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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Updated: September 24, 4:24 PM ET
NHL PREVIEW

By E.J. Hradek

WASHINGTON CAPITALS Last Season: 43–31–8 Coach: Bruce Boudreau "WASHINGTON HAD A GREAT RUN LAST YEAR. I THINK EVERYONE WILL BE WATCHING TO SEE IF THEY CAN KEEP IT UP AT THAT LEVEL."

The Caps went 37–17–7 under Coach of the Year Boudreau, including an 11–1 finish to clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the season. Hart Trophy-winner Alex Ovechkin blew up, leading the league with 65 goals and 112 points. Can he do more? Don't bet against him. Young F's Nick Backstrom (69 points), Alex Semin (26 goals) and Brooks Laich (21 goals) complement AO, while speedy Mike Green (18 goals, tops among D's in the league) helps ignite the NHL's eighth-best attack. If FA goaltender Jose Theodore improves on the club's .900 SP (ranked 26th), Boudreau may be holding up a different trophy next June.

KEY PROSPECT: Karl Alzner, 20, D A star defender from the WHL, Alzner has size (6'2'', 206) and smarts. He projects as a shutdown defender who'll play against top lines and kill penalties.

CAROLINA HURRICANES Last Season: 43–33–6 Coach: Peter Laviolette

Carolina's problem last season wasn't offense. Eric Staal (38 goals, 44 assists) & Co. netted 252 goals (fifth best in the league). No, the issue was at the other end of the rink, where it gave up 249 goals (sixth worst). As a fix, GM Jim Rutherford traded F Erik Cole for D Joni Pitkanen and added D's Josef Melichar and Anton Babchuk (back from Russia). Those names aren't sexy, but the players are solid and will help. If the Canes can make G Cam Ward's life easier (.904 SP) without sacrificing too much O, they'll be in the playoff mix.

KEY PROSPECT: Brandon Sutter, 19, C The son of Devils coach Brent, Brandon is an old-school two-way pivot and tenacious checker who will help improve team D. The 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft, Sutter has an excellent chance of making the roster out of camp.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING Last Season: 31–42–9 Coach: Barry Melrose

New ownership wasted no time in making a splash in the Bay. Putting Barry Melrose behind the bench guaranteed good pub, but signing free agent F's Ryan Malone (27 goals, Finals cred and limitless grit) and Radim Vrbata (27 goals), plus G Olaf Kolzig (.892 SP) and fan fave Vinny Prospal (33 goals), will get the Lightning back to .500. Most important, they signed franchise C Vinny Lecavalier (40 goals) to an 11-year extension and locked down No. 1 overall pick C Steven Stamkos. Still, if G Mike Smith (15 wins) and Kolzig can't better a league-worst .885 SP—a tall order—the Bolts will still be all wet.

KEY PROSPECT: Steven Stamkos, 18, C Says one scout: "He's got excellent hockey sense, knows what to do defensively and is willing to do it." Translation: He'll see significant minutes in his rookie season.

FLORIDA PANTHERS Last Season: 38–35–9 Coach: Peter Deboer

Last fall, the Panthers looked as if they were ready to break a six-season playoff drought. Looks can be deceiving. In April, GM Jacques Martin relinquished coaching duties and hired Peter DeBoer, who brings no pro experience. Ignorance is bliss, right? No. DeBoer gets the benefit of an upgraded D, thanks to the addition of vets Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton, which should make life easier for G Tomas Vokoun (.919 SP, despite facing a league-high 2,213 shots). But the 20th-ranked offense needs breakout years from young (25 and 22) F's Stephen Weiss (42 points) and Rostislav Olesz (26 points). Too much to hope for? Yes.

KEY PROSPECT: Shawn Matthias, 20, C A big (6'3'', 211), tough player who drives to the net, Matthias plays the kind of blue-collar game that coaches (and fans) love.

ATLANTA THRASHERS Last Season: 34–40–8 Coach: John Anderson

After the Thrashers allowed a league-high 266 goals last season, GM Don Waddell added ex-Blue Jackets D Ron Hainsey (five years, $22.5M) and drafted D Zach Bogosian (third overall). Will it make a difference? No. New coach John Anderson faces a tough situation. In goal, shell-shocked Kari Lehtonen (.916 SP) could get a push from Czech Ondrej Pavelec. Dynamic scorer Ilya Kovalchuk (52 goals) is a plus up front, but the team needs a playmaking pivot to get him the puck. Hiring Anderson was a good idea, but Waddell needs quite a few more.

KEY PROSPECT: Zach Bogosian, 18, D The 6'2'', 200-pounder is projected to be a force at both ends of the rink. "He's a good one, but I hope they don't rush him," says one scout. Alas, this team is really desperate for success and has no choice.