LAST SEASON42-30-10 (sixth in East); lost in second round to Buffalo
KEY ADDITIONS CChris Drury, C Scott Gomez
Key Losses C MattCullen, C Michael Nylander, D Karel Rachunek, G Kevin Weekes
Within 18 hours ofthe start of the free-agent signing period on July¬†1, the Rangerstransformed themselves from an ordinary playoff team into a Stanley Cupcontender, by signing $7 million-a-year centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury.The 27-year-old Gomez is a superb playmaker who adapts expertly to thefinishers around him; Drury, 31 and without flaws in his game, has a heavy shotand a seemingly unwavering intensity. Both have been vital contributors on Cupwinners.
Big stars onBroadway! Does that sound familiar? "Only one thing scares me," captainJaromir Jagr recently told The New York Times. "I don't want it to be likesix years ago." Jagr was referring to the prelockout Rangers, who spentrecklessly on free agents (see: left wing Valeri Kamensky at $17 million overfour years) yet went years without having a cohesive--orplayoff-worthy--team.
Things aredifferent now. The salary cap has forced G.M. Glen Sather to do what he didbest in Edmonton: assemble a strong core of under-the-radar and complementaryplayers. Along with the big names (38-year-old right wing Brendan Shanahan isanother one), New York has quietly capable defensemen in Marek Malik, MichalRozsival and Fedor Tyutin; solid secondary forwards in ornery Sean Avery,soft-handed Petr Prucha and elusive Martin Starka; and 25-year-old goalieHenrik Lundqvist, the 205th overall pick in the 2000 draft, who has emerged asone of the NHL's least flappable netminders.
This time, inother words, the stars are well-aligned.
LAST SEASON47-24-11 (fifth in East); lost in first round to Ottawa
KEY ADDITIONS G TyConklin, D Darryl Sydor, RW Petr Sykora
KEY LOSSES RWMichel Ouellet, G Jocelyn Thibault
A year ago thePenguins were coming off a conference-worst 58-point season, couldn't getfinancing for a new arena and thus didn't know how long they would stay inPittsburgh. Now, after a dramatic 47-point jump in their record and anagreement that will put them in new downtown digs for the 2010-11 season, noother NHL team has a more promising future--or a more daunting young core.
The league's bestplayer, center Sidney Crosby, is signed through 2012-13, as is offensivedefenseman Ryan Whitney, an All-Star-to-be. Explosive center Evgeni Malkin, theleague's top rookie in 2006-07, precocious 19-year-old winger Jordan Staal (29goals) and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, 22, the No.¬†1 draft pick in 2003, areall years from unrestricted free agency. Consider that the Penguins have ahalf-dozen other very able 25-and-under players, and the team, without evenhaving won a playoff round, has the look of a dynasty-in-waiting. Says G.M. RayShero, "This is not a one-year window for us."
The team's youngdefense can be exploited, but with the presence of some skilled, battle-wornforwards--Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora--to help lead, Pittsburghcould go deep into next spring's playoffs.
LAST SEASON22-48-12 (15th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS CDaniel Briere, LW Scott Hartnell, D Jason Smith, LW Joffrey Lupul D¬†KimmoTimonen
KEY LOSSES LW ToddFedoruk, D Joni Pitkanen, LW¬†Mike York
A few weeks agosecond-year G.M. Paul Holmgren was reflecting on his team: "I think we sortof fell behind the eight ball the last few years." To say the least. Aftera first-round playoff loss in 2005-06, Philadelphia opened last season 3-12-2en¬†route to its worst record in 40 seasons.
Unnerved by theFlyers' ponderous defensive core and their overall inability to adapt to thezippy, postlockout NHL (they were 1-6 in shootouts, for example), Holmgrenbegan the league's most impressive overhaul. Trades last February brought, mostimportant, goalie Martin Biron from the Sabres and, most telling, speedyblueliner Braydon Coburn from the Thrashers. In the off-season Holmgren addedNashville puck mover Kimmo Timonen, who'll quarterback the power play.
Philly ultimatelybroke camp with nine players who weren't on the roster at the start of lastseason, among them Holmgrem's prized import: free-agent signee Daniel Briere, aswift, high-scoring center who sees in the remade Flyers a chance for areversal of fortune. When Briere went to the Sabres in 2002-03, he recalls,"we were near the bottom. We had to get together and grow together. I havethe feeling the same thing is happening here."
LAST SEASON49-24-9 (second in East); lost in second round to Ottawa
KEY ADDITIONSCoach Brent Sutter, RW Aaron Asham, D Karel Rachunek, D Vitaly Vishnevski, CDanius Zubrus
KEY LOSSES C ScottGomez, D Brad Lukowich, D Brian Rafalski, C Erik Rasmussen
The Devils haveleft the Meadowlands and a 16-year-old building, where they won three StanleyCups from 1994-95 through 2002-03, for downtown Newark and the ultramodernPrudential Center. Does it augur a new era on ice? Well, in the off-season G.M.Lou Lamoriello went outside the organization to bring in rookie coach BrentSutter, a firebrand who'll implement the puck-control style he used to leadCanada to back-to-back world junior championships.
That would be abreak from New Jersey's trademark defensive style and could lead to arepurposing of lines. (As Lamoriello says, "Brent will come in with nopreconceived notions.") Despite that, and despite the offensive voidcreated by the loss of playmaker Scott Gomez and puck-rusher Brian Rafalski,the Devils will rely on the assets that have made them perennial contenders:1)¬†peerless goalie Martin Brodeur, who last year won his third VezinaTrophy while playing in a league-high 78 games; 2)¬†the scoring of leftwing Patrik Elias, who has led the team in points in six of the last sevenseasons; 3)¬†√ºbercheckers, such as John Madden and Jay Pandolfo, houndingopposing forwards into oblivion; and 4) Lamoriello's incessant micromanaging.The Devils might not quite be the Devils of old--Colin White is the onlydefenseman who was with the team when it won its last Cup--but the new versionwill retain a classic look.
LAST SEASON40-30-12 (eighth in East); lost in first round to Buffalo
KEY ADDITIONS CMike Comrie, LW Ruslan Fedotenko, RW Bill Guerin
KEY LOSSES RWJason Blake, D Sean Hill, C Viktor Kozlov, D Tom Poti, LW Ryan Smyth, C AlexeiYashin
This maligned teamfinally got some good mojo going at the end of last season, winning its finalfour games to make the playoffs. As in every postseason appearance since 1993,however, the Islanders failed to get out of the first round. And then came theoff-season. New York lost three of its top five forwards (Ryan Smyth, who wasacquired last February, Jason Blake and Viktor Kozlov) and two core defensemen(Sean Hill, Tom Poti) to free agency. Meanwhile, franchise goalie RickDiPietro, plagued by concussion-related issues at the end of last season,underwent surgery to clear bone fragments from his left hip.
DiPietro at leastappears healthy now, but the replacement players in front of him represent asignificant drop-off in talent. That means the Islanders will need coach TedNolan to inspire a middling cast to overachieve. He has the benefit of afavorable early-season schedule--New York plays nine of its first 13 athome--and can only hope that some October wins will get his charges to believein themselves as few others do.
His value is not only in the array of skills that makeshim one of the game's top five offensive players but also in his infectioustemperament. When the captain is happy and playing at full intensity, the teamfollows suit.
He gets his points--67 last season, second among NHLdefensemen--but he's eminently beatable, as his team-worst -5 rating in 2006-07showed. His game also suffers in the playoffs, when he has been regularlyundressed.
There is no more effective shadow in hockey--he'll shutdown Sidney Crosby or Jaromir Jagr for long stretches--and he's a roadblock onthe penalty kill. All that, and durable, too: Pandolfo has played in 283straight games.
In the Crease
This could be the NHL's toughest division: It'sbalanced and highly skilled. . . . Keep an eye out for Devils prospect BarryTallackson, a forward with size (6' 5", 210), speed and skill. If heratchets up his determination, he'll make an impact. . . . The Rangers expectrookie Marc Staal to help solidify their defense. . . . Penguins second-yearcenter Evgeni Malkin will benefit greatly from being better acclimated to theU.S. and having improved his English. Teammate Jordan Staal--Marc'sbrother--may be shifted from wing to his natural center position.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES
GOLD GLOVE Lundqvist's 2.34 goals-against average was second in the conference.
SPRY AND MIGHTY The nimble Briere (48) is the remodeled Flyers' most dangerous scorer.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (JAGR, GONCHAR); DAVID E. KLUTHO (PANDOLFO)