The calendar says it's still summertime, but that doesn't mean NHL teams aren't already brainstorming to figure out what they'll have to do to be successful in the upcoming season.
As they get ready for 2012-13, all 30 teams have 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:
Can Tuukka Rask handle the No. 1 goaltending job?
Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champs ended with an overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the opening round last spring -- and with Tim Thomas worn down because Rask, his backup in goal, went down for the season in early March with a groin injury. Thomas has decided not to play this season, leaving the No. 1 job to Rask, who signed a one-year contract this summer. With no veteran backup as a fallback, the Bruins need Rask to show he can play as well in 60-70 games as he did in 25 last season (2.05 goals-against average, .929 save percentage).
The Sabres will be feistier, but will they be better?
A successful hockey team needs a combination of speed, skill and grit -- and the Sabres have been notably lacking in the grit department in recent years, preferring to try to win with speed, skill and Ryan Miller's goaltending. It hasn't worked; their playoff miss last spring was the third in five years, and they haven't won a playoff series since 2007. General manager Darcy Regier sacrificed some of his skill to bring in a large dollop of sandpaper when he sent slick center Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars for forward Steve Ott (and depth defenseman Adam Pardy). Ott is one of the NHL's busiest hitters and biggest pests -- a player who takes pride in being loathed by the other team. He has enough skill to see third-line time, and more than enough ability as a pest to drive opponents crazy. Ott's arrival signals a major culture change in Buffalo; the question is whether it will be enough to get the Sabres back into the playoffs.
Which Alexander Semin are the 'Canes getting?
Jordan Staal, who should team with his brother Eric to make a formidable one-two punch down the middle. Rutherford also took a gamble by bringing in talented-but-enigmatic forward Alexander Semin on a one-year, $7 million contract. Semin is one of the most offensively skilled players in the NHL, but he managed just 21 goals last season and hasn't broken 30 since 2009-10. If he plays to his potential, the 'Canes could fill the net -- and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Can the Panthers build on their first playoff berth in 12 years?
Coach Kevin Dineen did wonders with the Panthers last season, taking a group replete with new parts and shaping it into a team that won the first division title in franchise history and ended a playoff drought that stretched to 2000. But Florida lost its first-round series to the New Jersey Devils in seven games after taking a 3-2 lead, and with the teams behind them improving, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to take the next step after mostly standing pat this summer.
Andrei Markov (knee surgery) for most of the season and the bicep injury that KO'd Brian Gionta in January were just too much. Montreal finished last in the Eastern Conference and 28th in the League. Both players should be healthy this season, giving the Habs a chance to rebound after dropping from 96 points to 78.
Who will make up for the departure of Zach Parise?
Less than a month after coming within two wins of doing victory laps with the Stanley Cup in Newark, Parise headed for home, signing a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild and leaving the only NHL team he'd ever played for. The Devils, a surprise finalist last spring, will have to make up for the absence of Parise on the ice (31 goals, 69 points) and off, where he was their unquestioned leader. There's no obvious answer for either category.
John Tavares is on his way to being a superstar, Matt Moulson is a three-time 30-goal scorer, and Mark Streit was among the top 10 defensemen in points last season. But the Islanders finished 14th in the East -- largely because only three teams allowed more than the 251 non-shootout goals the Isles surrendered. New York used five goaltenders and 12 defensemen last season, and the chaos often showed. Evgeni Nabokov figures to be the starter in goal if he can stay healthy, but he'll need more help from his defense -- a group that figures to look a lot younger as some of the team's picks from recent drafts arrive on Long Island.
Is Rick Nash the missing piece?
The Rangers came up two wins short of the Stanley Cup Final largely because they couldn't put the puck in the net -- New York averaged 2.15 goals in its 20 playoff games. GM Glen Sather acquired Nash, a consistent 30-goal scorer, from Columbus this summer in hopes of juicing up the attack. But Nash's scoring numbers have declined in each of the past three seasons, and he's now 28 years old. With 41-goal scorer Marian Gaborik sidelined for the first few weeks of the season following shoulder surgery, the Rangers have to have Nash step up right away and prove he's capable of being a big scorer on a top team.
How good is Erik Karlsson?
In his age-21 season, Karlsson lapped the field offensively on the way to winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. His 78 points were 25 more than runner-up Brian Campbell of Florida, the biggest gap between the top two scorers on defense in nearly two decades. Karlsson also improved from minus-30 in 2010-11 to plus-16. His improvement was a big reason the Senators qualified for the playoffs last season. For Ottawa to take the next step, Karlsson will have to show it was not just a career year
Do they have a Plan B for the D?
Paul Holmgren will remember fondly. With captain Chris Pronger still feeling the effects of a concussion that cost him most of last season and could keep him out this season, Holmgren lost defenseman Matt Carle as a free agent and saw the Nashville Predators match his 14-year, $110 million offer sheet for Shea Weber. Add to that the Achilles injury and subsequent surgery that will keep Andrej Meszaros out for most of the season, and Holmgren has his work cut out -- three of his projected top-six defensemen from this time last year are gone and there's no sign of an elite replacement on the horizon.
How many games will Sidney Crosby play?
Crosby is acknowledged as the best player in hockey -- when he's on the ice. That happened only 22 times last season; he missed the other 60 games while dealing with concussion-related effects dating to January 2011. Crosby piled up 37 points in those 22 games and rang up eight more in Pittsburgh's six-game playoff loss to Philadelphia. The Penguins have been able to pile up points without him in the lineup, but they need their captain to stay healthy to remain among the ranks of genuine Stanley Cup contenders.
Is Anders Lindback the answer in goal?
Steven Stamkos, the Lightning were pretty much out of the playoff race by the All-Star break because opponents had little trouble scoring. Goalie Dwayne Roloson showed his age (42) and 34-year-old backup Mathieu Garon had his ups and downs before missing the last month of the season with injuries. GM Steve Yzerman used some of the draft picks he'd piled up to pluck Lindback away from Nashville, where he was buried behind Pekka Rinne. The 6-foot-6 24-year-old will get the first shot at plugging the gaping hole in net; if he does, the Lightning will look a lot more like the team that came within a goal of making the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, rather than the club that was 30th in the NHL in goals allowed in 2012.
Will the Leafs stick with James Reimer in goal?
Reimer, a half-season phenom in 2010-11, got off to a solid start last season before taking an elbow to the face in late October. He was out for more than a month but was never the same after his return. With Jonas Gustavsson gone to Detroit as a free agent and unproven Ben Scrivens next in line after backstopping the Toronto Marlies to the AHL finals, the Leafs must decide if they're going to stick with Reimer -- something GM Brian Burke says he's prepared to do -- or make a deal for a veteran, perhaps Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks.
NHL.COM 30 IN 30 SERIES
NHL.com 30 in 30 team previewsBy NHL.com staff
NHL.com writers take an extensive look at all 30 teams throughout the month of August. The series includes a team preview, six questions surrounding each club entering 2012-13, projected lineups and more. SCHEDULE ›
Will Adam Oates take them back to the future?
Two years ago, the Capitals were coming off a season in which they won the Presidents' Trophy and outscored the League's next-best offense by 45 goals. But a first-round upset loss to Montreal sent the franchise into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover -- even though the Caps did upset Boston in the first round last spring, they spent more time blocking shots than taking them. Enter Oates, one of the NHL's great playmakers, who was introduced as the Caps' new coach hours before being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Oates likes offense and is coming to a team that has studs Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps may not play run-and-gun hockey, but don't expect the overemphasis on defense that marked Dale Hunter's tenure as interim coach last season.
Will Olli Jokinen fill the hole in the middle?
The Jets' first season in Winnipeg was a rousing success -- fans packed the MTS Centre every night and the team made a spirited push for a playoff berth before coming up short. In the end, the Jets didn't have enough offense, so GM Kevin Cheveldayoff signed Jokinen, a 33-year-old center coming off his best season since 2007-08 -- 23 goals, 61 points with the Calgary Flames. No Winnipeg center had more than 47 points last season, and the Jets are counting on Jokinen to stay productive and help them push for a playoff spot.