COACH Bruce Boudreau (5th season)
LAST SEASON 48-23-11 (1st in East); lost in second round to Lightning
KEY ADDITIONS RW Troy Brouwer, G Tomas Vokoun, RW Joel Ward
KEY LOSSES C Jason Arnott, RW Eric Fehr, G Semyon Varlamov
THE SEASON may be a marathon, but the Capitals started training camp with sprints, end-to-end dashes that punished the legs and made even veterans wince. The veterans, in fact, were special targets of Caps G.M. George McPhee. "Time for you guys to take over," McPhee told forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich and defenseman Mike Green, the heart of the team that for the past three years has followed regular-season promise with postseason implosion.
After last season's 107-point campaign and second-round exit, there are simply no more excuses, not when McPhee drew an unexpected ace into an already strong hand. During free agency frontline goalie Tomas Vokoun, who wanted to test the market, was surprisingly available. So McPhee pounced, inking the 35-year-old Vokoun to a one-year, $1.5 million deal that is far below his market value.
Vokoun should help the Caps in case they return to the run-and-gun mantra of years past. They abandoned that style last season for a more restrictive, responsible system that was supposed to work in the postseason, only to have Tampa Bay tear it apart. The problem may be that some offensively gifted Capitals such as Backstrom (65 points last season) and Alexander Semin (28 goals) are simply ill-suited for the elevated demands of the playoffs. For that reason the summer pickups of workmanlike veteran forwards Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward may be more significant than the sum of their parts.
This season's Caps will likely split the difference between the trigger-happy team that led the NHL in goals in 2009--10 and the one that slipped to 19th last year, but styles notwithstanding, the team that has so often strutted into the playoffs will be better prepared than the one that crawled off again last spring.
COACH Guy Boucher (2nd season)
LAST SEASON 46-25-11 (5th in East); lost in conference finals to Bruins
KEY ADDITIONS G Mathieu Garon, D Bruno Gervais, RW Ryan Shannon
KEY LOSSES LW Sean Bergenheim, LW Simon Gagne, G Mike Smith
A YEAR AFTER a strong playoff run—fueled by a new, stifling defensive scheme and some skilled forwards who bought into it—the Lightning is faced with the reality that the element of surprise is gone. "We embraced the underdog role last year," sniper Steven Stamkos says of the squad that reached the Eastern finals, where it lost in seven games to the Bruins. "If you had told us before the season that we'd get to the second round, we'd have said that's a great year. Once we got [to the third round], we expected to beat Boston. I think this year we don't want to put limits on expectations."
Even with some off-season defections, Tampa still sports a mountain of forwards, including Stamkos (below), who has 96 goals over the past two years; captain Vincent Lecavalier, who found some new life late in the spring; and Martin St. Louis, who had 99 points in what he termed "an O.K. year." But on Oct. 12, goalie Dwayne Roloson will be 42, which will put the celebrated 1-3-1 defensive system of coach Guy Boucher to the test. Says St. Louis, "Other teams will probably adapt, so we'll adapt too. That will make us or break us."
COACH Paul Maurice (4th season)
LAST SEASON 40-31-11 (9th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS D Tomas Kaberle, LW Alex Ponikarovsky, RW Anthony Stewart
KEY LOSSES LW Erik Cole, D Joe Corvo
UNLIKE MOST teenagers, Jeff Skinner voluntarily spent the summer in school, hitting the weights with former NHL power forward Gary Roberts, who trained Skinner and some 20 other promising talents. "I need to get stronger and faster," explained the 19-year-old 2011 Calder Trophy winner. "The speed of the game here is just so great, just that one extra step can make such a difference."
The same could be said for the Hurricanes, who amassed 91 points and closed the season on an 8-2-1 run but lost their bid for a playoff spot on the season's final day. The Canes couldn't survive their shortcomings. Carolina allowed the most shots per game (33.2) in the NHL, and only Edmonton was worse in the face-off circle. That put immense pressure on ace goalie Cam Ward, who played in 74 games and made 209 more saves than any other netminder last season. The acquisition of Brian Boucher, who struggled in the playoffs for Philadelphia last spring (3.13 GAA, .904 save percentage), will offer some needed rest to Ward. Carolina also added veteran Tomas Kaberle, fresh off his Stanley Cup win with Boston, to inject some discipline into a mediocre defense. With able forwards such as Skinner, Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu, the goals should come; the wins will be harder to find.
COACH Kevin Dineen (1st season)
LAST SEASON 30-40-12 (15th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS D Brian Campbell, LW Tomas Fleischmann, D Ed Jovanovski, LW Kris Versteeg
KEY LOSSES LW Rostislav Olesz, C Marty Reasoner, G Tomas Vokoun
FOR ALL their flaws, the Panthers committed the second fewest turnovers (474 giveaways) among Eastern teams last season. The summer, however, was full of turnover. Florida will have at least a dozen new faces, after finishing last season with 16 losses in its last 20 games and missing the playoffs for an NHL record 10th straight season. G.M. Dale Tallon infused skill into the lineup, adding veteran defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski. Campbell, an able quarterback, should help a power play that was last in the league (13.1%).
The Panthers also have high hopes for 19-year-old defenseman Erik Gudbranson, the third pick in the 2010 draft, who brings both skill (five points in seven games for Canada at the World Juniors) and menace. Last year the 6'4", 195-pounder earned 105 penalty minutes and two suspensions in just 44 games with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League.
Up front, Florida added Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Fleischmann, each of whom has a 20-goal season on his résumé. The changes can only make the Panthers better, but the playoff chase will fall short again.
COACH Claude Noel (1st season)
LAST SEASON 34-36-12 (12th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS RW Eric Fehr, LW Tanner Glass
KEY LOSSES LW Eric Boulton, RW Radek Dvorak, RW Anthony Stewart
THE EARLY word on the Jets' return to Winnipeg is promising. The team sold 13,000 season tickets in the first 72 hours after they went on sale in June. Still, it's one thing to have long-term ticket commitments but another to sustain enthusiasm, and the Franchise Formerly Known As the Thrashers faded badly down the stretch of what started as a promising season. The team allowed the most goals (262) in the East and relied heavily on scoring from its back line. Now the Jets must look to forwards Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane (above) and Bryan Little, who combined for 66 goals last season, to bolster the offense and make up for the defensive shortcomings. "People are watching to see how we respond to the challenge," says Ladd. Another challenge: The team will play a killer travel schedule, with its closest division rival, Washington, about 1,500 miles away. A new start with a new fan base can only help, but there is a long way to go.
ON THE VERGE
Poised with the puck, the Carolina defenseman slipped under the radar last year but should see an increased role this season, especially on the power play.
THE HOT SEAT
The Capitals' coach has been at the helm for multiple playoff flameouts, each coming after strong regular seasons. Last spring his players abandoned his defensive system during their playoff loss, and Boudreau won't survive if that were to happen again.
Fans in Winnipeg should be thrilled with the player who led the team in scoring (59) and goals (29) in a breakout 2010--11 season. The team captain, Ladd's a smart, hardworking 25-year-old winger with a Stanley Cup on his résumé from his time with the Blackhawks.
IN THE CREASE
The Lightning must improve a defense that ranked 21st in the NHL. Defenseman Victor Hedman grew tremendously during the playoffs and should lead the blueliners in ice time... . For the Hurricanes to return to the postseason, they'll have to fix a power play that was seventh worst in the league. New defenseman Tomas Kaberle is a deft passer and will take a lot of offensive pressure off fellow blueliner Joni Pitkanen on Carolina's special teams... . Florida is going to be an interesting project. The team overhauled its roster and is now under the charge of high-energy coach Kevin Dineen, who is regarded as one of hockey's best developers of talent.
ROBERT BECK (OVECHKIN)
DRIVER EIGHT Ovechkin scored a career-low 32 goals last year, but he's still the heartbeat of the Capitals' potent offense.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (STAMKOS)
CHARLES LECLAIRE/US PRESSWIRE (MCBAIN)
JAMIE SABAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KANE)
KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE (HEDMAN)