The wait for the 2012-13 season is nearly over. What questions do each NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses? Well, let's take a division-by-division look at some of the key quandaries for each NHL franchise as the campaign beckons. Up next is the Northwest Division, where everyone has been chasing Vancouver in recent years, but some key additions for the other clubs could make this a race worth watching.
Though Calgary Flames general manager Jay Feaster has been at the helm for a short period of time, he is not eager to break up the team and start a rebuild. After three playoff-free seasons, 2012-13 will be pivotal for the Flames organization. All of the team's key figures will feel the pressure to end the Stanley Cup Playoff drought and put off any thoughts of a roster makeover.
1. Can Bob Hartley get this group into the playoffs?
The former Colorado Avalanche bench boss has not coached in the NHL since the first six games of the 2007-08 season with the Atlanta Thrashers (he's the only coach to get that franchise to the playoffs). Hartley inherits a team that played a grinding style of hockey under Brent Sutter, and one not rife with the immediate talent to fuel the up-tempo style he wants.
But Hartley's knack for communicating and his success at multiple levels is what Feaster is banking on. The two won a Calder Cup in 1997 when they teamed as coach and general manager for the Hershey Bears when the American Hockey League team was Colorado's affiliate. Hartley then won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001.
With respect to recent top-line pivots Craig Conroy and Daymond Langkow, this role continues to be one that hasn't been filled by a premium player for years in Calgary. Before the lockout, general manager Jay Feaster acknowledged Mike Cammalleri, who normally plays left wing, may be moved to the middle like he did at times last season.
Then, in training camp, Alex Tanguay has emerged as someone who might move to the middle between Cammalleri and captain Jarome Iginla on the top line. Olli Jokinen is gone, but the Flames might have yet another option: Roman Cervenka, imported from the Kontinental Hockey League, but his status is uncertain because of a blood clot issue. Also on hand via free agency is 25-goal scorer Jiri Hudler, who effectively replaces Jokinen and has played center before.
3. Will Jay Bouwmeester be rejuvenated with a new coach, or is he on his way out?
Bouwmeester's smooth skating and offensive abilities may stand out more in Hartley's go-go game than Sutter's gritty one, but he carries a hefty contract and has not cracked 30 points in three seasons with the Flames. Still, the minutes-munching defenseman might attract trade offers from teams with salary-cap space and in dire need of his skill set, as some pundits have reported.
Some pressure might be off the 28-year-old with the arrival of Dennis Wideman, but it will be interesting to see how Hartley approaches the team's No. 1 defenseman. If he returns to anywhere near the 15-goal plateau he reached twice in his days with the Florida Panthers, while reversing his minus-21 from 2011-12, it would be a huge bonus for the Flames.
4. What about contributions from the kids?
Sooner or later, there will be an influx of recently drafted talent performing regularly at Scotiabank Saddledome. There are a number of prospects still in college who need seasoning, but Sven Baertschi has a great chance to make the team, with precious few spots after that.
Goalie - CGY
GAA: 2.35 | SVP: 0.921
The Flames lost 382 man-games to injury last season, and the Abbotsford express ran nearly daily for frequent call-ups Paul Byron, Brett Carson and Roman Horak. Akim Aliu is a reclamation project who impressed in two NHL games and could inject skill, toughness and a scoring touch. Recent picks Max Reinhart and Greg Nemisz will be knocking on the door.
5. Can someone be a hero past regulation time?
With the two-time Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in the division to chase, the Flames simply cannot afford to miss out so consistently on gaining an extra point for an overtime or shootout win. Calgary posted five wins past regulation against 16 combined OT/SO losses.
Improvement from Kiprusoff in the shootout would be welcome for sure, given his .625 save percentage (15 goals allowed on 40 shots against) was 35th in the League, which is unexpected from a goaltender with seven straight seasons of at least 35 victories. Kiprusoff is the active all-time leader with 35 shootout losses. If anyone can help the Flames turn more one-point losses into two-point victories, it needs to be the 35-year-old workhorse.
Iginla, who has 11 straight seasons of at least 30 goals, is an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season, and Kirprusoff will be unrestricted after 2013-14. Should Calgary fade from the playoff picture, it would be awfully tempting for Feaster to try to deal either player for inexpensive young talent who can deepen the lineup and relieve salary.
Iginla has a no-trade clause, while Kiprusoff's ran out after last season. Both players are popular and hold multiple franchise records, but save for their 2004 Stanley Cup Final berth, the Flames have missed the playoffs 10 times and lost four first-round series since Iginla's rookie season in 1996-97. Feaster has publicly pledged he will not break up the team, and showed in his tenure as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning he won't trade a star player (Vincent Lecavalier) because pundits say he should.
After an offseason spent extending contracts and re-signing key free agents, the Colorado Avalanche will enter 2012-13 looking very similar to the team that narrowly missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season: very young, very raw -- and very talented.
1. Did the Avalanche do enough this offseason?
It was a relatively quiet offseason for Colorado in terms of trades and free agency, and some fans are undoubtedly concerned that not enough was done to improve the Avs' 11th-place finish in the Western Conference. Upon closer inspection, the organization took a few steps -- albeit small ones -- toward a return to the postseason.
Colorado preserved almost all the pieces of its offensive puzzle, signing deadline acquisitions Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie to two-year deals and bringing back defensive-scoring leader Erik Johnson, potential franchise player Matt Duchene, and steady winger David Jones. Only restricted free agent Ryan O'Reilly remains unsigned. Add PA Parenteau's acquisition in free agency and Colorado's offense is looking a lot more potent this season than last.
The No. 2 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft made a seamless transition to the next level, earning a place on the Avalanche with four goals in his first eight games. Unlike No. 1 pick and Calder Trophy nominee Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers, Landeskog stayed healthy and consistent all season. He led rookies in shots on goal (270), tied Nugent-Hopkins for most points (52), and got his due when he was named Rookie of the Year.
Can Landeskog continue that pace into 2012-13? Recent history would point to a letdown. Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes scored 20 fewer points in his sophomore campaign, and the 2009-10 Calder winner, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, saw his plus-minus drop from plus-13 to 0, and he scored 11 fewer points. However, Landeskog should be comfortable if the young, exciting line of he, O'Reilly and Downie remains intact.
The major concern with Varlamov in his two seasons with the Washington Capitals was one of fitness. On multiple occasions when he was thought to be their next starter, the injury bug struck, and eventually young goalies Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby surpassed him. Now, after a full season in Colorado, the question is no longer one of health but of ability.
After a strong start with the Avalanche in 2011-12, Varlamov went 2-8-1 in November and was pulled in favor of aging goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. It was Giguere who put Colorado into playoff contention before a groin injury in February gave Varlamov the job again. General manager Greg Sherman made no offseason moves at the position, suggesting the organization believes in Varlamov and in the mentor/backup qualities of 35-year-old Giguere. However, with their American Hockey League affiliate, Lake Erie, bursting with goaltending talent, Varlamov's No. 1 title is not a foregone conclusion.
When the Avalanche signed Parenteau to a four-year, $16 million deal on the opening day of free agency, there was more to the deal than met the eye. Yes, Colorado was in need of a creative winger who could produce offensively, and Parenteau was a natural fit after collecting 18 goals and 49 assists for the New York Islanders in his second full NHL season.
More important than his individual numbers was Parenteau's ability to help John Tavares realize his full potential. The former No. 1 pick thrived alongside Parenteau, hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time and earning a trip to his first All-Star Game. Duchene is a similar player to Tavares and is coming off a disastrous, injury-shortened 2011-12 campaign when he scored 28 points. A skillful winger might be just what Duchene needs to relocate his offensive touch.
5. Can Joe Sacco coach this team to the playoffs?
He already did, in 2009-10, his first season coaching at the NHL level after holding a number of posts within the Avalanche organization. With low expectations, Sacco and the Avs went 43-30-9 and had the single biggest point increase (26) season-over-season since the 2000 expansion.
Ever since, however, Sacco has underwhelmed. Colorado finished 2010-11 with 68 points, though the Avalanche finished better in 2011-12 (41-35-6, 88 points), challenging for a playoff spot after savvy acquisitions at the trade deadline. Just as a very young team was finding its groove, they were exhausted after a long season, and the playoffs again eluded them. With another season of experience and a two-year contract extension padding his confidence, Sacco can use this season to bring Colorado back into the playoffs.
The center's 3:06 per game of shorthanded ice time led all Avalanche skaters and was third in the League among forwards. Landeskog was a distant second, with 1:20 per game. In short, there is no replacing McClement, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, on the penalty kill, and the Avalanche know it.
But there are positives for the Avs. Colorado enjoyed a top-tier penalty kill last season, but it might have come at the expense of a good offense. By bringing Parenteau over from the Islanders and keeping the talented young core intact, Sherman and the front office clearly focused on the offensive zone. Jan Hejda and Ryan O'Byrne are back to anchor the blueline, but someone will have to replace McClement as the key man on the PK.
Edmonton hasn't been to the playoffs since losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. However, with a roster that figures to include the three most-recent No. 1 NHL Draft picks (Nail Yakupov is expected to join predecessors Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall), in addition to a plethora of other young, skilled talent not only up front but along the blue line and in goal, the Oilers are in position to at least challenge for a top-eight seed in the Western Conference and break a streak of three straight last-place finishes in the Northwest Division.
1. How will Ralph Krueger fare in his first season as an NHL coach?
Before joining the Oilers' staff in 2010 under Tom Renney as an associate, Krueger built his reputation behind the bench internationally. Following a successful playing career in Germany, he turned around the fortunes of the Swiss national team and guided them all the way to the bronze-medal game at the 1998 IIHF World Championship. His squads also were forces to be reckoned with at Olympics in Turin and Vancouver.
Krueger, 53, has been able to spend the past two seasons getting acclimated to NHL coaching under Renney, even filling in for him briefly on a pair of occasions when a concussion and a death in the family kept Renney away. Now it'll be Krueger's job to manage the ice time his young players and veterans get, as well as figure out the situation in goal. He is well-respected in hockey circles, though, and shouldn't have trouble bringing the room in Edmonton together.
Edmonton was fortunate enough to add prospects on both offense and defense who could make an immediate impact. Although the Oilers finished nine points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton won the draft lottery, allowing it to take Yakupov at No. 1 -- and it was able to sign Schultz as a free agent when the Anaheim Ducks couldn't come to terms with their 2008 second-round choice.
Schultz turned 22 this summer and has three seasons of experience at the University of Wisconsin under his belt. He lit up the American Hockey League this season with 18 goals and 48 points in 34 games, and is a preseason favorite for the Calder Trophy. Yakupov is 19 and spent the start of the season in the KHL and with Russia at the World Junior Championship after two years as a dominant force in the Ontario Hockey League.
3. Does Devan Dubnyk have what it takes to be a No. 1 goalie?
Renney split the starts just about evenly last season, with Dubnyk making 42 and veteran Nikolai Khabibulin 40. That number also represents the age Khabibulin will turn in January, and he's in the final season of a four-year contract, so it's important for 26-year-old Dubnyk to show he can be the man in net as the Oilers build themselves into a playoff contender.
A first-round pick by Edmonton in 2004, Dubnyk enters his fourth NHL season with stats that have steadily improved. His appearances have increased each year while his goals-against average has gone down. His save percentages of .916 and .914 the past two seasons are more than respectable on teams that have struggled defensively.
Staying healthy would be a good start. Hall has had each of his first two NHL seasons end early because of injury, missing a total of 38 games. Nugent-Hopkins missed 20 games as a rookie, costing him additional points (16 of them, based off his projected output for an 82-game season) and probably the Calder Trophy, which went to Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche.
Center - EDM
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 52
SOG: 134 | +/-: -2
Hall, who had shoulder surgery in March, improved his numbers as a sophomore despite playing in four fewer games. He's on the verge of stardom, and if he can stay in the lineup for a full season it would help the Oilers' playoff chances immensely.
Nugent-Hopkins scored 18 goals and tied Landeskog for the rookie scoring lead with 52 points. There was concern about his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame entering the season, and shoulder injuries derailed him down the stretch after a blazing start. But he developed solid chemistry with Hall and Jordan Eberle on a top line that figures to stay intact.
5. What becomes of another Oilers' top pick, once-heralded Magnus Paajarvi?
In projecting various line combinations for the upcoming season, the Edmonton Journal's Oilers blog projected Paajarvi playing left wing on the second line or struggling to crack the lineup. That could depend in large part on whether Yakupov slots in at left wing or right wing and how the depth chart is subsequently affected.
Paajarvi, the 10th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, managed two goals and eight points in 41 games last season after a promising 15-goal, 34-point rookie campaign. He ended up back in the AHL, where he posted 25 points in 34 games for Oklahoma City; he had four goals and 20 points in 36 games for the Barons this season. At 21 years old, he figures to get another shot at fulfilling his potential at some point.
6. Will the Oilers be a better defensive team?
For all the talk about offense and the plethora of young talent Edmonton possesses up front, unless they're going to score at a rate similar to the Gretzky-era clubs, the Oilers will have to cut down on their goals-against if they want to contend. They gave up 239 goals last season, which ranked eighth from the bottom of the League.
Nick Schultz, acquired from the Minnesota Wild prior to last season's trade deadline, gives them a steady veteran presence to go along with Ladislav Smid and oft-injured Ryan Whitney. Jeff Petry and Corey Potter had strong first full seasons in the NHL. Add Schultz and Mark Fistric (acquired in a trade with the Dallas Stars) to the mix, and although it's not as flashy a group as the forwards, there's enough present to improve upon the 2011-12 numbers.
The Minnesota Wild's offseason was highlighted by the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the top two free agents on the market. Though the Wild's forward corps is deeper and has an abundance of prospects with offensive flair who may be able to step right in, no one knows whether the team will resemble coach Mike Yeo's hard-driving squad that was at the top of the NHL in December or the one that collapsed in the second half and missed the playoffs for the third straight season.
1. Will the arrival of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter mean a return to the playoffs?
The Wild should undoubtedly be better than the team that averaged a League-low 2.02 goals per game last season. Parise is a consistent 30-goal scorer, and his presence should make life easier for two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley. They are likely to be paired with captain Mikko Koivu, who was among the Wild's legion of walking wounded last season.
But the Wild face a tough task to get back into the top eight in the Western Conference. The Vancouver Canucks are coming off back-to-back Presidents' Trophies; four teams in the Central Division had 100 points last season; and both teams in the conference finals (Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings) came from the Pacific Division.
Suter put up 46 points last season for the Nashville Predators -- but he was playing with First-Team All-Star Shea Weber. Generating that kind of production in Minnesota won't be easy -- Suter's point total was twice that of Jared Spurgeon, the Wild's top-scoring defenseman a season ago. The supporting cast around Suter on the blue line will have to jell quickly. According to Yeo, Suter will be paired at first with Spurgeon, who along with Tom Gilbert are known commodities as puck-movers.
Inexperience is the rule for the rest of the defense corps. Returnees Marco Scandella, Justin Falk, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Steve Kampfer have 511 NHL games combined among them. Suter has played in 542 games and is the only playoff-tested defenseman the team has with 39 games. Scandella (groin) and 2011 first-round pick Jonas Brodin (clavicle) are injured, which could leave a spot for 2012 first-rounder Mathew Dumba.
The Wild haven't had the kind of pure offensive talent Granlund brings since the departure of Marian Gaborik three years ago. Granlund is already a mega-star in his native Finland thanks to his heroics at the 2011 World Championship against Russia. He also won a league championship, a scoring title and top rookie honors in Finland all by the age of 18.
The signings of Parise and Suter should take a lot of the spotlight off Granlund's arrival and make it easier for him to adjust to the NHL game. His speed, skills and shot should more than compensate for a relative lack of size (he's 5-foot-10). If Granlund can center an effective second line and give a boost to a power-play unit that was 26th last season, the Wild will take a major step toward the postseason.
The Wild are a different team with their captain, one of the NHL's best playmakers and two-way centers. But in Koivu's injury-filled seven NHL seasons, he's played more than 71 games three times. That's a big reason Koivu has never scored more than 22 goals and has cracked the 60-point mark just three times.
Center - MIN
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 44
SOG: 129 | +/-: 10
The Wild were a different team without Koivu in 2011-12 -- they went 8-16-3 without him. He lost four games to a knee injury and 23 more to a shoulder problem, finishing with 44 points in 55 games.
5. Which of the Wild's prized prospects will make the team?
If the Wild hadn't signed Parise and Suter, they might have been one of the youngest teams in the NHL. Granlund is the crown jewel of one of the deepest talent pools in the League.
Charlie Coyle and Brett Bullmer are the type of big-bodied power forwards the Wild can use to replace Guillaume Latendresse, who signed with the Ottawa Senators. Playmaker Zack Phillips starred with Coyle last season during the QMJHL playoffs. Jason Zucker had two assists in six games with Minnesota last season after finishing his season with the University of Denver, and the team likes his scoring abilities. Add in Johan Larsson was the the Swedish Elite League rookie of the year in 2011-12, and there a lot of options up front to go with Dumba and a healthy Brodin on the back end.
6. What is the Wild's identity now?
Injuries and inconsistency in the second half of 2011-12 led to very telling numbers that indicated how badly offense is needed. Not only did the Wild finish last in offense -- they had 22 fewer goals than the Los Angeles Kings, who were 29th in offense -- but they were last in shots on goal (26.5 per game) and 5-on-5 goals (112), as well as having the second-worst winning percentage when scoring first (.500).
Second-year coach Yeo, who enjoyed a Stanley Cup victory in 2009 as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, will strive to continue changing his team's culture and attitude. The team that takes the ice at the Xcel Energy Center this season will look vastly different than the one that fell apart after a strong start. Yeo's biggest task is to figure out who plays with whom -- and do it quickly. Getting all the newcomers and holdovers to mesh will determine whether the Wild can parlay the improvement in their talent base into a return to the playoffs.
Dealing Roberto Luongo is the one pressing issue still on general manager Mike Gillis' docket. It's also the one issue that is preventing the Canucks from ironing out their depth chart because it's not clear what Gillis would get in return, and if any of the players coming his way would be NHL veterans or even NHL ready. Beyond the Luongo saga, there are other questions the Canucks have to answer over the course of the season if they want to stay atop the NHL and remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
That's the plan. The Canucks wouldn't be shopping Luongo if they didn't believe Schneider, 26, has all the goods to be one of the best goalies in the NHL, as Luongo has been for years.
Schneider has to prove he's worth all the fuss, and worth the three-year, $12 million contract he signed this summer. He was performing well in Luongo's shadow before finally breaking away from it in April thanks to his strong showing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he posted a .960 save percentage and 1.31 goals-against average in three appearances against the Los Angeles Kings.
Perhaps the better question is will Kesler ever be the same player he was two seasons ago, when he scored 41 goals and won the Selke Trophy? It's a fair question considering for the second straight offseason he is rehabilitating from an invasive surgical procedure.
However, Kesler's season debut is first and foremost on the Canucks' minds now. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in May and wrist surgery in June. Originally expected to be ready by November, the rehabilitation process has been slow and he won’t be ready for opening night.
3. Who is going to score other than the Sedins and Alex Burrows?
Vancouver's scoring depth is certainly going to be tested, at least early in the season.
Kesler is out indefinitely and David Booth has a groin injury that will keep him out for the first four to six weeks of the season. The only player left from the Canucks' original second line is Mason Raymond, who had 10 goals in 50 games last season after returning from a back injury he suffered in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Not only do the injuries to Kesler and Booth affect the Canucks' secondary scoring, but it allows opponents to load up on the top line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Alexandre Burrows.
The Canucks will need Raymond to return to his form from 2009-10, when he scored 25 goals in 82 games. Ebbett, Schroeder and Zack Kassian may not exactly be Murderer's Row, but they can all score. They combined for 50 points in the AHL this season.
However, it's also possible the answer could come from outside the organization. If Gillis is going to trade Luongo, he's going to want a proven second-liner in return -- preferably a center.
4. How will B.C. native Jason Garrison fare after signing a big contract?
Garrison cashed in on his big season with the Florida Panthers by signing a six-year, $27.6 million contract with the Canucks. Now he'll have to live up to the money for the first time in his career. His $4.6 million cap hit matches that of Kevin Bieksa, who was the highest-paid Canucks defenseman.
Garrison, who will replace Sami Salo, improved in all three of his seasons with the Panthers and topped out at 16 goals and 17 assists for 33 points in 77 games last season while earning $700,000, according to CapGeek.com. He scored nine goals on the power play.
5. Is Chris Tanev ready for a full-time role?
Tanev has played in 54 games along with 10 playoff games in the past two seasons. He has only three assists, but has served as a capable stay-at-home defenseman. He's entering the final year of his entry-level contract and the Canucks have him tabbed, at least right now, as being a part of their top six along with Garrison, Bieksa, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard.
Defense - VAN
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 33
SOG: 168 | +/-: 6
There is a very real possibility that Tanev and Ballard start the season as the Canucks' third pair. That may make some fans uneasy, but Tanev has the ability to be a breakout performer because he's still young enough (22) and developing his offensive game.
Tanev is not going to light the lamp often for the Canucks, but he can become at least a threat if he improves his shot. He's not flashy, but his first pass is known to be quite good. He'll be given every chance to be a regular on the Canucks' blue line.
6. Will Zack Kassian develop into the rugged winger the Canucks need?
Vancouver traded for Kassian hoping he would become the bruiser it was missing in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. If he turns into Milan Lucic, well let's just say the Canucks wouldn't complain.
Kassian will be given a chance to earn a spot in the Canucks' top six to start the season. Vancouver will need to see him become the gritty, tough, crash-and-bang player he was in junior hockey.
The problem Kassian will have in Vancouver is the pressure to become that intimidating forward right away, because Canucks fans won't have to stay up late to see how Cody Hodgson is doing with the Buffalo Sabres. Hodgson was the promising center and former first-round pick Gillis sent to Buffalo in exchange for Kassian, so fans likely will measure the trade by tracking the career paths of the two players.