- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

RANKED IN ORDER OF PROJECTED FINISH

1. OTTAWA SENATORS (48-25-9 in 2006-07)

COACH: John Paddock

NOW: Eastern Conference champs have a great young core, headlined by Jason Spezza, Andrei Mezaros, Anton Volchenkov and netminder Ray Emery.

NEXT: Improvement from Patrick Eaves and Antoine Vermette will be counted on to replace Peter Schaefer and Mike Comrie.

2. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (47-24-11)

COACH: Michel Therrien

NOW: This group has drawn comparisons to the talent amassed in Edmonton in the late 1970s. Those Oilers ended up being pretty good.

NEXT: Kris Letang was supposed to be another offensive weapon on the blue line, but a poor camp relegated him to some AHL seasoning.

3. CAROLINA HURRICANES (40-34-8)

COACH: Peter Laviolette

NOW: Center Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward were NHL darlings at 21 and mild disappointments at 22.

NEXT: This space was reserved for Jack Johnson. Hurricanes fans won’t forget that trade soon.

4. BUFFALO SABRES (53-22-7)

COACH: Lindy Ruff

NOW: Thomas Vanek (84 points), Jason Pominville (68) and Derek Roy (63) were the highest-scoring trio of under-25 players last season.

NEXT: Drew Stafford could be the high-flying Sabres’ next 30-goal scorer.

5. NEW YORK RANGERS (42-30-10)

COACH: Tom Renney

NOW: Regardless of the star power up front, “King Henrik” Lundqvist remains the key to a Cup run because of a suspect blue line.

NEXT: Solid play by Marc Staal could ease the defensive corps concerns on Broadway.

6. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (49-24-9)

COACH: Brent Sutter

NOW: Zach Parise (62 points) and Travis Zajac (42) injected much-needed scoring depth into defensive-minded Devils.

NEXT: Not having a top-15 pick in 11 years might be part of the reason there aren’t any impact players ready to go.

7. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (28-40-14)

COACH: Glen Hanlon

NOW: Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin combined for 84 goals last year and could push 100 with new centers. Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina logged 20-plus minutes a night and made a fine shutdown pairing.

NEXT: Nicklas Backstrom will begin his career on a line with mentor Michael Nylander and super sniper Semin. Tomas Fleischmann will have a chance to prove he belongs.

8. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (40-31-11)

COACH: Paul Maurice

NOW: Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen offer secondary scoring behind Mats Sundin and newcomer Jason Blake.

NEXT: Toronto’s top four defensemen are expensive, but Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White add inexpensive depth.

9. ATLANTA THRASHERS (43-28-7)

COACH: Bob Hartley

NOW: Ilya Kovalchuk has 202 career goals and doesn’t turn 26 until April 2009, and Kari Lehtonen might be the best goalie in the Southeast.

NEXT: The Thrashers kept four rookies, including Brett Sterling (55-goal season in AHL) and 2006 first-rounder Brian Little.

10. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (22-48-12)

COACH: John Stevens

NOW: They took some lumps, but the Flyers will improve with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R.J. Umberger joined by plenty of new additions.

NEXT: Newcomers Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell and Braydon Coburn give the Flyers a deep group of young guns going forward.

11. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (44-33-5)

COACH: John Tortorella

NOW: Defenseman Shane O’Brien, acquired at the trade deadline from Anaheim, will see top-four minutes.

NEXT: New addition Michel Ouellet could surpass last year’s 48 points playing alongside Brad Richards.

12. FLORIDA PANTHERS (35-31-16)

COACH: Jacques Martin

NOW: It is Oli Jokinen’s team, but Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester are the franchise’s core.

NEXT: Grabbing defenseman Noah Welch at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh was a suave move.

13. NEW YORK ISLANDERS (40-30-12)

COACH: Ted Nolan

NOW: With goaltender Rick DiPietro just missing the cut, the Islanders were a veteran-heavy team last season.

NEXT: Trading three top prospects for Ryan Smyth didn’t help, but either Jeff Tambellini or Sean Bergenheim will crack the lineup.

14. MONTREAL CANADIENS (42-34-6)

COACH: Guy Carbonneau

NOW: Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins could take a leap forward for transitioning Canadiens.

NEXT: Guillaume Latendresse is the next hometown hero, and fellow 20-year-old Carey Price’s time is coming in goal.

15. BOSTON BRUINS (35-41-6)

COACH: Claude Julien

NOW: There might not be a more underrated young star than 22-year-old Patrice Bergeron.

NEXT: Phil Kessel could more than double his 29 points from 2006-07 with a season of good health.

Western Conference

RANKED IN ORDER OF PROJECTED FINISH

1. DETROIT RED WINGS (50-19-13)

COACH: Mike Babcock

NOW: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg aren’t kids anymore, and this has been a veteran-dependent franchise.

NEXT: The Hockeytown faithful need Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula to embrace increased roles this season, though.

2. ANAHEIM DUCKS (48-20-4)

COACH: Randy Carlyle

NOW: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were the breakout stars of last season’s playoffs for the champs.

NEXT: Power forward Bobby Ryan was the No. 2 pick after Sidney Crosby in 2005 and already scored the Ducks’ first goal of the season.

3. CALGARY FLAMES (43-29-10)

COACH: Mike Keenan

NOW: At 22, Dion Phaneuf could go from “best young defenseman” to one the best regardless of age this season.

NEXT: Flames will be legit Cup contenders if Matthew Lombardi (46 points last season) makes another step forward.

4. SAN JOSE SHARKS (51-26-5)

COACH: Ron Wilson

NOW: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Christian Ehrhoff and Matt Carle give San Jose a deep and talented defense corps.

NEXT: Having forwards Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Steve Bernier for a full season could push the Sharks to the top of the West.

5. VANCOUVER CANUCKS (49-26-7)

COACH: Alain Vigneault

NOW: The Canucks expected a little more than six goals and 16 points from Ryan Kesler last season.

NEXT: Ryan Shannon, 24, could score more after leaving Anaheim, or speedy 22-year old Mason Raymond could inject some life into Vancouver”s offense.

6. MINNESOTA WILD (48-26-8)

COACH: Jacques Lemaire

NOW: Marian Gaborik is still only 25, and Mikko Koivu is closing in on his older brother, Saku.

NEXT: 2006 first-rounder James Sheppard made the team, and 2005 top pick Benoit Pouliot could be an early call-up.

7. NASHVILLE PREDATORS (51-23-8)

COACH: Barry Trotz

NOW: Few organizations can match the Predators” young blue-line talent in Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and Shea Webber.

NEXT: Sniper Alexander Radulov, 21, could have the biggest points increase (from 37 points in 64 games last season) in the NHL.

8. COLORADO AVALANCHE (44-31-7)

COACH: Joel Quenneville

NOW: Paul Stastny finished second in the Calder voting last season, and Peter Budaj stabilized the team’s situation in net.

NEXT: T.J. Hensick just missed one of the final roster spots, but last year’s NCAA scoring champion could make his Denver debut soon.

9. DALLAS STARS (50-25-7)

COACH: Dave Tippett

NOW: Jussi Jokinen’s offensive game is catching up to his shootout prowess, and defenseman Trevor Daley is enjoying a nice apprenticeship behind Sergei Zubov and Phillippe Boucher.

NEXT: Mike Smith is a starting goalie-in-waiting, while the defense-first Stars could use a breakout year from 22-year-old scorer Loui Eriksson.

10. LOS ANGELES KINGS (27-41-14)

COACH: Marc Crawford

NOW: A young core led by Anze Kopitar, Mike Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown might be second-to-none, save for Sidney Crosby and Co.

NEXT: Calder candidate Jack Johnson is one of the league’s top blue-chip blueliners, but the new No. 1 goaltender 19-year-old Jonathan Bernier has overshadowed him.

11. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (31-42-9)

COACH: Denis Savard

NOW: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook might anchor the Chicago blue line for the next decade or so.

NEXT: Calder favorite Jonathan Toews and No. 1 pick overall Patrick Kane will add punch up front.

12. ST. LOUIS BLUES (34-35-13)

COACH: Andy Murray

NOW: Lee Stempniak had 27 goals and 52 points the Blues, who proved pesky by season’s end.

NEXT: 2006 No. 1 pick overall Erik Johnson could become the team’s top defenseman sooner rather than later.

13. EDMONTON OILERS (32-43-7)

COACH: Craig MacTavish

NOW: Maligned general manager Kevin Lowe did add Dustin Penner (45 points with Anaheim) and Joni Pitkanen (nearly 24 minutes a game with Philadelphia) this offseason.

NEXT: 2005 first-rounder Andrew Cogliano made the team, and 2007 pick Sam Gagner just might stick, too.

14. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (33-42-7)

COACH: Ken Hitchcock

NOW: “Veterans” Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev need to have bounce-back seasons for the youthful Blue Jackets.

NEXT: Look for 20-year-old Kris Russel to add more long-term hope on the blue line with Rostislav Klesla.

15. PHOENIX COYOTES (31-46-5)

COACH: Wayne Gretzky

NOW: Defensemen Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek logged a ton of minutes for the rebuilding Coyotes.

NEXT: Peter Mueller, 19, and Martin Hanzal, 20, could be top-six forwards for Wayne Gretzky’s bunch.

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