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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."
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.