By Stu Hackel
An old friend emailed me in the aftermath of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster and, reflecting on the bad news summer that hockey has had, said he couldn’t wait for the season to start so we could begin making new, better memories. He won’t have long to wait. Players for 29 of the 30 NHL teams reported for physicals today (the Red Wings give their guys an extra day off) and camp begins Saturday. The first three preseason tilts go Monday (the NHL Network will air 32 games in the two-week schedule) and then they play for keeps starting Oct. 7. So let the new memories begin. Please.
Here’s a look at some of the bigger agenda items facing teams as they start preparing for the season.
Anaheim – The Ducks will see if some of their young prospects up front are ready for the big time, but no task is bigger than ensuring that goalie Jonas Hiller has recovered from his vertigo issues and regained his timing.
Boston – While they need work on their miserable power play and have to fill Mark Recchi’s spot (is Tyler Seguin ready?), the defending champs’ top item will be to set the tone right from the start of the season in guarding against a Stanley Cup hangover.
Buffalo – With some big offseason additions, especially on defense with the acquisitions of Robin Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, plus Ville Leino up front, coach Lindy Ruff will be assessing the chemistry and figuring out who will play best with whom.
Calgary – GM Jay Feaster says those who play best in camp will get jobs. That is partly a motivational message for the veterans, but some hopefuls, like 2011 first-rounder Sven Baertschi, could have a shot at spots opened by the departures of Regehr and Daymond Langkow.
Carolina — With Eric Cole and Cory Stillman gone, there are two openings up front. Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson and others will be watched for their abilities to fill the vacancies. Two rookie d-men, Ryan Murphy and Justin Faulk, will also get long looks.
Chicago – The Hawks will be looking at netminders Ray Emery and rookie Alexander Salak, among others, in the battle to be Corey Crawford’s backup and judge how ready forwards Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger are for prime time.
Colorado – The huge roster turnover on this young squad means there will be lots of adjustments and getting-to-know-yous. There also could be spots to win at the bottom of the defense and forward depth charts, perhaps as many as five or six.
Columbus — In addition to filling in the short-term opening created by Kristian Huselius’ chest muscle injury, coach Scott Arniel has a plan to construct three scoring lines. A lot depends on the play of three rookies: center Ryan Johansen and wingers Tomas Kubalik and Cam Atkinson. Their readiness will be monitored closely.
Dallas — Most of the roster spots are secure. The biggest adjustment might be that of first-year coach Glen Gulutzan learning the new terrain, figuring out how to generate offense and compensate for the loss of Brad Richards.
Detroit – Two new assistant coaches with no NHL experience, Bill Peters and Jeff Blashill, join Mike Babcock and, with Brian Rafalski and Ruslan Salei gone, they’ll have to set new defensive pairings and the bottom end of the depth chart at forward.
Edmonton — Whether or not Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — or any rookie — makes the roster, this team is still young and developing. Coach Tom Renney’s top task is to create the right mindset and prepare them to take the next step: taking a run at a playoff spot.
Florida – Task one will be forging a new identity with at least half the players (counting returnee Ed Jovanovski) projected for the roster. Coach Kevin Dineen leads all newcomers. GM Dale Tallon says there might be three or four spots available, which adds to the newness. Rookies Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden will get a shot to stick.
Los Angeles – Assuming Drew Doughty eventually comes to terms, coach Terry Murray’s biggest concern will be configuring new lines after the substantial turnover up front. Worth watching will be how Anze Kopitar’s skating is affected by offseason ankle surgery.
Minnesota — Colton Gillies and Justin Falk will have good shots to make the Wild, but for first-year head coach Mike Yeo, training camp is all about installing his detail-oriented, structured system with his new club. He plans on drilling the players in it repeatedly and ramping up the speed at which it’s executed.
Montreal – Figuring out the third and fourth lines and a rebuilt defense corps will occupy coach Jacques Martin and his staff. But there’s uncertainty about whether top d-man Andrei Markov, coming off knee reconstruction, will be ready for the start of the season and that will force some adjustments.
Nashville — After the big turnover in Nashville, a few rookies will get a chance to be in the big picture. Forward Craig Smith and defenseman Ryan Ellis are coming off some very strong rookie games and farmhand blueliner Roman Josi is also in the mix to fill the spots vacated by Shane O’Brien and Cody Franson, and the uncertainty about Francis Bouillon, still recovering from a concussion.
New Jersey — With Travis Zajac out with an Achilles injury, new coach Pete DeBoer has to figure out who to move into the top center position to work with Zach Parise. He’s also got a few blueline spots to nail down, perhaps one less if rookie Adam Larsson plays as expected in camp.
Islanders — In a camp filled with young up-and-comers, the biggest focus could be on how the Isles sort out their veteran goaltending, with Evgeni Nabokov joining Rick DiPietro and last year’s surprise, Al Montoya, in the battle for two spots. Nabby may only be there to showcase himself for a deal elsewhere, but what if he’s the best of the three?
Rangers – Most think it’s a given, but camp will reveal if Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik jell as high-powered linemates. The bigger questions may be who plays left wing with them if they do, and learning if rookie Tim Erixon is ready to join a blueline corps that is already short on NHL experience.
Ottawa — New coach Paul MacLean has to settle on a second line center — Peter Regin, Stephane Da Costa and rookie Mika Zibanejad are likely candidates — and figure out if either or both of his highly touted rookie blueliners, David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, can make the club.
Philadelphia — Of all the science experiments taking place on NHL rosters this season, Philadelphia’s is the most interesting. No team has changed its core more and, with Chris Pronger now officially the team captain, the Flyers will start to take shape in training camp. Molding them will be coach Peter Laviolette’s biggest task.
Phoenix – After adding vets Boyd Gordon, Daymond Langkow and Raffi Torres, coach Dave Tippett will be reconfiguring his forward lines based on what he sees from them and the young players trying to make the team. His task is complicated by not having Kyle Turris signed yet, leaving a hole at center. There might be a spot to be won as a defenseman as well.
Pittsburgh — Missing Sidney Crosby, at least in the near term, will again confront the Penguins and they hope Evgeni Malkin shows in training camp that he can bounce back from his knee injury and fill some of the gap. Coach Dan Bylsma will try Tyler Kennedy on Malkin’s right wing and also test a new power play scheme with four forwards.
St. Louis — The Blues got an on-the-fly makeover last season, so training camp will be a time for coach Davis Payne to get his system and lines in place. He’ll also see if he’s got a spot for Jonathan Cheechoo and rookies like Evgeny Grachev and Philip McRae. The backup goaltending post could be up for grabs as well between Ben Bishop and Brian Elliott.
San Jose — If Antero Niittymaki is out for a few months (he may need surgery on a wonky groin), the Sharks will need to figure out who will be their backup goalie. But they also need to sort their lines with six forwards gone from last year’s club, and settle on defense tandems after having replacing three blueliners. Neither Martin Havlat nor Antti Niemi are 100 percent healthy, either.
Tampa Bay — The Lightning lost Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim in the offseason and have a fourth-line spot to fill. Camp will show if Ryan Shannon and Tom Pyatt can take two of those spots while Dana Tyrell, Blair Jones and a few others will be in the mix for the remaining spot. Ryan Malone’s bum shoulder will keep him from full preseason activities.
Toronto — The Tim Connolly-Phil Kessel partnership will be examined and the Leafs will audition left wingers for the third line, with Nazem Kadri, Joey Crabb, Philippe Dupuis, Luca Caputi and a pair of forwards who did well in rookie games, Matt Frattin and Mitchell Heard, in the mix. The blueline corps is a bit overcrowded and Mike Komisarek could battle Carl Gunnarsson for the sixth spot.
Vancouver — The Canucks need a good camp to rebuild their confidence after squandering a 2-0 Stanley Cup Final lead and a Game 7 loss on home ice. Neither Ryan Kesler (hip) nor Mason Raymond (vertebra) will be ready for camp, but Kesler may make the season opener so there could be spots to win, at least on an interim basis.
Washington — There’s talk that coach Bruce Boudreau wants to amend his defensive ways and open up the offense a bit. He’ll try a “hybrid” system in preseason. The centers need to be sorted out, with question marks on the second and third lines. They’ll try winger Brooks Laich on the second line and put Marcus Johansson on the third. If Laich doesn’t work, it opens things up for a youngster like Cody Eakin.
Winnipeg — A new coach, a new city and that should be enough for these guys to digest. But Claude Noel will have to figure out how to generate more scoring up front and improve his team defensively, especially at killing penalties. Eric Fehr starts the season on the shelf recovering from shoulder surgery and no one knows what will become of Dustin Byfuglien’s legal issues after allegedly boating while intoxicated in Minnesota.