Eastern: 15 teams worth of questions -- and then some
By Stu Hackel
Every NHL season starts with expectations and conjures up predictions about where teams might finish, but this is a season like no other. You can't even compare it too closely to the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign, one played with a 26-team NHL, a different conference alignment and playoff format, no shootout or "loser's point," and far less parity. And even in a normal season, there is so much uncertainty in sports that preseason predictions are a waste of time.
SI.com colleagues Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Adrian Dater have their thoughts on the upcoming season and you can find them here:
Our favorite preseason pastime at Red Light is trying to boil down each team’s success or failure to one or a few essential themes. Each club has them and the answers to these questions, theoretically at least, should go a long way to determining if it plays up to expectations and potential. Keep in mind they all take place within the framework of the shortened season imposing its own unique characteristics on the playoff chase, which we pondered in this post.
Below are the essential questions for each team in the East and here's the link for teams in the West:
New Jersey Devils -- They may be the defending conference champs, but losing captain and best player Zach Parise as a UFA to Minnesota may have been the single most damaging blow any club suffered during the offseason. Not only did Parise go elsewhere, so did Alex Ponikarovski and Petr Sykora. Those three accounted for 66 goals last season and that's 29 percent of the team's total, no small number. Add to that the thumb injury to Adam Henrique, who won't be ready until early February at the soonest. So where will New Jersey's offense come from? A healthy Travis Zajac can fill some of the void, but can Ilya Kovalchuk realistically do more -- and, considering his apparent flirtation with staying in the KHL, how motivated is he to do so? It could be a big challenge for coach Pete DeBoer and GM Lou Lamoriello. And which Marty Brodeur will we see, the goalie who looked to be fading for a couple of seasons or the one who performed strongly last spring?
New York Islanders -- Can they find some scoring depth? John Tavares just gets better and while he and Matt Moulson lost P.A. Parenteau from the top line, Brad Boyes could be a good fit as a replacement if he rediscovers the productive form of his St. Louis years. But too many of the team's high picks haven't panned out. The bigger question facing this club is why do so few of its blueline prospects become NHLers? Only Travis Hamonic has made the jump and the defense corps always seems like patchwork. Annually, the Islanders inevitably go through a prolonged slump that dumps them from playoff contention and they can never climb back into the race. With the shortened season, the team's biggest question may be if it can finally avoid that big slide -- which doesn't have to be so big this season -- and remain competitive.
New York Rangers -- They're considered a Cup favorite, with good reason considering their apparent strengths throughout the lineup. But it all has to work, especially up front, where newcomer Rick Nash finds himself starting the season on a line with Carl Hagelin and center Brad Richards (who has been battling the flu and is yet to skate with his prospective linemates), while Marian Gaborik moves to another line and unfamiliar territory on left wing with Derek Stepan. At least that's how it looks this week because Coach John Tortorella is forever fiddling with his lines. Will he over-coach his embarrassment of riches or unlock everyone's best game? And will his reliance on shot-blocking as a defensive strategy result in a costly injury or two?
Philadelphia Flyers -- This being the Flyers, the number one question must be: Will they get the kind of goaltending that's needed for a deep playoff run? Owner Ed Snider gave Ilya Bryzgalov his endorsement this week, but you never know with Crazy Bryz. Losing Chris Pronger last year was a blow from which the Flyers never fully recovered, and any team losing a player of that caliber would have similar problems. It's why they made the play for Nashville's Shea Weber. GM Paul Holmgren has responded by building a deep defense corps, adding Nick Grossman last February plus Luke Schenn, Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster in the offseason. He may need them with Andrej Meszaros battling injury and aging Andreas Lilja seemingly falling behind. For that matter, Kimmo Timonen is no youngster, either. Will Holmgren's additions give Philly the strength it needs on the blueline?
Pittsburgh Penguins -- There will always be concerns about Sidney Crosby's concussion history and whether he'll avoid a repeat of what he went through the last couple of years. That aside, the Penguins appear to be a top club. They seem strong up front -- as long as Brandon Sutter performs well centering the third line, although he may not reach the heights of departed Jordan Staal. If Crosby or Evgeni Malkin get hurt, however, Sutter will never be as effective as Staal while moving up on the depth chart. The Pens appear deep on defense, so no problems there. The biggest question is in goal, where Marc-Andre Fleury truly struggled late last season and in the playoffs. Can he bounce back? If not, can Tomas Vokoun, now 36, adequately step in and be the stopper the Pens need for a deep run?
Boston Bruins -- Many people question whether Tuukka Rask can replace Tim Thomas as the Bruins' top goalie, although two years ago he did and performed very well. Yes, he had the luxury of Thomas as his backup; now his understudy is untested Anton Khudobin. It's a good point. But an equal concern could be the offense. Where did it go last spring when Boston fell in the first round to Washington's superb defending and hot goaltending? Maybe it was just an aberration, but they plainly had trouble scoring. It was a curious problem for what seems to be a strong, well-balanced club. They'll have Nathan Horton back, an important ingredient, but will opponents tap into the Caps' formula or can the B's recapture their offensive mojo to be a power in the East?
Buffalo Sabres -- Some equally important questions arise while looking at this edition of the Sabres. Aside from big, young Tyler Myers, do they get enough from their blueline veterans -- Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera -- to give Ryan Miller the protection he needs? Can Cody Hodgson or Tyler Ennis truly be a top center or will GM Darcy Regier have to hunt for one on the trade market? And if things don't go well in Buffalo, will the ambitious and expensive retooling under new owner Terry Pegula give way to a more drastic, sweeping rebuild?
Montreal Canadiens -- The Canadiens added some sorely missed grit in the offseason, but still need to improve offensively, win more at home, do better in OT and the shootout, learn how to hold leads, play a faster style, change the dressing room attitude and get comfy with new/old coach Michel Therrien, who must demonstrate that he's a different, wiser man than he was his first tour of duty here. Not too much, eh? They also need P.K. Subban under contract. But while P.K. gets all the media buzz for his charisma and potential, the best and most important player on Montreal's defense corps is Andrei Markov, who has missed all but 20 games during the past two seasons with knee problems. How will he fare and can he play up to his former level in the shortened season? If he can return to something close to his best, it will go a long way to determining whether the Canadiens are a playoff team.
Ottawa Senators -- Some don't believe that Erik Karlsson is the real thing, but there's no doubts about that here. The defense corps as a whole, however, could be a problem. Matt Carkner and Karlsson's partner Filip Kuba are now elsewhere, Jared Cowen will miss the season with injury and both Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips are well on the back nine of their careers. Can the new d-men brought in by GM Bryan Murray -- local boy Marc Methot and Mike Lundin -- and/or perhaps some of the Sens' prospects capably fill the gaps? Some other areas of concern may be team toughness with the departure of Carkner and Zenon Kenopka. Also, can captain Daniel Alfredsson continue to play at a high level in what might be his final go-around?
Toronto Maple Leafs -- From goal out, the Leafs are a series of question marks. Inexperienced netminders James Reimer and Ben Scrivens probably can't get this group into the postseason, so new GM Dave Nonis is working the phones looking for a veteran, with Roberto Luongo prominently mentioned as a target. Jake Gardiner is their big hope on the blueline, but he's dealing with concussion symptoms and may not be ready to start the season. They lack a bona fide top center to play between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the first line, and there are many more offensive holes below that on a club that doesn't have the snarl that coach Randy Carlyle prefers. But the biggest question is what does the recent firing of snarler-in-cheif Brian Burke -- after four years of playoff misses and seven overall -- say about how far away this trainwreck of a hockey club is from becoming merely decent?
Carolina Hurricanes -- Assuming that coach Kirk Muller figures out the best way to use his two-Staal attack (linemates or not?), the biggest question mark hovers over the head of Alexander Semin, as it has done so often in his career. In his new environment, can he become the committed talent who becomes a consistent threat and takes some of the load off the Staal brothers and Jeff Skinner? Will the 'Canes team defense improve on its last place ranking in shots allowed and can the blueliners play rugged enough to keep attackers from making life miserable for Cam Ward?
Florida Panthers -- After an impressive leap in the standings and a good playoff series against the Devils (their first postseason since 2001), can the Panthers sustain their upward momentum? They'll need to replace the loss of Jason Garrison's offense from the blueline (UFA signee Filip Kuba, a former Panther, may take Garrison's spot paired with Bryan Campbell now) and improve their league-worst shootout record? (Perhaps another UFA pick up, Peter Mueller, rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, or -- if he makes the team -- Alex Kovalev can help there.) They'll need continued improvement from young defenseman Erik Gudbransen (when his shoulder heals) and another good year from their band of veteran castoffs, including the two in goal: Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen.
Tampa Bay Lightning -- While they have some top talent offensively, starting with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, the Lighting were one of last season's bigger disappointments and have to fix all sorts of problems. The worst defensive club in the league, they jettisoned fallen ancient hero goalie Dwayne Roloson, but can relatively unproven Anders Lindback thrive as their top guy? Their defense corps had issues breaking the puck out of their zone, and they signed Matt Carle and Sami Salo, but Salo is often hurt and injured Mattias Ohlund has yet to skate (and may be at the end of the line). Most significantly, the team's poor defensive record reflected badly on coach Guy Boucher who, only a year earlier, was hailed as the game's brightest young bench boss. Is he in trouble if the Bolts don't bounce back?
Washington Capitals -- Will Adam Oates bring happiness to Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals? Bright and communicative, the Hall of Fame center got his first head coaching job for a challenging franchise, one that has fallen short of fans' and ownership's expectations for years. Both Ovie and defenseman Mike Green could flourish under Oates' more offensive approach and it's hard to believe that Oates won't be an improvement over popular but puzzled Bruce Bourdreau and taciturn Dale Hunter. Yet, the shortened season may not be an adequate time frame to judge Oates' impact. The loss of Alexander Semin, enigmatic as he was, presents a skill deficit that newcomer Mike Ribiero can help fill; plus Ribeiro gives Washington a long-sought second-line center.
Winnipeg Jets -- They're set in goal and have, in fact, improved their depth there. They're also deeper at forward. But will any of that matter if the Jets don't improve defensively? It's not all on the blueliners, but that area didn't' get much of an upgrade in the off-season, and young d-man Zach Bogosian is injured and won't start the campaign. If they can't cut down their goals-against, the other changes -- adding Al Montoya to back up Ondrej Pavelec, and bringing in forwards Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky -- won't have the desired impact. The first-year romance between the Jets and their fans -- if not fans throughout hockey -- was one of the best stories of last season. But romance won't replace victories and, unless the Jets tighten up in their own zone, it doesn't yet seem as if they will produce enough of them.
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