"We took the champs to a Game 7. We're in the mix." —CAPITALS COACH BRUCE BOUDREAU
LAST SEASON 50-24-8 (2nd in East); lost in second round to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDITIONS RW Mike Knuble, C Brendan Morrison
KEY LOSSES LW Donald Brashear, C Sergei Fedorov, G Brent Johnson, C Viktor Kozlov
Despite his sudden and glittering turn in net last spring, goalie Semyon Varlamov isn't being promised a major share of playing time just yet. The 21-year-old rookie will have to win the starting job from 12-season veteran José Théodore, whom he relieved in the playoffs. "[Varlamov's] only done it for 13 games," coach Bruce Boudreau says. "Théodore has earned the respect and the right to be the Number 1. [The job] is his to lose."
After a shaky stretch to close the regular season—in his last 10 starts Théodore had a 3.21 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage—the former Vezina Trophy winner was yanked after a 4--3 Game 1 loss to the Rangers. Varlamov, who had played in only six NHL games, showed poise as Washington came from two games down to take the series in seven games. He continued to play effectively until imploding in Game 7 against the Penguins, when he surrendered four goals in the first 22 minutes.
"We've seen how people can come in and have a great emotional run for a month, and then they get the world and they don't follow through on that," Boudreau says of not rushing Varlamov into the lineup.
The muddled situation in goal—another young netminder, AHL playoff MVP Michal Neuvirth, could also be an option—is the only question on a team that has 18 of its top 20 scorers returning. To replace the other two, KHL-bound Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, G.M. George McPhee added crease monkey Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison, smart veteran scorers who add another dimension to a lethal attack. Knuble, who joins Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas B√§ckstr√∂m on Washington's top line, will feast on leftovers from Ovechkin's 500-plus shots, and his grinding style should complement the ultraskilled play of his linemates.
The Capitals' defense, which surrendered the 10th-most goals last season, improves with the return to health of captain Chris Clark and Brian Pothier, both of whom missed the better part of the last two seasons because of injuries. With the rest of the team well set, Washington has 82 games to sort out whom to trust in net.
LAST SEASON 45-30-7 (6th in East); lost in conference finals to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDITIONS D Andrew Alberts, RW Tom Kostopoulos, D Aaron Ward, C Stéphane Yelle
KEY LOSSES D Anton Babchuk, RW Patrick Eaves, D Frantisek Kaberle, D Dennis Seidenberg
They earned the nickname Cardiac Canes after pulling off two breathtaking upsets during their run to the Eastern Conference finals. "No one believed in us except us, and that was the difference," says forward Scott Walker, who scored the series-winning overtime goal against Boston in the second round. "Everyone stuck together."
The re-signing of free agents Erik Cole, who works well alongside superstar center Eric Staal, and feisty winger Chad LaRose kept the Hurricanes' top six intact and left them with a total of nine players who were on Carolina's 2006 Stanley Cup winner, including underrated goalie Cam Ward (below).
One of the links to that season—and also to last spring—is defenseman Aaron Ward, who is back with the Hurricanes after two seasons with the Bruins. Ward, who was memorably on the receiving end of a Walker blow during Game 5 of the playoff series, now feeds the hand that punched him, and the two have let bygones be bygones. "I'm just glad he's on our team," Walker says. "He makes [us] better."
LAST SEASON 24-40-18 (14th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS LW Todd Fedoruk, D Kurtis Foster, G Antero Niittymaki, D Mattias √ñhlund, D Matt Walker, LW Stéphane Veilleux
KEY LOSSES LW David Koci, D Josef Melichar, LW Vaclav Prospal
When G.M. Brian Lawton homed in on 33-year-old free agent Mattias √ñhlund, he was after more than a premier defenseman. He also wanted a role model and mentor for Victor Hedman (below), the No. 2 pick in June's entry draft. The two Swedes will fortify a defense that surrendered the third-most shots on goal last season, and √ñhlund should strengthen a penalty kill that allowed the most power-play goals in the league. Though the expectations for Hedman are high, the 6'6", 220-pound rookie deeply impressed the Lightning while averaging more than 27 minutes in the preseason. Says coach Rick Tocchet, "I did not know he was this good."
The defensive failings undermined Tampa Bay so much that, as one Eastern Conference coach says, "I don't think anybody saw what they were capable of doing." With better defensive support around goalie Mike Smith (he should improve on his 2.62 goals-against average) and the NHL's 2006--07 leading goal scorer Vincent Lecavalier (he had 52) setting the tone offensively, the Lightning can at least harbor hopes of making the playoffs.
LAST SEASON 41-30-11 (9th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS G Scott Clemmensen, D Ville Koistinen, D Jordan Leopold, C Steve Reinprecht
KEY LOSSES G Craig Anderson, D Jay Bouwmeester, D Nick Boynton, LW Ville Peltonen, D Karlis Skrastin≈°, C Anthony Stewart, RW Richard Zednik
The Panthers tend to make news for what they've lost rather than what they've won. The team hasn't been to the playoffs in 10 years, and it has a bad habit of trading its best players: goalie Roberto Luongo in 2006, center Olli Jokinen in '08 and franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester in June (to Calgary for Jordan Leopold and a draft pick).
A highly regarded figure who does return is second-year coach Peter DeBoer, a two-time OHL coach of the year who promotes an aggressive forechecking game. "Taking over a new job in a new league, there were some pitfalls," DeBoer says of last season. "The first 10, 15 games, we were putting in a new style of play and I was getting to know the players."
DeBoer has promising young forwards in 30-goal scorer David Booth (below), power forward Nathan Horton and 21-year-old Michael Frolik, nicknamed Baby Jagr for his flair and his soft hands. But defensively there's no one to make up for the loss of Bouwmeester—and that's the main reason Florida's postseason drought will continue.
LAST SEASON 35-41-6 (13th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS RW Nik Antropov, D Pavel Kubina, RW Anthony Stewart, D Noah Welch
KEY LOSSES D Garnet Exelby, LW Colin Stuart
When Ilya Kovalchuk (above) speaks, the Thrashers listen.
At the end of last season the superstar winger, named captain in January after the team had gone most of 2008--09 without one, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "We need to sign some free agents, spend some money.... I don't want to compete just for the playoffs. I want to compete for the [Stanley] Cup." G.M. Don Waddell got the message, trading for Toronto's $5 million-a-year defenseman, Pavel Kubina, and signing free-agent forward Nik Antropov to a four-year, $16 million contract. After the latter deal was done, Kovalchuk sent his G.M. a text that read, "Great job."
As well as adding offense, the presence of Kubina (6'4", 245) and Antropov (6'6", 230) make Atlanta a more imposing team—a boost for Kovalchuk, who is often targeted by opposing roughnecks. Waddell has taken pains to satisfy Kovy, whose contract expires on July 1 and whom Waddell desperately wants to keep. Atlanta is a long, long way from Kovalchuk's goal of competing for the Cup; if he doesn't re-sign, they'll be further still.
The Capitals' winger and reigning league MVP can't help but play at full speed on every shift. He hits everyone that glares at him, he scores in bunches and he celebrates as if he really cares. Now that's old-time hockey.
ON THE SPOT
The seemingly interminable G.M. has held the job for all of the Thrashers' nine seasons and made the playoffs once. If Atlanta fails again and Ilya Kovalchuk is not re-signed, Waddell may finally be out the door.
ON THE VERGE
Tampa Bay's heralded rookie center may have come in quietly last season, but as his ice time—and confidence—increased, so did his impact. The No. 1 pick of 2008 scored 28 of his 46 points after the All-Star break.
IN THE CREASE
The Capitals brought in 12-year veteran Mike Knuble partly to keep young, headstrong talents Mike Green and Alexander Semin focused on playing a team game.... Carolina may be the NHL's surprise club; the Hurricanes have excellent speed and major jam. The key: Can Matt Cullen (below) effectively absorb some of aging Rod Brind'Amour's minutes at center... The effectiveness of the Panthers' defense will be tied to how well rugged Bryan Allen rebounds from the knee surgery that wiped out his 2008--09 season.... Zach Bogosian showed promise as a rookie last season, and now he needs to develop more consistency—which he can learn by watching Pavel Kubina.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (OVECHKIN)
LEAPS AND BOUNDS Ovechkin and the Caps, last in 2006--07, go for a third straight division title.
DAVE SANDFORD (WARD)
DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (HEDMAN)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (BOOTH)
MIKE STOBE/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KOVALCHUK)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (OVECHKIN)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (STAMKOS)
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (WADDELL)
KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES (CULLEN)