Summer is almost over, and teams are just a couple of weeks away from putting down ice and opening training camps.
But with the opening faceoff of the 2011-12 season only about six weeks away, every team still has questions. Will that big rookie make an impact right away? Will the free agent signee fill the hole he was brought in to plug? Will the offense/defense/goaltending/special teams improve?
With that in mind, here's a look at the key question facing each team in the Eastern Conference:
Will the Bruins be plagued by Cup hangover?
The Bruins spent the summer enjoying their first Stanley Cup since the days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Now comes the hard part -- trying to do it again, something that no team has been able to do since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98. The Bruins made few major changes during the offseason, meaning that they return the core of the team that ended the Cup drought. But in addition to 29 teams that want to unseat them, the B's will have to battle a short offseason and the hangover that often plagues Cup winners.
Are expectations too high under new owner Terry Pegula?
There's no doubt that Pegula has brought a lot of enthusiasm -- and pumped a lot of money -- into the Sabres since purchasing them late last season. Buffalo has gone from a low-budget team to one of the NHL's big spenders, including this summer's addition of defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, as well as forward Ville Leino. But while the newcomers are talented, none is an All-Star, and the Sabres struggled to a seventh-place finish last season before being KO'd in the first round. Expectations are high in Buffalo; the hard part for the Sabres will be living up to them.
Should a non-playoff team have made more changes?
The 'Canes blew a chance to make the playoffs by losing their season finale to Tampa Bay at home -- the fourth time in five years since their Cup triumph in 2006 that the Hurricanes have been left out of the postseason. GM Jim Rutherford opted not to make a major shakeup, bringing in Tomas Kaberle to replace Joe Corvo (traded to Boston), letting 26-goal scorer Erik Cole go to Montreal and bringing in role players Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent. The 'Canes need huge seasons from captain Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward to avoid missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
How quickly will all the newcomers jell?
Scorecard sales should be brisk at the BankAtlantic Center this season after the Panthers went on a spending spree. With oodles of cap space and a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2000, GM Dale Tallon opened his checkbook and brought in a parade of veterans, including defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell, forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Kopecky, and goaltender Jose Theodore. Another newcomer, first-time NHL coach Kevin Dineen, will have the task of putting all the pieces together with the hopes of ending the longest playoff drought in NHL history.
Can Scott Gomez bounce back?
Then-GM Bob Gainey took on a huge contract (and gave away a talented young defenseman in Ryan McDonagh) when he acquired Scott Gomez from the Rangers two summers ago. The Canadiens have been rewarded with seasons of 12 goals and 59 points in 2009-10, followed by just seven goals and 38 points (both career lows) last season -- when Gomez also dropped from plus-1 to minus-15, by far the worst showing of his career. With a cap hit of more than $7.3 million through 2013-14, the Canadiens can't afford another season like the one Gomez had in 2010-11.
How will new coach Peter DeBoer mesh with his stars?
DeBoer was fired after three non-playoff seasons in Florida, but quickly resurfaced in New Jersey with the task of trying to succeed the retired Jacques Lemaire. John MacLean couldn't do it last season -- the Devils had a miserable first half, and not even a return by Lemaire and a great second-half surge was enough to keep them from missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996. DeBoer will have to work out a playing schedule with 39-year-old workaholic goaltender Martin Brodeur and develop a good relationship with Ilya Kovalchuk, who excelled under Lemaire after a terrible start under MacLean.
Who's the goaltender?
The Islanders led the NHL last season in one dubious statistic: most goaltenders used. Six goalies played at least once for the Islanders (not counting another who dressed but didn't play and an eighth, Evgeni Nabokov, who was claimed on waivers but wouldn't report). The Isles have an excellent nucleus of young talent, but they need to settle on a No. 1 goalie as they try to end a four-year playoff drought. Will it be oft-injured Rick DiPietro, who had the worst goals-against average of any goalie to play 25 or more games last season? Will Nabokov re-emerge? Will late-season pickup Al Montoya build on a solid late-season showing? Will youngsters like Kevin Poulin or Mikko Koskinen step up? The answer could determine the Isles' fate this season.
Is Brad Richards a difference-maker?
The Rangers are committed to Richards -- they inked the 31-year-old center to a nine-year, $60 million deal, reuniting the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner with coach John Tortorella, his boss on the '04 Cup-winning team in Tampa Bay. Richards averaged better than a point a game in his three-plus seasons in Dallas, and the Rangers are counting on his to be the playmaker who revives Marian Gaborik and the No. 1 center they haven't had for several years. If that happens, it lets Tortorella drop players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan into roles for which they're more suited -- and makes the Rangers more than just a team competing for a playoff berth.
Will the real Craig Anderson please stand up?
Things stabilized in Ottawa last season when GM Bryan Murray swapped goaltenders with Colorado, sending Brian Elliott to the Avs in mid-February for Craig Anderson, whose heroics in leading the team to the 2010 playoffs were buried under injury problems and a deteriorating team. Anderson found his game in Ottawa, going 11-5-1 with a 2.05 goals-against average (a huge drop from his 3.28 GAA with Colorado) and .939 save percentage -- and earning a four-year contract. That's a big investment for a 30-year-old who's played more than 51 games in a season just once in his career. Anderson has to prove he can carry the load if Ottawa is to have any hope of returning to the playoffs.
Say this about Flyers GM Paul Holmgren: He's not afraid to shake things up. After the Flyers played musical goaltenders in the playoffs before being bounced in the second round, Holmgren made a huge commitment (9 years, $51 million) to bring in Ilya Bryzgalov from Phoenix, where his play was the biggest reason the Coyotes made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. Holmgren then traded off his top two centers, dealing captain Mike Richards (to Los Angeles) and Jeff Carter (to Columbus). To say the Flyers will be different is an understatement; to say they'll be better than the team that won the Atlantic Division last season is nothing more than a guess.
The overarching question for the Penguins is simple: When will Sidney Crosby be ready to play, and will he be as good as he was before being shelved for the season with a midseason concussion. Crosby was on the way to his best NHL season when he went down with a concussion in early January; that the Penguins were able to finish fourth in the East was a tribute to his teammates and the coaching of Dan Bylsma (who won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year). Crosby is working out at home in Nova Scotia but has yet to be cleared for contact, and the Penguins said earlier this month he's still having symptoms as he pushes to recover. Even though they made the playoffs without Crosby (and Evgeni Malkin, who should be recovered from knee surgery), they're not the same team without No. 87 in the lineup.
Was last season a great step forward -- or a fluke?
Not only did the Tampa Bay Lightning make the playoffs after a three-year absence from the postseason, they won two rounds and took Boston to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final before a 1-0 loss sent them home for the summer. The playoff run came after a 103-point season, the second-best in team history. The challenge for GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher is to build on that success rather than to have their team take a step back. Tampa Bay kept sniper Steven Stamkos and key defensive addition Eric Brewer, but a lot will depend on goaltender Dwayne Roloson. He gave the Bolts a lift after coming from the Islanders at midseason -- but his age (42) might mean the Bolts will have to manage his appearances more carefully than most starters.
Is James Reimer for real?
Toronto's goaltending has been among the NHL worst since play resumed after the 2004-05 work stoppage -- the Leafs haven't allowed less than three goals a game since '03-04. Reimer, a rookie called up at midseason, posted a 2.60 goals-against average -- the best by a Toronto goaltender in 20 or more appearances in six seasons -- and went 20-10-7 to help the Leafs take another step toward respectability. With a good young nucleus up front, Reimer will have to prove that he's more than just a three-month wonder if the Leafs are to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Can Ovi be special again?
For the first time in his career, Alex Ovechkin was a very good player last season -- as opposed to a great, difference-making player. His 32 goals and 85 points would be excellent totals for most players, but were career-lows for Ovi, who never quite found the scoring touch that had made him the only player ever to be named to the First All-Star team in each of his first five seasons. He was no longer the special player that had every pair of eyes glued to him every time he stepped on the ice. The Caps have more depth up front and a solid veteran in goal in Tomas Vokoun; they need Ovechkin to rediscover the form that made him the most exciting player in hockey.
The MTS Centre will be packed every night; will the fans be happy with what they see?
The NHL is back in Winnipeg after a 15-year absence, now that the Atlanta Thrashers have moved from the Deep South to the Great White North. Fans flocked to the ticket windows in a way they never did in Atlanta, meaning the MTS Centre, the NHL's smallest building, will be packed every night. But after the euphoria of having NHL hockey again wears off, the fans will still be watching the Thrashers, a franchise that has never won a playoff game, finished 25th in the overall standings and has more questions than answers on the roster. The bloom may come off the rose very quickly if the second iteration of the Jets is no better than the final version of the Thrashers.