This remains the NHL's weakest division, with four teams having a legitimate shot to win it and earn a top-three playoff seed. A team that doesn't win the division title will be hard pressed to earn a playoff berth. Atlanta is an expansion team beginning a five-year plan. Winger Patrick Stefan will be watched closely (he had multiple concussions last season) and G Norm Maracle could end up unseating starter Damian Rhodes. A complete overhaul of ownership, management and the coaching staff has Tampa on the right track, but it faces a complete rebuilding. Hustling Lightning C Darcy Tucker is one of the best-kept secrets in the league. It appears the Hurricanes could spend much of the season without its best player, Primeau, which would cripple their attack. The Panthers still have a sub-par defense, but are banking on Pavel Bure popping in 50 goals and getting them back to the playoffs. If the Capitals stay healthy, G Olaf Kolzig plays to his past excellence and a few youngsters (Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, Yogi Svejkovsky) contribute, they could be the team to beat. They have the division's best defense, but lack proven scoring depth up front.
The Devils have the talent to win the division again, but their recent playoff collapses are likely to continue until youngsters such as Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora prove they can perform in the postseason. G Martin Brodeur should rebound with a Vezina Trophy season. The Pirates still get the most out of the least and compensate for a lack of brawn with European flash. The Flyers have seen their window of opportunity close rapidly. Key players are often injured, others are aging, the team hasn't drafted well and there could be problems in goal. This could be the last season for Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom there since he and John LeClair are in the final year of their contracts. The Rangers tried to buy their way to the Stanley Cup (they were one of the few teams to pursue free agents this summer), but it remains to be seen whether they also purchased chemistry and unity. The Islanders still seek solid ownership and Mike Milbury, who stepped down as coach last season, might not last the season as GM. Letting interim coach Bill Stewart go could haunt them. Four Atlantic teams will be in the playoff hunt.
The Sabres, Bruins and Senators should battle until season's end, and whichever team settles its contract problems first amy have the edge. Yashin, who led the Senators in goals, assists and points, could sit much of the season while demanding to renegotiate the final year of his contract. He might end up getting dealt. Boston needs G Byron Dafoe, perhaps the game's most underrated goalie, to be signed and on the ice. Buffalo's popgun offense relies heavily on Miroslav Satan, a 40-goal scorer, but the Sabres will be motivated by G Dominik Hasek, who said he's retiring at season's end. The Maple Leafs, who have holes on defense, will be hard pressed to duplicate their success of a year ago when they got career years out of journeymen. G Curtis Joseph is their savior. The Canadiens, the most storied franchise in NHL history, will be slugging it out with the expansion Thrashers at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The defense was already thin before its anchor, Vladimir Malakhov, tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He'll be out at least half the season.
The Red Wings are clearly the class of the division and should have no problem giving Bowman another division title in what will likely be the legend's last season behind the bench. C Steve Yzerman will crack the 600-goal plateau and LW Brendan Shanahan, an unrestricted free agent in July, will be closely watched by GMs around the league. He could be dealt at the trading deadline. St. Louis is one of the most consistent teams in the NHL, led by top defensemen Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis. If Turek, who excelled as a backup in Dallas, is the real deal, the Blues could go a few rounds into the playoffs. The Blackhawks have a good, young defense and will battle for playoff contention, though coaching instability and turmoil have dogged them. A sophomore jinx could be in order for the Predators, who overachieved in their expansion season. They'll continue to play hard for Trotz, a former member of the Capitals organization, but they don't have enough talent to contend.
The Avalanche doesn't resemble the dynamo that tore into the conference finals last spring, losing depth on defense and great goal scoring. C Joe Sakic was merely average in the postseason and C Peter Forsberg is out at least several months with a shoulder injury. Can Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk avoid a sophomore slump? Throw in a banged up starting goalie, Patrick Roy, and the Avalanche suddenly looks vulnerable. Lucky for Colorado, the rest of the division is weak. The Oilers lack the finances to thrive and will be in a struggle to reclaim the final playoff spot. The Flames rode G Fred Brathwaite to a surprising second half last season, but it's unlikely the minor leaguer will be as impressive again. D Derek Morris might be the most overlooked player in the conference. The Canucks' season highlight came in the draft, when they nabbed identical Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. But they will play at least one more season in the homeland. Superstar Paul Kariya's younger brother, Steve, had a great preseason, but it remains to be seen whether the 5-foot-6 forward can excel when the games count.
It's hard to imagine Dallas doing anything but competing for another Presidents Trophy (as regular season champion), then another Stanley Cup. Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Ed Belfour proved their many detractors wrong last season and showed they had the guts and heart necessary to win it all. The Stars maintain the best and most punishing defense in the league and have a core of defensive forwards who frustrate opponents. The Sharks are poised to join the conference's Big Three (Dallas, Detroit and Colorado) with a great blend of veteran role players and explosive youngsters. As long as Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne are healthy and Guy Hebert is solid in net, the Mighty Ducks likely will enter the postseason for the third time in four seasons. The defense is still thin. The Coyotes will be playing for its third coach in four years, and some doubt Bob Francis, a coach with no NHL experience, will be able to handle a dressing room notorious for its ego clashes. The Kings will christen a new arena this season and have playoff hopes. Palffy, a regular 40-goal player, should help rekindle C Jozef Stumpel's touch, and Los Angeles's defense is solid..
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