LAST SEASON52-22-8, second in East; won Stanley Cup
KEY ADDITIONS G John Grahame, RW Scott Walker
KEY LOSSES C Matt Cullen, G Martin Gerber, RW Mark Recchi, D Aaron Ward, C DougWeight
Glen Wesley hadplayed 767 games for the Carolina franchise before hoisting his first StanleyCup last June. His dream fulfilled, the 38-year-old defenseman spent a fewweeks contemplating retirement. But when he came to the conclusion that anotherchampionship was within reach, he instead signed a one-year, $1.2 millioncontract. Says Wesley, "The [new] guys that came in have leadership andcharacter [and have] won before. Those guys are hungry and are pushing us to bebetter."
The Hurricanesbelieve they have helped their chance of repeating by taking cues from theirrecent past. After making a surprise run to the Cup finals in 2001--02,Carolina had the NHL's worst record the following season and missed theplayoffs for two straight years. general manager Jim Rutherford says that"chemistry issues" contributed to the poor play in '02--03 and'03--04--seasons in which the team underwent significant roster changes--sothis summer he worked to keep important members of his championship teamtogether. Rutherford locked up 36-year-old captain Rod Brind'Amour (31 goals,39 assists last year) and left wings Erik Cole (30 goals, 29 assists) andJustin Williams (31 goals, 45 assists) with multiyear deals. "I see ourteam like the New Jersey model of the '90s," says Rutherford. "They wona Cup, kept their good core players and built a strong team [around them] everyyear."
With afirst-class sniper in center Eric Staal (box, opposite page) and a Conn Smythewinner in 22-year-old goaltender Cam Ward, Carolina has the makings of aSouthern dynasty.
LAST SEASON41-33-8, 10th in East
KEY ADDITIONS G Fred Brathwaite, G Johan Hedberg, C Niko Kapanen, C SteveRucchin
KEY LOSSES RW Peter Bondra, D Jaroslav Modry, C Marc Savard
Goaltender KariLehtonen's NHL career started strong--for 20 minutes anyway. As a rookie lastseason he stopped all six shots he faced in the first period of the opener,then suffered a groin injury that sent him to the bench for more than twomonths. Lehtonen returned in December and went 20--15 with a respectable .906save percentage, but it wasn't enough to prevent the team from missing theplayoffs for a league-leading sixth straight year, though by only twopoints.
To guard againstanother breakdown, Lehtonen, who Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said had been out ofshape at the start of last season, spent the summer at the team's practicefacility training his core muscles five days a week, nearly two hours a day.Nine days before camp opened, Lehtonen, the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft,agreed to a two-year, $3.7 million contract. "Now I can just focus on theimportant thing--doing well on the ice," he says. But G.M. Don Waddellisn't taking any chances. He bought insurance in signing veteran free agentsJohan Hedberg, the Stars' former backup, and Fred Brathwaite, who spent hislast two years in the Russian Super League.
Atlanta has apotent attack in forwards Ilya Kovalchuk (52 goals, 46 assists), Marian Hossa(39 goals, 53 assists) and Slava Kozlov (25 goals, 46 assists). With Lehtonenhealthy and playing at his potential the Trashers should finally make it intothe postseason.
LAST SEASON43-33-6, eighth in East; lost in first round to Ottawa
KEY ADDITIONS G Marc Denis, D Filip Kuba, D Luke Richardson
KEY LOSSES D Pavel Kubina, LW Fredrik Modin
Training camp wassupposed to begin at 7 a.m. on Sept. 14, but the entire team was present whencoach John Tortorella kicked off the meeting seven minutes early. The Lightningmay have been eager to get its season under way, but don't expect the team tobe in attendance come playoff time.
Ever since the2003--04 Stanley Cup winners got trounced by Ottawa in a five-game first-roundseries last season, G.M. Jay Feaster has set out to rebuild. But that doesn'tmean Tampa Bay has improved much. To replace the struggling goalie tandem ofJohn Grahame and Sean Burke (a combined .891 save percentage), Feaster broughtin Marc Denis, who was a disappointment in net for the Avalanche and the BlueJackets (career record: 94-156-28 and 2.97 goals-against average). The remakingof the blue line included the acquisitions of mobile Filip Kuba but alsoslow-footed Luke Richardson, who is a career minus-120.
While theCup-winning offense--led by center Vincent Lecavalier (35 goals, 40 assists),center Brad Richards (23 goals, 68 assists) and right wing Martin St. Louis (31goals, 30 assists)--remains intact, the Lightning's fixes, though not too late,are too little.
LAST SEASON37-34-11, 11th in East
KEY ADDITIONS D Bryan Allen, G Alex Auld, RW Todd Bertuzzi, LW VillePeltonen
KEY LOSSES G.M. Mike Keenan, G Roberto Luongo
In the NHL'ssouthernmost outpost, front-office politics, not the hurricane season, spunthis team into disarray. In September, All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo, the faceof the franchise for five seasons, was traded for troubled winger Todd Bertuzziand three others to boost Florida's offense. The deal was orchestrated by G.M.Mike Keenan, who 10 days before training camp abruptly resigned, leavingJacques Martin to juggle the roles of coach and G.M.
Keenan didprovide the club with some stability during his 28-month tenure, signingcaptain Olli Jokinen (38 goals, 51 assists) and 6'4", 220-pound centerChris Gratton to multiyear deals. The Panthers will return eight players whoscored 15 or more goals last year. "We've got four solid lines," saysleft wing Martin Gelinas. To stay out of the division cellar, Florida will needconsistent play out of each of them.
LAST SEASON29-41-12, 14th in the East
KEY ADDITIONS D Brian Pothier, LW Alexander Semin, RW Richard Zednik
KEY LOSSES D Mathieu Biron, C Jeff Halpern, RW Brian Willsie
After thepenultimate game of his rookie year, with the Capitals about to finish last inthe division, center Alexander Ovechkin said, "I think next season we'll goto the playoffs." Classic Ovechkin optimism, but the actual outlook isbleak considering the woeful Washington defense. In 2005--06 the Capitals lost11 games by more than three goals, allowed 300 goals (the second most in theleague) and led the NHL with 673 penalties. G.M. George McPhee made a bid forelite defenseman Zdeno Chara but settled for the ordinary Brian Pothier, whosigned a four-year, $10 million deal. Maybe by the end of that contractOvechkin's prediction will come true.
The 21-year-old dazzled last year, scoring a team-high45 goals and producing the most points in the postseason (28). The 6'4",205-pound workhorse, who played in all 82 games in 2005--06, signed athree-year, $13.5 million deal this summer and will lead the Hurricanes' marchtoward a Cup repeat.
Brought in to vie for the starting job vacated byRoberto Luongo, the moody 41-year-old is a Cup winner and a future Hall ofFamer. Just don't expect him to play like one this season. In 2005--06 withToronto he had a dismal .892 save percentage in 49 games, then missed the restof the season with a herniated disk.
On the Verge
Slotted into a checking role on the third line inDallas last season, Kapanen nevertheless produced a career-high 35 points. The28-year-old, who has the speed to keep up with top wingers, will be used in amore offensive role with the Thrashers and could become a 50-point player.
Pierre McGuire's IN THE CREASE
Now that the league's shooters have a book onHurricanes goalie Cam Ward--who had his coming-out party in last season'splayoffs--he'll need to improve his technical play. Athletically he'sterrific.... Atlanta has two points of concern: the team is slow down themiddle (centers Bobby Holik and Steve Rucchin) and lacks an impactdefenseman.... The Lightning has lost three experienced backliners from theteam that won the Cup in 2003--04: Pavel Kubina, Brad Lukowich and DarrylSydor. That's why goalkeeper Marc Denis, 29, will again have a hard time livingup to his potential.... The Panthers have some unheralded young talent (leftwing Rostislav Olesz and center Stephen Weiss), but the team's development tooka step back with the loss of goalie Roberto Luongo.... Even with AlexanderOvechkin and one-on-one maestro Alexander Semin, the Capitals don't have enoughoffense to win close games.
STICKING AROUND Williams was one of theplayers Carolina re-signed in its bid to repeat.
CHRIS O'MEARA/AP (ST. LOUIS)
LIGHTNING STRIKE Tampa Bay's strength is a loaded offense, led by former MVP St. Louis.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (STAAL)
BILL SMITH (BELFOUR)
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES (KAPANEN)