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Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 50-24-8, 108 points, first in Southeast
FRESH FACES: Mike Knuble (Philadelphia), Brendan Morrison (Dallas)
OTHER PLACES: Sergei Fedorov (Russia), Viktor Kozlov (Russia), Donald Brashear (NY Rangers), Brent Johnson (Pittsburgh), Sami Lepisto (Phoenix)
STORYLINE: The 2-0 series lead they held over the Penguins in their second-round series shows how close they were to achieving something truly special last season. Yet, despite the unbridled optimism of their fans, the way they lost shows just how far they remain from achieving that Stanley Cup dream. No doubt, the Caps boast an enviable array of talent up front that offers flash (Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom) and gritty determination (Brooks Laich, Dave Steckel,Ovechkin). The improving blueline is led by Norris candidate Mike Green. It's a team strong enough to tear through another regular season with ease. But the fatal flaw last spring was their forwards' inability to commit to team defense, a skill that, for some, is far harder to master than roofing a puck that was found loose in the crease. Until they embrace defense fully, the Caps will be vulnerable to more disciplined, if less exciting, playoff opponents.
MVP: Alex Ovechkin. No disrespect to the rest of the NHL, but it'll take a lengthy stint on the IR to block Ovechkin's path to consecutive Hart Trophies. Nobody does more, better. He hits like a freight train, he battles every shift, and he's the heart and soul of the team. And he scores...brother, does he score. At least 50 goals and 100 points in three of his four seasons and that, according to his coach, isn't close to his ceiling. "He's got a lot of room to grow," says Bruce Boudreau.
KID TO WATCH: Semyon Varlamov. After bursting onto the scene spectacularly during the playoffs, the young Russian became the team's fourth starting goalie in the last three years, a stat that highlights the instability at the position. The questions now: can he hold onto the job and is he ready to handle the outrageously high expectations for this team? No denying at this point that Varlamov has the talent to be a special stopper in this league, but his meltdown against the Pens underscored a young player just starting out on his journey.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mike Knuble. Signing the veteran winger should prove to be one of the best moves made during the summer. Even at 37, Knuble can be counted on to crash the net and cash in on the chances generated by more highly skilled linemates, an element the Caps sorely lacked last season. A beast on the power play and a respected voice in the room, Knuble provides one of the final pieces of the roster puzzle for a team hoping to take the next step.
BOTTOM LINE: Their go-go brand of hockey made the Caps the most exciting team in the NHL last season, but it also contributed directly to their demise. If they find a way to batten down the hatches without sacrificing too much offense, the Caps are legitimate Cup contenders.
2008-09 RECORD: 45-30-7, 97 points, second in Southeast
FRESH FACES:Aaron Ward (Boston), Stephane Yelle (Boston), Andrew Alberts (Philadelphia), To
m Kostopoulos (Montreal)
OTHER PLACES:Anton Babchuk (Russia), Dennis Seidenberg (Florida), Patrick Eaves (Detroit), Frantisek Kaberle (free agent)
STORYLINE: Were they as good as their Eastern Conference Final appearance suggested or were they just one of those fair-to-spare teams that happened to catch fire at the right time? It's clear that GM Jim Rutherford is booking on the former, since the Canes enter this season with essentially the same squad that was wiped out by the Pens in four games. The gamble has merit since Carolina enjoyed considerably more success in the second half after coach Peter Laviolette was replaced by Paul Maurice. As a group, they responded to his demands for discipline and hard work, rediscovering the formula that earned them the Cup in 2006. But there have to be concerns about diminishing returns. Captain Rod Brind'Amour looked like he was on his last legs for much of the season before a strong finishing kick afforded him a veneer of respectability. Erik Cole's touch is fading and Joni Pitkanen must rebound from knee surgery. A traditionally slow-starting team, the Canes may lie in the weeds for a few months before surging to secure a spot in the postseason.
MVP: Eric Staal. Brind'Amour may wear the C, but the Canes will only go as far as their true leader carries them. They were 30-10-3 when Staal scored last season, including 7-1 in the playoffs. For this team to have any real success, they'll need another 40-goal campaign from him.
KID TO WATCH: Zach Boychuk. Tells you all you need to know about the veteran-laden Canes that Staal is the team's freshest-faced player at 24. Boychuk came close to taking that honor before he was among the final cuts, but the former first-rounder will likely be the first call-up in case of injury to a top-six forward. He already has the hands -- all he needs now is some seasoning.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Cam Ward. He struggled for two years trying to recapture the magic that earned him the Conn Smythe back in 2006, but Ward rarely looked comfortable in the seasons following that Cup run until Maurice returned. From that point on, Ward had that old aura of impenetrability, winning 39 games and outdueling both Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas in the playoffs. His ability to maintain that level of play is key to Carolina's chances.
BOTTOM LINE: The Canes are an unpredictable bunch, equally capable of missing the playoffs entirely as they are returning to the conference final. Their offseason acquisitions spoke directly to the need to become a harder team to play against. That element should spark a return to the postseason.
2008-09 RECORD: 24-40-18, 66 points, fifth in Southeast
FRESH FACES: Mattias Ohlund (Vancouver), Kurtis Foster (Minnesota), Matt Walker (Chicago), Alex Tanguay (Montreal), Stephane Veilleux (Minnesota), Antero Niittymaki (Philadelphia), David Hale (Phoenix), Drew Miller (Anaheim), Todd Fedoruk (Phoenix)
OTHER PLACES:Radim Vrbata (Phoenix), Gary Roberts (retired), Vaclav Prospal (NY Rangers), Evgeni Artyukhin (Anaheim), Marek Malik (free agent), Josef Melichar (Czech Republic), David Koci (Colorado), Karri Ramo (Russia)
STORYLINE: It's hard to imagine a more tumultuous season -- well, east of Phoenix, anyway -- than the one the Bolts suffered through in 2008-09. Ownership squabbles, a coaching disaster, a multi-headed management beast, a record 22 defenders used and 18 games lost in OT conspired to bury the franchise in the division basement. Give credit to GM Brian Lawton who went big in his response, completely revamping the beleaguered blueline and solidifying the goaltending. The additions of Tanguay and Veilleux upgraded a forward corps that now boasts two dangerous scoring lines and a pair of gritty depth units capable of gumming up the opposition's attack. The challenge now falls on coach Rick Tocchet. Can a man heading into his first full season behind the bench ensure a smooth transition for all these new, moving parts?
MVP: Martin St. Louis. The ageless veteran was one of the few who kept his head above water last season, providing the team with timely scoring (30 goals, 80 points) and a tremendous leadership presence that helped salvage the rookie campaign of Steven Stamkos. Vincent Lecavalier wears the C, but St. Louis is the glue that holds this group together.
KID TO WATCH: Victor Hedman. The Lightning lucked out when the Isles left Hedman on the draft board. The oversized Swede not only matched their long-term needs, but looks ready to immediately address last season's most gaping hole. Hedman dazzled in camp, utilizing his poise, strength and skating to gobble up staggering quantities of ice time. His workload likely will be reduced when the games start to count, but he'll be their go-to guy before season's end.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Steve Stamkos. The first overall pick in 2008 clearly wasn't ready to make the jump from juniors to the NHL, buckling under the weight of marketing-induced expectations (and the coaching of Barry Melrose) in the early going. Shortly after the break, however, he found his legs and confidence, and finished the season on a high note, scoring 19 points in his final 20 games. With his chemistry established with St. Louis and Ryan Malone, Stamkos should double last season's output.
BOTTOM LINE: After last season's 29th overall finish, it's safe to say there's nowhere to go but up. If Mike Smith stays healthy -- and there's the mother of all ifs for you, after a serious concussion curtailed his 2008-09 campaign --Tampa should be in the tightly bunched group battling for a lower rung playoff berth.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-30-11, 93 points, fourth in Southeast
FRESH FACES:Jordan Leopold (Calgary), Scott Clemmensen (New Jersey), Stephen Reinprecht (Phoenix), Ville Koistinen (Nashville), Christian Backman (Columbus), Dominic Moore (Sabres)
OTHER PLACES: GM Jacques Martin (Montreal), Jay Bouwmeester (Calgary), Craig Anderson (Colorado), Karlis Skrastins (Dallas), Steve Eminger (Anaheim), Nick Boynton (Anaheim), Ville Peltonen (Russia), Anthony Stewart (Atlanta), Richard Zednik (Russia), Brett McLean (Tampa Bay)
STORYLINE: With the distractions of last season's Bouwmeester sign-or-trade watch behind them, the Panthers can focus on moving forward with a roster of players who want to be here. They're set in net with Vokoun and Clemmensen and, despite losing their No. 1 defender, have a solid if unspectacular group of blueliners. But where's the scoring coming from? Several top forwards enjoyed career seasons and Florida still finished in the bottom half of the NHL offensively. Nathan Horton's move to his natural right wing spot on the first line should help. So would continued growth from promising winger Michal Frolik, who's being counted on for 30 goals this season. But without another breakout performance (Michal Repik? Rostislav Olesz?) the Panthers will struggle to keep up with the pack.
MVP: Stephen Weiss. He's coming off a career-best season (14-47-61 and a very respectable plus-19) but has yet to meet the expectations that made him the fourth overall pick back in 2001. With Reinprecht holding down the second line, Horton is freed up to play alongside Weiss and underappreciated sniper David Booth on a permanent basis. That alignment could make the most of Weiss' slick passing skills and see him approach the point-per-game mark.
KIDS TO WATCH: Evgeny Dadonov and Dmitri Kulikov. This is what not having a transfer agreement with Russia gets you. Dadonov, the 71st overall pick in 2007, signed a controversial three-year deal with the Cats earlier this month despite being an RFA in the KHL. His countrymen were not pleased and protested vigorously before backing down. Kulikov, a 2009 first-rounder, has shown in camp the puck sense and mobility the team needs (especially with Bryan Allen practically using a walker to get around on the ice). It's thought that the development of both players would be best served in the NHL, but only one may get the chance.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Keith Ballard. With little punch beyond that stacked first unit, the Panthers will continue to rely heavily on a back end that ranked top-10 in goals-against last season despite giving up a league-high 2,843 shots. With Bouwmeester gone, the pressure falls on Ballard to handle the No. 1 duties. That could mean an extra four to five minutes of work per night, with consistent match-ups against the opposition's top line. With little margin for error in the battle for the playoffs, it could be Ballard's ability to handle that load that determines Florida's fate.
BOTTOM LINE: The problem with the Panthers today, as with the past eight seasons, is that it's always about the ifs. The team has talent, but not so much that it doesn't require several breaks to go its way to be in contention for a playoff spot. Maybe this is the year everything falls into place, but don't count on it.
2008-09 RECORD: 35-41-6, 76 points, fourth in Southeast
FRESH FACES:Nik Antropov (NY Rangers), Maxim Afinogenov (Buffalo), Pavel Kubina (Toronto), Noah Welch (Tampa Bay), Anthony Stewart (Florida), Josh Gratton (Philadelphia), Steve McCarthy (Anaheim)
OTHER PLACES:Garnet Exelby (Toronto), Colin Stuart (Calgary), Eric Perrin (Russia)
STORYLINE: It's impossible to ignore another lousy season in Atlanta, but their finishing kick (winning 13 of their final 20) gives hope that this squad will extend that second-half success. Winning early and often will be critical because, ultimately, this season comes down to keeping Ilya Kovalchuk happy. The captain enters the final year of his deal and, like Bouwmeester last season in Florida, his decision to sign an extension or play out the string will hang over the team until it is resolved. If the Thrashers reverse course after taking a step back in 2008-09, it would go a long way toward keeping the game-breaking Russian on board. If they struggle, however, it's just a matter of time until he's gone and the Thrashers are back to square one.
MVP: Ilya Kovalchuk. GM Don Waddell signed Antropov, Kovalchuk's 2004-05 teammate in Russia, to center the first line this season. With his hand-picked running buddy at his side, look for Kovy to get off to a better start than last season and challenge for the first 100-point campaign of his career
KID TO WATCH: Zach Bogosian.Drew Doughty's spectacular rookie campaign earned all the hype, but the player taken immediately after him in the 2008 draft crafted a debut that was almost as impressive. Bogosian's train was derailed early on when a broken leg sidelined him for two months, but he was a monster over the final 48 games -- a constant physical threat who led all freshmen blueliners with nine goals and excelled under an increasingly onerous workload that topped out at 28:32 in one March game. The arrival of Kubina means Bogo doesn't have to skate on the top pair, but there's every reason to believe he could.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Bryan Little. While the Thrashers were finishing strong (12-6), Little was mired in his worst slump of the season. Goalless over his final 10 games, the second-year winger learned how murky it gets when you're the target of top checkers. The slump challenged his confidence, but was good training for this season when he'll face pressure from both the opposition and himself to at least match his impressive 31-goal output. Playing full-time with Antropov and Kovalchuk, there's no reason he can't.
KEEP AN EYE ON 2: Kari Lehtonen. If the Thrashers are hoping for a healthy season out of the former second overall pick, they may as well be waiting for Godot. Slow recovery from another round of offseason surgery has Lehtonen on the sidelines (again) to start the campaign, setting up another season of goaltending limbo for Atlanta. Tantalizing stretches like that one last March (5-0, 1.18 GAA, two shutouts) hint at how good he can be, but can the team really move forward when he's one split save from another three-month stay on the IR?
BOTTOM LINE: The influx of potent young talent like Little, Bogosian and 2009 first-rounder Evander Kane suggests the tide eventually will turn in Atlanta's favor. But this year? Not a chance...and that has to have Thrashers fans fearing the end of the Kovalchuk era.
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