The new NHL season is finally here and 30 teams are ready (some more ready than others) to begin their annual pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Every franchise has reasons for hope and reasons for concern. Here is a look at the biggest question each team is facing as the 2008-09 season begins. This entry will look at the Eastern Conference teams while part II will examine the Western Conference. Clubs are presented alphabetically within their divisions.
New Jersey Devils: The Devils still have Marty Brodeur, perhaps the best goalie in NHL history, but for a team with a long standing reputation for strong defensive play, New Jersey’s biggest question mark is on the blue line. The Devils are very strong at center and appear set up front, but if the New Jersey hopes to make another run at the Cup with Brodeur in net, they will have to beef up their defense corps before the playoffs begin. Bryce Salvador, Mike Mottau and Andy Greene are all expected to be in the top six and that’s just not championship caliber defense.
New York Islanders: The Isles’ finished near the bottom of the league in goal scoring last year and the off-season didn’t provide obvious answers to the question: who is going to put the puck in the net? Veterans Doug Weight and Mark Streit should help the power play, but Isles will be relying on youngsters like Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Sean Bergenheim, Jeff Tambellini and Blake Comeau to be major offensive contributors. None of those players have ever scored more than 10 goals in an NHL season.
New York Rangers: The Broadway Blues lost last year’s captain, Jaromir Jagr to the new Russian Kontinental League. Brendan Shanahan, Martin Straka and Sean Avery are also playing elsewhere. That’s a lot of offense to replace and a lot of leadership. The Rangers built their club around Jagr after the lockout and now they will be building around Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. New York will have chemistry issues early in the season as the new components of the team get to know each other. It will be up to Drury and Gomez to take control of the locker room and get this team ready for the playoff push.
Philadelphia Flyers: Philadelphia made a giant leap last season from league sad sack to Cup contender. The Flyers defensemen lack experience and may not be ready to help the team to take the next step. Players like Ryan Parent and Braydon Coburn have to step up and take their game to the next level for Philadelphia to be an Eastern Conference power. Some scouts have also questioned whether or not goaltender Martin Biron has what it takes to lead a team to the promised land.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Teams that lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in recent seasons have suffered the biggest “hangover” the following season, winning just one playoff series in the past 11 years. The Pens have some of the best young players in the game in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Still, Pittsburgh is trying to replace the offensive contributions of Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone with Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan and that is asking a lot.
Boston Bruins: The B’s were back in the playoffs last season and they have a solid team defense. The question facing the Bruins is where are the goals going to come from. Boston had only two 20-goal scorers last year and only added Michael Ryder up front. Phil Kessel should add more scoring as he matures and a healthy Patrice Bergeron will help, but the Bruins need more goal scoring from their wings if they want to contend for the division title.
Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller showed the strain of playing 76 games last season. The previous two seasons, he had split time with Martin Biron. Without an established backup, Miller wore down during the stretch drive and it cost the Sabres in the end. With the addition of Patrick Lalime, the Sabres again have a capable backup. They re-signed Miller to a long-term deal this off-season. Now, he needs a bounce back season if the Sabres are going to return to the playoff dance.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs relied on Carey Price in the playoffs and the rookie let them down against the Flyers. While his regular season play was stellar, in the playoffs, he let in too many soft goals and it cost Montreal a shot at the Stanley Cup. Unless Price shows he is a reliable playoff goalie, Canadiens’ fans are in for a disappointing ending to their 100th anniversary season.
Ottawa Senators: The Sens hope team chemistry improves after the departure of Ray Emery and his distracting sideshow. Scoring depth remains an issue, but the biggest question facing the Senators may be how to replace the loss of Wade Redden. Redden had a disappointing season last year, but the Sens don’t have anybody else on their blue line to quarterback the power play and carry the puck out of their own zone. 21-year-old Brian Lee will get a chance but scouts are not sure if he’s ready to perform that role at the NHL level.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs have yet to re-sign captain Mats Sundin and are going with a youth movement after years of adding high-priced veteran free agents to fill holes. The Leafs need to figure out where the goal scoring will come from. Nik Antropov is the only returning 20-goal scorer although Jason Blake should bounce back and score at least 20 this year. Like the Islanders, the Maple Leafs will be relying on young players up front. Unless two or three of them come through, Toronto will lose a lot of low scoring games this year.
Atlanta Thrashers: Atlanta has plenty of issues to address, but the biggest may be a lack of bankable talent at center. Erik Christensen is the early favorite to pivot the top line and while he has potential, he has never scored more than 33 points in an NHL season. Jason Williams may also help, but at best, the Thrashers’ talent at center can be generously described as “unproven.”
Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes lost a lot of leadership and experience on the blue line last year. Glen Wesley retired, Bret Hedican, Mike Commodore and David Tanabe have all moved on. Youngsters like Joni Pitkanen, Josef Melichar and Anton Babchuk have a chance to step up and show what they can do. Carolina needs at least two young defensemen to play consistently if they hope to dethrone the Caps.
Florida Panthers: The loss of center Olli Jokinen will be tough to replace. Jokinen potted 34 goals and was a team leader. It will be up to Stephen Weiss to step in and take over the number one center position. Weiss had 13 goals last season but he will need to at least double that to this young Panthers team to have a chance to crash the playoff party.
Tampa Bay Lightning: With new ownership, a new coach and the league’s top draft choice in Steven Stamkos, there is hope again in Tampa Bay. This is a very young team and the Bolts are relying on inexperienced players, especially on defense. The goaltending also remains a question as Mike Smith is unproven as a starter and Olaf Kolzig is past the point where he can carry the load on his own.
Washington Capitals: Can Jose Theodore lead the Caps back to the playoffs? Theodore has been very inconsistent over the course of his NHL career. When he’s on his game, he’s been among the league’s best. When he’s off, Theodore plays like a journeyman and can easily set back the young, up and coming Caps.
COMING MONDAY: Questions from the Western Conference