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Florida is expecting new goaltender Tomas Vokoun to play as well as he did last season in Nashville, where he went 27-12-4 with a 2.40 goals-against average. The quick-gloved Vokoun, 31, can be a franchise goalie--that the Predators traded him to Florida for three draft picks was based on Nashville's desire to reduce its payroll--and Florida has needed one since former G.M. Mike Keenan sent Roberto Luongo to the Canucks before last season.
Keenan's successor, Jacques Martin, has been working to stabilize the roster, notably signing 6' 4" defenseman Bryan Allen to a five-year extension. Allen and 6' 4" heavy hitter Jay Bouwmeester are at the core of one of the conference's strongest defenses and, perhaps, will give the Panthers a chance to end that postseason drought.
LAST SEASON 43-28-11 (third in East); lost to Rangers in first round
It's becoming a perennial point of discussion for the Thrashers: How's Kari Lehtonen's groin? The nagging injury limited the now 23-year-old goaltender to 38 games as a rookie two seasons ago, bothered him last year and kept him out of two games in this preseason. Atlanta can ill afford to lose Lehtonen (his .912 save percentage was third best in the conference) or have him play as poorly as he did in last year's playoffs, when, although he was healthy, he had a 5.59 goals-against average.
The Thrashers, who lost much of their defense to free agency and saw captain Scott Mellanby retire, are simply too thin to win without Lehtonen playing at his best. They have formidable scoring power in Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk, who combined to net 47% of the team's goals last year, but there is a sharp drop-off after them.
All told, Atlanta will usher eight new players into its regular lineup, and any hope of success will depend on breakout seasons and rookie surprises, factors that, like Lehtonen's groin, are never a sure thing.