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Key questions facing Eastern Conference teams

by John Kreiser / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 8.

The calendar has turned to October, and that means NHL teams already are brainstorming to figure out what they'll have to do to be successful when the regular season starts next week.

As they get ready for 2014-15, 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 a key question facing the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference:

Boston Bruins

Who will replace Jarome Iginla's 30 goals? -- Iginla was a perfect fit in his one season with the Bruins, tying Patrice Bergeron for the team lead in goals. Ironically, his success wound up triggering his departure; Iginla earned more than $3 million in bonuses that cut down on the space available under this season's salary cap. He wound up in Colorado, and general manager Peter Chiarelli had to do a lot of juggling to get Boston under the cap. Loui Eriksson, who averaged more than 29 goals in his last four fulll seasons with the Dallas Stars but struggled in his first season with Boston, could get the first chance to take Iginla's spot with David Krejci and Milan Lucic.

Buffalo Sabres

Where do they go from here? -- The Sabres brought back Matt Moulson and added Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges, but any future success rests with their core of talented young players and the slew of high picks they'll have in the next two drafts. However, after finishing 30th in the League standings in 2013-14 and scoring fewer goals than any team since the mid-1950s, the Sabres have a long way to go. The Sabres hope Sam Reinhart, the second pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, can make the jump to the NHL and young players like Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons are ready to become impact players. There's nowhere to go but up, and though the Sabres figure to be improved, they're still likely to be a lottery team.

Carolina Hurricanes

What has happened to Cam Ward? -- The 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is coming off back-to-back seasons marked by injury and ineffectiveness. His 3.06 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in 2013-14 were among the poorest in the NHL, and even when healthy he spent much of the season backing up newcomer Anton Khudobin, who got a two-year contract during the offseason. Ward has two years remaining on his contract at an average annual value of $6.3 million. New general manager Ron Francis has to hope Ward can return to the form that helped him lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup eight years ago.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Are the Blue Jackets ready to take the next step? -- It's hard to believe now, but the Blue Jackets were a mess just a couple of years ago; they finished the 2011-12 season with a 29-46-7 record and traded their best player, Rick Nash, during the offseason. But under president of hockey operations John Davidson, GM Jarmo Kekalainen and coach Todd Richards, Columbus is coming off a season in which it qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in franchise history and pushed the favored Pittsburgh Penguins to six games before losing. Kekalainen added feisty forward Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers and has built a solid base of young talent to play in front of star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. As long as restricted free agent Ryan Johansen gets signed before missing any regular-season games, all the arrows will continue to point up in Columbus.

Detroit Red Wings

Can they continue the NHL's longest active playoff streak? -- Detroit hasn't missed the playoffs since 1990; the Red Wings' streak of 23 consecutive appearances is the fifth-longest in NHL history. But Detroit barely has qualified in each of the past two seasons, hasn't gotten past the second round since 2009 and lost to the Bruins in five games last spring. General manager Ken Holland came up empty in his efforts to bring in an impact defenseman, and most of the Red Wings' top players are on the far side of 30. Gustav Nyquist had a breakout season in 2013-14, but the Red Wings need more of their young players to take key roles if they're going to continue their streak.

The Florida Panthers are expected No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad to play a significant role on their defense this season. (Getty Images)
Florida Panthers

Is top draft pick Aaron Ekblad ready for the NHL? -- The Panthers made Ekblad, 18, the first defenseman taken No. 1 since Erik Johnson (St. Louis Blues) eight years earlier. General manager Dale Tallon's heart probably skipped a few beats when Ekblad sustained a concussion during an exhibition game at Canada's junior development camp, but he was fine by late August and showed no ill effects during the preseason. That's good news for the Panthers, who expect Ekblad, 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, to play a regular role on a team that has made the playoffs just once since 2000.

Montreal Canadiens

Will going without a captain have any effect on an up-and-coming team? -- After four seasons wearing the "C" in Montreal, Brian Gionta signed with the Buffalo Sabres as a free agent, leaving a leadership void on a team that went to the Eastern Conference Final last spring. Instead of naming a new captain, general manager Marc Bergevin opted for four alternate captains in defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, and forwards Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty. It's only the second time in franchise history the Canadiens have gone without a captain; Bergevin said he wanted to ease Subban and Pacioretty into leadership roles and that he'll revisit the issue of a full-time captain next season.

New Jersey Devils

What will life be like after Martin Brodeur? -- The Devils finally cut ties with the NHL's all-time winningest goaltender after last season, when his .901 save percentage was among the lowest in the League. Cory Schneider, who split the job with Brodeur in 2013-14 and had far better numbers, is now the unquestioned starter (with a new seven-year contract to prove it). Brodeur hasn't had a save percentage better than .908 since 2009-10, but he still saw almost as much action as Schneider last season and finished with a better won-lost record. There's no question Schneider is a top-flight goaltender; the question is how comfortable he's going to be stepping into the skates of an icon.

New York Islanders

Will they make the playoffs in their final season at Nassau Coliseum? -- The Islanders did little to help themselves after their surprising trip to the playoffs in 2013 and they paid the price. New York effectively was out of the playoff race even before star center John Tavares injured his knee at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. General manager Garth Snow learned his lesson: He brought in two solid goaltenders (Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson) to plug the team's biggest hole, added a pair of solid forwards in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, and made several depth signings to take some of the pressure off his top prospects. The Islanders should be among the NHL's most improved teams this season, their last in the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike. It's not unreasonable to believe there could be a couple of playoff games at the Coliseum before the Islanders leave for Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

New York Rangers

Can they replace the depth they lost this summer? -- The Rangers began to thrive last season when they were able to roll four lines on a regular basis; that strategy (and Henrik Lundqvist's goaltending) carried them to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. But they lost top-four defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Derek Dorsett during the summer; their only major veteran additions were defenseman Dan Boyle, 38, and bottom-six forwards Tanner Glass and Lee Stempniak. Coach Alain Vigneault will have to do a lot of mixing and matching, especially with top center Derek Stepan sidelined by a broken fibula to start the season.

Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean could have a difficult situation on his hands as he juggles goalies Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson. (Getty Images)
Ottawa Senators

Can coach Paul MacLean avoid a goaltending controversy? -- The Senators signed Robin Lehner, 23, to a three-year contract in July, then did the same thing a few weeks later with Craig Anderson, 33. That leaves MacLean faced with having to juggle two potential No. 1 goaltenders and one crease. Anderson has gotten the majority of the starts when he's been healthy; Lehner has shown plenty of potential but not the kind of consistency the Senators wanted when he played while Anderson was injured. Each goalie said competition for the starting job should be a positive, and Lehner told the media all he wants is a fair chance at the top job. MacLean likely will ride the hot goalie, but having a 1A and 1B goaltending setup can be a tough way to win.

Philadelphia Flyers

Can goaltender Steve Mason do it again? -- Perhaps the biggest reason the Flyers made the playoffs last season was the play of Mason, who won 33 games with a 2.50 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in his best season since 2008-09. Mason gave the Flyers a chance to win every time he took the ice; he made 30 or more saves 23 times and allowed two or fewer goals in 33 of 61 games. He brought the kind of stability in the crease the Flyers hadn't had in years. But Mason never has had solid seasons in back-to-back years. With a defense that's prone to giving up a lot of scoring chances, the Flyers absolutely need Mason to be as good as or better than he was last season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Has Sidney Crosby's wrist injury healed? -- Crosby led the NHL in scoring last season, but he managed only one goal and eight points in 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games and was held off the score sheet when the Penguins dropped three straight games to the Rangers to lose their second-round series after taking a 3-1 lead. Crosby said at the time that he was healthy, but the Penguins said in July their captain had been receiving treatment for an injury to his right wrist. He also missed early parts of training camp with an undisclosed injury, and his expected preseason debut was pushed back by the death of his grandmother. With a new general manager, coach and several new players, the Penguins need a healthy Crosby more than ever this season.

The Lightning's season could hinge on goalie Ben Bishop, who had a breakout season in 2013-14, but is still battling injuries as opening night approaches. (Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Lightning

Will Ben Bishop be healthy enough to carry the load in goal? -- Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist in his first season with the Lightning, but he was a spectator at playoff time due to an elbow injury. He also had offseason surgery to fix a wrist injury that had plagued him since January. The elbow is 100 percent, but he's still regaining strength in the wrist, though he said he expects to be ready when the regular season starts. The Lightning are deep and talented up front and on defense, and they're poised to make some noise this season. But they have no one ready to handle the No. 1 job in goal if Bishop isn't able to pick up where he left off last season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

How long will it take for Brendan Shanahan to put his stamp on the team? -- Shanahan got the keys to the NHL's most expensive sports car after a late-season fade sent the Maple Leafs tumbling out of a playoff berth. He made numerous changes in the front office, including the hiring of analytics-minded assistant general manager Kyle Dubas, 28, but kept coach Randy Carlyle and made few significant personnel changes to a team that allowed a League-high 35.9 shots per game last season. The team that takes the ice opening night figures to have most of the same strengths and weaknesses as last season's group.

Washington Capitals

Will new coach Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin see eye to eye? -- Trotz, who comes to Washington after 17 seasons with the Nashville Predators, inherits the NHL's leading goal-scorer in Ovechkin, whose 51 goals were tops in the League but whose minus-35 rating was the third-worst. Ovechkin had 24 of his goals on the power play, but he was a liability at even strength. Trotz, a defensive-minded coach in Nashville, has to find a way to get Ovechkin to play more of a 200-foot game while not losing the touch that makes him a threat to score anytime he's on the ice. His ability to get Ovechkin on board could determine the Capitals' fate this season.

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