After a long summer, the 2010-11 season is finally upon us. Here’s a look at the key issue facing each team as the season starts as well as where they are predicted to finish.
(* indicates a team will win its division.)
1. Washington Capitals* — The Caps have more than enough offensive firepower and realistically, their season will be judged on how they do in the playoffs. The biggest regular-season question facing Washington is goaltending. The Caps are going with the young duo of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Neither is a proven NHL starterat least not yet. Unless one of them proves themself ready, the Caps may have to acquire a goalie before the playoffs if they hope to fulfill their Stanley Cup aspirations. Another early playoff exit may mean the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure in Washington, which would be a shame.
2. New Jersey Devils* — The re-signing of Ilya Kovalchuk got the most attention over the summer, but the big question in New Jersey as the season begins is actually defense. New coach John MacLean favors a more offensive style and he certainly has the horses. But do the Devils have enough depth on defense and will 38-year-old future HOFer Martin Brodeur be comfortable in a more offensive-minded system? Also will Brodeur be rested enough to get his club past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007?
3. Boston Bruins* — The Bruins’ big question last season was where were the goals going to come from. That remains an issue but acquiring Nathan Horton and drafting Tyler Seguin should help. So should a return to health for many forwards although Marc Savard remains sidelined with post concussion symptoms. Defense remains a strong point, but can Tuukka Rask duplicate his stellar numbers from last year? If he does, the B’s are well stocked for a long playoff run.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins — The Pens have a sparkling new home and return the core of a team that has won two conference titles and one Stanley Cup in the last three years. Names like Crosby, Malkin and Fleury remain ready to lead. Sergei Gonchar will be tough to replace and Jordan Staal’s bad foot will keep him out of action early in the year, but there is plenty of top-line talent on this team and they should contend for another Cup run this year if Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski can provide enough spark from the blue line and their top players stay healthy.
5. Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers are a very talented team from top to bottom, but they are still relying on less than top flight goaltending to try to make another run at the Cup. It nearly worked, too, as journeyman Michael Leighton played well enough to get the team to the Finals. There is plenty of scoring depth and the Flyers may have the strongest top six defensemen in the league, so goaltending remains the biggest question in Philly. Leighton will miss the early part of the season with a back injury so Brian Boucher, another journeyman, will play early in net.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning — Welcome to your new job, Steve Yzerman. The HOF player is the new GM in town and he has quickly put together a talented team with firepower up front. The addition of Pavel Kubina will help the blueline. Mike Smith and Dan Ellis are not proven winners as starting goalies and they will be a question mark. The defense is also questionable, at least in its own zone. The other issue is how quickly all the newcomers can adjust to playing together and for new coach Guy Boucher. Still, the future looks brighter in Tampa Bay. The question is, how much progress will they make this year?
7. Atlanta Thrashers — There is a lot of new talent in Atlanta, including a new goalie in Chris Mason. There is more depth on “D” than before with Tobias Enstrom, Johnny Oduya and Ron Hainsey joining Blackhawks playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien. They key up front may be Bryan Little, who saw his offensive numbers drop last year. The Thrashers need him to at least come closer to his rookie year than his sophomore slump. If Little plays well, the top two lines look solid even without Kovalchuk. If they Thrashers get consistent goaltending, they have a chance to grab one of the final playoff spots in the East this year.
8. Buffalo Sabres — It all begins with Ryan Miller, one of the game’s most outstanding and consistent goalies. The defense is mobile and features Tyler Myers, one of the best young defensemen in the game. Buffalo has scoring depth, but no outstanding goal scorers who put fear in opposing players. Thomas Vanek comes the closest. Guys like Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville are steady, but not spectacular. Miller should be good enough to get the Sabres to the playoffs but without a go to guy on offense. Can they do much damage once they get there?
9. Ottawa Senators — The Sens will be counting on players like Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek to bounce back from injuries and contribute offensively on the top two lines. Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson remain stalwarts and there is good grit with the likes of Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu. The loss of Filip Kuba to injury early will hurt but the biggest question in Ottawa is whether goalie Pascal Leclaire is ready to step up and win the top job. If he does, the Sens could make the playoffs, if not, it could be a long year in Canada’s capital.
10. Montreal Canadiens — If you think Carey Price had pressure before, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It was Jaroslav Halak who became a fan favorite last year in leading the Habs on a long playoff run, but Halak was sent to St. Louis, leaving Price the undisputed starter and an undeniable target for Montreal fans if things don’t go well. The Canadiens are also counting on Tomas Plekanec to duplicate last year’s strong numbers. Price will one day be a very good NHL starter, but not in Montrealhe just doesn’t seem suited for the pressure of playing there.
11. New York Rangers — The Rangers still don’t know where the goals are going to come from. After Marian Gaborik, who will put the puck in the net? And if the brittle Gaborik goes down for an extended time, the Rangers will be in trouble. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the game’s best netminders and gives his club a chance to win early every night, but unless players like Alexander Frolov, Eric Christensen, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky can each produce 20 or more goals, Lundqvist will have to win a lot of 2-1 games again this year. Youngsters Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy also have to mature quickly to solidify the Rangers blueline.
12. Carolina Hurricanes — A healthy and consistent Cam Ward will be a big help for the ‘Canes in net and the defense is solid, but outside of Eric Staal, the Hurricanes don’t have many proven NHL goal scorers. Younger players are being counted on now that Ray Whitney and Rod Brind’Amour have retired. Carolina is probably a year away from contending for the playoffs.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs — The Leafs are entering year 43 of their rebuilding program. J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson are battling for time in goal. Gustavsson is the better long-term option but the two will probably split time early. The Leafs are weakest at center where Tyler Bozek is still considered the choice for the top line. The Leafs still don’t have enough consistent scoring and despite Brian Burke’s promises to the contrary, they aren’t ready for a playoff run unless a lot of players have career seasons.
14. New York Islanders — The Islanders are counting on the development of their young players to provide scoring this year. The defense improved with the additions of James Wisniewski, Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina and goalie Rick DiPietro is back and ready to attempt to resume his once promising career. But the Isles lost two of the three players they could least afford to lose to injury before the season even started. Top defenseman Mark Streit is out six months while forward Kyle Okposo will miss two to three months. Those are costly losses and it will be very tough for this young team to overcome them. While people are hoping for a Stamkos-like point improvement from John Tavares, he lacks the weapons around him to reach that level. Tavares is the real deal, however, and should show steady improvement.
15. Florida Panthers — New GM Dale Tallon is starting over in Florida and will concentrate on rebuilding through the draft. That, of course, takes time. Tomas Vokoun provides steady goaltending but he often faces a lot of shots. The top line of Stephen Weiss centering David Booth and Michael Frolik is good if they can all stay healthy, which has not been the case in recent seasons. Scoring depth is a problem and this team needs a few years to get back to the playoffs, which they will likely miss for an NHL-record 10th straight season.
1. San Jose Sharks* — The NHL regular-season superstars finally made a playoff run, reaching the conference finals before being swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champions. Evgeni Nabokov is gone, but the duo of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki gives the Sharks an experienced vet and a young goalie who already has a Cup win under his belt. The two players the Sharks may miss most are experienced defenseman Rob Blake, now retired, and third-line center Manny Malhotra, who was a checking and PK specialist. Again, what the Sharks do in the playoffs will overshadow their regular season. The talent is certainly there, but is the heart?
2. Vancouver Canucks* — The biggest question facing Vancouver is goalie Roberto Luongo. He struggled a bit last year down the stretch and again failed to come through in the playoffs. Offensively, there are plenty of weapons and depth. Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis are new on “D” and must perform well to keep Luongo from being overwhelmed. The talent is there for the Canucks to contend if Luongo lives up to his reputation.
3. Chicago Blackhawks* — No defending champion has had this much turnover since the 1967 Leafs were broken up by expansion. The core of the ‘Hawks remains, but the chemistry is different and it will take some time for the new players to integrate into the team. Does a fresh start in Chicago mean a return to past form for Marty Turco? If it does, the ‘Hawks will contend and make another run. If not, the ‘Hawks will not repeat this year and a new man will be between the pipes next season.
4. Los Angeles Kings — This team is young and still improving. Terry Murray has two strong goalies who have not yet reached their prime in Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier and a young group of blueliners who are mobile, deep and dangerous. Not acquiring Kovalchuk may have been best for the Kings in the long run. The Kings can go far this year if they get great goaltending in the playoffs. This should be a team to watch for the next few years.
5. Detroit Red Wings — The Wings are old but still very talented and they have depth. Mike Modano and Jiri Hudler add more to a solid group of forwards while Ruslan Salei fills in on the blueline where the Wings lost Brett Ledba and Andreas Lilja. Jimmy Howard has yet to prove himself to be spectacular, but the Wings have won the Cup without top goaltending before. Eight Wings are 35 or older. This team is running out of time, but still may have one more Cup run in it this season.
6. Colorado Avalanche — The Avs have a lot of young talent up front like Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Paul Stastny and Brandon Yip. Defense has some questions like if Adam Foote can stay healthy at his age and if John-Michael Liles can rebound from a poor season. If the young players continue to develop and goalie Craig Anderson can repeat his stellar performance of a year ago, then Colorado should return to the playoffs. The Avs are not true contenders yet, but they are building something that could contend soon.
7. Phoenix Coyotes — Last year, the Desert Dogs came out of nowhere to surprise a lot of people. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov keeps the team in games. Keeping Lee Stempniak and adding Eric Belanger helps the forward lines, although it’s doubtful Stempniak will keep up his torrid pace of late last year. The Coyotes have a good mix of vets and youth. If Bryzgalov continues to shine, the Coyotes should return to the playoffs.
8. St. Louis Blues — The team is very excited about adding Habs playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in net. The key for the Blues will be the continued progress of some of their younger players like Erik Johnson, David Perron and T.J. Oshie. Players like Brad Boyes and David Backes must bounce back to the numbers they put up two years ago. The leadership of Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya will be felt, but the Blues have enough young talent to overcome it.
9. Nashville Predators — Every year the Preds lose players to their limited budget and every year, GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz find a way to get back to the playoffs with the talent they have remaining. Pekke Rinne will be the goalie and the team needs him to play well again. Nashville has a mobile and strong defense but the question remains where the goal scoring will come from. Can Matthew Lombardi return to form? Is Sergei Kostitsyn reliable? The Preds have their work cut out for them, but write them off at your own peril.
10. Calgary Flames — It’s hard to discount a team with Miikka Kiprusoff in net, but GM Darryl Sutter’s back-to-the-future approach is questionable at best. Olli Jokinen didn’t mesh well with Jarome Iginla during his last tour of duty with Calgary, so why should anything be different this time around? Alex Tanguay was also a curious pickup. Injuries to Daymond Langkow and Matt Stajan won’t help up front where this team simply lacks goal scoring. The Flames are probably good enough to hang around if Kiprusoff stays in form, but they aren’t quite good enough to win.
11. Columbus Blue Jackets — The key to the Blue Jackets season will be the return to form of goalie Steve Mason. Mason won the Calder Trophy two years ago and helped the Jackets reach the playoffs. Last season, he got off to a very slow start and Columbus had no chance to contend. The return of Nikita Filatov from the KHL should help, but there still isn’t enough scoring punch after Rick Nash. New coach Scott Arniel will try to play a more wide-open system, but that doesn’t mesh with the team’s strengths.
12. Anaheim Ducks — Jonas Hiller is a good goalie and the top lines feature some good young scoring talent, but the Ducks defense, which once featured Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin is now lacking. Toni Lydman is suffering from double vision and is out indefinitely, which doesn’t help. It looks like a rebuilding year in Anaheim, who will probably bid farewell to all-time great Teemu Selanne after this season.
13. Dallas Stars — The Mike Modano Era is over and Marty Turco is gone, as well. Those two players were the backbone of a team that has established a winning tradition over the past 15 years. Kari Lehtonen is a talented goalie, but he ever seems to stay healthy long enough to establish himself as a bona fide NHL starter. Brad Richards, Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro should provide enough scoring punch, but the defense is questionable. This is a team in transition.
14. Minnesota Wild — The Wild still need more goal scoring, both from the forwards and from the blue line where only Marek Zidlicky produces consistently. Losing backup goalie Josh Harding won’t help and that means Niklas Backstrom will shoulder most of the load. The Wild need to find goal scoring and will be counting on Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Andrew Brunette and Martin Havlat to join Mikko Koivu in that department.
15. Edmonton Oilers — The Oilers are young and heading in the right direction, but they still have a long way to go. Tom Renney is an excellent coach and Taylor Hall should be a star eventually, but there isn’t enough scoring on the roster yet. The Oilers also gave up the most goals in the league last season and need help on “D” as well. The arrest of Nikolai Khabibulin over the offseason for DUI didn’t help. The Oilers will be more exciting to watch this season, but they aren’t a playoff team just yet.