Eastern Conference

(In predicted order of finish)

October 09, 2002

Philadelphia Flyers

Last season: 42-27-10-3, lost to Ottawa in first round.

Coach: Ken Hitchcock, first season

Pluses: Led by Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau, John LeClair and Simon Gagne, Philly boasts the best four lines in the East. Some solid defensemen like Eric Weinrich and Eric Desjardins. And Hitchcock, the stern taskmaster who could make the biggest difference.

Minuses: No standout on defense and a real lack of depth there. That problem pales in comparison to the goaltending situation: Roman Cechmanek alienated teammates with some strange antics last playoff season, but the team dealt Brian Boucher to the Coyotes for Robert Esche, an unproven backup.

New York Rangers

Last season: 36-38-4-4

Coach: Bryan Trottier, first season

Pluses: Plenty of big names (Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter), plus more grit than ever in the form of Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis. Goaltending, with a healthy Richter and rising star Dan Blackburn, should be solid. Enough fighters to fill a Vegas undercard should keep the bullies at bay.

Minuses: Defense and special teams still up in the air, with less-than-physical regulars and a desperate need to improve the penalty killing. Behind Bure and Petr Nedved, scoring from the wings is lacking. Plenty of pressure to reach the postseason could make any star seize up.

New York Islanders

Last season: 42-28-8-4, lost to Toronto in first round.

Coach: Peter Laviolette, second season

Pluses: Collectively one of the fastest teams in the NHL with good goaltending and plenty of skill on defense. Now in complete health and expecting to benefit from the clutch-and-grab crackdown, Alexei Yashin should easily return to the 40-90 form he showed in Ottawa. Added plenty of toughness and character, which were missing ingredients last season. The relatively obscure Laviolette is one of the brightest young coaches in the NHL.

Minuses: Not enough proven scorers around Yashin. Top defensemen Kenny Jonsson and Roman Hamrlik are brittle. The absence of Michael Peca (knee) will be felt at both ends of the ice and in the locker room, but most especially on penalty killing.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 41-28-9-4, lost to Carolina in first round.

Coach: Pat Burns, first season

Pluses: They boast one of the best defensive corps in the league, and that was bolstered by the addition of Oleg Tverdovsky. Joe Nieuwendyk can still be a top-notch center, and Patrik Elias is one of the best in the conference. Goaltender Martin Brodeur is still a workhorse.

Minuses: To get Oleg Tverdovsky (and Jeff Friesen) from the Ducks, Petr Sykora was dealt. Losing Sykora and Bobby Holik won't make an already challenged forward group any better. Brodeur can play 65 to 70 regular-season games, but is that too many to prepare him for the playoffs?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Last season: 28-41-8-5

Coach: Rick Kehoe, second season

Pluses: Owner Mario Lemieux, hopefully healthy, returns to the ice to lead his squad and give Alexei Kovalev some help with the offensive load. Youngsters Kris Beech, Alexei Morozov and Michal Rozsival could provide bright spots.

Minuses: Lemieux better stay healthy - Martin Straka will miss the start of the season with a cracked vertebra, suffered when a Nautilus machine fell on him. Goalie Johan Hedberg fell back to earth last season, and the defense in front of him is weak. So is the offense aside from Lemieux and Kovalev. Could be a long season in the Igloo.

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