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Ones to Watch in the Eastern Conference

by Brian Compton
Kari Lehtonen won 34 games for the Thrashers during the regular season, but came up empty in the playoffs.
With the 2007-08 NHL season set to begin, some scenarios fall into the “expected” category. Yes, teams will be gunning for the Anaheim Ducks as they prepare to defend their Stanley Cup championship. Yes, fans of the New York Rangers will be interested to see how the team meshes with the arrivals of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. Yes, Sidney Crosby’s every move will be chronicled.

But there are plenty of other stories out there to think about as the season nears. So, without further ado, here is’s list of Ones To Watch in the Eastern Conference this season.

Atlanta Thrashers: Kari Lehtonen The Finnish goaltender racked up 34 victories during the 2006-07 regular season, but looked lost in the Thrashers’ playoff sweep loss to the New York Rangers. Can the second-overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft bounce back and be the franchise netminder the Thrashers are counting on? Or was that .849 save percentage against the Rangers last April a sign of things to come?

Boston Bruins: Phil Kessel The American-born center showed glimpses that he was worthy of being Boston’s top pick (No. 5 overall) in 2006, scoring 11 goals and adding 18 assists at the age of 19. But Boston is aching for a team to root for between the months of October and April. Can Kessel get Bostonians out of their seats, or will fans be renewing their memberships to Red Sox Nation?

Buffalo Sabres: Thomas Vanek The 23-year-old Austrian was one of the NHL’s top forwards last season, piling up 84 points (43 goals, 41 assists) and putting up a remarkable plus-47 rating. But when he arrived at training camp earlier this month, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were nowhere to be found. How will Vanek react to being the Sabres’ go-to guy?

Carolina Hurricanes: Justin Williams The right wing turns only 26 on Oct. 4, but over the past two seasons, he’s arguably become Carolina’s most reliable player, thanks to the fact that he hasn’t missed a regular-season game during that span. His 33 goals lead the club in 2006-07, but is he surrounded by enough firepower to get the Hurricanes back to the postseason?

Florida Panthers: Cory Murphy He’s a rookie defenseman but hardly a kid after spending the past six seasons playing overseas, and the Panthers may have hit the jackpot with this 29-year-old. The former Colgate University defenseman won the Lasse Oksanen Trophy in 2006-07 as the Finnish League’s Most Valuable Player. In 45 games with HIFK Helsinki, Murphy put up 50 points (13 goals, 37 assists) and a plus-17 rating.

Montreal Canadiens: Mike Komisarek The Long Island native performed solidly in his second full season on the Habs’ blue line, recording 96 penalty minutes and a plus-7 rating while appearing in all 82 games. He will be relied upon more in Year 3, but the additions of Roman Hamrlik and Patrice Brisebois should help ease the load.

New Jersey Devils: Dainius Zubrus Devils GM Lou Lamoriello went out and signed Zubrus to a big-money, six-year deal in an effort to offset the losses of Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski. But the 29-year-old center-right wing has never scored 25 goals in a season. Did Lamoriello overpay, or will Zubrus show the world he’s worth every penny?

New York Islanders: Jonathan Sim When the signing of the scrappy free agent forward was announced at the beginning of July, most fans on the Island shrugged their shoulders and thought, “Big deal.” But Sim fits the Ted Nolan mold perfectly and could surprise a lot of people. The 5-foot-10 forward has offensive upside, too. He helped the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms win the Calder Cup by scoring 35 goals in 2004-05 and had an NHL career-high 17 goals with Atlanta last season.

New York Rangers: Jaromir Jagr OK, he’s not exactly the unknown hero you were looking for. But, seriously, how will No. 68 respond to the loss of his linemate and good friend Michael Nylander? It’s pretty much a given that the Rangers’ captain was upset by Nylander’s departure, so how quickly will Jagr adjust to another setup man in Scott Gomez?

Ottawa Senators: Ray Emery The pesky netminder avoided salary arbitration at the last second this summer by signing a three-year deal worth $9.5 million — quite a raise over the $925,000 he earned last season. As the only modern-day goalie to lead the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final, can Emery give the Sens the encore they paid for?

Philadelphia Flyers: Jeff Carter He’s one of many prospects the Flyers have raved about in recent years, and the 22-year-old did finish fourth on last season’s dismal squad with 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 62 games. It will be interesting to see how much faster (or slower) Carter develops on the revamped Flyers’ roster.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Jordan Staal At the age of 18, all this member of the talented Staal family did was score 29 goals (including seven shorthanded) in the regular season and another three in five playoff contests. He could get lost in the shuffle playing on a club that features Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it will be exciting to see what Staal does in his sophomore season.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Jan Hlavac After spending the past three years playing overseas, the offensively gifted 31-year-old is back. His last big season in the NHL, however, was back in 2000-01, when he went 28-36-64 for the New York Rangers. Can Hlavac regain his scoring touch against the big boys, or will this season be his North America farewell tour?

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jason Blake The speedy 34-year-old entered the free agency period seeking a five-year contract. His former club, the Islanders, said no. But the Leafs, desperate for more offensive firepower, obliged with a deal that will play the U.S. Olympian $20 million over the next half-decade. Blake had never scored 30 goals in a season until his 40-goal outburst on the Island in 2006-07. Can he do it again north of the border, or was Blake a one-hit wonder?

Washington Capitals: Boyd Gordon It’s been five years since the Caps grabbed the 6-foot right wing with the 17th overall pick. How much longer can they wait for Gordon to break out? The Saskatoon native showed signs last season with 29 points (7 goals, 22 assists) in 71 games. More offensive output would take some pressure off teammates Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

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