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Eastern Conference: Southeast



LAST SEASON40-34-8 (11th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS CMatt Cullen, C Jeff Hamilton

KEY LOSSES D AntonBabchuk, D David Tanabe, C Josef Vasicek

When Cam Wardsigned a three-year contract in May, the deal obligated him to report totraining camp in better shape than he did last season. Well, Ward's pants fit awhole lot looser these days. The 23-year-old goalie dropped 24 pounds in theoff-season, reporting at a svelte 176 pounds (he's 6' 1"). "I feel alot better on the ice, a lot quicker, and my stamina's better," says Ward,who embarked on a cardio-training program and a low-carb, high-protein dietafter putting up a meager .897 save percentage. "I see other playersputting on a 20-pound vest [while working out] to make it harder for them. It'slike I took that 20-pound vest off."

After becoming thefirst Stanley Cup champions since the 1994-95 Devils to miss the playoffs thefollowing season, the Hurricanes have rededicated themselves to conditioningand to the importance of maintaining intensity even at the beginning of themarathon regular season. "[Last year] our practices were not at a hightempo like they were two years ago," says G.M. Jim Rutherford, whose teamplodded to a 15-14-4 start. "Guys were recovering from a long season, andit was hard to get the energy back."

The hangover wasfurther complicated by the normal distractions for a Cup-winning team:heightened media scrutiny, requests for photo ops, etc. Now, says center RodBrind'Amour, "we don't have to deal with talking about the past or withgoing to this or that event. All that stuff takes away from what you're tryingto do."

Along withBrind'Amour, whose 82 points last year were his most since 1995-96, TheHurricanes had a strong nucleus of forwards built around top-liners Eric Staaland Erik Cole. They'll also be buoyed by the return of center Matt Cullen, whospent last season with the Rangers. Says Cullen, distilling the refocusedHurricanes' cause for optimism, "Our lineup looks a lot like it did when wewon it."

TAMPA BAYLightning

LAST SEASON44-33-5 (seventh in East); lost to Devils in first round

KEY ADDITIONS LWJan Hlavac, D Brad Lukowich, RW Michel Ouellet

KEY LOSSES LWRuslan Fedotenko, C Eric Perrin, D Cory Sarich

Once again thisteam will depend upon its trio of explosive forwards--Vincent Lecavalier, theNHL's leading goal scorer last season; Martin St. Louis, the 2003-04 leagueMVP; and center Brad Richards, an All-Star-caliber playmaker--and once againthe talk in Tampa is mainly about goaltending. The position has been a sorespot since Nikolai Khabibulin, who helped the Lightning win the 2003-04 Cup,signed with Chicago before last season. Tampa is still hoping that eithersophomore Johan Holmqvist or 30-year-old Marc Denis, both of whom had savepercentages below .900 last season, can emerge as a No. 1.

"Last year wasa glitch in my career," says Denis, who had an .883 percentage in 44 games."I'd like to believe I'm a better goalie than [that]." Denis, only111-174-28 in the NHL (though he has spent most of his career with the BlueJackets), and Holmqvist will get only adequate protection from a defense thathas puck movers but no shut-down pair. (Worse, Dan Boyle will miss the season'sfirst four weeks with severed tendons in his left wrist.)

The addition ofsecondary scorers Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac should heighten theeffectiveness of the Lightning's big three, who make up more than 40% of thepayroll. But not even this team wants to get into a scoring contest. That's whyit's how well the defense holds up that will ultimately determine whether theLightning makes it back to the playoffs.


LAST SEASON35-31-16 (12th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS DCory Murphy, G Tomas Vokoun, F Richard Zednik

KEY LOSSES G EdBelfour, LW Martin Gelinas, C Chris Gratton

Seven yearswithout making the playoffs--tied with the Blue Jackets for the longest activestreak in the NHL--has bred restlessness among the Panthers, who have improvedin each of those years, albeit at a glacial pace. "It's easy to say, 'Thisis going to be our year, we're going to make the playoffs, blah, blah, blah,blah,' " says center and captain Olli Jokinen, who has led the team inscoring in each of the past four seasons. "It's what you do on the icethat matters."

Florida isexpecting new goaltender Tomas Vokoun to play as well as he did last season inNashville, where he went 27-12-4 with a 2.40 goals-against average. Thequick-gloved Vokoun, 31, can be a franchise goalie--that the Predators tradedhim to Florida for three draft picks was based on Nashville's desire to reduceits payroll--and Florida has needed one since former G.M. Mike Keenan sentRoberto Luongo to the Canucks before last season.

Keenan'ssuccessor, Jacques Martin, has been working to stabilize the roster, notablysigning 6' 4" defenseman Bryan Allen to a five-year extension. Allen and 6'4" heavy hitter Jay Bouwmeester are at the core of one of the conference'sstrongest defenses and, perhaps, will give the Panthers a chance to end thatpostseason drought.


LAST SEASON43-28-11 (third in East); lost to Rangers in first round

KEY ADDITIONS DKen Klee, D Joel Kwiatkowski, C Eric Perrin, C Todd White

KEY LOSSES F EricBelanger, D Greg de Vries, D Shane Hnidy, RW Scott Mellanby, F Jon Sim, DAndy Sutton

It's becoming aperennial point of discussion for the Thrashers: How's Kari Lehtonen's groin?The nagging injury limited the now 23-year-old goaltender to 38 games as arookie two seasons ago, bothered him last year and kept him out of two games inthis preseason. Atlanta can ill afford to lose Lehtonen (his .912 savepercentage was third best in the conference) or have him play as poorly as hedid in last year's playoffs, when, although he was healthy, he had a 5.59goals-against average.

The Thrashers, wholost much of their defense to free agency and saw captain Scott Mellanbyretire, are simply too thin to win without Lehtonen playing at his best. Theyhave formidable scoring power in Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk,who combined to net 47% of the team's goals last year, but there is a sharpdrop-off after them.

All told, Atlantawill usher eight new players into its regular lineup, and any hope of successwill depend on breakout seasons and rookie surprises, factors that, likeLehtonen's groin, are never a sure thing.


LAST SEASON28-40-14 (14th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS FViktor Kozlov, RW Joe Motzko, C Michael Nylander, D Tom Poti

KEY LOSSES C KrisBeech, C Jiri Novotny, D Jeff Schultz

New centersMichael Nylander, a veteran playmaker, and Nicklas Backstrom, a precocious19-year-old, should help Washington's dynamic young scorers Alexander Ovechkin(46 goals and 46 assists last year) and Alexander Semin (38 goals, 35 assists)raise their games to even higher levels. But producing goals is the least ofthe Capitals' worries.

Their off-seasonmoves failed to address the defensive shortcomings that led to theirsurrendering 3.35 goals a game, fifth worst in the league. The signing ofminutes-eater Tom Poti helps, but he's hardly an intimidating presence in frontof 37-year-old goalie Olie Kolzig. Washington will make the late-nighthighlights with its flashy goal scoring, but entertainment value doesn't getyou into the playoffs. The Caps are destined to be shut out for the fourthstraight season.--Sarah Kwak



C Lightning

It's not only his scoring (52 goals last season) butalso his versatility and physical presence. Nine years into a much anticipatedNHL career that began when he was 18, Lecavalier has learned to carry a team asfew others can.



C Thrashers

Eleven goals was a career, full-season low for Holik,36, who used to score about 25 a year. And the 6' 4" 230-pounder is not thedefensive presence he once was. Holik was a -3 last season, a low return on his$4.25 million salary.



D Lightning

Overshadowed on the blue line by offensive-mindedteammates Dan Boyle and Filip Kuba, the 23-year-old Ranger is a serious threathimself--and as a superb outlet passer, he has huge upside.


In the Crease

The reacquisition of center Matt Cullen, an excellentshooter who also has good vision as a passer, will significantly improveCarolina's power play, which was 25th in the league last year. . . . Floridacenters Nathan Horton (6' 2", 229) and Rostislav Olesz (6' 1", 214) aredeveloping into go-to offensive players with high skill levels. Norton is onenasty piece of business. . . . Though his team is undermanned, the Capitals'Glen Hanlon is the NHL's most underrated coach--especially in terms ofgame-planning, as he has also shown as coach of Belarus's national team.



LIGHT YEAR Can a slimmer Ward regain the form that made him the 2006 playoffs MVP?



DRY RUN Jokinen, Florida's captain, has played 641 games without a playoff appearance.