Team-by-team NHL preview

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Atlantic Division

Florida Panthers

Coach: Doug MacLean

Record: 20-22-6 (5th)

Outlook: The Panthers have missed the playoffs by one point in )) each of their two seasons, but likely won't come that close this season. No team scored fewer goals than the Panthers' 115 last season, and Jesse Belanger and Stu Barnes tied for the team lead with 29 points each. Florida was the league's sixth-best defensive team, but won't be again if goalie John Vanbiesbrouck is traded.

Key player: Ed Jovanovski. The 19-year-old defenseman will be counted on to provide the scoring and toughness that encouraged the Panthers to draft him No. 1 in 1994. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder had 23 goals and 198 penalty minutes in 50 games in juniors last season, and is expected to help immediately.

New Jersey Devils

Coach: Jacques Lemaire

Record: 22-18-8 (t-2nd)

Outlook: It's been an unsettling off-season for the defending Stanley Cup champs. Goaltender Martin Brodeur and defenseman Scott Niedermayer held out and returned to camp late, and Claude Lemieux held out until he was traded. The Devils ended up with Steve Thomas in the three-way deal. Lemaire won't let New Jersey slack off like the New York Rangers did after winning the Cup, but the Devils could use more offense.

Key player: Scott Stevens. The Devils' captain had only 22 points in 48 games last season after signing a $17 million contract. His offensive game needs to pick up to make up for the loss of Bruce Driver, who signed with the Rangers.

New York Islanders

Coach: Mike Milbury

Record: 15-28-5 (7th)

Outlook: Milbury takes over the second-worst team in the NHL. The Islanders have a promising group of young players led by defenseman Bryan McCabe and left wing Todd Bertuzzi, but are likely to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in eight seasons. The leading returning scorer is newly acquired Wendel Clark (30 points) The goalie situation is unsettled with Jamie McLennan and Tommy Soderstrom splitting time last season; Tommy Salo and Eric Fichaud are promising prospects.

:Key player: Kirk Muller. Acquired from Montreal late in the season, Muller finished the season with 11 goals in 45 games. The Islanders will need more production from him.

New York Rangers

Coach: Colin Campbell

Record: 22-23-3 (4th)

Outlook: The off-season acquisitions of Luc Robitaille, Ulf Samuelsson, Ray Ferraro and Bruce Driver show the Rangers won't settle for one Stanley Cup every 54 years. Mark Messier led the team in scoring with 53 points, but turns 35 in midseason. Brian Leetch is coming off a subpar season (41 points) and a broken foot in the off-season.

Key player: Mike Richter. His 2.92 goals-against doesn't seem bad, but 27 goalies did better. His poor play last season was a reflection -- or perhaps a symptom -- of the team's play. He won 23 games in the Rangers' Stanley Cup-winning 1994 playoffs, and only 14 all last season.

Philadelphia Flyers

Coach: Terry Murray

Record: 28-16-4 (1st)

Outlook: If Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg -- the "Legion of Doom" line -- can match their production of last season, when they combined for 53 percent of the Flyers' goals, Philadelphia may take the next step to the Stanley Cup finals. They won't do it unless they receive offensive contributions from more than just Rod Brind'Amour (39 points). The off-season acquisitions of center Joel Otto and defenseman Kjell Samuelsson will help, but goaltender Ron Hextall probably isn't the man to lead them to their first Cup since 1975.

Key player:Key player: Lindros. The league's most valuable player tied Jaromir Jagr (70 points) for the league's scoring lead, but did so in two fewer games. He dominates most games and is among the top three players in the NHL.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Coach: Terry Crisp

Record: 17-28-3 (6th)

Outlook: The Lightning haven't been as successful as its neighbors in Miami, but had a shot at making the playoffs last season until losing eight of its final 10 games. The offense was third-worst in the league so the Lightning drafted center Daymond Langkow, who led Canadian junior hockey with 140 points in 72 games for Tri-City. Daren Puppa (2.68 GAA) is a solid goalie.

Key player: Roman Hamrlik. The 21-year-old Czech defenseman started to show the talent that prompted the Lightning to draft him first in 1992. He scored seven of his 12 goals on a power play.

Washington Capitals

Coach: Jim Schoenfeld

Record: 22-18-8 (t-2nd)

Outlook: The Capitals must sign right wing Peter Bondra and center Michal Pivonka. Bondra's 34 goals led the league and accounted for 25 percent of the team's total. First-line center Joe Juneau had 38 assists in 44 games, but must score more than the five goals he had last season.

Key player: Jim Carey. The rookie was third in the league in goals-against average (2.13), and finished third in voting for the league's top goalie. Washington's mediocre offense means Carey will have to excel again for the team to make the playoffs for the 14th straight year.

Northeast Division

Boston Bruins

Coach: Steve Kasper

Record: 27-18-3 (3rd)

Outlook: Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen and Shawn McEachern -- all acquired from Pittsburgh -- add scoring punch to a team lacking offensive balance. Al Iafrate missed last season after surgery on both knees and, if he returns, will help Ray Bourque on the blue line in the new FleetCenter. Boston's 28 straight years of making the playoffs is the longest such streak in North American professional sports. Goalie Blaine Lacher had a solid rookie season (2.41 GAA), but he must prove it wasn't a fluke. The new FleetCenter has a larger ice surface than the old Boston Garden, which could be a negative.

Key player: Stevens. He averaged a point per game last season with Pittsburgh, but missed 21 games due to a broken ankle. He could combine with Adam Oates and Cam Neely to form one of the strongest lines in hockey.

Buffalo Sabres

Coach: Ted Nolan

Record: 22-19-7 (4th)

Outlook: Nolan's NHL experience consists of one season as a Hartford assistant, but he has Dominik Hasek -- the league's top goalie the last two seasons. Hasek, whose name has been mentioned in trade talks, had a poor playoff for a team that has won one series in 11 years. Buffalo needs continued improvement from right wing Donald Audette, who scored 24 goals -- 13 on the power play and seven game winners -- last season.

Key player: Pat LaFontaine. The star center missed most of the last two seasons with a knee injury and needs increased production to make up for the losses of Alexander Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk. Though he only played 22 games last season, he is the team's third-leading returning scorer with 27 points.

Hartford Whalers

Coach: Paul Holmgren

Record: 19-24-5 (5th)

Outlook: The acquisition of power forward Brendan Shanahan from St. Louis will help an offense that scored 127 goals last season, more than only six other teams. The Whalers improved to 16th in the overall standings from 24th the season before, and will need increased offensive production from left wing Geoff Sanderson and defenseman Glen Wesley for similar improvement.

Key player: Shanahan. By naming him captain before he plays a regular-season game for them, the Whalers are hoping Shanahan can lead them to the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The left wing scored 20 goals in 45 games last season.

Montreal Canadiens

Coach: Jacques Demers

Record: 18-23-7 (6th)

Outlook: The Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years due to a lack of scoring, a 3-18-3 road record and an off year by goalie Patrick Roy. Finnish center Saku Koivu, considered the best player outside the NHL last year, will help an offense that scored only 2.6 goals per game. The Canadiens leave the 71-year-old Forum and play their first game in a new 21,361-seat arena March 16.

Key player: Roy. His 2.97 goals-against average was 29th in the league and his .906 save percentage was 17th. Though he turns 30 before the season starts, the Canadiens need him to steal games. The Canadiens don't have a legitimate backup, so Roy will continue playing the bulk of their games.

Ottawa Senators

Coach: Rick Bowness

Record: 9-34-5 (7th)

Outlook: The Senators have been the worst team in hockey the last three seasons, and they should be again. Possibly their two most talented players -- last season's leading scorer Alexei Yashin and No. 1 draft pick Bryan Berard -- probably won't be on the team. Yashin (44 points) returned yesterday to Russia, where he says he will remain until he is traded, and Berard has returned to his junior team. The Senators had the worst goals-against differential (57) in the league, but defenseman Steve Duchesne (12 goals) and right wing Dan Quinn (14 goals) will help offensively.

Key player: Alexandre Daigle. The No. 1 pick in the 1993 draft had a much better sophomore season (16 goals, 21 assists in 47 games), and will be Ottawa's best offensive player -- by far -- if Yashin gets dealt.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Coach: Ed Johnston

Record: 29-16-3 (2nd)

Outlook: With an eye on cutting their payroll, the Penguins will be without six of their top nine scorers and their top three defensemen from last season. Despite sitting out last season, a healthy Mario Lemieux would go a long way toward making up for the losses. Pittsburgh is still strong up front, where Jaromir Jagr (32-3870) led the league in scoring and Ron Francis (59 points) was named the league's top defensive forward, but the defense is extremely young.

Key player: Lemieux. He won scoring titles each of the last two times he played more than 60 games, but hasn't played more than 64 games since the 1988-89 season. He's good enough to miss as many as 20 games and still win the scoring title.

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks

Coach: Craig Hartsburg

Record: 24-19-5 (3rd)

Outlook: A Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961 isn't out of the question after the Blackhawks lost four games by one goal each in the conference finals last season. Centers Jeremy Roenick and Bernie Nicholls, and right wing Joe Murphy provide scoring punch. Chris Chelios is still one of the league's best defensemen on the league's best defense. Goalie Ed Belfour played 42 of 48 games and had the league's fifth-lowest goals-against average (2.28).

Key player: Roenick. He missed 23 regular-season and playoff games last year with a knee injury and should be happier under new coach Hartsburg. He had 10 goals in 33 games last season, and the Blackhawks need him to return to the form in which he scored 149 goals and had 317 points in his previous three seasons.

Dallas Stars

Coach: Bob Gainey

Record: 17-23-8 (5th)

Outlook: The Stars' offense is mediocre, and Kevin and Derian Hatcher lead an aging defense. Center Mike Modano missed the final 14 games and the playoffs with ruptured tendons in his left ankle, and the offense isn't deep enough to make up for another injury. Andy Moog's .915 save percentage was second among starting goalies, but he turns 35 in February.

Key player: Modano. Even before getting injured (29 points in 30 games), he wasn't close to his 1993-94 form when he scored 50 goals. While center Dave Gagner is an effective scorer, the Stars' offense revolves around Modano.

Detroit Red Wings

Coach: Scotty Bowman

Record: 33-11-4 (1st)

Outlook: The Red Wings' 40-year Stanley Cup drought is the longest in hockey. They are strong on offense, defense and special teams, but the finals sweep by New Jersey could have a carryover effect. Ray Sheppard (30 goals) and Sergei Fedorov (50 points) lead a talented offense. Paul Coffey was the league's top defenseman last season, but most of the other defenseman are either too old or too young. The goalie situation also also unsettled between veteran Mike Vernon and youngster Chris Osgood, who was second in the league in save percentage (.917) and fourth in goals against (2.26).

Key player: Fedorov. The 1993-94 MVP and top defensive forward had a relatively quiet season, going from second in the league in scoring in 1993-94 to 16th in 1995. He was the top scorer in the playoffs, but wasn't much help in the finals when the Red Wings scored seven goals in four games.

St. Louis Blues

Coach: Mike Keenan

Record: 28-15-5 (2nd)

Outlook: By acquiring three players slated to make at least $2 million and two more due to make $1 million, Keenan proved he won't settle for anything less than a Stanley Cup. Dale Hawerchuk is the new No. 1 center, and Shayne Corson and Geoff Courtnall add scoring depth on the wings. Right wing Brett Hull was on pace for another 50-goal season, and will have more help up front despite the trade of Brendan Shanahan. The Blues' goaltending is unsettled with neither Grant Fuhr nor Jon Casey a clear No. 1.

Key player: Fuhr. He had a horrible season with Buffalo and Los Angeles in 1995, going 2-9-3 in 17 games. The six-time All-Star was signed as a free agent when previous starter Curtis Joseph was dealt to Edmonton. Though Fuhr is 33, Keenan is counting on him to show the form that helped the Oilers win five Stanley Cups.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Coach: Pat Burns

Record: 21-19-8 (4th)

Outlook: Acquiring Larry Murphy (38 points), the league's fifth-highest scoring defenseman last season, will help the league's 17th-best offense. Center Mats Sundin (23 goals) and left wing Dave Andreychuk (22 goals) are good scorers, but need to have better seasons to make up for minimal scoring depth. Goalie Felix Potvin can be outstanding. There are few young players who could make a difference.

Key player: Doug Gilmour. Toronto's mediocre regular season and first-round playoff ouster can be attributed almost directly to him. After scoring 111 points in 83 games in 1993-94, he had only 33 points in 44 games last year. He will have to be outstanding for the Maple Leafs to have a chance at winning their first Stanley Cup since 1967.

Winnipeg Jets

Coach: John Paddock

Record: 16-25-7 (6th)

Outlook: Things don't look great for the Jets in what will likely be their last season in Canada before they move -- possibly to Minneapolis. Winnipeg has three of the top forwards in the league in Alexei Zhamnov, Teemu Selanne and Keith Tkachuk, but not much else. Zhamnov had a breakthrough season, ranking third in the league with 65 points and being selected a second-team All-Star. Tkachuk was a holdout before agreeing to a contract that made him the third-highest paid player in the league.

Key player: Selanne. The Finnish right wing scored 76 goals in 1992-93 -- his rookie season -- but has only 47 goals in 96 games since. A year approaching that of his rookie season would help get the Jets to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

Pacific Division

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

Coach: Ron Wilson

Record: 16-27-5 (6th)

Outlook: The Mighty Ducks had the third-worst record in the league last season because they had the worst power-play and penalty-killing units. Left wing Paul Kariya is a future superstar, but there is little other offensive punch. Goalie Guy Hebert is decent, but not good enough to lead the Mighty Ducks to their first playoff appearance.

Key player: Kariya. He was third in voting for rookie of the year, but would have received more support if he had any offensive help. He had 18 goals and 21 assists -- a nice start, but his numbers need to improve for the Ducks to have a shot at the playoffs.

Calgary Flames

Coach: Pierre Page

Record: 24-17-7 (1st)

Outlook: The Flames' failure to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the sixth straight year cost coach Dave King his job despite two straight division titles. Leading scorer Theo Fleury (29 goals, 58 points) is only 5 feet 6 and 160 pounds, but was a second-team All-Star at right wing last season. Center Joe Nieuwendyk and left wing Gary Roberts have been injured. Page takes over the most penalized team in the league, one that hasn't advanced past the first round in seven years.

Key player: Trevor Kidd. He had a solid regular season with a 2.61 goals-against and a .909 save percentage. His play in the playoffs, however, led to first-round failure as his numbers dropped to 3.59 and .856, respectively.

Colorado Avalanche

Coach: Marc Crawford

Record: 30-13-5 (1st as Quebec in Northeast Division)

Outlook: As the Quebec Nordiques last season, they had the fourth-best home record (19-1-4) in NHL history -- and they moved. Colorado is loaded offensively with centers Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg (rookie of the year in 1995), and right wing Owen Nolan. And they added Devils' right wing Claude Lemieux in a three-way trade that cost them left wing Wendel Clark. Their defensemen aren't bad, but there isn't an offensive threat in the bunch. If goalie Stephane Fiset doesn't fade in the playoffs, the team is a Stanley Cup threat.

Key player: Fiset. His 2.78 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in the regular season were big reasons the Nordiques finished second overall. His 4.59 and .861 marks in the playoffs were big reasons they lost in the first round. Jocelyn Thibault is a more-than-capable reserve.

Edmonton Oilers

Coach: Ron Low

Record: 17-27-4 (5th)

Outlook: The Oilers have several talented young forwards such as Jason Arnott, Doug Weight and David Oliver. However an off year by goalie Bill Ranford and a below-average defense combined to allow the most goals in the league last season. With the addition of Curtis Joseph, the Oilers have one too many No. 1 goalies. Whomever Low chooses as his starter still won't have enough support to lead the Oilers to the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

Key player: Arnott. The 20-year-old right wing didn't handle the pressure last season of being counted on as an offensive leader for a young team. His 37 points in 42 games was second on the team, but his 128 penalty minutes were also second.

Los Angeles Kings

Coach: Larry Robinson

Record: 16-23-9 (4th)

Outlook: Since making the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, the Kings have won only 41 percent of their games. They missed the playoffs by one point last season, and likely won't come that close again as Hall of Fame defenseman Robinson makes his head coaching debut. Wayne Gretzky can't carry a team anymore, especially one whose four leading returning scorers are older than 30. Defenseman Rob Blake must bounce back after playing only 24 games last season due to groin injuries.

Key player: Gretzky. His 48 points in 48 games was by far the worst of his 16-year career. When compared to the 2.1 points he's averaged for his career, the question persists of whether the 34-year-old Gretzky is nearing the end.

San Jose Sharks

Coach: Kevin Constantine

Record: 19-25-4 (3rd)

Outlook: The Sharks squeezed into the playoffs despite finishing six games under .500 and stunned Calgary in the first round. Having center Craig Janney for the whole season and another year of experience for center Jeff Friesen, who was fourth in voting for rookie of the year, will help a mediocre offense. The defense is young and neither Arturs Irbe nor Wade Flaherty has )) taken command in goal.

Key player: Janney. Only four players have more assists in the last five seasons than Janney's 305. His play-making skills will help the second-worst power play in the league. The Sharks need him to return to his form of 1992-93, when he scored 106 points.

Vancouver Canucks

Coach: Rick Ley

Record: 18-18-12 (2nd)

Outlook: Captain and top center Trevor Linden is unsigned, and would make a nice fit between Pavel Bure and newly acquired Alexander Mogilny if Vancouver re-signs him. Bure and Mogilny both slumped last season, but are among the top goal scorers in the league. Center Mike Ridley is another nice addition and goalie Kirk McLean is excellent, but the Canucks need to be stronger defensively.

Key player: Mogilny. He scored 76 goals three seasons ago for Buffalo, but the Sabres became frustrated with his inconsistency and traded him for prospects. He teamed with Bure in junior hockey and a return to form by both would allow the Canucks to challenge for the division title.

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