Keys to the Eastern Conference

1. Eric Lindros, Philadelphia: He hasn't enjoyed the pressure of playing in Philadelphia, and things will only get worse. GM Bobby Clarke is on thin ice and the aging team flopped in the playoffs.

2. Darcy Regier, Buffalo: The Sabres' GM knows his team's last great shot at a Cup is this season, before G Dominik Hasek retires. If he can beef up his offense at the trade deadline, he could get his Cup.

3. John Muckler, Rangers: The old-school coach faces a tough task uniting new players. Rangers fans want a playoff team, but with holes at center and on defense, a postseason berth isn't assured.

4. Alexei Yashin, Ottawa: If the superstar is willing to hold out and sacrifice a season's salary ($3.5 million), the Senators will suffer. They may find a way to trade him, but options are limited.

5. Pavel Bure, Florida: The Panthers are banking on 50 goals and a playoff spot, but Bure is coming off his second re-constructive knee surgery and his supporting cast is largely composed of underachievers.

Atlantic Division

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 Penguins 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 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 as GM. Letting interim coach Bill Stewart go could haunt them. Four Atlantic teams will be in the playoff hunt.

Predicted Order of Finish

New Jersey

'98-99: 47-24-11, lost to Pittsburgh in 1st round

Key additions: C John Madden (rookie)

Key losses: C Bob Carpenter (retired), D Kevin Dean (Atlanta), LW Dave Andreychuk (Boston); C Brendan Morrison and LW Patrik Elias are unsigned

Coach: Robbie Ftorek, 2nd year, 47-24-11

Pittsburgh

'98-99: 38-30-14, lost to Toronto in semifinals

Key additions: Owner Mario Lemieux

Key losses: D Maxim Galanov (Atlanta), C Dan Kesa (Tampa Bay), LW Bob Errey (retired)

Coach: Kevin Constantine, 3rd year, 78-54-32

Philadelphia

'98-99: 37-26-19, lost to Toronto in 1st round

Key additions: D Karl Dykhuis (Tampa Bay), RW Mike Maneluk (Chicago), G Brian Boucher (rookie)

Key losses: D Steve Duchesne (Detroit), G Ron Hextall (retired)

Coach: Roger Neilson, 3rd year, 47-35-21

N.Y. Rangers

'98-99: 33-38-11, did not make playoffs

Key additions: RW Theo Fleury (Colorado), RW Valeri Kamensky (Colorado) and D Sylvain Lefebvre (Colorado), D Stephane Quintal, (Montreal), G Kirk McLean (Florida)

Key losses: C Wayne Gretzky (retired)

Coach: John Muckler, 3rd, 41-53-13

N.Y. Islanders

'98-99: 24-48-10, did not make playoffs

Key additions: C Olli Jokinen and LW Josh Green (Los Angeles), C Tony Hrkac (Dallas), D Jamie Rivers (St. Louis)

Key losses: RW Ziggy Palffy (Los Angeles), LW Trevor Linden (Montreal), C Bryan Smolinski (Los Angeles)

Coach: Butch Goring, 1st season

Northeast Division

The Sabres, Bruins and Senators should battle until season's end, and whichever team settles its contract problems first may have the edge. Alexei 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.

Predicted Order of Finish

Buffalo

'98-99: 37-28-17, lost to Dallas in Cup finals

Key additions: RW Maxim Afinogenov (rookie), G Martin Biron (rookie)

Key losses: C Joe Juneau (free agent), D Darryl Shannon (free agent); RW Miroslav Satan is unsigned

Coach: Lindy Ruff, 3rd year, 73-57-34

Boston

'98-99: 39-30-13, lost to Buffalo in semifinals

Key additions: LW Dave Andreychuk (New Jersey), RW Peter Ferraro

Key losses: RW Dmitri Khristich (free agent), D Dave Ellett (free agent), C Randy Robitaille (Nashville); G Byron Dafoe is unsigned

Coach: Pat Burns, 3rd year, 78-60-26

Ottawa

'98-99: 44-23-15, lost to Buffalo in 1st round

Key additions: LW Rob Zamuner (Tampa Bay), G Pat Lalime (Anaheim)

Key losses: LW Andreas Johansson (Tampa Bay), LW Ted Donato (Anaheim), RW Nelson Emerson (Atlanta); C Alexei Yashin is unsigned

Coach: Jacques Martin, 5th year, 119-116-49

Toronto

'98-99: 45-30-7, lost to Buffalo in conference finals

Key additions: C Nikolai Antropov (rookie), G Jimmy Waite (Phoenix)

Key losses: RW Ladislav Kohn (Atlanta); D Dmitri Yushkevich is unsigned

Coach: Pat Quinn, 2nd year, 45-30-12

Montreal

'98-99: 32-39-11, missed playoffs

Key additions: RW Trevor Linden (New York Islanders), RW Jim Cummins (Phoenix), D Barry Richter (New York Islanders)

Key losses: D Stephane Quintal (New York Rangers), D Brett Clark (Anaheim)

Coach: Alain Vigneault, 3rd year, 69-71-24

Southeast Division

This remains the NHL's weakest division. Four teams have 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 Bay on the right track, but it faces a complete rebuilding. Lightning C Darcy Tucker is a well-kept secret. It appears the Hurricanes could spend much of the season without their best player, Keith Primeau, which would cripple their attack. The Panthers still have a subpar defense but are banking on Pavel Bure scoring 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 win. They have the division's best defense, but lack proven scoring depth up front.

Predicted Order of Finish

Washington

'98-99: 31-45-6, missed playoffs

Key additions: G Craig Billington (Colorado), RW Joe Sacco (Anaheim)

Key losses: D Mark Tinordi (free agent), RW Craig Berube (Philadelphia)

Coach: Ron Wilson, 3rd year, 71-75-18

Florida

'98-99: 30-34-18, missed playoffs

Key additions: G Trevor Kidd (Carolina), D Lance Pitlick (Ottawa), C Jiri DoPita (rookie)

Key losses: RW Dino Ciccarelli (retired), D Gord Murphy (bought out contract), LW Johan Garpenlov (Atlanta)

Coach: Terry Murray, 2nd year, 30-34-18

Carolina

'98-99: 34-30-18, lost to Boston in 1st round

Key additions: G Eric Fichaud (Nashville)

Key losses: RW Ray Sheppard and C Keith Primeau are unsigned

Coach: Paul Maurice, 5th year, 128-143-45

Tampa Bay

'98-99: 19-54-9, missed playoffs

Key additions: G Dan Cloutier (Rangers), D Bill Houlder (San Jose), RW Steve Guolla (San Jose), LW Andreas Johansson (Ottawa)

Key losses: LW Rob Zamuner (Ottawa), G Corey Schwab (Atlanta)

Coach: Steve Ludzik, 1st season

Atlanta

'98-99: none

Key additions: RW Patrik Stefan (rookie), G Damian Rhodes (Ottawa), C Nelson Emerson (Ottawa)

Key losses: D Jamie Pushor (Dallas)

Coach: Curt Fraser, 1st season