Tuesday September 8th, 2009

Between the ownership struggles playing out in Phoenix and Tampa and the Machiavellian scheming that brought down NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly, the offseason hasn't lacked for drama. But what hockey fans could really use right about now is a little action.

Good news. With training camps opening across the NHL this weekend, it won't be long before we'll be talking about power plays on the ice instead of in the courtroom or the back room. To get you up to speed, here's a primer on the pressing issues facing each of the league's 30 teams:

ANAHEIM DUCKS: Camp gives theM time to test a blueline that was rebuilt on the fly. Recent additions Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski will try out the larger roles once occupied by Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Luca Sbisa and Nick Boynton bring skill and muscle, respectively, leaving youngsters Brett Festerling, Brian Salcido, Brendan Mikkelson and veteran Steve McCarthy to compete for depth roles.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: If coach John Anderson can find anything more pressing in camp than his team's defensive work, the Thrashers are in deep, deep trouble. The team ranked 29th in goals-against and penalty-killing last season, and is going nowhere without significant improvement in both. Sophomore Zach Bogosian could make an impact in his own end, but it all comes down to the health of goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Without a stellar season from him, they're looking at the lottery...again.

BOSTON BRUINS: GM Peter Chiarelli has yet to come to terms with RFA Phil Kessel, who led the team last season with 36 goals. With talks bogged down, it appears more likely that he'll be dealt or signed to an offer sheet (possibly by the Maple Leafs). At just 21, Kessel has plenty of upside, but the Bruins need to get a return that's significant and affordable if they go the trade route.

BUFFALO SABRES: After losing Jaroslav Spacek to free agency and Teppo Numminen to retirement, Buffalo's lackluster blueline is in flux. Journeyman free agent Steve Montador won't be much help, but they may get a boost from mammoth rookie Tyler Myers.

CALGARY FLAMES: The additions of Jay Bouwmeester and coach Brent Sutter give theM a chance to improve on last season's brutal defensive mark (23rd overall)...assuming, of course, that goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff isn't committed to the Jarmo Myllys impression he offered up last year. That should allow the Flames to concentrate on addressing the 54 goals they've lost to free agency (Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi).

CAROLINA HURRICANES: After watching his team battle their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, GM Jim Rutherford decided to whack it with the ugly stick. His summer additions were all about making the 'Canes a grittier, tougher playoff opponent. Veterans Stephane Yelle, Tom Kostopolous, Aaron Ward and Andrew Alberts have nothing to prove in camp, but they'll demonstrate their value come spring.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Last spring's deep playoff run has fans expecting more this season. Looking to take some pressure off a young lineup, new GM Stan Bowman added sniper Marian Hossa and battle-tested center John Madden to the roster. Though Hossa (shoulder surgery) is out until December, the real question mark is in net. With Nikolai Khabibulin now wearing Edmonton's silks, it's up to Cristobal Huet to live up to his $5.6 million cap hit.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Fans clamored for a free agent fix to the team's 30th-ranked power play and GM Scott Howson gave them...defensive center Samuel Pahlsson. Even without the puck-moving defender it desperately needs, the PP unit should benefit from the return of Derrick Brassard (25 points in 31 games) and the possible addition of rookie Nikita Filatov. The flashy Russian brings plenty of offensive flair, but needs to prove in camp that he can contribute without the puck.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Their first season in 20 years without Joe Sakic promises to be as ugly as the last. After Paul Stastny (fully recovered from the arm and foot injuries that cost him 32 games), the Avs have the league's worst depth down the middle. Third overall pick Matt Duchene will get a long look in camp, but if he can't do the job, it'll be up to T.J. Galliardi and Ryan Stoa, who have 11 games of NHL experience between them.

DALLAS STARS: The sinking fortunes of owner Tom Hicks morphed the former big spenders into one of the league's financial have-nots. After failing to land Jonas Gustavsson, the Stars will have to rely on comeback seasons from Marty Turco and captain Brenden Morrow and see some rapid growth from a young blueline in order to return to playoff contention.

DETROIT RED WINGS: Chris Osgood was tagged for a sub-par regular season, but the truth is THAT the Wings needed to play a hungrier brand of team defense. There'll be little margin for error this season after the the free agent departures of Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky and Jiri Hudler cost them 92 goals.

EDMONTON OILERS: The arrival of new coaches Pat Quinn and Tom Renney add an air of excitement to camp, but unless either of them brought 40 goals, the Oilers still be short a couple of top-six forwards.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: The loss of Bouwmeester shouldn't be underestimated, but the biggest hurdle for a team that's trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons is an offense that lacks both punch and depth. All eyes will be on Evgeni Dadonov. The 20-year-old winger has NHL skill, but can he stand up to the pounding?

LOS ANGELES KINGS: After years of trotting out fraudulent No. 1s like Dan Cloutier and Jason LaBarbera, the Kings might have a showroom-ready model in Team USA hopeful Jon Quick. He'll have to prove he's the real deal in net, though, before L.A.'s long-suffering fans can start thinking playoffs.

MINNESOTA WILD: The "Under New Management" shingle was hung months ago. Now we'll finally get to see what sort of changes incoming GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards have in mind. The promise is an up-tempo style with more emphasis on offense, but do they have the horses? Petr Sykora and Max Afinogenov remain on the outside, but either or both could be airlifted in for the start of camp.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: GM Bob Gainey played Igor by digging up the bodies. Now it's up to new coach Jacques Martin to channel his inner Dr. Frankenstein and somehow create life with a group of new parts that includes diminutive first-liners Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Their four-year playoff streak snapped by a dearth of scoring, and with no money to solve the problem in free agency, they are putting pressure on incumbents David Legwand and Martin Erat to significantly increase their contributions. Sounds like the recipe for another disappointing season.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: With spots vacated by veterans Madden, Gionta, Bobby Holik and Mike Rupp, there may be no camp that offers more jobs to young players. The big question: are Nicklas Bergfors, Ilkka Pikkarainen, Matt Halischuk, Matthew Corrente and Patrice Cormier up to the task? If not, depth may be a challenge for new/old coach Jacques Lemaire.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: The arrival of first overall pick John Tavares ensures there will be more optimism coming into this Islanders camp than there has been during the past decade. But don't forget the number 18 -- as in Tavares' age and Kyle Okposo's team-leading goal total from 2008-09. Fact is, the Isles are woefully thin of talent up front. If anyone gets hot at camp, there's room on the roster.

NEW YORK RANGERS: All eyes will be on Marian Gaborik and his wonky hip, but Gabby is just one of four new faces slated to skate on one of New York's top three lines. Coach John Tortorella has Chris Higgins, Vaclav Prospal and Ales Kotalik to work into the mix, and while all have been talked up as improvements for a woeful offense, none is coming off a banner season.

OTTAWA SENATORS: With no takers for Dany Heatley -- at least, none to his liking -- the Sens enter camp facing the distraction of a player who has no desire to be a part of the team. Barring a surprise deal, it'll be a test of the club's leadership to work him back into the fabric.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Can a healthy Daniel Briere finally live up to that massive $52 million contract he signed back in 2007? The key to camp will be finding him the appropriate wingers. Claude Giroux might be the best bet, but his skills could be wasted on the third line. If Briere is stuck with the likes of Dan Carcillo and Andreas Nodl, no one should expect too much.

PHOENIX COYOTES: They open training camp at Jobing.com Arena, but will they start the regular season there? And who exactly will be coaching them? With the team's ownership tied up in court, the future of Wayne Gretzky hangs in the balance...and if he goes, there's no obvious successor in sight.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: After two straight trips to the final round, they have to worry about the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. It affected them early last season to the point that it cost Michel Therrien his job. The defending champs also have to work in new bodies after losing key contributors Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill from the Cup roster.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: What you see may not be what you get. They enter camp with much the same lineup as the team that flamed out in the first round, but they also have a sense that big changes may yet be on the horizon. After having the C stripped from his sweater, Patrick Marleau ranks as the most likely to be filling out a form for the alumni association.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: They made few moves over the summer, preferring instead to rely on the continued maturation of top prospects like Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie as well as the return of Erik Johnson and Paul Kariya from lengthy stints on IR. With their roster essentially set, there are few jobs up for grabs outside of a battle between Alex Pietrangelo and Steve Wagner for the seventh D spot.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The Bolts revamped the league's most dysfunctional defense, adding five NHL-caliber blueliners (Mattias Ohlund, Kurtis Foster, Matt Walker, David Hale and second overall pick Victor Hedman) to a group that returns Paul Ranger, Lukas Krajicek and Andrej Meszaros. With Mike Smith healthy and newcomer Antero Niittymaki on hand to provide reliable backup in net, the Lightning should develop a tougher defensive posture.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: His 1.03 GAA and .961 save percentage in last season's Swedish league playoffs will look great on Jonas Gustavsson's hockey card, but history is littered with foreign league goalies who couldn't transition their game to the NHL. He's penciled in as Vesa Toskala's backup, but the team is (quietly) counting on him to steal the job in camp

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: The spotlight is on rookie Cody Hodgson...but for all the wrong reasons. A back injury suffered in July is keeping him out of contact drills for the team's rookie camp. He says he'll be ready by the time main camp opens, but there have to be concerns about the readiness of a player who has been penciled into the key second line center role.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Much attention will be focused on Semyon Varlamov after the rookie goalie melted down in the final three games of the Pittsburgh playoff series, but the biggest question marks in camp are on the blueline. Tom Poti and Brian Pothier can fill top four roles, but can they stay healthy? Is Jeff Schultz ready to take on a bigger workload? Is Karl Alzner ready for full-time NHL employment?

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