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Eastern teams face some key questions

by John Kreiser
With the start of training camp looming, NHL general managers are taking a long look at their rosters, trying to figure out how to patch holes and put the right faces in the right places.

It's not always easy. Even the best of teams have questions to be answered.

Here's a look at the key question facing each team in the Eastern Conference:

Atlanta Thrashers

Will the real Kari Lehtonen please stand up?
The Thrashers took Lehtonen with the second pick in the 2002 Entry Draft, but are still waiting for him to become a standout NHL goaltender. Lehtonen has been plagued by injuries -- he's played more than 50 games just once in his career -- as well as inconsistency and a defense that's been less than robust. GM Don Waddell is starting to put some pieces around franchise cornerstone Ilya Kovalchuk, but the Thrashers are going nowhere unless Lehtonen plays like the No. 1 goaltender they've been waiting for him to be.

Boston Bruins

How do they take the next step?
The Bruins have gone from 76 points in 2006-07 to 94 in '07-08 and a conference-leading 116 last season, when they came up one point short of the Presidents' Trophy. But Carolina upset the Bruins in seven games in the second round, cutting short what looked like it could be a long playoff run. With cap space tight and top goal-scorer Phil Kessel still to be signed (he's not likely to play until December due to injury anyway), there's not much room to add talent. If kids like Kessel and David Krejci (who may start the season on the sidelines after offseason hip surgery) don't contribute more, the Bruins may take a step back.

Buffalo Sabres

Can Tim Connolly stay healthy?
Tim Connolly is one of the NHL's most skilled players -- as long as the Sabres can keep him on the ice. Throughout his career, Connolly has been bedeviled by a variety of injuries that have derailed what looked like a promising NHL career. The 28-year-old center had 47 points in 48 games with the Sabres last season, giving Buffalo a second scoring line and earning a new contract. For that deal to pay off, Connolly has to stay healthy after missing 34 games in each of the last two seasons and all but two in 2006-07.

Carolina Hurricanes

Are the 'Canes good, or just lucky?
The Hurricanes made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring by winning a pair of improbable Game 7s -- beating New Jersey by scoring twice in the last 1:20, then eliminating Boston in overtime on the road. The out-of-gas Hurricanes were swept by Pittsburgh, leaving the question of how good they really are up in the air. For Carolina to press Washington in the Southeast Division, goalie Cam Ward and center Eric Staal have to turn their performance in the first two rounds into full-season efforts.

Florida Panthers

Will the Panthers ever master the shootout?
In 2005-06, the NHL began using the breakaway competition to settle games that were tied after five minutes of overtime. The Panthers are still trying to get the hang of it. Florida is 14-27 all-time in shootouts -- including 3-8 last season, the worst record in the NHL except for Tampa Bay's 3-10 mark. Considering that the Panthers came up a point short of making the playoffs last spring (they tied Montreal for eighth but were edged out because they lost the season series to the Canadiens), maybe second-year coach Peter DeBoer should devote a little more practice time to having his players work on their shootout skills.

Montreal Canadiens

Will new coach + new players = better results?
GM Bob Gainey blew up his roster after last season's disappointing eighth-place finish and first-round playoff sweep, bringing in Jacques Martin as coach, letting all 10 of his unrestricted free agents walk away and dealing winger Chris Higgins to the Rangers for center Scott Gomez. Gainey signed a bunch of free agents, most notably forwards Mike Cammalleri, Travis Moen and Brian Gionta and defensemen Jaroslav Spacek, Paul Mara and Hall Gill. What will it all look like in the end? Who knows. The only certainty is that early-season program sales at the Bell Centre should be brisk as fans try to figure out who's who.

New Jersey Devils

Does Jacques Lemaire's philosophy match his old/new team's talent?
It's no secret that Lemaire's first priority is making sure the puck stays out of his team's net. He was like that in his first go-round in New Jersey and in his eight seasons behind the bench in Minnesota. Lemaire's early Devils teams could also use his trapping system to generate offense -- but as time went on, offense became less of a priority. Lemaire takes over a team with a Hall of Famer (Martin Brodeur) in goal, some excellent forwards (led by Zach Parise) but nothing close to a Scott Stevens or Scott Niedermayer on defense. Is he willing (and able) to adjust to the talent he's inheriting?

New York Islanders

Will John Tavares make a difference?
The Isles are banking on Tavares, a record-setting scorer in junior hockey, to be the cornerstone of their rebuilt franchise. His appearance at development camp brought the kind of media attention rarely seen on Long Island since the franchise's glory days in the 1980s. But how good is he? At 6-1 and 190 pounds, he's more likely to be able to handle the physical pounding than Steven Stamkos, last year's No. 1 pick. He'll give the Isles' power play a boost, but for this season, he's likely to have a bigger impact off the ice than on it for the NHL's worst team in 2008-09. Remember, the Penguins finished last in the East (29th overall) in Sidney Crosby's rookie year.

New York Rangers

Who will fill the hole in the middle?
What do the Rangers and the doughnuts at Tim Horton's (a new arrival in the Big Apple) have in common? A hole in the middle -- in the Rangers' case, that means the absence of a No. 1 center. With Scott Gomez gone to Montreal and high-scoring but oft-injured winger Marian Gaborik signed from Minnesota, the Rangers now have a winger who can put the puck in the net but no one who resembles a No. 1 center who can get him the puck -- and are tight enough against the cap that they likely won't be able to deal for one unless they're willing to give up some young talent.

Ottawa Senators

Will Pascal Leclaire be worth the wait?
The Senators sent productive center Antoine Vermette to Columbus at the trading deadline in March for goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who spent the rest of the season recuperating from the ankle injury that ended his season before Christmas. Leclaire, a former first-round pick by the Blue Jackets, came into his own in 2007-08 (2.25 GAA, 9 shutouts) but saw his job disappear after he got hurt when rookie Steve Mason took over and played well enough to win the Calder Trophy. With veteran Alex Auld traded to Dallas, the Sens need the 2007-08 version of Leclaire to return if they have any hopes of getting back into the playoffs.

Philadelphia Flyers

Is Ray Emery the answer, or is goaltending still a question mark?
The Flyers committed huge bucks to bring in Chris Pronger in an effort to bolster their blue line. But they let both of last season's goaltenders, Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, walk away and brought in Emery -- who spent last season in Russia after a tumultuous 2007-08 season with Ottawa, the team he led to the Stanley Cup Final in the spring of 2007. Neither Emery nor new backup Brian Boucher cost the Flyers a lot; the question is whether they'll get what they paid for. With a team built to win now, Emery had better be good.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup Champs GearYou've won the Stanley Cup. What do you do for an encore?
Sidney Crosby and friends have crossed "Win the Stanley Cup" off their bucket lists. But as anyone can tell you, winning the second championship is a lot harder than winning the first. The Penguins lost defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hall Gill to free agency; ace shotblocker Jay McKee will take one of those spots. Up front, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. will be back intact after the Pens re-signed Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko. But the Penguins did nothing to get better, which could mean they'll take a step or two backwards -- at least during the regular season.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Which Steven Stamkos will show up this year?
Steven Stamkos' initiation to the NHL got off to a slow start after he was chosen first in the 2008 Entry Draft by the Lightning -- so slowly that by Christmas, Bolts fans had to be wondering if he'd be better off going back to juniors. But even as the team struggled through the second half, Stamkos showed why Tampa Bay made him the No. 1 overall pick, finishing with 23 goals and 46 points. The goal for 2009-10: To play for 82 games the way he did in the latter stages of 2008-09.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Can anyone put the puck in the net?
President/General Manager Brian Burke wanted to improve the team's toughness level -- and he did, bringing in Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin to bolster the blue line and enforcer Colton Orr to add muscle up front. All that toughness may keep the Leafs from being pushed around -- but goal-scoring ability is important too, and Toronto doesn't appear to have a lot of it. Having Jason Blake (25 goals, 63 points -- and 36 years of age on opening night) and Alexei Ponikarovsky (23 goals, 61 points) as the linchpins of your offense doesn't figure to produce a lot of red lights behind enemy goaltenders, and the Leafs' farm system is barren.

Washington Capitals

Which kid netminder gets the call?
Alex Ovechkin may not be the most important Russian on the Capitals. That honor could belong to rookie goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who stepped in after Jose Theodore stumbled in Game 1 of the playoffs and rallied the Caps to a seven-game win over the New York Rangers. However, the 20-year-old appeared to wear down and wasn't sharp in the later stages of the Caps' seven-game loss to Pittsburgh in the second round, while 21-year-old Michal Neuvirth led Washington's top farm team, the Hershey Bears, to the AHL title. With veteran backup Brent Johnson gone, one of the kids will get to play with the big club and possibly take the starting job.

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