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FIVE TEAMS STAND ABOVE THE REST IN THE QUEST FOR THE CUP

It's a simple question: Which National Hockey League team is the best?

The Stanley Cup says it's the Dallas Stars, but the Buffalo Sabres still have an argument. In the West, the Stars are still a shining example of good talent and very good coaching, but Detroit has the same tools and is burning to show that last spring's early playoff exit was only a temporary setback. Colorado is also still good and may be improved. Phoenix looks very much to be a team on the rise. San Jose? Its long nightmare may finally be over.

Here in the East, the Sabres aren't the only team to beat, but they still look pretty good providing ownership remains true to its word and gets the team the help it needs to "finish the job."

But then the Ottawa Senators can say that even without holdout Alexei Yashin. The Philadelphia Flyers aren't going to lie down. Not just yet, anyway. The Rangers may also be poised for a limited comeback while New Jersey is still lurking, a solid team that may remember how to win when it really matters.

Last year the only thing we could say with some degree of certainty was that the newly arrived Nashville Predators would not win the Stanley Cup. This year that honor goes to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers and the hopeless New York Islanders. Everything else is open to question.

Our Top Five

Colorado Avalanche

Last Season: 44-28-10, first in Northwest Division, second in Western Conference, fourth overall.

The Scoop: The fear is the Avs can't overcome the loss of forwards Valeri Kamensky and Theo Fleury and defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre and also stem the aging of goalie Patrick Roy. It's bunk. The nucleus of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Deadmarsh, Adam Foote, Sandis Ozolinsh and Western New York native Aaron Miller is still intact and it's fresher with the addition of young talent in the form of forwards Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk (both rookie-of-the-year candidates last season; Drury won) and goaltender Marc Denis, a former minor league player of the year at his position.

Key Arrivals: None.

Key Departures: Kamensky, Fleury, Lefebvre.

The Big Question: With no major offseason acquisitions, is the team mentally tough enough, especially on defense, to finish the job?

Outlook: There may be a slow start because of injuries, especially to Forsberg (shoulder), but Colorado had Dallas on the run in the playoffs last spring only to loose the pivotal Game Six at home because of a poor defensive effort. Patch a hole or two on defense and this team can do it all.

Dallas Stars

Last Season: 51-19-12, first in Pacific, first in West, first overall.

The Scoop: Dallas dumped Pat Verbeek, Craig Ludwig, Dave Reid and maybe Benoit Hogue (still recovering from knee surgery) and a host of aging players in an attempt to get younger fast. The core players of last season's team, Joe Nieuwendyk, Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brett Hull, Sergei Zubov, Derian Hatcher and Ed Belfour, are still in their prime, but the Stars are not a great scoring team. They aren't particularly fast (a fact the Sabres exposed) and, since the cuts, not particularly deep. At least not at left wing.

Key Arrivals: Defenseman Jamie Pushor could add depth.

Key Departures: All of the above and left winger Brent Severyn.

The Big Question: Dynasty team or one-shot wonder? The Stars have been among the better teams in the NHL for the last three seasons, but they have only one Cup to show for it. And there's reason to suspect that with the right call or an extra game, they wouldn't have had enough in the tank for that one. This is an old team that jettisoned some old players, but still has to get past the idea that the job isn't already done.

Outlook: There's enough here to win another Cup, but only time will tell if the players on hand are still that obsessed with paying the price.

Detroit Red Wings

Last Season: 43-32-7, first in Central, third in West, sixth overall.

The Scoop: Detroit appeared to be a lock to win it all for the third consecutive season, then the wheels came off. Leading two-games-to-none vs. Colorado, the Wings had injuries in net and a collective brain cramp and went on to lose the next four. Critics charged it was the beginning of the end, but supporters claim this team is still too good to be written off, especially with Scott Bowman back behind the bench.

Key Arrivals: Most of them showed up last season as the aging Wings made a late roster shuffle. There are new faces on defense, however, in Mathieu Dandeneault, Yan Golubovsky and Aaron Ward. Veteran goalie Ken Wregget also signed to replace Bill Ranford and back up Chris Osgood.

Key Departures: Defensemen Ulf Samuelsson, Jamie Macoun and Todd Gill; forward Wendel Clark; goalie Norm Maracle.

The Big Question: Over-the-hill gang or still a good team burning to get back to the top? It's a mixture of both. How the Wings solve their age problem, especially on the blue line, dictates how well they perform.

Outlook: This team needed a massive infusion of talent at the trade deadline to shake a season-long slide. It's still a very good team with scoring and veteran leadership, but Bowman has to invent a new approach and find ways to get scoring out of some of the younger players while hoping the vets don't all go over the hill together.

New Jersey Devils

Last Season: 47-24-11, first in Atlantic, first in East, second overall.

The Scoop: Big, deep team. Solid blend of young and in-their-prime scorers on offense, aging but really tough defense, average power play but darn good penalty killing. Still have stars in Scott Stevens, Bobby Holik and Scott Niedermayer.

Key Arrivals: Nothing from the free-agent market, but emerging kids such as Petr Sykora, Brendan Morrison, Patrik Elias, Jay Pandolfo, Brian Rolston and Jason Arnott are now the core of the team. Return of Larry Robinson as an assistant coach should help defense.

Key departures: Veterans Bobby Carpenter (retired) and former Sabre Dave Andreychuk (free agent signed with Boston) were sent packing. Kevin Dean went to Atlanta.

The Big Question: What the heck is the matter with these guys? They're great all season and then swoon in the playoffs. Not once, but three years in a row. Well, the lack of a go-to scorer is a big part of the problem, so is the mental toughness of the team overall and especially in goal, where Martin Brodeur has faced as many questions as pucks lately.

Outlook: A very good team with a psyche problem. Devils need a blood-and-guts star, such as Doug Gilmour in his prime, to lead them through playoff jitters.

Buffalo Sabres

Last Season: 37-28-17, fourth in Northeast, seventh in East, ninth overall.

The Scoop: The Sabres are dealt with extensively elsewhere in this section. Suffice it to say that with Dominik Hasek in net and an ever-developing cast of gritty players, they are a threat. No more, but certainly no less.

Our Next Five

Ottawa Senators

Last Season: 44-23-15, first in Northeast, second in East, third overall.

The Scoop: A good young team blessed with the fruits of high drafting over the years. A solid coach in Jacques Martin (coach of the year last season). Exciting young players in Marian Hossa, Chris Phillips and Wade Redden. Good team defense in front of the steady Ron Tugnutt. The Senators set franchise records last season for wins (44), fewest losses (23), most points (103), most goals for (239) and fewest goals against (179).

Key Arrivals: New general manager in Marshall Johnston, checking forward Rob Zamuner, new assistant coach in former Sabre Andre Savard.

Key Departures: Former GM Rick Dudley, forward Ted Donato and defenseman Jussi Niemi. Center Alexei Yashin is a holdout.

The Big Question: Where's the grit? Senators collapsed down the stretch last season, blowing the Eastern Conference title. Where's Yashin?

Outlook: The Sens collapsed down the stretch because they lack heart. They haven't done enough to address that, and with Yashin likely gone for the season, their offense will suffer as well.

Philadelphia Flyers

Last Season: 37-26-19, second in Atlantic, fifth in East, seventh overall.

The Scoop: General manager Bobby Clarke traded and signed his way into near oblivion last season. Flyers still have a core of good-to-great forwards led by Eric Lindros, Rod Brind'Amour and John LeClair, but the defense isn't stiff and the goaltending, make that John Vanbiesbrouck, is just adequate.

Key Arrivals: None.

Key Departures: Goalie Ron Hextall, retired. Defenseman Steve Duchesne, cut.

The Big Question: A two-parter: Can a muscle team survive without speed, mobility and a quality defense? Is Clarke the right GM to get the job done?

Outlook: With an infusion of defensive talent, some leadership and a break on injuries, this team is still good enough to make a run.

Boston Bruins

Last Season: 39-30-13, third in Northeast, sixth in East, eighth overall.

The Scoop: A good core of developing young players including Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov, Jason Allison, Anson Carter, Kyle McLaren and goalie Byron Dafoe. A no-nonsense, defensive-minded coach in Pat Burns. Good overall team defense and a solid work ethic.

Key Arrivals: Andreychuk, and some say this is Thornton's year to be an impact player.

Key Departures: Top goal scorer Dmitri Khristich was left hanging when Bruins walked on an arbitration deal. Free-agent forward Tim Taylor signed with the Rangers. Former Sabres Ken Baumgartner and Grant Ledyard are gone. Dave Ellett was also bought out and Randy Robitaille was traded to Atlanta.

The Big Question: Another two-parter: Is Ray Bourque ready to accept a lesser role in the offensive zone? Can the B's mount an offense without him?

Outlook: Nice team, just a few parts (mostly offensive) shy of rising with the cream.

Phoenix Coyotes

Last Season: 39-31-12 second in Pacific, fourth in West, 10th overall.

The Scoop: A new coach in Bob Francis (son of the legendary Emile "The Cat" Francis) charged with breaking a cycle of disappointing first-round playoff losses. The Coyotes have decent size and scoring ability up front, a play-making defenseman in Teppo Numminen and a solid goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin (assuming he signs).

Key Arrivals: Francis replaces the fired Jim Schoenfeld. Forward Travis Green came in trade for Oleg Tverdovsky. Defenseman Todd Gill signed as a free agent.

Key Departures: Defenseman Tverdovsky, forward Jim Cummins and defenseman Michel Petit.

The Big Question: Can a coach with no NHL experience bring peace, love and a work ethic to a team that's often wracked by differing personalities?

Outlook: Francis says he'll take the restraints off and let the offense fly, especially the power play. If that happens, he's a miracle worker and the Coyotes will finally do some playoff damage.

New York Rangers

Last Season: 33-38-11, fourth in Atlantic, 10th in East, 18th overall.

The Scoop: After two years out of the playoffs and now missing The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, the Rangers went on a trading, drafting, buying, and spending spree and significantly upgraded their woeful ranks.

Key Arrivals: Pavel Brendl in the entry draft. Signed free-agent forwards Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky and Tim Taylor, defenseman Stephane Quintal and Sylvain Lefebvre and goalie Kirk McLean. Former Sabres assistant coach John Tortorella rejoins mentor John Muckler.

Key Departures: Gretzky retired; goalie Dan Cloutier and forward Niklas Sundstrom traded to Tampa Bay; defenseman Jeff Beukeboom retired.

The Big Question: After a wild spending spree can Muckler fit all the pieces together?

Outlook: Interesting mix of young and old players should carry the Rangers back into contention in the East.

On the Upswing

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last Season: 45-30-7, second in Northeast Division, fourth in the East, fifth overall.

The Scoop: I know, how can the mighty Leafs have fallen so far? Well, last year was an odd one and this year there's trouble on the defense, injury problems up front and some confusion in the front office (loss of general manager Mike Smith and assistant GM Anders Hedberg). Center Mats Sundin still keys the attack, but Steve Thomas is another year older and the defense is seriously flawed.

Key Arrivals: Pat Quinn adds general manager duties to his coaching chores. Forwards Jonas Hoglund and Craig Charron.

Key Departures: Defenseman Yannick Tremblay claimed by Atlanta.

The Big Question: Can a team that lived on offense and goaltending hunker down and play defense? Doubtful.

Outlook: Nasty holdout situation involving defensemen Bryan Berard and Dmitri Yuskevich and concussion problems with forward Alyn McCauley could lead to a slow start. Lost element of surprise will hurt as much as the shaky defense.

San Jose Sharks

Last Season: 31-33-18, fourth in Pacific, seventh in West, 15th overall.

The Scoop: Goaltenders Mike Vernon and former Sabre Steve Shields form one of the better duos in the league. Young forwards Jeff Friesen, Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm bolstered by additions of Niklas Sundstrom and last year's late arrival, Vincent Damphousse. Defense starting to improve and should get help from healthy Gary Suter.

Key Arrivals: Sundstrom (via New York Rangers through Tampa Bay); center Eric Landry from Calgary.

Key Departures: Defenseman Jeff Norton, forward Joe Murphy.

The Big Question: Are the kids -- including Shields -- ready to take on the responsibility for team success? If so, watch out.

Outlook: Stay healthy and this team challenges for a top-four position in the West.

St. Louis Blues

Last Season: 37-32-13, second in Central, fifth in West, 12th overall.

The Scoop: New owners, a new goaltender in Roman Turek, a signed and happy scorer in Pierre Turgeon, a hot young scorer in Pavol Demitra, a darn good coach in Joel Quenneville, a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman in Al MacInnis and his likely successor in Chris Pronger. Not bad, but that's also pretty much all there is. A good team, but one not quite capable of going all the way.

Key Arrivals: Turek comes from Dallas and is likely to replace the traded Grant Fuhr as the No. 1 goalie.

Key Departures: Fuhr traded to Calgary just nine wins shy of tying Glenn Hall for fifth place all-time.

The Big Question: The Blues dressed five rookie forwards in the playoffs last spring. If they all blossom, the team will improve, but it's a big if.

Outlook: We like these guys, especially if Turek is the star he's projected to be. A little added depth would make them a scary team.

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

Last Season: 35-34-13, third in Pacific, sixth in West, 14th overall.

The Scoop: Wingers Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya finished second and third, respectively, in the scoring race behind Jaromir Jagr last season. The Ducks added offensive minded defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky to bolster the power play and the always-steady Guy Hebert is in goal. A nice mix.

Key Arrivals: Tverdovsky, Ted Donato (from Ottawa) and a bunch of guys named Swen, Maxim and Niklas are up from the minors.

Key Departures: Defenseman Jamie Pushor, center Travis Green, goalie Patrick Lalime and veteran winger Tomas Sandstrom.

The Big Question: Can the kids fill in behind the name talent? It's a growing question in Anaheim. We say yes.

Outlook: This is a playoff team that could make big strides this season. GM Pierre Gauthier is building with speed and it's starting to show.

Los Angeles Kings

Last Season: 32-45-5, fifth in Pacific, 11th in West, 22nd overall.

The Scoop: This was a disaster team last season, but with a healthy Rob Blake, scoring from the newly acquired Ziggy Palffy, a full season from Donald Audette and rebound years from Glen Murray and Jozef Stumpel, and a new coach in Andy Murray, things are much improved.

Key Arrivals: Palffy brings 40, maybe 50 goals from the Islanders to the new Staples Arena. Murray is an NHL rookie, but he's got a track record in Canada and benefits just by replacing Larry Robinson, whom the Kings lost faith in. Bryan Smolinski should also help up front.

Key Departures: Forward Olli Jokinen and defensemen Mathieu Biron and Josh Green in the Palffy deal.

The Big Question: Can Murray win over a team that has always been skeptical of coaches who ask it to work harder?

Outlook: With Palffy, Audette and Luc Robitaille, there is better-than-average scoring off the wings. If the defense (especially if Blake is healthy) and the goaltending tandem of Stephane Fiset and Jamie Storr holds up, the Kings are playoff contenders.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Last Season: 38-30-14, third in Atlantic, eighth in East, 11th overall.

The Scoop: Pens have Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang and Martin Straka. That's darn good scoring power. There's some toughness on defense and there's still Tom Barrasso in goal (we say that in a good way). There's a new owner, Mario Lemieux, who understands offense perhaps even better than finance.

Key Arrivals: If Lemieux suits up, maybe. Otherwise none.

Key Departures: Money, respectability.

The Big Question: Can a team emerging from bankruptcy expect to sign players and get better?

Outlook: There's been plenty of trouble between Jagr and coach Kevin Constantine. If Lemieux sides with his star player, look out. There's playoff potential here, but not enough depth to make a splash anywhere but in the red ink well.

Yeah, They Play But . . .

Florida Panthers

Last Season: 30-34-18, second in Southeast, ninth in East, 18th overall.

The Scoop: Pavel Bure is said to be healthy and ready for his first full season. There are a couple of kids, notably Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha, who look good, and Viktor Kozlov may finally break through as a star.

Key Arrivals: A healthy Bure, goaltender Trevor Kidd.

Key Departures: Kirk Muller, Terry Carkner, Gord Murphy, Dino Ciccarelli, Johan Garpenlov, Kirk McLean.

The Big Question: Simply, can the Russian Rocket keep his knee together? If not, this team is flat on its back again.

Outlook: Best of a woeful bunch in the Southeast. Should unseat Carolina for lone playoff berth in the division.

Carolina Hurricanes

Last Season: 34-30-18, first in Southeast, third in East, 13th overall.

The Scoop: Never has a division champion done so little and placed so well. The 'Canes have a couple of decent players in center Keith Primeau (still a holdout), Jeff O'Neill and Andrei Kovalenko and a mercurial star in goalie Arturs Irbe, but little else. The power play is woeful and so is the defense. The team moves to a new building this season, but nobody seems to care: about 4,000 season tickets have been sold.

Key Arrivals: Eric Fichaud should back up Irbe.

Key Departures: Ray Sheppard, goalie Trevor Kidd.

The Big Question: If a hockey puck falls in North Carolina and no one is there to see it, should we care?

Outlook: Ron Francis is getting old, the power play stinks and the team opted not to sign Sheppard and is fighting Primeau for money even though the 'Canes were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league last season. They got to the playoffs by winning a bad division. It won't happen twice.

Edmonton Oilers

Last Season: 33-37-12, second in Northwest, eighth in West, 16th overall.

The Scoop: Center Doug Weight hoping to return to form after an injury-filled season. New coach in Kevin Lowe has the usual cast of young prospects who might someday reach potential.

Key Arrivals: None from outside, but Chris Hajt, son of former Sabres defenseman Bill, may make an impact this season.

Key Departures: Former coach Ron Low, Kelly Buchberger, Bob Essensa, Chris Ferraro, Marty McSorley.

The Big Question: Can a franchise locked into survival mode compete for the Cup?

Outlook: All the weight after Doug falls on goalie Tommy Salo. If he can carry it, this team will challenge for a playoff spot.

Montreal Canadiens

Last Season: 32-39-11, fifth in Northeast, 11th in East, 19th overall.

The Scoop: Offensive talent in Martin Rucinsky, Saku Koivu and Trevor Linden, but the defense is poor and nudging toward shoddy, and that was before star Vladimir Malakhov went down with a long-term knee injury.

Key Arrivals: Linden from New York Islanders.

Key Departures: Former Sabre Jason Dawe released, free-agent defenseman Stephane Quintal signed with Rangers. President Ron Corey fired.

The Big Question: Can goalie Jeff Hackett take a team with no offense and less defense to the playoffs?

Outlook: Expectations always run high in Montreal, but the team is still in the post-Patrick Roy era and could miss the playoffs again.

Washington Capitals

Last Season: 31-45-6, third in Southeast, 12th in East, 23rd overall.

The Scoop: Injuries played a part in the Caps missing the playoffs last season. So did old age. But the big disappointment was goalie Olaf Kolzig, who slid big time.

Key Arrivals: New owners and a new medical staff.

Key Departures: Brian Bellows, Kelly Miller, Michal Pivonka, Rick Tabaracci.

The Big Question: How far down is down anyway?

Outlook: Coach Ron Wilson is a talent, but he has a bunch of kids looking to find their way. It will take awhile.

And the rest

Chicago Blackhawks

Last Season: 29-41-12, third in Central, 10th in West, 21st overall.

The Scoop: Team trainwreck turned it around after Dirk Graham was fired and Lorne Molleken took over. There's a decent group of young prospects (mostly on the blue line) and some hope for the offense if Doug Gilmour recovers well from back surgery and Alexei Zhamnov decides to get in the mood. Wendel Clark signed as a free agent and should provide some leadership.

Key Arrivals: Clark, a veteran who can still score and lead. Defenseman Bryan McCabe.

Key Departures: Pride and center Sylvain Cloutier.

The Big Question: Even if Gilmour returns and Zhamnov shows up, who puts the puck in the net other than Tony Amonte?

Outlook: Not all is lost, but this team is only beginning to right itself.

Vancouver Canucks

Last Season: 23-47-12, fourth in Northwest, 13th in West, 26th overall.

The Scoop: A bright coach in Marc Crawford with winning experience, a veteran (though aging) leader in Mark Messier, some good young kids on defense, including recent Calder Trophy finalist Mattias Ohlund and former No. 1 overall draft pick Ed Jovanovski, and an interesting forward in Markus Naslund.

Key Arrivals: Center Andrew Cassels.

Key Departures: Reason, sanity and Bryan McCabe.

The Big Question: Did Messier, now entering his 21st season, have any idea the Canucks would be this bad?

Outlook: There's not enough talent here, so even if Alexander Mogilny re-invents his 76-goal season it's another lost year.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Last Season: 19-54-9, fourth in Southeast, 14th in East, 27th overall.

The Scoop: New GM Rick Dudley made so many changes we would say this is the most improved team in the NHL this season. Problem is the Lightning has so far to go, no one is likely to notice.

Key Arrivals: Dudley, new coach Steve Ludzik, promising goaltender Dan Cloutier (from the Rangers), defensemen Andrei Zyuzin and Bill Houlder, and forwards Andreas Johansson, Steve Guolla and Shawn Burr.

Key Departures: Everyone but the Zamboni driver (and we're not sure about him).

The Big Question: Can the always driven Dudley turn it around in time to save the sport in Tampa?

Outlook: It can't get worse. It should get marginally better.

Calgary Flames

Last Season: 30-40-12, third in Northwest, ninth in West, 20th overall.

The Scoop: Aging Grant Fuhr, once the archenemy when he tended goal for Edmonton, comes to the Saddledome in a faded quest for final glory (read: one last hang-on year for a few more bucks).

Key Arrivals: Can't afford any. Praying the kids mature.

Key Departures: Hope, Cassels, Tom Chorske, Ken Wregget.

The Big Question: When are all these "young guns" going to mature and save the franchise?

Outlook: There's a movement of 20-something players who are going to grow up someday. Someday isn't this season.

Nashville Predators

Last Season: 28-47-7, fourth in Central, 12th in West, 24th overall.

The Scoop: That's a pretty good record for an expansion team, and this season the Predators get their first-ever draft pick, David Legwand, into the lineup. Goalie Mike Dunham is decent and coach Barry Trotz is solid.

Key Arrivals: Legwand, Craig Millar from Edmonton (a former Sabres prospect).

Key Departures: Come on, it's an expansion team.

The Big Question: Where is Nashville anyway?

Outlook: The public relations department is great, so is the general manager, David Poile. Everything else needs to grow up around them.

Atlanta Thrashers

First season.

The Scoop: Number 28 on the NHL's list of original teams, the Thrashers (they're named after a bird, not the U.S. Olympic hockey team) bring hockey back to Atlanta. What more needs to be said?

Key Arrivals: Everyone including general manager Don Waddell, coach Curt Fraser, Ted Turner's money, Ray Ferraro, Nelson Emerson, Damian Rhodes and former Sabre Darryl Shannon.

Key Departures: Ted Turner's money.

The Big Question: Can Darrell Waltrip skate?

Outlook: Hey, it's hockey, it's Atlanta. What do you want, wrestling?

New York Islanders

Last season: 24-48-10 fifth in Atlantic, 13th in East, 25th overall.

The Scoop: Sure there are worse teams, but none that has ever won four consecutive Stanley Cups and then dropped to below expansion status. The Islanders held a cost-cutting fire sale and have next to nothing to show for it. It's ugly down here folks.

Key Arrivals: 1997 No. 1 overall draft pick Roberto Luongo, new coach Butch Goring, Olli Jokinen (from Los Angles), Josh Green and Mathieu Biron.

Key Departures: Reputation, integrity, sanity, Trevor Linden, Ziggy Palffy, Bryan Smolinski, Craig Janney, Kevin Miller.

The Big Question: When will bankruptcy be announced?

Outlook: OK, there are a few promising kids in defensemen Eric Brewer, Zdeno Chara and Kenny Jonsson, but ownership is in chaos and that translates into no hope for success. The players will respond in kind.

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