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.
Yesterday we visited the Eastern Conference. Here are the essential questions for each team in the west and some post-lockout thoughts after that:
Chicago Blackhawks -- They've got a bizarre schedule, need to fix their anemic power play, have seen declining production from Patrick Kane, and there's a hole where a strong second line center should be (latest plan: moving Dave Bolland, a perfect guy in the three hole). But solving these problems won't matter if Chicago continues to get leaky goaltending. Can Corey Crawford and Ray Emery be the stoppers they'll need to be to give the Hawks a chance to return to the top?
Columbus Blue Jackets -- It can't get worse, right? It could be a while before a rebuild bears fruit, so the big question is this: How much will the trade of Rick Nash for Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Tim Erixon, the hopeful signs from Derick Brassard last season, the additions forward Nick Foligno and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (is he a top goalie?), plus the hiring of John Davidson to orchestrate a turnaround, accomplish in the near term to provide hope and win back a disaffected fan base?
Detroit Red Wings -- Their top forwards aren't getting any younger and, other than Gustav Nyquist, their young prospects may not be capable of replacing them. Stopgaps like Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo were brought in, but there are expectations that GM Ken Holland will make some personnel moves to upgrade his club. Until then, the biggest question the Red Wings face is: how in the world will they get along without Nick Lidstrom? The elite defenseman/captain and everything he brought to this team cannot be easily replaced by one player. To compound the problem, the Wings also lost veteran blueliner Brad Stuart as a UFA. Brendan Smith may well become a bona fide top defenseman one day, but unless he rapidly accelerates his development, the Wings will have some questions on their blue line.
Nashville Predators -- Built around a solid defense corps, the Predators now must face life without half of the best tandem in the game, Ryan Suter. (They almost lost the other half, captain Shea Weber, and had to pay massively to match Philadelphia's offer sheet,) No single defender can replace Suter, so Coach Barry Trotz plans using different d-men -- Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Scott Hannan -- alongside Weber, depending on the situation. How well will that work? That's a major issue for the Preds. A larger, trickier question concerns Weber signing the Flyers' offer sheet, indicating that he might have thought another club offered a better chance to win the Cup. Has his ability and desire to lead Nashville been compromised? That's one only he and his teammates can answer.
St. Louis Blues -- If the abbreviated season will favor clubs that have made the fewest changes, count the Blues in that group. With Coach of the Year Ken Hitchcock having already guided the team's turnaround, they could be set for the next step, real playoff success. First, however, they're going to need to score more goals and improve their power play. Where will those tallies come from? A full season of David Perron, now free of concussion symptoms, and rookie Vladimir Tarasenko (who has been centering Andy McDonald and Alex Steen in camp), could be the answer. The goalie tandem of Jaro Halak and Brian Elliott must continue to make the stops, but Hitchcock's insistence on responsible defending should keep their stats sharp.
Calgary Flames -- They have a new coach in Bob Hartley (can he get them into the postseason?), but the same question that has plagued this club for years won't go away: Who's the first line center? Roman Cervenka? (Not at least until he's healthy.) Mikael Backlund? (Finally?). Alex Tanguay or Mike Cammalleri (veterans converted from the wing) have all been suggested and/or tried. It's hard to expect the Flames to be a playoff contender unless this question gets answered with an exclamation point. And let's not forget 35-year-old captain Jarome Iginla, the top winger who is lacking that top center, is in the final year of his contract. What will the Flames do with him?
Colorado Avalanche -- Cutting down on their goals-against last season was a positive, as were strong campaigns from young Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly. This is a team with a lot of young, developing talent and the addition of P.A. Parenteau should help them put up better offensive numbers, but with the contract status of O'Reilly (their top center and leading scorer) still cloudy, will Landeskog be overburdened if Paul Stastny and, especially, Matt Duchene don't rebound to their former productive heights?
Edmonton Oilers -- They hope a healthy Ryan Whitney and the addition of rugged (but not especially mobile) Mark Fistric will give them a bit more on the blueline, but will that be enough to correct what has been the Oilers' organizational weakness for a while -- a defense corps that isn't close to being as effective shutting down opponents as their excellent group of young forwards is at putting their puck skills on display? And can goalie Devan Dubnyk find the consistency, if not the excellence, he'll need to make up for their defensive deficiencies?
Minnesota Wild -- It's a new day in the State of Hockey, where the NHL club was 30th in scoring last season. While offense has been a chronic problem for the Wild, a looking at their current depth chart reveals an impressive and deep group of forwards. But the team now lacks experience and depth among its defenders. Will this become the Wild's Achilles heel and torpedo their chances of making the kind of splash once the puck drops that they made during the offseason? Adding Zach Parise and Ryan Suter via massive UFA contracts puts this team in the spotlight and makes them something of a glamor club for the first time in franchise history. They should be fun to watch, but there are likely elevated expectations from fans, management and ownership, and should the team fall short, the repercussions may not be pretty.
Vancouver Canucks -- One of the West's strongboys, the Canucks on paper have much of what it takes to go far. But they start the season with a big question about the health of their good second line with center Ryan Kesler and winger David Booth both injured, at least to start the campaign. GM Mike Gillis has a big card to play thanks to his depth in goal (as long as Cory Schneider proves that he can handle the workload) and Roberto Luongo is believed to have a ticket to ride if the right deal comes up and he waives his no-trade clause for it. Will that happen? It's a big question for the Canucks and every team looking for a goalie.
Anaheim Ducks -- The top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan must rebound (the Ducks face big decisions on pending UFA's Getzlaf and Perry; plus Ryan has been subject of trade rumors forever), but to move up in the West, this team needs to cut its goals-against. Can they do that with a softish blueline corps that lost rugged Sheldon Brookbank, and features a declining Francois Beauchemin, offensively-minded Sheldon Souray, young Cam Fowler (a team-worst minus-28 last season), and a coach in Bruce Boudreau who has never been known for his defensive orientation? Additionally, after Getzlaf and Saku Koivu, this club is very thin at center. Is that something they can address?
Dallas Stars -- They've rebuilt their core up front to include graybeard Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney (how much do they have left?) plus Derek Roy, certainly designed to jolt the league's worst power play. Will the lack of training camp and the short season allow them to develop the necessary chemistry? They need to sign Jamie Benn to get the most out of their offense. But, perhaps most importantly, can their nondescript defense corps led by sub-6-footers Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas (and now minus Mark Fistric) give them enough stopping power to contend for a playoff spot and give standout goalie Kari Lehtonen a chance to shine again while preventing him from wearing down?
Los Angeles Kings -- Can they recapture all the magic of last spring and repeat as Stanley Cup champions? Consecutive Cups are now almost impossible and it starts in goal where Jonathan Quick had off-season back surgery and he'll have to be fully recovered and flexible to be at his best. If he's not, can Jonathan Bernier do the job? It also won't help that injuries to top center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Willie Mitchell might delay their starting the season. But the good news is that the Kings are bringing back virtually their entire roster from the championship run and have a coach in Darryl Sutter whose meat-and-potatoes approach to the game won't be impaired by the lack of prep time for the shortened season.
Phoenix Coyotes -- We've long marveled at this team's ability to block out the ongoing distraction of the uncertain state of their franchise, which could finally be coming to an end (although we've heard that before). On the ice, will the Coyotes improve on their best season since moving to Arizona? A tough foe who gives opponents very little with their diligent team defense, the big question remains, as it always does: can they find enough offense? Finishing 17th in NHL scoring (only two playoff teams finished lower), they are no better off having lost their top scorer, Ray Whitney, to Dallas via free agency and are admittedly short on skill at forward. They generate a fair amount from their blueline thanks to Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Thin at center, GM Don Maloney reacquired Matthew Lombardi this week and, if he stays healthy, he provides good speed and passing. With scoring a question, goalie Mike Smith must repeat his excellence of last year. Can he?
San Jose Sharks -- Is this a team in decline? The Sharks didn't breeze into the postseason last year and were out again in the first round. An important part of their core -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle -- are a year older and there's a sense that the window of opportunity for this group won't be open much longer. The immediate question, however, is the health and depth of the defense corps, with Brent Burns, Jason Demers and Justin Braun all nursing injuries and it looks as if the first two, at least, won't start the season. Their awful penalty killing last year must improve, and getting defenseman Mark Stuart back should help there. But perhaps most importantly, goalie Antti Niemi needs to be more consistent and if he's not, coach Todd McLellan will make the switch. So can Thomas Greiss carry the Sharks?
And finally, some questions about the NHL, its players and fans.
With the lockout ended, we've seen some impressive signs that the fans not only missed the game, but can't wait to support it again. There were a few thousand empty seats at the Bell Centre in Montreal Thursday night for the free intersquad game which seemed odd, but may mean nothing: 17,000 still showed up on a bitter cold night. Regardless, those empty seats at these kind of freebies seem to be an exception, at least in some of the more traditional markets. This speaks to how great the sport is, how good a job the teams, the league and the players have done in recent years to build an entertaining and thrilling product. Clearly, many current fans missed the NHL during the lockout and don't bear grudges over what some called the shabby treatment fans got as the owners and players settled their differences. Will there be more outward, widespread signs of dissatisfaction once the season starts, especially in some of the non-traditional markets? We'll have to see, but not too many are evident yet. Things may not be as bad as was feared in the dark days of November and December.
And, it was especially heartening to see how the league and the PA were able to resolve the "compliance buy-out" issue brought about when Scott Gomez and Wade Redden were told to go home and not play. A settlement was reached quickly. Does that indicate that we may soon have a better working relationship between labor and management in the NHL? Let's hope so. No one wants any more lockout drama or 48-game seasons.