UPDATED: October 5, 2005.

 BETWEEN THE LINES.

By Alan Campbell.

After a break that was far too long, the NHL has finally returned and what better way to start the season then with a preview? Many teams look very different than they did the last time they were on the ice and the balance of power has shifted somewhat.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

1. Philadelphia Flyers- Philly is looking like a very strong Cup contender as we come into the new season and assuming that they stay healthy, they should take the Atlantic. Peter Forsberg was the Flyers' biggest offseason acquisition, but Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje add size and muscle to an already strong defense. With youngsters Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Antero Niittymaki all challenging for roster spots, don't be surprised to see the Flyers make a Cup run this year.

2. New Jersey Devils- The Devils were severely weakened on defense with the loss of Scott Neidermayer and the retirement of Scott Stevens, but seasoned veterans Dan McGillis and Vladimir Malakhov should help fill the void left by those departures. The signing of Alexander Mogilny also reunites him with former linemate Scott Gomez and those two will be expected the reignite the chemistry they had a couple years. Finally, with Brodeur in the nets, you can never count the Devils out.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins- While Crosby, Palffy, Gonchar, LeClair and Recchi have drawn most of the headlines, it's Jocelyn Thibault that could turn the Pens into a bonafide playoff team. That being said, the Pens also figure to have one of the most lethal PP's in the league, and with the new talent on that team, Crosby has probably gone to a great environment to develop and mature.

4. New York Islanders- Although their D corps has been greatly depleted, the Isles do still have some talent and they hope that the high scoring combination of Satan and Yashin will win them enough games to stay competitive this year. Rick DiPietro also must step up and have a good year. The Isles are longshots for the playoffs.

5. New York Rangers- Well the Rangers front office finally figured out how to rebuild, unfortunately, the figured it out about five years too late. The team has plenty of young talent, but they're a couple seasons away from the postseason.

Northeast Division

1. Ottawa Senators- Although Hasek is a big question mark in the goal, the Senators are deep on all areas of their roster and possess arguably the best defensive corps in the league. With a good new environment, it's quite possible that Dany Heatley could revert to his 02-03 form when he tallied 89 points. The Senators are a very strong Cup contender.

2. Boston Bruins - There are some questions in defense, but the retooled Bruins boast one of the best top sixes in the NHL. The goaltending tandem of Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen should also be solid. The Bruins need some upgrades at defense if they want to seriously contend though.

3. Montreal Canadiens - The Canadiens are one of the teams who will be profoundly helped by the new NHL. With their speed and skill, they could challenge for 2nd in the division. Their defense is solid although not stunning, but Jose Theodore in goal is always a force to be reckoned with.

4. Buffalo Sabres- I predicted a break-out for this team in 03-04, but it didn't quite work out the way I thought it would. Going into 05-06, the team is decent, but the loss of sniper Miro Satan is a big blow. There will be a lot of pressure on rookie Thomas Vanek to fill the scoring void. If they get goaltending, the Sabres could surprise some people, but the playoffs are probably out of reach.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs- How the mighty have fallen. Canada's team is in for a long year. Too many key players have aged and their lack of depth at wing is alarming. Add on a weak prospect pool and it could be a very long few seasons in Toronto.

Southeast Division

1. Tampa Bay Lightning- The Bolts have lost their starting goalie, but other than that, the defending champions remain intact. If Grahame can play well, the Lightning will be tough to beat in the East come playoff time.

2. Atlanta Thrashers- For the first time in their young history, the Thrashers are legitimate contenders to make the playoffs. Star prospect Kari Lehtonen will be making his long awaited debut and the tandem of Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk is sure to give defenses fits. They also have some decent young talent in defense.

3. Florida Panthers- Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts are both getting on in years, but they provide good leadership for this club. The Panthers have some decent young players and with Roberto Luongo in goal, you can never say never. Still, the playoffs are probably out of reach.

4. Carolina Hurricanes - The 'Canes face a lot of problems. The roster is devoid of depth and they don't have much to look forward to as far as prospects are concerned. Gerber should give decent goaltending, but it will be a long year for fans.

5. Washington Capitals - If the year will be long for Carolina, it will be an eternity for Washington. The Caps have a lot of young talent, but unfortunately, there aren't many skilled veterans around.

Western Conference

Central Division

1. Nashville Predators - After impressing many spectators in 2003-2004, the Predators have improved and will now look to win the division title. Tomas Vokoun has joined the game's elite in goal and with lots of depth on the roster, the Predators could be this years Tampa Bay.

2. Detroit Red Wings- The Wings don't figure to be a serious contender this year. Although the roster is still talented, it doesn't inspire the fear that the teams of a few years ago did. They'll make the playoffs, but they won't seriously contend.

3. Chicago Blackhawks - The Blackhawks have made significant improvements, mainly in goal with Nikolai Khabibulin. The addition of Adrian Aucoin will also help to strengthen the defense as well. With Khabibulin, the Hawks have an outside shot at a playoff spot.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets- The Jackets have two of the best young forwards in the game in Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev. Adam Foote and Bryan Berard have been brought in to strengthen a relatively weak defense as well. The most underrated move could be finally bringing in a good back-up in Martin Prusek. Columbus won't contend this year, but they could have a decent shot at the playoffs next season.

5. St. Louis Blues- An inconsistent goalie and a weak offense add up to a long season in St. Louis. The defense is decent, but goals will be few and far between, even with the new rules.

Northwest

1. Calgary Flames- This year's roster comes back stronger than the one that came within a goal of winning the Stanley Cup. New acquisitions Daymond Langkow and Tony Amonte will help take pressure off of Captain Jarome Iginla. The defense is stronger with the addition of Roman Hamrlik and Dion Phaneuf. As long as Kiprusoff stays good in goal, the Flames will be serious Cup favorites.

2. Vancouver Canucks - After a heartbreaking 1st round loss to Calgary, the 'Nucks will be back with something to prove. Expect Todd Bertuzzi to have a strong year with the crackdown on obstruction. Cloutier still needs to prove himself to be a top quality goalie.

3. Edmonton Oilers- After the signing of Forsberg, the Oilers arguably made the biggest move of the offseason with the acquisition of Chris Pronger. Pronger gives the Oilers a great piece to build around on defense. If Conklin plays well, the Oilers will be strong playoff contenders.

4. Colorado Avalanche- The losses of Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg are huge. This team has dealt with injuries before, but this might be too much to handle. Aebischer will need to be at his best if the Avalanche hope to make the playoffs.

5. Minnesota Wild- The Wild have some talent, but not enough of it yet. They do have a nice prospect pool however and they're moving in the right direction, the team is just a couple years away from serious contention.

Pacific Division

1. San Jose Sharks- Even with teams looking for them this year, the Sharks will be tough to beat. The Sharks are still young and with an elite goaltender in Nabakov, they figure to be a main challenger to the Flames this year.

2. Anaheim Mighty Ducks- Neidermayer was a huge addition and JS Giguere will be out to prove that last year was an aberration. The Ducks also have some good young talent coming in at forward and they should make the playoffs.

3. Dallas Stars- Mike Modano is under a lot of pressure to perform this year. The roster is still mainly made up of veterans and Turco will need to play well for this team to contend.

4. Los Angeles Kings- The Kings made lots of nice additions in the offseason, but goaltending is still a pretty big question mark. If Garon give them solid support in the nets, the Kings could finish a bit higher than 4th.

5. Phoenix Coyotes- Even the addition of the Great One can't disguise the fact that this team isn't loaded with talent. The team does have a lot of potential though and they can probably challenge for a playoff spot in a couple of years.

Send any questions or comments to arccampbell@gmail.com.

The opinions expressed on this page are of the author, and in no way reflect the views of the NHL, it teams or players. All material in Between the Lines copyrighted (C) 2004 Spector's Hockey. Reproduction of this material in whole, or in part, without consent by the author or Spector's Hockey is prohibited.