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Eastern Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)

1. Ottawa Senators

Coach: Jacques Martin, eighth season.

2002-03 record: 52-21-8-1, 113 points, first in Northeast, conference and NHL.

Player to watch: Jason Spezza. He's dynamic and tough to check and is likely to play on one of the top two lines. A budding star.

Outlook: No more excuses for this talented team, which lost a seven-game conference final to New Jersey last spring. It has superb goaltending in Patrick Lalime (2.16 goals-against average, .911 save percentage), a deep offense that produced 263 goals, third in the NHL, a power play that ranked second and penalty killing that ranked 10th. The Senators are solid on the right side with Marian Hossa (45 goals, 80 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (27 goals, 79 points) and strong defensively up the middle with Todd White, Radek Bonk and Bryan Smolinski. Defenseman Wade Redden (10 goals, 45 points) is creative offensively.

2. New Jersey Devils

Coach: Pat Burns, second season.

2002-03 record: 46-20-10-6, 108 points, first in Atlantic, second in conference.

Player to watch: Jeff Friesen. He became a clutch player in the playoffs, using his size and skill while buying into Burns' selfless system.

Outlook: The Stanley Cup champions have hardly changed, besides losing veteran Ken Daneyko to retirement. They still have speed up front, forwards who are well-schooled defensively and the muscle and intensity to be effective when things get physical. If they make a mistake, goalie Martin Brodeur (2.02 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) usually bails them out. John Madden is becoming a premier defensive center. Defenseman Scott Stevens remains the team's heart, playing with a desire that hasn't faded at 39. They won't have to expend energy finishing first overall.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

Coach: John Tortorella, third season.

2002-03 record: 36-25-16-5, 93 points, first in Southeast, third in conference

Player to watch: Nikolai Khabibulin. Management was unhappy with his rocky playoff performances in goal last spring. If he falters early, look for him to be traded and replaced by John Grahame.

Outlook: Although it lost top scorer Vaclav Prospal as a free agent to the Mighty Ducks, it still has enough to finish atop the weak Southeast. Vincent Lecavalier (33 goals, 78 points) is still improving, and Brad Richards (17 goals, 74 points) opened many eyes last season. So did pint-sized right wing Martin St. Louis (33 goals, 70 points). Winger Cory Stillman was a good acquisition, but the defense isn't physical or especially mobile. Not quite ready to play with the big boys, but Tampa Bay has made progress and appears to be on the rise.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

Coach: Pat Quinn, fifth season.

2002-03 record: 44-28-7-3, 98 points, second in Northeast, fifth in conference.

Player to watch: Ed Belfour. He had a superb season (2.26 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) while facing nearly 30 shots a game. A mediocre defense offers little promise that his task will be easier, and he can't afford to let up.

Outlook: Quinn was pressured into giving up the general manager job, which went to former St. Louis assistant John Ferguson Jr. This team has ample financial resources but could get bogged down in battles among Quinn, Ferguson and club president Ken Dryden. Signing Ken Klee as a free agent should add experience on defense. Alexander Mogilny (33 goals, 79 points) and Mats Sundin (37 goals, 72 points) lead a productive offense. Owen Nolan (seven goals in 14 games) can share the burden if his back problems don't flare up.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

Coach: Ken Hitchcock, second season.

2002-03 record: 45-20-13-4, 107 points, second in Atlantic, fourth in conference.

Player to watch: Jeff Hackett succeeds Roman Cechmanek, whose 1.83 goals-against average last season was second in the league. Hackett must live up to that - with meddlesome general manager Bob Clarke hovering in the background. Good luck.

Outlook: Their playoff results don't match their talent, although losing defenseman Eric Desjardins to a broken foot was a factor in their second-round loss last spring. Always too reliant on brawn, they're turning to youngsters Simon Gagne and Justin Williams to assume scoring responsibilities carried out by Jeremy Roenick and injury-riddled John LeClair. The Flyers tied the Devils for the lowest team goals-against average, 1.99, but Hackett probably can't keep them at that level.

6. New York Islanders

Coach: Steve Stirling, first season.

2002-03 record: 35-34-11-2, 83 points, third in Atlantic, eighth in conference.

Player to watch: Alexei Yashin. The enigmatic Russian center, signed to a $90 million deal, responded with 26 goals and 65 points. He's capable of more if he's willing to exert himself, but that's often in question.

Outlook: At their best, they're scrappy and feisty. They also have a respectable defense anchored by Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson and Janne Niinimaa. Those talented parts, however, don't add up to a cohesive whole. Stirling, an NHL rookie at 53, promised to communicate better with players than predecessor Peter Laviolette, who was fired after the team's second straight playoff appearance. Rick DiPietro will be given every chance to supplant Garth Snow in goal, and much hinges on his performance.

7. Washington Capitals

Coach: Bruce Cassidy, second season.

2002-03 record: 39-29-8-6, 92 points, second in Southeast, sixth in conference.

Player to watch: Jaromir Jagr has become too pricey for the newly cost-conscious Capitals, who almost traded him to the Rangers. He's still marvelously talented, but in a league dominated by defense, his impact has been dulled, which is a shame.

Outlook: They've turned over their defense, with uncertain results. Only Brendan Witt and Sergei Gonchar have much experience, which means goalie Olie Kolzig (2.40 goals-against, .919 save percentage) isn't likely to get much help. They're more than respectable up front, led by Jagr (36 goals, 77 points), center Robert Lang (22 goals, 69 points) and dependable scorer Peter Bondra (30 goals, 56 points). Jagr's attitude and Kolzig's ability to steal some games will determine their fate.

8. New York Rangers

Coach: Glen Sather, second season.

2002-03 record: 32-36-10-4, 78 points, fourth in Atlantic, ninth in conference.

Player to watch: Eric Lindros. The Rangers wanted to dump him, but he came to camp leaner and, supposedly, more determined to recapture his old assertiveness. If he avoids injury and has decent wingers, he could have a big year.

Outlook: They're still more a rotisserie roster than a real team, but Sather - also the general manager - was shrewd in signing defenseman Greg de Vries and forwards Jan Hlavac and Martin Rucinsky. Alexei Kovalev was largely a disappointment after he was acquired from Pittsburgh, and Anson Carter wasn't as much a force as expected. Losing Pavel Bure to knee problems subtracts a game-breaker, but they still have a fair amount of skill up front. If Mark Messier, 42, is playing 18 minutes a game again, they're in trouble. But their six-season non-playoff streak could end.

9. Buffalo Sabres

Coach: Lindy Ruff, seventh season.

2002-03 record: 27-37-10-8, 72 points, fifth in Northeast, 12th in conference.

Player to watch: Chris Drury. Acquired from Calgary, he's a winner. If teammates pick up on his fiery spirit, the Sabres could be a sleeper.

Outlook: Top scorer Miroslav Satan (26 goals, 75 points) signed a two-year contract during training camp, a huge move strategically and psychologically. Teammates see he believes in the team's future, so they might, too. General manager Darcy Regier has assembled an interesting mix, adding Drury and power-play cannon Andy Delmore from Nashville. Right wing Ales Kotalik had 21 goals and 35 points in 68 games as a rookie last season. With the club out of bankruptcy and new owner Thomas Golisano in control, the atmosphere figures to be lighter. Steadier goaltending is a must, though.

10. Atlanta Thrashers

Coach: Bob Hartley, second season.

2002-03 record: 31-39-7-5, 74 points, third in Southeast, 11th in conference.

Player to watch: Dany Heatley's Sept. 30 car accident cast a pall over this young and rising team. Dan Snyder died from brain injuries suffered in the crash, and Heatley, the driver, broke his jaw and injured a knee. Heatley, who had 41 goals and 89 points last season, faces a vehicular homicide charge. Beyond the hockey toll, the human toll will be heavy.

Outlook: Hartley's arrival and a new emphasis on defense boosted the Thrashers during the second half of the season. There's still work to do on all fronts, but Hartley has left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (38 goals, 67 points). Improving their goaltending is a must after last season's league-worst 3.41 team goals-against average. Byron Dafoe, if not injured, is capable of better.

11. Boston Bruins

Coach: Mike Sullivan, first season.

2002-03 record: 36-31-11-4, 87 points, third in Northeast, seventh in conference.

Player to watch: Sergei Samsonov. The speedy and skillful winger was limited to eight games last season because of wrist surgery, and his recovery is the starting point for the Bruins' uphill battle.

Outlook: Goaltending looms as a problem. The team signed Felix Potvin to compete with Andrew Raycroft, but Potvin was inconsistent in exhibition games. The defense will miss Jonathan Girard, who is recovering from a serious automobile accident. Up the middle, the Bruins have little after Joe Thornton, who blossomed into a consistent scoring threat last season with 36 goals and 101 points, as well as Brian Rolston. Martin Lapointe, last year's free-agent bust, is injured again.

12. Florida Panthers

Coach: Mike Keenan, third season.

2002-03 record: 24-36-13-9, 70 points, fourth in Southeast, 13th in conference.

Player to watch: Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is a future Norris Trophy winner. Give him a few years and he could be another Chris Pronger.

Outlook: Olli Jokinen had a breakthrough season with 36 goals and 65 points and must prove it wasn't a fluke. He gives the Panthers size and skill and clicked with right wing Viktor Kozlov (22 goals, 56 points). After that duo, the Panthers have few real scoring threats, and the defense is a mixed bag after Bouwmeester. Goalie Roberto Luongo (2.71 goals-against, .918 save percentage) will be pushed by Jani Hurme, which can only help both players. Rumors of discord between Keenan and general manager Rick Dudley surfaced last season, creating a potentially destructive situation.

13. Carolina Hurricanes

Coach: Paul Maurice, ninth season.

2002-03 record: 22-43-11-6, 61 points, fifth in Southeast, 15th in conference

Player to watch: Ron Francis. One of the smoothest playmakers in NHL history, he's 40 and nearing the end of a stellar career. He never coasted and never will.

Outlook: They went from Stanley Cup runner-up to last overall in the course of a remarkably unfortunate season. Injuries tested their depth, and their goaltending, ranked 27th with a team goals-against average of 2.88, was inadequate. Francis, Rod Brind'Amour - held to 14 goals and 37 points because of a wrist injury - and Jeff O'Neill are a strong trio at center, but there's a steep drop-off in skill after them. Glen Wesley, Sean Hill and Bret Hedican are the heart of a so-so defense. Kevin Weekes will get the starting job in goal, but his uneven play suggests another bumpy ride is in store.

14. Montreal Canadiens

Coach: Claude Julien, second season.

2002-03 record: 30-35-8-9, 77 points, fourth in Northeast, 10th in conference.

Player to watch: Jose Theodore. The 2001-02 most valuable player slumped last season to a 2.90 goals-against average and .908 save percentage, but the team sagged. He's now dealing with the arrest of his father and four half-brothers for their alleged participation in a loan-sharking scheme. Theodore has denied involvement, but questions won't go away.

Outlook: General manager Bob Gainey was revered as a player, but the honeymoon will end once fans see this light-scoring, defensively inconsistent team. Top scorer Saku Koivu (21 goals, 71 points) suffered a knee injury in training camp and is expected to sit out a few games. Right wing Richard Zednik (31 goals, 50 points) is the only legitimate scorer.

15. Pittsburgh Penguins

Coach: Ed Olczyk, first season.

2002-03 record: 27-44-6-5, 65 points, fifth in Atlantic, 14th in conference.

Player to watch: Mario Lemieux. The NHL's only player-owner turned 38 on Sunday but can still dominate for stretches. He considered retiring after sitting out the playoffs last spring but realized the financially strapped franchise needed him.

Outlook: Olczyk, who has no professional coaching experience, faces a daunting task. Pittsburgh's defense is awful and the offense is limited; the team has traded most of its top talent to slash payroll and will rely on kids and a team defensive scheme. Besides Lemieux (28 goals, 91 points in 67 games), only Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov are proven scorers. The Penguins have until Monday to sign goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was the first overall pick in June and had a solid exhibition season.

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