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Devilish time to repeat for Jersey // ATLANTIC DIVISION

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Last season: 20-22-6, 15th overall.

Playoffs: None.

Coach: Doug MacLean (first season).

Scouting report: Three won't be a charm for the Panthers. While other teams are getting better, they might take a step backwards. And they will have off-ice distractions with relocation a strong possibility. How does the Nashville Panthers sound? ... Florida dumped coach Roger Neilson, who produced an overachieving team that thrived on defense. General manager Bryan Murray replaced him with MacLean, his right-hand man in Detroit. The rookie coach is expected to preach an aggressive forechecking and wide-open style that Murray favors. ... The difference between the Panthers being respectable and pathetic the first two seasons was the consistent goaltending of John Vanbiesbrouck and backup Mark Fitzpatrick. That should be the case again, if they don't trade Vanbiesbrouck. ... The Panthers have three top draft picks who will get an opportunity this season. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Ed Jovanovski, the No. 1 pick overall in 1994, will be counted on to provide scoring and toughness. The 19-year-old's legal problems also are behind him _ he was acquitted of sexual assault charges. Forwards Radek Dvorak, a first-round pick in June, and Jason Podollan, a third-round choice in 1994, also should make the team. ... Florida had the fewest goals in the league last season with 115 (2.39 average). The addition of playmaking center Brett Harkins (92 points in 80 American Hockey League games last season) also will help. But he's like adding a BB gun when a bazooka is needed. The team's leading scorers last year, Jesse Bellanger and Stu Barnes, had just 29 points each.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Last season: 22-18-8, ninth overall.

Playoffs: Beat Red Wings in Stanley Cup Finals.

Coach: Jacques Lemaire (third season).

Scouting report: There's already turmoil in Devil Land, and this time it doesn't have to do with moving to Nashville. Three key players from last season _ goalie Martin Brodeur, defenseman Scott Niedermayer and Stanley Cup MVP Claude Lemieux _ were no-shows at training camp. Niedermayer signed Sept. 27 to a three-year deal and should be ready for the start of the season. Expect Brodeur to sign before the opener. Otherwise, the top goaltending duties fall to Chris Terreri, who's not the one to lead the team back to the finals. ... Lemieux is another case. He's under contract and likely burned his bridges with GM Lou Lamoriello, who had tried to trade him and Stephane Richer to NHL's Siberia (Ottawa) for Alexei Yashin. The absence of Lemieux, one of the most hated men in the league for his hard-nosed and sometimes dirty play, would hurt the team's already mediocre offense. ... Offensive help may come with 1993 first-round draft pick Denis Pederson, a center who had 53 goals in 71 junior games last season. ... Even with the league's mandate to call all obstruction fouls, expect the Devils to continue to infuriate other teams with their stifling defense, led by Scott Stevens. The Devils allowed 30 or more shots just 11 times last season. But the team will be without Bruce Driver (signed with the Rangers) and defensive guru Larry Robinson, who now is head coach in Los Angeles.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Last season: 15-28-5, 25th overall.

Playoffs: None.

Coach: Mike Milbury (first season)

Scouting report: The Islanders won't be taking too many nights off (a chronic problem last season) with the intense Milbury behind the bench. But he won't be able to squeeze enough ability out of them to make the playoffs. ... The defensive corps, led by Mathieu Schneider and Scott Lachance, will keep this team competitive. The blueline is so deep the team should be able to make do until Rich Pilon and Darius Kasparaitis return from injuries, probably around November. Newcomers Bryan McCabe and first-round draft pick Wade Redden also could make an impact. ... Goaltending should be adequate with two Swedish guys named Tommy _ Soderstrom will be the starter and Salo, who beat out Jamie McLennan and Eric Fichaud, will be the backup. ... Scoring goals will be the problem. The Islanders produced the sixth fewest last season and lost Ray Ferraro to the Rangers. They'll probably also lose Steve Thomas, who's a camp holdout. Young forwards Zigmund Palffy (who could have a breakout year) and Todd Bertuzzi should pick up some of the slack. ... The Islanders are desperately trying to acquire a center. Chicago's Jeremy Roenick tops their wish list. For now, Kirk Muller, who makes a better left wing, is the team's top center.

NEW YORK RANGERS

Last season: 22-23-3, 14th overall.

Playoffs: Lost to Flyers in second round.

Coach: Colin Campbell (second season).

Scouting report: The Rangers have put all their chips in the pot and are gambling away young talent for a chance to win the Stanley Cup now. After all, captain Mark Messier is 34. ... The team made a talented lineup more experienced with the acquisitions of forwards Luc Robitaille, Wayne Presley and Ray Ferraro and defensemen Doug Lidster, Bruce Driver and Ulf Samuelsson. The price was lots of money and young talents Sergei Zubov and Petr Nedved... How will all the talent and strong-willed egos mesh? With so many former captains, player representatives and Stanley Cup winners, it's been said there are 15 coaches in the Rangers' locker room, and not one of them is named Campbell. ... Injuries and wear-and-tear could come into play for the older team. ... New York made the playoffs last season despite off seasons from just about every star player except Messier. Expect goalie Mike Richter, defenseman Brian Leetch (coming back from an off-season foot injury), left wing Adam Graves and right wing Alexei Kovalev to bounce back.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Last season: 28-16-4, fifth overall.

Playoffs: Lost to Devils in conference finals.

Coach: Terry Murray (second season).

Scouting report: Last season Eric Lindros became the dominant force he was expected to be, winning the league MVP. Expect him to get better. He's just 22. Lindros also centered last season's most dominant line with wingers John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. While it may be impossible to duplicate their success of last season, that line still will be difficult to stop. General manager Bobby Clarke made a big team even bigger with the acquisitions of defenseman Kjell Samuelsson (6-6, 235 pounds) and center Joel Otto (6-4, 220). With eight players over 6-3, it could be the biggest team in league history. ... To make a Cup run, Philadelphia will need more offensive production from others who were not on the "Legion of Doom" line, namely Rod Brind'Amour and Brent Fedyk. ... The defense is strong, but inexperienced. Samuelsson should provide a steadying influence. ... The only area that could prevent the team from winning it all is goaltending. Ron Hextall can come up with the big games, but the 31-year-old had a goals-against average ranked 28th in the regular season. It wasn't too big of a detriment last season because of the high-scoring Lindros line. He's backed up by newcomer Garth Snow, a young goalie who could soon become a No. 1.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Last season: 17-28-3, 23rd overall.

Playoffs: None.

Coach: Terry Crisp (fourth season).

Scouting report: The Lightning say this season will be a failure if it doesn't make the playoffs. To do that, the team will need a breakout year from 21-year-old Roman Hamrlik. He's on the verge of becoming one of the league's best defensemen. ... The defense was steady last season despite its youth. The year of experience should help Enrico Ciccone, Eric Charron and Cory Cross. Newcomers Bill Houlder, who's been called an "in-shape Shawn Chambers," and David Shaw, who replaces stay-at-home defenseman Marc Bergevin, should help on both the power play and in even-strength play. ... The Lightning's unlethal attack, third worst last season, should see some improvement with the additions of veterans Brian Bellows, Shawn Burr and John Cullen. Aaron Gavey appears ready to make the jump to the NHL, giving the team depth at center. Chris Gratton is expected to produce more. ... The pathetic power play could become more of a threat this season. Houlder, Shaw, Bellows and Cullen all might help. Petr Klima, the team's most talented forward, went in the tank the last 22 games of last season. But he's come to camp with a great attitude and his scoring prowess intact. ... For the team to have any kind of playoff shot, Daren Puppa will need to play as well as he did in his first two seasons. The Lightning need consistency from backup J.C. Bergeron.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Last season: 22-18-8, 10th overall.

Playoffs: Lost to Penguins in first round.

Coach: Jim Schoenfeld (third season).

Scouting report: Who's going to score on this team? Dimitri Khristich was shipped to Los Angeles, and Michal Pivonka and Peter Bondra are holdouts who signed IHL contracts with Detroit. (Of course, they could return to the Capitals for the right capital). The trio accounted for 56 goals last season. ... If Jim Carey doesn't turn out to be a one-season wonder, the Capitals have solved their goaltending woes. Carey came to the rescue last season, finishing third in the league with a 2.13 goals-against average. ... A strong defense got stronger when Brendan Witt finally signed after sitting out two seasons. With former Lightning player Joe Reekie, Calle Johansson, Jim Johnson, Mark Tinordi and Ken Klee rounding out the top six, Sylvain Cote has been trade bait to acquire help at forward. ... The Capitals' attack was weak last season even though Bondra finally lived up to his potential. He led the league with 34 goals. When checker Keith Jones is your team's second-leading goal scorer, it's not good news. ... The Capitals are hoping for some offense out of Joe Juneau and youngsters Rob Pearson, Pat Peake and Jason Allison.

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