Eastern Conference Previews
Eastern Conference Previews
NHL Eastern conference team previews: Atlantic division
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
LAST SEASON: 49-24-4, 107 points. Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in conference semifinals.
COACH: Brent Sutter, 1st season.
ADDED: D Karel Rachunek, D Vitali Vishnevski, G Kevin Weekes, RW Dainius Zubrus.
LOST: G Scott Clemmensen, C Jim Dowd, C Scott Gomez, D Brad Lukowich, D Brian Rafalski, LW Erik Rasmussen.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Martin Brodeur appeared in 78 of 82 games and won the Vezina Trophy for a third time after setting an NHL record with 48 wins last season, but fatigue could have finally caught up with the 35-year-old goalie after a shaky playoff. Weekes could finally ease his workload this season.
ICING: The Devils move into their new arena in Newark without two key members of their 2003 Stanley Cup team, Gomez and Rafalski. The pressure will be on D Paul Martin (3-23-26) to pick up the offensive slack on the blue line while the veteran Zubrus slides into Gomez's slot as the second-line center. ... Sutter, a two-time Stanley Cup champion as a player, coached the Red Deer Rebels to the Western Hockey League title in 2001 and guided Canada to world junior gold in 2005 and 2006. ... The Devils open the season with a nine-game road trip.
LAST SEASON: 47-24-11, 105 points. Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in first round.
COACH: Michel Therrien, 3rd season, 61-53-19; 6th overall, 138-143-42.
ADDED: C Tim Brent, G Ty Conklin, G Dany Sabourin, C Nathan Smith, D Daryl Sydor, RW Petr Sykora.
LOST: LW Nils Ekman, D Joel Kwiatkowski, D Josef Melichar, RW Ronald Petrovicky, RW Maxime Ouellet, G Jocelyn Thibault, C Chris Thorburn.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Marc-Andre Fleury vastly improved his numbers from 2005-06, finishing third in the NHL with 40 wins, a 2.83 GAA and .906 save percentage. Which goalie will show up in his third season?
ICING: The Penguins overcame the distraction of a possible move to record 105 points, the second-highest in team history and 47 better than 2005-06, while qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2001. If their young nucleus continues to grow and blend in with veteran Cup winners like RW Mark Recchi, LW Gary Roberts, Sykora and Sydor, the team could be primed for a long postseason run. ... C Sidney Crosby become the NHL's youngest scoring champion at 19 and won the Most Valuable Player award with 36 goals and 120 points last season. He signed a five-year extension through the 2012-13 season worth $43.5 million and was named captain. ... The Penguins had two Calder Trophy finalists for top rookie last year in C Evgeni Malkin (33-52-85) and LW Jordan Staal (29-13-42). Staal had seven short-handed goals.
NEW YORK RANGERS
LAST SEASON: 42-30-10, 94 points. Lost to Buffalo 4-2 in conference semifinals.
COACH: Tom Renney, 4th season, 91-71-22; 6th overall, 130-124-31.
ADDED: C Chris Drury, C Scott Gomez, D Andrew Hutchinson.
LOST: C Matt Cullen, C Michael Nylander, LW Brad Isbister, RW Jed Ortmeyer, D Sandis Ozolinsh, D Karel Rachuenk, G Kevin Weekes.
PLAYER TO WATCH: RW Jaromir Jagr had 96 points last season while playing on a line with the departed Nylander and now has to try to develop chemistry with Gomez. Will Jagr still produce at a high level or brood the entire winter?
ICING: The Rangers made a huge splash on the first day of free agency by landing both Drury and Gomez, giving the Rangers two potent scoring lines. But scoring could be limited after that as the other two lines are known more for checking prowess rather than offensive ability. ... New York went 17-5-5 after acquiring gritty LW Sean Avery from Los Angeles, but the defense is lacking that same feistiness and could have trouble keeping opposing skaters away from G Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers are hoping 2005 first-round pick D Marc Staal can help in that area. ... Lundqvist is 67-34-17 with a 2.29 GAA and .919 save percentage during his brief NHL career. ... RW Brendan Shanahan returns for a 20th NHL season.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
LAST SEASON: 40-30-12, 92 points. Lost to Buffalo 4-1 in first round.
COACH: Ted Nolan, 2nd season; 4th overall, 113-102-32.
ADDED: C Mike Comrie, LW Ruslan Fedotenko, RW Bill Guerin, D Aaron Johnson, LW Jon Sim, D Andy Sutton, C Josef Vasicek.
LOST: LW Jason Blake, G Mike Dunham, D Sean Hill, RW Viktor Kozlov, D Tom Poti, C Wyatt Smith, LW Ryan Smyth, C Alexei Yashin, LW Richard Zednik.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Rick DiPietro signed an unprecedented 15-year contract last summer and went on to win 32 games, but was sidelined by two concussions 12 days apart late in the regular season and the start of the playoffs and had arthroscopic surgery in May to repair a tear in his left hip.
ICING: The Isles' offseason didn't resemble the three-ring circus from last summer, but it didn't lack drama, either. It began with the long-awaited buyout on Yashin's contract and continued with the unpopular free-agent defections of Blake and Smyth on July 1 before concluding with the additions of five veteran forwards and a physical defenseman in Sutton. But Nolan has proven he can maximize his team's abilities. ... LW Chris Simon has to sit out five more regular-season games to complete the 25-game ban he received for a stick-swinging attack against Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg on March 8. It was the longest suspension in terms of games missed in NHL history. ... The Islanders allowed the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference last season (240). ... Guerin, who scored a combined 36 goals for St. Louis and San Jose last season, was named the 11th captain in team history.
LAST SEASON: 22-48-12, 56 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: John Stevens, 2nd season, 21-42-11.
ADDED: C Daniel Briere, LW Scott Hartnell, LW Joffrey Lupul, D Jason Smith, D Kimmo Timonen.
LOST: LW Dmitri Afanasenkov, G Robert Esche, LW Todd Fedoruk, D Joni Pitkanen, LW Mike York.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Briere's 95-point season was rewarded with an eight-year, $52 million contract by the Flyers. He will have to prove his production was not a byproduct of a freewheeling Buffalo system.
ICING: The Flyers were the worst team in the league last season, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, set team records for most losses and fewest points, and an NHL mark for greatest one-year point drop of 45. But postseason aspirations quickly returned after some major additions to the front and back lines. ... There is finally a true No. 1 goalie in Martin Biron, who was acquired from Buffalo at last year's trade deadline and signed a two-year, $7 million contract in March. Antero Niittymaki returns as the backup. ... RW Simon Gagne is the first Flyer to record back-to-back 40-goal seasons since John LeClair from 1998-2000. ... Cs Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger failed to reach 20 goals last season after doing so as rookies in 2005-06. ... RW Scottie Upshall could miss up to six weeks with a broken wrist and Umberger also needs surgery on his hand and could miss two weeks.
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
NHL Eastern conference team previews: Northeast division
LAST SEASON: 53-22-7, 113 points. Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in conference finals.
COACH: Lindy Ruff, 10th season, 358-289-91.
ADDED: No additions.
LOST: C Daniel Briere, C Chris Drury, RW Dainius Zubrus.
PLAYER TO WATCH: LW Thomas Vanek received a huge raise this summer after the Sabres matched Edmonton's seven-year, $50 million offer sheet and will feel the pressure to improve on last season's 43 goals and 87 points and ease the losses of Drury and Briere.
ICING: Fans in Western New York endured a tough spring and summer. After losing their second straight conference final, the defending Presidents' Trophy winners failed to re-sign two of their three top scorers in Briere and Drury and were forced to match a huge offer sheet given to Vanek by Edmonton before learning that D Teppo Numminen will be out until at least early December after undergoing open-heart surgery. But the Sabres have had a strong infusion of talent from their AHL team in Rochester in recent seasons that has made solid contributions. ... C Tim Connolly missed 80 games last season because of a concussion, but did have nine assists in 16 playoff games. ... Buffalo will host Pittsburgh in an outdoor game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1.
LAST SEASON: 48-25-9, 105 points. Lost to Anaheim 4-1 in Stanley Cup finals.
COACH: John Paddock, 1st season; 5th overall, 106-138-37
ADDED: D Matt Carkner, LW Shean Donovan, RW Niko Dimitrakos, LW Denis Hamel, C Justin Mapletoft, D Luke Richardson.
LOST: C Mike Comrie, D Tom Preissing, C Serge Payer, LW Oleg Saprykin, LW Peter Schaefer.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Ray Emery signed a three-year, $9.5 million contract after going 33-16-6 with a 2.47 GAA last season, but he needs another big season to make believers out of his critics.
ICING: Despite shaking off the tag of postseason underachievers by advancing to their first Stanley Cup final last spring, the Senators fired GM John Muckler in mid-June, replaced him with former coach Bryan Murray and hired Paddock to coach the team. Paddock, who coached the Winnipeg Jets from 1991-95, worked with some of the current players during his time in the AHL. ... The Senators locked up underrated C Mike Fisher to a five-year contract extension worth $21 million, but LW Dany Heatley, who has scored 50 goals in both of his seasons in Ottawa, is an unrestricted free agent next summer. ... The Senators recorded their fourth straight 100-point season in 2006-07 despite going 10-22 in one-goal games. ... Ottawa had the second-best offense last season at 3.49 goals per game, led by the top line of Heatley, C Jason Spezza and RW Daniel Alfredsson with a combined 279 points. ... C Dean McAmmond sustained his second concussion in three months during a preseason game on Sept. 26 and it is not known how long he'll be out.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
LAST SEASON: 40-31-11, 91 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: Paul Maurice, 2nd season; 11th overall, 308-338-110.
ADDED: LW Mark Bell, LW Jason Blake, G Scott Clemmensen, G Vesa Toskala.
LOST: G Jean-Sebastien Aubin, C Travis Green, RW Jeff O'Neill, C Michael Peca, C Yanic Perreault.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Vesa Toskala was a curious part of the Bell deal and the Leafs gave up three draft picks to land them. He went 26-10-1 for San Jose last season and his 2.35 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage were both better than Andrew Raycroft, who won a franchise-record 37 games in 2006-07.
ICING: The Maple Leafs have had little success with free-agent forwards in recent seasons, but they tried again with the signing of LW Jason Blake. Blake reached career highs in goals (40) and points (69) with the Islanders last season, but can he do it again under a hotter media spotlight? ... Bell was suspended for 15 games without pay by the NHL on Sept. 12 after his plea of no contest to drunken driving and hit-and-run charges. Bell was arrested in September 2006 after his sedan rear-ended a pickup truck near San Jose and is expected to serve six months in a California jail, beginning after this season. ... C Mats Sundin has never had fewer than 72 points in any of the 11 seasons since 1995-96.
LAST SEASON: 42-3-6, 90 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: Guy Carbonneau, 2nd season, 84-65-15.
ADDED: D Patrice Brisebois, D Roman Hamrlik, RW Tom Kostopolous, D Jamie Rivers, C Bryan Smolinski,
LOST: G David Aebischer, C Radek Bonk, RW Mike Johnson, LW Sergei Samsonov, D Sheldon Souray.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Cristobal Huet tore his left hamstring in February and the Canadiens never recovered. The team has a capable backup in Jaroslav Halak, but Huet's health could determine whether Montreal returns to the playoffs.
ICING: The Canadiens got off to a torrid 21-8-5 start last season, but collapsed down the stretch with 15 losses in their last 28 games and missed the postseason for the fifth time in seven years. ... Souray's minus-29 rating won't be missed, but his 19 power-play goals certainly will be. Brisebois returns after spending two seasons in Colorado, and Hamrlik was brought in for his experience and powerful shot from the point. ... C Saku Koivu showed no ill-effects from the serious eye injury sustained during the 2006 playoffs, reaching career highs with 22 goals and 75 points last season. He only missed one game. ... RW Michael Ryder has had two straight 30-goal seasons.
LAST SEASON: 35-41-6, 76 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: Claude Julien, 1st season; 4th overall, 119-95-25.
ADDED: G Manny Fernandez, LW Peter Schaefer, RW Scott Thornton.
LOST: D Nathan Dempsey, RW Shean Donovan, RW Petr Kalus, G Joey MacDonald, C Mark Mowers, RW Petr Tenkrat, D Jason York.
PLAYER TO WATCH: D Zdeno Chara had a forgettable first season in Boston with a minus-21 rating, his worst since 2000-01 with the New York Islanders. A more stable group of defensmen and Julien's system could help.
ICING: The Bruins will have their third coach in the past year with Julien replacing Dave Lewis. Julien was fired with three games left in his first regular season as coach of the Devils in 2006-07 despite having them in first place in the Atlantic Division. ... Fernandez is the latest to enter the revolving door of goaltenders that has evolved the past few seasons. The 32-year-old Fernandez was a part of Minnesota's goalie tandem that won the William Jennings Trophy, given to the team that gives up the fewest goals, but he was hampered by a recurring knee injury. ... Boston has one of the deepest center groups in the league in leading scorer Marc Savard (22-74-96), Patrice Bergeron (22-48-70) and 2006 first-round pick Phil Kessel (11-18-29). Rookie David Krejci had 31 goals and 74 points with Providence of the AHL last season.
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
NHL Eastern conference team previews: Southeast division
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
LAST SEASON: 43-28-11, 97 points. Lost to N.Y. Rangers 4-0 in first round.
COACH: Bob Hartley, 5th season, 136-117-32; 9th overall, 329-235-80.
ADDED: C Alexandre Giroux, D Ken Klee, RW Eric Perrin, RW Chris Thorburn, C Todd White.
LOST: C Eric Belanger, D Greg de Vries, D Shane Hnidy, RW Scott Mellanby, RW Jon Sim, D Andy Sutton, RW Keith Tkachuk.
PLAYER TO WATCH: G Kari Lehtonen was a key to the Thrashers' success last season, winning 34 games while posting a 2.79 GAA. He remains the No. 1 netminder, but the goalie rotation that Hartley used in last year's playoffs could be on his mind if he struggles this season.
ICING: The franchise took a huge step forward last year with their first division title and playoff appearance. The four-game sweep in the first round by the Rangers was a huge disappointment, but the core players remain intact to make another run at another Southeast title. ... Despite RW Marian Hossa's first 100-point season, LW Slava Kozlov's 80 points and LW Ilya Kovalchuk's 42 goals, the power play was still tied for 22nd in the league last year at 16.5 percent. ... The Thrashers lost three defenseman from last year's team and their lack of speed on the blue line was exposed in the playoffs. Only Klee was added, but rookies Mark Popovic and Tobias Enstrom could also get a look. ... LW Brett Sterling was the AHL's top rookie last season with 55 goals and 97 points in 77 games.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
LAST SEASON: 44-33-5, 93 points. Lost to New Jersey 4-2 in first round.
COACH: John Tortorella, 8th season, 208-198-47; 9th overall, 208-201-48.
ADDED: C Chris Gratton, LW Jan Hlavac, D Bryce Lampman, D Brad Lukowich, LW Craig MacDonald, RW Michel Ouellet.
LOST: LW Ruslan Fedotenko, RW Eric Perrin, D Cory Sarich.
PLAYER TO WATCH: C Brad Richards will have new linemates in Hlavac and Ouellet. Will his production drop without All-Stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis?
ICING: Who's in goal? Marc Denis was last year's big offseason acquisition, but he was so inconsistent he lost his starting job and didn't even dress during the playoffs. Johan Holmqvist was a solid backup, but struggled in the playoffs. Finn Karri Ramo is also in the mix. ... The Lightning were dealt a huge blow when it was learned that top D Dan Boyle will miss the first few weeks of the season after undergoing wrist surgery on Sept. 23. Boyle got hurt in a freak locker room accident after a preseason game, when three tendons in his wrist were severed by a falling skate. ... Hlavac, a one-time 28-goal scorer, returns to the NHL after spending three years in Europe while Gratton is back for a third stint with the team. ... A group led by former Panthers coach Doug MacLean has agreed to buy the team and says it has no plans to move the franchise.
LAST SEASON: 40-34-8, 88 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: Peter Laviolette, 4th season, 112-82-22; 6th overall, 189-150-41.
ADDED: C Matt Cullen, C Jeff Hamilton.
LOST: D Anton Babchuk, RW Anson Carter, D Andrew Hutchinson, D David Tanabe, C Josef Vasicek.
PLAYER TO WATCH: C Eric Staal slumped to 30 goals and 70 points last season after getting 45 and 100, respectively, in 2005-06. He was arrested for misdemeanor disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process during his offseason bachelor party.
ICING: Injuries and underachievers made Carolina just the third defending Stanley Cup champion to miss the playoffs and first since New Jersey in 1996. LW Cory Stillman, D Frantisek Kaberle and D Bret Hedican all missed the start of the season with injuries, RW Eric Cole missed seven games with a hip ailment, and 2006 playoff MVP Cam Ward struggled in his first season as No. 1 goalie (30-21-6, 2.93 GAA). ... Cullen, the instrumental third-line center on the 2006 Cup team, is back after a one-year stint with the New York Rangers. ... LW Ray Whitney led the team in scoring last season after the 35-year-old forward reached career highs with 32 goals and 83 points.
LAST SEASON: 35-31-16, 86 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: Jacques Martin, 3rd season 72-68-27; 13th overall, 479-391-146.
ADDED: RW Radek Dvorak, C Brett McLean, D Cory Murphy, G Tomas Vokoun, LW Richard Zednik.
LOST: G Alex Auld, G Ed Belfour, LW Martin Gelinas, C Chris Gratton, RW Jurak Kolnik, D Alexei Semenov.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Vokoun might not make anyone forget about Roberto Luongo, but he does give the Panthers the No. 1 goalie they sorely lacked last season. The team needs him to overcome his health problems from the past two seasons because backup Craig Anderson has little NHL experience.
ICING: The pieces are seemingly in place for the Panthers to finally chase their first playoff berth since 2000. Captain Olli Jokinen (39-52-91), RW Nathan Horton (31-31-62) and C Stephen Weiss (20-28-48) are all coming off career seasons, the young defense is steadily improving and the No. 1 goalie is set again with the addition of Vokoun. The team is banking on Zednik and Dvorak to turn back the clock and provide scoring depth. ... Murphy was named MVP of the Finnish League last season with 13 goals and 50 points in 45 games and will bolster a power play that finished 13th last season (18.1 percent). ... Florida allowed a league-high five overtime power-play goals last season. The Panthers didn't have any with the man advantage in the extra session.
LAST SEASON: 28-40-14, 70 points. Out of playoffs.
COACH: Glen Hanlon, 4th season, 72-111-35; 4th overall.
ADDED: RW Viktor Kozlov, RW Joe Motzko, C Michael Nylander, D Tom Poti.
LOST: C Kris Beech, D Bryan Muir, C Jiri Novotny.
PLAYER TO WATCH: One year after deserting the team during the lockout, LW Alexander Semin enjoyed a breakout season in 2006-07 with 38 goals and 73 points while forming a powerful 1-2 tandem with Alexander Ovechkin. Semin and Ovechkin will likely be put on separate lines this season with the additions of Nylander and Kozlov.
ICING: The Caps will have another much-anticipated rookie in the lineup this season in C Nicklas Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft. Backstrom had 12 goals and 40 points in 45 games with Brynas of the Swedish Elite League last season. ... Washington has had three straight last-place, 70-point finishes. Its three-year playoff drought is the club's longest in 25 years. ... Washington had the sixth worst power play at 16.4 percent last season, while the penalty killers didn't fare much better at 23rd (80.2). Poti was brought in to help quarterback the power play. ... The Capitals were 1-11 in shootouts last season.
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
NHL Season Previews: Northeast Division
The Ottawa Senators are coming into the 2007-08 season with some unfinished business to attend to. The team will be chomping at the bit from the opening faceoff of the regular season, trying desperately to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals, where it lost in five disappointing games to the Anaheim Ducks.
During the off-season, management made some changes on and off the ice which it felt were necessary to get this club to the next level. One of the biggest changes occurred last June when Ottawa replaced John Muckler as GM with head coach Bryan Murray. Not long after that announcement, Murray hired John Paddock as the sixth head coach in Senators history.
The 53-year old Paddock was an excellent choice to lead the team, as he not only served as an assistant coach in Ottawa since 2004, more importantly, he coached nine of the players from last season's roster in the minors during his time in the AHL behind the Binghamton Senators' bench. Chris Kelly, Ray Emery, Denis Hamel, Brian McGrattan, Chris Neil, Christoph Schubert, Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette and Anton Volchenkov were all brought along at some point in their young careers by Paddock, which will make this transition a very smooth one.
What should also make this a seamless transition is the fact that most of the Senators from last year's run to the Finals will be back for another go-round. The team only lost defenseman Tom Preissing (Kings) and forward Mike Comrie (Islanders) to free agency, while inking veteran blueliner Luke Richardson to a deal and trading away winger Peter Schaefer to the Bruins for forward Shean Donovan. Paddock will have a stingy defense intact that sports the likes of Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, Joe Corvo, Andrej Meszaros, Christooph Schubert, Richardson and Volchenkov.
Up front, all things start and usually finish with last season's scoring leader, Dany Heatley. The 26-year old sniper will be looking to pace his team on offense once again. Last year, Heatley posted 105 points during the regular season off 50 goals and 55 assists and finished tied for the league lead in playoff points (22) with teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Spezza. Despite only playing in 67 games, Spezza was the team's second leading scorer during the regular season, recording 34 goals — 13 of which came on the power play — and 53 assists. Alfredsson was third in scoring last year, collecting 87 points off 29 goals and 58 assists in 77 games. In the postseason, the Ottawa captain found another gear, netting 22 points in 20 games and scoring a league-leading 14 goals, which finally put to rest the questions regarding whether or not he could perform in the postseason.
One of the questions that wasn't answered is whether or not Ray Emery is the true deal in goal. The 25 year-old has done nothing but win since given his shot during the 2005-06 season, when he went 23-11-0 in 39 games with three shutouts, a 2.82 GAA and a .902 save percentage. But in the postseason that year the youngster succumbed to the pressure and went 5-5 in 10 games with a 2.88 GAA and .900 save percentage.
Last year, Emery had another outstanding year during the regular season, posting a 33-16-6 record with five shutouts, a 2.47 GAA and .918 save percentage. In the playoffs, he backstopped the Sens all the way to the Finals, going 13-7 with three shutouts, a 2.26 GAA and a .907 save percentage. But when all the marbles were on the line in the Finals, Emery wasn't as sharp as he was in the first three rounds, finishing a disappointing 1-4 with a 3.24 GAA and a .871 save percentage.
If Emery falters at any time during the season, the Sens have former Carolina goalkeeper Martin Gerber who they can turn to. Even though he wasn't in goal when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, he did play a key role in getting that team there, going 38-14-0 in 60 games during the regular season.
Prediction: first place
Things may get rough for Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff, who enters his 10th season behind the Sabres bench. Ruff and the Sabres are coming off a great season, where the club won the first Presidents' Trophy in team history, scored an NHL best 308 goals and won a franchise record 53 games.
Those feats are going to be very difficult for the Sabres to repeat, as the club lost several valuable members to free agency over the summer. Gone are the team's co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, who also happened to be two of Buffalo's three top scorers from the 2006-07 season. Briere led the way for the offense last year, scoring a team-high 95 points off 32 goals and 63 assists. Drury finished third in scoring on the Sabres, posting 69 points off 37 goals and 32 assists.
Dainius Zubrus also decided to take his offense elsewhere, signing a free-agent deal with the Devils after scoring 60 points off 24 goals and 36 assists in 79 games. If that wasn't bad enough, the team almost lost its second-leading scorer, Thomas Vanek, to the Oilers when Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe decided to sign him to an offer sheet. Lowe desperately wanted Buffalo's 23-year old sniper who potted 43 goals and 41 assists last season, but they didn't get their man, as the Sabres chose to match Edmonton's steep seven-year, $50 million contract.
When all was said and done, the Sabres lost 73 goals and 172 points to free agency in the offseason. It's going to be tough to make up that type of offense, especially when the club didn't go out and replace any of the offensive weapons it lost.
Buffalo believes it has a group of youngsters in place who can pick up the slack left by the departures of Briere, Drury and Zubrus. The Sabres will obviously look to Vanek to improve on last year's 84 points, especially after they gave him that lofty contract. Jason Pominville will be asked to better or repeat his '06-07 numbers, when the 25-year old finished fourth on the team in scoring by registering career highs in games played (82), goals (34), assists (34), points (68) and plus/minus rating (plus-25).
Fifth-leading scorer Derek Roy will also have to step up his game. The 24-year old winger collected 63 points off 21 goals and 42 assists last season in 75 games. Buffalo has two 21-year olds in Drew Stafford and Clarke MacArthur who will be given loads of chances to improve on the contributions they made to the big club last season. Stafford had 13 goals and 14 assists in 41 games, while MacArthur recorded three goals and four assists in 19 games. Ruff will also call upon more experienced forwards like Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Jochen Hecht and Tim Connolly to pitch in on a nightly basis.
The good news for Buffalo is that almost their entire defense is returning from last year. The six-man unit that will log most of the backline minutes will be Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek, Nathan Paetsch, Toni Lydman, Dmitri Kalinin, and Henrik Tallinder. Every one of these defenders helped out on both offense and defense last year in Buffalo, as they not only combined to rack up 129 points, which included 26 goals, but the corps also finished the season with a combined plus-106 rating. Each player finished a plus-10 or better, with Campbell leading the way with a plus-28.
The one big hit the unit took was the loss of Teppo Numminen to heart surgery. The veteran defenseman, who was a plus-17 last season, is shooting to return in December, but until he's cleared to play again by his doctors the team can't rely on him. Numminen's experience and production (29 points in 79 games) will surely be missed.
While the Buffalo defense is solid, the backbone of this team is in goal where Ryan Miller rules the roost. The 27-year old puck-stopper had a phenomenal year in goal for the Sabres, going 40-16-6 in 63 appearances with a .911 save percentage and a 2.73 GAA. Miller's win total at the end of the regular season allowed him to become the first goaltender since San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov to win 30-plus games in a season as a rookie and as a sophomore. The Michigan native was also the first Buffalo goalie to net back-to-back 30-plus-win seasons since Dominik Hasek did it in 1997-98 and 1998-99.
The Buffalo season is going to hinge upon whether or not its youngsters can step up to the plate and fill in the holes on offense left by Briere, Drury and Zubrus. If Ruff can keep this team healthy and get enough production from those mostly inexperienced players, he can definitely challenge in the Northeast and in the postseason, as he will get solid defense from his backline and world-class goaltending from Miller.
Prediction: second place
Toronto Maple Leafs
Eastern Conference clubs, take heed! The Toronto Maple Leafs are gunning for a playoff spot and dare any team — especially the ones in their division — to try and stop them.
Last year, the Maple Leafs missed the postseason by one stinking point and, to a man, they are not going to allow that to happen again. Even though the club ranked eighth in the league in scoring last year, the team couldn't get it done in certain crucial situations when meaningful points were on the line. For example, the Leafs were 4-7 in shootouts, dropped 12 one-goal games, were 13-14-5 against the Northeast, and 5-5-0 against the West. If Toronto would have been slightly better in any of those areas, the team would have had more than enough points to qualify for the postseason instead of starting their summer vacation early for the second year in a row.
Give GM John Ferguson credit. He didn't stand pat. He went into the off-season with a plan and did what he had to do to get his team ready for a run at a postseason berth in the upcoming season. Ferguson's first order of business was to get his team's top scorer, Mats Sundin, under contract. He did that in June by signing Sundin to a new one-year deal, after the Toronto captain played in 75 games last season for the Leafs, registering 76 points off 27 goals and 49 assists. Sundin was the team leader in goals, assists, points, power play points (34), and shots on goal (321).
"We are extremely proud to have Mats continue as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs," said Ferguson. "Not only has he been one of the greatest players in our franchise history, but his exemplary leadership on and off the ice has been all that any organization could want from a team captain. We'll continue to rely on Mats' playing ability on the ice and on all of the contributions he makes to the development of our young players."
Ferguson and the Leafs will also rely on newcomers Vesa Toskala, Mark Bell and Jason Blake this coming season. Toskala and Bell were acquired from the San Jose Sharks in June for Toronto's first and second-round picks at this year's draft and a fourth-round pick in 2009. Toskala was supposedly brought in to compete with last year's No. 1 goalie, Andrew Raycroft, who tied a franchise record by winning 37 games last season, but judging by what the team gave up to get Toskala, the writing is clearly on the wall that the Leafs want him to be the main-man in goal this season.
Last season in San Jose, the 30-year old set career marks in wins (26), games (38) and shutouts (4), while posting a 2.35 GAA and .908 save percentage. The Maple Leafs added free agent Scott Clemmensen to the mix in July, which also clears the way for the team to move Raycroft at some point during the year. Clemmensen only appeared in six games for the New Jersey Devils last season, netting a 1-1-2 record, a 3.14 goals GAA and a .889 save percentage.
In acquiring Bell, the Leafs were hoping that the former first-round draft pick (eighth overall, 1998) could revert back to the form that saw him score 25 goals and 23 assists in 82 games for the Sharks during the 2005-06 campaign. Bell only managed 11 goals and 10 assists in 71 games last season for San Jose. But those hopes will have to wait, as Bell is serving a 15-game suspension for pleading no contest to drunk driving and hit and run charges from an accident that he was involved in last year in California. Bell was suspended indefinitely on Sept. 4 and placed into the league's substance abuse program. He was reinstated on Oct. 2 by the NHL, but won't resume playing until he finishes serving his suspension. Bell will be eligible to play on Nov. 6 against the Ottawa Senators.
Unlike Bell, Blake will be available to the Leafs from the opening faceoff of the 2007-08 season. Blake was inked to a free-agent deal over the summer after enjoying a career year with the New York Islanders last season. The 34 year-old sniper has the tools and wheels to make Toronto a faster and more explosive club — especially on the power play. In 82 games last season, Blake not only led the Islanders in scoring, he also set career highs in points (69), goals (40), points, power-play goals (14), game-winning goals (seven) and shots (305). The signing of Blake not only takes some of the heat off Sundin to carry the club, it also gives the Leafs some flexibility on offense, as the former Islander fireplug can either play alongside Sundin on the top line or ride shotgun on the second line alongside Kyle Wellwood. But the Wellwood option will have to wait, as the 24 year-old will start the season on the sidelines, recovering from a sports hernia. In 48 games last season Wellwood registered 12 goals and 30 assists.
The Leafs should have plenty of players to pick up the slack in Wellwood's absence, as the club still has Alexei Ponikarovsky (21G, 24A), Darcy Tucker (24G, 19A), Matt Stajan (10G, 29A), Nik Antropov (18G, 15A), Bates Battaglia (12G, 19A) and John Pohl (13G, 16A) in the fold.
Toronto comes into the '07-08 regular season with basically the same backline as last year. The unit is comprised of veterans like Bryan McCabe, Hal Gil, Wade Belak, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, and inexperienced players like Andy Wozniewski, Ian White, and Jay Harrison and Carlo Colaiacovo, who will miss the start of regular season recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Overall, the defense was a disappointment last year, finishing the season ranked 25th in the league, giving up an average of 3.20 goals-per-game, but it has the talent to have a bounce-back year and chip in on both sides of the puck for the Leafs.
Prediction: third place
Heading into the 2007-08 season, the Montreal Canadiens are a tough club to read. It's hard to tell if this club is made up of Habs or Hab-nots. Montreal is coming off a solid campaign, where the club missed qualifying for the postseason by a mere two points. One more measly win and the Canadiens would have been skating into the postseason. But the club couldn't seal the deal down the stretch, losing three of its final five games to fall just short.
Injuries played a huge role — especially in the final weeks of the season, when Montreal was without No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet. The 32-year-old tore his hamstring last February in a game against the New Jersey Devils. In Huet's absence, the Canadiens leaned mostly on the services of Jaroslav Halak over David Aebischer in goal, but he couldn't lead the team to the postseason. Montreal needs to keep Huet healthy this season, as the club's playoff chances may very well rest upon his shoulders and pads. Huet established career bests in games played (42), minutes (2286) and wins (19) in '06-07, while also amassing a 2.81 GAA, two shutouts and a .916 save percentage.
Montreal ranked 15th last season in scoring not enough production to get the team into the playoffs. So, forwards like Saku Koivu, Michael Ryder, Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev, Chris Higgins, and Guillaume Latendresse will have to step up their games.
Captain Koivu led by example last season, setting career highs in goals (22), assists (53), points (75), power play goals (11) and shots (154). Ryder became the Canadiens player register two straight 30-goal seasons since Mark Recchi (1996-1998). The 27-year-old winger also led the Habs in goals for the second straight season, and was the first player since Mats Naslund (1982-1985) to score at least 25 goals in his first three seasons with Montreal. Plekanec set career highs in games (81), goals (20), assists (27) and points (47), while Kovalev had an off-year, only recording 18 goals in 73 games. Higgins missed 21 games last season, but still managed to chip in 22 goals, including eight power play tallies, three short-handed goals and three game-winners. Latendresse had a memorable first year, finishing the season ranked eighth among NHL rookies in power play goals (5) and game-winning goals (3), ninth in goals (16) and shooting efficiency (13.2%), 10th in shots (121) and 11th in points (29). Veteran pivot Bryan Smolinski (18G, 26A) was signed over the summer to add additional firepower to this group.
Defenseman Roman Hamrlik was also scooped up off the free agent market to help out the Habs on both ends of the ice. Last season, Hamrlik logged almost 25 minutes per game for Calgary, finished the season a plus-22 and recorded 38 points in 75 games. He'll join a blue line group that includes Andrei Markov, who led all Montreal backliners with 49 points off six goals and 43 assists, Mark Streit (10G, 26A), Mike Komisarek (4G, 15A, plus-7), Josh Gorges (1G, 3A), Mathieu Dandenault (2G, 6A) and Francis Bouillon (3G, 11A). This unit must come together and tighten up its play in the defensive zone, as the opposition averaged 32.7 shots-per-game and 3.06 goals-per-game.
The defense must also find a way to make up the offense the Habs lost from the backline when Sheldon Souray signed with Edmonton. Souray was not only the team's top-producing defender, he was also Montreal's second-leading scorer, finishing with 64 points off 26 goals and 38 assists.
Prediction: fourth place
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
To get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the Bruins will have to tighten up their defense. Boston's first order of business should be to cut down on its goals-against. Last season, the club was ranked 29th in that department, giving up an Eastern Conference-high 289 goals.
The hiring of Claude Julien and acquisition of goaltender Manny Fernandez from Minnesota over the summer should help stop goals from coming in bunches. Julien, a former NHL defenseman, was most recently the head coach of the New Jersey Devils, where he held a record of 47-24-8 before being replaced with three games remaining in the regular season. One of his best coaching jobs came in the 2003-04 season, when he guided the Montreal Canadiens to their best record in 10 years with 93 points and led them to a first-round Stanley Cup playoff upset of the Bruins. Julien will implement a system where all his players are accountable defensively, which makes his teams harder to play against.
"When we talk about harder," Julien told Bostonbruins.com, "...defensively you want to certainly cut down on the goals against and you want to make sure that you limit the scoring chances."
The '06-07 Bruins did none of the above, giving up an average of 3.48 goals per game, while allowing the opposition 33.5 chances per contest, dead last in the NHL. Julien's teaching abilities, system and presence should go a long way in helping a very generous defense, which returns five defenders who finished last season on the minus side of things. Hulking backliner Zdeno Chara led the way, registering a team-leading minus-21. Andrew Alberts was right behind Chara, posting a minus-15 rating in 76 games. Veteran Aaron Ward, who spilt the year between New York and Boston, had the third-worst rating on the club, recording a minus-11 rating in 80 games. Dennis Wideman ended the year a minus-10 in 75 games, while Bobby Allen finished with a minus-1. Andrew Ference (plus-5) and Mark Stuart (plus-7) were the only rearguards to finish on the plus side for the Bruins.
With Fernandez, who was picked up right wing Petr Kalus and Boston's 4th round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, teaming up in goal with backup Tim Thomas (30-29-4, 3.13 GAA, .905 SV%), Boston should be able to cut down on the amount of times those chances turn into goals. Last season, Fernandez was 22-16-1 with a 2.55 goals-against average in 44 games with the Wild. He teamed with Niklas Backstrom to capture the William Jennings Trophy, an award given for allowing the fewest regular season goals. The 10-year veteran has compiled a 125-113-24-8 career record with 13 shutouts, a 2.47 goals-against-average and .913 save percentage.
Julien's new club will also have to improve on offense as Boston ranked 25th in goals scored last season. Play-making center Marc Savard had a productive 06-07 campaign with a team-leading 96 points on 22 goals and 74 assists, but there was a big drop-off in production after that. Boston's second-leading scorer, Patrice Bergeron, registered 70 points off 22 goals and 48 assists. Despite only playing in 59 games, 34-year old winger Glen Murray managed to finish third on the Bruins in scoring (45 points) and first in goals (28). Left wing Marco Sturm was second in goals last year with 27 in 76 games. Boston is going to need youngsters like Phil Kessel (11G, 18A), Chuck Kobasew (5G, 14A), David Krejci and Brandon Bochenski (13G, 11A) to chip in on a nightly basis if they want to climb out of the Northeast Division basement.
Prediction: fifth place
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
NHL Season Previews: Southeast Division
Why would a team like the Carolina Hurricanes enter a season with virtually the same players who failed to help them qualify for the playoffs the season the before? The answer is simple — and brave — at the same time. Management felt its team was better than the final numbers from the 2006-07 season indicated, so it decided to give its players another shot at bringing the city its second championship in three years.
Last year, the 'Canes failed to qualify for the postseason after winning the Stanley Cup title in 2006. If you look up and down Carolina's lineup, management may have been right. The Hurricanes are as stocked as any team in the NHL at the forward position, they have a solid defense and a 23-year old goalie, who has already backstopped the club to a Cup.
Stanley Cup burnout and injuries really hurt this team last season, as Carolina lost three key players in Frantisek Kaberle, Bret Hedican and Cory Stillman. The trio was out of the lineup a combined 126 games, which hurt the club on both sides of the puck, especially on offense as the team had a 53-goal drop-off from its Stanley Cup season.
After leading all Carolina defenders in points during the 2005-06 season, Kaberle's numbers weren't as attractive last year, as he only appeared in 27 games and scored a measly eight points due to the surgery he had on his shoulder. Hedican only appeared in 50 games last season for the 'Canes, with only 10 assists and a minus-8 rating to show for his efforts. During Carolina's Cup year, Hedican collected the second-most points on the team by a defenseman — with 27 points in 74 games — and had a plus-11 rating.
Carolina started its Cup defense last year without Stillman, who was tied for second in team scoring during 2005-06. The left wing had surgery on his right shoulder after picking up 76 points during the regular season and 26 during the postseason, which also was the second-best output on the team. Last year, Stillman was a non-factor on offense, only scoring five goals and 22 assists in 43 games. A return to form by this trio can spell trouble for the rest of the Southeast teams, as well as the other 25 NHL clubs.
Forwards like Ray Whitney, Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Justin Williams, Matt Cullen, and Scott Walker will also be trouble for Carolina's opponents. Each player has the ability to score 20 goals in any given season. As a matter of fact, six of the seven did net 20 or more last year with the exception of Cullen, who had 16 last year for the New York Rangers. Cullen was a key contributor to the Carolina cause in 2006, contributing 25 goals and 24 assists in 78 games. He signed a free-agent deal with the Rangers right after the 'Canes won the Cup, then was dealt back to Carolina this summer for Andrew Hutchinson, Joe Barnes and a third round selection in 2008.
Whitney led the Hurricanes in scoring last season with a career-high 83 points off 32 goals and 51 assists in 81 games. Brind'Amour finished second on the club in scoring with 82 points in 78 games off 26 goals and 56 assists. Staal finished the year third on the team in scoring with 70 points off 30 goals and 40 assists. Believe it or not, those totals were disappointing, as the 22-year old was coming off a 100-point campaign, where he scored 45 goals and 55 assists for the 'Canes. Cole, on the other hand, had a nice bounce-back year from a neck injury from the previous year, potting 29 goals and 32 assists in 71 games. Williams enjoyed a career year in '06-07, leading the Hurricanes in goals with a career-high 33 and game-winners (eight) and ranking fourth in points (67) in 82 games. The 34-year old Walker finished sixth on the team with 21 goals and 30 assists in 81 games.
While the team doesn't have a name or names on defense that will jump off the page and cause teams to alter their plan of attack, Carolina does have a solid corps. Led by veterans Hedican and Glen Wesley, the 'Canes have a crew that can shut teams down, while also possessing the talent to beat teams with an opportune goal or two. The main problem with the backline last year was that the team didn't have enough capable bodies to compete on a high level. At some time or another, key defenders were missing from the lineup, causing the team to go with a patchwork defense. You're not going to win in the regular season like that and you're certainly not going to defend a Cup title with key members of your defense on the sidelines. The Carolina defense needs to follow Mike Commodore's lead, as the 27-year old not only led the team in scoring last year with 29 points, but he also was the only 'Canes defender to suit up for all 82 games.
Goalie Cam Ward suited up for a career-high 60 games, while also recording career bests in wins (30), goals-against average (2.93), save percentage (.897) and shutouts (two). This season, the Hurricanes would rather Ward's final numbers resemble those from the '05-06 postseason, where the rookie registered a 2.14 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Those stats allowed Ward to skate away with the Conn Smythe Trophy, becoming just the fourth rookie to capture the playoff MVP award, joining goaltenders Ken Dryden (Montreal, 1971), Patrick Roy (Montreal, 1986) and Ron Hextall (Philadelphia, 1987).
Prediction: first place
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have all the pieces in place to be one of the elite teams in the NHL — except a No. 1 goalie. The team has been looking for a top-notch goaltender ever since Nikolai Khabibulin took his game and Stanley Cup ring to Chicago prior to the '05-06 season.
The Bolts thought they had one in Marc Denis, whom they acquired before the start of the '06-07 season from Columbus in exchange for forward Fredrik Modin and goalie Fredrik Norrena. After seeing the way Denis performed in his first season in Florida, the Lightning would love to get a mulligan on that deal if they could. In 44 games last year, Denis was a huge disappointment, finishing with a 17-18-2 record with a 3.19 GAA and a .883 save percentage. He wound up losing the No. 1 job to Swedish import Johan Holmqvist, who posted a 27-15-3 record and 2.85 goals-against average in 48 games.
While Holmqvist played outstanding during the regular season, he didn't play standout hockey in the postseason, leaving the door ajar for Denis to get back in the mix this coming year. In Tampa Bay's opening round loss to the Devils in the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Holmqvist was 2-4 in six games with a with a 2.92 GAA and an .893 save percentage. Lofty numbers like that aren't going to cut it in the postseason, especially when you're playing against a team that has future Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur on the other side. On most nights, good goaltending usually beats a good offense, and that's what it came down to last year against the Devils. In the first three games of the quarterfinals series, Brodeur allowed nine Tampa goals on 70 shots, only winning one of the team's first three playoff games. But when the Devils' stopper found his form in Games 4-6, the series was over.
While the Lightning had problems keeping pucks out of their own net last year, they didn't have any problems scoring on the opposition. Led by Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay averaged 2.96 goals-per-game last season. Lecavalier lit the lamp a league-leading 52 times last year in 82 games. Marty St. Louis also was on his game last year, scoring 102 points off 43 goals and 59 assists with 12 power play goals and three game-winners. Brad Richards finished third on the team in scoring, registering 70 points off 25 goals and 45 assists. The Tampa Bay Lightning may have a lot of their cap money locked up in Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards, but if you watch these guys night-in and night-out and see how they compete and produce, you'd see why they're worth every penny. The team was 32-12-1 whenever Lecavalier scored a goal, 25-8-3 when St. Louis lit the lamp and 16-1 when Richards recorded two or more points in a game.
The Tampa Bay defense is also worth the price of admission. The team has one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL in Dan Boyle. The 31-year old had a breakout year last season, recording a career high and franchise record for defensemen with 20 goals in 82 games. His 63 points were also a career high, and ranked him third amongst NHL defensemen in that category. Boyle has quietly put up 50 or more points in three of the past four NHL seasons.
Filip Kuba, Paul Ranger, Shane O'Brien and Brad Lukowich are steady two-way defenders who can beat the opposition on both sides of the puck. Kuba was the second-highest scoring backliner the Bolts had last year, notching 15 goals and 22 assists in 81 games. Ranger was right behind him, posting 28 points off four goals and 24 assists in 72 games, while leading all Tampa blueliners with a plus-5 rating. Gritty backliner O'Brien had 16 points in 80 games, while free-agent signee Lukowich compiled four goals and eight assists for the Devils last year, with two of his four tallies being game-winners. Lukowich was a good pickup for this team, as the 31-year old, helped the team win back-to-back Southeast Division titles and the 2004 Stanley Cup Championship a few years back. He also put up career numbers on offense during Tampa's Cup run, posting 19 points off five goals and 14 assists.
Chris Gratton was also a good pick up in the offseason by the club from the Florida Panthers. Like Lukowich, the 32-year old also knows his way around the Tampa Bay area, as Gratton will be returning to the Bolts for the third time in his career. Last year in Florida, Gratton recorded 13 goals and 22 assists in 81 games, which isn't bad production for a guy that's going to be counted on to center the team's third line.
Expect the Lightning to also get points out of free-agent pickups Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac. Ouellet scored 48 points off 19 goals and 29 assists last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Hlavac played in Europe last season with HC Sparta Praha of the Czech Extraleague, where he netted 31 points off 20 goals and 11 assists in 41 games.
So, as you can see scoring goals into the opposition's net isn't going to be a problem for this club, keeping them out of their own goal may be another story.
Prediction: second place
The 2007-08 season will be a tough test for the Atlanta Thrashers, as they will not only try and improve on a record-setting 2006-07 campaign, they will also be looking to make back-to-back appearances in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
The Thrashers won their first Southeast Division title last year, setting team records for wins (43) and points (97) in the process. But it wasn't an easy task for the young club, as they had to hold off the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes, the two previous Stanley Cup winners before last year's Anaheim Ducks.
The four players who were mainly responsible for Atlanta's highly-successful season last year were Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov, Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen. Hossa, Kozlov and Kovalchuk lit up the opposition night-after-night last season for Atlanta, while Lehtonen did his best to keep them off the scoresheet. The trio combined to score 113 of the team's 246 goals last season, while also adding 256 points.
Hossa paved the way, leading the team in goals (43), assists (57) and points (100). Kozlov ended the year as Atlanta's second-best scorer, netting 80 points off 28 goals and 52 assists, while also registering a team-leading eight game-winning goals. Kovalchuk finished third in scoring with 76 points, but was the team's second-best goal scorer, posting 42 goals — including seven game-winners — in 82 games.
The three players should receive scoring help this season from free-agent pickups, Todd White and Eric Perrin. White had 44 points off 13 goals and 31 assists in 77 games with Minnesota last year, while Perrin contributed 36 points off 13 goals and 23 assists to the Tampa Bay cause last year. The Thrashers will also rely on highly-touted prospects Bryan Little and Brett Sterling to chip in on offense this season. The two rookie forwards seem ready to contribute on the NHL level.
Lehtonen really came into his own last year in his second full NHL season. The 23-year old goaltender appeared in a franchise record 68 games for Atlanta, carrying the club to the playoffs for the first time in its existence. Lehtonen was dynamite during the regular season, compiling a 34-24-9 record to go along with his 2.79 GAA, .912 save percentage and four shutouts.
Unfortunately for the Thrashers, he played his worst hockey when it counted the most — in the playoffs. In two postseason appearances, Lehtonen didn't record a win, going 0-2 with a lofty 5.59 GAA and a forgettable .849 save percentage. Backup Johan Hedberg, who was 9-4-2 with a 2.89 GAA and a .898 save percentage in '06-07, fared better against the Rangers in the playoffs, netting a 2.56 GAA and a .928 save percentage, while posting an identical 0-2 mark. The two goalies need to take their games to another level in order for Atlanta to compete in the wide-open Southeast.
The Atlanta defense will also need to improve on last year's overall performance. The Thrashers' defense was ranked 15th in the league last season, giving up 245 goals on 2582 shots against, which was 25th in the league. The losses of veterans Greg de Vries and Andy Sutton will be felt, but the signing of Ken Klee, a 12-year NHL backliner, should help cut down the goals against and shots. But experienced defenders like Niclas Havelid and Alexei Zhitnik must also be on the ball — or puck in this case — in their end, while chipping in some offense. Youngsters like Garnet Exelby, who had 10 points (2G, 8A) in 58 games last season, Steve McCarthy, Tobias Enstrom and Mark Popovic must also chip in without making too many glaring mistakes.
The play of Lehtonen in goal, along with the amount of contribution Atlanta gets from its youngsters on offense and defense, will tell the story of the Thrashers '07-08 season when all is said and done.
Prediction: third place
In the 2007-08 season, the Florida Panthers will ice a team made up of a mixture of youths and veterans. Up front, the Cats have plenty of experienced forwards in Olli Jokinen, Jozef Stumpel, Radek Dvorak, Richard Zednik, Ville Peltonen and Brett McLean.
Jokinen led the team in scoring for the fourth consecutive campaign, notching career highs in points (91), goals (39), assists (52) and plus/minus (+18). The 32-year old also led the Panthers in game-winning goals (eight) and was second in power-play tallies with nine. At 35, Jozef Stumpel seems to be getting better with age, finishing third on the Panthers in scoring with 57 points off a career-high 23 goals.
In two seasons with Florida, Stumpel has been a factor on both sides of the puck, scoring 109 points off 38 goals and 71 assists, while amassing a plus-13 rating in 147 games. Peltonen finished last year seventh on the team in scoring with 37 points off 17 goals and 20 assists. The 29-year old McLean had a career year in Colorado last season, registering 35 points off 15 goals and 20 assists in 78 games. Dvorak returns to the original team that drafted him with the 10th pick at the 1995 entry draft. The 30-year old appeared in all 82 games for the St. Louis Blues last year, notching 10 goals and 27 assists. Zednik, who inked a free-agent deal over the summer, should add some more pop to a Florida offense that finished 11th in the league last year. Last season, the 31-year old winger tallied 21 points off seven goals and 14 assists in 42 games while splitting the year between playing for the Capitals and the Islanders.
Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss are going to be the backbone of this offense for years to come. The 22-year old Horton was second on Florida in scoring last season, posting career bests in points (62), goals (31), assists (31), power-play goals (seven), game-winning goals (three), plus-minus (+15) and average ice time per game (18:07) in 2006-07. Weiss finished the year fourth on the club, amassing 48 points off 20 goals and 28 helpers. The 24-year old Weiss also had a memorable year, ending the year registering career highs in goals (20), assists (28) and points (48).
On the backline, Ruslan Salei is the senior guy at 32. The veteran defenseman will be playing his second full campaign in the Sunshine State, after spending his first nine seasons under the California sun with the Anaheim Ducks. Salei seemed to fit right in on the Florida blue line, as he recorded career highs in goals (six), assists (26) and points (32). He also logged a ton of minutes for the Cats, ranking second on the team in average ice time per game (23:19).
Jay Bouwmeester was the busiest defender every night last season, averaging over 26 minutes per game. Over the final 26 games of the regular season, Bouwmeester and Bryan Allen worked very well together. They not only combined for 28 points off seven goals and 21 assists, they also led the Panthers on a 15-6-5 run, where the dynamic duo combined for a plus-27 rating. Mike Van Ryn also had a solid year, netting four goals and 25 assists in 78 games. Steve Montador, Branislav Mezei, Noah Welch and Cory Murphy round out the defensive crew. The Cats think Murphy can help improve a power play that was ranked 13th in the league last year. Murphy won the 2006-07 Lasse Oksanen trophy as the Finnish League's MVP while playing for HIFK Helsinki. In 45 games, the 29-year old registered a plus-17 rating, while also scoring 50 points off 13 goals and 37 assists.
The Panthers upgraded the goaltending position by acquiring veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun from the Nashville Predators for a package of draft picks. The 31-year old puck-stopper went 27-12-4 last season for Nashville, posting a 2.40 GAA, a career-best .920 save percentage and five shutouts. The issue the Panthers now have in net is that they don't have an experienced NHL goaltender behind Vokoun. Heading into the '07-08 season, 26-year old Craig Anderson will be the team's backup plan, which is probably OK for the short term, but if Vokoun goes down with an injury the Panthers will be in trouble. Anderson was 23-10-1 in 34 games last season for the AHL's Rochester Americans.
Prediction: fourth place
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
Alex Ovechkin asked for help at the end of last season, and GM George McPhee obliged, signing free agent forwards Michael Nylander (26-57-83) and Viktor Kozlov and defenseman Tom Poti to deals in the offseason. The veteran trio will definitely help take some of the offensive burden off Ovechkin, but the real question here is whether or not adding offense to the Caps' lineup is going to translate into more wins and the team's first playoff berth in four seasons.
Washington finished the 2006-07 season with an offense that was ranked 17th in the league, but on the flipside, its defense was ranked 26th, giving up an average of 3.35 goals per game and 33.3 shots per contest, which was 29th in the league. So clearly the Caps needed more help on offense than they did on defense.
Need some more stats to back up that claim? Five of Washington's defensemen from last year who are returning this season were double-digit minuses for the Caps. Of the five, Ben Clymer was the worst at minus-17, while Steve Eminger was right behind him at minus-14. John Erskine was the next worst at minus-13, and Brian Pothier and Mike Green were the other disappointments at minus-11 and minus 10 respectively. Jeff Schultz, Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina are the only returning defenders who logged plus or even ratings last season for the Caps, with Schultz finishing at a plus-5, Morrisonn at a plus-3 and Jurcina even. While Poti is a nice two-way player, his addition to the Washington lineup isn't really going to make a huge impact on the team defensively.
But, make no mistake, adding Poti, along with Nylander and Kozlov, will impact the offense. Poti potted six goals and 38 assists last season for the Islanders, with all of his red-lighters coming on the power play for New York. Nylander is making a second stop in Washington at the right time, as he is coming off two of the most productive seasons of his career. As a member of the New York Rangers the last two years, the play-making center recorded 162 points in 160 games, including 49 goals. Last season for New York, Nylander finished second in scoring with 83 points off 26 goals and 57 assists in 79 games, with 14 of his goals coming with the man advantage and four being game-winners. Kozlov netted a career-high 25 goals to go along with the 26 assists he had for the New York Islanders last season, with five of his goals coming on the power play and four being game-winners.
While Ovechkin asked for players to help him turn the team's fortunes around, he didn't ask for anyone to help him put the biscuit in the basket. The 22-year old does fine in that department all by himself. Last year, his 92 points off 46 goals and 46 assists led the Caps in scoring.
Alexander Semin is another young gun on the Caps who doesn't need help finding the net, as the 23-year old has already scored 48 goals and 47 assists in 129 career NHL games. Last season, Semin finished second on the team in scoring, setting career highs in goals (38), assists (35), points (73), games (77), shots (243), power play goals (17) and game-winners (six).
Captain Chris Clark finished third on the team in scoring, netting 30 goals and 24 assists in 74 games. The Washington offense will also get a boost this season from Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps first-round selection (fourth overall) from the 2006 draft. The 19-year old prospect led his Swedish Elite league club (Brynas) in scoring last season, posting 12 goals and 28 assists in 45 games.
One area the Caps didn't need help in was goaltending. Despite being 37 years old, Olaf Kolzig is still as steady as they come in the NHL. Last year, "Olie the Goalie" finished the year 22-24-6 with one shutout, a 3.00 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Washington also has a solid backup in Brent Johnson, who went 6-15-7 last year with a 3.61 GAA and a .889 save percentage.
While the goaltending numbers seem rather inflated, you have to take into consideration the defense these guys were playing in front of last season. The Caps' defense must do the little things in their own zone like clear the front of the net and rebounds, which will give their goalies and team a better chance to stay in games. Otherwise Washington is in for another long season, which would most likely include the third consecutive basement finish in the Southeast.
Prediction: fifth place
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
NHL Season Previews: Atlantic Division
New York Rangers
After signing the two biggest free agents on the market this summer in Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, the Rangers will be the hottest ticket on Broadway. The additions turned a solid New York hockey club into an instant Cup contender.
Drury and Gomez not only know how to put the puck in the net, more importantly, the duo knows how to win. They posted a combined 50 goals and 129 points last season and possess three championship rings between them. Drury brings 15 game-winning goals in the playoffs and one Cup title with him to the Blueshirts' table, while Gomez adds two NHL championships and 65 postseason points off 21 goals and 44 assists.
Adding those two players to a team that already had Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Brendan Shanahan, Petr Prucha and Marcel Hossa on offense makes life easier for the Rangers' coaching staff and front office, but tougher on opposing goalies.
"We had them ranked both as our first picks, as far as free agents were concerned, in our (organizational) meetings in La Quinta," GM Glen Sather said. "We really didn't think we were going to get both of them, but it just worked out that way. So we're pretty happy."
Jagr also was happy about the signings because it will take some of the scoring burden off his 35-year old shoulders. The Rangers captain finished the 2006-07 regular season eighth in league scoring, recording 96 points off 30 goals — five which were game-winners — and 66 assists. He was exceptionally dangerous on the power play, where he piled up 41 points off seven power-play goals and 34 assists. Straka was third on the club in points, registering 29 goals and 41 assists while Shanahan proved to be an ageless wonder, netting 62 points in 67 games off 29 goals and 33 assists. Prucha chipped in 22 goals in 79 games, while Hossa potted 10 in 64 games.
While the Rangers will have one of the NHL's best offenses, they will also have one of the game's top goalies (Henrik Lundqvist) patrolling their crease. Last season, Lundqvist came into his own after a shaky first half and finished 37-22-8 in 70 appearances with five shutouts.
His 2.34 GAA was eighth in the league and his .917 save percentage was tenth. Lundqvist was one of the main reasons the Rangers got into the playoffs last year, going 12-2-2 down the stretch in his last 18 starts. In the postseason, the 25-year old showed no letdown, as he went 6-4 in 10 games, posting a 2.07 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
But just because the Rangers have all-stars up front and a franchise goalie in net, doesn't mean the team is going to automatically win a championship. In order for this club to succeed in the postseason, it will have to get contributions on both sides of the puck from its defense and lesser-known players.
Sean Avery was New York's invaluable sparkplug last year, igniting the team on a nightly basis by scoring some timely goals and getting under the opposition's skin. The Rangers, who were 17-6-6 last season with Avery in the lineup, will be hoping for a repeat performance out of the pesky winger. The Broadway Blueshirts will also need encore performances from defensemen Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik. Rozsival led all Rangers blueliners with 40 points in 80 games while Malik was the team leader in plus/minus at plus-32.
The rest of New York's no-name defense, Paul Mara, Fedor Tyutin, Thomas Pock, Daniel Girardi and Andrew Hutchinson needs to lay low and contribute on offense and defense just like it did last year. Without a superstar blue-liner on their roster last year, New York managed to finish ninth in goals against and sixth in shots against. But, believe it or not, all that could change for the better if prized prospect Marc Staal steps onto New York's blue line and makes an immediate impact just like his brothers — Eric in and Carolina and Jordan in Pittsburgh — did.
Prediction: first place
In Pittsburgh, youth won't be wasted on the young during the 2007-08 season, it will be put to good use. The Penguins will have seven of their first-round picks — six who are 24 or younger — from previous years in the lineup, which for most NHL teams is a recipe for disaster. But the youngsters in the Steel City can't be compared to any of the others, especially Sidney Crosby.
Crosby set the hockey world on fire in his second NHL season, netting 120 points off 36 goals and 84 assists in 79 games. At 19, his outstanding efforts won him the Art Ross Trophy, given to the NHL scoring champion; the Hart Trophy, given to the League MVP; the Lester B. Pearson Award, given to the "most outstanding player" during the regular season as voted by members of the NHLPA and a nod as the center on the NHL's First-Team All-Star squad. The sky is the limit for this kid.
Evgeni Malkin also proved last season that he's going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come in the league. In his first NHL season, Malkin not only lead all rookies in scoring with 85 points in 78 games, he also displayed a flair for the dramatic. Of the 33 goals the Russian native scored last year, 25 came while the Penguins trailed or were tied, and eight of those were scored in the final five minutes of games. He became the second Penguins player to capture the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year and his 16 power-play goals tied a team rookie record that was set by Crosby the year before.
Jordan Staal is another Pittsburgh forward who set some records last season, becoming the youngest NHL rookie (age 18) to record a hat trick and score on a penalty shot. Staal also established an NHL record with seven short-handed goals, which also happened to lead the league in 2006-07. Don't expect the pressure of having to produce all over again this season to get to either Malkin or Staal, as the two youngsters proved to everyone last year that they have ice in their veins.
Expect Colby Armstrong to be another cool customer on the ice this season. Last year, in his second full season with the Pens, the 21st overall selection of the 2001 Entry Draft posted 34 points off 12 goals and 22 assists. Like Malkin, Armstrong also came through in the clutch for the Penguins last season, as all 12 of his tallies came when the team was either down or tied in a game.
On defense, the Pens will once again rely on two of their cornerstones in Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik. Whitney showed the world what he is capable of, ranking fifth in scoring, both on his team and in the league among all other NHL defenders. In 81 games, the fifth overall pick of the 2002 draft posted 59 points off 14 goals and 45 assists. The 24-year old also finished second on Pittsburgh in average time on ice (23:56), fourth in power-play scoring with 33 points and tied Malkin for second in power-play assists with 24. Orpik is a fearless hitter, who brings a physical presence to the Penguins' blue line each night, making forwards think twice about going into the Pittsburgh corners or in front of its net. The 27-year old, who was paired with Whitney most of the '06-07 season, led the Penguins in hits last year with 186.
Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be Pittsburgh's last line of defense in goal for many years to come. Fleury was a wall between the pipes last season, stopping 1770 of the 1954 shots the opposition fired his way. The first pick of the 2003 draft racked up 40 wins in 67 appearances last season for the Pens, while compiling a 2.83 GAA, a .906 save percentage and five shutouts. Fleury's win total was the second highest season total in team history, falling a few victories short of Tom Barrasso's 43 wins from the 1992-93 season. He'll have a chance at breaking Barrasso's record this season, as Pittsburgh is going to ride their young netminder as much as possible in '07-08.
The Pens are also going to ride veterans like Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Darryl Sydor and Petr Sykora at certain times during the season. When the youngsters lose their way, focus or scoring touch, it will be the job of these experienced players to help them get back on track. Combined, Recchi, Roberts, Sydor and Sykora have six Stanley Cup rings between them. This group has been around the block and back in terms of the NHL. Throw assistant captain Sergei Gonchar, who finished second in the NHL in scoring among defenseman last year, into that mix too.
If all the pieces fall into place this coming season, the Penguins will not only challenge for the Atlantic Division title, they could very well make a run at an Eastern Conference championship and possibly make their first appearance in the Finals for the first time since the 1991-92 season. Fleury will be the difference-maker here. If he takes his game to the next level and proves he can win in the playoffs, then the sky is the limit for this talented bunch.
Prediction: second place
After finishing with the worst record in the NHL last season, the Flyers have nowhere to go but up. On paper, it appears new GM Paul Holmgren has done a bang-up job since replacing Bob Clarke last autumn.
Going in, Holmgren knew he had to improve on an offense that scored just 213 goals and finished the year ranked 23rd, and a defense that was ranked dead last in the league, giving up a hefty 3.62 goals per game. Holmgren addressed his team's needs through some savvy trades and bold free-agent signings. The first big move the former Flyer made came on Feb. 15 when he dealt sniper Peter Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for youngsters Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent and Nashville's first- and third-round picks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Upshall is a 23-year-old forward whom the Preds picked sixth overall at the 2002 draft, while Parent is a 20-year old defensive prospect that went 18th overall in 2005.
Then on Feb. 24, Holmgren injected his backline with some youth and skill by acquiring Braydon Coburn from the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Coburn, 22, is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound defender with the size and tools to be a force in the league for years to come. Coburn was Atlanta's first-round choice, (No. 8 overall) in 2003.
Three days later, Holmgren improved his goaltending situation by acquiring Martin Biron from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Biron came in and quickly established himself as the team's No. 1 goalie, relegating Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche to backup duty. Biron ended the year 18-12-3 overall with a 3.03 GAA and a .903 save percentage. In 16 games with the Flyers, Biron went 6-8-2 with a 3.02 GAA and a .908 save percentage. Niittymaki (9-29-9, 3.38 GAA, .894 save percentage) enters the season as Biron's backup.
When the regular season ended, Holmgren picked up the pace even more. Right before the draft in June, the determined GM dealt the first-round pick he got for Forsberg back to the Predators for two-way defenseman Kimmo Timonen and gritty winger Scott Hartnell. At the time, Timonen and Hartnell were about to become free agents, so Holmgren moved quickly to lock up both players for six years before they hit the open market. Timonen greatly improves Philadelphia on both sides of the puck, finishing the year with 13 goals and 42 assists and a plus-20 rating. The versatile Hartnell is a rugged forward who can play either wing and is good for 20-25 goals a year. Last season, the 25-year old registered 22 goals and 17 assists in 64 games, with 10 of his goals coming on the power play.
In July, Holmgren really made a splash, signing one of the most coveted free agents on the market — Daniel Briere — to an eight-year, $52 million contract. The 29-year old center posted 95 points off 32 goals and 63 assists in 81 games last season for the Buffalo Sabres. His points and assists totals were tops among all Buffalo players and ranked him 10th and seventh in the league, respectively. Briere productive play carried over into the postseason, where he led the Sabres in scoring with 15 points off three goals and 12 assists in 16 games.
Later in the month, Holmgren worked the phones again and acquired veteran defenseman Jason Smith and promising winger Joffrey Lupul from the Edmonton Oilers for offensive defenseman Joni Pitkanen, experienced forward Geoff Sanderson, and a third-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. The 33-year old Smith recorded 11 points in 82 games for Edmonton last season off two goals and nine assists, but Holmgren didn't bring him in for his offense. The Alberta native is widely known as a solid defender, who does everything well in his end.
Last year, Smith led the team in blocked shots (228) and hits (151) for the second consecutive season. Lupul is a former first-round pick who was taken seventh overall by Anaheim in the 2002 Entry Draft. He spent his first two NHL seasons with the Ducks before moving to Edmonton for the '06-07 campaign. Last year for the Oilers, Lupul notched 16 goals and 12 assists for 28 points in 81 games, and he finished tied with Shawn Horcoff for the team lead in goals. The Flyers would love for him to duplicate or better his numbers from the '05-06 season, when he registered career highs in goals (28), assists (25) and points (53) as a member of the Ducks.
In adding all these quality pieces to a Flyers team that already sported the likes of veterans such as Simon Gagne (41G, 27A), Mike Knuble (24 G, 30A), Derian Hatcher (3G, 6A) and Sami Kapanen (11G, 14A), and up-and-comers Jeff Carter (14G, 23A), Mike Richards (10G, 22A), R.J. Umberger (16G, 12A) and Ben Eager (6G, 5A), Holmgren has turned the Flyers fortunes around almost overnight. Expect them to challenge the Rangers and Penguins in the Atlantic and make an appearance in the 2008 postseason.
Prediction: third place
New Jersey Devils
New Jersey will have a Devil of a time this season in trying to win its third consecutive Atlantic Division title. The club lost a ton of offense when Scott Gomez went through the Lincoln Tunnel and inked a free-agent deal with the Rangers. They also lost loads of solid defense with Brain Rafalski and Brad Lukowich taking their games elsewhere over the summer. Rafalski was a two-way force for the Devils last season, finishing fifth on the team in scoring and a plus-4 in 82 games. Lukowich added four goals and eight assists in 75 games and finished a plus-1. Combined, the trio contributed 25 goals and 127 points to a Devils team that was ranked 27th on offense last year.
To try and make up some of that production, GM Lou Lamoriello brought in a few free agents of his own in forward Dainius Zubrus and defensemen Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski. Zubrus had a career year last season in the time he split between Washington and Buffalo. The 10-year NHL veteran posted career highs in goals (24), assists (36) and points (60) in the combined 79 games he played in for the Caps and Sabres. While in Washington, the career right winger showed he could also be a force down the middle, centering a line for Caps' sniper Alex Ovechkin, where he recorded 20 goals and 32 assists in 60 games.
That production was a huge reason Lamoriello brought Zubrus in, as the Devils will slide him between Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta on the first line. Rachunek spent last season across the river with the Rangers, netting six goals and 20 assists in 66 regular-season games. Rachunek also potted four goals on the power play and averaged almost 20 minutes a game last year, which will go a long way in helping New Jersey replace some of the production they got out of Rafalski. The 27-year old Vishnevski amassed three goals and 10 assists in 67 games split between Nashville and Atlanta last season. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound backliner has recorded 14 goals and 47 assists for 61 points in 483 career NHL games.
While the Devils will be counting on the new faces to help out, some of the old ones like Elias will also have to step up their games. Elias led the club in scoring last season, but his 69 points off 21 goals and 48 assists were a far cry from the 38-goal and 81-point output he put up just a few seasons back. Last year's captain will need to get back up among the league leaders on offense in order for the Devils to compete with the beasts in the East. Gionta will also have to be better up front this coming season. The winger saw his production slip last year when he missed 19 of 21 games in the middle of the season with a groin injury. He ended the year posting 25 goals and 20 assists in 62 games, which was well off his 48-goals and 89 points from the 2005-06 season.
One New Jersey player who didn't have an off-year in '06-07 was Zach Parise. The 23-year-old sophomore led the Devils in goals last season, tallying 31 red-lighters in 82 games. He wound up finishing the year setting career marks in goals, assists (31), points (62), power play goals (9), and game-winners (7). The 5-11, 190-pound fireplug also busted out with career highs in the postseason, collecting 10 points off seven goals — two power play, one game-winner — and three assists in 11 games. Jamie Langenbrunner was also productive for the Devs last year, tying his career high in goals (23) while setting new career marks in points (60), assists (37), power play goals (12) and game-winning goals (7). In the playoffs, the 32-year old winger had eight points off two goals and six assists. Rookie frontliner Travis Zajac also had a nice year for the Devils, debuting with 17 goals — six on the power play — and 25 assists in 80 games.
As always, Marty Brodeur was his solid self in net last season for the Devils. As a matter of fact, some might even go as far as saying that last year was his best regular season of his career. In the '06-07 campaign, Brodeur won an NHL record 48 games in 78 appearances, passing Bernie Parent's previous NHL record of 47, which was set back in the 1973-74 season. He finished with a 48-23-7 record, led the NHL in shutouts (12), ranked third in goals-against average (2.18) and was third in save percentage (.922). In the playoffs, he wasn't his dominant self, ending the year with a disappointing 5-6 record, 2.44 GAA, .916 save percentage and one shutout. The Devils believe Brodeur was spent in the postseason after logging so many minutes and games during the regular season, so they went out and signed an experienced backup in Kevin Weekes to give Brodeur a breather every now and then.
Another reason for the postseason meltdown was the Devils defense. The unit wasn't as solid and stingy as it has been in years past. This year's group may also be an average bunch with the departures of Rafalski and Lukowich, but adding Rachunek and Vishnevski to a backline that has Colin White, Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya should help. Getting a healthy Richard Matvichuk back should also be a plus for New Jersey. The 24-year old Andy Greene should also find himself in the mix after appearing in 23 games last season for the Devs.
Prediction: fourth place
Re: Eastern Conference Previews
New York Islanders
After being away from the NHL for 10 years, Ted Nolan showed he was still a magical motivator, as he got the Islanders back into the postseason for the first time since the 2003-04 season. But he'll have to be Houdini this year to get this rag-tag crew to repeat last season's 40-win, 92-point performance.
In the off-season, the team lost nine players who either decided they had enough of New York or New York had enough of them. While just bringing in that many new bodies to a club that had success is hard enough on a head coach, just imagine how tough a task it's going to be to replace 118 goals and 202 assists. Three of the biggest losses for the club were Jason Blake, Ryan Smyth and Tom Poti. Blake came into his own and led the team in scoring last year with 40 goals and 29 assists. In Smyth, the team not only lost the five goals and 10 assists in 18 games he gave them after coming over to the club from the Edmonton Oilers, it also lost two future building blocks in Robert Nilsson ( first-round choice, 15th overall, in 2003), Ryan O'Marra (first-round choice, 15th overall, in 2005) and a first-round selection at last year's draft. The Isles gambled and lost big time on the Smyth deal with Edmonton. They also lost out big time when Poti took his game to Washington. The two-way defender gave the club 44 points off six goals and 38 assists, while also playing solid defense in New York's zone. One player the Islanders didn't care about losing was Alexei Yashin. The club ate millions of dollars in buying out the fading superstar's contract, figuring it was worth the money in the long run, as Yashin wasn't producing like they wanted him to and he was eating up minutes that management felt would be better served by a young player. Yashin chipped in 18 goals and 32 assists in 58 games last season.
GM Garth Snow tried to plug those holes quickly over the summer by signing Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jon Sim, Josef Vasicek, Andy Sutton and Aaron Johnson.
Comrie could be a good fit on Long Island, as he's only 27 years and hasn't reached his prime or potential yet. He had 45 points off 20 goals and 25 assists in 65 games last season with Phoenix and Ottawa. The Isles would love to see him equal or better his output from the 2005-06 season, when he had 30 goals and 30 assists in 80 games for the Coyotes. In Guerin, New York hopes its found lightning in a bottle. The 36-year old is coming off a very productive year, where he scored 36 goals and 20 assists in a season split between St. Louis and San Jose. The 15-year NHL veteran brings 1,026 games of experience to Long Island, along with his 719 career points off 364 goals and 355 assists. Just days after signing him to a free-agent deal, the Islanders named Guerin the 11th captain in franchise history.
In 80 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ruslan Fedotenko recorded 32 points off 12 goals and 20 assists. While Fedotenko had an off-year in Tampa last season, he showed his true value three years ago in Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup run in 2004, posting 12 goals — five which came on the power play and three which were game-winners — in 22 playoff games. He almost single-handedly delivered the Cup to the city of Tampa Bay by scoring both goals in the Lightning's 2-1 Game 7 win over the Calgary Flames. Sim helped the Atlanta Thrashers make the postseason for the first time in team history last year, by chipping in 29 points in 77 games off 17 goals and 12 assists.
Along with these newcomers, the Islanders will need their returning players like Miro Satan, Trent Hunter, Mike Sillinger, Richard Park Chris Simon and Shawn Bates to contribute nightly. Even though Satan finished last season third on the team in scoring with 59 points, it was an off-year for the dangerous winger. The Islanders need him to score in the 35-40 goal range this coming season ending with around 70-75 total points. This needs to be a big year for Hunter, also. The hulking forward needs to utilize his size and skill and improve upon the 20 goals and 15 assists he had in 77 games last season.
Defenders like Marc-Andre Bergeron, Radek Martinek, Brendan Witt, Chris Campoli and Frederick Meyer will also be relied on to chip in some offense, as well as play solid defense in front of Rick DiPietro if the Isles want to make it back to the postseason.
Speaking of DiPietro and the playoffs, New York would have been nowhere near a berth if it hadn't been for their franchise goalie. Last year, DiPietro carried the team on his back before a concussion cut his regular season short. When all was said and done, the 26-year old goaltender had 32 wins in 62 games, to go along with his 2.58 GAA, .919 save percentage and five shutouts. His 32 victories were a career high and also tied the franchise record previously shared by Billy Smith (1981-82) and Chris Osgood (2001-02). His win total also made him become the first goaltender in franchise history to post 30 or more victories in consecutive seasons. The Islanders will need DiPietro to be fully recovered from his concussion from a year ago, as he'll be asked to stand on his head once again this coming season and try to carry his club back to the playoffs.
Prediction: fifth place