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In Order Of Playoff Prospects

October 03, 2005|Helen Elliott | Times Staff Writer

* Coach: Ken Hitchcock, third season.

* 2003-04 record: 40-21-15-6, 101 points, first in Atlantic Division.

*--* 1. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

*--*

* Player to watch: Peter Forsberg joined the Flyers as a free agent, 14 years after they drafted him and traded him to Quebec in the Eric Lindros deal. He has been plagued by injuries and sat out most of training camp because of ankle surgery, but he's still a force.

* Outlook: Letting go of veterans Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi and John LeClair means youngsters Jeff Carter and Mike Richards will be counted on to score. Both appear capable of stepping up. Mike Rathje will boost the defense, but don't expect a full season from aging Derian Hatcher. Goalie Antero Niittymaki, who helped the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate win a championship, will push Robert Esche for the starting job.

*--* 2. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

*--*

* Coach: John Tortorella, fifth season.

* 2003-04 record: 46-22-8-6, 106 points, first in Southeast, Stanley Cup champion.

* Player to watch: John Grahame has the unenviable task of replacing goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who left for Chicago as a free agent. Grahame, 30, had a 2.06 goals-against average in 29 games as a backup, but he has never been a No. 1.

* Outlook: Martin St. Louis, the NHL scoring champion with 38 goals and 94 points, was signed long term, as was Vincent Lecavalier (32 goals, 66 points). With playoff MVP Brad Richards (26 goals, 79 points) and a defense that moves the puck well, the Lightning has ample scoring potential. Keeping the puck out of its own net might be a challenge. Sean Burke, 38, was signed to back up Grahame but probably can't carry the team for the whole season.

*--* 3. OTTAWA SENATORS

*--*

* Coach: Bryan Murray, first season.

* 2003-04 record: 43-23-10-6, 102 points, third in Northeast.

* Player to watch: Dany Heatley. Haunted in Atlanta by reminders that he was the driver in the car crash that killed teammate Dan Snyder, Heatley requested a trade. He should fit in well with the offense-rich Senators.

* Outlook: They've got all the pieces for a long playoff run, especially if Heatley regains the form he had in 2002-03, when he had 41 goals and 89 points. They're strong up the middle, productive on the wings, and well-balanced on defense. Also, many of their key players played somewhere during the lockout, which might give them a jump-start. Everything will hinge on whether Dominik Hasek will again be "The Dominator." Now, 40, he played merely 14 games in 2003-04 after returning from a one-year retirement.

*--* 4. NEW JERSEY DEVILS

*--*

* Coach: Larry Robinson, first season.

* 2003-04 record: 43-25-12-2, 100 points, second in Atlantic.

* Player to watch: Patrik Elias, their top scorer in 2003-04 with 38 goals and 81 points, contracted hepatitis during the lockout and probably will sit out the opener. When he returns, the Devils will have to make a move to get under the salary cap.

* Outlook: The Devils flourished in a defense-oriented NHL and have to make a big adjustment. Cap concerns led them to trade winger Jeff Friesen, and they lost offensive catalyst Scott Niedermayer when he went to join his brother, Rob, in Anaheim. Winger Alex Mogilny might contribute, but he's fragile. They'll miss the physicality of Scott Stevens, who retired. At least Robinson, replacing cancer-stricken Pat Burns, can rely on Martin Brodeur, the best goalie of his generation.

*--* 5. ATLANTA THRASHERS

*--*

* Coach: Bob Hartley, third season.

* 2003-04 record: 33-37-8-4, 78 points, second in Southeast

* Players to watch: Right wing Peter Bondra, center Bobby Holik and right wing Marian Hossa. Bondra averaged nearly 35 goals over 14 seasons for some awful teams, Holik is a terrific two-way player, and Hossa is a workhorse who scored 144 goals the last four seasons. A tremendous nucleus.

* Outlook: With free agents Bondra and Holik in the fold and Hossa acquired for Dany Heatley, this is a fascinating mix. They should score in bunches and might give up goals in bunches too, even with a rugged defense. They still must re-sign left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, whose 41 goals tied for the NHL lead in 2003-04. Goalie Kari Lehtonen was impressive in the AHL during the lockout but was slowed by a groin injury during training camp.

*--* 6. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

*--*

* Coach: Pat Quinn, seventh season.

* 2003-04 record: 45-24-10-3, 103 points, second in Northeast.

* Player to watch: Eric Lindros joins his hometown team, about a decade and half a dozen concussions too late to have the impact he might once have had. But if he avoids injuries he can still be a force.

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