In a hushed dressing room immediately after losing the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, many of the Pittsburgh Penguins surveyed the scene with more than just a few tears in their eyes.
While the sting of defeat was obviously still raw, what seemed more disturbing to the players was the knowledge that the window of opportunity had effectively closed for this particular group.
|Evgeni Malkin is back for the Penguins after a 106-point season. (Getty Images)|
It was clearly understood at the time that salary cap concerns would prevent the Penguins from keeping its talented lineup intact, and indeed the vultures began circling as soon as the opportunities presented themselves. The result was the loss of more than half a dozen contributors including Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and backup goalie Ty Conklin, an exodus that might have been debilitating to many teams.
But in the grand scheme of things, all of the departures besides Hossa, who turned out to be an exceptionally worthwhile trade-deadline rental, were peripheral players for Pittsburgh. Obviously, it would have been nice to hang on to some of them, but more critically for the Penguins, they retained core players Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Oprik and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Those young stars all signed long-term extensions over the summer that should ensure the Sidney Crosby-led team will remain among the elite for years to come. In the meantime, the Penguins did an impressive job filling other voids with forwards Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko and Matt Cooke and they saved themselves a fair amount of money doing so.
Still, one concern for the Penguins heading into training camp is the absence of star defenseman Ryan Whitney, who will miss at least three months recovering from foot surgery. Even so, Pittsburgh will begin the new campaign favored to repeat as Atlantic Division champs, although they will be facing a tougher challenge from a rejuvenated Philadelphia Flyers team that is coming off one of the greatest turnaround seasons in NHL history.
After undergoing a major and expensive roster overhaul before last season, the Flyers quickly jelled and made it all the way to the league's final four before losing the Eastern Conference finals to the Penguins. And that was without high-scoring forward Simon Gagne, who is set to return after missing most of last season because of concussion problems.
The Flyers did have to plug some holes this summer after losing veteran defenseman and captain Jason Smith and forwards R.J Umberger and trade deadline-rental Vaclav Prospal, but they filled those voids by adding forwards Aaron Asham and Glen Metropolit and hard-hitting defenseman Ossi Vaananen. More important, they kept talented young center Jeff Carter from hitting the free-agent market with a contract extension.
Things were very different this summer in New York, where the Rangers made significant changes to a roster that now has only five players remaining on the roster from the first post-lockout season. The Rangers brought down the curtain on the Jaromir Jagr era and then reverted to old habits by signing free agents -- expensive veterans Wade Redden and Markus Naslund, who each come with big price tags and even bigger questions marks.
For that matter, so does Nikolai Zherdev, a supremely talented young forward with attitude issues who arrived along with depth forward Dan Fritsche from Columbus for defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. Those blue liners aren't likely to be missed because New York also signed free-agent defenseman Dmitri Kalinan and brought back Michal Rozsival, but there are a lot of new faces on Broadway and potential chemistry problems as the team heads into training camp.
Chemistry wasn't necessarily a problem in New Jersey last season under rookie coach Brent Sutter, but scoring was. It is an area the Devils hope they addressed successfully by adding the offensive talents of veteran Brian Rolston.
New Jersey has been one of the NHL's best regular-season teams since the lockout ended by using a familiar formula of strong defense and great goaltending by Martin Brodeur. But that hasn't led to any real success in the postseason, where the Devils have yet to advance beyond the second round.