Commentary

ESPN The Magazine: Eastern Conference previews

Updated: September 26, 2007, 12:09 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

You don't win a Stanley Cup in the spring -- you win it in the summer, when the acquisition of even one player can turn a contender into a champ. (Exhibit A: Scott Niedermayer and his title-defending Ducks.) This past offseason, more than a few clubs signed a dynamic skater or two, giving them real hope for playoff glory. Who's got the best shot? To answer that question, we asked former Flames GM Craig Button to evaluate every team's key offseason move, then I helped add it all up.

The bottom line: an Original Six finals that might bring some Broadway back to hockey.

Atlantic Division
1. New York Rangers (Last season: 42-30-10; Coach: Tom Renney)
Key acquisition: By signing C Chris Drury, GM Glen Sather sent a very clear message to his team: We are all about winning. Tom Renney can use him in every on-ice situation, and Drury's not afraid to assert himself as a leader in the room. The Rangers immediately became serious Cup contenders with this acquisition.

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Key to the season: While newcomers Drury and C Scott Gomez (see page 96) should help the team's 18th-ranked offense, the Rangers won't get a sniff of Lord Stanley's Cup without the continued good work of RW Jaromir Jagr (96 points) and G Henrik Lundqvist (.917 SP). Jagr (1.2 ppg) will need to click with a new pivot, probably Gomez, and "King" Henrik must rule behind a very average D led by Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik. But top prospect Marc Staal -- a shutdown defender -- should help keep Lundqvist looking regal, the fans feeling excited and the Blueshirts playing in June.

Key stat: 7. Games lost in regulation after blowing leads of two or more goals -- three more than any other team.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (Last season: 47-24-11; Coach Michel Therrien)
Key acquisition: D Darryl Sydor fits the Penguins and they fit him. Sydor starred on Dallas' 1998-99 Cup team, skating with Sergei Zubov. He'll pair nicely here with Sergei Gonchar or Ryan Whitney.

Key to the season: Sidney Crosby will sport the C -- making him, at 20, the youngest captain in league history-- but it will be the Penguins wearing the target after a 47-point jump in the standings. How will the club cope? Crosby, who signed a five-year, $43.5M contract extension, will have to better his Hart numbers (120 points). F's Evgeni Malkin (85 points) and Jordan Staal (29 goals) and G Marc-Andre Fleury (40 W's and .906 SP) will face similar pressure -- but that will make the Penguins a tougher team in the postseason, with a first-round exit less likely.

Key stat: 67. Goals the Pens got from teens -- Crosby (36), Staal (29) and Kris Letang (2) -- broke Edmonton's 1979-80 mark.

3. New Jersey Devils (Last season: 49-24-9; Coach: Brent Sutter)
Key hire: As a team gets younger, instilling the values of preparation and commitment is as important as the names on the roster. Hiring Red Deer coach Brent Sutter was a perfect choice.

Key to the season: Are the Devils on the downswing? Hardly. They may have lost FAs Scott Gomez (Rangers) and Brian Rafalski (Wings), but as long as Marty Brodeur, 35, is in the crease, Jersey is dangerous. In 2005-06, he recorded a regular-season record 48 W's and 12 shutouts (along with a 2.18 GAA and a .922 SP). New coach Sutter must squeeze more juice from Patrik Elias (21 goals), Brian Gionta (25 goals), Travis Zajac (17 goals) and the league's 27th-ranked O. On paper, the Devils look beatable. Between the pipes? Not so much. Still.

Key stat: 41. Games New Jersey won last season by two goals or less, an NHL high.

4. Philadelphia Flyers (Last season: 22-48-12; Coach: John Stevens)
Key acquisition: D Kimmo Timonen is a great complement to the team's other blue-liners and should especially help Derian Hatcher regain his form. He skates in all situations and can play major minutes every night.

Key to the season: GM Paul Holmgren scored big by signing shifty Daniel Briere (32 goals, 95 points), who'll help fans forget last season, the third worst in Flyers history. The Gatineau, Quebec, native should fit nicely between snipers Simon Gagne (41 goals) and Mike Knuble (24 goals). Other notable newbies include F's Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul, as well as D's Timonen and Jason Smith. The latter two -- and G Martin Biron -- will shore up the league's 30th-ranked D. And have Broad Street feeling bully once more.

Key stat: 5. Games the Flyers won last season (5-20-7) against Atlantic Division teams.

5. New York Islanders (Last season: 40-30-12; Coach: Ted Nolan)
Key acquisition: RW Bill Guerin can still make a difference on the right club, as he did last season in St. Louis. But hard as he works, he won't have as much impact on Long Island. He can do only so much.

Key to the season: Several prime-timers in last season's surprising playoff campaign have departed: F's Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake (and his 40 goals), Alexei Yashin, Viktor Kozlov and Randy Robitaille, as well as D's Tom Poti and Sean Hill. The new cast includes Fs Guerin (36 goals), Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jon Sim and Josef Vasicek, and Ds Andy Sutton and Bryan Berard. Does all this turnover make the Islanders better? Only if a remaining prime-timer, G Rick DiPietro (career bests: 32 Ws, .919 SP), has another big season. That's asking a lot.

Key stat: 40. In losing Blake, the Islanders give up more goals by a single player than any other team in the league.

Northeast Division
1. Ottawa Senators (Last season: 48-25-9; Coach: John Paddock)
Key promotion: As a coach, Bryan Murray had to keep his teams focused. As the new GM, he'll have the tougher jobs of making sure the Senators meet lofty expectations and dealing with the reality of the cap. Tops on his list: negotiating new deals for FAs Dany Heatley and Wade Redden, and inking Jason Spezza before his jump year.

Key to the season: We'll endorse these Senators. But the East champs, who were schooled by the Ducks in the Finals, start the season with some questions: 1) Former assistant John Paddock takes over for coach Murray, the team's new GM. Will the transition be smooth? 2) Top G Ray Emery (.918) had surgery on his left wrist, his catching hand. Will that be a problem for a goalie who already gives up too many rebounds? 3) And will star LW Heatley and D Redden perform in a contract season? In June, the Sens faced Finals pressure for the first time. This kind will be harder to deal with.

Key stat: 24. The Sens won more games last season by three or more goals than any other team.

2. Buffalo Sabres (Last season: 53-22-7; Coach: Lindy Ruff)
Key return: Center Tim Connolly's return (he missed last season due to a concussion) is magnified by the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. His skill helps the team remain an elite one.

Key to the season: We're still bullish on Buffalo, despite the loss of star C's Briere and Drury (69 goals combined). G Ryan Miller (.911 SP) is a terrific stopper, helped by an agile group of defensemen. The team plays hard every night for Ruff. That's huge. As is the upside for talented young two-way F's Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Maxim Afinogenov and Jason Pominville, who are all 28 or under and getting better. If the team improves its PP (ranked 17th) and PK (20th), Sabremania will continue into another postseason.

Key stat: 4. The Sabres had more 30-goal scorers than any team in the NHL last season. Two of them, alas, are gone.

3. Montreal Canadiens (Last season: 42-34-6. Coach: Guy Carbonneau)
Key acquisition: D Roman Hamrlik will help the Canadiens compete better at even strength. He won't put up the point numbers departed D Sheldon Souray did, but he's an upgrade as a plus player.

Key to the season: The Habs' crease is packed. All-Star Cristobal Huet (.916 SP); heir apparent Carey Price, 20; and Jaroslav Halak, 22, form a deep group. Vets C Saku Koivu (75 points), RW Michael Ryder (30 goals) and D Andrei Markov (24:28 mpg) show leadership, while young F's Guillaume Latendresse (20), Tomas Plekanec (24), Andrei Kostitsyn (22) and Maxim Lapierre (22) show promise. And if LW Chris Higgins can stay healthy (he missed 21 games with a sprained left ankle), he'll be the consistent scorer this team desperately needs.

Key stat: 57. The Canadiens' blue-liners led the NHL in goals last season, although Souray accounted for 26 of them.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (Last season: 40-31-11; Coach: Paul Maurice)
Key acquisition: Former Sharks G Vesa Toskala is a solid addition who brings discipline, skill and a desire to play more. He'll take the heat off last season's embattled incumbent, Andrew Raycroft.

Key to the season: After Toronto missed the playoffs on the final day of last season, GM John Ferguson said expectations would be higher. If the Leafs miss again, expect Fergy to be history. Steadier play from a pricey D (Bryan McCabe plus Tomas Kaberle plus Pavel Kubina plus Hal Gill equals $18.475M against the cap) will help. So will new G Toskala (.908 SP). And we can't wait to see FA Jason Blake (40 goals) skate on a line with top C Mats Sundin. But the Leafs are no playoff lock. And the outcome may come down to their last game. Again.

Key stat: 209. Toronto tied Anaheim and Montreal for second-most points from the blue line last season (Ottawa had 216).

5. Boston Bruins (Last season: 35-41-6; Coach: Claude Julien)
Key acquisition: Manny Fernandez plays well in a tandem or can take the reins as No. 1. But the Bruins gave up 378 more shots than they took. If that doesn't improve, it won't matter who's in the crease.

Key to the season: With a proven NHL stopper (Fernandez, .911 SP) on the ice, new coach Claude Julien can focus on the club's other weaknesses: offense and defense. The B's managed just 2.56 gpg (25th in the league) while allowing 3.48 gpg (29th). Julien must get top F's Marc Savard (minus-19), Patrice Bergeron (minus-28) and Marco Sturm (minus-24) to embrace two-way play. On D, Zdeno Chara needs help from late-season pickups Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward. In conclusion: Better goaltending will move Boston forward. But not far enough.

Key stat: 70. Number of players who skated for the Bruins the past two seasons, highest in the NHL.

Southeast Division
1. Florida Panthers (Last season: 35-31-16; Coach: Jacques Martin)
Key acquisition: Highly competitive G Tomas Vokoun will be the catalyst for the Panthers' return to the postseason. He helped Nashville, which was regularly outshot, become an upper-echelon team, always giving the Preds a chance to win. If he can stay healthy (he missed half the season with injuries), he'll do the same in Florida.

Key to the season: By signing Vokoun (.920 SP) in July, the Panthers atoned for trading elite stopper Roberto Luongo to Vancouver last off-season. Watch what that does to their 16th-ranked PK unit and overall team D (ranked 20th). Jay Bouwmeester (42 points, plus-23) is coming off his best season, as is Olli Jokinen, the least known star in the NHL (39 goals, 91 points). Kid F's Nathan Horton (22 years old, 62 points) and Stephen Weiss (24, 48) are ready to dazzle, as is D Cory Murphy, a PP QB who played in Finland last season. This team doesn't have to apologize to anyone anymore.

Key stat: 337. Number of Panther power plays last season, the fewest in the NHL.

2. Carolina Hurricanes (Last season: 40-34-8; Coach: Peter Laviolette)
Key return: C Matt Cullen, a force for good in Carolina's 2006 Cup-winning season, never fit in with the Rangers. Back in Raleigh, his skating and smarts will improve the team's power play.

Key to the season: The Hurricanes played all season with a Stanley Cup hangover, missing the postseason festivities entirely. Among the befuddled was G Cam Ward, who followed his playoff success (Conn Smythe Trophy) with regular-season mediocrity (.897 SP). The team also needs some hair of the dog for its 25th-ranked PP. But that won't happen unless franchise pivot Eric Staal, whose production dropped 30 points in a year, returns to form. If he's ready to party, the Canes will be too. (No pressure, Eric.)

Key stat: 0. The Canes were the only team without a shootout win last season and scored just one goal in 17 SO attempts.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning (Last season: 44-33-5; Coach: John Tortorella)
Key return: F Chris Gratton's size (6'4'', 220) has always made him intriguing -- he was Tampa's No.1 pick in 1993 -- but he usually disappoints. Why would that change in Tampa, his eighth NHL stop?

Key to the season: Goaltending problems (Johan Holmqvist, .893 SP; Marc Denis, .883) put way too much pressure on the team's Terrific Three: C Vincent Lecavalier (52 goals, 108 points), RW Martin St. Louis (43, 102) and C Brad Richards (25, 70). As great as these guys are, the Bolts won't go far without a steady stopper. The PK unit, ranked 28th, needs to be upgraded, and that help might come in the form of big (6-foot-3, 220), bruising rookie D Dan Jancevski. But if the goalies flop, the Terrific Three won't make the Playoff Eight.

Key stat: 25. The Lightning led the league last season in come-from-behind wins.

4. Atlanta Thrashers (Last season: 43-28-11; Coach: Bob Hartley)
Key acquisition: Todd White will benefit from centering Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk, but the two franchise wings won't benefit that much in return. They deserve an elite pivot, and White isn't one.

Key to the season: Good news: The Thrashers are coming off their first postseason! Bad news: They were swept in Round 1 by the Rangers! Worse news: Hartley rattled his No. 1 goalie. He benched Kari Lehtonen (.912 SP) in Games 2 and 4, which has a way of messing up a young (23) keeper's head. The Thrashers' trio of dazzling snipers -- Hossa (43 goals), Kovalchuk (42) and Slava Kozlov (28) -- will keep Atlanta in most games, but so-so D (ranked 15th) will make this season's news seem old.

Key stat: 2. Atlanta and Minny were the only teams without a regulation loss last season when they scored four or more goals.

5. Washington Capitals (Last season: 28-40-14; Coach: Glen Hanlon)
Key acquisition: C Michael Nylander is a great pickup: He always plays to his linemates' strengths (ask Jaromir Jagr). Pairing him with Alex Ovechkin should greatly benefit both players -- and the Caps.

Key to the season: Ovechkin, GM George McPhee feels your pain: Aside from signing Nylander (83 points) and fellow C Viktor Kozlov (25 goals), he snared offensive D Tom Poti (44 points). That should help Ovechkin's numbers (46 goals) and the Caps' 24th-ranked PP. If Alex Semin (38 goals) and rookie C Nicklas Backstrom click, the Caps could have two scoring lines. Kozlov's 13-for-25 career shoot-out record will improve the team's 1-12 tiebreaker mark, getting a few close W's. But sadly, Alex, not enough of them to make the playoffs.

Key stat: 5. Number of Caps with 10 or more goals last season, two fewer than on any other team.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.