By Stu Hackel
Every NHL season starts with expectations and conjures up predictions on where teams might finish. Longtime readers know we eschew such forecasts here at Red Light, taking cues from our patron saint Hector (Toe) Blake who famously said (seen in this video), “Predictions are for gypsies.” In fact, we were going to call this blog “Toe Blake’s Tavern,” but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, instead, here’s one of our favorite preseason habits. Rather than exhaustively breaking down each team’s offense, defense, goaltending, special teams, coaching, intangibles and so forth (we’ll let Adrian Dater and Darren Eliot do that), let’s try to boil down each team’s success or failure to one or a few essential themes. Each club has them and the answers to these questions, theoretically at least, should go a long way to determining if teams plays up to their expectations and potential.
Anaheim – Can goalie Jonas Hiller, who missed a large chunk of last season with a mysterious case of vertigo, avoid a reoccurrence and bounce back to his excellent first-half form that had him close to Tim Thomas as the best goalie in the NHL?
Boston — Assuming Tim Thomas plays somewhere in the neighborhood of his remarkable performance last season, can the Bruins survive the short offseason? Can they continue to have the good fortune and good health every champion requires and beat back the diminished hunger that almost always accompanies winning it all? Can they become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Red Wings in 1998?
Buffalo — They’ve got a different look on defense with the additions of Robin Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, and Ryan Miller finally has a strong backup in Jhonas Enroth, but will the Sabres be able to complement their strong defense with a potent offense? Will someone among their top six forwards — let’s say Thomas Vanek — finally explode with a 40-goals or more season and carry the rest of the team along with him?
Calgary — Having shipped Robin Regehr to Buffalo, do the Flames have a strong enough blueline corps to resume their second-half sharpness from last season? And does projected top center Mikael Backlund’s broken finger mean their lack of depth in the middle dooms them to another staggering start?
Carolina — No team in the NHL allowed more shots on goal than the Hurricanes did last season, and only the heroics of goalie Cam Ward kept them in the playoff hunt until the last day. They finished sixth in goal-scoring in the East, but had a minus-3 goal differential. The question for this team is clear: Can it improve defensively having not appreciably upgraded its shutdown capabilities in the offseason?
Chicago — Their great depth and chemistry as Cup champs in 2010 was destroyed in a salary cap purge. Will GM Stan Bowman’s offseason moves to rebuild the club help recapture the magic that ended the Blackhawks 49-year Stanley Cup drought?
Colorado – The Avalanche allowed the most goals in the NHL last season. Can they reverse that with what seems like a shallow blueline corps and the goaltending tandem of oft-injured Semyon Varlamov and the past-his-prime Jean-Sebastien Giguere?
Columbus — Will Jeff Carter, who has been more scorer than set-up guy, finally be the center that Rick Nash has never had to get him the puck during his entire Blue Jackets career? And will James Wisniewski, who is being paid like a Number 1 defenseman, actually be something remotely close to one (when he returns from suspension, that is)? Can Steve Mason again be the goalie he was as a rookie?
Dallas — Still operating on a slim budget until new ownership is secured, can the rebuilt depth gained by adding Michael Ryder (reunited with Mike Ribeiro), Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, Jake Dowell, Eric Godard, Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray (rescued from AHL exile), plus the continued development of Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn offset new coach Glen Gulutzan’s loss Brad Richards?
Detroit — Despite an infusion of youth, the core of the Red Wings is still older and, in the case of top defender Nick Lidstrom, near the end. Will the years and miles catch up with this group before the younger players can effectively assert themselves as the next generation of Detroit stalwarts?
Edmonton – No one questions the potential of the Oilers’ exciting, talented forwards, but it does not seem to be matched by the defense corps. Edmonton may not have trouble scoring, but how much trouble will the Oilers have winning if they can’t keep opponents from bombarding poor Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk?
Florida — With a massive overhaul of their roster, and adding veterans of some stature, will this latest version of the Panthers under new coach Kevin Dineen be one of the NHL’s surprise teams, able to end the franchise’s decade long absence from postseason competition?
Los Angeles – Will the addition of Mike Richards and the security Drew Doughty has in his new eight-year, $56 million contract give the Kings the strength down the middle and the leadership in the room to challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference?
Minnesota — Can Dany Heatley once again become the goal scoring force that made him a three-time postseason All-Star? And can Marek Zidlicky stay healthy enough to replace Brent Burns as the main man on the blueline?
Montreal — Will Andrei Markov be healthy enough to effectively anchor a rebuilt defense? Will Scott Gomez shake the Bell Centre boo birds by being a consistent point producer? And can Erik Cole bring to the Canadiens’ offense what he brought to Carolina without Eric Staal as his center?
Nashville — Players may come and go, but the blue-collar Predators under Barry Trotz, the most underrated coach in hockey, still manage to be the same hard-to-play against team every year – very strong defensively and in goal. But the same question that has plagued this team in the past arises this season: Where will the offense come from and will it be enough to lift them further this season than last?
New Jersey – Can Ilya Kovalchuk bounce back to 50-goal prominence? How will the Devils, and especially Zach Parise, deal with the prolonged absence of Travis Zajac to injury? And how much does Martin Brodeur have left in the tank, especially playing behind a rebuilding defense corps?
New York Islanders – Their young forwards hold the promise of a return to glory, but there are questions on defense, where only captain Mark Streit is a top-end talent, and in goal, where between brittle Rick DiPietro, redemption-seeking veteran Evgeni Nabokov and young journeyman Al Montoya, nothing seems certain. Can these problems work themselves out to the club’s benefit? And every season, the Islanders go into a bad patch where they stall in the standings while other clubs pass them by. Can they avoid a prolonged slump that sabotages their playoff chances?
New York Rangers – Is Brad Richards the answer to getting Marian Gaborik and the entire offense into high gear? Assuming Marc Staal bounces back from concussion, the defense corps still lacks a veteran presence that can stabilize things when needed. Can that be remedied or overcome? And has Michael Del Zotto, on the squad to run the power play, overcome the poor decision-making that plagued him last season?
Ottawa — With questionable depth among their scoring forwards, can Nikita Filatov really be the steal of the offseason and will 18-year-old Mika Zibanejad not be overwhelmed? Can both provide the Senators with the weaponry to worry opponents? And can Sergei Gonchar bounce back from a terrible season and spark the Sens’ rushes and power play?
Philadelphia — If the NHL’s wildest chemistry experiment clicks — and that includes James van Riemsdyk showing that last spring was no mirage, Claude Giroux continuing his growth as an elite player, Jaromir Jagr contributing consistently, other newcomers providing grit, and Ilya Bryzgalov justifying his massive contract — one burning question still lingers: Can Chris Pronger avoid injury and be the fearsome force that dominates games once again?
Phoenix – Can Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera adequately replace Ilya Bryzgalov in goal and give the offensively challenged Coyotes a chance to make the playoffs? And how much longer can this team limp forward without real ownership?
Pittsburgh — Very simply, how well can the Penguins play until Sidney Crosby returns to the lineup, and will he be able to again be the top player he was after his extended layoff?
St. Louis — Can David Perron recover from his long concussion rehab and reach his potential while joining a strong group of developing fowards that seems annually on the verge of greatness only to have injury and consistency issues? And is Jaroslav Halak a legitimate star NHL goalie capable of consistent play over the long haul?
San Jose — Can Thomas Greiss blunt the effect of the team’s early season goaltending injuries – Antti Niemi’s leg cyst will delay his start a bit; Antero Nittymaki’s lower body injury will keep him out even longer — and prevent the Sharks’ season from getting off poorly? Can Brent Burns stay healthy, get to and stay at the elite level his talent portends, while taking some of the pressure off Dan Boyle and Joe Thornton? And freed from the Wild’s defensive ways, will Martin Havlat find happiness in San Jose and bring some fire back into his game?
Tampa Bay – More significantly than whether Steven Stamkos can avoid the sort of slump he experienced during the second half last season, can Dwayne Roloson, who turns 42 later this month, again be a season-long force in goal? And how will the league’s best young coach, Guy Boucher, keep his message from getting stale with a team that rode his innovative style to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final?
Toronto — The Maple Leafs strong second half was sparked by the unexpected goaltending of James Reimer. Is he the real deal or a mere flash in Brian Burke’s pan — and if he’s the latter, what will the Leafs do in goal? Will newcomers John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson give the them a potent power play? And can another newcomer, Tim Connolly, somehow avoid injury and develop some serious chemistry that unleashes Phil Kessel?
Vancouver — Will Roberto Luongo be able to set aside his unfortunate SC Final goat horns and stay mentally tough in the face of his critics? Will Christian Ehrhoff’s departure badly compromise the Canucks’ defensive depth? And can the team as a whole put last June’s disappointment behind it and recapture its hunger and swagger for another run at the Cup?
Washington — Can Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom rebound from a down season to again terrorize NHL defenses and goalies? And have GM George McPhee’s offseason moves provided the missing ingredient to finally make the Caps legitimate Stanley Cup threats?
Winnipeg — Will the grueling travel to play Southeast divisional games grind down the Jets’ effectiveness? Can they improve on the dismal defensive record of last season’s Thrashers? Will Dustin Byfuglien, who could personify the Jets’ identity, be an impact player or a heavy drag for Winnipeg? And will the fans’ sweet euphoria of being back in the NHL turn sour if this club can’t contend for a playoff spot?
Just some things to ponder as we go rollin’ and tumblin’ through another season.