LAST SEASON48-25-9 (fourth in East); lost in Stanley Cup finals to Anaheim
KEY ADDITION RWShean Donovan
KEY LOSSES C MikeComrie, D¬†Tom Preissing, LW Peter Schaefer
The Senators havemade the playoffs for 10 straight years. They have had six 100-point seasons inthat span, including the last four in a row. And after nearly a decade ofplayoff failures, they finally broke through last spring and reached theStanley Cup finals. So what did Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk do? He fired theteam's G.M. of five years, John Muckler, and promoted coach Bryan Murray intothe job.
Murray has plentyof front-office experience, having run teams in Detroit, Florida and Anaheim,turning the latter two into Cup finalists. But new coach John Paddock's NHLrésumé is less impressive: a 106-138-37 record in 3 1‚ÅÑ2 seasons behind thebench of the Winnipeg Jets in the early 1990s. He is, however, one of the mostsuccessful coaches in AHL history, having won Calder Cups with threefranchises.
Paddock will stillhave the bulk of last year's team to work with. The Senators' top threeforwards, wingers Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson and center Jason Spezza,are among the best in the league. All three ranked in the top¬†15 inscoring last season (Heatley was second in the NHL with 50¬†goals), andeach tallied a postseason-high 22¬†points. Beyond its big three, Ottawa hasenough depth that it let Mike Comrie go to the Islanders as a free agent (he'llbe their No.¬†1 center) and traded left wing Peter Schaefer (the club'sfifth-leading scorer a year ago) to the Bruins.
On theblue¬†line the Senators are also loaded, with the likes of Wade Redden,Chris Phillips, Christoph Schubert and Anton Volchenkov. (The latter three wereall better than +30.) But the key to Ottawa's playoff run a year ago washotshot goalie Ray Emery, who emerged as a top¬†10 netminder (.918 savepercentage) after taking over as the No.¬†1 in November. He was rewardedwith a three-year, $9.5¬†million deal during the off-season and will becrucial to the Senators' chances of taking that final step.
LAST SEASON53-22-7 (first in East);lost in conference finals to Ottawa
KEY ADDITION GJocelyn Thibault
KEY LOSSESC¬†Daniel Bri√®re, G¬†Ty Conklin, C¬†Chris Drury, RW¬†DainiusZubrus
Don't expect arepeat of last season's league-best 53¬†wins and 113¬†points, not aftertwo of the Sabres' top forwards, co-captains Daniel Bri√®re (team-high 95points) and Chris Drury (37 goals), bolted as free agents, to the Flyers andthe Rangers, respectively. "It's a step back when you lose players likeChris and Danny," says G.M. Darcy Regier, "but I have a lot of faith inthis group and their ability to grow."
Sixteen members ofthe team's projected 22-man roster were drafted and developed by theorganization, giving the Sabres' front office and coaching staff an extra levelof comfort with the players, and the players an extra level of familiarity witheach other. One homegrown skater in particular will be under the microscope:left wing Thomas Vanek, who blossomed in his second season, leading the leaguein plus-minus (+47) and tying for fifth in goals (43). Vanek, 23, must not onlyhelp make up for the loss of Bri√®re and Drury, but he also has to validate theseven-year, $50¬†million offer sheet that he signed with the Oilers thissummer as a restricted free agent, which Buffalo was forced to match.
LAST SEASON40-31-11 (ninth in East)
KEY ADDITIONS LWMark Bell, LW¬†Jason Blake, G Vesa Toskala
KEY LOSS C YanicPerreault
It has been eightdecades since the Maple Leafs have gone three straight years without making theplayoffs, but it appears that distinction will end this season. Fromgoaltending to defensive inconsistency to offensive firepower, Toronto has toomany questions to find its way into the postseason.
But at least theLeafs are trying: They acquired goalie Vesa Toskala and forward Mark Bell fromthe Sharks for three picks on draft day, then signed free-agent forward JasonBlake to a five-year, $20¬†million deal a week later. Both moves should payimmediate dividends.
Toronto thought ithad acquired a No.¬†1 goalie a year ago when it dealt top prospect TuukkaRask, a former first-rounder, to the Bruins for Andrew Raycroft. But Raycroft'smiddling performance (he won 37 games last season but ranked below thetop¬†30 in goals-against average and save percentage) prompted the Leafs tosurrender a first-round pick for Toskala, who shared the San¬†Jose job withEvgeni Nabokov. Despite playing 12 fewer games than Nabokov, Toskala had onemore win.
Blake, a 40-goalscorer with the Islanders a season ago, brings punch to a team whose second-and third-leading scorers were defensemen. Captain Mats Sundin took a$2.1¬†million pay cut, to $5.5¬†million, to free up money for a newlinemate. "My only desire," says Sundin, "is to be part of achampionship team here." That's not going to happen anytime soon.
LAST SEASON42-34-6 (10th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS DRoman Hamrlik, RW¬†Tom Kostopoulos, C Bryan Smolinski
KEY LOSSES C RadekBonk, LW¬†Sergei Samsonov, D Sheldon Souray
The Canadiens arestuck in a rut, having finished fourth in the division four times in the lastfive seasons. Worse, the storied franchise is slowly losing its relevance. Inthe off-season Montreal went after big-name free agents Daniel Bri√®re, BrianRafalski and Ryan Smyth but were spurned by all three; Bri√®re's decision wasparticularly galling because he is a Quebec native.
The Habs need helpup front for captain Saku Koivu and on the blue line after losing SheldonSouray, who was the league's top goal scorer (26) among defensemen, to theOilers as a free agent. The one place Montreal seems set is in goal, whereAll-Star Cristobal Huet has fought off competition from José Theodore and DavidAebischer over the last two seasons to cement his position. But even if Huetrepeats his performance of two seasons ago, when he led the league in savepercentage, the Canadiens have too many other holes to even think about makingthe playoffs.
LAST SEASON35-41-6 (13th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS GManny Fernandez, LW¬†Peter Schaefer, RW Shawn Thornton
KEY LOSSES RWShean Donovan, G¬†Hannu Toivonen
The Bruins, to putit mildly, were a mess last season, an uninspired bunch with a passive coach(Dave Lewis) and a rookie G.M. (Peter Chiarelli) who made moves for the sake ofmaking moves. Yet despite a wildly inconsistent season and the seemingregression of several young players, it inexplicably took Chiarelli more thantwo months before he fired Lewis and brought in Claude Julien--who himself hadbeen axed by the Devils with a week left in the regular season.
Julien had acombined 121-86-17 record with Montreal and New Jersey and is expected to lighta fire--"He demands execution," Chiarelli says--under a team that hasmost of its roster returning. The one significant change is the addition ofgoalie Manny Fernandez, who should keep the Bruins in games while their youngerplayers develop. They also need 6' 9" defenseman Zdeno Chara to be thephysical force he was when he played in Ottawa. But even in the best-casescenario, Boston will go another spring without seeing the postseason.
He's not the flashiest Ottawa forward, but the gritty12th-year veteran, who holds the record for most games as a Senator (783), isthe soul of the franchise and the first European captain to lead a team to theCup finals.
Except for a few standout seasons with the Penguins atthe turn of the century, this talented Russian has been a big tease throughouthis career. Montreal expects more than 18 goals and 47 points for $4.5 millionper season.
Tallinder and Toni Lydman were Buffalo's top defensivepairing a year ago, but coach Lindy Ruff is splitting them up this season,giving Tallinder a chance to prove he can head up a second quality backlineunit.
In the Crease
Watch for third-year Senators forward Patrick Eaves toscore at least 25 goals because of added maturity and minutes. . . . CentersTim Connolly and Derek Roy have to be go-to guys offensively for the Sabres. Ifthey are, the rest of the offense will kick in. . . .The Nik Antropov-MatsSundin-Jason Blake line will create a ton of pure offense that will keep theLeafs in many games. . . . Will Saku Koivu want to finish his career in aturbulent environment like Montreal, or will he ask to be traded to a team thathas a chance to win the Cup?
M.J. MASOTTI JR./REUTERS
BODY WORK Volchenkov led the league in blocked shots and was No. 12 in hits delivered.
SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS (SUNDIN)
HELP ON THE WAY With the addition of Blake, Sundin (13) now has a scorer by his side.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (ALFREDSSON); BILL WIPPERT (KOVALEV, TALLINDER)