Atlantic trials and uncertainty

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Can their new faces carry the load?

The team that takes the ice on Oct. 4 in Stockholm will look considerably different than the group that fell just short of capturing the Stanley Cup last June. The impact of defected free agents Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone has been much discussed, but that's only because they left the most obvious holes. The hope of a return trip to the finals could just as easily be derailed by a change in Pittsburgh's intimidation quotient (so long, Georges Laraque, Jarkko Ruutu and Gary Roberts) and the loss of backup netminder Ty Conklin, arguably the team's MVP last season .. and that doesn't even consider the three-to-five-month absence of injured blueliner Ryan Whitney.

When you've got more than $22 million tied up in just four players -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury -- a certain roster fluidity is inevitable. So is a bit of bargain hunting. That the Pens were willing to sign replacement wingers Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko to just one-year deals suggests that they've been recognized as what they are: nothing more than lineup patches. Eric Godard and Matt Cooke bring some nastiness to the lineup, but both are coming off brutal campaigns. And no one believes that Dany Sabourin can fill in for Fleury as admirably as Conklin did last season.

The Pens can thrive in the regular season on the backs of their superstars. But to make amends for their Cup disappointment, they'll need career seasons, or something close to it, from their reinforcements.

Is this the season they finally miss the playoffs?

It's happening again.

In a preseason move that's become as predictable as Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown, or Jack Bauer barking "You have to trust me!" observers from all over the hockey map are predicting early golf for the Devils. I'm not sure why this annual compunction arises. Perhaps it's merely the sense that the Devils' run (their last early tee time was in 1996) has to end eventually -- but the feeling is epidemic now.

The good news for Devils fans: It ain't gonna happen. In fact, I'm here to tell you that this team is closer to competing for the conference title than it is for a lottery spot.

You've got doubts? You're not alone. The forwards should be granted handicapped passes that allow them to park in the crease. The defense, led by Paul Martin and John Oduya, wouldn't look out of place in Georgian army fatigues. GM Lou Lamoriello's acquisition of Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik would have looked more promising in the summer of 1998.

But you can't deny the presence of Martin Brodeur or the coaching wizardry of Brent Sutter. And the new schedule format seems to play into their hands. The Devils struggled to gain points against their divisional rivals last season, but thrived against the West. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as those lovely financial services ads always point out, but with fewer games against the former and more against the latter, something tells me that the Devils will claw out enough points to challenge for the Eastern crown.

What to expect from Simon Gagne?

Coming off a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren settled for a few minor roster tweaks, mostly cap-related, to improve his team's chances in 2008-09. But even without a big move, his lineup looks to be much improved this season, thanks to the return of perennial All-Star Gagne, who can key the first-line offense.

Assuming, of course, that he's physically able.

Any history of concussion puts a player's availability into question, especially one as serious as the blow that limited Gagne to just 25 games last season. But word is that he's in top shape, having spent the summer working out with Canadian trainer Hugo Girard, and is ready to step back into the lineup.

Gagne is a notoriously slow starter, so too much shouldn't be read into the situation if he doesn't fly out of the blocks. But getting the two-time 40-goal man (and penalty-kill wizard) back into the lineup is as impactful as any free agent signing, and it will put the Flyers in position to contend for the division title.

Sundin and Shanahan: Will they or won't they?

It was a typical Broadway off-season filled with big-name arrivals (Markus Naslund, Wade Redden, Nikolai Zherdev) and departures (Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka). Plenty of coal for the hot stove. But there's a sense that this cast of characters is not yet finalized as it heads into camp, and that a last-minute airlift remains on the horizon. So the possibilities posed by Mats Sundin and Brendan Shanahan are the catalysts of intrigue for the Blueshirt faithful.

The Sundin Saga has been the summer's longest-running yet least action-packed adventure. There seems to be mutual interest between the Blueshirts and the erstwhile Leafs captain, and his addition would more than compensate for the loss of Jagr, bringing scoring punch and leadership. But cap limitations would force the Rangers to move another big salary -- Scott Gomez? -- and that would be a challenge, given the limited number of possible trading partners.

Shanahan's case would be much less complex. The veteran winger clearly wants to come back and prove that last season's dismal finish was more about a lingering injury than it was about the end of the line. Salary likely wouldn't be an issue, although it would still require some roster adjustments to squeeze him in. Given the hurdles, expect Shanahan to return...and Sundin to look elsewhere if he feels like lacing 'em up again.

Does Scott Gordon have any experience with working miracles?

It says here that Gordon, the former bench boss of the Providence Bruins and 2008 AHL Coach of the Year, will prove to be an inspired choice to guide the Isles. He knows how to mold young talent, his in-game management skills are highly regarded, and the guys in the room like to play for him. Long term, he's ideally suited to help offset the cartoonish antics of owner Charles Wang and his crazy cronies.

But unless Gordon can tap into some pseudo-divinity, this season's mash-up of hobbling elders, not-ready-for-prime-time players, and prima donnas is the Eastern Conference equivalent of Job. Trials and tribulations lie ahead.

Gordon's biggest challenge will simply be holding it all together while he waits for the team's prospects to develop. Rehabbing the NHL's most flaccid offense with Anaheim flop Doug Weight as the No. 1 pivot is a task akin to feeding a starving multitude with two small gefilte fish and five barley loaves, but ground can be made up on the power play. New QB Mark Streit should help keep the puck moving at least, and rookie Kyle Okposo adds a physical dimension down low that was missing last season.

Gordon's real test may be how he utilizes Rick DiPietro, who has needed hip surgery each of the last two seasons. DiPietro is expected to be healthy by opening night, but there's a specter of fragility that lingers over his crease, one that conflicts with his stated desire to play every night. Given the backup option -- Joey MacDonald -- Gordon may want to grant DiPietro his wish. But with his health history and a personality that tends to be a distraction when he's not working nightly, it'll be a delicate balancing act.

Gordon knows what he signed up for. Here's hoping he's up to the challenge. Flood, fire, plague, pestilence, crop failure and boils surely await.