Last season: Third in NHL
• Do they have enough experience on their blue line to make a Stanley Cup run? Frederik Andersen isn’t among the league’s elite goaltenders, but he’s good enough to keep the Ducks in most games. Recent Cup winners have proved that you can overcome having a better than average goaloe if the team around him is strong enough to overcome it. The will be relying on Sami Vatanen (37 points), Cam Fowler (34 points), and Hampus Lindholm (31 points) to play significant roles on defense. Each is under 25 years old. While the addition of Kevin Bieksa should help, he hasn’t scored more than 24 points in a season since he put up 44 in 2011-2012. Then again, his true value lies in his edgy physicality.
Last season: 29th in NHL
• Can Mike Smith remember how to stop pucks? He’s coming off his worst season since joining Arizona in 2011-12 when the Coyotes lost the Western Conference Finals.
• Is Klas Dahlbeck part of their defensive future? He has good size (6' 2", 190) but only 23 NHL games of experience. This is a big season for the young defenseman.
Last season: 17th in NHL
• Is their blue line good enough? The Bruins have been known for having a strong defense since their run to the Cup in 2011. That’s no longer the case. Zdeno Chara is still a very good defenseman despite being 38 years old. Torey Krug has had success in a sheltered role. Matt Irwin could be a diamond in the rough. But outside of Chara, the B’s lack elite talent. They had Dougie Hamilton and Johnny Boychuk two years ago, but they were both shipped out due to cap constraints and other issues. With Dennis Seidenberg (back injury) out for roughly eight weeks and Chara potentially having durability issues, can Irwin and Krug step up?
Last season: 30th in NHL
• Is Jack Eichel the best rookie on the team? He has had plenty of hype, but Sam Reinhart made the Sabres roster as well. Reinhart had an excellent camp and looks like he can carry his production into the regular season ... and like he’s playing angry.
• Is Robin Lehner worth the first-round pick Buffalo paid for him? Between his backup role in Ottawa and his injuries, he hasn’t played in more than 36 games in any of his five seasons. And Buffalo’s shaky defense likely won't help him look good. That will mostly be up to him.
• How good can Rasmus Ristolainen be? After a strong rookie season, the big Finnish defenseman gets his first chance on an NHL team with expectations of improving.
Last season: 16th in NHL
• Did the they make enough improvements to fix their possession woes of last season? Despite making a playoff run for the ages, they finished the regular season 28th in the NHL in Corsi For % at even strength. To fix that, they traded for Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and signed former Jets wing Michael Frolik. Both are noted for being good possession players. Combined with Johnny Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan, T.J. Brodie (out the first 3-6 weeks with a broken hand) and Mark Giordano, the Flames certainly have a ton of talent for Jack Adams winner Bob Hartley to utilize.
Last season: 26th in NHL
• Will their young centers give them needed offensive spark? Eric Staal anchors the top line, but Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm can make Carolina dangerous down the middle. The better the centers are, the more the Canes can get out of wingers not named Jeff Skinner or Nathan Gerbe.
• Can Jordan Staal bounce back after a year of injuries? Limited by a fractured fibula to 46 games, Carolina needs him as the possession monster he can be. Even an average season from him will make the Hurricanes deeper and better.
• How long before Eddie Lack takes the crease? Cam Ward had respectable numbers (22-24-5, 2.40 GAA, .910 save pct.) on a bad team last season, but Lack was brought in to compete for the top spot. Ward is on a short leash to start the season and may likely end up as trade bait.
Last season: Seventh in NHL, Stanley Cup champions
• How much will the changes made during the off-season affect this team? The Blackhawks will look quite different than they did back in June when they won their third Stanley Cup in the past six seasons. They will be sans Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, and Brandon Saad(among others). The long-term status of star forward Patrick Kane is still up in the air due to allegations of sexual assault. However, as long as they have Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa, the Blackhawks can’t be counted out.
Last season: 21st in NHL
• If Jarome Iginla leads them in scoring, does that mean the Avalanche are good? That formula didn’t quite work out that well last season. Iginla still has plenty to give at 38, but the roster is too talented to have him carry the load.
• How do Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko fit in? Both came over from Buffalo in the Ryan O’Reilly trade to fill positions of need. Zadorov slides into the top four and must prove he’s grown off-ice as much as on. He has the talent to be special. Grigorenko has been reunited with head coach Patrick Roy from their days together in juniors. If the perpetually promising Grigorenko can’t get going with Colorado his time in the NHL may be short.
• Speaking of Roy, can he the Avalanche back to the playoffs? His first season ended with an opening-round loss. Last season had too many injuries and slumps for the Avs to make a serious run. Are they actually good or did Roy have beginners luck?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 26th in NHL
• Can their forward group and elite goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky overcome a questionable blue line? Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen, and Brandon Saad should form an elite scoring line. Columbus has the forward depth necessary to make a playoff run if the Jackets stay healthy (which isn’t a given). However, they have an obvious weakness on defense. Jack Johnson and David Savard aren’t top pairing-caliber defensemen, but they are probably the best option. Fedor Tyutin is an expensive, but serviceable, second pairing option, but it is likely that 2012 first round pick Ryan Murray will determine how good this group is. That's a lot to put on the plate of a 21-year-old.
Last season: 19th in the NHL
• Can Kari Lehtonen stop anything? His play was a major factor in last season’s disappointing playoff DNQ. Antti Niemi was brought in to back him up and could take the starting job if Lehtonen doesn’t get straightened out.
• Does the young defense come together? John Klingberg, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Patrick Nemeth all are under 25. Klingberg was a budding star last seasons at both ends of the ice, Nemeth is back from a freak arm injury, and Jokipaaka is entering his second season. Strong performances from all three will likely put the Stars in the playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 12th in NHL
• Is their new young core ready to take the torch from the aging stalwarts? The Red Wings have been led by grizzled veterans Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Niklas Kronwall for most of the past decade. However, each is over 34 years old and beginning to decline. The Wings have a new core of players in Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Dylan Larkin that will be expected to improve steadily. Detroit's success and chances of extending its playoff run to 25 consecutive seasons will largely depend on how ready the kids are to lead.
Last season: 28th in NHL
• Have the Oilers finally figured out their goaltending? Cam Talbot gets his chance in the crease after the Oilers spent the past several seasons bringing in other teams’ backups only to have them not pan out. At least in Edmonton, right Mr. Dubnyk?
• The offense can’t be bottom five in the league again—can it? Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle... and now Connor McDavid. On paper, that's impressive. Keeping the Oilers playing from behind all the time will make it easier to slow down this much talent.
• How well do the new defensemen fit in? Andrej Sekera adds stability and offense from the point. Oscar Klefbom had a strong second half last season. The offense should be fine as will the goaltending. The defense will determine how far Edmonton climbs from the bottom of the league.
Last season: 20th in NHL
• Are the kids ready for the big time? The Panthers have quietly built an impressive core to build their team around. Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Brandon Pirri, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Dmitry Kulikov are all 25 years or younger. Roberto Luongo, Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell, and Jaromir Jagr are all over 30, but still provide valuable leadership both on and off the ice. In a mostly wide open Atlantic Division, the Panthers could be playoff contenders if their young players continue to develop, and 36-year-old Roberto Luongo continues to be solid in net.
Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 18th in NHL
• The Anze Kopitar deal has to get done, right? He's one of the best two-way players in the game and he’s bound to get a contract that pays him top 10 player money. He deserves it. Relating his situation to another high profile contract-in-waiting, Kopitar means more to the Kings than Steven Stamkos does to the Lightning. This must get done.
• Who will produce from the wings? Last season’s top three scorers were centers. Take Marian Gaborik off the team and, with Justin Williams gone, the next highest scoring winger was Dustin Brown with 27 points. Yikes. Here’s looking at you, Tanner Pearson and Kyle Clifford.
• How do newcomers Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff fit in? Lucic must find that 20-goal touch he had in Boston for the Kings to rely less on goalie Jonathan Quick to bail them out. Which Christian Ehrhoff did the Kings sign? He’s solid on good teams but he’s struggled on bad ones, sp Ehrhoff seems to be a product of his environment. Which one shows up if the Kings are in ninth place with two weeks left in the season?
Last season: 11th in NHL
• WillDevan Dubnyk prove that his 2014-2015 season was not a fluke? On January 14th, the then-12th place Wild traded for the Coyotes backup. During the next 40 games, Dubnyk started 39 of them and the Wild went on a 28-9-3 run to make the playoffs. He set career highs in wins (27), save percentage (.936), GAA (1.78) and shutouts (5). Ifcore guys Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Pominville, and Thomas Vanek produce as they should, their young players continue to improve, and Dubnyk proves he’s not a one-year wonder, the Wild could make a Stanley Cup run.
Last season: Second in NHL
• Are the Canadiens balanced enough? Montreal’s lack of scoring and depth was exposed in last spring’s playoffs. The mercurial Alexander Semin was the big signing for the offense. Brian Flynn, Torrey Mitchell, and Devante Smith-Pelly are lower-profile but equally important new players.
• Where will Alex Galchenyuk play? Bounced from center to wing, his production will benefit from a little consistency with his position and linemates. Even though Galchenyuk is only 21, it’s time to give him the added workload down the middle and see what he does with it.
• Will Carey Price regress? Unless your name is Hasek, it’s unheard of to put together the kind of back-to-back seasons that Price is building on. If the offense doesn’t improve and Price slips, the Habs could be in tough to get more than a wild card spot.
Last season: Sixth in NHL
• Will they have a more balanced offense? Last season, Nashville had a phenomenal first forward line of Mike Ribeiro (62 points), Filip Forsberg (63), and Craig Smith (43). That’s a combined 146 points from that one line—40.3% of the total scored by all of the team’s forwards. The Preds absolutely relied too heavily on that one unit. If James Neal can bounce back from his unimpressive 37 point season, and Colin Wilson can build on his 42 point campaign, it will go a long way toward giving Nashville some crucial scoring depth.
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 25th in NHL
• Where is the offense?! Mike Cammalleri scored 27 goals last season, but depth is an issue. The Devils posted the third worst goals-for total in the league and despite the addition of Kyle Palmieri from Anaheim appear headed for another bottom five season.
• Can the defense keep Corey Schneider alive? The Devils allowed their starting goalie to be peppered by more than 30 shots per game last season. Rising star Adam Larsson (he of the shiny new contract) and Damon Severson can anchor the back-end for years. Both are young and growing into the position, particularly Severson. The Devils could use another reliable veteran—captain Bryce Salvador retired and Andy Green is the only defenseman who is older than 29.
• When will Pavel Zacha make the roster? If new head coach John Hynes expects to play a faster, more aggressive game, Zacha is a must eventually. The Devils won't make the playoffs, so a developmental season was a realistic option. Zacha has an NHL body now at 18. His sticking in the NHL for the full season would make the Devils more watchable but they took the safe route by returning him to his junior team in Sarnia.
New York Islanders
Last season: 9th in NHL
• Did they make the right decision in not making major changes during the off-season? The Islanders had a very successful season in 2014-2015 as they made a playoff run and pushed the Capitals to a Game Seven before falling to them in the first round. They have a strong core of forwards led by John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Anders Lee, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Frans Nielsen. Any change was going to be hard to make there. However, the backline could use another reliable veteran and they decided to keep head coach Jack Capuano despite some questionable lineup decisions and a plethora of superior head coaching candidates being available. But all things considered, the Isles should make a return to the playoffs.
New York Rangers
Last season: First in NHL
• How do all the young wingers fit together? Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast, Emerson Etem, Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider are all 25 or under. Replacing the retired Martin St. Louis in last season’s third-ranked offense won’t be an issue.
• How good will this defense be with a full season of Keith Yandle? Solid defensively and able to put up points, Yandle immediately makes the power play more potent. He will get his chances: in 21 regular season games with the Rangers last season, two-thirds of the face-offs taken with him on the ice were in the offensive zone.
• Is this the season the Rangers break through and win the Cup? After their Final loss in 2014 and Eastern Conference Finals defeat last season, the Rangers are younger and faster. This is arguably the best team Henrik Lundqvist has had in front of him during his career, but it may be now or never.
Last season: 13th in NHL
• Who is their number one goaltender? There’s a saying in hockey: “If you have two starting goaltenders, you have none.” This rings true in Ottawa, as head coach Dave Cameron must make a choice between Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond. Do the Senators go with the veteran who has been at worst a slightly above average goalie or the majority of his career? Or do they go with the youngster Hammond, who led the Sens on a Cinderella run to the playoffs with a 20-1-2 record while posting a 1.79 GAA and 94.1 save percentage? Cameron must pick the right one or find a way to get each enough work. If he doesn’t, the Sens could end up with a DNQ come spring.
Last season: 24th in NHL
• Can we agree that goaltending isn’t the problem? The Flyers upgraded by signing Michal Neuvirth to back up Steve Mason. When he wasn't hurt, Mason was sneaky good. Did you know his save percentage was .928 last year? The list of goalies who were better: Carey Price and Devan Dubnyk. Is that who Mason is now or does he regress to his career average? With Neuvirth as insurance do the Flyers defensively challenged Flyers pick up enough points to challenge for a playoff berth?
• What happens to Vincent Lecavalier? Both less productive and injured last season, he is 35 with a cap hit over $4 million. The Flyers are near the cap ceiling and GM Ron Hextall isn’t known for his “wait and see” approach.
Last season: 15th in NHL
• Can Kris Letang stay healthy? The Penguins have a very talented forward group that, if healthy, might be the best in the NHL. However, what will determine their success is their blue line. Since it’s unproven, they'll be asking Letang to carry a heavier load. He’s had health and injury issues, overcoming a stroke in 2013 and multiple concussions in 2014 but his 69 games played last season were his most since 2010-2011 and just three fewer than his combined 72 during his previous two seasons. It’s simple. If he stays healthy, the Pens will contend for the Stanley Cup. Continued health and development by Olli Maatta, who battled cancer last season, will be a big plus.
St. Louis Blues
Last season: Fourth in NHL
•Was basically standing pat the correct move? Despite another early playoff exit after significan regular season success, the only major change made was trading forward T.J. Oshie to Washington for Troy Brouwer and prospect Pheonix Copley. Oshie's lack of playoff production was certainly an issue. However, he wasn't the only one with such issues. You can point to David Backes,& Alex Pietrangelo, and Alexander Steen as well. Brouwer adds versatility and Cup-winning experience. If the Blues can’t at least get past the first round this season, expect huge changes that may include head coach Ken Hitchcock and general manager Doug Armstrong being fired.
San Jose Sharks
Last season: 23rd in NHL
• When does GM Doug Wilson really land on the hot seat? The Sharks’ core had a long run of promising regular seasons only to frustratingly flame out in the playoffs. At least missing the postseason last spring was different than a first round elimination. But that’s not the point. Wilson needs some reliable and productive younger players. Not bickering with Joe Thornton would be a nice improvement, too.
• Which Tomas Hertl will the Sharks get? Will he be the dynamic 25 points-in-31 games rookie of two seasons ago? Or the sophomore-slumping 31 points in a full season edition?
• Who takes over the goaltending job? Alex Stalock seemed the goalie of the future, but that was before Martin Jones arrived. Jones has shown flashes of brilliance as a backup, but how reliable is that sample. He had the Kings defense in front of him. The Sharks are a different animal.
• How will new head coach Peter DeBoer handle this situation? His teams (Devils, Panthers) have made only one playoff appearance during his seven seasons in the NHL.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: Fifth in NHL
• Do the Lightning have a concern in goal? Starter Ben Bishop dealt with that torn groin during the Stanley Cup Final. Groin injuries are delicate matters in goaltenders, and if Bishop goes down again, there'll be no Andrei Vasilevskiy to fall back on, at least for the first two months due to a blood clot. Former Islanders backup Kevin Poulin is now the option.
• How does Jonathan Drouin fit into the potent offense? Will he again be the 13th forward as he was some nights and in the playoffs? Or does he fully display the talent and potential that made him the top pick in the 2013 draft?
• What becomes of the Steven Stamkos contract situation? Hard to believe that it won’t get done. If Stamkos breaks the bank, GM Steve Yzerman will deal with ripples throughout the roster. The Lightning could pay Stamkos, but Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette, Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn are all due for new deals. That’s a lot of talent to risk losing by signing one player. Yzerman will be the most interesting GM to follow as the trade deadline gets close.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 27th in NHL
• Is Nazem Kadri part of their future? Plenty of good forwards are piling up in Toronto’s system while Kadri remains talented but frustrating. This is his make or break season with the Leafs.
• How long before the Dion Phaneuf trade rumors fire up again? With Mike Babcock coaching him, it could be a while. Then again, Toronto figures to finish in the league’s bottom five this season, so it could also be in the early going. Phaneuf won’t be the only Leaf rumored to be on the block.
Last season: Eighth in NHL
• In what direction will the Canucks ;go? After a successful regular season that saw a return to the playoffs, Vancouver had a puzzling off-season to say the least. GM Jim Benning traded Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening and a 2016 2nd round pick for Brandon Sutter, whose career high of 40 points was reached back in 2009-2010. He traded Zach Kassian for Brandon Prust, who hasn't scored over 20 points in a season since 2010-2011. He traded younger (and arguably better) goaltender Eddie Lack and kept declining veteran Ryan Miller. These appear to be “win now” moves if the Canucks believe that Sutter and Prust are upgrades. Are they? Probably not. That means it will be up to kids like Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Jacob Markstrom, Jake Virtanen and Ben Hutton to step up.
Last season: 10th in NHL
• Have they done enough to win the Stanley Cup? With Alex Ovechkin turning 30 earlier this month, the Capitals want to get him a chalice. Their acquisitions of three-time Cup champion Justin Williams and winger T.J. Oshie certainly make the team more talented and most likely better. Youngsters Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are primed for breakout seasons. Braden Holtby is a franchise goaltender who is at his best in the playoffs. This is the most talented team the Caps have had since at least 2009-2010. Barry Trotz has arguably the most talented team that he’s ever coached. However, is it enough to bring Lord Stanley to the nation’s capital?
Last season: 14th in NHL
• How far can the kids carry the Jets? Nine players are age 25 or under, led by Alexander Burmistrov, Jacob Trouba, and Mark Scheifele. Is there enough experience to get this team through a playoff run?
• Can the newcomers pick up where they left off? Both Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers were reborn in Winnipeg after being traded from Buffalo. Carrying that performance through a full season will take pressure off the young players. Speaking of carrying good play over, which Ondrej Pavelec shows up in 2015-16? The career-year goaltender from last season or the “Oh my goodness, he’s still a starter” horror show from 2013-14?
GALLERY: Why Your Team Won’t Win The Stanley Cup