LAST SEASON44-26-12, sixth in East; lost in first round to New Jersey
KEY ADDITIONS CMatt Cullen, LW Brendan Shanahan, D Aaron Ward
KEY LOSSES D Tom Poti, C Steve Rucchin, LW Martin Rucinsky, C Petr Sykora
Brendan Shanahanshould have arrived in New York wearing goalie equipment. Since signing aone-year, $4 million free-agent contract with the Rangers this summer, he hasbeen deflecting suggestions that he was acquired specifically to providemuch-needed leadership and mental toughness to a talented team that wiltedunder pressure. (After losing the division title to the Devils on the last dayof the season, the Rangers were swept by New Jersey in the opening round of theplayoffs.) Shanahan parried implications that his no-nonsense work ethic andgrit would bring intangibles that 123-point right wing Jaromir Jagr lacks."I'm excited about adding to the leadership they already have,"Shanahan says.
His protestationsaside, the 37-year-old winger, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Detroit, willimmediately become the leader on a team that went without a full-time captainafter Jagr rejected coach Tom Renney's offer to take on the role before lastseason. "There was a point where I didn't just feel like the coach,"Renney says. "I felt like the captain as well."
The durableShanahan, who leads active NHL players with 598 goals, is coming off a 40-goal,41-assist season and will most likely skate on power plays with Jagr, who issecond on that career list with 591 goals. When he came into the league, Jagrwon two Cups alongside Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, and he has been rejuvenatedin New York by the company of five Czech teammates, who understand his style ofplay and his moods. Jagr remains the preeminent weapon on a young team built onquick forwards, mobile defensemen and splendid sophomore goaltender HenrikLundqvist, who led Sweden to the 2006 Olympic gold. With Shanahan, the Rangersmay have staying power.
LAST SEASON46-27-9, third in East; lost in second round to Carolina
KEY ADDITIONSCoach Claude Julien
KEY LOSSES F Viktor Kozlov
Listen to ClaudeJulien, the club's first-year coach, and it sounds as if this year's Devils aretrying to revert to the Devils of old. "Defensive hockey doesn't have to beboring hockey," says Julien, who coached the Canadiens from January 2003 toJanuary 2006 and replaces New Jersey G.M. Lou Lamoriello behind the bench."I enjoy having a team that is hard to play against."
In theprelockout, clutch-grab-and-trap era, the Devils used a defense-first systemlong on discipline and short on risk, a strategy that led to three StanleyCups. Last year New Jersey opened up its attack and scored 20 more goals thanin the previous season. A return to tactical austerity may not play well withsome of the gifted forwards who have enlivened the team's play, such as rightwing Brian Gionta, who set a franchise record with 48 goals in 2005--06, andlinemate Scott Gomez, who had career highs of 33 goals and 84 points, but theapproach is familiar. "It'll be easier for us to get used to a[defense-oriented] coach," says goaltender Martin Brodeur. "We knowwhat's expected of us."
The Devilsshouldn't have any problems meeting at least one expectation: reaching theplayoffs for the 10th consecutive season.
LAST SEASON45-26-11, fifth in East; lost in first round to Buffalo
KEY ADDITIONS DNolan Baumgartner, LW Kyle Calder, LW Geoff Sanderson
KEY LOSSES LW Donald Brashear, D Eric Desjardins, C Michal Handzus, D KimJohnsson, C Keith Primeau
Searching for asign of good things to come? Check out center Peter Forsberg's locker, whereyou'll find only one pair of skates. Last season, when the Flyers were besetwith injuries, he went through 36 pairs trying to find one that feltcomfortable on his chronically ailing feet. Forsberg averaged only 57 gamesplayed in his last nine seasons because of a variety of injuries, but afteroff-season surgery to repair a congenital deformity in his right ankle, hepronounced himself fit. When healthy, Forsberg is the best all-around player inthe game: creative, fast, rugged and smart. And his impact on teammates isimmense. Playing alongside Forsberg last season, left wing Simon Gagne had 39goals and 67 points in 51 games; without him, Gagne had eight goals and 12points in 21 games.
By signingforwards Kyle Calder (26 goals, 33 assists for the Blackhawks) and GeoffSanderson (25 goals, 21 assists for the Coyotes), the Flyers added depth andtalent to an offense that should top last season's 263 goals (fifth most in theEast). But Philadelphia is undermined by a slow defense. Those feet--notForsberg's--will be the club's Achilles' heel.
LAST SEASON22-46-14, 15th in East
KEY ADDITIONS DMark Eaton, C Evgeni Malkin, C Dominic Moore, RW Ronald Petrovicky, RW MarkRecchi, LW Jarkko Ruutu
KEY LOSSES G Sebastien Caron, F Andy Hilbert
There's nodenying how scary-good the center-ice tandem of second-year man Sidney Crosbyand rookie Russian import Evgeni Malkin can be, but the Penguins' playoff hopesrest with their ability to keep the puck out of their net. Pittsburgh has letin the most goals for two seasons running (310 in 2005--06) and returnsvirtually the same lineup on the blue line. The Penguins did improve aftercoach Michel Therrien took over in December, partly because he coaxedmore-disciplined play out of veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar. To take theheat off underperforming goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Therrien will have to make asimilar impact on unproven backliners, such as Brooks Orpik and RyanWhitney.
LAST SEASON36-40-6, 12th in East
KEY ADDITIONSG.M. Garth Snow, Coach Ted Nolan, D Sean Hill, F Viktor Kozlov, D Tom Poti, CMike Sillinger, LW Chris Simon, D Brendan Witt KEY LOSSES None
This season won'tbe any more entertaining than the club's summer. First, owner Charles Wanghired Ted Nolan, a former coach of the year with the Sabres, who had been outof the NHL for nine years. Then he hired Neil Smith, who built a Cup winnerwith the Rangers 12 seasons ago, to be his G.M.--only to fire him 40 days laterover philosophical differences. Next, he made his backup goalie, Garth Snow,the G.M. Finally, Wang, who apparently didn't learn from the foolish 10-yearcontract he gave center Alexei Yashin (box, above) in 2001, signed goalie RickDiPietro to a record 15-year, $67.5 million deal. Although Smith did sign6'2", 220-pound defenseman Brendan Witt and 6'3", 220-pound forwardChris Simon, both of whom add needed muscle, it won't be enough to helpDiPietro live up to his salary.
No one is better at making a big save in a big spot than Brodeur, who faced thesecond-most shots in the league last season. With three Stanley Cups, twoVezina Trophies and 446 career wins (second among active goalies), the34-year-old Brodeur makes the Devils a perennial contender.
After two straight 40-goal seasons in Ottawa, he has not scored more than 32 ayear in four seasons with New York, and last season he showed up at trainingcamp overweight. Says one Islander, with a nod to Yashin, "They say [newcoach Ted Nolan] is a master motivator. I guess we'll find out."
Did anybody notice that Knuble scored 34 goals, including six game-winners, andwas plus-25 last season? He was also the only Flyer to play all 82 games on ateam that lost a staggering 388 man games to injury. Plus, the 6'2" vetadded some edge: Having bulked up to 230 pounds, he had a career-high 80penalty minutes.
IN THE CREASE
The Rangers are an excellent transition team that willscore more off the rush than it will off the cycle.... If they make the cut,young Devils forwards Nicklas Bergfors (very elusive) and Travis Zajac (two-waydynamo) will bring talent as well as enthusiasm to a New Jersey roster thatwon't change much this year. The team has so little room to maneuver under thesalary cap that it will be difficult for them to improve themselves with atrade.... Watch for the Flyers to play at a higher tempo than they did lastseason. That's good news for second-year forward Jeff Carter, who because ofthe retirement of Keith Primeau will play more significant minutes and shouldbe a force at both ends.... The Penguins' hiring of goaltending coach GillesMeloche, an excellent communicator who is fluent in French and English, willprove to be a key element in getting Marc-Andre Fleury to live up to hisenormous potential.