- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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With training camps in full swing, here are a few burning questions for the Eastern Conference:
The Thrashers were as busy as they could be given their limited financial flexibility. GM Don Waddell brought in forwards Nik Antropov and Anthony Stewart and defenseman Pavel Kubina, among others, while losing very little other than rugged blueliner Garnet Exelby.
So on paper, the 13th-place Thrashers are nothing but improved if you also consider the further development of 19-year-old blueliner Zach Bogosian and 21-year-old sniper Bryan Little (who scored the quietest 31 goals in the NHL last season). The top-4 group on the blue line is pretty darn good in Bogosian, Kubina, Tobias Enstrom and Ron Hainsey. We're not sure there's still enough offense up front, and there are certainly questions in goal, where Kari Lehtonen still hasn't lived up billing.
Burning question: Well, that's an easy one. What will happen with superstar captain Ilya Kovalchuk? He's an unrestricted free agent July 1 and Waddell has tried all summer long to sign him to a contract extension. The Thrashers want to avoid the massive distraction that was Marian Hossa two seasons ago, when he was ultimately dealt at the trade deadline after rejecting all contract-extension offers. Negotiations with Kovalchuk's people continued as training camp approached with the hope a deal could be reached in the near future. If not, Waddell has to wonder how long into the season he can let this drag on.
The core of the team remained largely unchanged from the club that finished first in the Eastern Conference last season before bowing out in a second-round upset to Carolina. The glaring need was for a puck-moving defenseman, something the quick Hurricanes exposed, and GM Peter Chiarelli delivered with the addition of free agent Derek Morris. That was the only notable addition. The defections weren't of the big-name variety in Manny Fernandez, P.J. Axelsson, Steve Montador, Aaron Ward, Stephane Yelle and Shane Hnidy. This remains a team that will challenge for the Eastern Conference title.
Burning question: What does the future hold for 36-goal man Phil Kessel? The restricted free agent, who won't be able to play until November as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, remained unsigned as camp opened. His asking price has been too high for the cap-challenged Bruins. His future doesn't appear to be in Boston, and a trade seems likely. Toronto was leading a group of teams in his pursuit as we wrote this. Stay tuned.
The fan base isn't terribly happy in Buffalo. It was a quiet offseason that brought only the likes of Steve Montador, Joe DiPenta, Cody McCormick, Jeff Cowan and Mike Grier. (Mind you, Grier was a popular fixture in his first tour of duty with the Sabres.) Still, given the offseason losses of Jaroslav Spacek, Maxim Afinogenov and Teppo Numminen, you'd be hard-pressed to look at this roster and believe it has improved. The Sabres just don't have the financial wherewithal to hang with the big-money teams. Still, this was a team that was going in the right playoff-bound direction last season until star goalie Ryan Miller and sniper Thomas Vanek both suffered monthlong injuries.
Burning question: Is it now or never for this current core to make the playoffs after missing two straight postseasons? The Sabres rebuilt on the fly after losing Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, among others, to free agency a few years ago. It's time for core players like Vanek, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Clarke MacArthur and Daniel Paille to prove to GM Darcy Regier that he was wise in remaining patient with them. But another year out of the playoffs will force Regier to react.
GM Jim Rutherford still doesn't get the credit he deserves for managing a roster that's competitive year in and year out, while very much limited by the amount of money he can spend from his payroll. A trip to the Eastern Conference finals last spring once again validated what the veteran GM is trying to do. As such, there wasn't much reason for change in the offseason and there wasn't much -- defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Alberts and forwards Tom Kostopoulos and Stephen Yelle are really cosmetic additions to a roster led by center Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward. The team lost defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Frantisek Kaberle and forwards Patrick Eaves and Ryan Bayda, depth players on last season's team.
Burning question: Can franchise goalie Cam Ward stay healthy? He admitted to a gaggle of media at last month's Canadian Olympic camp in Calgary that he played through a back injury in the playoffs, an injury that reappeared on the eve of the Canadian camp and made him sit out the first day. The Canes have to keep a close eye on this and hold their breath that the likable and talented netminder avoids any reoccurrence this season. They'd be in big trouble without him.
Give interim GM Randy Sexton credit: He did the most he could with the lemons he was handed. He got something in return for exiting star blueliner Jay Bouwmeester, acquiring and re-signing defenseman Jordan Leopold. He replaced departing free-agent goalie Craig Anderson with Scott Clemmensen and added forward Steve Reinprecht to help alleviate the offseason losses of forwards Richard Zednik, Ville Peltonen and Anthony Stewart. Defensemen Steve Eminger and Jassen Cullimore also left town. The money-strapped team is for sale, which has tied the hands of management. It's hard to foresee anything but another non-playoff season despite the Panthers' having one of the best young coaches in the game, Peter DeBoer, behind the bench.
Burning question: Which Tomas Vokoun will show up this season? The Czech veteran was both brilliant and brutal at times last season, enough that DeBoer started Anderson for key games down the stretch when the Panthers still had playoff hopes. Clemmensen showed his worth last season in saving the Devils' season, so he will be there to push Vokoun, who has two years left on his deal that will pay him $5.7 million and $6.3 million, respectively. Does he become trade bait if Clemmensen shows he's worthy of the No. 1 job?
Few teams produce more head-scratching around the league than the Habs, who were the busiest team in the NHL this summer. Like a fantasy team emptying half its roster before a draft, the Canadiens cut ties with 11 regulars in Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Chris Higgins, Tom Kostopoulos, Mathieu Dandenault, Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon and Patrice Brisebois. Whoa, take a deep breath.
The new faces include Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, Paul Mara, Travis Moen and, of course, new coach Jacques Martin. It's a major overhaul for a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations last September, only to see them come crashing down in a drama-filled season that featured a coach's firing, a player sent home, and off-ice allegations of varying degrees involving different players. The end result was a whitewashing in the first round to the Bruins, and the ensuing house cleaning from GM Bob Gainey.
Burning question: Are the Habs any better? It really depends on how quickly so many new faces can come together and find chemistry, and that's no small task. It also depends on how Gomez and Gionta can rebound from subpar seasons and whether they can rediscover the magic that made them effective as New Jersey teammates a few years ago. Goalie Carey Price also has much to answer for after a mediocre season. It's hard to see the Habs as anything but a bubble team fighting for the last playoff spot in the East, but stranger things have happened. Either way, Gainey had no choice but to change the dynamic of a team that came apart, on and off the ice, last season.
Every year at this time, we somehow look at the depleted Devils and wonder how the heck they can make the playoffs again. And then, they go out and make the playoffs again. That's a testimony to the rock-solid foundation that starts with veteran GM Lou Lamoriello and the NHL's all-time winningest netminder, Martin Brodeur. Still, it was an offseason that saw Gionta, John Madden, Mike Rupp, Niclas Havelid, Bobby Holik and Clemmensen exit Newark, with the lone additions being goalie Yann Danis, blueliner Cory Murphy and new coach Jacques Lemaire.
Burning question: Can the Devils fool the skeptics again? Don't be surprised if they do. Lemaire is one of the game's great coaches and will get the most out of this lineup. The Devils will be a pain to play against, and perhaps not terribly fun to watch, but they'll likely get results under Lemaire.
GM Garth Snow raised a few eyebrows when he signed Martin Biron this summer after already signing fellow veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson. With franchise goalie Rick DiPietro still hoping for a full recovery from knee surgery last year, some wondered what the heck Snow was doing. But we believe it was a sharp move by the Isles' GM. If DiPietro does indeed fully recover, Snow can move Biron, and there will certainly be takers at the trade deadline.
If DiPietro can't recover, the Isles covered themselves in goal. In the meantime, the youth movement continues on the rest of the roster with the highly anticipated arrival of 2009 first overall pick John Tavares, who joins a lineup with other young faces such as Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau. Still, the growing pains will continue and it's likely the Isles will play another short season.
Burning question: What kind of impact will Tavares have in his rookie season? Will it be more in the Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin mold, or more of the Steven Stamkos variety? ESPN.com's fantasy computer predicts a 35-goal, 30-assist campaign for Mr. Tavares, which wouldn't be too shabby on a lineup that still doesn't offer him much protection.
For a guy who gets criticized all the time for seemingly going through the motions, veteran GM Glen Sather has actually been quite busy every summer since the lockout. He was at it again this offseason, saying goodbye to Gomez, Antropov, Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund, Paul Mara, Derek Morris, Lauri Korpikoski, Fredrik Sjostrom, Blair Betts and Colton Orr while laying out the welcome red carpet at MSG for Christopher Higgins, Marian Gaborik, Donald Brashear, Tyler Arnason, Ales Kotalik, Enver Lisin and Vaclav Prospal.
Much like the Montreal Canadiens, however, you're just not sure whether the new group is any better than the old group until you see it on the ice for a few months. Coach John Tortorella came in midway through last season, and now he gets a chance to implement his system from the first day of camp.
Burning question: Will this team be able to score goals? Last season, the Rangers made the playoffs despite averaging only 2.44 goals per game (28th in the NHL and easily the worst mark among the 16 playoff squads). To that end, the Rangers added the dynamic yet oft-injured Gaborik to the mix, as well as Higgins, Kotalik and Prospal. But with the losses of Gomez, Zherdev, Naslund and Antropov, how much more offense can we really expect? Quite simply, if Gaborik stays healthy, the Rangers are better off. He's a 50-goal scorer if he can play 70 games.
GM Bryan Murray deserves a week's holiday in Hawaii. After three months of frustration, phone calls and a deal rejected by the player who asked for the trade to begin with, Dany Heatley was finally dealt just as training camp opened. Phew. Talk about a circus, and perhaps a disaster, if Heatley would have shown up to camp despite his very public desire to get out of Canada's capital. And you know what? Murray did fine under the circumstances.
Both Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo are coming off disappointing seasons, but the fact remains they are top-6 forwards, adding depth to a team that hasn't had secondary scoring for a few seasons. With the addition of free-agent star Alexei Kovalev, the Sens actually have more balance up front in numbers, even if they will obviously miss the 50-goal machine that was Heatley. More importantly, this brings closure to a dressing room that would have been walking on eggshells until the day Heatley was dealt. Now, this is coach Corey Clouston's team.
Burning question: Does Pascal Leclaire finally answer Ottawa's prayers in goal? This could prove to be Murray's greatest acquisition as Sens GM. And it kind of flew under radar, nationally at least, on a busy trade deadline day last season. At only 26, Leclaire looks to put an injury-plagued 2008-09 behind him with Columbus and recapture the form that saw him put up nine shutouts and a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage two seasons ago. If he gets back to being the franchise goalie he appeared to be two years ago, the Sens will be able to cover up other holes and finally get the kind of goaltending that has eluded them most of their modern history.
Having lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins twice in successive playoff years, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren can hardly be blamed for going out and acquiring a big-time, shutdown defenseman like Chris Pronger this offseason. At some point, you need to try to find an answer for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal (and, in that case, Alex Ovechkin as well).
But in acquiring Pronger, the Flyers not only helped their cause in their attempts to battle their rival star players, but also picked up the ultimate playoff warrior. Pronger carried the Edmonton Oilers to a surprise Cup finals appearance in 2006, helped the Ducks win it all in 2007 and was part of a Ducks team that came oh-so-close to upsetting the Red Wings in the second round last season.
The Flyers gave up a lot (maybe too much) in future assets to get Pronger, but they got a guy that can put them over the hump right now. The team also added the underrated and rugged Ian Laperriere up front, as well as wiping the slate clean in goal with Ray Emery and Brian Boucher replacing Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki. Forward Joffrey Lupul and defenseman Luca Sbisa were sent to Anaheim as part of the Pronger deal.
Burning question: Will the Flyers' eternal Achilles' heel act up again in goal? A team that is so deep in goal and on defense still remains a question mark in net. Just what Emery will deliver is anyone's guess this season. By all accounts, he was dynamite last season in the KHL, and we remember he was pretty darn good in helping Ottawa reach the 2007 Cup finals. But in between, there was the nasty fallout in Ottawa in 2007-08 with issues on and off the ice that triggered his exile to Russia. He's got a second chance at an NHL career, albeit in a city that has eaten up goalies for breakfast.
The core of the Stanley Cup champions' lineup remains largely untouched, which is always the challenge in a salary-cap world. Tough-as-nails defenseman Rob Scuderi was the most noteworthy defection, but his replacement, Jay McKee, is more than adequate. Defensemen Hal Gill and Philippe Boucher and forwards Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan are also gone, while forward Mike Rupp joins McKee as the only notable additions. GM Ray Shero also did well in keeping trade-deadline rental Bill Guerin thanks to a new deal, while retaining clutch veteran winger Ruslan Fedotenko. On paper, the champs have what it takes to take another serious run with Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury leading the way.
Burning question: Will the Cup hangover slow down the Pens? Even Crosby himself told ESPN.com in a recent interview that it's a valid question, even if he believes the team can overcome it. History shows that recent Cup champs have had a tough time recovering from the short summer. Last season, the mighty Red Wings publicly acknowledged they couldn't find that extra gear or motivation in the first half of the season. Pittsburgh's biggest challenge will be somehow to avoid that malaise.
Last season provided plenty to write about in Tampa: bickering owners; ongoing trade rumors involving franchise player Vincent Lecavalier; a coaching firing; the slow start of first overall pick Steven Stamkos; and, of course, a woeful 29th-place finish in the NHL. But you know what? There are reasons to believe things are on the rise in Tampa.
For starters, Stamkos had a terrific second half, and all signs point to a good sophomore season. Lecavalier's no-trade clause kicked in July 1 and ended the nonsense. Rick Tocchet is firmly in place as coach and has a full training camp to teach his system. The team added 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman, a highly touted blueliner who should step right in as a top-4 presence. Veteran Mattias Ohlund and Kurtis Foster were also added on a blue line that desperately needed boosting. Meanwhile, Alex Tanguay comes in at a rebate of $2.5 million and could have a big year alongside either Lecavalier or Stamkos. Forward Stephane Veilleux was another notable addition. The defections -- Prospal, Evgeny Artyukhin, Radim Vrbata, Matt Pettinger, Marek Malik and Karri Ramo -- won't really be missed.
Burning question: Can goalie Mike Smith deliver the goods this season? Everyone connected with the Lightning organization is adamant in their belief the 27-year-old is a franchise goalie. But a serious concussion ended his year midway through last season. Now that he's fully recovered, this is his chance to prove he's the real deal, and that will go a long way in determining whether the Bolts can threaten for a playoff spot.
Brian Burke promised change, and change he delivered. And he's not done. The offseason was productive, adding new faces in defensemen Mike Komisarek, Garnet Exelby and Francois Beauchemin and forwards Wayne Primeau, Colton Orr, Colin Stuart and Rickard Wallin, as well as netminder Jonas Gustavsson. The departing players included blueliners Pavel Kubina and Anton Stralman; forwards Boyd Devereaux, Brad May, Jeff Hamilton, Ryan Hollweg and Ben Ondrus; and goalies Curtis Joseph, Martin Gerber and Justin Pogge. The result as camp opened is that the Leafs have among the deepest blue-line corps in the NHL and are improved in goal, but that they won't score too many goals with the group of forwards currently on their roster. Burke is trying to address that, reigniting trade talks with the Boston Bruins regarding Kessel.
Burning question: Are the Leafs really rebuilding? No. Burke admitted it publicly to ESPN.com in July, saying he wasn't about to sit back and do a Pittsburgh or a Washington and wait five years for this team to get better. He's retooling with a short-term window in mind. The Leafs could surprise this season and challenge for a playoff spot, but their lack of scoring is a glaring weakness.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com this summer that, minutes after the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in June, his cell phone was filled with text messages from his players. They were angry and bitter and couldn't wait for the puck to drop for the 2009-10 season. This is a highly motivated and highly skilled squad that returns for a run at the Cup this season. Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and the rest of the bunch are intent on avenging a nightmarish end to the season against the Penguins in the second round. Among the veterans gone after last season are forward Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and tough guy Brashear, replaced by center Brendan Morrison and underrated winger Mike Knuble.
Burning question: Who's the No. 1 man in goal? Rookie Semyon Varlamov replaced veteran Jose Theodore in the playoffs, but the Russian's season ended with a Game 7 pull against Pittsburgh. Theodore is in the last year of a deal that pays him $4.5 million, which makes him easier to move come the trade deadline if the Caps feel confident that Varlamov is indeed their man.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
With training camps in full swing, we take a look at the burning questions facing all 15 Eastern Conference teams.