The Tampa Bay Lightning earned the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot last season by a two-point margin. After losing two of their best players, the Atlanta Thrashers may have a tough time closing the gap.
After a disappointing postseason showing, the Lightning begin the new season Thursday against a Thrashers team trying to overcome some key losses.
Tampa Bay went 43-33-6 last season, earning the eighth seed in the playoffs by beating out Atlanta and the Toronto Maple Leafs by two points. The Lightning lost in the first round of the playoffs in five games to the Ottawa Senators.
The Lightning's top five forwards can match any in the league, but coach John Tortorella feels his team needs to improve its toughness to get back to playing like 2004's Stanley Cup winners.
"It's about playing hard and being a hard team to play against, and that's where I think we fell off last year," Tortorella said. "This year we need to be more business-like. It's about being tougher in all areas."
Tampa Bay is led by center Brad Richards, who is coming off his best season with 91 points that included a career-high 68 assists, cementing his status as one of the NHL's best passers.
"He's one of the top players in the league right now," Tortorella said. "He has a Stanley Cup and a playoff MVP. With some players when that happens early, they let off the gas a little bit. I don't see that with Brad."
Richards is joined in the front line by right wing Martin St. Louis, who is still dangerous despite struggling with inconsistency last season. He fell off to 61 points after a career-high 94 in 2003-04.
Tampa Bay's hopes rely heavily on goaltender Marc Denis, who was acquired in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the offseason. The Lightning signed him to a three-year, $8.6 million contract. Denis will replace John Grahame, who signed with Carolina after his disastrous playoff series against Ottawa, as Tampa Bay's starting goalie.
Denis, 28, has a career record of 94-156-28 with a 2.97 goals-against average. He was 21-25-1 last season, including 17-6-1 when the Blue Jackets scored at least three goals.
"Being able to have him signed and in the fold for at least the next three seasons is a very significant accomplishment for our organization," Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said.
Atlanta's bid for its first postseason appearance came down to the final week of the season. While the Thrashers did post their first winning record in franchise history (41-33-8), to repeat such a performance will be a challenge with the losses of first-line center Marc Savard and veteran right wing Peter Bondra.
Savard had 28 goals and 69 assists last season, making center a position of concern. He signed a four-year deal with the Boston Bruins worth $20 million.
"We don't expect anybody to pick up 100 points, but we hope two guys can put up 60 points each and be better defensively," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said.
The team did not make an offer to Bondra, who had 21 goals and 18 assists in 60 games, and is not currently on an NHL roster.
To make up for its offensive losses, Atlanta is counting on goaltender Kari Lehtonen to be healthy and more consistent play from its defense.
Lehtonen, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, won 20 games last season, but missed 41 contests with groin and ankle injuries. The 22-year-old was 20-15-0 with a 2.94 goals-against average and a 5-0 mark in shootouts, but missed the final six games of the playoff push with an ankle injury.
The Thrashers - in their seventh season - are just one of two NHL franchises without a playoff appearance. The Columbus Blue Jackets have yet to reach the playoffs entering their sixth season.
"We're in this business to win," Waddell said. "We all know that. There are certain pressures that go with that.
The Lightning won the season series 4-3-1 last season. Atlanta won the last meeting 6-2 in Tampa Bay on April 11.