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NHL

NHL Preview: 2008-09

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

ATLANTIC

Pittsburgh Penguins
Last season: 47-27-8; 2nd in East; lost in finals to Red Wings
Key additions: LW Matt Cooke, LW Ruslan Fedotenko, RW Eric Godard, LW Janne Pesonen, RW Miroslav Satan
Key losses: G Ty Conklin, RW Adam Hall, RW Marian Hossa, RW Georges Laraque, LW Ryan Malone, LW Gary Roberts, LW Jarkko Ruutu

 
Signing Malkin and other young talent long-term was essential for Pittsburgh.
Signing Malkin and other young talent long-term was essential for Pittsburgh.
Fred Vuich/SI
Entering the off-season with 15 unrestricted free agents, the Penguins knew they were in for a remodeling that, after reaching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, they would have preferred to avoid. Lost in the summer exodus were right wing Marian Hossa, a trade-deadline acquisition who had found quick chemistry with top center Sidney Crosby, and integral power forward Ryan Malone. The defections prompted G.M. Ray Shero to sign a pair of skilled if rather less well-rounded wingers in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko and also to get cracking in securing Pittsburgh's nucleus. Shero locked up flashy 23-year-old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and punishing defenseman Brooks Orpik -- whose relentless, five-hit shift in Game 3 of the finals made him an immediate folk hero -- with seven- and six-year deals, respectively; he gave center Evgeni Malkin a five-year extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2014. "It was a busy summer after a long season," Shero says, "and I'd consider it a success."

Agreed, though just how successful will depend on how well Satan and Fedotenko, both competent scorers coming off poor years with the Islanders, can contribute to the offense alongside Crosby (72 points in 53 games) and Malkin (a team-high 47 goals). It was a conspicuous lack of scoring depth that necessitated Hossa's acquisition last season.

"Nothing that happened last year is going to matter this year," says Crosby, trying to move conversation off Pittsburgh's near miss in June. True, except that the Penguins' fine young players -- add center Jordan Staal and defenseman Ryan Whitney to the group -- should be more prepared for a Cup run after their battle in the finals. Turnover notwithstanding, the Penguins remain the class of the conference.

Philadelphia Flyers
Last season: 42-29-11, 6th in East; lost in conference final to Penguins
Key additions: F Glen Metropolit, D Ossi Vaananen
Key losses: LW Vaclav Prospal, D Jason Smith, C R.J. Umberger

General manager Paul Holmgren turned Philly from a last-place team in 2006–07 into an Eastern Conference finalist last season by orchestrating smart trades and signing free-agent All-Star center Daniel Brière. "We took awhile to come together," coach John Stevens says, "but by season's end there was a real affection for one another. We had a group that wanted to win for each other."

After witnessing his team's playoff run, Holmgren smartly stayed mostly idle this off-season, tinkering but nothing more. The Flyers could challenge the Penguins for the division title, though to do so they'll need help from first-line left wing Simon Gagné, who missed more than 50 games and all of the playoffs last season while battling concussion-resulted problems. Gagné, a two-time 40-goal scorer, appeared in good form during the preseason, averaging 16 minutes in his first two games and taking nine shots. "If we had him last [playoffs], we could have gone over the top," says Brière. "Having him healthy is huge. He was our best acquisition of the summer."

New Jersey Devils
Last season: 46-29-7, 4th in East; lost in first round to Rangers
Key additions: C Bobby Holik, F Brian Rolston
Key losses: C Sergei Brylin, D Karel Rachunek

In the 14 years that Martin Brodeur has been their goalie, the Devils have made the playoffs 13 times, including the last 11 in a row. The four-time Vezina Trophy winner showed a touch of what coach Brent Sutter calls "mental fatigue" in the playoffs last spring, but during the regular season Brodeur was his typical daunting self, ranking in the top 10 in wins (44), save percentage (.920) and goals-against average (2.17) while playing a league high 4,635 minutes. "I don't know who put the [idea] in everybody's head that a goalie can't play every game," says Brodeur, 36.

After scoring the fourth-fewest goals in the NHL, the Devils brought back two of Brodeur's former teammates -- forwards Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston -- who won Stanley Cups with the team in 1995 and 2000. Rolston, who had three straight 30-goal seasons with the Wild, will give the Devils needed offensive support and boost their anemic power play, but New Jersey's overall load will again be carried largely by Brodeur. He remains very much up to the task.

New York Rangers
Last season: 42-27-13, 5th in East; lost in second round to Penguins
Key additions: LW Markus Naslund, D Wade Redden, LW Patrick Rissmiller, RW Nikolai Zherdev
Key losses: F Sean Avery, RW Jaromir Jagr, LW Brendan Shanahan, LW Martin Straka, D Fedor Tyutin

With forwards Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery having moved their acts off Broadway, the Rangers enter the season with less conspicuous talent -- but a chance 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 New York shuffled its top lines, trying vainly to find combinations to kick-start an offense that wound up with just 213 goals (25th in the league).

Expect Gomez (70 points) and new captain Drury (58) to raise their games, and for the offense to get a boost from soft-handed Nikolai Zherdev, an explosive player who should find his stride now that he's out of Columbus. Another import, 35-year-old Markus Naslund, is a great addition to the locker room, although his production has 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.

New York Islanders
Last season: 35-38-9, 13th in East
Key additions: Coach Scott Gordon, D Mark Streit, C Doug Weight
Key losses: LW Ruslan Fedotenko, Coach Ted Nolan, RW Miroslav Satan, F Josef Vasicek

The "philosophical differences" that G.M. Garth Snow cited upon firing coach Ted Nolan in July came down to the development of young players. Snow wanted to push the Islanders' youngest set along; Nolan preferred giving more ice time to veterans. New bench boss Scott Gordon, last year's AHL coach of the year with the Providence Bruins, buys wholeheartedly into Snow's plan. That means players such as 20-year-old winger Kyle Okposo, the No. 7 pick in the 2006 draft, and 22-year-old winger Blake Comeau should play prominent roles this season. Veterans Doug Weight, 37, brought in on a one-year contract, and his former Edmonton and St. Louis teammate Bill Guerin are seen as a stopgap while the young core matures.

The long-term plan is to assemble a competitive team in front of Rick DiPietro, the talented 27-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.

-- Sarah Kwak

 
Sidney Crosby.
Sidney Crosby.
Fred Vuich/SI
MVP:Sidney Crosby

Pittsburgh's top center missed 28 games with a high ankle sprain last season yet still finished second on the team in scoring. More valuable: He improves those around him, turning middling linemates (Pascal Dupuis, anyone?) into serious threats.

On the Spot: Rick DiPietro

An elite player, but injuries (hip, knee) and the Islanders' iffy defense have taken a toll on the 27-year-old goalie. Will he be the star who had a .919 save percentage in 2006-07 or the more vulnerable DiPietro of last year? If it's the latter, all is lost for the Isles.

On the Verge: Braydon Coburn

At 23, the 6'­ 5" 220-pounder established himself as a vital part of the Flyers' 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's offensive game should blossom.

Pierre McGuire's In the Crease

Injuries to Penguins defensemen Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar mean slick youngsters Kristopher Letang and Alex Goligoski will get lots of ice time. This will ultimately create defensive depth but could lead to early-season mistakes.... Flyers prospect Claude Giroux, a swift winger, will make an impact before the season's out.... The Rangers' season may hinge on whether defenseman Wade Redden can rebound after two poor seasons in Ottawa.... Former Canadiens defenseman Mark Streit should upgrade the Islanders' power play from awful (29th last season) to average.

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

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