Training camp questions: Eastern Conference
As NHL training camps open up this week, we take a look at where each team stands. First up, our take, and questions, on the Eastern Conference.
New York Islanders: It was another offseason of turmoil on Long Island, where GM Garth Snow figured out halfway through the summer he couldn't get along with coach Ted Nolan and replaced him with successful minor league coach Scott Gordon. The plan is for Gordon to work with Snow in rebuilding the Isles from the ground up. Pardon us if we're a bit skeptical given the chaos that has dominated the team through most of the past 15 years. Still, Gordon will improve his chances immeasurably if he stays on the right side of netminder Rick DiPietro, something Nolan couldn't manage to do. Gone are top-six forwards Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan, replaced nominally by aging forward Doug Weight, who was a healthy scratch in Anaheim. Snow bestowed a whopper five-year, $20.5 million contract on defensively challenged Mark Streit, who should help the Isles' anemic power play.
• Where is the scoring going to come from on an Islanders team that ranked last in goals per game last season?
• Can Kyle Okposo, the team's top-rated offensive prospect, help after a late-season audition in 2007-08?
• Does Weight have anything left in the tank or does he become this season's John LeClair, thrown overboard before the midpoint of the season?
• Do Streit's contributions offensively outweigh his potential minuses defensively?
• Can Gordon reproduce the work ethic that marked the Islanders' play under Nolan?
New York Rangers: The Rangers have dramatically remade themselves after a second straight second-round playoff exit, hoping to get faster and more offensively dangerous while maintaining the team's trademark solid defensive play. Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin were dispatched to Columbus in exchange for talented but enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev and young forward Dan Fritsche. Wade Redden and Markus Naslund were plucked from the free-agent pool at exorbitant salaries that inexplicably include no movement clauses. Redden will be expected to help the Rangers' transition game; Naslund will be expected to help fill the offensive void created by the departures of Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka.
• Is this the season the Rangers get it right and head back to the Cup finals for the first time since 1994?
• Can Naslund find some of the magic that made him one of the top offensive players in the game before the lockout?
• Can Redden recall some of the confidence and decision-making that made him a member of Canada's 2006 Olympic team?
• If these two signings go bust, will it mark the beginning of the end for GM Glen Sather?
• Can coach Tom Renney get more consistency and commitment out of Zherdev, who disappeared for long stretches in Columbus?
• Is this the season the Rangers truly become Chris Drury and Scott Gomez's team?
• Is there enough toughness in this lineup, especially with Sean Avery now toiling in Dallas?
• Is Broadway where Sundin finally lands when he decides he's ready to come back to the NHL?
New Jersey Devils: The Devils continue to defy prognosticators who believe they're ready to fall off the playoff map (they've made 11 straight postseason appearances). But the Devils haven't advanced beyond the second round since their Cup win in 2003 and don't look like a team that can achieve that this season, either. The ageless Martin Brodeur remains the centerpiece of the Devils' hopes, but he is 36 and there is no viable successor on the horizon, nor is there a backup who appears capable of adequately sharing the workload. GM Lou Lamoriello did bring back former Devils Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, and the Rolston signing especially should help a New Jersey attack that ranked 27th last season. Once again, Lamoriello has run into salary-cap problems and waived defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski after signing him to a three-year deal a year ago.
• What does Holik have left at 37 and after playing in just four playoff games since leaving the Devils after the 2001-02 season?
• Can Brian Gionta bounce back after recording just 53 points, a significant drop-off from a career-best 89 in 2005-06?
• What of Patrik Elias, who was second in team scoring with 55 points, but appears to be in decline?
• Can young defensemen Johnny Oduya and Andy Greene take another step in their maturation along the Devils' blue line?
• Does sophomore coach Brent Sutter try to open things up again or is that a dirty thought in New Jersey?
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers defied most predictions by bouncing back from a dead-last finish in 2006-07 to an appearance in last season's Eastern Conference finals. Better yet, the Flyers look better now than they did a year ago, thanks to the evolution of Mike Richards and fellow forward Jeff Carter. The Flyers have loads of talent up front. With Braydon Coburn, who looks like a solid two-way defenseman, joining the underappreciated Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia appears well-stocked from top to bottom. John Stevens, whose job seemed in jeopardy for much of last season, received a contract extension and should continue to grow as a head coach.
• Daniel Briere spent most of last season looking for a suitable linemate before finding one in Vaclav Prospal. What happens now that Prospal is back in Tampa?
• Can Simon Gagne return to Olympic form and provide the answer to Briere's linemate question?
• Can Timonen rebound from the blood clot that kept him out of last season's East finals?
• Can much-heralded offensive prospect Claude Giroux have an immediate impact? Is there room for him?
• Will people stop asking whether Martin Biron has the goods to be a topflight NHL netminder after his stellar postseason run?
Pittsburgh Penguins: It's been a short but active summer for the Pittsburgh Penguins, thanks to their run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Penguins went 12-2 en route to the finals before losing in six games to Detroit. But their lineup will have a distinctly different look come October with Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts, Adam Hall and Georges Laraque all finding new homes this past summer. All but Hossa and Malone qualify as role players, however, so the changes may not be as dramatic as one might believe. GM Ray Shero brought in Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan from Long Island to fill the void created by the departures of Malone and Hossa. Shero also managed to re-sign Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Brooks Orpik to long-term deals. Coach Michel Therrien also received a well-deserved contract extension.
• How do Fedotenko and Satan respond to the opportunities of playing with two of the game's finest centers, Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby?
• Where does Ryan Whitney take his game after playing his best hockey of the season late in the playoffs?
• How long will it take the Pens to shake off the hangover that inevitably comes with going to the finals -- and losing?
• Does Dany Sabourin have enough quality starts in him to make up for the departure of backup netminder Ty Conklin, who signed in Detroit after being instrumental in the Pens' run to the top of the Atlantic Division last season?
• What will we see from Jordan Staal, who looks to get more opportunities on the power play and should get back to the 30-goal level after his numbers dropped last season?
• Can Shero sign Staal to a long-term extension before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer?
• Do Crosby and Ovechkin go neck and neck for the NHL scoring title after a high-ankle sprain cost Crosby a solid chance at the crown in 2007-08?
Boston Bruins: The Bruins exceeded expectations last season just by making the playoffs and extending the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens to seven games in the first round. And after years of failing to produce meaningful homegrown talent, Boston has a fine crop of young talent, both up front and along the blue line (David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel and Dennis Wideman), and that has created at least a small buzz around a town consumed with the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics.
• Can Patrice Bergeron return to form after his 2007-08 season ended early with a brutal hit from behind courtesy of Philadelphia's Randy Jones?
• Can Krejci, 22, keep up his torrid late-season pace (nine points in his last seven regular-season games and five playoff points) for an entire NHL season?
• How does goalie Manny Fernandez, expected to be the Bruins' starter a year ago, fit in after missing almost all of last season to injury?
• Does Michael Ryder find his scoring touch after being reunited with old coach Claude Julien, or is he a $12 million gaffe by GM Peter Chiarelli?
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres looked like Stanley Cup winners-in-waiting as they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007, but took a significant step back last season after missing the playoffs by four points. Buffalo, after losing key components the past two offseasons, took care of its own this summer, re-signing netminder Ryan Miller and winger Daniel Paille and bringing back veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen after he missed all but the final game of 2007-08 with a heart ailment. GM Darcy Regier also added veteran defenseman Craig Rivet, who should help fill the leadership void created by the departure a year ago of co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury.
• Miller, who could have been an unrestricted free agent at the end of the coming season, won't be going anywhere, but can he provide enough consistent starts to get the Sabres back in the playoffs?
• Which Maxim Afinogenov shows up this season, the one who had 61 points in 56 games and was plus-19 in 2006-07, or the one who had 28 points in 56 games and was minus-16 in 2007-08?
• Do young defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber take the necessary steps to improve the Sabres' blue line?
• Which of the talented young forwards will emerge as a leader on the ice and in the dressing room?
Montreal Canadiens: Expectations are as high in Montreal for the coming season as they've been at any time in the past 15 years. With the Habs celebrating their centennial season in 2008-09, Stanley Cup dreams are percolating throughout Habs Nation. GM Bob Gainey has done a masterful job of assembling a deep, talented blue line and a forward contingent that is three lines deep. He added some toughness (Georges Laraque) and more scoring (Alex Tanguay). Carey Price has all the tools to become the next great Canadiens goaltending legend and Alexei Kovalev turned in an impressive performance as the team's go-to offensive star.
• How does Price rebound from his meltdown in the playoffs?
• Are the Canadiens strong enough down the middle to compete with Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers, the other top teams in the East?
• Can the enigmatic Kovalev, who had 84 points and led the league with 47 power-play points, replicate that kind of production?
• How good can defenseman Mike Komisarek be?
• How good would Mats Sundin look in the bleu, blanc et rouge?
Ottawa Senators: The natives are restless in the Canadian capital as many observers see the Senators as a bubble playoff team after advancing to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. Beset by injuries down the stretch and a lack of cohesion through the last half of the season, Ottawa limped into the 2008 playoffs and was swept by Pittsburgh. Injured captain Daniel Alfredsson tried to play late in the series, while Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were ineffective throughout. The team bought out troubled netminder Ray Emery in the offseason and let late-season acquisitions Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore walk. Longtime Senator Wade Redden signed with the Rangers and Andrej Meszaros was dealt to Tampa Bay for Filip Kuba, a first-round pick and prospect Alexandre Picard. The Sens hired Craig Hartsburg to take over the coaching duties after they were rebuffed by Peter DeBoer (now in Florida) and brought in Jarkko Ruutu, which will excite the folks over at the Finnish embassy.
• How do Spezza and Heatley rebound from their embarrassing turn in the playoffs?
• Can Hartsburg restore order to a dressing room that seemed adrift through most of the season?
• Where will the secondary scoring come from?
• Is Martin Gerber a No. 1 NHL netminder? If not, is Alex Auld a viable option as a backup?
• Can Hartsburg bring order to a completely remade blue line, once the strength of the Senators' organization?
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs missed the playoffs for the third straight season and then spent most of the offseason jettisoning what they believed to be dead weight in Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft, Kyle Wellwood and Bryan McCabe. They would like to have captain Mats Sundin back, but that's not likely to happen, leaving them undermanned down the middle. New coach Ron Wilson has a long history of getting more out of less (and, sadly for him, less out of more), while the front office is slowly taking shape with Al Coates and Joe Nieuwendyk joining the crew (presumably in anticipation of Brian Burke's arrival next summer).
• Are the Leafs really better off without McCabe et al?
• When does netminder Vesa Toskala put in a grievance with the NHLPA for lack of support?
• When does Wilson, used to markets with small media followings, blow his stack for the first time with the Toronto media?
• Who wears the "C" in Sundin's absence?
• Who's the No. 1 center now that Sundin is in semiretirement?
• How many five-game goalless streaks before the boobirds get on Niklas Hagman?
• Can Jeff Finger manage to concentrate when every mention of his name will be connected to his bloated four-year, $14 million contract?
• Is it possible that after all this, Sundin could still end up a Leaf?
Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers have qualified for the playoffs just once since their inception and have yet to win a single postseason game. Last season, they plummeted to the depths of the NHL standings and landed the third overall draft pick, which was a bit of a silver lining to an otherwise miserable season given the potential of defensive prospect Zach Bogosian. GM Don Waddell landed free-agent defenseman Ron Hainsey to help a team that tied for last in goals against and 23rd on the power play. The team still lacks a No. 1 center for Ilya Kovalchuk and a bona fide dressing room leader. Diminutive rookie Tobias Enstrom was a pleasant surprise, landing on the all-rookie team. John Anderson was hired in the offseason after a long and distinguished career coaching in the minors.
• Does franchise netminder Kari Lehtonen, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, finally fulfill the promise that made him the second overall pick in 2002 or will he be displaced by Ondrej Pavelec, who many believe is a better netminder long term?
• Can Bogosian, who just turned 18, make an impact at one of the most difficult positions on a team that has long wanted a blue-line stud?
• Does Waddell start entertaining offers for Kovalchuk, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2009-10 season and is unlikely to re-sign in Atlanta?
• Can Anderson get his squad off to a much-needed strong start after the team's 0-6-0 start a year ago cost Bob Hartley his job?
• Does skilled prospect Angelo Esposito, who came over in the Marian Hossa trade last February, prove doubters wrong by making the team and making an impact at the NHL level?
Carolina Hurricanes: It seems like a long time ago that the Hurricanes were being feted as Stanley Cup champs in 2006, but that's what missing the playoffs for two straight seasons will get you. GM Jim Rutherford continued to tinker with his lineup this offseason, acquiring smooth-skating, if immature, defenseman Joni Pitkanen from Edmonton in exchange for forward Erik Cole. There were rumors coach Peter Laviolette would be dispatched after the Canes missed the 2008 playoffs by two points, but he returns and will be hoping for better luck on the injury front after losing captain Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams, among others, for much of last season.
• Can the 38-year-old Brind'Amour and Williams resume their productivity despite their serious injuries?
• Does Cam Ward rebound after a so-so season? If not, does Michael Leighton provide enough quality starts to keep the Hurricanes in the playoff mix?
• How long is Laviolette's leash if the team gets off to a rocky start?
• Does monstrous (6-foot-5) Anton Babchuk fare any better in his second go-round in Carolina after spending a year in Russia?
• Can Sergei Samsonov continue to deliver the offensive goods after being plucked off the waiver wire late last season and then earning a three-year deal this offseason with his impressive play down the stretch?
Florida Panthers: Always interesting goings-on in South Florida after yet another season of unfulfilled expectations as GM Jacques Martin unloaded captain Olli Jokinen at the draft for rock-solid defenseman Keith Ballard and then brought in much-maligned former Maple Leaf Bryan McCabe in exchange for defenseman Mike Van Ryn. Up front, Martin signed proven point-producer Cory Stillman. But the biggest move of the summer was one Martin couldn't get done -- signing franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to a long-term deal. Bouwmeester, the third overall pick in 2002, is just coming into his own and can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Peter DeBoer gets his first NHL head-coaching gig after a successful run as a junior coach in Plymouth and Kitchener. He landed in Florida despite being courted by a handful of teams, including Ottawa and Los Angeles.
• Does Martin try to unload Bouwmeester, and if so, what kind of return can he expect for a premier young defenseman (hint: it better be good)?
• Can either Nathan Horton or Stephen Weiss step into the leadership role vacated by Jokinen?
• Can DeBoer get more out of the talented but underachieving Panthers than Martin?
• How do DeBoer and Martin get along given that Martin didn't want to give up the coaching reins?
• Does Stillman return to his point-a-game pace after struggling through two post-Cup winning seasons?
Tampa Bay Lightning: One of the more interesting stories heading into this season will be the performance of the dramatically overhauled Lightning, who finished dead last in 2007-08. Gone are GM Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella, who guided the Bolts to the Stanley Cup in 2004. New owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules have a new front office and a new coach in Barry Melrose, who over the past decade made the mullet fashionable for thousands of hockey fans thanks to his analysis on ESPN. Top draft pick Steven Stamkos is expected to make the club out of camp at age 18 and he'll have a strong supporting cast up front with Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi joining mainstays Vincent Lecavalier, who signed an 11-year contract this season, Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal, who is back for a third go-round in Tampa. The blue line is a different story. Matt Carle will be trying to get his career back on track after coming over from San Jose in a deal that sent premier puck mover Dan Boyle to the Sharks. Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig will battle for starts in goal, although they did add stability late in the summer by adding workhorse defenseman Andrej Meszaros from Ottawa.
• It's been 15 years since Melrose led an NHL team into training camp; how does the layoff affect his ability to put together a competitive game plan?
• Can Stamkos replicate the performance of Patrick Kane, who won rookie of the year honors after starting camp as an undersized 18-year-old in Chicago?
• Is Mike Smith the answer to the Bolts' long-unanswered goaltending question? If not, does Kolzig have enough in the tank to keep Tampa in the playoff picture?
• Will the Lightning add another veteran blue liner (Mathieu Schneider, for example) or does Meszaros represent the stabilizing influence they were lacking?
• How long does it take Lecavalier to rebound from offseason shoulder surgery?
• Which Vrbata shows up: the one who failed to score in his final 22 games for Phoenix, or the one who set a career-best mark with 27 goals for the season?
Washington Capitals: The Caps pulled off one of the more dramatic turnarounds in recent memory last season when they went from the bottom of the NHL standings at Thanksgiving to a Southeast Division crown. MVP and scoring champ Alexander Ovechkin was dynamic, leading the NHL with 65 goals and earning consideration by many as the game's best player. The Caps also got a breakout performance from smooth-skating defenseman Mike Green, whose 18 goals led all rear guards. Cristobal Huet was terrific after coming over from Montreal at the trade deadline, supplanting much-loved Kolzig in the Caps' goal. But GM George McPhee couldn't get Huet under contract and rolled the dice on former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore. Sergei Fedorov returns to help provide leadership for the talented Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Captain Chris Clark will be back and ready for camp after missing 55 of the last 56 games with a groin injury. The status of defenseman Brian Pothier, who hasn't played since Jan. 3 because of post-concussion symptoms, is still uncertain.
• Do the Caps have enough blue-line depth to be a Cup contender?
• Can Clark rebound to provide leadership in the dressing room and grit on the ice?
• Can Nicklas Backstrom, a candidate for rookie of the year last season, match his play as a sophomore?
• Where does last summer's top free-agent acquisition Michael Nylander fit in after missing the last half of the season with a torn rotator cuff?
• Can Semin, who led the Caps with eight points in seven playoff games, translate immense skill into actual point production over the regular season?
• What does Ovechkin do for an encore?
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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