Eastern Conference camp questions
Oh, there'll be cobwebs on the dressing room doors and rust on the skates, but hockey's back.
Sixteen months after the last meaningful NHL games were played and almost exactly a year after the start of the lockout, training camps open across the NHL this week.
Many teams started Sunday with team meetings, followed by physicals and a battery of physical tests that will assess players' physical preparedness. On-ice sessions begin Tuesday for most teams. With new coaches in seven NHL cities (eight if you count Larry Robinson's reprising his role in New Jersey while Pat Burns recovers from cancer) and an unprecedented movement of players during this offseason, there is no shortage of story lines to carry the league through training camp into opening night Oct. 5.
Some are obvious -- like Sidney Crosby's first camp with the Penguins and Wayne Gretzky's first camp as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Others are less obvious -- like the possible absence of young stars such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Jay Bouwmeester and Pavel Datsyuk, all of whom were unsigned as of late Sunday evening, and the early injuries to big-name free agents Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher.
Here's a look at some of those story lines for the Eastern Conference. We'll break down the West on Tuesday:
The Thrashers have undergone a dramatic makeover since the end of the '04 season, most notably on defense, with only two returnees (Andy Sutton and Garnet Exelby). One question for coach Bob Hartley and GM Don Waddell is what to do with top defensive prospect Braydon Coburn (Eighth pick in the 2003 draft). Coburn is probably ready for NHL action but might be better served starting the season with the team's AHL affiliate in Chicago, given the Thrashers' acquisition of defensive depth in the form of Greg de Vries, Shane Hnidy, Niclas Havelid and Jaroslav Modry. And oh yeah, Waddell has to sign his best player, Ilya Kovalchuk, who might or might not be ready to do a Datsyuk and blow off the entire NHL season to play in Russia.
Yes, Andrew Raycroft is the defending NHL rookie of the year. But remember, he began the 2003-04 season battling Felix Potvin for the No. 1 spot. Now, Raycroft must be aware of another unheralded netminder, Hannu Toivonen, who was exceptional in Providence of the AHL. Mark Stuart, a Colorado College product, is a bruiser, while undrafted defenseman Kevin Dallman impressed in Providence last season. Both are eyeing jobs on the Boston blue line, which is seen as the team's weakness heading into camp. On the comeback trail is defenseman Jonathan Girard, who nearly died in a car accident two years ago. Andy Hilbert, who led the Baby B's with 79 regular-season points and 21 more in the playoffs last season, has asked for a trade.
The Sabres enter training camp with three goaltenders, one too many for all concerned. Ryan Miller is the Sabres' netminder of the future and a lock to stay with the big club. So barring a trade, Mika Noronen and Martin Biron will engage in a battle to determine the odd man out. The Sabres will begin to find out whether former Minnesota collegiate star and Austria native Thomas Vanek is the offensive stud they've been pining for for years.
The big story for the Hurricanes will be whether former child playoff stars Josef Vasicek and Erik Cole can get promising careers back on track. No place like training camp to make a statement. Watch for top goaltending prospect Cam Ward to battle newcomer Martin Gerber for the starting role in net. Andrew Ladd, who sparkled at the team's recent rookie camp, will try to make the jump from juniors to the NHL a la teammate Eric Staal.
GM Mike Keenan is already at odds with netminder Roberto Luongo, whom he took to arbitration, so camp will begin with questions about Luongo's mind-set and his future with the club. Likewise, Olli Jokinen went to the wire to sign a reported one-year deal. Both Jay Bouwmeester (also unsigned) and Stephen Weiss took a step back in the AHL, where they played out the lockout and will have to re-establish themselves as potential NHL stars. Another top pick, Nathan Horton, is coming off an injury that cost him most of last season.
Talented forward Alexander Perezhogin, suspended through all of last season by the AHL for a vicious stick-swinging episode in the '04 playoffs, will challenge for a roster spot. With Cristobal Huet out until at least November with a knee injury, the Habs still are looking for a backup to Jose Theodore. Will Mike Komisarek take the next step toward becoming the Habs' blue-line anchor?
New Jersey Devils
Where to start with a Devils team that will be without its coach (Pat Burns, cancer), its top two defensemen (Scott Niedermayer, signed in Anaheim; Scott Stevens, retired) and its best offensive player (Patrik Elias, hepatitis A). Expectations are high for Zach Parise, son of former NHLer J.P. Parise, to contribute on a team that figures to struggle offensively. Listening to Alexander Mogilny, the king of irony, talk about how lousy he is should be the highlight of camp.
New York Islanders
Oh, those wacky Islanders. Not content to have locked in perplexing Alexei Yashin for a decade, owner Charles Wang offered might-be goaltending star Rick DiPietro a 15-year deal. Ha, ha, ha. Stop it. DiPietro settled for a one-year deal. He remains the team's best player. One-time first-round picks Robert Nilsson (15th overall in 2003 and the son of former Calgary star Kent Nilsson) and Petteri Nokelainen (16th overall in 2004) will try to make a case for a spot in the Isles' revamped lineup.
New York Rangers
Although expectations are low for the rebuilding Rangers, they do have depth in goal, and the first battle will be between veteran Kevin Weekes and Swedish prospect Henrik Lundqvist, who has become that country's top netminder. U.S. junior sensation Al Montoya is also in the Rangers' goaltending mix. Fedor Tyutin and Jozef Balej are two key components of the Rangers' youth movement, and both will have every opportunity to make the opening-day roster. Watch for Nigel Dawes, a standout with Canada's junior team to make an impression at camp.
Jason Spezza led the AHL in scoring and looks ready to assume the NHL star role long expected of him. New coach Bryan Murray's use of Spezza and newcomer Dany Heatley will make for an interesting camp sidebar. Patrick Eaves, son of former NHL and current University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, has a shot at making the team. Junior star Andrej Meszaros isn't quite there yet, but is a terrific talent along the blue line. Naturally, all eyes will be on 40-year-old Dominik Hasek as he tries to return after almost two years away from the game.
With an embarrassment of riches throughout the Flyers' lineup, one story to watch will be the play of top prospects Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Is there room on this deep, talented team for both? Another battle might shape up in goal -- between incumbent Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki, who was stellar in leading the Philadelphia Phantoms to the AHL championship. Beaten and battered Sami Kapanen, a hero during the 2004 run to the Eastern Conference finals playing both forward and defense, shelved plans to retire and will be in camp. Pre-training camp injuries to key acquisitions Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher are major cause for concern.
It's all Sidney all the time in Pittsburgh, and with good reason. But the challenge for second-year coach Ed Olczyk during training camp will be finding the right place for the bevy of talent the Penguins have brought in since the end of the 2003-04 season: Mark Recchi, Zigmund Palffy, Sergei Gonchar, Jocelyn Thibault and John LeClair. Among the issues, who's going to center the team's second line? Sophomore Ryan Malone will get a shot, but there are lots of options. How the blue line shapes up, then holds up, with youngsters (or older players with little NHL experience) such as Ric Jackman, Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik (assuming he signs) will be a season-long subplot to the Crosby story.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Watch for Tampa coach John Tortorella to ride his defending Stanley Cup champions hard during training camp. He has been worried about bad habits picked up either overseas or during the long lockout layoff, and Tortorella is a coach who cannot abide bad habits. Goalie John Grahame will have to earn the starter's role ahead of veteran newcomer Sean Burke. The Bolts still need to find a sixth defenseman to fill the gap created by Jassen Cullimore's departure to Chicago as a free agent. Give the early nod to Todd Rohloff.
Toronto Maple Leafs
What is Eric Lindros' durability? How does Jason Allison look after 2½ years away from competitive hockey? How is Ed Belfour's back? And which of youngsters Jay Harrison, Brendan Bell, Marc Moro, Ian White and Andy Wozniewski will impress enough to earn a starting spot on the Leafs' much-maligned blue line? And those are just the questions for the first day of camp.
It's a good thing Caps coach Glen Hanlon is a patient man because that's what this job is going to take this season. After 2004 top draft pick Alexander Ovechkin, it's all downhill. Watch for flighty Alexander Semin, the 13th pick in 2002, who refused to play in North America during the lockout, to make an impression. If Semin's talent approaches his stubbornness, and reports indicate it should, that will be a boon for Hanlon.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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