Greetings from Slovakia! It's not exactly Asbury Park. I'm here for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Under-18 tournament, the unofficial first stop on the road to the 2012 Entry Draft. Sadly, Russian-born phenom Nail Yakupov won't be participating because he's a few months too old. The Sarnia Sting sniper – can you say that three times fast? – is expected by many to go No. 1 next June.
Fortunately (for me), I'll get to catch Yakupov's act at the NHL's Research & Development camp later in the month and I'm definitely looking forward to that. There certainly are enough high-end prospects to keep me busy during this trip.
Before I head out to the rink (I'll be sending some video postcards throughout the week), I wanted to answer a few of your questions. If I didn't get to your inquiry here, I'll make every effort to respond on Twitter. You can follow me: @ejhradek_nhl.
Will the Wings jump at the chance to sign Shea Weber next year if Nicklas Lidstrom retires? -- @The_K_Mac_D
What team wouldn't jump at the opportunity to get Shea Weber? In Detroit's case, I don't think Lidstrom retiring would have anything to do with it. I figure Wings GM Ken Holland would be interested in adding Weber under any circumstances.
For the record, after receiving a one-year, $7.5M arbitration award last week, Weber still can't test the open market (if he wants to) until July 1, 2013. Next summer, if he hasn't signed a new deal, he again will be a restricted free agent.
There is a difference, though. By CBA rule, Nashville doesn't get a second chance to choose team-elected arbitration for Weber. That means that an interested opponent could attempt to sign Weber to an offer sheet. The Predators retain the right to match, but the small-market franchise could be put in difficult financial bind.
That's why I believe GM David Poile has to get a long-term deal done with Weber before he hits RFA status again. If Poile can't get that done, I feel he'd be wise to deal him.
What are some realistic expectations of Flyers' rookie Brayden Schenn this year? Maybe a Mike Richards-type rookie year? -- @erock099
At this point, I think it's realistic to think he makes the Flyers as a third center behind Danny Briere and Claude Giroux. What kind of impact that he makes will be determined by how he adjusts to the level of competition and what kind of responsibilities that he gets from coach Peter Laviolette.
Last season, Schenn was a hair below being a two-point per game guy at the junior level (29 regular-season games, 57 points) and he contributed 11 points in 12 AHL regular-season and playoff games as well as picking up two points in eight games with the Kings.
Based on those numbers, I think it's fair to say he's ready to take on the challenge of a full-time role in the NHL. Still, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren insists the team won't rush him if they feel he's not ready.
If things go well, I don't think it's out of the question for him to challenge Mike Richards' rookie numbers from the 2005-06 season. Richards put up 11 goals and 23 assists in 79 games.
How do you think travel to Winnipeg will shape the race in the East Conference/Southeast Division? -- @sh27696
I think it will be a particular pain in the neck for teams in the Southeast Division, who'll each have to make three trips to the 'Peg. The Panthers and Lightning, in particular, must be pumped! I also imagine it will be more of a headache for other Eastern Conference foes who are spoiled by their more-cushy travel schedule.
I believe the Jets will have a real advantage because of the excitement in the market. That building will be sold out and loud each and every night. The former Thrashers were a competitive bunch for most of the season despite missing the playoffs. If they can stay reasonably healthy, I believe they have an excellent chance to secure a playoff spot in the East.
Do you think the Stars have upgraded at all even when losing Brad Richards -- @Danteas_91
I don't know if you're ever better when you lose a player like Brad Richards. In the off-season, the Stars, because of their uncertain ownership situation, weren't able to add a single player who can even come close to matching Richards' production and slot in their lineup.
Instead, they added a number of players that they hope will make their group stronger as a whole. For example, they signed free-agent forward Michael Ryder with the idea that he'll re-discover the chemistry he had with Stars center and former Canadiens' teammate Mike Ribeiro.
In the bigger picture, when a new owner eventually takes control of the team, the Stars should be better positioned to make a bid for a top center. I also think it's possible that Jamie Benn could emerge as a fit for that position. There are several in the Stars' organization that believe Benn can be full-time in the middle.
For the coming year, I do expect the Stars to compete for a playoff spot in a very-tight Western race. Without the cloud of uncertainty that the Richards' situation produced last year, they just might be able to get that one more point that eluded them last April.
When do you think the Drew Doughty deal gets done: this month or closer to training camp? -- @MHulicius
It's really hard to say. There's still a difference in both term and dollars between the two sides. With no hard deadline in the month of August, there's no urgency to get it done. When any negotiation doesn't have that urgency, things tend to move more slowly.
While I have no doubt the two sides will come to an agreement on a new deal, I get the feeling it just might take a little while longer.
Do you think Adam Larsson makes the Devils roster? -- @richardimage
I think there's an excellent chance that he makes the team. That's certainly his total focus. Larsson wanted to play in the League so badly he was willing to forego potentially lucrative individual bonuses to sign his entry-level deal with New Jersey. When I spoke to him at the team's summer development camp, he was extremely confident that he'll be working out of Newark.
The Devils opened up a little more room for him on the blue line by buying out the final year of Colin White's contract.
Physically, Larsson has more than enough size to play in the NHL. The question will be more about his quickness and his mental ability on a night-to-night basis against the best players in the world. That transition isn't easy, particularly on defense. I'll be keeping a close eye on Larsson during training camp.
What are the chances that Zach Parise will sign long-term with the Devils? -- @jburghoffer
I have a sneaky suspicion that this won't be the last time that I'll be asked this question. At this point, I can't give you an exact percentage because that would be pure speculation. I do think that Parise's thinking will be impacted by what happens in the first few months of the season.
However, if the team struggles and he's uncomfortable with how he's being used, I suspect he'd be more likely to test the market on July 1. Even then, as an unrestricted free agent, I wouldn't rule out him making a decision to stay put.
For now, GM Lou Lamoriello can continue to negotiate with Parise's representatives at Newport Sports, but CBA rules prohibit the sides from publicly agreeing to a new long-term deal until after Jan. 1, 2012.
Do you think the Capitals have all the pieces in place to finally make it to and win the Stanley Cup Final? -- @matthurley69
I'm not so sure that they do. Despite their off-season moves, they still don't have what I'd call a proven second center to work behind Nicklas Backstrom. It seems they will use Brooks Laich or Marcus Johansson in that situation depending on the opponent. Caps' brass was very pleased with Johansson's play in the postseason. Still, I wonder if either forward can totally fill that important spot behind Backstrom. Maybe, but I'll have to see it during the season.
On defense, as well, there remain questions. Free-agent addition Roman Hamrlik brings a wealth of experience to a group whose key guys are pretty young. Their blue line has potential for big things, but, again, I don't see it as a given.
In goal, I think you have to like the addition of veteran Tomas Vokoun, who comes at a bargain price after misreading the goaltending market. Vokoun has been terrific behind bad teams, but can he carry the weight of expectations behind a very good team in Washington?
In thinking about the Caps during the off-season, I realize I might have overrated them in the past few years because of the dynamic nature of their top players. That isn't to say this isn't a real good team. It is. It's maybe not the true Cup contender that I thought.
They're still very young, with room for growth. I feel this will be a hugely important season for the franchise, which needs to take another step in its development. Can they? Absolutely. Will they? Ask me again in January.
Will Alex Ovechkin show up to camp in shape? -- @TomShanley2112
I guess that's a little bit of a follow-up to the previous question. I don't see any reason for Ovechkin not to arrive at camp in top shape. There were some critics that felt he could have arrived back in North America in better condition last September. While he didn't have the kind of year that he has enjoyed in the past, Ovechkin's game did seem to pick up during the course of the season.
Caps GM George McPhee believes his young core stars (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Green) are ready to really take over the leadership role on the team. As such, he fully expects each of them to arrive at camp in peak condition. I got the sense that McPhee would be extremely disappointed at anything less.
What is your prediction for the Pacific Division standings, 1-5? -- @Jerad_Burke
Wow, you talk about a tough question! I'll give you my early August Pacific Division standings pick – which are subject to change on any day between now and the start of the regular season.
Remember, this is an August standings pick and it doesn't reflect what I think any of the teams might or might not do in the postseason. Top to bottom, I'll say: Sharks, Kings, Ducks, Coyotes and Stars.
At this point, I'm having a real tough time separating the Sharks and Kings. I'll box the exacta and take them 1-2 in either order.