<
>

Cup in sight for the Caps?

In a division with a clear favorite, the question is whether anyone can challenge the Washington Capitals. As for the Capitals, their biggest challenge will be getting over last year's playoff calamity.

Washington Capitals

In a division awash in change, the Capitals remain constant. Same coach, GM and star-studded lineup that ran away with the Presidents' Trophy last season. But after choking up a 3-1 series lead against eighth-seeded Montreal in the first round, the big question is whether that's a good thing. The goaltending looks to be handled by kids Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, with veteran Jose Theodore looking for work elsewhere, and that's not all bad given Neuvirth's work in the minors the past couple of years. The Caps still need a second-line center, but this remains a team that will vie for the NHL lead again this season. But like San Jose before them, all eyes will be focused on how the Caps perform come springtime, not in between.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Holy makeover, Batman. Rookie GM Steve Yzerman has delivered an instant dose of credibility after a couple of years of chaos in Tampa. The architect of Canada's gold-medal effort at the Vancouver Olympics re-signed heart-and-soul Martin St. Louis to a contract extension and made peace with captain Vincent Lecavalier. Yzerman also added top-six forward Simon Gagne, repatriated Cup-winning defenseman Pavel Kubina and added a new starting netminder in Dan Ellis, not to mention a whole new coaching staff (all within a matter of weeks). The end result is that, on paper at least, Yzerman's reborn Lightning are a playoff squad. Welcome back.

Carolina Hurricanes

Former captain Rod Brind'Amour retired and will remain with the Hurricanes' organization (as is the way with all former Canes stars), while veteran winger Ray Whitney signed in Phoenix. In short, the Hurricanes are short on experience but long on young talent with guys like Brandon Sutter, Jamie McBain and perhaps even top draft pick Jeff Skinner, about whom everyone raved after the Canes selected him with the seventh overall pick in June. The Canes are looking to move back to perennial playoff contender status. It might not happen this season, but rest assured: Under the steady hand of GM Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes will be back sooner rather than later.

Atlanta Thrashers

The Thrashers flirted with a playoff spot even after former GM Don Waddell dealt Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey at the trade deadline. New GM Rick Dudley looks to have the youthful Thrashers in the playoff hunt this season thanks to an infusion of talent from his former employers in Chicago. Dudley acquired power forward Dustin Byfuglien, two-time Cup winner Andrew Ladd and depth players Brent Sopel and Ben Eager to help a team that has lots of youthful potential. Chris Mason, late of St. Louis, will push youngster Ondrej Pavelec in goal, which is a good thing for all concerned. Offense will be an issue, but the Thrashers should be in the hunt with new coach Craig Ramsay getting a well-deserved chance to show what he can do after years of playing a supporting role behind the bench in various NHL cities.

Florida Panthers

GM Dale Tallon took over for Randy Sexton and immediately set about stockpiling draft picks and young assets, as Tallon did when he was the GM in Chicago. That worked out pretty well for the Hawks, although Tallon has his work cut out for him in the land that hockey forgot. Keith Ballard and Nathan Horton are gone, and if the Panthers fall back in the race, netminder Tomas Vokoun will be moved before the trade deadline. It may not be this season, but Tallon will get the Panthers back on track. The question is whether anyone in south Florida will notice.