Fast, skilled and hardworking, these are no longer the Sabres of the 1990s, who depended heavily on Dominik Hasek to get them a win. "We had a reputaion as a goaltender team stuck on offensive hockey," says coach Lindy Ruff. "Now all areas of our game are very good."
Jaromir Jagr remains the pre-eminent 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 Brendan Shanahan, the Rangers may have staying power.
If you're counting, Ottawa has advanced past the first round only four times in the past nine seasons. This year's team has less skill but more grit, a development that coach Bryan Murray hopes could finally yield the sort of grinding team that can make it deep into the playoffs.
The Hurricanes believe they have helped their chances of repeating by taking cues from the recent past. 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.
Listen to Claude Julien, the team'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 replaces GM Lou Lamoriello behind the bench. "I enjoy having a team that is difficult to play against."
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. But Philadelphia is undermined by a slow defense.
The biggest changes for the Bruins occured in the front office, not on the ice. In addition to improving the meek 74-point performance of last season, the new regime will be looking to instill team chemisty and focus on defense.
Atlanta has a potent attack in forwards Ilya Kovalchuk (52 goals,46 assists), Marian Hossa (39 goals, 53 assists)and Slava Kozlov (25 goals, 45 assists). With Kari Lehtonen healthy and playing at his potential, the Thrashers should finally make it into the postseason.
There's no denying how scary-good the center-ice tandem of second-year man Sidney Crosby and rookie Russian import Evgeni Malkin will be, but the Penguins' playoff hopes rest with their ability to keep the puck out of their net.
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.
The Panthers will return eight players who scored 15 or more goals last season. "We've got four solid lines," says left wing Martin Gelinas. To stay out of the cellar, Florida will need consistent play out of each of them.
The outlook is bleak considering the woeful Capitals lost 11 games by more than three goals, allowed 300 goals and led the NHL with 673 penalties. GM George McPhee made a bid for elite defenseman Zdeno Chara but settled for ordinary Brian Pothier.
This season won't be any more entertaining than the club's summer. Owner Charles Wang, who apparently didn't learn from the foolish 10-year contract he gave center Alexi Yashin in 2001, signed goalie Rick DiPietro to a record 15-year, $675 million deal.
STANLEY CUP FINALS: Anaheim Ducks over Buffalo Sabres