On Thursday, the NHL will drop the puck for the 2010-11 with five games on the opening night schedule. With that in mind, here are five storylines to keep an eye on throughout the upcoming season.
Can the Champs Repeat?
While the Chicago Blackhawks had their fair share of departures, there is still reason to believe that the ‘Hawks can make a playoff run. Dustin Byfuglien, Antti Niemi, Kris Versteeg and Brent Sopel are gone because of Cap reasons and defenseman Brian Campbell will miss the first few weeks of the regular season. Goaltender Marty Turco fills the void Niemi left, and even without Campbell, the Hawks still have one of the best defenses in the league with Brent Seabrook and reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith leading the way. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa will still provide the needed contributions on offense and Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer and Viktor Stalberg (who came over from Toronto in the trade with Versteeg) should provide contributions as well.
The quest to repeat as Cup champs will be a challenge in it of itself, but there’s still an argument that the Hawks can win a round or two in the playoffs.
The Aftermath of Kovy-Gate
The talk of the summer surrounded the Devils re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk and the whole saga surrounding the NHL and NHLPA regarding his massive contract. Now that the punishment has been issued to the Devils and the whole Kovy-Gate saga has come to an end, General Manager Lou Lamoriello needs to make some room to get under the cap. The most likely scenario for Lamoriello right now is putting Bryce Salvador on Long Term Injured Reserve to provide a temporary relief, but they still might have to move some pieces to get under the cap. Jamie Langenbrunner, who has one year left on his current contract, has been rumored to be on the block.
The New Look Sharks
The Sharks will still have one of the best lines in the league in Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, while Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Devin Setoguchi should still provide the secondary scoring. Niemi and Antero Nittymaki will split the time to start the year to fill the void left by Evgeni Nabakov, who departed for the KHL during the offseason. Manny Malhotra and Rob Blake have also departed, but the Sharks did little to fill those voids (except when they offered Niklas Hjalmarsson an offer sheet, which was matched by the Blackhawks).
The Turnover at the Tank might take a little while to get used to, but the Sharks should still be right up there in the top of the West during the regular season. Whether that translates into playoff success or not still remains to be seen.
The New Look Lightning
In his first few months as the Bolts’ General Manager, longtime Detroit Red Wing Steve Yzerman has already made a few nice acquisitions. Pavel Kubina returns to the Lightning for a second stint after leaving for Toronto in 2006 and a brief stop in Atlanta last year, while Simon Gagne, if healthy, could be one of the biggest acquisitions in the off-season and Dan Ellis comes in to sure up the goaltending. With a mix of youngsters like Steven Stamkos, Steve Downie and Victor Hedman, and a strong veteran presence with Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Mattias Ohlund, the Lightning should be in the mix for a playoff spot in the East under first year head coach Guy Boucher.
The Wild East
To say that the top teams in the East during the regular season haven’t had the same success in the playoffs the past few years would be an understatement. In 2008, the top seeded Montreal Canadiens had a grueling battle against the Boston Bruins in a seven game series before being eliminated by the sixth seeded Philadelphia Flyers. In 2009, the top seeded Bruins swept the Habs before falling in the next round against the sixth seeded Carolina Hurricanes. During these past playoffs, none of the top three teams made it to the second round.
The Eastern Conference is a difficult process to figure out. The hockey pundits have picked the Capitals, Bruins, Penguins, Devils and Flyers to represent the East in the Stanley Cup. While those teams deserve to be up there as the top teams, keep an eye on the Sabres and Lightning this year as those under the radar teams who can make some noise in the playoffs, just like the underdogs have done in the past.
Until then, your’s truly would rather pick the winner of the East out of a hat.