1. Boston Bruins
Will Loui Eriksson be the player the Bruins thought they were getting last year or will he go down as simply the player the Bruins picked up in return for Tyler Seguin? On the face of it, Eriksson is the prototypical Bruin. He isn’t flashy, he understands defense and can do some of the little things. But when Bruins management tired of Seguin’s act, they figured they were doing fine by getting Eriksson in return. But after four 25-goal seasons in Dallas, Eriksson managed just 10 tallies in 61 games with Boston. With the loss of 30-goal man Jarome Iginla to Colorado, improved offensive output from Eriksson could be crucial. Will he be able to recapture his touch?
2. Anaheim Ducks
Is John Gibson ready to take over as the club’s No. 1 goalie? The USA Hockey standout made a big splash in the playoffs last season, and his continued improvement could make the loss of Jonas Hiller more palatable, but is the 21-year old from Pittsburgh actually ready for such a big assignment or will Fredrik Anderson assume more of a starter’s role until Gibson is ready for a long campaign?
3. Colorado Avalanche
Does the sophomore jinx also apply to teams? Let’s face it; with new coach Patrick Roy and new players in place, the Avalanche developed a new attitude and a sense that they could compete with the best teams in the league. Their opening-round playoff loss to Minnesota was a rude awakening for a club that is now expected to win and must grow from its bitter lessons. Will skill prevail or will the club’s shortcomings—inexperience, shots allowed, inconsistency—be Colorado’s undoing?
4. St. Louis Blues
Is center Paul Stastny worthy of the label as best off-season free agent? We won’t really find out until next spring when the Blues try to make up for their fold against the Blackhawks in the playoffs last season and their history of mediocre post-season performances. His loss will surely hurt the division rival Avalanche, though. The Blues’ already have a strong, young defense, but how will Stastny’s production lift the Blues?
5. San Jose Sharks
Will the decision to remove the C and A designations from the chest of their long-time stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau fire up the Sharks or merely lead to destructive discontent? Thornton is a future Hall-of-Famer, but he hasn’t been able to win a championship in the NHL. Will this slap in the face help or hurt the Sharks chances as the club moves forward?
6. Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s hard to keep it to one question with the Penguins. After clashing with ex-coach Dan Bylsma, will Sidney Crosby find a good fit with Mike Johnston? Sure Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are as devastating a one-two punch as any pair in the league, but who will give the two Penguins stars enough support to match up with some of the more balanced teams in the Eastern Conference? Pittsburgh’s dynamic duo has won a Stanley Cup, but is this generation of Penguins due for a major revamp or are they due for more?
7. Chicago Blackhawks
Can Brad Richards keep up? Sure the veteran center, obtained as a free agent at a team-friendly price during the summer, brings savvy and a still good amount of skill to a club that didn't lose much during the off-season, but based on his tenure in New York, Richards, 34, seems to need a spot on the top two lines to be at his most productive. In Chicago, that will probably mean playing next to Patrick Kane, a talented speedster with a gear Richards doesn’t have. Can Richards find a good fit with Chicago’s front-line players?
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
Sure the Lightning can look forward to having a healthy Steven Stamkos this season, but will the supplemental parts that GM Steve Yzerman picked up during the off-season be enough to turn the 2014-15 Lightning into the 2013-14 Rangers? Will Tampa Bay’s role players such as defensemen Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman and forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow do for Tampa Bay what Boyle and Stralman did for New York in puushing the Rangers through the Eastern Conference last spring?
9. Montreal Canadiens
Alex Galchenyuk has been good during his first two seasons, but can he now be great? The 20-year-old forward has put up a respectable 58 points in 113 games, mostly as a teenager. With another year of seasoning under his belt, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft could soon become the brightest Canadiens scorer since, well, if not Guy Lafleur then perhaps Pierre Turgeon or Vincent Damphousse. Montreal already took a step forward last spring by sweeping the Lightning and knocking off archrival Boston in seven games. Can it now take the next one?
10. Los Angeles Kings
Will the Kings suffer a Stanley Cup hangover? They were only one more bad game against San Jose away from failing to win even once during the postseason last spring. One more bad bounce and the Kings could have ended up watching the Blackhawks knock off the Rangers for the Cup, The Kings are not generally a great regular-season team, but will coach Darryl Sutter’s bunch position itself to make a long run in the playoffs again?
11. Minnesota Wild
Who will be the Wild’s ace goaltender as the season moves along? Granted, Minnesota made significant strides last season, especially after a first-round upset of Colorado, but the club is very uncertain in goal. Josh Harding posted some fantastic numbers in half a season (1.65 GAA, .933 save pct.) before his bout with MS shelved him. Darcy Kuemper and quirky veteran Ilya Bryzgalov had strong stints as the No. 1 in Harding’s absence, but Bryzgalov failed to catch on after a PTO camp invite. Can Nick Backstrom solve anything for the Wild now that Harding is out with a fractured right foot?
12. New York Rangers
Where is Rick Nash? The big forward was a star in Columbus, but at times he has seemed like an ill fit in the bright lights of Broadway. With scoring forward Derek Stepan (broken leg) down for the start of the season, production from Nash, a five-time 30-goal scorer with his former team, will be even more important. It wasn’t as if Nash wasn’t getting shots on goal during the playoffs, but he managed just three goals in 25 games. Will he find his old form?
13. Philadelphia Flyers
Who picks up the slack for Kimmo Timonen? Already among the league weaker defensive teams, the Flyers got some horrible news during the off-season: The steady blueliner is suffering from blood clots in his legs and lungs. If he is out for a long time, the club that endured the loss of Chris Pronger a few seasons ago will again be without its best defenseman. Free agent Michael Del Zotto could help, but veterans Braydon Coburn, Mark Streit and Luke Schenn will be pressed to make up the difference.
14. Columbus Blue Jackets
After a bitter negotiation and very public holdout, the Blue Jackets finally have forward Ryan Johansen in the fold for the next three years at $12 million. Of course there will be questions about whether the 22-year old can be the franchise player that his agent made him out to be, but beyond that, Columbus is young club trying to learn to win as a group. How will Johansen’s holdout play with the rest of the team as it tries to advance to the elite level? With injuries to Boone Jenner (broken hand) and Nathan Horton (back), can Johansen shake off the rust after his delayed training camp and lift his team through a stretch of being undermanned, as a leader should?
15. Detroit Red Wings
Can the Red Wings stay out of the hospital? The answer to that question may determine whether Detroit will be back in the playoffs again for the 24th time. Cornerstone veterans Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were among the wounded at the end of last season and there is no question that even with some new blood such as Gustav Nyqvist, the Wings are showing their age in some circles. Should Detroit try to stay competitive until the end or, if the Wings do struggle, is this the year that GM Ken Holland decides to use some of his assets to build for the future?
16. Dallas Stars
What does Jason Spezza have left? The Stars are hoping that the answer is plenty. This Dallas team is without a lot of frontline scoring and the former Ottawa captain could just add some life to a group that includes Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and not many big names. Yes forward Valeri Nichushkin is on the way up, but even if Spezza can produce for a year before his UFA kicks in, it would be a buffer season for a team that is trying to get better. Is that realistic?
17. Washington Capitals
After 15 years of coaching in Nashville, where he didn’t have a superstar forward to mold into a team player and leader, new coach Barry Trotz has perhaps the ultimate assignment in trying to sway Alex Ovechkin into playing the style the bench boss wants. Trotz is defensive minded and generally considered to be a players’ coach, but Ovechkin can be a tough ticket. He scored 51 goals last season, but was still -35. With new backliners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, the Caps should be better on the backline, but can Trotz mesh with such a headstrong personality as Ovechkin and turn Washington into a winner again?
18. Phoenix Coyotes
Will the Coyotes’ top defensemen get the love they deserve? It will probably take a playoff berth, if not a good playoff run, for the casual fan to give Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle their due. Phoenix has two gems on the backline, but if a tree falls in Arizona, the hockey world rarely hears it.
19. Nashville Predators
Is this the season that Shea Weber wins the Norris Trophy? Weber may be the scariest defenseman to try to beat one-on-one. He also possesses the league’s toughest shot this side of Zdeno Chara. Since Chris Pronger won the award in 1999-2000, Chara has really been the only intimidator to win a trophy that has increasingly gone to defensemen who are better known for their skill. There isn’t a lot to watch at Predators games on some nights, but Weber’s dynamic play is worth it.
20. New Jersey Devils
Can the Devils be better at even strength? This is where a team’s depth, especially center depth, comes into play. Last year, New Jersey ranked 29th in the league in five-on-five play. The special teams were fine. The Devils topped the NHL in penalty killing and were ninth on the power play. New forwards Martin Havlat and Mike Cammalleri should give New Jersey an extra pop or two. Forward Adam Henrique is getting better each year, and ageless Jaromir Jagr still amazes. But the club’s depth will be put to the test when nobody is in the box.
21. Ottawa Senators
Can goaltender Craig Anderson have a bounce-back season? The Senators won’t be scoring a ton of goals. Anderson’s goals-against average ballooned to 3.00 last season, which was still a notch better than backup Robin Lehner. In 2012-13, Anderson put up a super 1.69 GAA in 24 games. The Senators gave up 257 goals last season, more than just three other non-playoff teams, and their poor goalie play had a lot to do with that. Will it be better this year?
22. Winnipeg Jets
Will the Jets be done before they really begin? Poor starts have been the undoing of Winnipeg’s team for the past few years. During the past three seasons, the Jets have not managed to win more than six of their first 15 contests, leaving them with an early deficit that ultimately sunk them. This season, Winnipeg will play a road-heavy schedule early and must give that roaring home crowd something to cheer about once the Jets return to MTS Centre.
23. Toronto Maple Leafs
Will Randy Carlyle survive the autumn? No franchise is crying for a winner more than the Maple Leafs, but after a playoff collapse in 2013 and a bad fold at the end of the regular season in 2014, the knives will be out for Toronto’s coach if the club doesn’t show some life early in the season. New boss Brendan Shanahan will be under some pressure to remove Carlyle if the team doesn’t respond. Will it?
24. Carolina Hurricanes
What can the Hurricanes expect from Jiri Tlusty? The Czech winger seemed primed for a breakout campaign after posting 38 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Then he slumped to just 30 in 68 games last year. Will new coach Bill Peters keep Tlusty on a line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin for most of the season or try a new wrinkle? The Hurricanes won’t score much this season, so they’ll need all the help they can get.
25. Vancouver Canucks
Can Ryan Miller turn a fading team that still has some talent into a winner? During all his years in Buffalo, it was hard to know for sure if Miller was truly elite, because he was rarely supported by consistently strong talent. His tenure in St. Louis as a rent-a-player was too small a sample size. Now, Miller gets a chance to revitalize a team that has clearly been headed in the wrong direction since its seventh-game loss to the Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Will he turn the Canucks around?
26. New York Islanders
Can the Islanders turn the recent acquisitions of defensemen Johnny Boychuk from Boston and Nick Leddy from Chicago into a playoff appearance? Give the Isles credit for picking up two backliners with some Stanley Cup experience. The pair should play greater roles on the Island than they did in their previous cities, and the return of a healthy John Tavares could give New York a nice springboard into the 2015-16 season, when the club will move into a new arena in Brooklyn.
27. Calgary Flames
Can Jonas Hiller remind anyone of Miikka Kiprusoff? The Flames haven’t had much to cheer about since Jarome Iginla left town and Kiprusoff retired. They lost some of the goal-scoring pop that they actually had when Mike Cammalleri became a free agent and left for New Jersey during the summer. So it will be up to Hiller, who shared the top role in Anaheim during the past couple of seasons, to keep pucks out of the net while Calgary’s promising kids Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sam Bennett mature and blossom.
28. Edmonton Oilers
Will the Oilers warm to the Swarm again? Not likely. Coach Dallas Eakins’ so-called swarm defense didn’t work last season. The Oilers gave up 270 goals, more than any team in the league, and no newfangled means of keeping the puck out of their net could overcome their weak defense and poor goaltending. After some keen luck in draft lotteries, the Oilers are blessed with a fine group of young forwards. Free agent pick-ups Keith Aulie and Mark Fayne could help the backline, but will another year of experience help Edmonton learn from recent mistakes?
29. Florida Panthers
Can defenseman Aaron Ekblad make that much of a difference? Sure, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft is a likely NHL star, but is it too soon to expect the 18-year old to help a team that needs it as much as the Panthers? It’s better now just to give him time. Even though he’s already listed at 6’-3”, 216 pounds, Ekblad is still growing into his body, and forecheckers in the NHL will test him much more than he was tested as a Barrie Colt. Still, what will we see from this star-to-be in 2014-15?
30. Buffalo Sabres
Will we see Sam Reinhart this season? Yes, it tells you a lot about the Sabres when the player you want to see might not even be ready for the NHL until next year. Reinhart is a keeper for the future, if not the present. The No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft amassed 105 points in 65 games with Kootenay of the Western Hockey League last season. He comes from a hockey family—his dad Paul was an 11-year NHL veteran and his three brothers are also NHL draftees—and there is little doubt this skilled forward will contribute to the Sabres. The question is: When will he do it?