Training camp preview: Eastern Conference
As NHL training camps open this week, here are the questions facing the Eastern Conference. Check back Tuesday for our look at the West:
New Jersey Devils: For the third straight post-lockout season, critics will be busily predicting the demise of the Devils. And, as the Devils continue to hemorrhage cornerstone players, why not? This summer saw the departure of veteran puck-moving defenseman Brian Rafalski and slick center Scott Gomez. Yet GM and master of the Devils' domain Lou Lamoriello always finds ways to plug holes -- no matter how gaping. So, into the breach come Vitaly Vishnevski and Dainius Zubrus, not to mention highly coveted coach Brent Sutter. But, at some point, the toll of losing players such as Gomez, Rafalski, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer since the lockout is going to catch up to the Devils. Well, isn't it?
• Can fans find their way to the Devils' new home in Newark?
• Will the team's extended road trip (nine games) to start the season find the Devils in an early hole in an Atlantic Division that figures to be more competitive this season?
• How much action will Weekes see in relief of incomparable netminder Martin Brodeur, and will those games be enough to keep Brodeur fresh for the playoffs?
• Can defenseman Paul Martin, one of the game's more cerebral players, take another step forward in terms of leadership on and off the ice after signing a three-year deal late in the summer?
• Can Sutter make the jump from top-level junior coach to successful NHL bench boss?
New York Rangers: No team made a bigger splash in the free-agent market than the Rangers. And having added twin centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, expectations are higher for the Rangers than at any time since their 1994 Stanley Cup win. Drury and Gomez have three Stanley Cup rings between them and give the team terrific depth down the middle. With Brendan Shanahan (29 goals in his first season on Broadway) back, the Rangers should boast two dangerous forward lines to complement sterling goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, who was 37-22-8 in his sophomore season in the Rangers nets.
Dearly departed: Michael Nylander, Matt Cullen, Kevin Weekes, Jed Ortmeyer.
Joyously welcomed: Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Andrew Hutchinson.
• So, which of Gomez or Drury gets the job of making magic with Jagr?
• Is this no-name defense strong enough to win a Stanley Cup?
• With Weekes gone, does highly touted goaltending prospect Al Montoya get a chance to strut his stuff on the big stage?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Pittsburgh has gone from a work in progress to Stanley Cup contender in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, this kind of rapid acceleration of expectation can be difficult for a young team to absorb, but Penguins GM Ray Shero has done an astute job of surrounding his enviable collection of burgeoning stars (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal) with a cadre of savvy veterans, including Gary Roberts, who came over at the trade deadline and will stick around for at least one more season. Defenseman Darryl Sydor, who won Cups in Dallas and Tampa Bay, will be a steadying influence along a blue line that is the team's most obvious weakness.
• So, what does Crosby, the league's first teenage scoring champion, do in Year 3?
• How does Malkin follow up his rookie-of-the-year campaign?
• Will there be a step back for Staal, who showed a maturity well beyond his 18 years last season?
• Now that veteran backup goalie Thibault has shuffled off to Buffalo, is there enough support in the form of Sabourin or Conklin behind Marc-Andre Fleury?
• How does playing with Stanley Cup expectations change the dynamic in the Penguins' dressing room?
Philadelphia Flyers: Looking for a rags-to-riches story for the coming season? Look no further than the Flyers, who tumbled out of the NHL's penthouse in precipitous fashion a year ago, finishing dead last in the standings. GM Paul Holmgren wasted no time in making things right in Philly, adding top free-agent center Daniel Briere and nabbing Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell from the cash-strapped Predators. Holmgren then swapped enigmatic young Finnish defender Joni Pitkanen for Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith out of Edmonton. In all, the Flyers appear to have built themselves back into a team that should challenge for the Atlantic Division crown and more.
• Can Lupul, who had a disappointing 16-goal campaign last season in Edmonton, harness the talent that saw him score 28 goals two seasons ago in Anaheim?
• Is Martin Biron the long-sought answer to the goaltending question in Philadelphia?
• What's next for super prospects Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who have developed more slowly than anticipated?
• The Flyers are huge along the blue line, but is there anyone outside Timonen who can move the puck at an NHL level?
New York Islanders: The Islanders went from the butt of many hockey jokes at training camp a year ago to one of the Cinderella teams of the season. The Isles, left for dead more than a few times in the regular season, snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season -- by shootout, no less. The surge to the playoffs was a testament to the coaching prowess of Ted Nolan and the work ethic displayed by a group of players not normally known for getting their collective noses dirty. Now, Nolan will have a brand-new lineup to work with this season, although the same question marks will exist.
Dearly departed: Jason Blake, Alexei Yashin, Tom Poti, Sean Hill, Ryan Smyth, Richard Zednik, Viktor Kozlov.
Joyously welcomed: Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko, Andy Sutton, Josef Vasicek, Jon Sim, Sean Bergenheim (again).
• Does buying former captain Yashin out of his whopper contract qualify as addition through subtraction?
• Do the Islanders get the Bill Guerin who scored 36 times in the regular season or the one who failed to score at all in the playoffs for San Jose?
• Does Sutton become Nolan's next reclamation project on the back end, a la Poti?
• What are the chances Comrie can coax friend Hilary Duff anywhere near Nassau Coliseum?
Ottawa Senators: The Senators will return basically the same core of players that carried the team to its first Stanley Cup appearance this past June. There will continue to be some questions about scoring balance up front unless GM Bryan Murray can add another experienced scorer, but the defensive corps is as solid as any in the conference. One would expect that John Paddock's ascension from assistant coach to head coach will be a seamless one after Murray moved into the GM's seat. Still, Paddock will have to prove he's still got it as he returns to the head coaching ranks for the first time since 1995, when he was the Winnipeg Jets' bench boss.
• Can Murray move backup netminder Martin Gerber and his bloated $3.7 million salary to open up the possibility of signing another forward like, say, Peter Forsberg?
• Will defenseman Wade Redden spend the entire season being the subject of every trade rumor to hit the Internet, or will he sign a long-term deal with the Sens and stave off impending unrestricted free agency?
• Will the Senators lock up potential unrestricted free agent Dany Heatley and potential restricted free agent Jason Spezza before the end of the regular season?
• How do the Senators avoid the kind of post-Stanley Cup finals hangover that afflicted the Edmonton Oilers a year ago?
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres were the NHL's best regular-season team last season and were hopeful the franchise's first Stanley Cup was in the offing. But the team fell in the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year, then was rocked this offseason by the departure of co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere via free agency. That was followed by the Oilers' presenting emerging offensive star Thomas Vanek with a $50 million offer sheet. The Sabres immediately matched the offer, but it was far more, far sooner, than the Sabres had bargained on paying. Still, all is not lost. The management team of GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff returns, and those two still have at their disposal a wealth of emerging young talent, from defensemen Nathan Paetsch and Brian Campbell to forwards Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville.
• In a dressing room still chock-a-block with talent and potential, who steps forward to assume the leadership void created by the departure of Drury and Briere?
• How will Vanek bear up under the pressure that will accompany his new lofty contract?
• Was Maxim Afinogenov's 61 points in 56 games and plus-19 showing a mirage?
Will the Sabres really do everything in their power to make the Oilers pay for their dastardly attempt to steal Vanek from the Buffalo fold?
Toronto Maple Leafs: The one constant about the Maple Leafs is the constant electricity of chaos that permeates the organization from the top on down. The Leafs' rebuilding strategy apparently has gone out the window, as GM John Ferguson sacrificed three draft picks -- including the 13th overall selection in this past June's draft -- to bring in a goaltender (Vesa Toskala) who may or may not be starter material. There's been the simmering issue of whether the Leafs will hire a senior "consultant" to either help Ferguson or plot his dismissal (depending on which side of the conspiracy you stand). Then, in mid-August, there was the news that forward Mark Bell, who came in the Toskala trade, would be going to jail for six months at the end of the season. Just a typical offseason in Toronto, where the team has missed the playoffs two seasons in a row and hasn't won a Cup since 1967.
• How does Bell perform in the center of the hockey universe knowing he's headed for a six-month prison term at the end of the season?
• Is Toskala a starter-in-waiting a la Finnish countryman Miikka Kiprusoff, or is he a backup ill-equipped to deal with the pressure of having to deliver in Toronto?
• Will Jason Blake become the winger Mats Sundin never had, or will he add much-needed offensive balance by playing with Kyle Wellwood?
• Speaking of the gifted soon-to-be center, can Wellwood bounce back from hernia surgery and reproduce the magic that made him one of the most entertaining young players in the game?
Montreal Canadiens: There has been a lot of deck-chair shuffling going on over on the good ship Canadiens this summer. Although the Habs appeared to be in the hunt for some of the top-end offensive talent on the free-agent market, none of that talent landed in Montreal. GM Bob Gainey did manage to unload underachieving malcontent Sergei Samsonov, a move that should earn some sort of medal. He also brought in veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik to fill some of the void left by the departure of offensively gifted/defensively challenged Sheldon Souray. But, in all, the Habs seem no better off than they were a season ago, when they couldn't win when they had to, keeping them out of the playoffs.
Dearly departed: Sheldon Souray, Sergei Samsonov, Mike Johnson, David Aebischer, Radek Bonk, Janne Niinimaa, Alexander Perezhogin.
Joyously welcomed: Bryan Smolinski, Roman Hamrlik, Tom Kostopoulos, Patrice Brisebois.
• What new off-ice distractions will talented, enigmatic Alexei Kovalev conjure up to torment Gainey and coach Guy Carbonneau?
• Will netminding phenom Carey Price make his presence felt with the big club?
• Where will the offense come from on a team on which only one forward, captain Saku Koivu, had more than 60 points last season?
• How long until fans in Montreal start the cascade of verbal abuse that first drove defenseman Brisebois from the city?
Boston Bruins: For the second post-lockout season in a row, the Bruins thought they had the right recipe for regular-season success, and, for as many seasons in a row, they saw that recipe turn sour very quickly. Under new GM Peter Chiarelli, the Bruins couldn't find any kind of rhythm under coach Dave Lewis, who was canned shortly after being told he would return to the job. Oh well, things change. In Lewis' place is former Devils and Canadiens bench boss Claude Julien, who was himself unceremoniously dumped by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello with three games left in the regular season. Julien should bring some structure that never seemed to be there under Lewis. Chiarelli hopes he has solved his goaltending problems by acquiring Manny Fernandez, but the team's problems extend far beyond goaltending. It's a long uphill climb for the Bruins.
• Is there anything in the Bruins' dressing room that remotely approaches chemistry?
• Is Fernandez a misunderstood star in waiting or a fragile netminder primed to spontaneously combust on a team that figures to struggle to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth?
• Will defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Marc Savard have more impact on the ice and in the dressing room in Year 2 of their tenure in Boston?
• Where will the scoring depth come from on a team that saw a 51-point gap between the team's top scorer (Savard, 96 points) and its third-leading scorer (Glen Murray, 45 points)?
Atlanta Thrashers: The defending Southeast Division champs let down Southeast fans as they let the division's string of Cup wins end at two. Worse, in their first playoff appearance, the Thrashers laid down to the Rangers in a four-game first-round sweep. Now, the team, which is in the midst of an ugly ownership dispute, faces more questions than it did a season ago, including the mental toughness of goaltending phenom Kari Lehtonen and the leadership qualities of Marian Hossa, who could become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Another division crown could still be in the offing in one of the league's most passive divisions, but the Thrash just as easily could be looking at an early tee time next spring, a possibility that would be devastating to the still-emerging franchise.
• How will goaltending uberprospect Lehtonen respond after flaming out in his first NHL playoff exposure?
• Can GM Don Waddell get Hossa under contract, or will the talented Slovak become the biggest trade bauble before the 2008 trade deadline?
• Is diminutive AHL star Brett Sterling (97 points as an AHL rookie) NHL material?
• What's next for star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who slumped from 98 points two years ago to 76 last season?
Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are in a bit of a rut after their seminal Stanley Cup win in 2004. They squeaked into the playoffs the past two seasons but have been unable to survive the first round. A big part of that failure has been inconsistent goaltending, but cap restraints and the team's internal budget have made it difficult for GM Jay Feaster to upgrade seriously at the position. A new ownership group that includes former Columbus GM Doug MacLean suggests it's willing to spend to get the Bolts back on the Cup track. Time will tell. As for roster moves, everything old is new again as former Lightning players Chris Gratton and Brad Lukowich were reacquired in the offseason.
• Can coach John Tortorella get all four of his superstars -- Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle -- firing on all cylinders as they did during the team's Cup run in 2004?
• Speaking of Boyle, can Feaster lock him up before the slick puck-moving defenseman becomes the most sought-after defenseman on the free-agent market next summer?
• How does the goaltending triangle of Johan Holmqvist, Karri Ramo and Marc Denis resolve itself, given that Tortorella essentially threw Denis under the Bolts' bus before the playoffs?
• When does MacLean make his first appearance in the Lightning dressing room to blast his players for a subpar effort, as he regularly did in Columbus?
Carolina Hurricanes: OK, so there is a Stanley Cup hangover after all. A few scant months after winning the first post-lockout Stanley Cup, the Hurricanes dropped off the playoff map completely. They didn't miss by much (four points), so the Canes won't have far to go to get back in the postseason, especially in the weirdly mediocre Southeast Division. GM Jim Rutherford had a quiet offseason, but he did return popular forward Matt Cullen, who should help the Hurricanes' power play. Rutherford is hoping Eric Staal and Cam Ward, both of whom struggled at times last season, will resume their star arc. Having Cory Stillman around for the whole season and a healthy Erik Cole also will prove a boon. The defense isn't getting any younger, but it's still solid.
• Can Staal get back to the 100-point plateau after seeing his production drop by 30 points last season?
• Will Stillman, a Cup-winning machine, return to form after shoulder surgery limited him to 43 games and 27 points in 2006-07?
• Is Ward, the playoff MVP of the 2006 playoffs, ready to take another step forward in his development?
• What do they really put in the BBQ sauce in the Hurricanes' pregame press meal?
Washington Capitals: After wandering around the NHL wilderness for the past couple of years, the Capitals appear ready to come in from the cold. With top prospect Nicklas Backstrom set to join rising young stars Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, the Caps' youth movement is in full swing. But this offseason, GM George McPhee added some solid veteran talent to help those youngsters move forward in their evolution. Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and Michael Nylander will be asked to shoulder a significant load as the Caps hope to bounce back into the playoff picture for the first time since 2003.
• Just how good can Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in 2006, be?
• Can Nylander, who was seen as crucial to Jaromir Jagr's success in New York the past two seasons, work his magic with Ovechkin and/or Semin?
• Can coach Glen Hanlon get the same production out of enigmatic Kozlov (a career-best 25 goals) that Ted Nolan pried out of the big Russian on Long Island?
• How the heck did captain Chris Clark manage to score 30 goals, and can he do it again after signing a long-term deal?
• If the Caps are in the playoff hunt, can Brent Johnson provide the necessary relief to ageless Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig?
Florida Panthers: Every preseason, hockey experts look at the Panthers' roster and go, "Hmm, maybe this is the year." This preseason is no different. There are enough interesting baubles in South Florida to warrant such pondering -- emerging Nathan Horton, emerging Jay Bouwmeester, often peerless Tomas Vokoun, fiery Olli Jokinen -- and to make the eyebrows arch quizzically. But the Panthers are past masters of the tease, annually following up promise and hope with the uneven and inconsistent. Credit GM and coach Jacques Martin for locking up youngsters Horton, Stephen Weiss and Bryan Allen to long-term deals this summer; but he'd better get his team into the postseason or he won't need to worry about handling both coaching and GM duties.
• Can Vokoun return to the form that saw him go 63-30-11 for Nashville since the lockout, or will the thumb injury that hampered him down the stretch last season continue to be a problem?
• What's next for Horton, the third overall pick in 2003 who has 59 goals the past two seasons?
• Is this the season injury-prone Weiss breaks through?
• Can Martin continue to balance coaching and GM duties?
• Will the Panthers continue to make a mockery of attendance figures by giving tickets away to anyone who comes within a 20-mile radius of their rink?
• Who's going to provide entertainment at team outings now that Belfour has shuffled off to Sweden?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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