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East teams confront key questions as season nears

by John Kreiser /
One month ago, we looked at a key question facing each team in the Eastern Conference. Since then, teams have added and subtracted players, dealt with injuries and gone through training camp to get an idea of what they have and what they need as they prepare for the new season.

We're on the verge of the opening faceoff. Here's an updated look at the key questions facing the 15 Eastern Conference teams as the start of the season approaches:

Atlanta Thrashers

Is this Ilya Kovalchuk's last season in Atlanta? -- Kovalchuk tends to be forgotten when the discussion turns to big scorers, but he enters the season with 297 career goals at the age of 26. But he's been to the playoffs just once in his seven NHL seasons, and the Thrashers don't look like they'll get to the postseason next spring, either. Kovalchuk can become a free agent after this season. He tore up the League after GM Don Waddell named him captain midway through last season, and the Thrashers are working to sign him to a new deal. Atlanta has a growing nucleus of talent, including 30-goal scorer Bryan Little and ex-Leafs Pavel Kubina and Nik Antropov. The Thrashers improved as a team during the last half of 2008-09 after Kovalchuk got the "C," and the Thrashers will do all they can to convince the best player in franchise history to stay.

Boston Bruins

How will the Phil Kessel deal affect the Bruins? -- GM Peter Chiarelli got a big draft haul for Kessel, the Bruins' leading goal-scorer in 2008-09 -- two first-round picks and a second-rounder. He also got some salary-cap relief while dealing a player who wasn't going to play for several weeks anyway due to offseason shoulder surgery. But at some point, the Bruins will have to replace Kessel's 36 goals, and that may not be easy. They're counting on continued development from players like Milan Lucic and David Krejci. But if that doesn't happen, the Bruins figure to have trouble taking the next step after finishing atop the Eastern Conference last season.

Buffalo Sabres

Was standing pat a good idea after missing the playoffs? -- The Sabres brought back most of the same cast from last season, when they missed the playoffs for the second season in a row. Checking forward Mike Grier and defenseman Steve Montador were the only major additions; defensemen Teppo Numminen (retirement) and Jaroslav Spacek (Montreal) were the only major departures. The heat will be on GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff, one of the longest-lasting pairings in recent NHL history, as the Sabres try to make the top eight in the East with basically the same cast that finished 10th last season.

Carolina Hurricanes

Is this Cam Ward's breakout season? -- Ward already owns a Conn Smythe Trophy -- he won it as a rookie in 2006 by leading the Hurricanes to the Cup. And now he's the proud owner of a six-year, $37.8 million contract extension. But Carolina fans still are waiting for him to be more than a six-week wonder. He looked like he might have taken that step last season, when his red-hot second half helped the Hurricanes make the playoffs for the first time since winning the Cup -- and he followed that with two superb rounds before running out of gas against Pittsburgh. That earned Ward an invite to Canada's Olympic camp, an indication that he may be ready to join the NHL's elite goaltenders.

Florida Panthers

Will the barrage of shots continue? -- To be a Florida Panthers goaltender is to know you're going to be busy on a nightly basis. The Panthers allowed a League-high 34.7 shots per game last season and have been at or near the top in shots allowed for all but one season this decade. Not coincidentally, they haven't made the playoffs since 2000. With cornerstone defenseman Jay Bouwmeester now in Calgary, the Panthers may be even more hard-pressed to keep opponents from firing away -- and you can't put the puck in the opponent's net when he's shooting on yours.

Montreal Canadiens

Which Carey Price will we see? -- Canadiens GM Bob Gainey conducted his own version of "Extreme Makeover" during the summer, resulting in a completely remodeled team. But the one area he didn't touch was goal, meaning he still has faith in Carey Price. As a rookie, Price led the Canadiens to first place in the East in 2007-08. As a second-year player, he struggled badly in the second half of the season as the Habs barely made the playoffs and were swept by Boston in the opening round. If Price doesn't return to his rookie form, the Canadiens figure to be in trouble.

New Jersey Devils

Will Jacques Lemaire adapt to his talent, or vice versa? -- Eleven years after he left New Jersey, Jacques Lemaire and his defense-first (some would say defense-only) style are back. But the game has changed since Lemaire became one of the first coaches to ride the neutral-zone trap to big-time success (including the 1995 Cup). Speed and skill are far more important these days -- and the Devils have their fair share, including one of the NHL's best scorers in Zach Parise. No Devils team is going to play run-and-gun hockey, but Lemaire has to be smart enough to give his big guns the chance to focus on offense if New Jersey is going to repeat as Atlantic Division champion.

New York Islanders

Has anyone seen Rick DiPietro? -- Isles GM Garth Snow brought in two experienced goaltenders (Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron) this summer -- a big hint that DiPietro, the Isles' franchise player (12 years left on a 15-year contract) might not see a lot of action this season after injuries cost him all but five games in 2008-09. Roloson and Biron are a big upgrade from last season's tandem of Yann Danis and Joey MacDonald, but the Islanders are a different team with a healthy DiPietro in net. He's skating again, but there's no sign he'll be back any time soon.

New York Rangers

Who will center for (the hopefully healthy) Marian Gaborik? -- The Rangers spent a bushel of bucks to bring in Gaborik, a high-scoring right wing who can be the kind of dynamic offensive presence they haven't had since Jaromir Jagr left. But they have yet to decide who his center will be. Last year's first-liner, Scott Gomez, was dealt to Montreal in a deal that freed salary-cap room for Gaborik. A sore groin kept Gaborik out of action until the last week of preseason games, so there haven't been a lot of chances to see who's most compatible with him. Gaborik has to score for the Rangers to be successful, so his health and the issue of who he'll play with are vital to the team's success.

Ottawa Senators

Dany Heatley's gone. Who will make up for the goals he took with him? -- After a summer-long soap opera, the Senators traded Heatley to San Jose for two forwards (Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek) and a draft pick. A lot of folks in Ottawa might be happy he's gone, but scorers like Heatley (39 goals in an off-season for the two-time 50-goal man) don't grow on trees. Michalek has never had more than 26 goals or 66 points, while Cheechoo has fallen from 56 goals in 2005-06 to just 12 in 66 games last season. Unless one of them steps up, the Senators will have a serious hole to fill.

Philadelphia Flyers

Can they live up to great expectations? -- Big things are expected from the Flyers this season -- more than one publication has picked them to win the Stanley Cup. The addition of Chris Pronger will fortify the defense and there's plenty of scoring even without departed right wings Joffrey Lupul and Mike Knuble. The Flyers are risking a lot by entrusting their goaltending to Ray Emery and Brian Boucher, and there's no guarantee either will be able to hold down the No. 1 job. The Flyers took a step backward last season -- they were ousted in the first round by Pittsburgh after losing to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals a year earlier. Despite the addition of Pronger, they still have to prove they are among the NHL's truly elite teams.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Can the Pens avoid "Cup hangover?" -- The party ends Oct. 2. The Penguins spent the summer celebrating their first Stanley Cup in 17 years. But none of that means anything come Friday night, when the Penguins begin defense of their Cup by hosting the New York Rangers. Coach Dan Bylsma's first task is to make sure his team doesn't start this season thinking about the last one. Though the Penguins made the Final in 2008, they were in danger of missing the playoffs last season before Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien behind the bench. They can't afford the same kind of hangover for a second consecutive season.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Is Mike Smith healthy again? -- One of the few bright spots in Tampa Bay last winter was the play of goaltender Mike Smith, who kept the team competitive until he went down with a concussion right after the All-Star break. The Lightning never were the same after that, collapsing in the final two months and finishing next-to-last in the overall standings. Smith looked sharp in the preseason, and having him in top form would make a big difference to a team that will feature a rebuilt defense but has some A-list talent up front.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Are the Leafs now past the rebuilding stage? -- Brian Burke took over the Maple Leafs midway through last season and has wasted little time shaping the team in the image he wants -- big and mean, especially on the blue line. But the deal for Phil Kessel, which cost Toronto a pair of first-round picks and a second-round selection, has ratcheted up expectations in Leafs Nation. The arrival of Kessel (who won't be ready for several weeks as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery) gives the Leafs a young scoring threat to go with all that muscle -- and has their fans expecting an end to the team's franchise-record four-year playoff drought.

Washington Capitals

Can the Caps take the next step? -- For all the excitement Alex Ovechkin & Co. have generated in Washington, they've been playoff duds, losing Game 7s at home in each of the last two seasons -- including last spring to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin can score 50, 60 or even 70 goals, but unless the Caps can find a way to make a lengthy playoff run, it won't matter. Winning the Southeast Division for the third consecutive season won't be nearly enough this season for a fan base that's never seen its team win a Cup.

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