LAST SEASON: 52-22-8, second in East; won Stanley Cup KEY ADDITIONS: G John Grahame, RW Scott Walker KEY LOSSES: C Matt Cullen, G Martin Gerber, RW Mark Recchi, D Aaron Ward, C Doug Weight
Williams was one of the players Carolina re-signed in its bid to repeat.
Glen Wesley had played 767 games for the Carolina franchise before hoisting his first Stanley Cup last June. His dream fulfilled, the 38-year-old defenseman spent a few weeks contemplating retirement. But when he came to the conclusion that another championship was within reach, he instead signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract. Says Wesley, "The [new] guys that came in have leadership and character [and have] won before. Those guys are hungry and are pushing us to be better."
The Hurricanes believe they have helped their chance of repeating by taking cues from their recent past. After making a surprise run to the Cup finals in 2001-02, Carolina had the NHL's worst record the following season and missed the playoffs for two straight years. general manager Jim Rutherford says that "chemistry issues" contributed to the poor play in '02-03 and '03-04 -- seasons in which the team underwent significant roster changes -- so this summer he worked to keep important members of his championship team together. Rutherford locked up 36-year-old captain Rod Brind'Amour (31 goals, 39 assists last year) and left wings Erik Cole (30 goals, 29 assists) and Justin Williams (31 goals, 45 assists) with multiyear deals. "I see our team like the New Jersey model of the '90s," says Rutherford. "They won a Cup, kept their good core players and built a strong team [around them] every year."
With a first-class sniper in center Eric Staal and a Conn Smythe winner in 22-year-old goaltender Cam Ward, Carolina has the makings of a Southern dynasty.
LAST SEASON: 41-33-8, 10th in East KEY ADDITIONS: G Fred Brathwaite, G Johan Hedberg, C Niko Kapanen, C Steve Rucchin KEY LOSSES: RW Peter Bondra, D Jaroslav Modry, C Marc Savard
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen's NHL career started strong -- for 20 minutes anyway. As a rookie last season he stopped all six shots he faced in the first period of the opener, then suffered a groin injury that sent him to the bench for more than two months. Lehtonen returned in December and went 20-15 with a respectable .906 save percentage, but it wasn't enough to prevent the team from missing the playoffs for a league-leading sixth straight year, though by only two points.
To guard against another breakdown, Lehtonen, who Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said had been out of shape at the start of last season, spent the summer at the team's practice facility training his core muscles five days a week, nearly two hours a day. Nine days before camp opened, Lehtonen, the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft, agreed to a two-year, $3.7 million contract. "Now I can just focus on the important thing -- doing well on the ice," he says. But G.M. Don Waddell isn't taking any chances. He bought insurance in signing veteran free agents Johan Hedberg, the Stars' former backup, and Fred Brathwaite, who spent his last two years in the Russian Super League.
Atlanta has a potent attack in forwards Ilya Kovalchuk (52 goals, 46 assists), Marian Hossa (39 goals, 53 assists) and Slava Kozlov (25 goals, 46 assists). With Lehtonen healthy and playing at his potential the Trashers should finally make it into the postseason.
Tampa Bay Lightning
LAST SEASON: 43-33-6, eighth in East; lost in first round to Ottawa KEY ADDITIONS: G Marc Denis, D Filip Kuba, D Luke Richardson KEY LOSSES: D Pavel Kubina, LW Fredrik Modin
Tampa Bay's strength is a loaded offense, led by former MVP St. Louis.
Training camp was supposed to begin at 7 a.m. on Sept. 14, but the entire team was present when coach John Tortorella kicked off the meeting seven minutes early. The Lightning may have been eager to get its season under way, but don't expect the team to be in attendance come playoff time.
Ever since the 2003-04 Stanley Cup winners got trounced by Ottawa in a five-game first-round series last season, G.M. Jay Feaster has set out to rebuild. But that doesn't mean Tampa Bay has improved much. To replace the struggling goalie tandem of John Grahame and Sean Burke (a combined .891 save percentage), Feaster brought in Marc Denis, who was a disappointment in net for the Avalanche and the Blue Jackets (career record: 94-156-28 and 2.97 goals-against average). The remaking of the blue line included the acquisitions of mobile Filip Kuba but also slow-footed Luke Richardson, who is a career minus-120.
While the Cup-winning offense -- led by center Vincent Lecavalier (35 goals, 40 assists), center Brad Richards (23 goals, 68 assists) and right wing Martin St. Louis (31 goals, 30 assists) -- remains intact, the Lightning's fixes, though not too late, are too little.
LAST SEASON: 37-34-11, 11th in East KEY ADDITIONS: D Bryan Allen, G Alex Auld, RW Todd Bertuzzi, LW Ville Peltonen KEY LOSSES: G.M. Mike Keenan, G Roberto Luongo
In the NHL's southernmost outpost, front-office politics, not the hurricane season, spun this team into disarray. In September, All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo, the face of the franchise for five seasons, was traded for troubled winger Todd Bertuzzi and three others to boost Florida's offense. The deal was orchestrated by G.M. Mike Keenan, who 10 days before training camp abruptly resigned, leaving Jacques Martin to juggle the roles of coach and G.M.
Keenan did provide the club with some stability during his 28-month tenure, signing captain Olli Jokinen (38 goals, 51 assists) and 6'4", 220-pound center Chris Gratton to multiyear deals. The Panthers will return eight players who scored 15 or more goals last year. "We've got four solid lines," says left wing Martin Gelinas. To stay out of the division cellar, Florida will need consistent play out of each of them.
LAST SEASON: 29-41-12, 14th in the East KEY ADDITIONS: D Brian Pothier, LW Alexander Semin, RW Richard Zednik KEY LOSSES: D Mathieu Biron, C Jeff Halpern, RW Brian Willsie
After the penultimate game of his rookie year, with the Capitals about to finish last in the division, center Alexander Ovechkin said, "I think next season we'll go to the playoffs." Classic Ovechkin optimism, but the actual outlook is bleak considering the woeful Washington defense. In 2005-06 the Capitals lost 11 games by more than three goals, allowed 300 goals (the second most in the league) and led the NHL with 673 penalties. G.M. George McPhee made a bid for elite defenseman Zdeno Chara but settled for the ordinary Brian Pothier, who signed a four-year, $10 million deal. Maybe by the end of that contract Ovechkin's prediction will come true. -- Yi-Wyn Yen
MVP: ERIC STAAL, C, Hurricanes
The 21-year-old dazzled last year, scoring a team-high 45 goals and producing the most points in the postseason (28). The 6'4", 205-pound workhorse, who played in all 82 games in 2005-06, signed a three-year, $13.5 million deal this summer and will lead the Hurricanes' march toward a Cup repeat
Overrated: ED BELFOUR, G, Panthers
Brought in to vie for the starting job vacated by Roberto Luongo, the moody 41-year-old is a Cup winner and a future Hall of Famer. Just don't expect him to play like one this season. In 2005-06 with Toronto he had a dismal .892 save percentage in 49 games, then missed the rest of the season with a herniated disk.
On the Verge: NIKO KAPANEN, C, Thrashers
Slotted into a checking role on the third line in Dallas last season, Kapanen nevertheless produced a career-high 35 points. The 28-year-old, who has the speed to keep up with top wingers, will be used in a more offensive role with the Thrashers and could become a 50-point player.