Bruce Boudreau enjoyed a successful first season as coach of the Washington Capitals. The Atlanta Thrashers are giving John Anderson his first coaching shot, but he won't have Alex Ovechkin to help his transition.
Led by the NHL's reigning MVP, Boudreau and the Capitals kick off a 2008-09 season with high expectations as they face Anderson and the Thrashers in a Southeast Division matchup Friday night.
Anderson has taken the helm for Atlanta, which went 34-40-8 a season ago. In his breakthrough job as an NHL head coach, Anderson has a tough task ahead of him in leading a Thrashers team that finished 18 points behind the last playoff qualifier in the Eastern Conference.
Boudreau faced a similar situation when he was promoted from the minors to coach Washington in November. The Capitals went 28-40-14 the previous season, but after taking over a team that was 6-14-1 on Nov. 22, he guided the Capitals to a 43-31-8 overall record and won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Boudreau had one of the league's best players in Ovechkin to help dictate his aggressive tactics.
In addition to winning the Hart Trophy, Ovechkin also won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy while setting an NHL record for goals by a left wing with an overall league-high of 65. The Russian forward also captured the Art Ross Trophy with a NHL-best 112 points and got his first taste of postseason play.
Washington lost to Philadelphia in overtime of Game 7 in the first round after winning the Southeast Division thanks to 11 wins in its final 12 regular-season games.
"We're not surprising anybody, so we have to be better," said Boudreau, who helped the Capitals reach the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
With Ovechkin, Washington has a good chance to get to the postseason again. He has 20 goals and 20 assists in 24 games versus the Thrashers.
"Ultimately," Capitals center Brooks Laich said, "I don't think Alex will go to sleep at night until he's won a Stanley Cup."
Ovechkin is joined on Washington's top line by Nicklas Backstrom, a Calder Trophy finalist last season after leading Washington with 55 assists as a rookie. They lead a strong core that includes Alexander Semin - second on the team with 26 goals - and Mike Green, who led NHL defensemen with 18 goals.
Sergei Fedorov, the 1994 Hart winner and three-time Stanley Cup winner while with the Detroit Red Wings, will be back to provide veteran leadership. He was a trade deadline pickup last season.
The only offseason addition was goaltender Jose Theodore, who won the Hart and Vezina in 2002 with Montreal and played most recently for Colorado. He replaces Olie Kolzig, who is now in Tampa Bay.
Theodore posted a 2.44 goals-against average for the Avalanche last season, and is 11-4-0 with a 2.22 GAA in 16 games against Atlanta.
The Thrashers, meanwhile, will again have Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg in net following a season in which they allowed an NHL-worst 3.24 goals per game. Anderson is trying to install a system that stresses puck control and organized breakouts from the defensive zone, but that hasn't been easy after Atlanta looked as though its main objective was just clearing it to the other end last season.
"It's been really tedious at times," said Anderson, whose team managed one win in six preseason games. "They're not grasping it as quickly as I thought we might. We're starting to get it a little bit, but we still have a long way to go. We're not close to where we want them to be right now. That concerns me a little bit."
It's a staggering task for Anderson, trying to guide a team that has been to the playoffs only once in its previous eight seasons.
Up front, he'll be relying on 52-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk. But no other forward managed more than 17 last season.
On defense, the Thrashers have two players on opposite ends of their careers. They selected 18-year-old Zach Bogosian with the No. 3 overall pick in the entry draft, and worked out a trade late in the preseason for 39-year-old Mathieu Schneider, whom Anaheim couldn't fit under its salary cap.
Schneider has 212 goals and six 50-point seasons. Bogosian had 11 goals and 61 points a year ago in the Ontario Hockey League.
"I like to skate," Bogosian said. "If there's a pass there, I'll obviously pass it. But that's something I've done ever since I was young. Hopefully, I'll be able to bring that to the team."
Bogosian, though, faces a huge learning curve in trying to stop Ovechkin in his first NHL regular-season game.
Washington went 4-2-2 against Atlanta last season.