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E.J.'s Mailbag: 'Canes contenders? Blues' top goalie?

Wednesday, 08.01.2012 / 8:31 PM / E.J. Hradek's Analysis

By EJ Hradek - NHL.com Analyst

While the National Hockey League and NHL Players' Association continue talks on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Stanley Cup takes its annual world tour, courtesy of the Los Angeles Kings, the 30 teams have spent the first part of their summer keenly trying to ready their rosters for another chase for the Cup.

That means you’ve got questions. Was a move wise or weak? Will a team be better or worse? Can a player rebound from a bad year?

Well, I’m here for you. Each week, you can tweet me the burning question that you want answered (@ejhradek_nhl) and I’ll give it my best shot. Let’s get started.

With the Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin acquisitions, do you think the Hurricanes will win the Southeast Division? -- @MarkGNCSU

I think these additions put them in a position to compete with the Capitals, Panthers and Lightning for the top spot in what should be a competitive Southeast (the Jets seem a step behind their four division rivals).

Jordan Staal
Jordan Staal
Center - CAR
GOALS: 25 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 50
SOG: 149 | +/-: 11
It will be interesting to see where both guys fit in Carolina. I figure Kirk Muller, in his first full camp as Canes head coach, will look at these guys in different combinations. For example, does it make more sense to play Jordan Staal on a line with his older brother, Eric; or should Jordan center a second unit? How will Muller use the super-skilled, but sometimes enigmatic Semin?

I’ll be particularly curious to see just how Semin performs in his new surroundings. General Manager Jim Rutherford, as well as many of the Hurricanes’ management group and players, should be pretty familiar with Semin from his time with the division rival Capitals.

If he can make a home for himself in Raleigh, Semin could be looking at a significant contract extension. (He signed a one-year deal worth $7M with the Canes.) If not, despite his considerable talents, he could looking for work again next summer.

If you’re the Blues, who do you start in net? Would you take the same approach as last season? -- @Aakduce

After this past season, the Blues have to be comfortable with either Jaroslav Halak (26-12-7, 1.97 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) or Brian Elliott (23-10-4, 1.56, .940) in their net. The Jennings’ Trophy winning duo put up a combined 15 shutouts, allowing the fewest goals during the 2011-12 regular season.

Push comes to shove, I think the club still views Halak as the No. 1 goalie, with Elliott serving as a 1A.

Because of that, I suspect head coach Ken Hitchcock will enter training camp with the idea of getting Halak somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-55 starts. That wouldn’t be too different than what happened last season when Halak worked in 46 regular-season games (Elliott played in 38). Of course, that plan will be specifically impacted by performance and injury. Remember, Elliott got a chance to be more of factor when Halak struggled through the first several weeks of the season.

Best-case scenario: Both guys are healthy and pushing one another. I don’t know if either guy, on his own, can get the Blues where they want to go. But as a tandem, they just might be able to do it.

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Do you think a team like Tampa would take a shot on Dominik Hasek’s return to the NHL? If anything, he’d be a great mentor to Anders Lindback. -- @Big_Redd

Despite the fact that Bolts GM Steve Yzerman and Hasek were teammates in Detroit, winning a Stanley Cup together as players in 2002, I don’t see the 47-year-old Hasek as an option in Tampa -- barring significant unforeseen circumstances. As it stands, Yzerman seems very comfortable moving forward with Lindback and veteran Mathieu Garon in net.

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer, who in his prime would be my all-time goaltending choice in any single elimination showdown, will be hard-pressed to find an opportunity to return to the NHL. While Hasek has proven to be an incredible athlete and competitor, I just don’t think there’s a team that would consider him durable enough, at 47, to handle the rigors of the NHL schedule.

Hasek hasn’t played in North America since 2008, when he won his second Cup in Detroit. He started that postseason in the Red Wings’ crease, but was replaced by Chris Osgood mid-way through the club’s first round series against the Predators. Osgood held the starting job, backstopping the Wings’ championship run.

With the battle between the CHL and U.S. college hockey on-going, what route do you think is best for kids who can do both? -- @Wags_24

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. What’s right for one young prospect might not be right for another. Clearly, a talented player can take either route to an NHL career, as there are countless examples of that.

In my view, each talented teen and his family must lay out some goals and objectives as well as weigh the plusses and minuses as it pertains to their particular situation.

I believe it’s critical for a prospect’s family to seek out honest, objective opinions/projections about the skill level and mental/physical development of their son. In other words, they have to find individuals with knowledge of the landscape that they can trust. Getting that kind of feedback can be difficult, as recruiters and personal advisors (agents) have been known, on occasion, to put their own agenda before that of the young player.

In the end, the young player and his family are responsible for taking full advantage of the experience and opportunities presented by either option.

Do you think the Blue Jackets are contenders this year or are they still missing key pieces? -- @dmshaner

To quote tennis legend John McEnroe, “You can’t be serious!?” Listen, even with the departure of Rick Nash, I think the Jackets have made some improvements and they should be a more competitive bunch on a night-to-night basis … but contenders? I’d be more worried about climbing out of the basement in the Central Division. That itself will be a pretty tough task.

Sergei Bobrovsky
Sergei Bobrovsky
Goalie - CBJ
RECORD: 14-10-2
GAA: 3.02 | SVP: 0.899
The Jackets are still missing many key pieces. There are significant questions in just about every major area of their team.

To be better in the upcoming season, they’ll need their new goaltending duo of recently acquired Sergei Bobrovsky and still-young incumbent Steve Mason to be consistently good. If the Bobrovsky/Mason tandem can keep the team in games, they’ll immediate have a better chance for success.

In the coming years, top prospects Ryan Johansen (the No. 4 pick in 2010) and Ryan Murray (No. 2 in ’12) must develop into top contributors. Johansen eventually could be the No. 1 center they’ve never had in Columbus, while Murray projects as a top-pair defender. The Jackets must be wise in managing their continuing progress.

Of course, in the long term, it wouldn’t hurt if some of their later-round draft picks could become NHL players. Throughout their short history, the Jackets have done a terrible job at the draft table.

For now, I think there’s reason to believe the Jackets will be better next season (could they be any worse?), but they’ve still got a long way to go before anyone would consider them contenders for anything else but the top draft pick.

It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery