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Answers needed for 13 NHL questions in 2013-14

by Dan Rosen

A new NHL season brings new expectations, which naturally leads to new questions that are still lacking answers.

The 2013-14 season is set to debut Oct. 1 in Montreal, followed by a Stanley Cup championship banner-raising ceremony in Chicago. Here are 13 pressing questions that will be answered at some point during the next nine months.

1. Will the Chicago Blackhawks become the first cap-era dynasty?

The Blackhawks are already the first multiple Cup-winning team in the cap era. Three championships in five years would lend credence to the dynasty argument.

Hockey historians may counter by saying that even with another championship in 2014 the Blackhawks won't compare to the post-expansion dynasties such as Montreal the Canadiens from 1968-79 (eight championships, including four in a row), the New York Islanders of the early 1980s (four straight titles) or the Edmonton Oilers of the mid-80s to 1990 (five in seven years).

The difference is those teams became dynasties before there was a salary cap and as many as 30 teams in the League. The Blackhawks are embarking on something no team has ever done.

They can keep the debate alive by getting to the Western Conference Final or losing in the Stanley Cup Final, but the only way to further the debate is to win the Stanley Cup in 2014.

2. Are the Toronto Maple Leafs one-hit wonders or are they on the verge of releasing a chart-topping era in Toronto?

On paper they're looking like the latter, but there is an in-between feeling about the Maple Leafs and it's hard to rush to judgment before the puck drops.

Nazem Kadri signed Tuesday, but Cody Franson has not.

David Clarkson has to try to emulate his idol, Wendel Clark, and rediscover the form he had for the New Jersey Devils two seasons ago, when he scored 30 goals and was dangerous almost every time he was on the ice no matter the zone he was in.

Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have to push each other in net and one of them needs to emerge as the starter.

The Maple Leafs need to figure out if captain Dion Phaneuf is part of their future plans. If he is, sign him to a contract extension.

Phil Kessel is also in the last year of his deal and should be part of the team's future, but he has said he won't negotiate during the season. Let it be and hope that Kessel scores in the neighborhood of 40 goals, or more. Then re-sign him.

Defenseman Jake Gardiner needs to play like he did against the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he was skating and moving the puck freely instead of thinking about his every move and turning it over.

3. Will the Washington Capitals thrive or dive in the Metropolitan Division?

The Capitals should be excited to be back in a division with their all of their old Patrick Division rivals, but the NHL's realignment came at a price. Winning the division will not be as easy for Washington as it has been for better part of the past six years.

Beginning in 2007-08, the Capitals won the Southeast Division five times in six seasons. They had a .685 points percentage and averaged 1.37 points-per-game against Southeast Division teams as opposed to a .607 winning percentage and 1.21 points-per-game against the rest of the League.

Alex Ovechkin was similarly superior against the Southeast. He averaged 1.32 points-per-game in the division and 1.17 points-per-game against the rest of the NHL.

Now the Capitals are in the same division as the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and their former Southeast Division rival, the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Penguins, Devils, Rangers and Flyers each won at least one division title over the past six seasons. Pittsburgh has won the Stanley Cup and lost in the Stanley Cup Final, the Devils and Flyers also lost in the Cup Final and the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.

For all of its division success since 2007-08, Washington still hasn't advanced past the conference semifinals. Now just getting to the playoffs will be a much more difficult task.

4. Of the Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, which team benefits the most from the conference switch?

The easy pick here is a split between the Red Wings and Blue Jackets. They're moving out of the best division in the Western Conference over the past five seasons (the old Central Division) while the Jets are leaving the worst division in the Eastern Conference to in the same time span (the defunct Southeast Division) to join a new division with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Detroit joins the Atlantic Division, which has two of the former Southeast Division teams (Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers) and the five former Northeast Division teams (Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres). Columbus moves into the Metropolitan Division.

The Jets move into the new Central Division with the Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche.

The good news for the Jets is a playoff berth is definitely up for grabs because outside of Chicago and St. Louis, none of the remaining five teams in the division would be considered locks.

5. How will Martin Brodeur work in tandem with Cory Schneider?

Brodeur is still the New Jersey Devils' No. 1 goalie at 41 because he still has the talent and ability to play at least 50 and maybe 55 games. Schneider, 27, is the future in New Jersey and he deserves to be given his chance early this season to show that he can be Brodeur's successor. Coach Peter DeBoer should try to devise a plan so Brodeur and Schneider have as close to an even split of starts as possible at least through the Olympic break.

The transition from Brodeur to Schneider doesn't have to be completed this season, but the Devils have to see enough from Schneider to want to offer him a contract extension following the season. He has two years left on his current deal, and the whole idea of the draft-day trade with Vancouver was to make him New Jersey's goalie of the future.

Brodeur is smart enough to understand he can't be the Devils' unquestioned No. 1 goalie forever and he should be willing to play along with the 1 and 1A concept this season because it will only help him and the team. The Devils have a League-high 22 sets of back-to-back games on the schedule this season, so there will be plenty of chances to get both goaltenders playing time.

6. Will the Vancouver Canucks be a great show on ice or just simply a circus?

With John Tortorella behind the bench, Roberto Luongo between the pipes and the Sedins playing keep-away on the other side of the ice, the Canucks should be an entertaining team with a shutdown-first philosophy. That should be enough to catapult them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs even though they are playing in a tougher division with the likes of the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

However, the possibility exists that the Canucks could spiral in the wrong direction as a result of Tortorella's predictable feuds with the media, players feuding with him and his coaching style, or Luongo's public feuds with the front office, which first tried to trade him and is now attempting to move forward with him as the team's No. 1 goaltender?

History suggests it could happen.

Tortorella had issues with the media and eventually his players in New York. It helped lead to his dismissal. Despite saying he will report to training camp and his focus is on playing well, Luongo clearly isn't thrilled with the front office even though he's being paid quite handsomely.

While the Canucks should be a playoff team, there is ample reason to proceed with caution when making predictions.

7. Do the Penguins need to look elsewhere for their No. 1 goalie?

They don't feel the need to yet, but if the Penguins are thinking about going away from Marc-Andre Fleury at the end of the season it will mean that he failed them again and they more than likely had a disappointing finish.

After strong regular seasons, Fleury has lost it during the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past two years, giving up 43 goals in 11 appearances. It wouldn't be surprising to see him put up big numbers again in the upcoming regular season, but he is graded only by what he does in the playoffs.

General manager Ray Shero still has two compliance buyouts at his disposal, and following this season Fleury will have one year left on his current contract that carries a $5 million annual salary-cap charge.

If Fleury answers his critics, Shero could look to sign him to an extension next summer. If he disappoints, he could be seeking employment elsewhere.

8. Can the Blues finally get over the hump?

General manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock have been building up the Blues for the past two seasons. The time has come for them to make a deep playoff run.

The Blues have reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons but were knocked out both times by the Los Angeles Kings, who rallied from a 2-0 hole last season to win four straight games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. L.A. beat St. Louis in the conference semifinals in 2012.

St. Louis will have all the ingredients in place to contend in the Western Conference once defenseman Alex Pietrangelo signs his new contract, something Armstrong stated will happen.

They're strong on the back end with a top-four that is arguably the best in the League, anchored by what could be a three-headed goalie monster of Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Chris Stewart, Derek Roy, Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund make them deep and tenacious up front. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz should improve as well.

9. Will the Avalanche improve under Patrick Roy?

The Avalanche would have been expected to improve off of their last-place finish last season regardless of the coach. The degree to which they improve will determine Roy's grade in his first year behind a NHL bench.

He has weapons up front in Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, Paul Stastny and rookie Nathan MacKinnon. The center depth for the Avalanche looks particularly promising with Duchene on the first line, Stastny expected to center the second line and MacKinnon slated to start his NHL career on the third line.

With Duchene, Stastny, Landeskog, O'Reilly, PA Parenteau and Alex Tanguay, who is back where his career began for the first time since 2006, the Avalanche have the makings of a top six loaded with potential. Steve Downie, who should be the third-line right wing, is healthy after missing last season with a knee injury.

However, the Avalanche could have issues on the back end. They were 27th in the NHL last season in goals-against (3.12 per game) and didn't upgrade on the blue line. The hope is that Erik Johnson has a bounce-back season and Tyson Barrie can build on last season, when he led Colorado in ice time per game (21:34) in 32 games.

10. Will Dallas Eakins have the Edmonton Oilers challenging for a playoff berth?

Eakins is walking into what should be a promising situation in Edmonton with a developing young core of young talent. His job is to take what Tom Renney and Ralph Krueger has done before him, mold it the right way and bring Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Justin Schultz and Devan Dubnyk into the next phase of their careers.

If the Oilers are going to contend for their first playoff berth since 2006, the onus is on the aforementioned seven players to set the tone and lead the way. Eakins has to connect with them right away and make sure they quickly get the picture of how he wants things done so they can set the example.

Andrew Ference will help with his winning experience from Boston. David Perron should provide additional scoring depth. Boyd Gordon, one of the more underrated signings of the offseason, will play a huge role as the bottom-six center who can win important defensive zone faceoffs.

11. Who will win the Canucks-Rangers coaching "trade?"

This was one of the more intriguing storylines of the offseason. Although they still coach on opposite ends of the continent, the competition between Alain Vigneault in New York and Tortorella in Vancouver should be worthy of a few headlines during the regular season as well.

It will be interesting to see just how different the Rangers will be for Vigneault and what the Canucks will look like with Tortorella. Vigneault favors an up-tempo style, but the Rangers had a better offense last season under Tortorella (2.62 goals-per-game to 2.54 for Vancouver). Tortorella favors a shutdown philosophy, but the Canucks were also a top-10 defensive team for Vigneault last season.

If all goes to plan the Rangers should be more of an attacking team with Vigneault and the Canucks should be a tougher team to play against under Tortorella.

12. Are the Flyers a playoff team with a tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery in goal?

Philadelphia's goaltending situation will be less volatile and less of a sideshow with Emery and Mason in net and with Ilya Bryzgalov not around. It could also be improved because Emery should be able to push Mason to be better the way he pushed Corey Crawford last season in Chicago.

Emery was 17-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA and .922 save percentage last season. He got hurt at the end of the season, giving way to Crawford, who became the full-fledged No. 1, a Stanley Cup champion and the owner of a six-year, $36 million contract extension.

The Flyers would love for Mason to win the No. 1 job and run with it in the way he did as a rookie in Columbus five seasons ago. He hasn't been the same goalie since winning the Calder Trophy, but in seven appearances with the Flyers last season after getting traded, he was 4-2 with a 1.90 goals-against average and .944 save percentage.

13. What direction are the Buffalo Sabres heading in?

It appears that the Sabres are willing to embrace the idea of rebuilding. Why else would they have traded Jason Pominville, Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr prior to the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline?

General manager Darcy Regier didn't make any big signings or trades this summer and is ready to give top prospects Mikhail Grigorenko, Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons the opportunity for regular ice time this season. However, it won't be a complete rebuild until Regier decides on the futures of goalie Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek, both entering the final year of lucrative contracts.

Regier has tried to shop both players, but with the salary cap dipping nearly $6 million to $64.3 million and most teams content with their goaltending heading into training camp, it's been impossible to make a deal.

He may have to wait until closer to the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline to move either or both star players, but Regier should be able to get a fairly decent return of prospects and/or draft picks for them. The only thing that would throw a wrench into that plan is if Buffalo has a surprisingly good first half and is in contention for a playoff spot at the Olympic break.


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