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SI's 2006-07 NHL Preview

Eastern Conference: Atlantic Division

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New York Rangers

LAST SEASON: 44-26-12, sixth in East; lost in first round to New Jersey
KEY ADDITIONS: C Matt Cullen, LW Brendan Shanahan, D Aaron Ward
KEY LOSSES: D Tom Poti, C Steve Rucchin, LW Martin Rucinsky, C Petr Sykora
Having won the Olympics, Lundqvist is now in pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
Having won the Olympics, Lundqvist is now in pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Brendan Shanahan should have arrived in New York wearing goalie equipment. Since signing a one-year, $4 million free-agent contract with the Rangers this summer, he has been deflecting suggestions that he was acquired specifically to provide much-needed leadership and mental toughness to a talented team that wilted under pressure. (After losing the division title to the Devils on the last day of the season, the Rangers were swept by New Jersey in the opening round of the playoffs.) Shanahan parried implications that his no-nonsense work ethic and grit 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 protestations aside, the 37-year-old winger, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Detroit, will immediately become the leader on a team that went without a full-time captain after Jagr rejected coach Tom Renney's offer to take on the role before last season. "There was a point where I didn't just feel like the coach," Renney says. "I felt like the captain as well."

The durable Shanahan, 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 is second on that career list with 591 goals. When he came into the league, Jagr won two Cups alongside Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, and he has been rejuvenated in New York by the company of five Czech teammates, who understand his style of play and his moods. Jagr remains the preeminent weapon on a young team built on quick forwards, mobile defensemen and splendid sophomore goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who led Sweden to the 2006 Olympic gold. With Shanahan, the Rangers may have staying power.

New Jersey Devils

LAST SEASON: 46-27-9, third in East; lost in second round to Carolina
KEY ADDITIONS: Coach Claude Julien
KEY LOSSES: F Viktor Kozlov

Listen to Claude Julien, the club's first-year coach, and it sounds as if this year's Devils are trying to revert to the Devils of old. "Defensive hockey doesn't have to be boring hockey," says Julien, who coached the Canadiens from January 2003 to January 2006 and replaces New Jersey G.M. Lou Lamoriello behind the bench. "I enjoy having a team that is hard to play against."

In the prelockout, clutch-grab-and-trap era, the Devils used a defense-first system long on discipline and short on risk, a strategy that led to three Stanley Cups. Last year New Jersey opened up its attack and scored 20 more goals than in the previous season. A return to tactical austerity may not play well with some of the gifted forwards who have enlivened the team's play, such as right wing Brian Gionta, who set a franchise record with 48 goals in 2005-06, and linemate Scott Gomez, who had career highs of 33 goals and 84 points, but the approach is familiar. "It'll be easier for us to get used to a [defense-oriented] coach," says goaltender Martin Brodeur. "We know what's expected of us."

The Devils shouldn't have any problems meeting at least one expectation: reaching the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season.

Philadelphia Flyers

LAST SEASON: 45-26-11, fifth in East; lost in first round to Buffalo
KEY ADDITIONS: D Nolan Baumgartner, LW Kyle Calder, LW Geoff Sanderson
KEY LOSSES: LW Donald Brashear, D Eric Desjardins, C Michal Handzus, D Kim Johnsson, C Keith Primeau
A healthy Forsberg will be the key to a Flyers postseason run.
A healthy Forsberg will be the key to a Flyers postseason run.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Searching for a sign of good things to come? Check out center Peter Forsberg's locker, where you'll find only one pair of skates. last season, when the Flyers were beset with injuries, he went through 36 pairs trying to find one that felt comfortable on his chronically ailing feet. Forsberg averaged only 57 games played in his last nine seasons because of a variety of injuries, but after off-season surgery to repair a congenital deformity in his right ankle, he pronounced himself fit. When healthy, Forsberg is the best all-around player in the game: creative, fast, rugged and smart. And his impact on teammates is immense. Playing alongside Forsberg last season, left wing Simon Gagne had 39 goals and 67 points in 51 games; without him, Gagne had eight goals and 12 points in 21 games.

By signing forwards Kyle Calder (26 goals, 33 assists for the Blackhawks) and Geoff Sanderson (25 goals, 21 assists for the Coyotes), the Flyers added depth and talent to an offense that should top last season's 263 goals (fifth most in the East). But Philadelphia is undermined by a slow defense. Those feet -- not Forsberg's -- will be the club's Achilles' heel.

Pittsburgh Penguins

LAST SEASON: 22-46-14, 15th in East
KEY ADDITIONS: D Mark Eaton, C Evgeni Malkin, C Dominic Moore, RW Ronald Petrovicky, RW Mark Recchi, LW Jarkko Ruutu
KEY LOSSES: G Sebastien Caron, F Andy Hilbert

There's no denying how scary-good the center-ice tandem of second-year man Sidney Crosby and rookie Russian import Evgeni Malkin can be, but the Penguins' playoff hopes rest with their ability to keep the puck out of their net. Pittsburgh has let in the most goals for two seasons running (310 in 2005-06) and returns virtually the same lineup on the blue line. The Penguins did improve after coach Michel Therrien took over in December, partly because he coaxed more-disciplined play out of veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar. To take the heat off underperforming goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Therrien will have to make a similar impact on unproven backliners, such as Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney.

New York Islanders

LAST SEASON: 36-40-6, 12th in East
KEY ADDITIONS: G.M. Garth Snow, Coach Ted Nolan, D Sean Hill, F Viktor Kozlov, D Tom Poti, C Mike Sillinger, LW Chris Simon, D Brendan Witt
KEY LOSSES: None

This season won't be any more entertaining than the club's summer. First, owner Charles Wang hired Ted Nolan, a former coach of the year with the Sabres, who had been out of the NHL for nine years. Then he hired Neil Smith, who built a Cup winner with the Rangers 12 seasons ago, to be his G.M. -- only to fire him 40 days later over philosophical differences. Next, he made his backup goalie, Garth Snow, the G.M. Finally, Wang, who apparently didn't learn from the foolish 10-year contract he gave center Alexei Yashin in 2001, signed goalie Rick DiPietro to a record 15-year, $67.5 million deal. Although Smith did sign 6'2", 220-pound defenseman Brendan Witt and 6'3", 220-pound forward Chris Simon, both of whom add needed muscle, it won't be enough to help DiPietro live up to his salary. -- Brian Cazeneuve

MVP: MARTIN BRODEUR, G, Devils

No one is better at making a big save in a big spot than Brodeur, who faced the second-most shots in the league LAST SEASON:. With three Stanley Cups, two Vezina Trophies and 446 career wins (second among active goalies), the 34-year-old Brodeur makes the Devils a perennial contender.

Overrated: ALEXEI YASHIN, C, Islanders

After two straight 40-goal seasons in Ottawa, he has not scored more than 32 a year in four seasons with New York, and LAST SEASON: he showed up at training camp overweight. Says one Islander, with a nod to Yashin, "They say [new coach Ted Nolan] is a master motivator. I guess we'll find out."

Underrated: MIKE KNUBLE, RW, Flyers

Did anybody notice that Knuble scored 34 goals, including six game-winners, and was plus-25 LAST SEASON:? He was also the only Flyer to play all 82 games on a team that lost a staggering 388 man games to injury. Plus, the 6'2" vet added some edge: Having bulked up to 230 pounds, he had a career-high 80 penalty minutes.

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