With NHL training camps opening on September 11, 2013, here’s a look at the most pressing questions for the Eastern Conference teams. Later in the week, I’ll look at those of the Western Conference.
Boston Bruins: Will Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson be good additions to the Bruins lineup? Iginla signed in July as a free agent while Eriksson was acquired in a blockbuster deal which shipped the promising Tyler Seguin to Dallas. Both are talented scorers, but age is catching up to Iginla, while Eriksson could find it difficult to adjust to new linemates in a new city after years with the struggling Stars.
Buffalo Sabres: Is this the final season with the Sabres for Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek? Both are unrestricted free agents next summer, and the Sabres commitment to rebuilding suggests one or both could be shopped by the March trade deadline. Still, neither has ruled out re-signing, and things could get interesting if the Sabres are in playoff contention by the deadline.
Carolina Hurricanes: Can Jeff Skinner stay healthy this season, and have the Hurricanes sufficiently improved their defense? Only 21, Skinner’s promise has been hampered by concussions over the last two seasons. For the Hurricanes to end their four-year playoff drought, they’ll need a healthy Skinner. As for their blueline, it was among their main problem areas last season. They’ve swapped Jamie McBain for Andrej Sekera and signed free agent Mike Komisarek, but while those moves were affordable, it remains to be seen if they’ll improve the Hurricanes’ defense.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Is Sergei Bobrovsky for real? Bobrovsky was the Vezina Trophy winner in a lockout-shortened season, carrying the Blue Jackets to within a point of making the playoffs. Re-signed to a two-year contract, Bobrovsky will be under tremendous pressure to carry over that Vezina-winning form into this season. The Blue Jackets also need a healthy Nathan Horton (sidelined until December) and Marian Gaborik, but their playoff hopes rest upon Bobrovsky.
Detroit Red Wings: Will new additions Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss bolster their playoff hopes? The Wings strong showing in last year’s playoffs overshadowed the fact they barely qualified in the first place. Alfredsson should improve their playoff hopes for this season, but a healthy Weiss – who’ll be centering their second line – could be the more important pickup, especially over the long term.
Florida Panthers: Can their youngsters carry them to playoff contention? Injuries devastated the Panthers lineup last season, with a number of notable players sidelined at various parts of the season. A healthier roster should help, but their playoff hopes could rest upon younger players like Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, 2013 first rounder Aleksander Barkov, center Nick Bjugstad, winger/center Drew Shore, defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov and goaltender Jacob Markstrom.
Montreal Canadiens: Can Carey Price finally overcome his inconsistency? Last season was symbolic of Price’s NHL career to date: periods of brilliance mixed with horrible performances. When Price is on his game he ranks among the best in the league, and when he’s not, he’s bloody awful. If the Habs hope to build upon last season’s fourth-overall finish, they’ll need Price at his best throughout this season.
New Jersey Devils: Do the Devils have sufficient offense to return to playoff contention? The Devils anemic scoring was a significant factor in their missing the playoffs only one year after marching to the Stanley Cup Final. They were 28th overall last season in goals-per-game, compared to 15th the year prior. Losing Zach Parise last summer to free agency didn’t help, while Ilya Kovalchuk’s jump to the KHL and David Clarkson’s depature via free agency this summer only makes things worse. They’ve added veteran quick-fixes Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe, but the bulk of the offensive burden will fall upon Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique. If this trio struggles, the Devils are in trouble.
New York Islanders: Is their goaltending good enough to keep them in playoff contention? The Islanders made the playoffs last season in spite of having the worst goals-against per game of all the post-season clubs. Had their goaltending been better, they could’ve upset the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round. Surprisingly, the Isles are sticking with an ageing Evgeni Nabokov (supposedly because his teammates wanted him back) and little-used backup Kevin Poulin. Both must elevate their performances for the Isles to return to the postseason.
New York Rangers: Will the Rangers improve under new head coach Alain Vigneault? Despite the presence of experienced scorers Rick Nash and Brad Richards in the lineup, the Rangers struggled offensively last season. Blame was placed upon former coach John Tortorella’s demanding defensive style and the Blueshirts weariness with his outspokenness. Vigneault is expected to put more emphasis on offense, which could help Nash, and especially Richards, out of their scoring doldrums.
Ottawa Senators: Can they overcome the depature of long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson? For over a decade, Alfredsson was the face of the Senators and its undisputed leader. With “Alfie” having departed for Detroit, it’s expected the Senators will turn toward Jason Spezza or Chris Phillips to fill the captain’s role, but it remains to be seen if they can suitably fill the leadership void. Given their depth in young talent and coach-of-the-year Paul MacLean behind the bench, the Senators are considered a rising force in the East, but they’ll need strong on-ice leadership.
Philadelphia Flyers: Are Steve Mason and Ray Emery the answer to their goaltending woes? It’s been the Flyers blind spot for the Flyers since Ron Hextall’s glory days nearly 25 years ago. Ilya Bryzgalov proved a flaky expensive bust, so they’ve turned to Mason (who washed out with Columbus) and Emery, who returns after rejuvenating his career as a backup in Chicago. At 25, Mason still has potential, and Emery looked sharp last season with the Blackhawks. Still, neither have been starter material for some time, and limited cap space forced management to gamble on this duo.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Can Marc-Andre Fleury regain his form? Since carrying the Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and a championship in 2009, Fleury’s performance (particularly in the playoffs) has significantly declined. It reached its nadir in the 2013 playoffs, when Fleury lost the starter’s job to backup Tomas Vokoun. The Penguins are gunning for another Stanley Cup, but to reach that goal, Fleury must regain his championship form.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Has their defensive game improved? With Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and the promising Jonathan Drouin, the Bolts won’t have trouble scoring goals, but keeping them out of their own net could remain a problem. Some question their goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback, but I believe Bishop has made significant strides as a starter. The Bolts biggest problem is their overall defensive game, particularly the play of their blueline corps. Unable to significantly bolster their defense this summer, the Lightning will need more from Matt Carle, Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer and an ageing Sami Salo.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Who will become their starting goalie, and how well will David Clarkson fit in? James Riemer seemed to have that spot sewn up last season but off-season acquisition Jonathan Bernier will challenge him for the job. It could set the stage for an unwanted “goaltender controversy”. As for Clarkson, having inked a ridiculously expensive deal with the Leafs, he’s been hyped in some circles as the second coming of Wendel Clark. For the first time in his career, Clarkson will face incredible expectations in one of the NHL’s most demanding markets. How he handles it could play a part in the Leafs playoff hopes.
Washington Capitals: Has Alexander Ovechkin truly returned to form? Ovechkin’s performance was in decline in recent years, but a move to right wing early last season rejuvenated him, leading to his third Hart Trophy and a First-Team All-Star selection. Still, Ovechin’s critics point out this turnaround occurred in a lockout-shortened season, casting doubt over his ability to carry that over into this season. As Ovechkin goes, so go the Capitals, who’ll need their captain to be Hart Trophy material again this season.