10 Burning Questions: Preseason edition
With NHL training camps getting under way next week, ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun answer these 10 Burning Questions as we count down to the Oct. 4 season opener:
Scott Burnside: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay. Lecavalier is recovering from shoulder surgery but is expected to be ready for the start of the season in Prague. He will have a much stronger offensive supporting cast than last season. He had 92 points last season, a 16-point drop-off from the 2006-07 season, when he led the league with 52 goals and finished third in scoring with 108 points. It will take some doing to stay close to Ovechkin and Crosby, assuming they both stay healthy, but Lecavalier is a skilled player in the prime of his career and could make for an interesting three-way race.
Pierre LeBrun: Joe Thornton, San Jose. This is a make-or-break season for the Sharks and, in many ways, for Big Joe as well. Some people continue to question his leadership and big-game abilities after his team faltered once again in the playoffs last season. Not this writer. Thornton quietly finished fifth in NHL scoring last season with 96 points. With so much on the line this season, he will explode for an even bigger year and challenge Crosby and Ovechkin for the overall scoring title.
2. Who is your early pick to win the Calder Trophy (top rookie)?
Burnside: It's hard to argue against Steven Stamkos, who has been pretty much guaranteed the second-line center position in Tampa Bay. Stamkos has been impressive in early workouts and prospect camps, but the first overall pick in June's draft will get a strong challenge from Phoenix's Kyle Turris, who will be the Coyotes' second-line center behind Olli Jokinen. Turris, the third overall pick in 2007, will get lots of power-play time and could edge Stamkos for the hardware based on simply having more opportunities at key times.
LeBrun: Turris and Stamkos will have a close battle for the rookie points lead, which traditionally makes them automatic favorites for the Calder. But don't forget about 23-year-old seasoned Swede Fabian Brunnstrom in Dallas. A pair of blueliners also could earn some attention if they play big roles on their teams -- Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and Zach Bogosian in Atlanta. Our pick? Turris by a hair over Stamkos.
3. Where, and when, do you see Mats Sundin landing for the 2008-09 season?
Burnside: What's that nice resort town in Spain? Just kidding, although no one should be holding his breath for the big Swede to make a decision on whether he'll return to the game. We think he will, and we're guessing he'll come back around Thanksgiving. Where? There are so many things that make so little sense in Toronto that it won't be a surprise if Sundin ends up back in the blue and white, even though the Leafs figure to be one of the worst teams in the NHL.
LeBrun: People keep asking where Sundin will play. But, at this point, it's still the wrong question at least for Sundin himself. He's stuck on another one: Will he play at all? His heart isn't 100 percent in it right now, but we suspect that will change as the color of leaves changes.
"I feel he will play," Sundin's agent, J.P. Barry, told ESPN.com Friday. "But when? I don't know." To be fair, no one, not even Barry or anyone close to Sundin, really knows what the big Swede will do. He's like that. In the meantime, it's believed that as many as eight teams (the list keeps growing) have some kind of interest in Sundin. He met with Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher on Friday and was told he's still welcome at home if he wishes to return. Sundin also met with Montreal on Saturday, and it is believed he walked away impressed with what GM Bob Gainey had to say.
Prediction? Not sure how they'll clear the cap room available, but we have a sneaky suspicion that Sundin's former agent, Mike Barnett, now a Rangers executive, will sway him to sign in the Big Apple, where he could skate alongside Markus Naslund.
4. Will there be a Stanley Cup hangover in Detroit?
Burnside: Yes. As good and deep as the Red Wings are, there is always a little hitch in the step of the defending Cup champions. Watch for Marian Hossa to take some time to fit into the Red Wings' lineup, and there will be a ripple effect in terms of who gets power-play time and prime minutes among the team's forwards with Hossa's arrival.
LeBrun: No. Too much is being made about the post-lockout Cup-hangover effect. Carolina got hammered by injuries, and that's why the Hurricanes plummeted after their Cup win in 2006. Anaheim began its title defense without its most important player, Scott Niedermayer, and top goal scorer, Teemu Selanne. The Ducks also began last season overseas with a brutal schedule. But the Wings have a normal start this season, and all their key players will return. Not only will they remain a Cup contender, they also will threaten to shatter records for wins and points in a single season.
5. Which was the most effective offseason move?
Burnside: A half-dozen or more moves around the league can be considered significant, but the one that looks to have the most impact is the signing of Brian Campbell by the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks missed the playoffs by just three points last season, and Campbell was the most-sought-after puck-moving defenseman on the market this summer. He joins an impressive young blue line and a team that is enjoying a tremendous renaissance in Chicago, and should lead the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
LeBrun: Defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake to San Jose. The moves came in the same week and instantly gave a boost to a Sharks team that needs to break through this season come playoff time. Both have been Stanley Cup champions. Don't underestimate that in a talented but underachieving Sharks locker room where there aren't many Cup rings. Yes, Blake's best days are behind him, but he played better in the second half last season than most people realize. Boyle is among the top five puck-moving blueliners in the world and instantly improves a Sharks' offensive game that struggled at times last season.
6. Heading into the new season, which new coach has best chance of success, and which is on the hot seat?
Burnside: Although Pete DeBoer was the most coveted coaching prospect available this summer before landing in Florida, the new coach with the best chance to be standing around late in the playoffs is Todd McLellan in San Jose. The Sharks hope McLellan will get more out of Thornton and help Jonathan Cheechoo get back to his scoring levels of three years ago.
On the hot seat, folks will be watching closely to see what kind of a start the Carolina Hurricanes and coach Peter Laviolette have. There were rumors that Laviolette was on the verge of being dismissed after the Canes missed the playoffs for the second straight time after their Cup win in 2006, and the team will need a strong start to keep those rumors from resurfacing. Alain Vigneault also will be on a short leash in Vancouver.
LeBrun: Ditto on McLellan in San Jose. He definitely has the best chance at success. Craig Hartsburg in Ottawa also will thrive. He was the right hire by GM Bryan Murray and will try to instill order and discipline on a talented team that fell apart at the seams last season.No question, the heat is on Laviolette. He's an excellent coach and would be hired in a minute but, as Mr. Burnside pointed out, he was nearly shown the door last season. A good start for the Hurricanes is paramount for Laviolette.
7. Will the changes in goalie-equipment rules have the desired effect, or are we destined for bigger nets?
Burnside: Most fans won't be able to tell the difference, but those in the know suggest that the efforts to get the equipment to contour more closely to goalies' bodies and to reduce flaps and straps from blocking shooting lanes between the pads will give shooters more opportunities, 5-hole and up high.
LeBrun: We know from our discussions with Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller last week that it appears the NHL and NHL Players' Association have found a good compromise with the equipment. Regardless of whether the minor changes lead to more goals, we can guarantee that you will never see bigger nets. The NHLPA, through its executive board, must approve those kinds of massive rule changes, and we are told it will never elect for bigger nets.
8. Which of last season's 16 playoff teams will not reach the postseason in 2008-09?
Burnside: In the Western Conference, look for Colorado and Nashville to be on the outside looking in; Ottawa and Boston will be denied access to the big dance in the East.
LeBrun: It's been a mighty long time, but look for the Devils to finally miss out, just barely, in the parity-filled East. Colorado and Minnesota will be out in the West.
9. How will this season's Winter Classic (Chicago versus Detroit at Wrigley Field) play out?
Burnside: It will be a much different, cozier feel inside Wrigley Field on Jan. 1 compared with the inside of Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium this past January. It goes without saying that the weather will dictate not just the outcome of the game but also the NHL's continued appetite for hosting these outdoor shindigs. That said, it's hard to imagine the clash between the Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup-champion Red Wings wouldn't be spectacular, providing another winner for the league given the history the franchises bring to the contest and the singular appeal of Wrigley, even in the dead of winter.
LeBrun: It will be another success, but not quite the same level as last season in Buffalo. There's a novelty factor here, and I believe the NHL made a mistake by bringing back the Winter Classic so quickly. I know a dozen or so teams were pleading for a chance to host one, and I know the TV ratings and corporate-sponsorship interest are through the roof. All are great reasons to bring it back. But it's short-sighted. The better way to keep the Classic a desired and viable event is to space out the outdoor games every two or three seasons. Would the Olympic Games be as cool if they were staged every year?
10. What exotic location should host the start of the 2009-10 NHL season?
Burnside: Last season, it was London; this campaign, it's Prague and Stockholm. How about somewhere really hip like the Barbados? No? Costa Rica? Tahiti, anyone? Seriously, if the NHL is determined to make the jaunt to other hockey markets, it has to be in Finland and either Germany or Slovakia next season. Russia? Not until the transfer agreement is ironed out and it gives back Alexander Radulov.
LeBrun: I think the NHL is wise to continue its forays into Europe with real games. Unlike in places like Nashville and Miami, the NHL doesn't have to get on its knees and beg people to love its product. Hockey is hugely popular in Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, Russia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and other pockets in Europe. It's a natural market, one that produces a sizable chunk of the NHL's players. The league must continue these yearly experiments, increasing the number of games and teams involved until one day, perhaps 10 or so years from now, it must decide whether to expand into Europe. But that's a question for another day.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.
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