and will be counted on more this time around to return to his play of 2004 when he tallied 53 points. He brings a solid two-way game to the table and will look to act as an anchor on the blueline along with veteran free agent signee Greg de Vries.

Greg Zanon, who was a plus-16 in limited action last year, will likely be the team's seventh defenseman or could rotate in the sixth spot with Klein.

GOALTENDING - The emergence of Chris Mason last season paved the way for Vokoun's departure, but how Mason responds as the No. 1 guy this year will be a story line to follow.

The 31-year-old won a career-high 24 games last year for Nashville and posted a .925 save percentage to go along with a 2.35 goals-against average. Mason got the opportunity to play after Vokoun battled injuries and he relished the opportunity.

While Mason clearly had a strong season last year, it remains to be seen if he is a starting goaltender in the big leagues. Prior to last season's 40 games, he had never played in more then 23 contests in any year at the NHL level. Despite his age, experience is not on his side.

If Mason fails as the go to guy, rookie netminder Pekka Rinne will likely be the fall back option. After missing the first half of last season following shoulder surgery, the 24- year-old Rinne went 15-7-6 with a 2.34 goals- against-average in 29 games for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. He has played in just two games in his NHL career.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The question marks just seem to be too much for Nashville. They had the right plan for the last few seasons and were on their way to becoming Stanley Cup contenders, but the business side of playing in a small market finally cracked ownership.

While still a talented, well-coached team with an impressive group of youngsters ready to shine, the loss of key veteran leaders like Timonen, Kariya and Vokoun will hurt the Predators chances of making the postseason, which would be a tremendous step back for a team that was on the right path.

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2007-08 New Jersey Devils Preview

(Sports Network) - There was a time not so long ago when the New Jersey Devils came into every season as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. That may not be the case now, but the Devils are still a dangerous team as long as they have a future Hall of Famer in net.

Martin Brodeur put together one of the finest seasons of his stellar NHL career in 2006-07 and was awarded his third Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender. The 35-year-old goaltender has showed no signs of slowing down and actually played in a career-high 78 regular-season games last year.

However, the active regular season may have had a negative effect on Brodeur's postseason play. The Montreal native went just 5-6 in the playoffs as his club was knocked out in the second round by Ottawa.

The Devils will have a new man behind the bench this season as Brent Sutter takes over as head coach for longtime general manager Lou Lamoriello.The 45- year-old Sutter was one of six brothers to play in the NHL and is now the fourth member of the famous hockey family to become a head coach in the league.

However, Sutter may not have the greatest job security in New Jersey as the past two Devils coaches haven't lasted a full season. The Devils decided to fire Claude Julien as head coach after 79 games last year despite the fact that the team was in first place. In 2005-06, Larry Robinson resigned after 32 games, possibly recalling the fact that he was fired by Lamoriello in 2001, just one year after leading the Devils to a Stanley Cup title. Lamoriello took over head coaching duties on an interim basis in each of the last two seasons and ended both years behind the bench.

The Devils have won three of the last four Atlantic Division titles, but both the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins come into this season as favorites over New Jersey to take the crown this year. That's due in large part to the fact that the Devils lost their best playmaker (Scott Gomez) and top defenseman (Brian Rafalski) over the offseason.

FORWARDS - The loss of Gomez would hurt the Devils no matter where he wound up going, but the fact that the centerman signed with the division rival Rangers compounds the situation.

Gomez had been a staple on the Devils offense since breaking into the league in 1999-2000 before deciding to cash in this offseason. The Anchorage, Alaska native notched 60 points (13 goals, 47 assists) last season.

However, the Devils will still have valuable forward Patrik Elias at their disposal this season. The 31-year-old Elias was the leading scorer for New Jersey last year, as he notched 69 points (21g, 48a). The Czech star has spent his entire NHL career with the Devils and has recorded 60-plus points in five seasons.

Taking over for Gomez as center on the top line is expected to be 22-year-old Travis Zajac. The native of Winnipeg, Manitoba had an impressive rookie campaign in 2006-07 as he posted 17 goals and 25 assists. He will be called on to add to that total this year.

A youngster who took a big step forward last year was Zach Parise, a first- round pick by the Devils in 2003. The 23-year-old American played in all 82 games in his second NHL season and recorded 31 goals and 31 helpers.

New Jersey will also hope for more of the same from veterans Brian Gionta and Jamie Langenbrunner this season. Gionta missed significant time due to a groin injury last year, but still managed to notch 25 goals and 20 assists in 62 contests. Meanwhile, Langenbrunner had the highest point total of his career as he put up 60 points (23g, 37a) in 82 contests.

The Devils also added free agent winger Dainius Zubrus to their roster this summer. Zubrus was traded from Washington to Buffalo before the deadline last year and had 24 goals and 36 assists in 79 total games.

Although not a prolific scorer, the Devils John Madden is a big key to the team's success. The 34-year-old center is one of the best penalty killers in the entire league and a former Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward. Last year, Madden had 32 points (12g, 20a) -- his lowest total since the 2001-02 campaign.

DEFENSE - The Devils blue line has lost quite a few marquee defensemen in recent years and Rafalski joined the list of the departed this offseason.

New Jersey lost both Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer after the 2003-04 campaign, as the former opted for retirement and the latter went to Anaheim as a free agent. The Devils were able to survive those setbacks and continue to play stingy defense and it's likely they will be able to cope without Rafalski as well.

Last year, New Jersey allowed just 193 goals in the regular season, placing them first in the Eastern Conference and tied for third in the NHL.

The Devils will miss Rafalski's 55 points from last year as well as his ability to quarterback the power play. Paul Martin will likely become Jersey's top-scoring and No. 1 overall defenseman in Rafalski's absence. The 26-year- old Martin played in all 82 games last year and notched three goals and 23 assists.

Offseason signee Karel Rachunek left the Rangers and will add some depth and scoring ability to New Jersey's blue line. The 28-year-old Czech played in 66 games with New York in 2006-07 and put up 26 points (6g, 20a).

The Devs also signed Vitaly Vishnevski this summer after the Russian notched three goals and nine assists in 52 games with Atlanta a year ago.

At 6-4, 215 pounds, Colin White is a prototypical defensive defenseman who loves to bang in front of the net. The Devils have another player cut from the same mold in 6-3, 215-pound veteran Richard Matvichuk.

New Jersey will also rely on improved play from younger defenseman such as Andy Greene and Johnny Oduya, who were both rookies last season. Greene, 24, played in 23 games and recorded one goals and five helpers, while the 25-year- old Oduya 11 points (2g, 9a) in 76 contests.

GOALTENDING - Brodeur was already considered to be one of the best goaltenders of his generation before he managed to put together possibly his greatest campaign in 2006-07.

All he did was set a new NHL record with 48 wins while finishing first in shutouts (12), and third in goals against average (2.18) and save percentage (.922). It all added up to Brodeur winning the third Vezina Trophy of his storied career.

However, the long season was rough on Brodeur, who stumbled in the postseason with a 2.44 goals against average and 5-6 record in the playoffs. The truth is that the Devils have put more pressure on their franchise goaltender by not holding onto key skaters and sometimes the legendary backstop can't do it all.

This year, New Jersey has opted to upgrade at the backup goaltender position rather than take Brodeur's durability for granted. The team signed Kevin Weekes, who should see more action than former Brodeur fill-in Scott Clemmensen did in the last few seasons.

The Devils are the seventh team for Weekes, who played in 14 games with the Rangers last season. The 32-year-old has a 2.90 GAA and .902 save percentage in 323 career games.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Devils always seem to exceed expectations as pundits tend to prematurely predict the franchise's demise. New Jersey's championship form has been depleted by free agency, but Lamoriello is a master at putting together a playoff team on a budget. The Rangers, Penguins, and possibly the Flyers look better on paper, but Jersey will still be in the hunt for the postseason thanks in large part to the presence of Brodeur in goal. This could be the year the Devils' free-agent losses finally cause the team to implode, but it wouldn't be wise to bet on it.

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2007-08 New York Rangers Preview

(Sports Network) - Two years ago the Rangers made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1997, but were smoked by the New Jersey Devils in the first round. Last year the Rangers again made it to the playoffs and this time made it out of the first round with an impressive sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers, but were then downed by the Buffalo Sabres in six games.

So does that mean this season they will make it all the way to the Conference Finals?

Not necessarily, but this team is talented enough to make it not just to the Conference Finals but also to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup this upcoming season.

Team captain Jaromir Jagr last season stated that he felt the team was missing a piece. Well, the team grabbed two big pieces in the offseason as the Rangers made some big improvements at the center position by signing away Scott Gomez from New Jersey and Chris Drury from Buffalo

Those two players are added to a team that already has a strong offensive squad that includes Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Martin Straka, Sean Avery, Petr Prucha and Marcel Hossa.

As solid as the offense is, the real strength of this team could very well be its Swedish goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. The Vezina trophy finalist for the 2006-07 season proved his worth as a starter in net and at times carried the team by himself. He overcame a shaky first half to put up stellar numbers in the second half to help put the Rangers in the playoffs.

The potential Achilles heel of this team could be the blueline group. Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik are both solid defenders, but neither are what you would consider a No. 1 defenseman. Aside from that, there is really nothing impressive on defense for New York. However, look for Marc Staal, the Rangers first round pick in 2005, to crack the lineup and start contributing to the team.

In won't be easy for the Rangers this season as they are in arguably the toughest division in hockey. Pittsburgh boasts last season's MVP and a torrid offense along with seasoned veterans. Philadelphia has a completely different look that has possibly turned last season's basement dwellers into potential playoff contenders. New Jersey lost a lot in the offseason, but any team that has Martin Brodeur in net is always a threat. And the Islanders, well, let's just say that they won't be scaring too many teams this season.

However, New York has the potential to win this division and could possibly finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. This team can make it to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Mark Messier hoisted the Cup for the Rangers' first Cup in 54 years.

FORWARDS - This team already had a strong offensive core and the addition of Drury and Gomez has greatly improved the club.

Gomez comes across the Hudson River after spending his first seven seasons with New Jersey. The 2000 Calder Trophy awardee and two-time Stanley Cup winner is a well-balanced forward who can put the puck in the net, set up goals and play in the defensive end.

Drury is a clutch player who comes up big when the team needs it. He finished third in points with the Sabres last season and led the club with nine game- winners, 17 power-play goals and three shorthanded tallies.

On a humorous note, both Gomez and Drury wore No. 23 with their respective teams. A puck was flipped to determine who would have the honor in New York, with Drury winning. Gomez will wear No. 19.

Although these two are top-notch forwards, the Rangers other scorers are also a force to be reckoned with.

The main offensive threat on the team is Jagr. His point production fell off a bit last season (30 goals, 66 assists), especially in goals, but the 35-year- old Czech product is still one of the premier forwards in the league and with a top-notch center, most likely Gomez, look for his numbers to again be in the 100-point range. Jagr tied an NHL record by posting his 15th straight season with 30 or more goals. He can break the record held by former New York Ranger Mike Gartner this season.

On the opposite wing of Jagr on the top line is Straka. The 35-year-old from the Czech Republic can be counted on for 20-plus goals and 70-plus points as long as he stays healthy.

One of the best acquisitions the Rangers made before the trade deadline last season was when they acquired Avery from the Kings on February 6. Avery revitalized a Rangers squad that was slumping and helped the team to finish 17-7-4 and a division title. The pesky right winger brings some added toughness to the lineup, can be counted on to get under the skins of opponents and will contribute a bit of offense.

Back for another season is Shanahan. He signed a one-year deal in the offseason after finishing last year with 29 goals and 33 assists in 67 games. The 38-year-old power forward still has the scoring touch and as long as he keeps producing he will have a home in the Big Apple.

Prucha had a sophomore slump last year after finishing his rookie campaign with 30 goals. He was not productive in the first half of the season, but somewhat found his scoring touch in the last half of the year and ended with 22 goals and 18 helpers. However, he disappeared in the playoffs as he had just one assist in 10 playoff games. If he can find his offensive game again, he will give even more depth to the talented Rangers offense.

The remainder of the offensive corps has solid players that can be counted on to keep the opposition in check while also occasionally scoring a goal or two.

One of the big departures in the offseason was Michael Nylander, who worked well with Jagr. But, considering what the Rangers brought in, it shouldn't be too much of a loss. Also gone are centers Matt Cullen and Brad Isbister.

DEFENSE - The Rangers don't have either a big, physical defenseman who can clear out the front of the net or a puck-moving defenseman who can get the disc up-ice.

Rozsival continues to improve and last year he finished with career-highs in goals (10) and points (40). While not a total offensive threat, he can be counted on to not make miscues in the defensive end while contributing a bit to the offense.

Malik is a competent defenseman who finished in the top-10 in plus/minus. He has a long reach and uses it effectively to poke the puck away from forwards. However, he needs to use his 240-pound frame to better effect in front of the net.

Tyutin is developing into a better defenseman with each game he gets under his belt. He is pretty good at both ends of the ice and plays smartly. However, he could stand to put on a few more pounds and needs to adapt better to the speed of the NHL game.

Paul Mara was a definite upgrade when the team acquired him from Boston for Aaron Ward last season. He is a big defenseman who can skate well and put some points on the board. However, he needs to be a bit more physical.

Staal, New York's first round pick in 2005, will make some appearances in the season. While me might not be on the opening-day roster, he will get his chances and, if he lives up to his potential, will shore up the weak spot in the Rangers lineup.

GOALTENDING
- Lundqvist became a star goaltender last year in the Big Apple.

Many goaltenders will sophomore slumps, but Lundqvist stole the starting job away from mediocre Kevin Weekes early in the season and finished the campaign with a 37-22-8 record with five shutouts and a 2.34 goals against average.

His best performances come while under pressure and he can make spectacular saves look routine. Lundqvist also has proven that he can perform in the big games as he helped Sweden to a gold medal in the 2006 Olympics.

However, it's not all positives with Lundqvist as he is undersized, tends to struggle with the high shots and still needs more experience.

That said, Lundqvist's play last season was strong throughout much of the campaign and he stole several games for the Rangers to help guide them to the playoffs. Look for him to be up for the Vezina again this season.

Stephen Valiquette will back up Lundqvist this season, but don't expect him to play in a lot of games unless something happens to the No. 1 backstop. Valiquette can be counted on for be competent play in net, but he is not a No. 1 goaltender by any standard.

Look for promising youngster Al Montoya to get some playing time, especially if something happens to either of the top two goaltenders.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - This is definitely the team to beat in the Atlantic Division. The Rangers have so much firepower up front and while their blueline core is suspect, they have one of the best netminders in the game to cover up any mistakes.

The team has two obstacles to overcome if they want to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. First, is Ottawa, which is one of the best teams in the NHL. Second, is the team performing up to the standards that is expected of them in the high-pressure New York City area.

If they can get past these obstacles, there is a strong possibility that we will again see a Stanley Cup parade down Broadway.

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2007-08 Ottawa Senators Preview

(Sports Network) - Prior to last season the Ottawa Senators had a reputation as a perennial playoff team that forgets how to win once the postseason begins. That perception has surely changed now that the Senators are the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

The Senators, who were an expansion team in the 1992-93 campaign, earned a playoff berth for the 10th straight year in 2006-07 and had far and away the best postseason in club history. Ottawa rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs, beating all three of its opponents in five games. However, the Sens were dealt the same fate in the Cup finals, as Anaheim beat them four games to one to become the first West Coast team to win the Stanley Cup.

Ottawa made some personnel changes in the offseason as last year's head coach Bryan Murray vacated his position to become the franchise's general manager. John Paddock will take over for Murray as the new head coach.

The goal for Ottawa this season will be to build on last year's postseason run as they try to get back into position to play for another Stanley Cup.

The Senators will have basically the same team as they did last year and will also benefit from the fact that last year's Northeast Division champion Buffalo Sabres lost both Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency. The rough offseason for the Sabres should give Ottawa the inside track on winning the division and getting a better seed in the playoffs.

FORWARDS - The Senators have a potent offensive attack and finished 10th in the NHL with 216 goals during the regular season. The team's scoring ability became even more apparent once Ottawa put together a new and improved top line.

In fact, the most obvious reason Ottawa turned the corner in terms of playoff success last year was the play of its top-line, which is possibly the most potent unit in the NHL.

Team captain Daniel Alfredsson is one-third of the dynamic combination that has struck fear into the opposition. The 34-year-old Swedish winger had another excellent regular season as he posted 29 goals and 58 assists in 77 games. He also put together his best postseason in 2007 by notching 22 points (14 goals, 8 assists) in 20 playoff contests.

Dany Heatley, Alfredsson's fellow winger, led the Senators with 105 points (50g, 55a) in the regular season, giving him two 100-point campaigns in as many years with Ottawa. The 26-year-old has also played in every regular- season game in his time with the Sens.

The top-line center is 24-year-old Jason Spezza, who is off to an excellent start to his career with 253 points in just 246 NHL games. Spezza had 87 points (34g, 53a) in just 67 games during the 2006-07 regular season.

Both Spezza and Heatley matched Alfredsson with 22 points apiece in the playoffs.

The top unit of the Senators is so good that the opposition's strategy of focusing all their attention to the first line rarely works. But, Ottawa occasionally needs other players to help out in the scoring department and there a few skaters up to the task.

Mike Fisher was the No. 1 scoring option outside of the Sens' top line last year, as he punched in 22 goals and 26 assists in 68 games last year. The 27- year-old centerman is also a terrific defensive player and one of Ottawa's best penalty killers.

Left wing Peter Schaefer was the next option after Fisher, but he departed for Boston in the offseason.

Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly had 39 and 38 points, respectively, last season and will be a huge boost if they can improve on those numbers in 2007-08.

DEFENSE - The Senators have had a solid defensive corps in recent years and the depth at blue line was certainly an asset in the 2007 postseason.

The leading rear-guard for Ottawa since his rookie season of 1996-97 has been Wade Redden, one of the Eastern Conference's best all-around defensemen.

Redden battled injuries last year, but wound up with 36 points (7g, 29a) in 64 regular-season contests. Most of the time missed due to injury came in the first half of last season and that's when Ottawa struggled the most. When Redden finally returned, the Senators seemed like a different team.

Chris Phillips is the second most reliable defensemen on Ottawa's roster and he turned in a solid season in 2006-07. Phillips, 29, had eight goals and 18 assists while playing in every game and ended the campaign with a plus-36 rating.

Anton Volchenkov also thrived on the Ottawa blue line last year, as the 25- year-old Russian registered a plus-37 rating. He also posted one goal and 18 assists during the regular season.

Joe Corvo was a solid offensive weapon on defense for the Senators last year and Ottawa hopes the 30-year-old can improve on his eight goals and 29 assists from last season. Corvo could be a key player for Ottawa this year after the team lost defenseman Tom Preissing, who notched 38 points last year, to free agency.

GOALTENDING - The 2006-07 campaign was obviously a successful one for Ottawa and young goaltender Ray Emery was a big part of the equation.

Emery, who will turn 25 years old before the 2007-08 season begins, played in 58 games last year and went 33-16-6 with a 2.47 goals against average and .918 save percentage.

More importantly, the Ontario native also turned out to be a reliable backstop in the postseason. Emery played in 20 playoff games for Ottawa in 2007 and was 13-7 with three shutouts, a 2.25 GAA and .907 save percentage.

The Senators will once again use Martin Gerber as their reserve goaltender. Gerber has played in 143 NHL games and was solid last year, going 15-9-3 in 29 games (26 starts).

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Senators will be in the mix for the Northeast Division crown and should finish in the upper half of the Eastern Conference playoff standings. The top-line of Alfredsson, Heatley, Spezza will continue to be a menace and the defensive unit should be solid once again. If Emery is able to take another step forward in his development then the Sens could be the team to beat in the East. It will be interesting to see how the team plays under Paddock, but don't expect the new head coach to reinvent the wheel. This Senators team is ready-made for the playoffs and should take another run deep into the NHL's second season.

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2007-08 Philadelphia Flyers Preview 

(Sports Network) - The regular season hasn't yet begun, and things are already looking up for the Philadelphia Flyers. After last year's abysmal performance which left the club in the NHL's basement, the franchise couldn't help but do everything to improve its fortunes on and off the ice this season.

In their 39th year, the Flyers managed to record the worst record in team history, sink to the bottom of the NHL standings for the first time ever, miss the playoffs for the first time since 1994, surrender 300 goals or more for the first time in 12 seasons, and suit up an astounding 49 players through numerous trades and debilitating injuries.

However, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren pulled off some savvy moves intended to pull the club out of the quicksand with rocket speed. Stealing free-agent Daniel Briere and locking him into a long-term deal was the biggest of the bunch. It's up to second-year head coach John Stevens to take the lessons learned when the pressure was off last season and apply them to this new group of players in his second year behind the bench.

One key issue facing the team beyond actual performance, is that of leadership. Since Peter Forsberg's departure in February, the Flyers have not named a permanent captain. Up to a half-dozen current players have been rumored to be considered, and the team may do well to choose one before the start of the regular season. Whoever is picked, it will have a dramatic effect on the personality of the club beyond all the new additions.

FORWARDS - With the addition of Briere, the top line gets another shifty game- breaker with explosive talent. Simon Gagne (41 goals) will benefit from having another Forsberg-like center and the fact that Briere and Gagne are both French-Canadian can't hurt either. As long as Mike Knuble can stay out of Brendan Shanahan's way, there's no reason to believe he can't duplicate his performance from two seasons ago.

There will be some interesting battles for spots on the next three lines. Jeff Carter (14 goals, 37 points) and Mike Richards (10 goals, 32 points in 59 games) had subpar sophomore seasons in 2006-07. Carter looked lost and uninvolved at times and Richards struggled to score beyond his abdominal issues which required surgery at mid-season.

With Scott Hartnell's arrival from Nashville and Joffrey Lupul's acquisition from Edmonton, it puts pressure on Ben Eager (NHL best 233 penalty minutes) and R.J. Umberger (team-worst minus-32 in 81 games) to prove their worth and remain with the big club. In addition, Ryan Potulny, Boyd Kane, Stefan Ruzicka are expected to make the task more difficult because they got a taste of the big time last season as well.

Whatever happens there, the Flyers will be able to count on the versatile Sami Kapanen to fill any role as necessary. Kapanen recorded 11 goals and 25 points in 77 games, perhaps the most consistent player at any position on the team.

DEFENSE - The Flyers backline can be summed up as a bunch of young colts led by a couple aging thoroughbreds.

On one hand, there is veteran presence with 35-year-old Derian Hatcher and the two new acquisitions, the 33-year-old Jason Smith and Kimmo Timonen, the 32- year-old former Nashville captain. On the other hand, five defensemen on the roster have birthdates in the 1980s.

Braydon Coburn, acquired in the Alexei Zhitnik trade with Atlanta, and Denis Gauthier, figure to be the most bruising of the bunch. Lasse Kukkonen proved himself a capable defensive-oriented stopper, while Randy Jones and Alex Picard each showed flashes of brilliance in their baptisms of fire.

Timonen should be an obvious choice to quarterback the power-play, and to shepherd fellow Finn Kukkonen. Smith is a cross between the dedication of an Eric Desjardins and the crunch of a Luke Richardson. Ironically, Hatcher looked best last year when Stevens used him as a power forward on the man- advantage, but he should be called on again to clear space in front of the net and push skilled opposing forwards to the boards.

GOALTENDING - The addition of Martin Biron at last season's trade deadline improved the Flyers' goaltending situation exponentially from the erratic Robert Esche and the inconsistent, hobbled Antero Niittymaki. Now that Biron is expected to be here for two years, the man who desperately wanted out of Buffalo to prove his worth as a No. 1 gets to once again show his stuff over a full season.

Hopefully, if his hip issues are resolved, Niittymaki will work on his hand- eye coordination and his reflexes, because his two biggest flaws have been glove stops and his inability to adjust to the pace of a shootout. His role as the certified back-up should allow more time to grow with less pressure. If that doesn't pan out, Brian Boucher is waiting in the wings for another shot to prove himself NHL-worthy.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Flyers will answer at least one question facing them this year, and that is, they won't be the worst team in the NHL.

For the second time in three seasons, the roster has undergone a radical revamping. The Flyers are following in the footsteps of the Penguins from two years past and the Blues of last season -- making a slew of moves to generate interest in a losing hockey club.

While there is nowhere to go but up, there are still numerous unresolved questions about the captaincy, team chemistry, defense, goaltending, and the true capability of Stevens as an NHL-level head coach. With everyone relatively healthy, the Flyers should be an entertaining, offensive-minded club. If all goes well, the Flyers should remain in the thick of playoff contention, but are not yet ready to go deep into the playoffs.

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2007-08 Phoenix Coyotes Preview

(Sports Network) - Wayne Gretzky began his winning ways early in his playing career, but finding success as a head coach has been much more difficult.

Gretzky is entering his third season as the head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes and, so far, "The Great One" has yet to get his team going. The Coyotes are 69-85-10 under Gretzky and have missed the playoffs both years.

That is not to say that the Coyotes recent struggles should fall squarely on the shoulders of Gretzky, after all the team is in the midst of a rebuilding process.

Phoenix was very busy at last year's trade deadline, but instead of acquiring veteran leadership the club dealt away some of its most productive players to get young prospects and draft picks in return.

The decision to build for the future was a smart one and it's probably the best way to get this franchise back into the postseason. However, this year should be tough to watch as the Coyotes wait for the draft picks and younger players to pay dividends.

The Coyotes are basically coming into this year as an expansion franchise and Gretzky and his team must be willing to take their lumps now while keeping the promise of future success on their minds.

FORWARDS - The best returning player for the Coyotes and the captain of their team is right winger Shane Doan.

Doan is a well-rounded player who combines a rough style of play with a decent amount of offensive skill. He is also a strong two-way player who can lead with both his words and actions.

Last year, Doan was the leading scorer for Phoenix as he notched 55 points on 27 goals and 28 assists.

After Doan, there is a big drop-off in terms of offensive production from returning players. Steve Reinprecht played in just 49 games last year after suffering a broken collarbone, but still posted nine goals and 24 assists. Reinprecht, a 31-year-old center, will be a boost for the club if he can stay on the ice this season.

Phoenix did pick up some scoring depth in the offseason when they traded for winger Radim Vrbata. The 26-year-old Czech played n 77 games with the Blackhawks last season and punched in 14 goals and 27 assists.

The Coyotes also signed veteran forward Mike York over the summer and the team hopes the 29-year-old American can rebound from a down season. York had 50- plus points in four of his first six campaigns in the NHL, but was dreadful last year with just 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 66 games with Philadelphia and the New York Islanders.

Gretzky's team did get a pleasant surprise with the play of undrafted winger Bill Thomas last year. Thomas, a 24-year-old from Pittsburgh, PA, played in 24 games with Phoenix last year and recorded 14 points (8g, 6a). Thomas should see more action this year as the Coyotes try to determine what kind of future he may have in the NHL.

Phoenix is also ready to give highly-touted centerman Peter Mueller a shot in the NHL this year. The 19-year-old native of Bloomington, Minnesota was selected by the Coyotes with the eighth overall pick in the 2006 draft and should see a great deal of ice team this season.

Martin Hanzal, 20, is another youngster ready to make the jump to the NHL this year for Phoenix. The 6-5, 208-pound Czech forward was the 17th overall selection in the 2005 draft.

DEFENSE - The Coyotes leader on defense will once again be Ed Jovanovski, a three-time All-Star, who had a disappointing season in 2006-07.

Jovanovski signed with Phoenix last summer after spending the previous seven years in Vancouver. The 31-year-old battled injuries for a sizeable portion of his first season in the desert and wound up playing in just 54 contests. However, "Jovo" did produce when he was in the lineup as he notched 11 goals and 18 assists.

The next two defensemen on the Coyotes depth chart also missed considerable time due to injury last year. Keith Ballard played in 69 games while Nick Boynton managed to see action in just 59 contests. Ballard was productive when he was on the ice with five goals and 22 assists, but Boynton struggled even when healthy and finished the year with just 11 points (2g, 9a).

The Coyotes could have a decent blue line if Jovanovski, Ballard and Boynton manage to stay healthy in 2007-08.

Phoenix also has an up-and-coming defenseman in 24-year-old Zbynek Michalek. The Czech native played in all 82 games for the Coyotes in each of the past two seasons and has shown solid offensive skills from the blue line. Last year, Michalek chipped in with four goals and 24 assists.

Also, expected to see increased minutes this season is 24-year-old Matt Jones. The American moved up and down from Phoenix's AHL affiliate in San Antonio all season, but wound up playing in more games (45) with the big club. Jones, who had one goal and six assists with the Coyotes last year, is billed as a smart player with a solid, all-around game.

GOALTENDING - Poor play between the pipes was a big problem for the Coyotes last year and the situation doesn't seem like it's been fixed heading into the 2007-08 campaign.

Curtis Joseph was the main option for the Coyotes last year, but the 40-year- old was not re-signed.

The No. 1 goaltender for Phoenix this year is expected to be David Aebischer, but backup netminder Mikael Tellqvist could easily supplant him for the top spot.

The 29-year-old Aebischer played in 32 games (27 starts) with the Canadiens last season and was 13-12-3 with a .900 save percentage and lofty 3.17 goals against average. The goaltender who once was expected to replace the legendary Patrick Roy in Colorado will now be playing for this third team in less than two seasons.

Tellqvist was acquired in a trade with Toronto in November of last season and played in 30 of his 31 games with the Coyotes. The 28-year-old Swede posted a 11-12-3 record in 2006-07 and also sported poor numbers in save percentage (.885) and GAA (3.35).

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
- The Coyotes are not expected to compete for the playoffs this year and that could be a good situation for the younger players. Gretzky and some of Phoenix's veteran players will get to play the role of teacher to the youngsters as the franchise goes through the rebuilding process. The Coyotes are a prime candidate to finish last in the West this season, but that could change if the young players make a quicker adjustment to the NHL than expected.

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