By Allan Muir
It will be nine months before we know whether the bold moves that teams made this summer will pay off in a meaningful way, but right now almost every club believes it's in a better place than it was when last season ended.
Whether that's the case will begin to reveal itself as NHL training camps get underway today.
There are sweaters to be earned in all 30 cities: Dallas needs defense; Florida is looking for forwards; Calgary is looking forward to 2014-15. But only a few teams have significant positions up for grabs. Here are six of the most compelling battles for jobs that will play out over the next three weeks.
Who's No. 1 in Toronto?
James Reimer is the incumbent starter in Toronto's net, as well as the goaltender who helped lead the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs with a sturdy .924 save percentage. To which management said, "Thanks, but we're not convinced you've got what it takes." GM Dave Nonis then went out and made a significant deal to acquire Jonathan Bernier from the Kings . . . and it wasn't to have him work the gate.
Both goalies are young, just 25, and though Bernier has spent his entire career as a spot starter behind Jonathan Quick, both seem to have the ability to take the reins for a team on the rise. And that's exactly the scenario the Leafs are hoping for: one of them, inspired to new levels by fierce competition, will force his way into the job.
That battle won't be won in camp, but the stage will be set for a season that's almost certain to be defined by the controversy.
Adding to the intrigue: Reimer is heading into the final year of his contract, which carries a cap hit of $1.8 million. If he grabs the starting gig by the throat, he's in for a big raise. If not, he can pack his suitcase.
Can the Blackhawks find a second-line center?
Joel Quenneville has enjoyed a bit of success with his by-committee approach to this key position, so no one will panic if an obvious choice doesn't emerge from this year's tryouts. Still, the Hawks would like to see it addressed, and they're looking at several options. Brandon Pirri, the AHL’s leading scorer last season with 22 goals and 75 points in 76 games, looks to be the front-runner, but there are concerns about his size and defensive commitment. Brandon Saad, a Calder Trophy finalist after a strong season spent mostly on Jonathan Toews' wing, will get a long look. He'd have to adapt to the position, but his size and defensive awareness set him up for a smooth conversion. Marcus Kruger's also in the mix, although he'll have to prove that he can finish more consistently than his four-goal 2013 stats suggest.
Can the Bruins find a consistent offensive threat for the third line?
The team that fell two games short of winning the Stanley Cup doesn't have a lot of holes to fill, but some reliable scoring depth would set the Bruins up for another deep playoff run.
Carl Soderberg got a taste of NHL action last season after tearing up the Swedish league. He's a natural center, but has the size to be effective along the boards. Matt Fraser and Riley Smith, both acquired from Dallas in the Tyler Seguin trade, bring varied skill sets. Fraser is an AHL-proven finisher with a Bruins-style build, but there are questions about his defensive game. Smith is smaller, but has some sand in his game to go with his high-end offensive instincts. Jordan Caron might have an edge because he's a Bruins pick (25th overall, 2009) and he's on a one-way deal, meaning he can't be sent down without clearing waivers. If he doesn't make a big impression in camp, he might be done. Craig Cunningham and Jared Knight are both undersized options, but the B's like their grit and scoring upside.
Who's next in net for the Calgary Flames
With the long-expected retirement of Miikka Kiprusoff finally becoming official this week, the state of Calgary's goalkeeping came into sharp focus. The view isn't flattering. Journeyman Joey MacDonald is something of a known quantity, having racked up a 8-9-1 record with a .902 save percentage and 2.87 GAA for the Flames last season. But at 33, he's never been a true No. 1 in the league, and he might best be used as a stabilizer to step in when either Karri Ramo or Reto Berra stumbles. Both of those hopefuls built up solid credentials overseas -- Berra was the MVP of the Swiss league in 2011-12; Ramo was arguably the best goalie in the KHL -- but they haven't proved anything yet in this league.
It might be easy to eliminate Finnish rookie Jouni Ortio from the mix, even after his impressive performance at the Penticton tournament. But with the race wide open, and coach Bob Hartley committed to winning games, whoever comes in hot could come out with a job.
Can John Gibson steal a job in Anaheim?
The Ducks are in the cat-bird seat when it comes to netminders. Both Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth have proven themselves capable of being the go-to guy, giving Anaheim an enviable 1-1A punch between the pipes. But while the battle to prove who deserves the majority of starts is a point of interest, the real intrigue comes in the form of Gibson. The dynamic prospect carried Team USA at the World Juniors and World Championships last season, and while there's no reason to rush his development, his time in camp may reveal that he's ready to take on a significant role in the NHL sooner than later. If that's the case, you'd expect Hiller, who is entering the final season of a deal that pays him $4.5 million, to be put in play. That would make things interesting . . .
Can one of the Kiddie Corps defensemen break through in Pittsburgh?
The Penguins' forward corps might be the envy of the league now, but the defenders in the team's talent pipeline could define this club moving forward. And with a cap crunch likely to force a trade of veteran Matt Niskanen, there's a chance that one of them could claim a spot coming out of camp. Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Harrison Ruopp each bring something unique to the table, but it might be Dumoulin, the one not originally drafted by the Pens, who is most ready to contribute in the NHL. Acquired from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade, he was Pittsburgh's best player at last week's rookie tournament and comes into camp as the favorite to stick with the big club.