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NHL Previews

Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 Pittsburgh Penguins Preview

(Sports Network) - It seems almost a foregone conclusion in hockey circles that the Pittsburgh Penguins will someday turn their young nucleus into a Stanley Cup championship. However, there is some debate as to when the Pens will make that jump.

The Penguins youngsters are, of course, led by phenom Sidney Crosby, who at the age of 20 has already won a scoring title (Art Ross Trophy) and both the NHL's MVP Awards (Hart Trophy & Lester B. Pearson Award).

In his sophomore campaign of 2006-07, Crosby also led Pittsburgh to its first playoff berth since 2001. Unfortunately, Sid the Kid's first trip to the postseason was short-lived as the Penguins were knocked out in the first round by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa Senators.

An opening-round exit after posting 105 points in the regular season is a disappointment, but it should be easier for the franchise to swallow considering their superstar player won't be able to legally purchase alcohol until August of 2008.

This is an exciting time for the Penguins franchise and their fans, especially now that the club is staying in the Steel City after securing a deal for a new stadium.

The Penguins could conceivably make a run at the Cup this season, but with Crosby around for the long haul there is no need to panic if this isn't the year.

FORWARDS - The rise of Crosby as the NHL's best player happened sooner than expected, and that's surprising considering the Nova Scotian was widely regarded as the savior of hockey when he was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft.

Crosby is the youngest player ever to win an NHL scoring title and the Pearson Award and the second-youngest person to be named MVP of the league. Wayne Gretzky was five months younger than Crosby when he won his first of nine Hart Trophies in 1980.

Crosby has posted over 100 points in each of his first two seasons in the league and recorded 36 goals and 84 helpers last year. The youngster is a wizard with the puck and is patently unselfish as he often chooses to dish off in situations where other players his age would certainly go for the goal themselves.

As if having Crosby wasn't enough, the Penguins can also boast the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Malkin, a 21-year-old Russian, won the Calder Trophy last year as the league's top rookie following a season in which he had 33 goals and added 52 assists. Staal, who is only 19 years of age, also displayed a natural scoring touch in his rookie season by notching 29 goals and 42 points.

The combination of skill and youth possessed by the three players mentioned above is a big reason why the Penguins are considered to be a strong contender to win a Stanley Cup someday in the near future.

On the other side of the coin, the Penguins also brought back a pair of cagey veteran forwards for another season as they re-signed Mark Recchi, 39, and Gary Roberts, 41.

Recchi will enter the third season of his second stint with Pittsburgh and still seems to have quite a bit left in the tank. Last year, Recchi played in all 82 games and finished with 68 points (24 goals, 44 assists). Roberts came over in a trade with Florida before the deadline and notched 20 goals and 22 helpers in 69 total games.

The Penguins also signed veteran Petr Sykora over the summer after the 30- year-old Czech recorded 53 points (22g, 31a) in 82 games with Edmonton last season.

DEFENSE - Pittsburgh's defensive corps is certainly not as strong as the team's stable of forwards, but the unit should be solid enough to allow Crosby and the rest of the boys to outscore the opposition.

Last season, the Pens were third in the NHL with 267 goals scored and 14th in the league with 240 markers allowed.

The Penguins top defensive player last season was Ryan Whitney, who at 24 years old is still developing as a defenseman. Whitney seemed to have the offensive side of his position down last season as he racked up 59 points (14g, 45a) in 81 games.

Whitney is entering just his third year in the league and is still prone to mental mistakes, but his all-around skill could make him a Norris Trophy candidate one day.

The Penguins have another offensive weapon at the blueline in veteran power- play quarterback Sergei Gonchar. The 33-year-old Russian led all Pittsburgh defensemen with 67 points (13g, 54a) last year.

Pittsburgh added a veteran defenseman over the summer when they signed 35- year-old Darryl Sydor. The 15-year NHL vet spent last season in Dallas and posted five goals and 16 helpers. Sydor has won a pair of Stanley Cup titles, as he reached the pinnacle with Dallas in 1999 and returned to the mountain in 2004 with Tampa Bay.

Brooks Orpik is not the scoring threat that Whitney or Gonchar are, but the 26-year-old does bring a very important physical presence to the Pittsburgh defense. At 6-2, 228 pounds, Orpik is a solid defensive defenseman who loves to dish out checks,

GOALTENDING - Marc-Andre Fleury was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft and was able to show why last season.

The 22-year-old Fleury struggled a bit in his first two years in the league, but turned the corner with a strong 2006-07 campaign. The Quebec native played in 67 games last year and was 40-16-9 with a .906 save percentage and 2.83 goals against average.

However, the young backstop failed to rise to the occasion in his first postseason appearance, as he went 1-4 with an .880 save percentage and 3.76 GAA in the series against Ottawa. Still, that was to be expected considering Fleury is still very young to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

Ty Conklin and Dany Sabourin will battle each other for the role of Fleury's backup. Conklin, 31, has played in more AHL games (99) than NHL contests (76), while the 27-year-old Sabourin has seen action in just 14 NHL tilts.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Penguins will likely battle the New York Rangers for the Atlantic Division title this season and could possibly earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference. There is also a chance that Pittsburgh could take a serious run at the Stanley Cup in 2007-08, but it seems more likely that the Steel City will have to wait at least a year or two before that dream can become a reality. On the other hand, a second straight early exit from the playoffs could have head coach Michel Therrien looking for another job.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 San Jose Sharks Preview

(Sports Network) - The San Jose Sharks franchise is now at the stage where making the playoffs and winning one series should not be considered a successful season.

The Sharks came into the league as an expansion team in the 1991-92 season and have made the postseason in 10 of their 15 NHL campaigns. The club reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in 2004, but has been ousted in the conference semis in two playoff trips since then.

Last year, San Jose had 107 points in the regular season and was the fifth seed in the West. The Sharks beat Nashville in the opening round before getting knocked out by Detroit in six games.

The arrival of centerman Joe Thornton in San Jose is what really has raised expectations for the Sharks in the last two seasons. Thornton came over in a trade with Boston during the 2005-06 season and the Sharks have posted a 87-40-12 mark since that deal.

Thornton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, has already won an Art Ross and Hart Trophy in his brief stay in San Jose and has helped turn the team into an offensive juggernaut.

The problem for the Sharks is that the club has been one and done in the postseason with Thornton. The goal this year will be to keep up the same level of play during the regular season and somehow carry the momentum into the postseason.

FORWARDS - It's no secret that the Sharks key to success lies in the play of Thornton, the team's playmaking specialist.

Thornton has recorded an astounding 206 points (42 goals, 164 assists) in 140 games since joining the Sharks and has a knack for making everybody he plays with better. The 28-year-old London, Ontario native has recorded 90-plus assists in each of the last two seasons, making him just the third player after Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to reach the 90-assist mark in consecutive campaigns.

Thornton leads the way with his ability to find open teammates and right wing Jonathan Cheechoo is the team's best finisher. Cheechoo has been the beneficiary of many well-timed passes since Thornton's arrival and has led the Sharks in goals scored in each of the last three seasons.

Cheechoo notched 28 goals in 2003-04 without Thornton and then led the league in goals with 56 in 2005-06. Last year, the 27-year-old dropped a bit off the previous season's pace as he recorded 37 markers.

While Thornton is the team's primary offensive weapon, team captain Patrick Marleau is a heck of a second option at the center position. The second overall pick of the 1997 draft has excellent speed and offensive ability, and has the highest two point totals of his career in the last two seasons.

After recording a career-high 86 points in 2005-06, Marleau came back with another strong season last year as he notched 32 goals and 46 assists for a 78-point campaign. The 28-year-old was criticized for his lack of production in the season-ending series against the Red Wings, who held Marleau pointless in six games.

Also turning in a solid season for the Sharks in 2006-07 was Milan Michalek, who showed why San Jose selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2003 draft. The 22-year-old had a breakout year in his second full season in the NHL, posting 26 goals and 40 assists.

The Sharks added some veteran depth late in the offseason when they signed 37- year-old centerman Jeremy Roenick. The American has seen his production tail off significantly since the lockout, but is just five goals away from 500 for his career. Last year, Roenick played in 70 games with Phoenix and recorded just 28 points (11g, 17a).

San Jose would also like to see continued progress from its young forwards, especially Steve Bernier and Joe Pavelski, who turned in solid seasons in 2006-07.

The 22-year-old Bernier, a first-round pick in 2003, is a potential power forward in the NHL and pitched in 15 goals and 16 helpers in 62 games last year. The 6-2, 230-pound native of Quebec City is expected to see increased ice time in 2007-08.

Pavelski, meanwhile, has been a surprise for the Sharks since being selected in the seventh round of the 2003 draft. The 23-year-old from Plover, Wisconsin is undersized at 5-11, 194 pounds, but used, among other skills, his excellent hockey sense to record 28 points (14g, 14a) in 46 games.

DEFENSE - The Sharks defense has a great deal of potential, but the blue line lost one of its unsung heroes over the offseason.

Scott Hannan had played his entire eight-year career in San Jose and had become one of the club's most reliable defenseman. However, the Sharks were unable to keep Hannan in town as the 28-year-old opted to sign with the Colorado Avalanche.

Now that Hannan's gone the Sharks will turn to veterans Craig Rivet and Kyle McClaren to pick up the slack.

Rivet came over from Montreal before last season's trade deadline and the Sharks were so impressed with the 33-year-old that they decided to sign him to a four-year deal over the summer. He played in 71 total games with San Jose and the Canadiens in 2006-07 and notched seven goals and 17 assists in 71 games.

McClaren has been with San Jose since the 2002-03 season and his hard-hitting style of play has added toughness to the defensive corps. The 30-year-old is not known for his offensive ability, but managed to chip in five goals and 12 helpers in 67 contests last year.

After Rivet and McClaren, the Sharks rely mainly on young defensemen to get the job done.

Matthew Carle, 22, has shown the offensive skills necessary to be a power-play quarterback and had a superb rookie season last year. Carle played in 77 games a year ago and led all San Jose defensemen with 42 points (11g, 31a).

Christian Ehrhoff, a 25-year-old German, has also shown some offensive flair from the blue lime as he posted 10 goals and 23 assists while playing in all 82 games for the Sharks last year.

The Sharks are also very high on 20-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who made the jump from juniors last year and played very well in 81 games. Vlasic had 26 points (3g, 23a) and sported an impressive plus-13 rating.

All three of the young defensemen struggled in the 2007 playoffs, but San Jose should be happy with the amount of rising talent it has on the blue line.

GOALTENDING - For a few years there it seemed as if the Sharks weren't sure who they were going to pick as their No. 1 goaltender.

The combination of Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala gave San Jose one of the best 1-2 goaltending duos in the league, but the Sharks couldn't hold onto both players for ever. In the end, the Sharks opted to stay with the more proven Nabokov and traded Toskala to Toronto this offseason.

Nabokov had another strong season between the pipes last year, as he went 25-16-4 with a .914 save percentage and 2.29 goals against average. The 32- year-old played in only 50 games during the regular season in 2006-07, and will likely have to see more action with Toskala gone.

The Sharks will let rookies Thomas Greiss and Dimitri Patzold battle it out for the backup job. Neither player has ever seen action in an NHL game, but Patzold may have the inside track because he has three years on the 21-year- old Greiss. Patzold is from Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, which is also the hometown of Nabokov.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Sharks will be in the race for the Pacific Division title all year, as they battle primary rivals Anaheim and Dallas for the crown. A higher seed in the postseason could help head coach Ron Wilson get the Sharks over the hump, but the team also has to show a greater intensity in big games. Finding the right combination of players on the top two lines could help maximize Thornton's playmaking ability. San Jose needs a strong showing in this year's postseason or changes will be made, and that usually means firing a coach. Wilson survived the chopping block last year, but will be on a short leash this season.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 St. Louis Blues Preview

(Sports Network) - The St. Louis Blues are a team that headed into the lockout as a perennial playoff participant and came out as a basement dweller on the other side.

The good news is that St. Louis is beginning to claw its way back.

The Blues made the postseason every single year from 1980-2004, but in 2005-06, the first year following the lockout, the team posted just 57 points and was the worst team in the NHL.

Last season, the Blues seemed to be headed to another dismal campaign as they started the year with a 7-17-4 record, but that's when the team made an important decision in firing Mike Kitchen. Andy Murray took over the reins and led the team to a 27-18-9 mark the rest of the way and even had St. Louis in the playoff race.

St. Louis finished 10th in the Western Conference in 2006-07 and was 15 points behind the final postseason berth. That may not qualify as an exciting season, but the Blues should have some added confidence heading into this year.

FORWARDS - The Blues made a few moves this summer to try and get the team closer to reclaiming a spot in the playoffs, but none was bigger than the signing of veteran left wing Paul Kariya.

Kariya had spent the last two seasons in Nashville and performed well in the Music City. The speedster played in all 82 games in each of the last two years and scored 85 and 76 points, respectively. The 12-year NHL veteran has played in seven All-Star Games and has recorded 866 points in 821 career contests.

The Blues also inked power forward Keith Tkachuk over the summer, ending the centerman's brief absence from the Gateway City. Tkachuk had been with St. Louis since coming over in a trade with Phoenix during the 2000-01 campaign. He was then traded to Atlanta before last season's deadline only to return to the Blues over the summer in another trade.

The 35-year-old Tkachuk played in a combined 79 games with Atlanta and the Blues last year and recorded 27 goals and 31 assists. The American sniper is just 17 goals away from reaching the 500 mark for his career.

St. Louis will also have playmaking centerman Doug Weight back in the fold this season. Weight was traded from St. Louis to Carolina in the middle of the 2005-06 campaign and helped the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup that year. The 36-year-old Weight re-signed with the Blues before the 2006-07 campaign and turned in a solid season as he posted 59 points (16 goals, 43 assists) while playing in all 82 games.

St. Louis will also expect Lee Stempniak to take another step forward in his progress after his solid sophomore season in 2006-07. The 24-year-old right wing played in all 82 games last year and notched career highs in goals (27) and assists (25).

Martin Rucinsky would like to have a rebound season in 2007-08 after hip surgery ended his campaign early a year ago. The veteran winger posted 12 goals and 21 assists in 52 games before undergoing the medical procedure in February.

DEFENSE - The strength of the Blues this season should be the club's defensive corps, which has a solid mix of veteran and young players.

Of course, all eyes will be on 19-year-old Erik Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Johnson was a freshman at the University of Minnesota in his native state a year ago, but is expected to get thrown into the fire this season with the Blues.

At 6-4, 220 pounds, Johnson has been compared to Norris Trophy winner and former Blue Chris Pronger, a player who dominates games with his physical presence and offensive ability.

Johnson will not be called upon to do too much in his rookie season, as the Blues have enough solid defenseman to help the youngster ease into his NHL career.

Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman are two of the best defensemen for the Blues and the team expects big things from both players this season.

Brewer, 28, was acquired in the trade that sent Pronger to Edmonton prior to the 2005-06 campaign and was a disappointment in his first year with the Blues, as he played in just 32 games while dealing with a dislocated shoulder. However, Brewer bounced back last season and notched six goals and 23 assists while playing in all 82 games.

The 26-year-old Jackman, who was named the league's top rookie in 2002-03, is primarily known as a defensive defenseman, but had his best offensive season last year. The native of British Columbia set a career-high in points with 27 (3g, 24a) in 2006-07 and the Blues hope he can keep that pace going this year.

A healthy Jay McKee would also be a big boost for St. Louis this season after the veteran blueliner played in just 23 games last season. McKee signed with the Blues as a free agent before the 2006-07 campaign after spending his first 10 years in the league with Buffalo. A hip injury ended his season early last year, but the Blues are counting on him to display the defensive ability that made him a mainstay with the Sabres.

GOALTENDING - The injury bug also bit the Blues at goaltender last season, as No. 1 netminder Manny Legace had his season cut short due to arthroscopic knee surgery.

Legace played well when healthy last year, posting a 23-15-5 record, .907 save percentage and 2.59 goals against average. This will be the 34-year-old backstop's second season in St. Louis after he signed as a free agent before the 2006-07 campaign.

The Blues will use Hannu Toivonen as a backup for Legace this season after acquiring the goaltender from Boston in a trade over the summer. Toivonen, 23, was a former first-round pick of the Bruins in 2002, but struggled in 38 career games with Boston.

The Finnish backstop has a career record of 12-14-5 to go with a 3.33 GAA and ,896 save percentage.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Blues could definitely make a run at the postseason this year, although it seems that the club is still a few years away from returning to its pre-lockout form. However, if Murray can keep the team playing with the intensity that his hiring brought in the middle of last year, then St. Louis could sneak into one of the last few postseason slots in the West. The rebuilding process is still ongoing in St. Louis, but it appears that the Blues are almost back.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 Vancouver Canucks Preview

(Sports Network) - In many ways 2006-07 was the best regular season in the history of the Vancouver Canucks organization, but without a Stanley Cup championship to its credit, the team still has plenty left to accomplish.

The Canucks traded for Roberto Luongo prior to last season and the goaltender paid dividends right away. Vancouver won the Northwest Division crown and set club records for wins (49) and points in a season (105).

Head coach Alain Vigneault won the Jack Adams Trophy as the league's best coach in his first year with the Canucks, but he couldn't get his team past the second round of the playoffs.

Vancouver rode the play of Luongo in the opening round of the playoffs and the Canucks were able to outlast Dallas in seven games. Vigneault's squad then ran into Anaheim, the eventual Stanley Cup champs, in the second round and the Ducks breezed by the Canucks in five games.

If the Canucks expect to improve in 2007-08, their offense must give Luongo more help than it did a year ago. Vancouver finished 21st in the NHL with just 217 goals during the regular season and then scored just 21 times in 12 postseason contests.

- As was stated above, the Canucks had a hard time scoring last season and the team wasn't able to make any significant addition this offseason to help solve the problem.

The main issue for Vancouver on offense is that the team has no depth to speak of at the forward position. The club's top-line of twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Taylor Pyatt combined for 69 goals last season, or roughly 32-percent of Vancouver's 217 tallies.

The Sedin brothers will be 27 years old by the time the 2007-08 season gets underway and are both coming off career years. The Swedish twins have improved their point total in every season since 2003-04 and it finally seems that selecting the duo with the second and third overall picks in the 1999 draft was the right decision.

Daniel Sedin plays left wing and led Vancouver in goals (36) and points (84) last season. Henrik is a playmaking centerman who recorded 10 goals and 71 assists in 2006-07. Both Sedins are also solid all-around players who can also help out in the defensive zone.

The 26-year-old Pyatt had a solid season a year ago as he put up a career-high 37 points (23 goals, 14 assists).

Another reason for Vancouver's offensive struggles is the steady decline of right wing Markus Naslund. The 34-year-old Swede won the Lester B. Pearson Award (MVP selected by the NHLPA) after scoring a career-high 104 points in 2002-03, but has seen his production drop off with every passing year.

Naslund played in all 82 games last year, but scored just 60 points (24g, 36a) for his lowest total since notching just 34 points during the 1997-98 campaign. The decline could be a result of losing former linemate and current Anaheim winger Todd Bertuzzi, who was traded to Florida in the deal that brought Luongo to the Canucks.

A return to form for Naslund this year would be a huge boost for the anemic Vancouver offense.

Centerman Brendan Morrison, Naslund's linemate, also had a down season a year ago, as he scored just 51 points (20g, 31a). Morrison is an extremely durable player who is the NHL's active leader with 512 consecutive games played in the regular season.

The Canucks made a minor move to acquire some scoring depth over the summer when they signed veteran winger Brad Isbister. The 30-year-old began last year with the Carolina organization, but was traded to the New York Rangers in November. Isbister spent most of the year playing at the AHL level and had just one goal and five assists in 19 games with the Rangers. The Edmonton, Alberta native does have 100 goals in his NHL career.

Vancouver is also excited about the addition of Ryan Shannon, who was acquired in a trade with Anaheim this past summer. The 24-year-old is undersized at 5-9, 178 pounds, but makes up for that with his speed and agility. Shannon had just 11 points (2g, 9a) in 53 games with the Ducks last year, but that was with limited playing time. The Darien, Connecticut native should see his minutes increase dramatically for the punchless Vancouver offense.

DEFENSE - While Vancouver lacks depth at the forward position, the defense has a handful of talented blueliners.

Leading the way for the Canucks on defense is Mattias Ohlund, an underrated player with a solid all-around game. Ohlund, who was a first-round pick by Vancouver in 1994, is entering his 10th season with the Canucks. Last year, the 31-year-old Swede notched 11 goals and 20 assists while playing in 77 contests.

Sami Salo, a 33-year-old from Turku, Finland, is also at the top of the defensive rotation for the Canucks. He suffered through a multitude of injuries in 2006-07, but still wound up with 37 points (14g, 23a) in 67 games. Salo also led Vancouver with a plus-21 rating.

Willie Mitchell is a steady defensive defenseman for Vancouver, but also battled injuries last year and wound up playing in just 62 games. The 30-year- old is capable of unleashing a heavy shot from the point, but had just one goal and 10 assists last season.

Rounding out the top four on defense for Vancouver is rising star Kevin Bieksa, who contributes on both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice. Bieksa, 26, was the top-scoring defensemen for the Canucks last year, notching 42 points (12g, 30a) in 81 games.

The Canucks added some additional experience and size to their blue line with the offseason signing of Aaron Miller. The 36-year-old native of Buffalo, New York sticks to the defensive side of the game and has just 110 points in 620 NHL games.

GOALTENDING - Luongo proved to be everything the Canucks hoped he'd be when they acquired the standout goaltender from the Panthers in a blockbuster trade in the summer of '06.

Luongo was a one-man show between the pipes in 2006-07, as he played in 76 games and dazzled with a 47-22-6 record, .921 save percentage, 2.28 goals against average and five shutouts.

The 6-3, 200-pound Montreal native is very consistent and allowed more than three goals on just 12 occasions during last year's regular season. With steady play like that even the sluggish Vancouver offense can find a way to win.

Luongo had never played in the playoffs prior to last year and there was some concern as to how the 28-year-old would respond to the pressure of the NHL's second season. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist put those fears to rest by posting a sparkling 1.77 GAA and lofty .941 save percentage in 12 postseason games. It was a shame that Luongo left the playoffs with a 5-7 record.

Dany Sabourin, Luongo's lightly-used back-up from last year, has moved on to Pittsburgh and Curtis Sanford will take his place this year. Sanford saw action in 31 games with St. Louis in 2006-07 and was 8-12-5 with a 3.18 GAA and .888 save percentage.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Canucks set the bar high with last year's record regular season and the team will likely have to reach the Western Conference finals to stay ahead of the fans' expectations this season. The club has made two Stanley Cup finals (1982, 1994), but has yet to claim the silver trophy as its own. A run at the Cup is not likely this season, unless the Canucks can vastly improve on offense. Still, Vancouver has an excellent shot at winning its second consecutive Northwest title, and once in the playoffs, Luongo could conceivably carry this team as far as it wants to go.

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2007-08 Toronto Maple Leafs Preview

(Sports Network) - Toronto stayed in contention right down to the wire last year, before its postseason aspirations were hopelessly altered. The Maple Leafs missed out on the eighth and final spot in the East by just one point and failed to make the playoffs for a second straight season.

A bitter pill to swallow was made worse knowing that injuries to the team's veteran nucleus in all likelihood prevented a serious run at Lord Stanley's Cup. Michael Peca, who was brought in to provide defensive stability, skated in just 35 games due to a fractured tibia. Darcy Tucker missed more than three weeks with a foot injury and goaltender Andrew Raycroft missed 33 games while nursing a sports hernia.

The club then went into the offseason and quickly came under fire for its decision to bring back the bulk of its aging lineup, including 36-year-old captain Mats Sundin, who enters the 2007-08 campaign ranked second in Maple Leafs' all-time goals, second in points, and third in assists.

The longest-tenured player on the team, Sundin needs just one goal to tie Darryl Sittler for the all-time franchise mark in goals, and seven points to match Sittler for first place in points.

But, general manager John Ferguson also had a wish list for the summer that included another top-line forward. He got it in eight-year veteran Jason Blake, who inked a five-year, $20 million contract with Toronto on July 1 after coming off a 40-goal season with the New York Islanders.

The Maple Leafs also upgraded between the pipes with the signing of Vesa Toskala, who was obtained in a trade from San Jose on June 22 along with forward Mark Bell.

Those acquisitions may be pivotal for special teams, which ranked 27th on the penalty kill and 15th on the power play last season.

FORWARDS - Blake may hold the key to the resurrection of Sundin, whose 27 goals last year were his fewest in a full season since 1990-91.

Both players will bolster the first line, while other candidates to join them include Kyle Wellwood, Tucker, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov.

Youngster Alexander Steen (15 goals, 20 assists last season) has been a pleasant surprise for the Leafs, who will also look for increased production out of Matt Stajan (10g, 29a).

Also factoring in the mix are Bates Battaglia, Boyd Devereaux, John Pohl and Chad Kilger. The latter three could form a formidable fourth line, though Pohl could be upgraded after chalking up 13 goals and 16 assists in his first full NHL season.

The upcoming season, however, is now up in the air for Bell, who has been handed a 15-game suspension without pay due to his off-ice misconduct while playing in San Jose. He has also been placed in the league's substance abuse program.

Bell pleaded no contest in August to hit-and-run charges and drunken driving, both stemming from an incident in California last September. The 27-year-old is also facing a six-month jail term next summer after the end of the season and may be more of a hindrance than a help to a Toronto club wanting to focus its attention on getting back to the playoffs.

DEFENSE - Toronto is safe with the heart and soul defensive tandem of Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle.

McCabe chipped in with 15 goals and 40 assists last season, while throwing his weight around with hard body checks that gave him the ability to intimidate even the smoothest of puck handlers. Kaberle, meanwhile, paved the way for all defensemen with 11 tallies and 47 helpers.

Also returning is Pavel Kubina, who will serve to guide Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White as they build on experience and earn more playing time this season.

Hal Gill, still the team's best penalty killer, will continue to provide a veteran presence behind the blueline.

GOALTENDING - Toskala and Raycroft will battle for the starting job, though Toskala is believed to have the inside track after Toronto gave up first and second-round draft picks to put him in a Maple Leafs sweater.

The 30-year-old Toskala went 26-10-1 with a 2.35 goals against average and a .908 save percentage in 2006. Raycroft finished 37-25-9 with a 2.99 GAA and a .894 save percentage.

The club also inked free-agent Scott Clemmensen, who made just six appearances last season as Martin Brodeur's understudy in New Jersey. Though he won't see much playing time in Toronto, a solid performance by Clemmensen could make Raycroft tempting trade bait.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Maple Leafs are building to win now, rather than later. They proved that when signing Sundin to a one-year, $5.5 million contract in July which included a no-trade clause.

But in counting Sundin, at least 13 players on the roster will be 30 years of age or older before the conclusion of the 2007-08 season.

That leaves little wiggle room for Ferguson and Paul Maurice, who took over last season as one of the most highly regarded head coaches in the game but is challenged by a Leafs dressing room that may not have the chemistry to make things happen.

Will the roster shake-up and guidance of Maurice be enough to help Toronto battle its formidable Eastern Conference foes? That remains to be seen, especially since the Philadelphia Flyers nabbed free-agent Daniel Briere and the New York Rangers signed away Scott Gomez from New Jersey and Chris Drury from Buffalo.

Unfortunately, Blake and company are not going to be skilled enough to get the Maple Leafs over the hump. They might make the playoffs, but expect Toronto's 30-year championship drought to continue because of other teams already chock full of talent and potential.

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2007-08 New York Islanders Preview

(Sports Network) - To put it nicely, there are more stable franchises in professional sports than the New York Islanders.

When Charles Wang purchased the franchise along with business partner Sanjay Kumar in 2000, there was a renewed sense of security and hope among Islander fans after a period of ownership turmoil. Wang's other business interests brought deep pockets to a team that lacked a hefty payroll, but joy quickly turned to dismay when Wang failed to issue a cease-and-desist order to the one man that most of Islander Nation desperately despised: Mike Milbury.

Wang's loyalty to the longtime general manager/head coach led to the most current chapter of chaos in Uniondale when Milbury fired former head coach Peter Laviolette. The Islanders, after nearly a decade in the Atlantic Division basement, began to rise again in 2001 with a core of good young players and an accompanying young coach who strengthened the locker room. In both of his two -- and only -- seasons as head coach, Laviolette led the Isles to the playoffs following the club's seven-year absence from the postseason, but was canned unexpectedly in early June of 2003 after "Mad Mike" had picked up his option for the 2003-04 season in December of '02.

For a franchise that was once temporarily purchased through fraudulent bank wire transactions, this was one more head-scratching move in a long line of them that made little sense. But in a sports market such as New York, in which patience doesn't exist, Milbury decided that a pair of first-round losses was not good enough and opted to promote Steve Stirling from the farm club. The result? Not good.

After Stirling and subsequent temporary replacement Brad Shaw failed to do much of anything, the front office deemed a change was necessary. The only problem was that the front office itself was in disarray. After Wang finally decided that Milbury's time as GM was over (although he still remained with the organization in an administrative capacity until six months ago), he hired Ted Nolan as the new head coach -- the club nearly hired Nolan originally prior to Laviolette -- and brought in veteran New York hockey executive Neil Smith as his new general manager. Less than six weeks later, Smith was fired and Garth Snow became part of a multi-pronged decision making team that included former Islander great Pat LaFontaine. Shortly thereafter, Snow had the office all to himself when the brass dream team dissolved.

The first year of the Nolan/Snow era was a mild success, as the team made it into the postseason as the eighth seed in the East, but was promptly knocked out in five games by Buffalo.

So why the history lesson and what is its association with the 2007-08 Islanders? As with any franchise in any sport, success begins at the top. It doesn't matter which free agents are brought in, which goalie is signed through the next four decades, or which power-play unit gets more playing time. The on-ice issues don't matter because until this team can stabilize itself at the executive level, it will never make forward progress. Is Snow capable of transitioning this club into a Cup contender?

Possibly. Time will tell...if in fact he receives said time.

FORWARDS - Much of the confusion in the front office led to a shaky offseason in which Snow did not re-sign key players, but managed to end Milbury's Alexei Yashin debacle. Yashin was bought out and the final four seasons of his contract were voided. The departure of 40-goal scorer Jason Blake was a significant loss as was gritty, seasonal rental Ryan Smyth and streaky sniper Richard Zednik, but the offensive cupboard is not completely bare. Not completely.

There are several legitimate scorers up front, and the production will start with Miroslav Satan. Entering his third (and contract) year with the Islanders, Satan has averaged 30-plus goals over the last five seasons but saw his total dip from 35 in 2005-06 to 27. Satan is very durable -- he has missed only nine regular-season games since the 1997-98 campaign -- and will once again serve as the anchor on right side of the top line.

Also manning the right wing is new team captain Bill Guerin, who signed a two- year deal as a free agent in July and has been one of the better power forwards in the NHL for a decade. The Islander sweater will be the seventh different one that the 36-year-old has worn over the course of his strong career. Guerin is always a force in the offensive corners and will bolster an already strong power-play unit that finished 12th in the NHL overall last season. Following a 36-goal 2006-07 season that was split between St. Louis (61 games) and San Jose (eight goals in 16 games), Guerin now returns to the division in which he started his career.

In addition to Guerin, another native of Massachusetts on this roster is also one of the most popular in the form of Shawn Bates. A classic blue-collar grinder who skated and hustled his way into a full-time gig on Long Island over the past five seasons, Bates, now 32, missed the second half of last season with an injured groin. A stalwart on the New York penalty killing unit, Bates is currently in training camp and appears to be fully recovered. Expect a typical 15-goal, gritty season from Bates, who is slated for his usual spot on the third line.

To replace Smyth, Zednik and Viktor Kozlov, the Islanders brought in Mike Comrie and underrated left wing Ruslan Fedotenko. Comrie is a very talented 27-year-old forward who could be a perennial All-Star if he could straighten out the mental aspect of his game. That's precisely why Snow signed Comrie for one year; a full season without any off-ice charades will likely keep Comrie in Uniondale for an extended stay. In 2005-06 with Phoenix, Comrie netted 30 goals but split last season between the Coyotes and Ottawa and never settled in for a consistent stretch. The talent is there for a return to 30-goal status, especially if Nolan can find the right pair of skaters to surround the aggressive second-line center/winger.

Fedotenko started his career with Philadelphia, but flourished while with Tampa Bay, the team with which he was a key cog during the Lightning's run to the Cup in 2004. Fedotenko is known for having a knack for the puck and is always in the right place at the right time. He is not the most aggressive player on the boards, but rather finds his home in the slot and inside the circles where his wrist shot can be best utilized. Although a substantial goal production drop from 26 in 2005-06 to 12 last season is a bit of an enigma for the 28-year-old, a fresh start should be a positive. Expect at least 20 goals.

Journeyman center Mike Sillinger provides stability for Nolan despite the fact that he has played for more than 10 teams throughout his career. Sillinger scored 26 goals in a full 82 games last season for the Isles and could end up centering the top line. On a roster that includes many new faces, Sillinger will need to be the backbone of the locker room and a liaison to Nolan for any off-ice issues.

Offseason acquisitions Jon Sim and Josef Vasicek will provide decent scoring depth from the middle lines while speedy Jeff Tambellini, who has had a strong training camp, and former top draft pick Sean Bergenheim will look for breakout campaigns. Andy Hilbert, and Trent Hunter will also provide depth. Enforcer Chris Simon will begin the season serving a suspension for a brutal incident that involved Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg last season.

DEFENSE - Brendan Witt and Radek Martinek must anchor a very shaky defense, which lost Tom Poti and Sean Hill.

Witt is the most experienced blueliner on the roster and enjoyed a solid -- and physical -- first season with New York last year. Despite the one goal he scored in 81 games, Witt's production is measured with his excellent ability to distract and annoy the top center from the opposing team. Witt is vocal in the locker room and a favorite of Nolan but this prototypical defensive defenseman needs to stay out of the penalty box -- his expected 26-plus minutes per game is much more needed on the ice than in the sin bin.

Martinek tallied 17 offensive points last season, but posted a team-best plus-19 rating and will be relied upon to help quarterback one of the power- play units. The 31-year-old has found a nice home on Long Island and is always strong with the first breakout pass from the defensive zone. Never one to shy away from a one-timer from the center point, Martinek will most likely continue his steady play although his endurance over the past few years has come into question.

Marc-Andre Bergeron is a very nice addition and is the main offensive threat from the blue line. Last season Bergeron was acquired by New York from Edmonton and scored six goals in 23 games. In his last full season with the Oilers, Bergeron, 26, posted 15 goals and 35 points. His name is currently tossed around more and more when discussions arise about the top offensive defensemen in the NHL. Bergeron will definitely see plenty of time on the power play, but the only question remains whether, at 5-foot-10, he can withstand the grind of his new power-forward heavy division. Snow must realize that this is a chip that must be kept for the long-term future.

The remainder of the corps is fairly thin, but one of the better trades the Islanders made last season was the acquisition of Freddy Meyer, who came over from the Flyers for Alexei Zhitnik. Meyer began as a Philadelphia project and flourished into an everyday player at this level. In Meyer, a native of New Hampshire, the Islanders have a solid two-way defenseman who, although small in stature, wears his heart on his sleeve and never lacks effort.

The back line will also feature enormous veteran Andy Sutton, who was brought in to clog the crease area, as well as youngsters Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais.

- Rick DiPietro is statistically one of the top goaltenders in the game, but is on the mend from both a concussion and offseason hip surgery. The netminder, who played for the United States in Torino in 2006, started 62 games last season and posted a 32-19-9 record to go along with a strong 2.58 goals-against average and an even stronger .919 save percentage.

There are those in certain hockey circles that believe DiPietro has Hall of Fame caliber talent, but his recovery from the aforementioned concussion -- sustained in March when his head crashed into the knee of Montreal forward Steve Begin -- is critical to any success this team hopes to find now and in the future. In DiPietro's absence during the stretch run, Wade Dubielewicz filled in very admirably and made both Nolan and Snow very comfortable with the backup option if necessary.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Armed with a stud goaltender entering the second year of a lifetime contract and a group of veteran but not entirely elderly forwards, the Islanders are once again on the outside looking in. The real problem for this team resides in its own division; the hated cross-town Rangers are improving every season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have the best core of youngsters since the Edmonton dynasty in the 80s, the Philadelphia Flyers had the best trade deadline-through-free agency transition period in all of hockey and the Devils are still the best team as long as Marty Brodeur calls New Jersey home.

Scoring goals will prove to be a challenge and when offense is the problem, NHL coaches usually turn to grit, superior conditioning and a goaltender-based defensive strategy to offset it. Nolan is one of the most underrated head coaches in the game and will find a way to keep the Islanders competitive, but until the overall talent level improves, anything more than a first-round postseason victory -- at best -- is a stretch.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 Edmonton Oilers Preview

(Sports Network) - For the Edmonton Oilers the 2006-07 season was about as disappointing as it can get.

Edmonton made a surprising run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, where it fell to Carolina in a dramatic Game 7, but, the Oilers saved very little for an encore as they failed to even make the postseason last year. The team managed just 71 points in 2006-07 and finished dead last in the Northwest Division.

Of course, the Oilers did suffer a big loss to their roster in between the Cup finals and the beginning of the following season as superstar defenseman Chris Pronger demanded a trade and was eventually sent to Anaheim. Pronger went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007.

Edmonton also dealt away the heart and soul of its club before last season's trade deadline. The Oilers had tried to sign Ryan Smyth to an extension up until the last minute, but when talks broke down they sent the gritty left wing to the New York Islanders. Smyth, who had been in Edmonton since he was a first-round pick in the 1994 draft, then signed with Colorado in the offseason, ending any speculation that he still might return to his hometown team.

The losses were big not only to the Oilers as a hockey team, but also caused many fans in Edmonton to turn sour on the direction of franchise.

General manager Kevin Lowe scrambled to make the team better in the offseason and landed prized free-agent defenseman Sheldon Souray. The Oilers were also able to score a couple of talented forwards in veteran Geoff Sanderson and rising star Dustin Penner.

Whether or not these offseason deals get Edmonton back into the playoffs remains to be seen. The Oilers will be hard-pressed to excite their fan base, which still remembers vividly how less than two years ago their team was just one win away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

FORWARDS - The Oilers were absolutely dreadful on offense a year ago, as they posted an NHL-low 192 goals or an average of just 2.34 markers per contest.

The loss of Smyth will be noticeable in Edmonton this year, as the team doesn't have a player who battles in front of the net like that longtime Oiler did.

At 6-4, 245 pounds, Penner has the size and strength to be that type of player if he chooses to be. The 24-year-old notched 29 goals and 16 assists as a rookie for the Ducks in 2006-07. Penner also helped out in the playoffs, posting eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 21 postseason tests.

The Ducks wanted desperately to re-sign Penner this offseason, but Edmonton realized Anaheim was struggling with the cap and took advantage. The Oilers overpaid for the budding star by giving him $4.25 million a year for five seasons and the Ducks were unable to match the offer.

As for Geoff Sanderson, the veteran left wing will help the Oilers get a tad bit faster on offense. Sanderson had 11 goals and 18 assists in 58 games with Philadelphia last year, but the 35-year-old is entering his 17th season in the league.

Edmonton's best returning forward is right wing Ales Hemsky, who battled injuries last year but managed to record 53 points (13g, 40a) in 64 games. The 24-year-old playmaker will need to start shooting more to try and make up for the loss of Smyth.

Centermen Shawn Horcoff and Jarret Stoll had solid showings last year, but will have to improve this year if Edmonton wants a shot at the playoffs.

Horcoff, 29, had 51 points (16g, 35a) in 80 games a year ago. The 25-year-old Stoll had 13 goals and 26 assists in 51 contests, but missed the last 30 games of the season after suffering a concussion. A healthy Stoll would be a huge boost for the Oilers this year.

DEFENSE - While the Oilers landed Souray in the offseason, the club will still have a big hole to fill at the blueline due to the departure of former captain Jason Smith.

Edmonton traded Smith and wight wing Joffrey Lupul to Philadelphia in exchange for young defenseman Joni Pitkanen and Sanderson.

The problem is that neither Souray or Pitkanen are the defensive player that Smith was for Edmonton. The newcomers will help give the Oilers a formidable offensive attack from the blueline, but will not even approach the toughness brought to the table by Smith.

Still, let's focus on what Souray and Pitkanen are best at, which is moving the puck up ice and getting involved with the offense.

Souray played in 81 games with Montreal last year and was third among NHL defensemen with 64 points (26g, 38a). The native of Elk Point, Alberta also set an NHL record for defensemen with 19 power-play goals on the year.

Pitkanen was criticized just about every night by the relentless Philadelphia media for his lackadaisical play in his own zone, but the 24-year-old Finn still has loads of talent. He had four goal and 39 assists for the Flyers last year, but was a minus-25 on a team that finished last in the NHL. A change of scenery could do wonders for Pitkanen, who never seemed to adjust to the pressure of playing in Philly.

Steve Staios will attempt to take on more defensive responsibility now that Smith is gone and certainly has the toughness to do so.

The Oilers also signed Dick Tarnstrom in the offseason after the 32-year-old played last year in Switzerland. Tarnstrom, who scored 52 points with Pittsburgh in 2003-04, played in 22 regular-season games with Edmonton in 2005-06 and disappointed with just one goal and three assists.

GOALTENDING - Dwayne Roloson was one of the biggest keys to Edmonton's success in the 2006 playoffs, and the netminder was steady between the pipes for the Oilers last season as well.

Roloson was a workhorse for Edmonton in 2006-07, as he saw action in 68 contests. The Simcoe, Ontario native had a solid .909 save percentage and a 2.75 goals against average, but was just 27-34-6 for a team that was outshot almost on a nightly basis.

However, Roloson will turn 38 years old on October 12 and there is some concern as to how much gas he has left in the tank.

The Oilers were able to upgrade at backup goaltender by signing Mathieu Garon over the summer. Garon played in 32 games last year with Los Angeles and went 13-10-6 with a .907 save percentage and 2.66 GAA.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Oilers will have a tough road to take if they want to make the playoffs this year, as is usually the case for every team in the ultra-competitive Northwest Division. The team added some talent over the summer, but the losses of Pronger, Smyth and Smith since the 2006 playoffs should have instead prompted a rebuilding phase. Expect the Oilers to be more like the 2006-07 club than the team that went to the Cup Finals the year before.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 Florida Panthers Preview

(Sports Network) - The Florida Panthers are on the verge of doing something they haven't done in quite some time, that is, make the playoffs.

The Panthers haven't booked a trip to the NHL's second season since 2000, when the team was led by Pavel Bure. Since then, it's been a long rebuilding process, and one that is now beginning to bear fruit.

Florida finished with 86 points in 2006-07, giving the team its highest point total since recording 98 in its last playoff season. Last year, the Panthers ended just six points away from the eighth and final postseason berth in the East.

Panthers head coach/general manager Jacques Martin made a few moves to improve his club in the offseason, but none was bigger than the trade to get goaltender Tomas Vokoun from Nashville. Vokoun is a former All-Star and should be a definite upgrade over Ed Belfour, who played well for the Panthers as a 41-year-old in 2006-07. However, the new goaltender won't make Florida forget the fact that management traded away franchise netminder Roberto Luongo to Vancouver last year.

Florida has a solid nucleus of young talent and a few stalwart veterans. The club has a good chance to squeeze into this season's playoff picture and the Panthers could possibly challenge for a division title in the always wide-open Southeast.

FORWARDS - The Panthers captain and best offensive weapon in recent years has been centerman Olli Jokinen.

Jokinen, a 28-year-old from Kuopio, Finland, has played every game for the Panthers over the past three seasons and his last two years have been his best campaigns as professional.

Last year, Jokinen set career-highs in all three scoring categories with 39 goals and 52 assists for a total of 91 points. He is also one of the better faceoff men in the league.

After Jokinen, the Panthers had a huge drop-off points to their No. 2 scorer, Nathan Horton, who posted 31 goals and 31 assists in 82 games.

Horton, 22, and 24-year-old centerman Stephen Weiss are two rising stars for Florida. Weiss played in 74 games for the Panthers last year and notched 20 goals and 28 helpers.

Veteran winger Jozef Stumpel was also a solid contributor for the Panthers last year, as the 35-year-old recorded 57 points (23 goals, 34 assists).

Florida signed a trio of veteran forwards this summer in Brett McLean, Radek Dvorak and Richard Zednik. Dvorak had the best 2006-07 season among those players, as he posted 37 points in 82 games with the St. Louis Blues.

DEFENSE - The Panthers don't have a great deal of experience at the blue line, but they do possess a solid stable of promising young defenseman.

Jay Bouwmeester, the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, is the best of the bunch and is coming off his strongest season in the NHL. Bouwmeester, who will be 24 years old by the time the regular season begins, had 12 goals and 30 assists in 82 games in '06-07 and also sported a plus-23 rating.

The Panthers believe Bouwmeester will be one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL someday soon.

Mike Van Ryn and Bryan Allen have a few years on Bouwmeester, but both have played in less career games than Florida's franchise blueliner.

Van Ryn, 28, is solid on both ends of the ice and four goals and 25 assists for Florida last year. The 27-year-old Allen has great size at 6-4, 220 pounds and is also a strong skater. Allen played in every game for the Panthers in 2006-07 and notched four goals and 21 assists.

The club also took a flier on Cory Murphy, signing the 29-year-old to a two- year deal in the offseason. The Canadian played collegiately at Colgate and has played in Europe ever since.

Murphy is a power-play specialist who was named the MVP of the Finnish League last season after notching 50 points in 45 games.

GOALTENDING - It's about time Panthers fans accept the fact that Luongo is not coming back. The franchise made a business decision to trade away the talented netminder, and he will now be the Canucks, and not the Panthers, greatest asset.

But, Florida did trade for Vokoun in the summer and he should be an upgrade over last year's combination of Belfour and Alex Auld.

Vokoun, 31, is an athletic netminder who has seen action in 384 NHL games. Last season, he was slowed by injuries, but still went 27-12-4 in 44 games with Nashville. The Czech backstop also had five shutouts and sported strong numbers with a 2.40 goals against average and .920 save percentage.

Craig Anderson saw limited action with Florida last year, but will be the backup to Vokoun in 2007-08. The 26-year-old American had a 2.21 GAA and .931 save percentage in five contests with the Panthers in '06-07.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Panthers have a real shot at winning the Southeast Division this season, but the youngsters on offense and defense will have to take a big step forward to make that happen. More realistically, Florida should battle all season long for a postseason spot, as it tries to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The rebuilding process is still ongoing, but the Panthers hope their patience can finally pay off this season.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 Tampa Bay Lightning Preview

(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Lightning haven't had the same swagger since winning the franchise's only Stanley Cup title in 2004, and this year, it could once again prove difficult to find.

The Lightning have one of the league's top offenses, but have been kept at bay over the last two seasons because of goaltending issues. Tampa Bay had Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes during its Cup run, but "The 'Bulin Wall" left town for Chicago after the championship season and things haven't been the same since.

Head coach John Tortorella's club has made the playoffs in four straight seasons, but the Lightning have been knocked out in the first round in each of the last two postseasons. Last spring, Tampa was ousted in six games by the New Jersey Devils.

The problem this year is likely to be the same, as Bolts general manager Jay Feaster failed to make a move to improve the goaltending situation. Instead, the team held on to Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist and will continue to look closely at young backstop Karri Ramo.

Thanks in large part to the Cup win a few years ago, Tampa Bay's fans are as passionate as any Florida hockey team's supporters have ever been. Yet, the Lightning faithful will likely have to sit back and watch another talented club wasted for lack of a legitimate goaltender.

FORWARDS - The Lightning possess one of the NHL's best scoring tandems in centerman Vincent Lecavalier and right wing Martin St. Louis.

Both players posted career-best numbers in points last year, as they each eclipsed the century mark for the first time.

Lecavalier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft, won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy last year by leading the league with 52 goals and ended the campaign with 108 total points.

The 32-year-old St. Louis came into the league with Calgary in 1998 as an undrafted free agent. He played in just 69 NHL games with the Flames and Tampa Bay signed him in the summer of 2000. Since coming to the Lightning, St. Louis has won a Stanley Cup, a scoring title and MVP, and all three of those accolades came in the 2003-04 campaign.

St. Louis played in all 82 games last year and notched 102 points (43 goals, 59 assists).

Vaclav Prospal started on the left wing with Lecavalier and St. Louis and posted 14 goals and 41 helpers last year.

Brad Richards is the third-best offensive weapon for Tampa Bay and the 27- year-old centerman recorded 70 points (25g, 45a) in 2006-07.

The Lightning signed a pair of wingers in the offseason to help Richards with the remainder of the scoring load. The first is Jan Hlavac, a 31-year-old Czech, who has 189 points in 356 NHL games, but played the last three years in Europe. His last NHL stint was with the New York Rangers in 2003-04, when he managed just five goals and 21 assists in 72 games.

Michel Ouellet is just 25 years old and had a solid sophomore season with Pittsburgh last year, as he notched 48 points (19g, 29a).

The Bolts also brought veteran center Chris Gratton back into the fold for his third stint with the club. Gratton was selected by Tampa Bay with the third overall pick in the 1993 draft, signed away by Philadelphia in 1997 and traded back to the Lightning in 1998. He was brought back over the summer in a trade with Florida.

Gratton had 13 goals and 22 assists in 81 games with the Panthers last year.

DEFENSE - The Lightning lost stalwart defensemen Cory Sarich to free agency this summer, but still have a decent blueline corps.

Dan Boyle led the defense with 63 points (20g, 43a) last year and the 31-year- old will once again quarterback the power play.

Filip Kuba, a 30-year-old Czech, is also a solid offensive weapon from the point and is coming off a season in which he recorded 15 goals and 22 assists.

Paul Ranger is just 23 years old, but has shown the skill necessary to be a strong two-way defenseman in the NHL. Ranger had four goals and 24 helpers in the '06-07 campaign.

Shane O'Brien is also a rising star on the blue line, as the 6-2, 237-pound defenseman has the size to be a force for Tampa Bay. O'Brien was acquired from Anaheim before the trade deadline last year and had two goals and 14 assists in 80 total games during his rookie season a year ago.

Brad Lukowich was a member of Tampa Bay's championship team three years ago and is back as a free agent this season. The 31-year-old defensive defenseman saw action in 75 games with New Jersey in 2006-07.

GOALTENDING - Who will emerge as the Lightning's No. 1 goaltender this season? Really, it doesn't matter because both Denis and Holmqvist leave much to be desired in net.

Holmqvist played in more games (48) than Denis last season and was slightly more effective. The Swede went 27-15-3 with a 2.85 goals against average and .893 save percentage.

Denis saw action in 44 contests and was 17-18-2 with a 3.19 GAA and .883 save percentage.

Holmqvist played in all six postseason contests for Tampa Bay last spring and went 2-4.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Lightning have one of the best 1-2 punches in the NHL with Lecavalier and St. Louis, but the team seems to be treading water without a solid goaltender. Tampa Bay has the firepower to make the playoffs and probably will since they play in the wide-open Southeast Division, but postseason success is too much to ask for. However, a trade for a better goaltending option during this season could dramatically change the outlook for this team.

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Re: NHL Previews

2007-08 Washington Capitals Preview

(Sports Network) - For virtually its entire existence, the Washington Capitals have been a team crying out to be noticed.

Buried in the heart of Redskins country and situated in a region with a highly transient population, the Caps have seen ups and downs in its history as well as some Hall-of-Fame talent pass through with little recognition.

A move away from suburban Landover to the heart of downtown, a new arena, and a Stanley Cup Final berth didn't do much to raise their profile. Even drafting Alex Ovechkin hasn't generated the buzz a move like that would in other markets close by.

Even with a hockey pedigree in VP/general manager George McPhee and head coach Glen Hanlon, progress has been plodding. While the now remains clouded by too much youth and an odd mix of veteran talent, as long as the young core is allowed to grow together, there is hope for a promising future.

FORWARDS - Up front, it's Ovechkin head-and-shoulders above the rest. Hopefully the 22-year-old, who posted 46 goals and 92 points a year ago, can benefit from veteran acquisitions Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov.

Alexander Semin won't escape notice after scoring 38 goals in his first season back from Russia, and team captain Chris Clark will be hard-pressed to duplicate his 30-goal season. Matt Pettinger added 16 goals but no forward reached 10 goals beyond that.

Donald Brashear returns for a second season of what's sure to be rock-em, sock-em hockey protecting Ovechkin and the kids. If anything, hockey fans in the DC metro area should head to the Verizon Center just to watch him prowl around the rink.

From there Caps trot out the likes of former farmhands Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Brian Sutherby and Brooks Laich along with Blue Jacket retread Joe Motzko.

DEFENSE - With the exception of free-agent signee Tom Poti, the Caps may boast the least-experienced defense in the entire NHL.

Poti is entering his ninth year but is on his fourth club in that span. He's been solid but unspectacular despite recording 10 or more goals in three seasons. Brian Pothier has six years under his belt and enters his second with Washington, but must improve upon 28 points and a minus-11 from a season ago.

After that, a backline of Shaone Morrisonn, Steve Eminger, Ben Clymer and highly-regarded prospect Josef Boumedienne will be tested on their intelligence, toughness and resiliency virtually game-to-game. How the club fares in the second half of the season will go a long way to determine who has a future with the team.

At one time, the learning curve was mitigated by the presence of names like Mark Tinordi, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt. Their presence to guide the youngsters will again be sorely missed.

GOALTENDING - Back for a 16th season, Olaf Kolzig continues to be the man in the crease. At age 37, however, it's a miracle he's been able to hold up to a barrage over the Caps' last three rebuilding campaigns. Kolzig had to play the role of rubberband man just to win 22 games a year ago.

Brent Johnson returns for a third year as the back-up, but with two veterans in the crease, the club should do more to work in Frederic Cassivi, the 2006 Calder Cup-winning netminder from their AHL club in Hershey.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Caps' new look in the red, white and blue is reminiscent of their old-style star-spangled uniforms. Unfortunately, Washington is still on track to play as poorly as those early clubs who donned those patriotic jerseys.

There's little question about offensive potential, but how much backchecking can the forwards do, and how well can the young backline hold up? Each goaltender will steal a handful of games themselves, but it's hard to see the club rise above fourth in the Southeast. Ovechkin may score twice as many goals as the team will have wins.

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