NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 8.
The one question 30 NHL teams have been asking themselves since before training camps opened is the same: Can we win the Stanley Cup?
Some teams can answer that question affirmatively; others are more hopeful than sure; and a few are focused on building toward winning the Cup in a future season.
There are some other pressing questions facing teams. Here are a few of them as we look toward the start of the season:
1. Can Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning regain the form he displayed before his injury last season?
Yes. Stamkos was on his way to a Hart Trophy-caliber season, scoring 14 goals in his first 16 games and carrying Tampa Bay to first place in the Atlantic Division. His season came to a sudden halt Nov. 11 when he fell into a goal post during a game against the Boston Bruins and sustained a broken right tibia. He missed almost four months, but his scoring touch was there when he returned. He finished with 25 goals in 37 games; had he scored at that pace for 82 games he would have had 55. Last month Stamkos told the Lightning website that his right leg is stronger now than before he was injured. So can he score 50 this season? What about 60 goals? There really are no limits for Stamkos, who enters the season as a favorite to win the Rocket Richard Trophy for the third time, and maybe collect even more hardware.
2. Is Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins recovered and ready to return to his lofty levels?
Yes. Crosby spent the offseason receiving treatment for a wrist issue that bothered him late last season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He said before training camp opened that his wrist was fine, but he didn't get much of a chance to prove that in the preseason. An undisclosed injury unrelated to his wrist kept him out of early games and then he missed two games while attending his grandmother's funeral. He played in one preseason game and had seven shots on goal in 18:47 of ice time; those totals make it appear his wrist is healed. Crosby likely will have a new linemate, with Patric Hornqvist replacing Pascal Dupuis at right wing, but Crosby showed in his first nine NHL seasons he could produce at high levels regardless of who was on his wings. If he stays healthy all season, Crosby will score at his usual League-best pace and likely carry the Penguins into Stanley Cup contention.
3. Can the San Jose Sharks recover from last season's playoff collapse?
Maybe. The Sharks will be one of the more interesting teams to watch this season. After losing a 3-0 Western Conference First Round series lead against the Los Angeles Kings, general manager Doug Wilson spent the offseason saying changes were coming, but coach Todd McLellan was brought back and the roster remained largely unchanged. Wilson said he expects the Sharks' younger players to have a bigger piece of the action this season, meaning more will be expected from players like forwards Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and goaltender Alex Stalock. Veteran Joe Thornton was stripped of the captaincy, but he and fellow veteran forward Patrick Marleau remain and likely will be top-six forwards. How will they all mesh together? What will all the new roles be? It will be very interesting to see how, or if, it works.
4. Can Alex Ovechkin and coach Barry Trotz co-exist with the Washington Capitals?
Maybe. The Capitals missed the playoffs last season, which led to sweeping changes that included the firings of general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates. Barry Trotz was hired to replace Oates. Trotz is the first coach with previous NHL experience that Ovechkin will play for, and that could change the dynamic for Ovechkin. Trotz also arrives with a well-known defensive-minded game plan. Ovechkin, a four-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, never has been known for his defensive awareness; last season, he was a minus-35, the third-worst total in the League. Trotz spent time with Ovechkin in Las Vegas during the summer getting to know him, and at training camp shifted Ovechkin back to left wing, his original position. How will it all work out? If Ovechkin buys in, the Capitals could be a contender for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division. If he doesn't, it could mean another season on the postseason sidelines.
5. Can Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy be as successful in his second season?
No, but there's a reason for that. Little was expected from the Avalanche last season. In the wake of finishing 29th in the League standings, Colorado put Joe Sakic in charge of all hockey-related decisions, and Sakic hired Roy as coach. Each excelled in his new role. The Avalanche ran off with the Central Division title, their 112 points were the second-most in franchise history, and Roy won the Jack Adams Award as the League's top coach. The Avalanche brought back most of the roster that did so well last season, plus added veterans Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere and Brad Stuart. Though the Avalanche should compete for a playoff spot again, it's unlikely they rack up another 112-point season or Roy repeats as coach of the year.
6. Can Jonathan Drouin of the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Calder Trophy?
Yes, but it won't be easy for him. Drouin earned the No. 1 spot in the NHL.com Top 60 prospect ranking, and his talent is obvious. He had back-to-back 100-point seasons with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and he arrived for training camp in September better equipped to earn a top-six forward spot. He lost some time in training camp with a broken right thumb, but there's a chance he could be in the lineup opening night. Though Drouin was NHL.com's pick to win the Calder this season, there's a long line of competition for that honor, among them Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson, Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau and Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl.
7. Can P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens live up to his big contract?
Yes. This season starts the eight-year, $72 million contract Subban signed Aug. 2. He has a salary-cap charge of $9 million, third-highest in the League behind Ovechkin and the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin. Adding to the pressure is Subban being named one of four alternate captains with the Canadiens this season. However, Subban never has shied away from big moments; he's a player that appears to thrive when things are at their most intense. Going back to being tossed into a top-four position as a rookie during the Canadiens' run to the 2010 Eastern Conference Final, Subban has been a top playoff performer; his 0.69 point-per-game average in 43 playoff games is better than his 0.58 point-per-game average in 284 regular-season games. Subban, who already has won one Norris Trophy, likely will be a contender for the award for many seasons; NHL.com lists him as a player in the mix for the Norris in 2014-15. The Canadiens might have concerns this season, but how their top defenseman performs will not be one of them.
8. Can Peter Laviolette get the Nashville Predators thinking offense-first?
Yes. For the first time in franchise history there will be a different coach behind the bench in Nashville, as Laviolette replaces Trotz. With Laviolette comes an up-tempo offense that should have the Predators someplace they rarely have been: high in the scoring column. In 15 seasons the Predators ranked in the top half of the League in goals per game five times, and four times they have averaged more than 2.7 goals per game. In Laviolette's eight full seasons as an NHL coach, his teams have averaged at least 2.73 goals per game in each season, and more than three goals per game four times. General manager David Poile brought in offensive-minded players during the summer in forward James Neal and centers Mike Ribeiro and Olli Jokinen. Plus the Predators have offensively gifted defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Ellis, and 19-year-old Seth Jones has the potential to drive the attack. Nashville averaged 2.61 goals per game last season; if they can get that to about 2.75, they could be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
9. Are the Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler the best 1-2 center punch in the League?
No, but they're real close. With Jeff Carter again playing center on a full-time basis, it's hard to argue with the results Carter and Anze Kopitar have had the past three seasons with the Kings. Getzlaf and Kesler could be just as productive this season, though. Getzlaf was a Hart Trophy nominee last season after scoring a career-best 31 goals and finishing second in the League with 87 points. Kesler could be rejuvenated following a trade away from the Vancouver Canucks. He had 25 goals last season and his ability defensively -- he won the Selke Trophy in 2011 -- will take some of that burden from Getzlaf. A number of teams tried to get better down the middle: The Dallas Stars added Jason Spezza behind Tyler Seguin, the Chicago Blackhawks signed Brad Richards to play behind Jonathan Toews, and the St. Louis Blues signed Paul Stastny to go with David Backes. The Kings' Kopitar and Carter are the standard entering the season, but the Ducks' duo is not far behind.
10. Will Brad Richards be the Blackhawks' answer at second-line center?
No. Richards might have some extra jump in his step to make up for a sour ending to his tenure with the New York Rangers, but at age 34 it's hard to see him replicating the 20 goals and 51 points he had last season. Moving to the tougher Western Conference certainly won't help him either. The Blackhawks have to hope Richards forms some chemistry with projected linemates Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad early. Otherwise Andrew Shaw could be moved up the lineup, or top prospect Teuvo Teravainen will have to be fast-tracked to the NHL.
11. Are the New York Islanders a playoff team?
Yes. Few teams were as aggressive in upgrading their roster during the offseason as the Islanders. With Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, they added impressive depth to their top-six forward group, which allows Frans Nielsen to return to third-line center, where he is best suited. The defense was upgraded in its physicality with the acquisition of Johnny Boychuk, and the Islanders added a dynamic offensive element in Nick Leddy. The biggest upgrade could be in goal, where Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson will be a major improvement on last season's tandem of Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin. Combine the acquisitions with a healthy John Tavares and a developing core of young veterans and maturing prospects, and it adds up to potentially a top-three team in the Metropolitan Division.
12. Will the Detroit Red Wings push their playoff streak to 24 years?
Yes, but it won't be easy. The Red Wings sustained major losses to injuries last season and that bad luck has carried into the 2014-15 preseason as center Pavel Datsyuk will miss most of the first month of the season after sustaining a separated right shoulder in the Red Wings' first preseason game. Injuries limited Datsyuk, 36, and Henrik Zetterberg, 33, to 45 games last season. Stephen Weiss, expected to be the second-line center in 2013-14, played 26 games due to groin issues, and 11 defensemen played at least one game. The silver lining to that cloud of injuries, however, was that it forced the Red Wings to use a number of rookies, and they discovered they have a promising future that includes forwards Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan and defensemen Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko and Ryan Sproul. With better health and more strong play from their younger players, the Red Wings should be able to extend their League record for consecutive postseason appearances.
13. Can a team from the Eastern Conference win the Stanley Cup?
Yes. The Bruins appear to be the team best suited to hang with the elite teams from the Western Conference. They have two lines that can score, be physical in the offensive zone and be responsible defensively. Despite trading Boychuk they have arguably the best six-man defense group in the conference, and goaltender Tuukka Rask is a leading candidate to repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner. But the Bruins aren't the only team that could knock off a West power. The Rangers got to the Cup Final last season and remain a top contender to do it again, as do the Canadiens, mostly because of their elite goaltending. And as long as the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they'll remain a top Cup contender. Though the Ducks, Kings and Blackhawks are three of the Cup favorites, there's no reason to believe an East team can't come home with the title.
14. Can the Kings repeat as Stanley Cup champion?
Yes, but it will be a challenge. There's a reason no team has repeated as Cup champion since the Red Wings in 1998. With the glory of winning the Cup comes a short summer for resting, rehabbing or working out. Compounding things for the Kings are three consecutive short summers for most of the roster following a Cup championship in 2012, a trip to the Western Conference Final in 2013 and another Cup championship last season. And goaltender Jonathan Quick will have to be watched closely following back surgery in August 2012 and wrist surgery this summer. Working in the Kings' favor, though, is championship experience and a locker room that won't allow complacency to creep in. The Kings will be pushed all season, but they have an excellent chance of winning the Cup for a second straight season.