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NHL PREVIEW

East and West: the 10 things you need to know about each

Kings are expected to challenge for a playoff spot, while Ducks' defense may struggle at the start.

October 01, 2009|Helene Elliott

The on-ice news last season was great for the NHL. The quality of play was high, the Winter Classic became a must-see annual event, the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins played a memorable seven-game Stanley Cup final, and the TV ratings were good (for the NHL, anyway). Then came the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy and the ongoing fight over their ownership, Chicago Blackhawks standout Patrick Kane's arrest in a dispute over a taxi fare, and the NHL Players' Assn. firing its executive director, Paul Kelly, amid whispers that players thought he would be too soft in collective-bargaining talks. Most of the clouds should scatter when the puck is dropped on a season that will halt for what should be a great Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver, Canada. Here's a look at pivotal issues in the NHL by conference. Don't be surprised if . . .

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Eastern Conference

The Penguins don't get off to a good start: Losing brawny defensemen Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi to free agency will hurt, and they will miss the energy of winger Maxime Talbot (shoulder surgery). Going to the Cup finals two straight years has made for short summers that could tire them, but youth works on their side. Scoring champion and playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin should battle Washington's Alexander Ovechkin for the scoring title again.

Ovechkin scores 50 again for the Capitals: Dynamic and passionate, Alex Ovechkin should easily become the first NHL player to record three straight 50-goal seasons since the Flyers' John LeClair in 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98. His goal-scoring celebrations are exuberant and exactly the individuality the NHL needs, no matter what Don Cherry says.

The Maple Leafs are tougher under Brian Burke: And the sun will rise in the East and set in the West. Toughness is Burke's trademark, and it worked with the Ducks. But he also had a superb defense in Anaheim and more talent than he has now in the self-proclaimed Hockey Capital of the Universe, though his signing of Beauchemin was a good one. Toronto's Cup drought will grow to 43 years.

The Flyers make a Cup run: They have loaded up with Pronger and think this is their year. That might be overly optimistic with unpredictable Ray Emery in goal. They are solid up front with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Scott Hartnell and their defense has a good mix of muscle and mobility.

The Thrashers trade Ilya Kovalchuk: The high-scoring winger has been the center of dozens of rumors the last year. Though he said he was willing to stay in Atlanta, talks on an extension are slow. Once he sees that the team isn't going to make the playoffs, he will exit.

Bruins slip but still win the Northeast: Unable to agree on a new contract with winger Phil Kessel, who led them last season with 36 goals, the Bruins traded him to Toronto for prime draft picks. Great down the road, not so great for scoring goals now. David Krejci (22 goals, 73 points) is coming back from hip surgery and could be a slow starter.

John Tavares shines, but the Islanders are still awful: The No. 1 draft pick is one of the few reasons to watch this sorry team. They keep throwing money at goalies, signing Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron because Rick DiPietro is still hurt. Their only hope is to play all three at once.

Legions nap while Jacques Lemaire coaches the Devils: The man wins, but he dulls the game down. Back with the team he led to the Cup in 1995, he's likely to go back to the defensive machinations he pioneered. Zzzzzzz. . . .

Marian Gaborik gets injured while playing for the Rangers: Going out on a limb again. He has played 70 games or more only once in the last five seasons and played only 17 last season after returning from hip surgery. He has 23 points in those games and was magical, but he seems too fragile for the five-year, $37.5-million deal the goal-starved Rangers gave him.

Steven Stamkos has a better season than the Lightning's owners: The 2008 No. 1 draft pick had a painfully slow start but finished well, with 23 goals and 46 points. The overall team is better, with free agent signee Mattias Ohlund mentoring 2009 No. 2 pick Victor Hedman. Owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules each had a window to buy the other out, but Los Angeles real estate investor Jeff Greene might end up the majority owner.

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Western Conference

The Blackhawks take a step back: Their revival has been a great story and youngsters Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Kris Versteeg will only get better, but they will start without Marian Hossa (shoulder) and abrasive winger Adam Burish (knee surgery). Plus, they have installed Cristobal Huet as the No. 1 goalie, which could make for a bumpy ride.

The Sharks don't win the Stanley Cup -- again: Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton will anchor a formidable line and Joe Pavelski is a fine second-line center, but this team was rudderless during the playoffs and no clear leader has emerged since Patrick Marleau was stripped of the captaincy. Their skill is beyond question. Their heart is very dubious.

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