Bruce Boudreau (4th season)
54-15-13 (1st in East); lost in first round to Canadiens
LW D.J. King
C Brendan Morrison, D Shaone Morrison, G José Théodore
THE CAPITALS wore their hearts on their sleeves, or at least on the backs of their shirts, during training camp. The message: STAY ANGRY. BELIEVE IN YOURSELVES. The reason for their anger was the team's implosion against Montreal last spring in the first round of the playoffs. Washington strutted into the postseason as the Presidents' Trophy winner and crawled out in shame after blowing a 3--1 series lead against a team that finished 33 points behind them in the standings. "Everybody questioned the way we play, our system, our style, everything," says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. "That left a bad taste. For six months I [thought] we were the best team in the league. Nobody wants to lose, especially when you expect to win."
Such expectations were well-founded after a brilliant regular season in which the Capitals scored 313 goals, 45 more than any other team in the NHL. Washington was so good, it was the only team in the league that was above .500 in games in which the other team scored first. The gap between the Caps' power play, with its 25.2% success rate, and that of the second-best team (Montreal, 21.8) was bigger than the gap between the Canadiens and the Dallas Stars, whose power play ranked 12th.
Instead of panicking, G.M. George McPhee sat tight, a sound decision given that the club's corps of marksmen—forwards Alex Ovechkin (109 points), Nicklas Backstrom (101 points) and Alexander Semin (40 goals), and defenseman Mike Green, who led all NHL blueliners with 76 points—are all back. The only serious change comes in goal, where departed José Théodore gives way to Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, 22-year-olds who were 30-9-7 in two years of limited regular-season action.
Washington isn't a perfect team. The Capitals will again rely on a unique ability to cover up their defensive lapses with their speed and power play at the other end of the ice, which should get them past the first round this time.
Guy Boucher (1st season)
34-36-12 (12th in East)
D Brett Clark, LW Simon Gagne, D Pavel Kubina
D Andrej Meszaros, G Antero Niittymaki, LW Alex Tanguay
NOBODY WAS more excited by the prospect of a fall reunion than Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier. New Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher has promised that his captain, a former NHL goal-scoring champ, will see more time this season with Martin St. Louis, the winger with whom Lecavalier (below) had the best seasons of his career—both players topped the 100-point mark in 2006--07. When St. Louis joined center Steven Stamkos's line for most of last season, the switch did wonders for Stamkos, who poured in 51 goals, a 28-goal jump from his rookie campaign the year before. Lecavalier, meanwhile, deprived of his righthand man, slumped to just 24, his lowest total since 2001--02. The Lightning ranked 23rd in the league in scoring.
To boost the attack, first-year G.M. Steve Yzerman picked up two-time 40-goal scorer Simon Gagne in a trade with the Flyers in July. He also signed defenseman Pavel Kubina, a mainstay on Tampa's Cup-winning team in '04, away from Atlanta. The G.M. talks about creating "a culture of success," saying, "It starts with your core players fulfilling their talents and bringing the rest of the team with them." Yzerman, who evolved from a sublime individual talent into a great team player, may be just the man to help Lecavalier recover his game. And that should get their team a spot in the playoffs.
Craig Ramsay (1st season)
35-34-13 (10th in East)
D-RW Dustin Byfuglien, LW Nigel Dawes, LW Andrew Ladd
RW Colby Armstrong, G Johan Hedberg, D Pavel Kubina
WHEN THEY traded for Dustin Byfuglien in June, the Thrashers snagged one of the central figures of the 2010 postseason. Byfuglien, who can play both on the blue line and on the wing, scored 11 goals during the Blackhawks' run to the Cup. But Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay, looking to shore up a defense that gave up the sixth-most goals per game in the NHL (3.05), plans to use Byfuglien and his 6'4", 257-pound frame on the blue line, where he can keep the crease clear in front of goaltenders Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec.
Byfuglien will be surrounded by youngsters, including wingers Evander Kane, 19, and Bryan Little (above), 22, and 20-year-old defenseman Zach Bogosian. In a separate trade with Chicago, the Thrashers added veteran forward Andrew Ladd. "Our goal is to get contributions from our fourth line, from our sixth defenseman, from every guy in the dressing room," says Ramsay. "That sort of depth makes you harder to play against." If he's right, the mix of kids and vets might help the Thrashers make some noise in the spring.
Paul Maurice (3rd season)
35-37-10 (11th in East)
D Joe Corvo, C Patrick O'Sullivan
C Rod Brind'Amour, LW Ray Whitney
THESE ARE the new-look Hurricanes. Gone are Rod Brind'Amour, now retired after 21 years, and Ray Whitney, lost to free agency. They were grizzled veterans with scars that traced their faces like lines on a road map. Today's Carolina team, in contrast, is a collection of wide-eyed, apple-cheeked moppets. Only four Hurricanes players are in their 30s, which means there will be plenty of opportunities for Carolina's young guns to prove themselves. Jeff Skinner, the team's top draft pick and a 50-goal scorer with the Kitchener Rangers last season, may see time. Fresh-faced Brandon Sutter, 21, enters his third season off of a 21-goal effort in 2009--10, giving the team depth at center behind bellwether Eric Staal, who scored 29 goals. (He scored only eight in the Hurricanes' 47 losses.)
The defensemen are sound, including Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo. Goalie Cam Ward, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, carried Carolina to the conference finals two years ago, but he missed 13 games last season after an errant skate blade lacerated his right leg in November, then missed another 19 with a back injury three months later. He finished under .500 for the first time in his career. If Ward is not past his struggles, this could be a long season for the Hurricanes.
Peter DeBoer (3rd season)
32-37-13 (14th in East)
RW Steve Bernier, LW Chris Higgins, C Marty Reasoner
D Keith Ballard, C Gregory Campbell, RW Nathan Horton
THE PANTHERS could set an NHL record this year, but it's not one to get excited about. Florida failed to reach the playoffs for a record-tying ninth straight season last year, and the franchise should soon have the mark all to itself. Next spring could see dark days in the Sunshine State.
The Panthers finished 2009--10 ranked 28th in the NHL in goals scored (202), 29th in power-play efficiency (14.2%) and last in shots allowed (34.1). The club tried to add some scoring punch by signing forward Chris Higgins, who scored 27 goals with Montreal in 2007--08, but scored just eight last season in stints with the Rangers and Flames. Center Stephen Weiss (60 points) and winger David Booth—who suffered two concussions last year but still scored 16 points in the 28 games in which he played—will spearhead the first line. Florida could use more pop from underachieving forward Rostislav Olesz, who went 21 games without a point last season and is in the middle of a six-year, $18.75 million contract. Perhaps it was a good sign then that Weiss and Olesz traded punches during an energetic practice in mid-September. Olesz promptly scored a pair of goals, leading G.M. Dale Tallon to say, "If we can store some of that away for the season, we'll be all right."
The Panthers are unafraid to take their lumps—they did lead the league in blocked shots last season with 1,403. But even with all that black and blue, Florida will be back in the red.
ON THE VERGE
• EVANDER KANE
The NHL's youngest full-time player last season, the Thrashers' winger scored 14 goals despite missing 15 games with a foot injury.
THE HOT SEAT
• PAUL MAURICE
His first turn behind the Hurricanes' bench saw Carolina win a conference title in 2002 and miss the playoffs in '03. Now in the third year of his second stint, Maurice is repeating himself—the Hurricanes missed the postseason last year after reaching the conference finals the year before.
• JEFF SCHULTZ
The Capitals did well to re-sign their undervalued blueliner, who last season led the NHL with a +50 rating. While his 23 points (he scored just three goals) won't garner much attention, Schultz's team-high 129 blocked shots are invaluable to the NHL's most offensive-minded team.
PIERRE MCGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
The Capitals have very few holes in their lineup, but coach Bruce Boudreau needs to do a better job maintaining the discipline and attention to detail of his team, a problem which manifested itself in a penalty-kill rate that ranked 25th in the NHL last year.... The Lightning should have one of the league's best power plays, orchestrated by coach Guy Boucher and led by sniper Steven Stamkos.... Limited offensive depth after superstar Eric Staal and the lack of a take-charge defenseman will make it tough for the Hurricanes—one of the NHL's hardest-working teams—to be consistent winners.... The Panthers have three emerging stars that will make them fun to watch: wingers David Booth(left), 25, and Michael Frolik, 22, and wise-beyond-his-years defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who's just 19. Forida is still a few years from contending.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (VARLAMOV)
CAPITAL CONCERN Washington's presumptive No. 1, Varlamov was 15-4-6 last year, but his save percentage was a pedestrian .909.
BRIAN BABINEAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (LECAVALIER)
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (LITTLE)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (KANE)
STEVE MITCHELL/US PRESSWIRE (BOOTH)