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Washington Capitals
Last season: 43-31-8, 3rd in East; lost in first round to Flyers
Key additions: G José Théodore
Key losses: G Cristobal Huet, G Olaf Kolzig

 
Ovechkin followed a late-season surge with nine points in seven playoff games.
Ovechkin followed a late-season surge with nine points in seven playoff games.
Lou Capozzola/SI
The caps are coming off a season in which they rose from worst to first in the division over the 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 20 scorers -- yes, that's 20 -- return. Yet none of that qualifies as the primary source of optimism in Washington this season. That's still left wing Alex Ovechkin.

The Hart Trophy winner in 2007–08, Ovechkin scored the most goals (65) in a season since Mario Lemieux's 69 in 1995–96, and he amassed 60 of his league-best 112 points in the season's final 39 games -- right after signing a 13-year, $124 million contract. "He's almost reached the pinnacle, where it's going to be hard to better what he has done," says Boudreau. "But he'll be trying to, and he'll feel it's a disappointment if he doesn't."

Boudreau emphasizes an aggressive puck-pursuit system -- "Attack them before they attack us," he says -- that creates open ice for Ovechkin and other skilled forwards such as Calder Trophy finalist Nicklas Backstrom and creative left wing Alexander Semin. The return to health of winger Chris Clark, who missed 64 games with a groin injury, and center Michael Nylander, who spent half the season on the IR with a torn rotator cuff, gives the Capitals one of the East's deepest forward units.

Washington hasn't sent a defenseman to the All-Star Game since Sergei Gonchar in 2002–03, but 23-year-old Mike Green could be on his way; he tied for first among NHL backliners with 18 goals and averaged a team-high 23:38 of ice time for an underrated unit. The Capitals' main concern is in net, where the uneven José Théodore, a free-agent pickup, takes over after an unusually strong stretch with the Avalanche at the end of last season.

The Caps don't need Théodore to be great, only good. If he is, Ovechkin and company will keep Washington much closer to first than to worst for the entire season.

Carolina Hurricanes
Last season: 43-33-6, 9th in East
Key additions: D Josef Melichar, D Joni Pitkanen
Key losses: LW Erik Cole, D Bret Hedican, LW Darcy Hordichuk,D Glen Wesley

When they missed the playoffs last season, the Hurricanes became the first team to win the Stanley Cup and then fail to reach the postseason in the next two years. That doesn't sit lightly. "We were a playoff team the past two years," goalie Cam Ward insists. "We've been underachieving."

Carolina's 2007–08 season was also compromised by injuries to captain Rod Brind'Amour and winger Ray Whitney, both of whom are now healthy. But no Hurricane is in better shape -- statistically, physically or financially -- than first-line center Eric Staal (above). After leading the team with 82 points in 2007–08, he added six pounds of muscle and reduced his body fat in the off-season, then signed a seven-year, $57.8 million contract extension.

Though Carolina wisely acquired minutes-eater Joni Pitkanen (he averaged 24:07 per game in Edmonton) to help on defense, that unit remains suspect. And Ward's .904 save percentage 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 the next three years.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 31-42-9, 15th in East
Key additions: D Matt Carle, G Olaf Kolzig, LW Ryan Malone, Coach Barry Melrose, D Andrej Meszaros, C Vaclav Prospal, F Gary Roberts, RW Radim Vrbata
Key losses: D Dan Boyle, G Marc Denis, D Filip Kuba, D Brad Lukowich, Coach John Tortorella

When Oren Koules and Len Barrie took ownership of the club in June, they vowed to be aggressive in rebuilding the franchise. They weren't kidding. In the first 10 days of free agency the Lightning brought in 13 players -- and that doesn't count No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos. Important among the pickups are ex-Penguin Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals for Phoenix. "I've never seen a team make that many changes," says top center Vincent Lecavalier, who also spilled a little ink when he signed an 11-year, $85 million contract extension. "It's not just players but everywhere in the organization. It's like I got traded without having to leave Tampa."

The revamped roster has depth up front but will be extremely thin -- and inexperienced -- on the blue line. "We're going to take our lumps early," says coach Barry Melrose, another import (from the ESPN studio). "We'll make mistakes, but I accept mistakes as long as you're trying to get better."

Florida Panthers
Last season: 38-35-9, 11th in East
Key additions: D Keith Ballard, D Nick Boynton, Coach Peter DeBoer, D Bryan McCabe, LW Cory Stillman
Key losses: D Jassen Cullimore, C Olli Jokinen, Coach Jacques Martin, D Steve Montador, C Jozef Stumpel

Defense wins championships, as the old saw goes, but in the Panthers' case it's not likely to 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 save percentage last season, and in the off-season Florida acquired several veterans to strengthen a defense that, with powerful Jay Bouwmeester at its core, could be as strong as any in the Southeast.

Ah, but the offense. With perennial top scorer Olli Jokinen having been dealt to Phoenix, the onus falls primarily upon 25-year-old center Stephen Weiss and ascendant 23-year-old right wing Nathan Horton. Those two can make plays -- Horton, in particular, has 35-goal potential -- but they'll have little support up front; that makes continued production from Bouwmeester, a fine passer who also had 15 goals last year, essential.

The bottom line: Florida's eight-season playoff drought is tied with the Blue Jackets' for the longest active streak in the NHL -- and there's no end in sight.

Atlanta Thrashers
Last season: 34-40-8, 14th in East
Key additions: Coach John Anderson, D Ron Hainsey, D Mathieu Schneider, C Jason Williams
Key losses: C Bobby Holik, D Ken Klee, LW Brad Larsen, RW Mark Recchi

After dealing Marian Hossa at the trade deadline and seeing Mark Recchi and Bobby Holik leave as free agents, Atlanta's offense now starts and stops with winger Ilya Kovalchuk (below), who led the team in goals (52) and assists (35). No one has scored 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 the Rangers in 2006–07.

Results like that explain why Atlanta has such a hard time luring and keeping stars to complement Kovalchuk, 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, who played on Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines before coming over in the Hossa trade. Another ex-Penguin, Colby Armstrong, is being counted on for goals despite scoring just 25 over the past two years.

"We're going to 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's nine-year history, he has produced just two winning seasons.

-- Sarah Kwak

MVP: Alex Ovechkin

 
Alex Ovechkin.
Alex Ovechkin.
Lou Capozzola/SI
With a league-leading 112 points the irrepressible 23-year-old winger had a hand in a remarkable 47.1% of the Capitals' goals last season. His mere on-ice presence rattles opposing defenses and infuses his teammates with energy.

On the Spot: Ryan Malone

After a career year (27 goals) with the Penguins the power forward bolted for a generous seven-year, $31.5 million deal with Tampa Bay. That's the longest contract any new signee got from the Lightning -- which also hired Malone's father, Greg, as their head pro scout.

On the Verge: Tomas Fleischmann

After producing 114 points in 102 AHL games over two seasons, the winger stuck with the Capitals last year and chipped in 10 goals and 20 assists despite limited ice time. The smooth-skating 24-year-old could benefit from playing alongside crafty center Sergei Fedorov.

Pierre McGuire's In the Crease

Rookie defenseman Karl Alzner will make an impact in Washington.... Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette is on the hot seat right out of the gate.... Here's one guarantee in Tampa: With all of the egos on the Lightning, win or lose, the team will never be boring... The best new coach in the NHL is Florida's Peter DeBoer, a skilled motivator who knows how to mold young players.... The Thrashers were right to spend the No. 3 pick of June's draft on defenseman Zach Bogosian. At 18 the well-rounded talent could be a difference maker this season.

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WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

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