1. New Jersey Devils - The best defensive team in the league and defending Cup champions. The supporting cast changes but the core - Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and John Madden - remains the same. As long as they don't weary of head coach Pat Burns' style, there's no reason to believe they won't contend again. The Devils were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league last season, so don't expect them to open up their games this year. They'll still face tough competition to return to the Finals, but first in the division and challenging for first overall in the Conference seems a sure bet.
2. Philadelphia Flyers - Under-rated goaltender Jeff Hackett was signed as a UFA, so he'll finally get his chance to play for a contender. Still, goaltending will probably be a question mark for them again this season. Fortunately, the defence corps could be perhaps the deepest in Flyers history. Head coach Ken Hitchcock wants to give his younger players more icetime and relegate his veterans to lesser roles, which has the endorsement of GM Bob Clarke. It'll be interesting to see if the kids are up to the task and if the vets will buy into this, but there's enough talent here to guarantee the Flyers a high playoff berth. All eyes will be on forward John LeClair, whose back problems have limited his effectiveness in recent years. If he can stay healthy, his offence could give the Flyers a big boost.
3. New York Rangers - After six long years, the Rangers are finally poised to return to the playoffs. In Mike Dunham, they have a healthy, capable starting goalie. Late 02-03 pickups Anson Carter and Alexei Kovalev will contribute for a full season. The addition of Greg de Vries adds depth to their blueline, while last year's UFA busts Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis should rebound. Pavel Bure may not recover from his knee problems, but there is plenty of depth on this roster to cover his absence. Their team defence remains a question mark and there's concerns about their left wing depth, but with GM Glen Sather planning to coach the full season, the Rangers should finally get their act together. Injuries, however, remain a concern. They must stay healthy to have a legitimate shot.
4. New York Islanders - After failing to build on the promise of the 2001-02 season, the Isles fired Peter Laviolette as coach and replaced him with minor league bench boss Steve Stirling. He's going to have his hands full, as this Isles team was fractured by internal squabbles and inconsistent play. Should these problems persist, the Islanders will be in big trouble. Their blueline is one of the best in the league, but GM Mike Milbury must find a capable forward to play on Alexei Yashin's line. Even so, there remains concerns about their offensive depth. They re-signed journeyman goalie Garth Snow, but all eyes will be on prospect Rick DiPietro to see if he's finally ready to play at the big league level.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins - After twenty years, the Pens have returned to rock bottom. Despite Mario Lemieux returning to the lineup, this team is lacking a quality supporting cast. They sold Alexei Kovalev to the Rangers last season, and now there's talk they'll dump the salaries of forward Martin Straka in the wake of their trading goaltender Johan Hedberg to Vancouver. This will further weaken a roster already unfavourably compared to a minor league team. Despite the efforts of "Super Mario" and the pre-season hype over young goalie sensation Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins won't get within sniffing distance of the playoffs.
1. Ottawa Senators - Following years of slow building, the Senators are finally serious Cup contenders. They won the President's Trophy last season and came within minutes of advancing to the Cup Finals in 2003. Thanks to these experiences, and the money from new ownership to keep the roster intact, the Sens are finally ready to take the next step. With their depth of veterans in their prime and rising young talent coming into their own, the Senators should be considered the favourite to win the East and, in my opinion, to win the Stanley Cup. Indeed, they remind me of the Islanders and Oilers when they were on the cusp of their respective dynasties.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs - After being considered Cup contenders over the past five seasons, the Leafs are about to hit the slide. Their best players (Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Owen Nolan, Alexander Mogilny and Ed Belfour) are getting older and some have nagging injury concerns. New GM John Ferguson Jr must address their continuous achilles heel, their defence corps, which was weakened further by injury, retirement and free agency in the off-season. The Leafs have the talent to make the playoffs, but they can no longer be considered serious challengers for the Stanley Cup.
3. Buffalo Sabres - Most of last season was a disaster for the Sabres, but two glimmers of hope emerged. They were purchased by new ownership committed to keeping the franchise in Buffalo, and the club's performance improved in the second half of the season. Late-season acquisition Daniel Briere clicked well with winger Jochen Hecht, and the off-season addition of Chris Drury should give top forward Miroslav Satan the capable linemate he needs. The Sabres have plenty of good young talent, but they may be tiring of head coach Lindy Ruff. If the Sabres are to make real improvement, however, they'll need their goaltending, especially Martin Biron, to step up. Otherwise, it could be another season on the outside looking in for this club.
4. Boston Bruins - After a red-hot start to last season, the Bruins cooled significantly and backed into the playoffs in the season's final weeks. Firing Robbie Ftorek did nothing to halt the slide. New head coach Mike Sullivan must improve the Bruins key weakness, their defensive game, which was furthered weakened by the loss of two players to free agency and one to an off-season car accident. Two other areas of concern is their lack of big-game goaltending and a new contract for defenceman Nick Boynton. There's enough offensive talent here (Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Sergei Samsonov, Brian Rolston) to make the playoffs, but if their goaltending and defensive game fails to improve, the Bruins won't make it.
5. Montreal Canadiens - Like the Islanders, the Canadiens failed last season to build on the promise of the previous one, but unlike the Isles, it cost them a trip to the playoffs. Too many veterans failed to play up to expectations, and too many of their promising youngsters have yet to hit their prime. They possess some talent in team captain Saku Koivu, linemate Richard Zednik, winger Jan Bulis and defenceman Andrei Markov, but overall the team remains small and lacking a strong defensive game. Unless Jose Theodore can rebound from his sub-par performance and his current family problems , the Canadiens could be toast. New GM Bob Gainey and his staff will build this club into a contender one day, but the Canadiens have a long way to go. As it stands, it'll be a tough scrap just to make the playoffs.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning - After years of futility, the young Lightning finally served notice they're a team on the rise. With an offensive attack centred on Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, and backstopped by goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the Bolts are an exciting team to watch. Their blueline still lacks notable defencemen outside of the late-blooming Dan Boyle, and there's talk this could be coach John Tortorella's final season, plus speculation they might opt to move Khabibulin's salary later in the season for blueline depth. But if their best players continue to improve, the Lightning should overcome their problem areas and again take the division title.
2. Carolina Hurricanes - After crashing last season following their 2002 Finals appearance, the 'Canes spent the off-season shoring up their blueline. Injuries to key players like Rod Brind'amour and Erik Cole took their toll last season, but healthier seasons from both will make them a better team. Management has bulked up their blueline significantly over last season. There's enough depth for the Hurricanes to rebound back into the playoffs, but all eyes will be on goaltender Kevin Weekes, who must find the consistency to finally establish himself as a quality starter.
3. Atlanta Thrashers - When they hired Bob Hartley as head coach mid-way through last season, the Thrashers played over .500 hockey in the second half. Expect that improvement to carry over into the coming season. Wunderkids Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk will power their offensive game, abetted by the returning Slava Kozlov. Veteran Byron Dafoe spent the off-season improving his physical fitness, which should translate into solid netminding. Still, they lack quality blueline depth, which means Hartley will have this club playing a more responsible all-around game. A playoff berth, the first in franchise history, is not out of the question for the improving Thrashers. (Note: Dany Heatley broke his jaw and journeyman Dan Snyder was critically injured in a car crash on September 29th. Heatley is facing several charges, although alcohol wasn't involved. How Heatley and the team copes with this could impact the club's hopes for improvement).
4. Washington Capitals - Things aren't looking good for the Caps heading into this season. They've been unable to replace blueline stalwarts Calle Johansson and Ken Klee, lost to free agency. GM George McPhee attempted unsuccessfully to dump the salaries of Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang, which could be a factor in their performance this season. There were reports of some players expressing unhappiness with head coach Bruce Cassidy. The club still has a top flight goalie in Olaf Kolzig and plenty of offensive firepower, but that weakened blueline, in addition to the other aforementioned potential problems, could sink the Caps playoff hopes.
5. Florida Panthers - Loaded with promising young talent, a terrific goaltender in Roberto Luongo and an experienced coach in Mike Keenan, the Panthers have a terrific future. Whether that future starts arriving this season is debatable. This is a team that lacks experienced on-ice leadership, and there are concerns about Keenan's clashes with promising youngsters Kristian Huselius and Steve Weiss. Still, if this young roster can make significant improvement, the Panthers could move up a couple of spots and even challenge for a playoff berth should other clubs slide.
1. Detroit Red Wings. The off-season produced significant change for the Wings. Dominik Hasek returned from retirement, forcing out Curtis Joseph as their starting goalie. Sergei Fedorov departed via free agency, replaced by free agent Ray Whitney. Most notably, the Wings upgraded their blueline by signing Derian Hatcher. The remainder of the core remains, and while some key players are aging, the Wings are giving the indication they're going to focus more on defensive hockey. With their talented depth, it'll be foolish not to rank them as Cup contenders again this season. It remains to be seen how the "CuJo" situation impacts the club as management attempts to trade the disgruntled Joseph.
2. St. Louis Blues. With each passing season, the Blues fall further away from the promise of their President's Trophy season of 2000. They'll still have a strong offensive game, although they lack depth at centre. The presence of Calder winner Barrett Jackman and the return to action of a healthy Chris Pronger will bolster their blueline. But as it's always been over the past four years, it's the calibre of the goaltending that'll determine the Blues fate. Having topped out his budget, GM Larry Pleau couldn't afford an upgrade and will pin his hopes to Chris Osgood and Brent Johnson. They'll be steady enough in the regular season, but their playoff game, particularly that of Osgood, remains questionable.
3. Nashville Predators. Following a horrific first-half, the Predators countered with a strong second half that at one point had them challenging for a playoff berth until injuries to key players crushed their hopes. Their promising young forwards, particularly David Legwand and Scott Hartnell, could finally be poised for their breakout seasons, while goaltender Tomas Vokoun is one of the most under-rated in the NHL. However, the Preds decided to get younger with their blueline, and that inexperience could cost them. Still, given the slow but steady improvement of their young forwards, this season could see them finally ready for a playoff debut.
4. Chicago Blackhawks. Another club that failed to follow-up on a promising season, the 'Hawks hope to rebound. The scoring is there in Eric Daze and Steve Sullivan, but they'll need veterans like Alexei Zhamnov to improve on their sub-par performances of last year. Goaltender Jocelyn Thibault once again performed very well, but ultimately wore down under a very heavy workload, made worse by an inept blueline corps. The 'Hawks management pledged to shore up the defence, but actually did very little in that regard. Unless head coach Brian Sutter can get his charges to play better defensively, the 'Hawks could miss the playoffs again.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets. GM Doug MacLean continues to do a fine job in building his club, landing quality talent at the draft and signing two way forward Todd Marchant. Some questioned his letting Ray Whitney go, but MacLean obviously wants to improve his team's defensive game. Obtaining Daryl Sydor from Dallas will help in that regard. Promising youngsters Rick Nash and Radislav Klesla should continue to improve, and if the Blue Jackets can get better defensively, they could challenge for third in the division and a playoff berth.
1. Vancouver Canucks. With a lethal first line of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, and the most mobile defence in the league, the Canucks look to improve on the huge strides they made last season. The talent is there, but the key problem is with consistency. There are doubts over Dan Cloutier's ability to provide strong post-season goaltending, but landing goalie Johan Hedberg should help between the pipes. The vaunted defence corps suffered critical lapses against tough checking opposition and there is also concerns over a lack of scoring beyond the first line. If the Canucks can overcome these problems, they could be poised for Cup contention.
2. Colorado Avalanche. GM Pierre Lacroix is attempting to compensate for the retirement of goaltender Patrick Roy by loading up on the firepower, adding former Ducks Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne to his already lethal offensive lines. However, the Avs have done so at the expense of their defensive game, losing Greg de Vries and utility player Eric Messier in the process. The Avs will score goals in bunches, and their first four defencemen (Blake, Foote, Morris and Skoula) are star-calibre, but if they fail to find an adequate replacement for Roy in goal, they won't get far in the playoffs.
3. Minnesota Wild. They came out of nowhere and shocked the hockey world by going to the Conference Finals in only their third year of existence. Head coach Jacques Lemaire did a masterful job of making the Wild the epitome of team defence. Unfortunately, their offence was of the popgun variety, with only one legitimate scoring star - Marion Gaborik - on the roster. The Wild will continue to be a pain in the ass to play against and should again make the playoffs, but it'll be tough to build on last season's success without adding more scoring power. It could get worse if Gaborik's contract holdout stretches throughout the season.
4. Edmonton Oilers. It's the same old story for the cash-strapped Oilers. For years, they've had terrific young teams, but unfortunately lack the big bucks necessary to keep them together and let them grow into a legitimate playoff threat. As in previous years, they're loaded with promising talent, but their inexperience will have them once again scrabbling for one of the final playoff berths in the West. And for the first time, there are genuine concerns regarding the ability of goaltender Tommy Salo to carry them. Keep an eye on the contract holdout of Mike Comrie, as it could lead to a potential change of scenery for the young centre.
5. Calgary Flames. After another bitterly disappointing season, new GM Daryl Sutter decided to rebuild the Flames into a big, tough-checking - and affordable - club with several notable off-season moves. Bringing back Dean McAmmond to play the first line with Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy could see them recapture their scoring magic of 2001-02, and if "Iggy" can stay healthy, and those bigger players can step up, the Flames could finally make the playoffs after seven long years. However, those hopes ultimately rest on the goaltending of Roman Turek. If he struggles like he did the past two years, the Flames are sunk again.
1. Dallas Stars - Blowing their budget on free agents over the past two years failed to get the Stars back into Cup contention, and ultimately cost them defenceman Derian Hatcher to free agency. Still, the Stars are loaded with star talent. Expect winger Bill Guerin to rebound from his injury-shortened season of a year ago, and Mike Modano will continue to weave his magic. The Stars landed Teppo Numminen in a deal that cost them Daryl Sydor, but their depth and Numminen's puckhandling skills still gives them a blueline to envy. Goalie Marty Turco will be under pressure to build on his Vezina-nominated performance of last season, but if he does, the Stars could be set for a sustained playoff run.
2. Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The Ducks amazing second-half surge and playoff run has the entire league buzzing. The question now is, can they do it again? While dumping longtime captain Paul Kariya, they landed a better all-round forward (not to mention cheaper) in Sergei Fedorov. They'll be under a lot of pressure to prove they're not a "one-year wonder", but if head coach Mike Babcock can keep these guys focussed, they could be a rising force in the West. Ultimately, their fate will rest on playoff MVP JS Giguere to provide the stellar goaltending that got them to within one game of the Stanley Cup.
3. Los Angeles Kings - Injuries and inconsistent goaltending killed the Kings hopes last season. They addressed the goaltending issue by stealing away Roman Cechmanek from the Philadelphia Flyers for a draft pick. Cechmanek may have a lousy playoff record, but he's stellar in the regular season, and the Kings are hoping a change of scenery will improve his post-season game. As for injuries, if they only lose half the players they lost last season, the Kings could still make the playoffs. When this team is healthy, they're tough to play against. Pre-season injuries to Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh, however, have Kings fans holding their breath as the curtain rises on the new season.
4. San Jose Sharks - Everything fell apart for the Sharks last season. Seen as a potential Cup contender a year ago, their fall from grace cost them their GM, head coach, plus Owen Nolan and Teemu Selanne. They'll be going with more youth in their roster this season, plus hope defenceman Brad Stuart and Kyle McLaren can rebound. They'll also be counting on netminder Evgeni Nabokov to rebound from a sub-par 2002-03 season. The Sharks should be a better team than last year's version, but it remains to be seen how the younger players fare.
5. Phoenix Coyotes - Yet another club that last season failed to build on the promise of the previous season, the Coyotes roster changes continued into the off-season, as they dealt away Danny Markov for David Tanabe and Teppo Numminen for Mike Sillinger. Essentially, the Coyotes have reverted back to their building mode of two years ago, keeping an eye out for promising, affordable talent. It's their hope that when their new arena opens down the road, it'll bring in more revenue to retain their best players. In the meantime, with a logjam in goal, expect Sean Burke to be moved. They overachieved two seasons ago and made the playoffs, but they'll have a lot of work to do to get close to the post-season again.
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