43-31-8, 3rd in East; lost in first round to Flyers
G José Théodore
G Cristobal Huet, G Olaf Kolzig
THE CAPS arecoming off a season in which they rose from worst to first in the division overthe final 14 weeks. NHL coach of the year Bruce Boudreau, whose hiring on Nov.22 precipitated the turnaround, is back behind the bench. The team's top 20scorers—yes, that's 20—return. Yet none of that qualifies as the primary sourceof optimism in Washington this season. That's still left wing AlexOvechkin.
The Hart Trophywinner in 2007--08, Ovechkin scored the most goals (65) in a season since MarioLemieux's 69 in 1995--96, and he amassed 60 of his league-best 112 points inthe season's final 39 games—right after signing a 13-year, $124 millioncontract. "He's almost reached the pinnacle, where it's going to be hard tobetter what he has done," says Boudreau. "But he'll be trying to, andhe'll feel it's a disappointment if he doesn't."
Boudreauemphasizes an aggressive puck-pursuit system—"Attack them before theyattack us," he says—that creates open ice for Ovechkin and other skilledforwards such as Calder Trophy finalist Nicklas Backstrom and creative leftwing Alexander Semin. The return to health of winger Chris Clark, who missed 64games with a groin injury, and center Michael Nylander, who spent half theseason on the IR with a torn rotator cuff, gives the Capitals one of the East'sdeepest forward units.
Washington hasn'tsent a defenseman to the All-Star Game since Sergei Gonchar in 2002--03, but23-year-old Mike Green could be on his way; he tied for first among NHLbackliners with 18 goals and averaged a team-high 23:38 of ice time for anunderrated unit. The Capitals' main concern is in net, where the uneven JoséThéodore, a free-agent pickup, takes over after an unusually strong stretchwith the Avalanche at the end of last season.
The Caps don'tneed Théodore to be great, only good. If he is, Ovechkin and company will keepWashington much closer to first than to worst for the entire season.
43-33-6, 9th in East
D Josef Melichar, D Joni Pitkanen
LW Erik Cole, D Bret Hedican, LW Darcy Hordichuk, D Glen Wesley
WHEN THEY missedthe playoffs last season, the Hurricanes became the first team to win theStanley Cup and then fail to reach the postseason in the next two years. Thatdoesn't sit lightly. "We were a playoff team the past two years,"goalie Cam Ward insists. "We've been underachieving."
Carolina's2007--08 season was also compromised by injuries to captain Rod Brind'Amour andwinger Ray Whitney, both of whom are now healthy. But no Hurricane is in bettershape—statistically, physically or financially—than first-line center EricStaal (above). After leading the team with 82 points in 2007--08, he added sixpounds of muscle and reduced his body fat in the off-season, then signed aseven-year, $57.8 million contract extension.
Though Carolinawisely acquired minutes-eater Joni Pitkanen (he averaged 24:07 per game inEdmonton) to help on defense, that unit remains suspect. And Ward's .904 savepercentage last year was 26th among goalies who played in at least 40 games.Carolina is likely to become the first Cup champ to miss the playoffs in thenext three years.
31-42-9, 15th in East
D Matt Carle, G Olaf Kolzig, LW Ryan Malone, Coach Barry Melrose, D AndrejMeszaros, C Vaclav Prospal, F Gary Roberts, RW Radim Vrbata
D Dan Boyle, G Marc Denis, D Filip Kuba, D Brad Lukowich, Coach JohnTortorella
WHEN OREN KOULESand Len Barrie took ownership of the club in June, they vowed to be aggressivein rebuilding the franchise. They weren't kidding. In the first 10 days of freeagency the Lightning brought in 13 players—and that doesn't count No. 1 draftchoice Steven Stamkos. Important among the pickups are ex-Penguin Ryan Maloneand Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals for Phoenix. "I've never seen a teammake that many changes," says top center Vincent Lecavalier (above), whoalso spilled a little ink when he signed an 11-year, $85 million contractextension. "It's not just players but everywhere in the organization. It'slike I got traded without having to leave Tampa."
The revampedroster has depth up front but will be extremely thin—and inexperienced—on theblue line. "We're going to take our lumps early," says coach BarryMelrose, another import (from the ESPN studio). "We'll make mistakes, but Iaccept mistakes as long as you're trying to get better."
38-35-9, 11th in East
D Keith Ballard, D Nick Boynton, Coach Peter DeBoer, D Bryan McCabe, LW CoryStillman
D Jassen Cullimore, C Olli Jokinen, Coach Jacques Martin, D Steve Montador, CJozef Stumpel
DEFENSE WINSchampionships, as the old saw goes, but in the Panthers' case it's not likelyto be enough to even contend in this division. Goalies Tomas Vokoun (69 games)and Craig Anderson (17) tied Anaheim's unit with a league-best .920 savepercentage last season, and in the off-season Florida acquired several veteransto strengthen a defense that, with powerful Jay Bouwmeester (above) at itscore, could be as strong as any in the Southeast.
Ah, but theoffense. With perennial top scorer Olli Jokinen having been dealt to Phoenix,the onus falls primarily upon 25-year-old center Stephen Weiss and ascendant23-year-old right wing Nathan Horton. Those two can make plays—Horton, inparticular, has 35-goal potential—but they'll have little support up front;that makes continued production from Bouwmeester, a fine passer who also had 15goals last year, essential.
The bottom line:Florida's eight-season playoff drought is tied with the Blue Jackets' for thelongest active streak in the NHL—and there's no end in sight.
34-40-8, 14th in East
Coach John Anderson, D Ron Hainsey, D Mathieu Schneider, C Jason Williams
C Bobby Holik, D Ken Klee, LW Brad Larsen, RW Mark Recchi
AFTER DEALINGMarian Hossa at the trade deadline and seeing Mark Recchi and Bobby Holik leaveas free agents, Atlanta's offense now starts and stops with winger IlyaKovalchuk (below), who led the team in goals (52) and assists (35). No one hasscored more goals in the NHL than Kovy has during his six years in the league,but in that time he has appeared in only four playoff games—all losses to theRangers in 2006--07.
Results like thatexplain why Atlanta has such a hard time luring and keeping stars to complementKovalchuk, who has played most of his career without a true top-line center.That job now will likely be entrusted to 25-year-old Erik Christensen, whoplayed on Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines before coming over in the Hossatrade. Another ex-Penguin, Colby Armstrong, is being counted on for goalsdespite scoring just 25 over the past two years.
"We're goingto surprise a few teams this year," says rookie coach John Anderson. G.M.Don Waddell sure hopes so. At the helm from the start of the franchise'snine-year history, he has produced just two winning seasons.
"Whichever team's goaltender has the best seasonwill win this division."
—JIM RUTHERFORD, Carolina G.M.
With a league-leading 112 points the irrepressible 23-year-old winger had ahand in a remarkable 47.1% of the Capitals' goals last season. His mere on-icepresence rattles opposing defenses and infuses his teammates with energy.
On the Spot
After a career year (27 goals) with the Penguins the power forward bolted for agenerous seven-year, $31.5 million deal with Tampa Bay. That's the longestcontract any new signee got from the Lightning—which also hired Malone'sfather, Greg, as their head pro scout.
On the Verge
After producing 114 points in 102 AHL games over two seasons, the winger stuckwith the Capitals last year and chipped in 10 goals and 20 assists despitelimited ice time. The smooth-skating 24-year-old could benefit from playingalongside crafty center Sergei Fedorov.
PIERRE McGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
Rookie defenseman Karl Alzner will make an impact inWashington.... Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette is on the hot seat right outof the gate.... Here's one guarantee in Tampa: With all of the egos on theLightning, win or lose, the team will never be boring.... The best new coach inthe NHL is Florida's Peter DeBoer, a skilled motivator who knows how to moldyoung players.... The Thrashers were right to spend the No. 3 pick of June'sdraft on defenseman Zach Bogosian. At 18 the well-rounded talent could be adifference maker this season.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (OVECHKIN)
UNSTOPPABLE Ovechkin followed a late-season surge with nine points in seven playoff games.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (STAAL)
JOHN RUSSELL/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (LECAVALIER)
DALE ZANINE/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (BOUWMEESTER)
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KOVALCHUK)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (OVECHKIN)
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (MALONE)
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (FLEISCHMANN)