One Huge Question Facing Each NHL Team in 2012-13

Al DanielCorrespondent IIAugust 16, 2012

One Huge Question Facing Each NHL Team in 2012-13

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    Barely a year after the fact, one starting goalie from the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals has vacated his crease and the other may still do the same.

    Four other NHL teams are bringing back a head coach who replaced his predecessor in the middle of last season. One of them has a title to defend, the others still plenty more to prove.

    Five more teams have a burning question pertaining to either their stopper or their skipper.

    Taking the league-wide labor question out of the equation and holding out hope for normalcy by next month, here is what each NHL team should be raring to answer starting this autumn.

Anaheim: What Will A Full Year Under Bruce Boudreau Bring?

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    The Ducks were 7-13-4 when Boudreau supplanted Randy Carlyle as head coach early last December. Under the ex-Capitals’ skipper’s guidance, they went 27-23-8 for a .534 winning percentage.

    Had Boudreau been on board the entire season and attained that same success rate, it still would not have earned the Ducks a playoff berth.

    Translation: Boudreau still has plenty left to prove, as do his pupils. They will start next season as mystery men in what could be a significantly altered Pacific Division landscape.

Boston: Is Tuukka Rask Ready To Be No. 1?

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    Competing with Tim Thomas for crease time surely played a part in Rask leading the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage in 2009-10, the one-year interlude between Thomas’ Vezina Trophy campaigns.

    Now that Thomas is out of the equation, it is on Rask to show his growth from five roller-coaster professional seasons. There is no cause to believe the 25-year-old cannot handle a workload of 60-plus games, but he needs to follow through on his potential.

Buffalo: Will Better Health Bring Better Results?

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    The Sabres have not been out of the first round of the playoffs since making back-to-back appearances in the third round in 2006 and 2007.

    Last season, their third non-playoff campaign within those five years, was induced, in part, by the various injured-reserve stints of goaltender Ryan Miller, defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers, and scorers Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe.

    With each of those pieces in place, in good form and back on the rise, the Sabres should be in contention for their second Northeast Division title in four years.

    But they will have something further to prove when and if they get back into the postseason, where the core group will recall a few kicks in the teeth in 2010 and 2011.

Calgary: Is Bob Hartley The Answer Behind The Bench?

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    Although Hartley has been removed from NHL coaching for nearly five full seasons, the Flames are banking on him to rev up a retooled roster highlighted by Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka and Dennis Wideman.

    As easy as it is to fear rust on Hartley’s part, which could be a hindrance, his protracted hiatus from coaching could also have a positive out-of-a-cannon effect on his first year in Calgary.

Carolina: Can The New Strike Force Jell Without Delay?

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    Trading for Jordan Staal, springing for Alexander Semin and aligning them with Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner instantaneously swells the top six. That is, of course, if their chemistry can take almost instantaneous shape.

Chicago: Is The Worst Behind Marian Hossa?

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    Hossa's season was abruptly and prematurely ended in mid-April by an egregious hit from Phoenix’s Raffi Torres. But he has done what he can to instill optimism going forward.

    Still, it will only be natural for Blackhawks fans to watch with a little apprehension when one of their most leaned-on scorers returns to action. Besides the obvious humanity-based concerns for a player’s well-being, there are the implications of what more missed time or a recovery-induced drop in productivity means for the team.

    Consider this: Hossa has been in Chicago for three full seasons, but missed 25 games in the first and 17 in the second, finishing in the 50-point range both times. Conversely, he missed only one regular-season outing in 2011-12 and topped the team charts with 77 points.

Colorado: Will The Avs Flap Stronger Wings?

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    Straying from the topic of the center surplus, and assuming that remains status quo, those flanking the Avalanche’s top pivots will be the X-factor.

    Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog will be asked to follow up on his team-leading collection of 22 goals, 219 hits and a plus-20 rating. Meanwhile, late February acquisition Steve Downie and free-agency import P.A. Parenteau will each have their respective hitting and production duties in their first full campaigns with Colorado.

Columbus: Who Fills Rick Nash’s Skates?

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    After a decade of being a one-star show produced four playoff games, all losses to Detroit in 2009, the most ideal answer to this question just might be an ensemble cast for the Blue Jackets.

    It is not exactly happenstance that they reeled in three established pros from the Rangers as compensation for Nash.

Dallas: Is It Good for More Than One Playoff Round?

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    With the additions of Jaromir Jagr, Aaron Rome, Derek Roy and Ray Whitney, the Stars will have no excuse for missing the postseason yet again. Especially not after a succession of five straight regulation losses to close out last year had them finish six points out of the bracket.

    Dallas absolutely can and should finish among the top eight in the West. But the question that notion spawns is whether that long-awaited return will require subsequent growing pains.

    Given the recent playoff endeavors of some of their new acquisitions, reaching the second or third round is not outside the realm of possibility.

Detroit: Can It Win on the Road?

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    The Red Wings posted the league’s best home record last regular season at 31-7-3, but tied Toronto for 20th in the road record column at 17-21-3.

    The latter had a bit of a vicious-cycle effect. Detroit finished fifth in the conference and thus faced rival Nashville without the luxury of home-ice advantage.

    If losing Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena and blowing a 2-1 lead in that series did not instill alarm, then losing at home yet again to give the Predators a commanding 3-1 lead all but presaged immediate elimination back in Nashville.

    Besides stepping up to replace the tangibles and intangibles lost in Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement and Brad Stuart’s trade, the returning Red Wings must re-learn how to win in any building.

Edmonton: Will The Youth Movement Finally Mature?

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    Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s Penguins they are not. So an Oilers team banking on a rising nucleus of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov can be forgiven for not going from playoff no-shows to Cup champions in a matter of two or three years.

    With that said, can Edmonton fans handle yet another finish at or near the cellar of the Western Conference?

Florida: Can It Remain a Playoff Contender?

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    The Carolina Hurricanes have expressly striven to improve with the acquisitions of Staal and Semin. Ditto the Tampa Bay Lightning with the import of Matt Carle and Anders Lindback.

    There is also no cause to assume that the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets will regress.

    The Panthers have no shortage of legitimate threats to their one-year reign as Southeast Division champions, a title that is all but a requirement for playoff qualification.

    Yet they have arguably lost more than they have gained this offseason, with Peter Mueller coming from Colorado, but prolific point-patroller Jason Garrison going to Vancouver and Wojtek Wolski converting to the Capitals.

    With its roster as is, Florida will have to make more out of less to avoid receding back into the doldrums.

Los Angeles: Will It Be Hindered by Hangover?

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    It has to be said, for it comes with the territory of a championship now. Of the first six teams to win the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout, only two have escaped the first round of the next year’s tournament, and only one (Detroit, 2008-09) has gone to the third, let alone fourth round.

    Not unlike the Bruins of last season, there has been practically no overhaul to the champion Kings’ roster. With up to 18 skaters and a Conn Smythe-winning goaltender all coming off a short, celebratory summer, they are at inevitable risk of losing valuable footing in the 2012-13 race.

Minnesota: How Soon Will It Start to Contend?

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    With both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter imported from Stanley Cup contenders and locked in for 14 years, springtime glamour is bound to come to St. Paul at some point.

    But slow down, there. We don’t even know if the new-look Wild will take shape fast enough to qualify for the 2013 playoffs. Regardless of whether or not they do, the fashion in which they finish the coming campaign ought to signal how close or how far they are from legitimate contention.

Montreal: Who Else Is Going To Score?

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    The Canadiens have had no more than two or three players score more than 20 goals in each of the last four seasons. That shortage of qualitative and quantitative depth spells at least part of the difference between the 2007-08 team that finished first in the Eastern Conference and the lower-seeded playoff and non-playoff teams that have followed.

    Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec have all variously proven that they are capable of hitting gratifying numbers. Now they need to reiterate it in unison and receive supplementary aid from their fellow skaters to support goaltender Carey Price.

Nashville: Who Will Make the Plays from the Point?

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    Suter was either first or second among Nashville’s assist leaders each of the last four seasons, meaning his departure will require a collective step-up in the playmaking department.

    Retaining fellow elite defenseman Shea Weber helps, but the other holdovers and newcomers will have to chip in to compensate for the loss of Suter.

New Jersey: Does Martin Brodeur Have Anything Left?

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    Once a new season begins, the only remaining difference between the Cup champion and the last team they vanquished is the banners they raise. Hangover and residual wear-and-tear can take their toll on the last losing finalist, which is especially a risk if you are a 40-year-old whose position had you playing every minute of the last playoff run.

    If Brodeur cannot hold up himself and the Devils, what then? Does Johan Hedberg seize his moment or does any one of three touted prospects―Scott Wedgewood, Maxime Clermont, Jeff Frazee―step in and try to make an immediate impact?

NY Islanders: Can Brad Boyes Benefit?

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    There is a twofold meaning to the turn of phrase in that question. Boyes, who somewhat surprisingly is already 30 years old, has taken his production on repeat roller-coasters through his stints with Boston, St. Louis and Buffalo.

    However, if he finds individual stability upon acclimating to Long Island, he should lend some much pined-for secondary scoring to the strike force piloted by John Tavares and Matt Moulson.

NY Rangers: Are They Ready To Make The Next Step?

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    They have traded for Nash and signed Taylor Pyatt. They have veterans Brad Richards and Brian Boyle coming back and should have Marian Gaborik when games matter most. They have youngsters Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan raring to show how much they have grown.

    With that top nine joining reigning Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist and an irreproachable defensive corps, the Rangers should have all of the requisite pieces to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

    A shortage of offensive output and the ensuing back-to-back seven-game series before the Eastern Conference championship round was the first-place Rangers’ undoing last year. That should not be a problem in the coming year if the nine aforementioned strikers live up to expectations.

Ottawa: Will It Be Deep Enough?

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    The Senators’ top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza accounted for 39.5 percent of the team’s goals last season. Erik Karlsson inserted another 7.8 percent from his point perch, meaning Ottawa relied on four individuals who spent substantial time on the ice together for 47.3 of its scoring.

    That was good enough for a return to the postseason. But if they are to progress, the Sens will need a little more production during the 30-plus minutes when Alfredsson, Karlsson, Michalek and Spezza are all on the bench.

Philadelphia: Can Ilya Bryzgalov Handle The Heat Better?

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    Of his first 38 starts in the demanding Philadelphia market, Bryzgalov was pulled three times. On a separate occasion, in a 9-8 loss to Winnipeg Oct. 27, he was called upon to relieve Sergei Bobrovsky, only to allow four goals on 10 shots in 34:05 minutes.

    In the 2011-12 regular season, Bryzgalov had 18 four-goal outings, including seven five-goal salvos, while his single-night save percentage dipped below .900 in 25 out of 59 outings. He briefly rebounded for a solid month of March, only to regress into a postseason that culminated in a highlight-reel gaffe that spelled New Jersey’s series-clincher in the second round.

    Okay, the point has been made. The free-agent import from Phoenix did not exactly escape his baptismal fire in Philadelphia without any burns. But he will be depended on to prove that he was ultimately strengthened by the adversity.

    After all, he will most likely be in a spot where he will have to bail out a luckless blue-line brigade.

Phoenix: What If Shane Doan Stays/Goes?

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    If the captain stays with the franchise that has employed him for the last 17 years, this becomes a question of whether the Coyotes can still build a substantive nucleus around him.

    If he goes elsewhere, there is the on-ice question of whether the team can even stay in playoff contention and the off-ice question of whether the team will even be in the market for the long run.

Pittsburgh: Is The Cup Coming Back?

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    Given the pattern of Crosby’s career so far, the fate of the Penguins each of the last seven seasons is not as surprising as one might think.

    It was two years of growing pains, followed by back-to-back appearances in the championship round with a title to cap off 2009, followed by a seven-game, second-round snuff in 2010, followed by two injury-plagued years that ended in the conference quarterfinals.

    Assuming the 25-year-old Crosby and all of his key mates stay in good health, Pittsburgh should have all of the requisite means to be a hungry, fresh-legged juggernaut.

St. Louis: Is It Ready to Go Deep?

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    Assuming everybody stays healthy, the Blues have enough balance on offense and playmaking proficiency on the back end to compensate for the absence of an elite scorer. Behind all of that is a reliable goaltending tandem in Brian Elliott and Jaraslav Halak.

    After a season defined by Ken Hitchcock supplanting Davis Payne and transforming this team from sub.-500 to Central Division champions, St. Louis’ next step is proving it has grown from its growing pains.

San Jose: Can It Quickly Turn Back Around?

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    After five straight triple-digit campaigns and four straight division titles, a slump from about February to mid-March forced the 2011-12 Sharks to settle for 96 points and second place in the Pacific.

    More importantly, after back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference finals, last year’s Sharks were abolished in five games by St. Louis in the opening round. They’ll need a more assertive response to appease their fanbase.

Tampa Bay: Is Anders Lindback The Answer In Goal?

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    The Bolts’ best-case scenario is the newly acquired Lindback displaying a previously hidden proficiency honed by being the backup to elite Nashville stopper Pekka Rinne.

Toronto: How Much Longer Does Brian Burke Have?

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    Dating back to the start of their first of seven non-playoff seasons, the Maple Leafs have been suffering through this drought for 82 months. Having been brought on as general manager Nov. 29, 2008, Brian Burke has overseen a little more than 44 of those months and counting.

    The coming campaign will mark the first full season in Toronto for the GM-coach tandem of Burke and Randy Carlyle, hired in early March. Their history in Anaheim includes the 2007 Stanley Cup title. But less lofty goals are in order for the short term to ensure either party’s long-term security with the Leafs.

Vancouver: Can Cory Schneider Make Everyone Forget Roberto Luongo?

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    Schneider’s first two full NHL seasons have seen him play substantially fewer games than the incumbent Luongo, but enough to qualify for the league leaderboard.

    In both 2010-11 and 2011-12, he not only bested Luongo in save percentage, but finished among the league’s top three in that category. He was No. 3 and No. 4 in goals-against average last year and the year prior, respectively.

    Assuming Luongo is walking down the egress, Schneider’s next challenge is to sustain that success for a workload ranging in the 60-game range, plus playoff action.

Washington: Can Braden Holtby Follow Up?

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    Veteran Tomas Vokoun’s export to Pittsburgh means the crease is now in the hands of youngsters Holtby and Michal Neuvirth.

    Holtby’s performance in seven-game bouts with each of the last two Vezina Trophy winners was promising enough, but he and Neuvirth both need to prove they can hold up for a full-length NHL season.

Winnipeg: Will Geography Do in Its Playoff Hopes?

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    With no change to the NHL’s divisional alignment for the moment, the artists formerly known as the Atlanta Thrashers will once again need to travel almost or exceedingly more than 1,000 miles to each of their 32 intra-conference away games.

    The Jets finished eight points out of the postseason in 2011-12, leaving open the question as to whether their peerless accumulation of hours on a plane slowed them down in the homestretch.

    Over the final three weeks and 11 games of their first regular season, Winnipeg went 3-6-2, coincidentally taking each of those eight points from divisional rivals.

    But with the Southeast sector promising to be more competitive in 2012-13, excess travel might take an even more visible toll.