Training camps are in full swing around the NHL and everywhere teams are full of hope and some doubt. Here's a look at the key questions facing each team in the Eastern Conference.
|Do the Thrashers have enough talent around star Ilya Kovalchuk? (US Presswire)|
Boston Bruins: Can the B's produce enough offense to get back into the playoffs? Their postseason appearance last spring was a surprise, delivered largely because coach Claude Julien instituted a tight, disciplined and effective -- some would say boring -- defensive system that offset the lack of offense. Just barely though. Boston finished a couple of points higher than the ninth-place Hurricanes, who actually won two more games and had one of the league's most potent offenses despite missing several critical players for the second half of the season. But Patrice Bergeron will be back for the Bruins after missing almost the entire season with a concussion, and free agent Michael Ryder has been a 30-goal scorer in the past, so that should help on the production side.
Buffalo Sabres: Has the window of opportunity closed on Buffalo? The Sabres looked like they had it figured out better than anyone after the lockout, thanks to a lineup that was fast, aggressive and, well, cheap. But you have to pay the piper sooner or later, and the Sabres weren't inclined to, despite winning a Presidents' Trophy and reaching consecutive conference finals in the first two seasons after play resumed. So they watched their two co-captains, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, leave for big dollars before last season, shipped off star defenseman Brian Campbell at the trade deadline when it became apparent that his price tag had gone up and then missed the playoffs. That's not to say there isn't a core of talent left, especially up front with youngsters like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Ales Kotalik, and Ryan Miller is one of the league's better goalies when he's on his game. But what was missing last season was leadership, and that takes time to develop.
Carolina Hurricanes: Have the Hurricanes overhauled their defense enough? Considering they were 25th in that category, there had to be changes in Carolina, and to GM Jim Rutherford's credit, he has moved aggressively since the middle of last season. In fact, there are only two blue liners still remaining from the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, and collectively the group is younger, quicker and more mobile. In theory, that should bode well for the Hurricanes, who have several forwards who can skate and put the puck in the net. But Carolina was hit hard by key injuries last season, and the bug has already hit them with Justin Williams already out for at least four months and captain Rod Brind'Amour questionable for the start of the season.
Florida Panthers: Will the Jay Bouwmeester situation prove to be a distraction? There is some cautious optimism in Florida these days because of a series of moves made over the summer that seems to have upgraded the lineup, at least on paper. The Panthers bolstered their defense by picking up Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton, giving their back end the potential to get things started in a way that was noticeably lacking in the past few seasons. Obviously there could be some issues on offense, which wasn't great to begin with last season and now is without top scorer and captain Olli Jokinen, but Florida is hoping the addition of veteran Cory Stillman and the maturation of young forwards like Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss will offset that. If it does, the Panthers might get off to a decent start for a change and improve their chances of keeping Bouwmeester, the smooth-skating defenseman who is arguably the best player on the team. Florida wanted to sign him for the long term this summer, but Bouwmeester, who can become an unrestricted free agent next July, opted for a one-year deal instead. He wants to see what direction the team takes before committing, which means his status will be hanging over everything all season.
Montreal Canadiens: Will they be able to handle the expectations surrounding them? There is always a lot of pressure on the Canadiens because of their storied past and demanding market place. But this season is shaping up to be exceptional in that regard for a young group of players whose organization celebrates its 100th anniversary and is in search of a record 25th Stanley Cup. Montreal was widely predicted to miss the playoffs last season, but instead won the Eastern Conference title before bowing out in the second round when goalie Carey Price wilted. But Price was a rookie and got a pass as a result, something neither he nor the team will enjoy again, especially since Montreal improved its powerhouse offense by adding Alex Tanguay this summer. The joke in Montreal was always that fans stood behind the team win or tie. Well, they don't have ties anymore in the NHL.
New Jersey Devils: Can they go back to the future? General manager Lou Lamoriello came from Providence College two decades ago, and in many ways, he has recruited players for the Devils like a successful athletic director would handle a school program. That's one of the reasons New Jersey has been to the playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons, which makes the Devils one of the most consistent franchises around, albeit with little to show for it lately. In fact, the Devils haven't gone beyond the second round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003, so Lamoriello decide to take a trip down memory lane this summer when the free-agent market opened. He made two significant moves, signing veterans Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, both of whom have been with the team before. But Holik is 37 and Rolston is 34, and with cornerstone goaltender Martin Brodeur now 36, New Jersey will be relying a great deal on players who are in the back stretch of their careers.
New York Islanders: When will thinking outside the box reap some rewards? Certainly not this season, because it's shaping up to be worse for the Islanders than the last one. And that's saying something; New York finished 13th in the conference with the league's worst offense and one of its weakest defenses and power plays. Rookie coach Scott Gordon will bring a lot of enthusiasm to his new job, but that really wasn't a problem with his predecessor Ted Nolan, who was hired by the Islanders when nobody else in the league would touch him for a decade. Problem is that enthusiasm won't make up for a lineup that has little to get excited about on the surface. The Islanders have been marching to the beat of their own drummer after they gave Rick DiPietro what amounted to the first lifetime contract in NHL history two summers ago, and they started moving out young prospects for veterans before reversing direction last season. The real problem is that few players with choices want to play for the Islanders, forcing them overpay or seek out veterans whose best days are long behind them.
New York Rangers: How will a chemistry 101 experiment play on Broadway? The Rangers reverted to old habits in the summer of 2007 when they opened up the check books for free agents Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, adding them to a lineup that included several young players and a veteran pack led by Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. But the puzzle pieces had to be forced into place and barely made it to the playoffs. So GM Glen Sather went back to the drawing board, moving out Jagr, Sean Avery, Martin Straka, Marek Malik and, as of now, Shahanan, while spending some pretty big dollars again on free agents like Markus Naslund and Wade Redden, veteran players who have each been in rebound mode for at least two seasons. There were a few trades thrown in as well, which means the Rangers will have at least a half dozen new faces and a lot less Czech spoken in the dressing room.
Ottawa Senators: Was it all Ray Emery's fault? The idiosyncratic goaltender was an easy target for blame during Ottawa's meltdown last season, and he certainly brought some of it on himself with his erratic behavior. Then again, Senators have developed a habit of finding reasons for failing to live up to expectations over the years, so you have to wonder. Anyway, Emery is in Russia now, and a team that has always had a reputation for lacking character and grit has gone through a serious roster overhaul that has seen nearly half of the lineup switched out -- plus new coach Craig Hartsburg. Most important, there is some pretty high-end talent still in place. One of these days, the Senators will have to prove that they are really Stanley Cup worthy.
Philadelphia Flyers: Can Simon Gagne return to form? The veteran left winger is only 28, but he has already played in nine NHL seasons and developed a reputation as one of the game's top stars. But he played only 25 games last season because of multiple concussions, and those kinds of injuries always create question marks. If he's healthy -- and he says he is -- he should play alongside Daniel Briere and provide a serious boost to a Flyers offense that ranked sixth in the league last season. That could be enough to lift the Flyers, who made it to the conference finals, even higher this season.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Was the lesson a good one? Conventional wisdom says young teams must learn how to lose before learning how to win. I didn't think much of it when I picked the Penguins to take the Stanley Cup last spring, but after watching them get schooled by the Red Wings in the Finals, it was hard to argue the point. Since then, the Penguins have gone through a lot of changes because of free-agent departures, but only the absences of Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone should be noticeable. The amazing young core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney remains intact, although Whitney will be out for the first half of the season. The issue is what they took away from getting so close to and missing the brass ring.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Is the reality as good as the fantasy? The Lightning sale was finally completed by draft time when the team had first pick and took Steve Stamkos, and the new owners wasted little time behaving like kids in a candy store. Or perhaps more accurately, like a couple of guys in their first Fantasy league. Owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie shook up the organization from top to bottom, changing the GM, coaching staff and scouting personnel while overhauling the roster with a series of bold and often stunning free-agent and trade moves. Tampa Bay will have more than a half dozen new forwards, at least three new defensemen on a very young and inexperienced blue line and a new veteran goaltender to go along with a sophomore it picked up in midseason. It could be an interesting mix for a franchise that was dead last a season ago -- or a disaster.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Just how bad will this team be? Since it plays in Toronto, there will always be wishful thinkers who see a playoff spot in the future. Chances are they'll be disabused of that notion by, oh, say, Halloween, and focusing instead on the Leafs shot at getting the first pick in next June's draft. The truth is this season is really the first real stage of interim GM Cliff Fletcher's rebuilding effort, a process he couldn't start at the trade deadline because his most desirable assets wouldn't waive their no-deal clauses. He bought out some players with cumbersome contracts, traded a couple of others and couldn't or wouldn't sweet talk captain Mats Sundin into returning. That opened slots for more youngsters and a few marginal players he found on the free-agent market. The best move Toronto made might have been getting Ron Wilson to coach, but the Leafs aren't giving him much to work with.
Washington Capitals: Jose, can you see another title? Goalie Jose Theodore has a Vezina Trophy and a league MVP award on his resume, but that was six seasons and two teams ago. Since then, his career has been marked by inconsistent play on the ice and some controversies off it, although he had a very solid second half last season for Colorado, which just happened to be his contract year. That led the Capitals to sign him as a free agent after their previous goalie, Cristobal Huet, got a monster offer from Chicago. Washington wasn't willing to match the dollars for Huet, who came to the team at the trade deadline and who with apologies to the incredible finish by Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin, was arguably the difference maker in the Caps' run to the Southeast Division crown. The Caps have the talent to do it again but will be hard pressed to repeat if Theodore doesn't do the job between the pipes. And in the Southeast, where only the Caps made the playoffs last season, winning the division is the only guarantee a team will make the playoffs.