47-27-8; 2nd in East; lost in finals to Red Wings
LW Matt Cooke, LW Ruslan Fedotenko, RW Eric Godard, LW Janne Pesonen, RWMiroslav Satan
G Ty Conklin, RW Adam Hall, RW Marian Hossa, RW Georges Laraque, LW RyanMalone, LW Gary Roberts, LW Jarkko Ruutu
ENTERING THEoff-season with 15 unrestricted free agents, the Penguins knew they were in fora remodeling that, after reaching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, they wouldhave preferred to avoid. Lost in the summer exodus were right wing MarianHossa, a trade-deadline acquisition who had found quick chemistry with topcenter Sidney Crosby, and integral power forward Ryan Malone. The defectionsprompted G.M. Ray Shero to sign a pair of skilled if rather less well-roundedwingers in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko and also to get cracking insecuring Pittsburgh's nucleus. Shero locked up flashy 23-year-old goaltenderMarc-Andre Fleury and punishing defenseman Brooks Orpik—whose relentless,five-hit shift in Game 3 of the finals made him an immediate folk hero—withseven- and six-year deals, respectively; he gave center Evgeni Malkin afive-year extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2014. "It wasa busy summer after a long season," Shero says, "and I'd consider it asuccess."
Agreed, thoughjust how successful will depend on how well Satan and Fedotenko, both competentscorers coming off poor years with the Islanders, can contribute to the offensealongside Crosby (72 points in 53 games) and Malkin (a team-high 47 goals). Itwas a conspicuous lack of scoring depth that necessitated Hossa's acquisitionlast season.
"Nothing thathappened last year is going to matter this year," says Crosby, trying tomove conversation off Pittsburgh's near miss in June. True, except that thePenguins' fine young players—add center Jordan Staal and defenseman RyanWhitney to the group—should be more prepared for a Cup run after their battlein the finals. Turnover notwithstanding, the Penguins remain the class of theconference.
42-29-11, 6th in East; lost in conference final to Penguins
F Glen Metropolit, D Ossi Vaananen
LW Vaclav Prospal, D Jason Smith, C R.J. Umberger
GENERAL MANAGERPaul Holmgren turned Philly from a last-place team in 2006--07 into an EasternConference finalist last season by orchestrating smart trades and signingfree-agent All-Star center Daniel Bri√®re. "We took awhile to cometogether," coach John Stevens says, "but by season's end there was areal affection for one another. We had a group that wanted to win for eachother."
After witnessinghis team's playoff run, Holmgren smartly stayed mostly idle this off-season,tinkering but nothing more. The Flyers could challenge the Penguins for thedivision title, though to do so they'll need help from first-line left wingSimon Gagné (above), who missed more than 50 games and all of the playoffs lastseason while battling concussion-resulted problems. Gagné, a two-time 40-goalscorer, appeared in good form during the preseason, averaging 16 minutes in hisfirst two games and taking nine shots. "If we had him last [playoffs], wecould have gone over the top," says Bri√®re. "Having him healthy ishuge. He was our best acquisition of the summer."
46-29-7, 4th in East; lost in first round to Rangers
C Bobby Holik, F Brian Rolston
C Sergei Brylin, D Karel Rachunek
IN THE 14 yearsthat Martin Brodeur (below) has been their goalie, the Devils have made theplayoffs 13 times, including the last 11 in a row. The four-time Vezina Trophywinner showed a touch of what coach Brent Sutter calls "mental fatigue"in the playoffs last spring, but during the regular season Brodeur was histypical daunting self, ranking in the top 10 in wins (44), save percentage(.920) and goals-against average (2.17) while playing a league high 4,635minutes. "I don't know who put the [idea] in everybody's head that a goaliecan't play every game," says Brodeur, 36.
After scoring thefourth-fewest goals in the NHL, the Devils brought back two of Brodeur's formerteammates—forwards Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston—who won Stanley Cups with theteam in 1995 and 2000. Rolston, who had three straight 30-goal seasons with theWild, will give the Devils needed offensive support and boost their anemicpower play, but New Jersey's overall load will again be carried largely byBrodeur. He remains very much up to the task.
42-27-13, 5th in East; lost in second round to Penguins
LW Markus Naslund, D Wade Redden, LW Patrick Rissmiller, RW Nikolai Zherdev
F Sean Avery, RW Jaromir Jagr, LW Brendan Shanahan, LW Martin Straka, D FedorTyutin
WITH FORWARDSJaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery having moved their acts offBroadway, the Rangers enter the season with less conspicuous talent—but achance to have improved on-ice chemistry. Last year's big free-agent signings,centers Scott Gomez (above) and Chris Drury, never got into a groove as NewYork shuffled its top lines, trying vainly to find combinations to kick-startan offense that wound up with just 213 goals (25th in the league).
Expect Gomez (70points) and new captain Drury (58) to raise their games, and for the offense toget a boost from soft-handed Nikolai Zherdev, an explosive player who shouldfind his stride now that he's out of Columbus. Another import, 35-year-oldMarkus Naslund, is a great addition to the locker room, although his productionhas slipped. Even if it turns out that a chemical imbalance remains, New York,buoyed by top-tier goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and superbly coached by Tom Renney,should once again be playoff bound.
35-38-9, 13th in East
Coach Scott Gordon, D Mark Streit, C Doug Weight
LW Ruslan Fedotenko, Coach Ted Nolan, RW Miroslav Satan, F Josef Vasicek
THE"PHILOSOPHICAL differences" that G.M. Garth Snow cited upon firingcoach Ted Nolan in July came down to the development of young players. Snowwanted to push the Islanders' youngest set along; Nolan preferred giving moreice time to veterans. New bench boss Scott Gordon, last year's AHL coach of theyear with the Providence Bruins, buys wholeheartedly into Snow's plan. Thatmeans players such as 20-year-old winger Kyle Okposo (above), the No. 7 pick inthe 2006 draft, and 22-year-old winger Blake Comeau should play prominent rolesthis season. Veterans Doug Weight, 37, brought in on a one-year contract, andhis former Edmonton and St. Louis teammate Bill Guerin are seen as a stopgapwhile the young core matures.
The long-term planis to assemble a competitive team in front of Rick DiPietro, the talented27-year-old goalie who is entering only the third year of a 15-year contract.That day of competitiveness may indeed come. But not for a while yet.
"We've got one more step to take before we can saywe've arrived."
—BROOKS ORPIK, Penguins defenseman
Pittsburgh's top center missed 28 games with a high ankle sprain last seasonyet still finished second on the team in scoring. More valuable: He improvesthose around him, turning middling linemates (Pascal Dupuis, anyone?) intoserious threats.
On the Spot
An elite player, but injuries (hip, knee) and the Islanders' iffy defense havetaken a toll on the 27-year-old goalie. Will he be the star who had a .919 savepercentage in 2006--07 or the more vulnerable DiPietro of last year? If it'sthe latter, all is lost for the Isles.
On the Verge
At 23, the 6'5" 220-pounder established himself as a vital part of theFlyers' defense last season, averaging 21:14 of ice time and going a team-high+17. Now, with the prospect of playing alongside Kimmo Timonen, Coburn'soffensive game should blossom.
PIERRE McGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
Injuries to Penguins defensemen Ryan Whitney and SergeiGonchar mean slick youngsters Kristopher Letang and Alex Goligoski will getlots of ice time. This will ultimately create defensive depth but could lead toearly-season mistakes.... Flyers prospect Claude Giroux, a swift winger, willmake an impact before the season's out.... The Rangers' season may hinge onwhether defenseman Wade Redden can rebound after two poor seasons in Ottawa....Former Canadiens defenseman Mark Streit should upgrade the Islanders' powerplay from awful (29th last season) to average.
FRED VUICH (MALKIN)
LOCKED UP Signing Malkin and other young talent long-term was essential for Pittsburgh.
LEN REDKOLES/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (GAGNÉ)
CHRISTOPER PASATIERI/US PRESSWIRE (BRODEUR)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (GOMEZ)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (OKPOSO)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (DIPIETRO)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (CROSBY)
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (COBURN)