NHL burning questions: Here's every team's biggest issue entering the 2018-19 season
A new season looms and there are plenty of questions begging to be answered
A wild NHL offseason is officially in the rearview now that training camps are underway. Another NHL season looms right around the corner and, as always, there are plenty of questions that are begging to be answered over the course of the 82-game regular season and beyond.
In anticipation of the new season, we've gone ahead and highlighted one big question every NHL team is facing as we head towards opening day in October.
How healthy will Ryan Kesler be?
Kesler is a key part of the Ducks' attack up front, but he was a shell of himself last year (8 goals and 14 points in 44 games) in the wake of a pretty signficant hip surgery. It was a big reason the Ducks were swept by the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs. It remains up in the air as to how much Kesler will play this year (varying reports have suggested he could miss anywhere from a half to full season) also how productive he can be when/if he does come back.
How will Alex Galchenyuk look?
Galchenyuk finally escaped Montreal, where he was jerked around and struggled to develop into the player that many thought he'd be. Despite flashes of high-end skill, he was labeled as somewhat of a liability on the ice with the Canadiens. The offseason trade that landed him with the Coyotes gives him a chance to start anew, presumably with consistent minutes at center. There should be significantly less pressure on him in Arizona as well, so we may finally start to see the 24-year-old flourish if he gets the right type of coaching and leadership.
Will depth be an issue?
Boston surprised many when they emerged as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference last season, thanks in large part to strong contributions from their youth and depth players. They lost some of those secondary pieces this offseason -- including Rick Nash, Riley Nash, and Tim Schaller -- though a few of their offseason additions (Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom) could help offset those losses. Still, the Bruins are going to need some of their up-and-coming young talent to slot into significant roles and produce in order to keep pace with Toronto and Tampa in the Atlantic. It's a tall task.
Just how big will their jump be?
The Sabres were the worst team in the league last year, which is a big reason why they ended up snagging a generational prospect in Rasmus Dahlin with the top overall pick in this summer's draft. But Dahlin wasn't the only big pickup for Buffalo this offseason; they also revamped their offensive attack with the additions of Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund. Top prospect Casey Mittelstadt could also be a young sparkplug up front and Carter Hutton is now their guy in net. In any case, the Sabres look poised to start moving towards a brighter future -- honestly, things can't get much worse than last year -- but just how much will they move up the standings? They have a chance to make a pretty large jump considering how futile the bottom half of the Atlantic division looks.
Will James Neal fix their scoring woes?
The Flames' biggest area of need this offseason was addressing their scoring woes. They finished 26th in goals scored last year and seriously needed to add another threat to the front end of their lineup. Their solution was to sign James Neal in free agency, and that seems like a pretty good bet. The 30-year-old is coming off a season in which he scored 25 goals for the Vegas Golden Knights and he's been a model of consistency his entire career, scoring at least 20 goals in each of his 10 seasons. He's done it in a variety of places as well (Pittsburgh, Nashville, Vegas) so it will be intriguing to see if he's what the doctor ordered in Calgary.
Will their goaltending improve?
The Hurricanes made some significant additions this summer, particularly improving on the back end with the additions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan. That's all well and good, but it won't matter a whole lot if the Canes can't get some decent goaltending this year. Scott Darling had a rough go of things in his first season in Carolina, posting a .888 save percentage over 43 games. Cam Ward is finally gone, so Darling will have a good chance to bounce back and show he's capable of holding down a starting gig, but he's got a lot to prove.
What will be of Corey Crawford?
There are plenty of questions surrounding the 'Hawks, who had a pretty steep plunge in the standings last year and haven't really improved much over the past couple of months. But one of the biggest reasons for their struggles was the absence of goaltender Corey Crawford. He played just 28 games for Chicago last season and has dealt with lingering concussion symptoms that he's still trying to shake. He says he's close to a return, but how close? And how good will he be when he gets back between the pipes?
Can they get back to the playoffs?
The Avalanche had a startling bounce-back season last year and surprised pretty much everyone by clinching a playoff berth, then giving the Predators a pretty good fight in the first round. But can they build off that surprising success? They have an explosive top line with Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, but there's not a ton of depth behind them. However, the Avs have improved their defensive corps -- an area of need considering how many shots they gave up last year -- and could contend for another postseason appearance.
Columbus Blue Jackets
What's going to happen with Artemi Panarin?
Columbus' star winger is heading into the final year of his current contract and doesn't seem destined to stay in Columbus beyond this year. He was reluctant to sign an extension with the Blue Jackets this summer, and he told the team he wasn't interested in negotiating during the season. As such, it certainly wouldn't be surprising if Columbus traded him -- there have been trade rumors swirling since the summer -- but is there a chance he has a change of heart and sticks around? Or is there a chance that Columbus decides it's worth holding onto him for the full season despite the risk of losing him for nothing in free agency? Considering the Jackets were a middle-of-the-pack offensive team last year, losing Panarin's production would likely be a tough hit.
How will the team adjust to Jim Montgomery?
The Stars are heading into the season with their third head coach in as many years. There can often be a learning curve when it comes to a new coach (and the new style they bring), especially one without NHL coaching experience. Montgomery saw plenty of success at the college level, but it will be interesting to monitor how the Stars adapt to his style and if they're able to gain some momentum after missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
Detroit Red Wings
Is Dylan Larkin a bona fide No. 1 center?
The Red Wings better hope so! With the sudden retirement of Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit is looking pretty thin down the middle. After putting up a career-high 63 points last season, the 22-year-old Larkin was given a five-year extension this offseason. That was a vote of confidence in Larkin's future, and now he's got an opportunity to continue his upward trajectory and prove that he's worthy of being the Wings' top center as they continue their rebuild in Detroit. If he does that, this could be his team moving forward.
Will they bounce back?
After spending years as one of the NHL's biggest punchlines, it looked like the Oilers were finally heading towards relevance a few years ago when Connor McDavid led the way to their first playoff appearance in a decade. Unfortunately, that momentum completely flew out the window when the Oilers relapsed back into mediocrity last season. It was a very ugly and frustrating year that finished in a sixth-place division finish for Edmonton, and they haven't really done much this offseason to ensure that things will get better this year. But it can't possibly get worse...can it?
Can they hang in the Atlantic?
The Panthers had a strong finish to last season and they made a few pretty big adds this summer -- none bigger than Mike Hoffman. They seem to have enough talent to be able to vie for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this year, at least via Wild Card. But are they good enough to hang amongst the Atlantic division's three-headed monster in the Lightning, Leafs and Bruins? That's quite a tall order, but maybe the Panthers have it in them. It probably has a lot to do with what they get out of their goalie tandem in Roberto Luongo and James Reimer.
Los Angeles Kings
How good will Ilya Kovalchuk be?
A handful of years after his stunning departure from the NHL, Ilya Kovalchuk is back and ready to go in Los Angeles. But just what kind of production is he capable of at 35 years old and years removed from his last taste of NHL action? He's continued to play at a high level in the KHL and in the (NHL-less) Olympics, well enough to convince the Kings to bank on him to help fix their scoring woes. Kovalchuk will certainly have a good chance to find the back of the net regularly while playing alongside Anze Kopitar in LA.
Will their playoff streak be snapped?
This question can be interpreted in two different ways. The Wild have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons. Will that continue? And if it does, will they actually be able to make some legitimate postseason noise? Minnesota hasn't advanced past the second round since 2003, and they've been one-and-done in each of the past three years. It seems like something's gotta give, one way or another. They basically only improved their third defensive pairing this offseason and, with the Central division shaping up to be a slugfest, it feels like this could be a "put up or shut up" year for the Wild.
Will they score any goals?
The Habs finished 29th in scoring last season...and then they turned around and traded two of their four leading goal-scorers (Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty) this offseason. Sure, they got some pieces in return, but they're still very thin at center and there's not a whole lot of reason to believe that those offensive struggles are going to relent at all. It may just be a question of how much worse it'll be in Montreal.
What can we expect from Pekka Rinne?
The Predators' longtime goaltender is coming off a season in which he posted a regular season save percentage of .927 and took home his first Vezina Trophy in the spring. But it was also the second straight season in which his performance took a dip during a crucial time in the postseason. He's still got a great team in front of him, especially on the defensive side, but he's also turning 36 years old soon. Does he have it in him to be as good as he was last year, and can he do it without faltering in the playoffs?
New Jersey Devils
Will Taylor Hall get more help?
The Devils had a very nice bounce-back campaign last season, sneaking in the playoffs a year after finishing in the East's basement. But they were almost single-handedly dragged to the postseason by league MVP Taylor Hall, who nearly doubled every other player on New Jersey's roster in point production. They've done pretty much nothing to improve their depth (or their roster in general) while losing some key role players, so they're going to have to hope some of their younger players make big strides. Otherwise, it could be another one-man show in Jersey this season.
New York Islanders
How much did John Tavares really mean to them?
The biggest move of the offseason saw John Tavares depart Long Island in free agency to play for his hometown team in Toronto. It was a serious gut punch to the Islanders, who lost their best player, captain and face of the franchise. But even with Tavares on the roster, the Islanders weren't able to accomplish a whole lot. During his nine seasons in New York, they only made the playoffs three times, winning one total postseason series. Now the question becomes how much worse will they be without him, and how long will they feel the sting of his departure? They have some young talent -- including last year's rookie of the year Mat Barzal -- but they may not be ready to fill those shoes just yet. This was Tavares' team, until it suddenly wasn't.
New York Rangers
Who's next out of town?
The Rangers announced last season that they're entering into a rebuilding period, then traded some significant names from their roster -- including Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh. The team has some young talent that might be ready to contribute this year (Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil) but the rebuild definitely isn't over yet. New York only has one forward under contract beyond next season, meaning that they're likely going to have phones ringing off the hook around the trade deadline. Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes are both on the final years of their deal, meaning they're prime candidates for a mid-season exit. The Rangers could also look to free up some money for free agent bidding.
Do they even have a plan?
The Senators provided an answer to their biggest question when they traded Erik Karlsson to San Jose just as camp opened, but what now? They've announced plans for a rebuild, meaning we're probably going to see several more players shipped out of Ottawa this season for future assets, but what is their plan for this season? They look like they could be in line for a historically awful season, which would be fine if they were tanking for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft. Unfortunately, the Sens don't even own their first round pick in 2019 (Colorado does) so they may just be gifting a potential franchise player to another team.
What kind of numbers can JVR put up?
The Flyers built some momentum for themselves by clinching a playoff berth last season, and they made a big splash this offseason with the addition of James van Riemsdyk in free agency. JVR should be a welcome addition to their top six in Philly, but what kind of production is he capable of? He scored a career-high 36 goals last year on an explosive Maple Leafs team, but he averaged less than 15:00 of ice time over the course of 81 games. He should get more run in Philadelphia, but will more ice team bring more results?
Will Matt Murray bounce back?
After winning back-to-back Cups with Murray in net, the Penguins almost had no choice but to surrender Marc-Andre Fleury to Vegas in last summer's expansion draft. But it must have stung quite a bit when Fleury had an incredible first season in Vegas while Murray struggled quite a bit in Pittsburgh. The young goaltender had to fight some health issues over the second half of the season and he didn't look like the same guy who impressed over his first few years in the league. The Penguins have to hope that Murray gets back to being that caliber of player this season.
St. Louis Blues
Will Jake Allen drag them down?
After missing the playoffs by a single point last season, the Blues had one of the best offseasons in all of hockey. They revamped their offensive attack with the additions of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon, and they already had one of the league's most impressive defenses. The biggest question is whether they can get good enough goaltending to make any of this matter. With insurance policy Carter Hutton departing for Buffalo in free agency, the reigns in net have been handed back to Jake Allen, who was extremely shaky last season with a .906 save percentage over 59 games. The Blues have to get a better effort out of Allen this year if they want to make noise in a highly competitive Central division.
San Jose Sharks
How much better will Erik Karlsson make them?
The Sharks provided a September blockbuster when they acquired Karlsson from the Senators. Karlsson is a two-time Norris Trophy winner and a generational offensive talent on the blue line, but how much of a difference will he make in San Jose? The Sharks aren't the deepest team up front, but they had a commendable playoff run last year despite a plethora of injuries. Adding Karlsson to a defensive corps that already includes fellow Norris-winner Brent Burns means that the Sharks could theoretically have Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic on the ice at most points during this season, which is a scary thought. Just a few years ago we saw Karlsson deliver a god-like postseason that helped bring the Senators within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final. San Jose is hoping that Karlsson can help push them to playoff glory, which is something that has eluded them.
Tampa Bay Lighting
Are they still the best team in the Atlantic?
The Lightning finished the season one point over the Bruins and an eight points ahead of the Leafs to capture the Atlantic divison. But Toronto added John Tavares this offseason, meaning we could be looking at a three-team dogfight at the top of the division this year. Tampa didn't really improve at all over the offseason, but did they really need to? They still have one of the best and deepest teams in the league and it might still be their division to lose, but the race just got a little tighter this offseason.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Will the blue line hold them back?
The Leafs finished last season with the second-best offense in the league and then they went out and added an elite center in John Tavares, so...uh, yeah. That's scary. But the Leafs' biggest issue clearly wasn't their offense, and they didn't do much of anything to quell any defensive concerns on their blue line. On paper it still seems like they could really use a top-end defenseman, but their offense might just be good enough to counteract that. Can they win every game 6-4?
How good will Elias Pettersson be?
Vancouver has been stuck in mediocrity for years and now they're officially entering into the post-Sedins era. However, the Canucks have some exciting young talent that could provide a brighter future if the front office is able to build around them. Brock Boeser was a rookie revelation last season, and this year it could be Elias Pettersson's turn. The young Swede was the No. 5 pick in 2017 NHL Draft and appears ready to make an impact at the NHL level this year. He brings plenty of hype after leading the Swedish Hockey League in scoring as a 19-year-old, winning league MVP in the regular season and playoffs. He also set the SHL record for points by a player under 20, topping names like Kent Nilsson, Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Markus Naslund and Nicklas Backstrom. Not bad, but just what can we expect from the young phenom in his first NHL season?
Vegas Golden Knights
Will there be regression?
It seems hard to fathom the idea of the Golden Knights topping last season's inaugural campaign, but it's also seemed hard to fathom the idea that an expansion team could make the Stanley Cup Final in their very first season. Vegas didn't just sit on their hands during the offseason, either; the additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty help give them one of the most formidable front sixes in the entire league. However, they rode Marc-Andre Fleury and inexplicable Black Magic all the way to the Cup last year and it seems fair to think there might be something of a drop-off in their sophomore effort. Can Fleury be as dominant? Can the misfits still play with the same chip on their shoulder a year removed from the expansion draft? Has the shine worn off the city's new sports toy? Will fans still bring the same energy? These are all questions worth pondering.
Will there be a Stanley Cup hangover?
It's extremely difficult to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in today's NHL (the Penguins were the first to do it since it the '97-'98 Red Wings) and it might be even harder when you spend the shortened summer partying as hard as the Caps did. Last year's Cup run in Washington was an incredible, cathartic ride to the summit. But will there be a descent this year? And, if so, how far might they fall? There hasn't been a ton of turnover in Washington in terms of player personnel, but they do have a new (yet familiar) coach in Todd Reirden behind the bench. It seems fair to expect some regression after a Stanley Cup run, but the Caps have nearly the same roster but without any of the playoff demons hanging over them.
Will they need another second line center?
The Jets have one of the most explosive offensive groups in the league thanks to headliners like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele. But last season the second-line center spot was a concern until they acquired Paul Stastny at the trade deadline. Stastny was a solid presence between Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, and Winnipeg was hoping he'd stick around. Unfortunately, he ended up going to Vegas in free agency and the Jets weren't able to replace him. The job appears to be Bryan Little's, but can he provide enough in the role to give the Jets comfort heading into the second half? Or will they have to explore their deadline options and look for an upgrade once again?
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