10 Biggest Questions Entering the 2013-14 NHL Season

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIAugust 17, 2013

10 Biggest Questions Entering the 2013-14 NHL Season

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    The 2013-14 NHL season may seem like the light at the end of a long hockey-less tunnel right now, but soon enough teams will be gearing up for training camp and then suddenly it'll be October. That means that the lockout-tarnished 2012 season will fade even farther into the past as we look ahead to another year.

    While last season was wrecked by a work stoppage, the players and teams did a marvelous job of making us fans forget all about the business side of things by putting on some of the most entertaining performances in recent memory.

    From the incredible unbeaten streak of the Chicago Blackhawks to the outstanding Stanley Cup Final, the year was a whirlwind during which there wasn't much time to think of questions and delve for the answers.

    If 2012 was a sprint, 2013-14 will seem like a triathlon as teams and players try to maintain consistency through an 82-game season. Here are some questions worth pondering as we continue through the dog days of summer?

    What, you aren't glued to your Twitter feed, just waiting on pins and needles to find out where Damian Brunner signed still?

Can Henrik Lundqvist Remain an Elite Goaltender?

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    During John Tortorella's tenure with the New York Rangers, the team became notorious for its gritty shot-blocking mentality. The fiery coach instilled in his players an intense level of competitiveness that inspired them to routinely sacrifice their bodies to prevent pucks from getting to the net.

    While there is absolutely no denying that Henrik Lundqvist is one of the most outstanding netminders in the NHL, it will be interesting to see what happens to his numbers as incoming coach Alain Vigneault installs a more offensive-minded system.

    Will Lundqvist be able to maintain his string of outstanding seasons? He's been the backbone of the New York Rangers since 2005, so our money says that he'll be every bit as good as his team scores more goals in front of him.

Will Marc-Andre Fleury Return to His Cup-Winning Form?

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    The wheels fell off the Pittsburgh Penguins war machine during the 2012 playoffs, plain and simple. Management Cupped up in a big way heading into the trade deadline, fortifying their ranks with some of the best rental players available.

    Then something odd happened during the first round.

    Marc-Andre Fleury started allowing soft goals, and the New York Islanders were able to hang around longer than they should have. While Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin must also shoulder some of the blame for the eventual third-round loss to the Boston Bruins, there's no denying that the situation in net was a distraction.

    While the team and coaches said all the right things about having faith in Tomas Vokoun, it has to be unnerving to players to know that their usual starter is riding the pine. For the Pens to roar back into the Stanley Cup picture in 2013-14, it will require Fleury to recapture his 2009 form or face the beginnings of an ugly goaltending controversy.

    They won't put up with soft performances during the most important time of the year in Pittsburgh for long.

How Will the Re-Tooled Boston Bruins Perform?

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    Despite making it to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three seasons, the Boston Bruins underwent a bit of a makeover this summer. While general manager Peter Chiarelli obviously likes his core group, he felt that a bit of tweaking was necessary.

    To that point, he traded Tyler Seguin, Ryan Button and Rich Peverley to the Dallas Stars. In return, he received the criminally underrated Loui Eriksson, blue-chip defensive prospect Joe Morrow, Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser.

    In response to Nathan Horton bolting for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chiarelli took one more crack at landing Jarome Iginla, and this time actually managed to get his guy.

    The message from ownership to the players is simple and bold: just making it to the Stanley Cup Final isn't good enough, and if the team doesn't win as-is, changes will be made. Say what you want about Seguin's alleged partying and so on—the Bruins saw fit to alter their core in a big way, and how the group responds will be interesting to watch through the beginning of the season.

Are the Columbus Blue Jackets for Real?

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    After spending most of their existence as a punchline to other NHL fans, the Columbus Blue Jackets are finally making a charge toward respectability. A restructured management group has been a massive boon for the franchise, and team president John Davidson has made several magnificent moves to push this franchise forward.

    Hiring Jarmo Kekalainen as the team's new general manager was a stroke of genius, and so far he's brought nothing but positive momentum to the table.

    That's a word you'll hear tossed around a lot in Columbus this season: momentum.

    They landed one of the biggest fish in free agency in Nathan Horton, locked up Vezina Trophy-winning netminder Sergei Bobrovsky to a two-year "prove it" deal—as opposed to assuming he'll be able to perform like that for another seven seasons and getting married—and are handling Marian Gaborik's upcoming free-agent status wonderfully.

    With all of this going on, could the Jackets finally manage to make some real noise in the NHL?

    Given the group of youngsters that are likely to make the squad this year (a group including Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray), this team seems to be on the upward swing.

How Will the Detroit Red Wings Perform After a Move to the East?

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    Admit it, Chicago Blackhawks fans: The Detroit Red Wings had you worried and sweating bullets in the Western Conference semifinal. Fear not, though. You won't see the 'Hawks and Wings facing off in the playoffs again unless each team makes the Stanley Cup Final.

    Detroit was moved to the Eastern Conference this summer after years of lobbying the NHL to make it happen, and it'll have a new set of challenges ahead as it plays unfamiliar foes on a nightly basis.

    How will this veteran-laden group respond to the change?

    The older players on the team will benefit from traveling a bit less, and it'll be fun to watch the Wings try to play their puck-possession style against some of the more defense-oriented teams in the East.

Can the Winnipeg Jets Make the Playoffs?

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    The honeymoon period will be over for the Winnipeg Jets in 2013-14. The team has been back in town since 2011, and the "just glad to be here" phase of the team's relationship with its fans is fading.

    Now come the high expectations of some of the most passionate fans in the NHL. Despite watching the team finish outside of the playoffs over the past two seasons, management decided to commit both term and money to this particular core group of players.

    Zach Bogosian was signed for seven years this summer. Blake Wheeler will be in town until 2019-20. Evander Kane and Bryan Little both will be with Winnipeg through 2018-19.

    The message is clear: This is our group, and we're moving forward with it.

    While there are sure to be some supplemental pieces sought out, the Jets will now live and die based on the performances of these key players. Various forms of no-trade/movement clauses would handcuff the team if it decided to try to move one of these guys, so these will be your Jets for the foreseeable future.

    Can this group get over the hump together and finally make the playoffs? Or will the Jets fall just short again this year like they did in 2012?

    It'd take big improvements from young players like Kane and Little, but this team is just as talented as any other squad that squeezed into the playoffs last season. The Jets aren't deficient, so they have just as good a chance as anyone to make the dance.

How Will Jim Nill Continue to Reshape the Dallas Stars?

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    Jim Nill hasn't been the general manager of the Dallas Stars for all that long, but during his short tenure he's shown an incredible stomach for risk. He took on Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins, who (according to various sources such as Fox Sports) fell out of favor with the team due to his partying ways.

    He gave up longtime Star Loui Eriksson in an attempt to strengthen the team down the middle with Seguin and Rich Peverley. He also swung a deal for the overpaid but still effective Shawn Horcoff.

    Not resting on his moorings one bit, Nill then selected one of the most talented players at the draft in Valeri Nichushkin. It's likely that the bullish forward wouldn't have been available at No. 10 if not for the dreaded Russian factor. The new GM couldn't let the talent pass, though, and made another risky pickup.

    If all of these moves work out, Dallas could find itself celebrating a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. If Seguin isn't capable of performing as a No. 1 center and Nichushkin doesn't end up making the squad out of camp, it could be another long season for the Stars.

Will the Phoenix Coyotes Spend More and Actually Win More?

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    For the first time in four years the Phoenix Coyotes have a steady ownership group. While TheFourthPeriod.com reports that the team won't be spending to the cap, the new owners have expressed a willingness to spend the Coyotes out of the cap basement.

    As we saw with the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, though, an influx of money doesn't always equal an influx in wins.

    The new owners must be patient with their franchise moving forward. Adding just to add won't help the team back to the playoffs, and it could unintentionally stunt the growth of a promising group of young players.

    Patience is the key to building a deep and successful franchise in the NHL these days. Drafting well is paramount, and adding the right pieces at the right time for the right price is tricky but important. To improve Phoenix, the new ownership group will need to make smart hockey decisions, which will lead to more wins.

    And everyone loves a winner.

Can the Montreal Canadiens Continue to Surprise?

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    One of the most surprising teams last season was the Montreal Canadiens. They went from being a bottom-feeding squad to the playoffs, and the turnaround only took one year.

    So are the Habs for real? Or was their charge to the postseason just another wacky side effect of a shortened season where there just wasn't enough time for averages to even out?

    Montreal made a few moves over the summer, including bringing Daniel Briere into the fold. While he'll be a solid addition and will provide scoring depth, Briere isn't the point producer he used to be. For this team to remain steady, it will need continued development from its young players.

    Alex Galchenyuk will need to take a big leap forward, Brendan Gallagher needs to stay the course, and (most importantly) Carey Price needs to find and maintain his A-game. Being a winner through 82 games is very different than crushing it up until the All-Star break, which is basically what Montreal did last year.

    A step back should be expected, but if Price can dominate, then who knows how far this team can go. Especially if the Canadiens manage to re-sign P.K. Subban early, preventing the situation from becoming a distraction. Again.

    Just pay the man already.

How Will the Olympics Affect the Season's Flow?

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    If the 2010 Winter Olympics were any indication, there will be some outstanding hockey played in Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Games.

    While the tourney provides some of the most emotionally relevant and charged moments for onlookers, there's no denying that the games severely disrupt the flow of the NHL's regular season. What if the Chicago Blackhawks would have had to take a two-week break in the middle of their historic winning streak last year?

    We'll never know, but these are the kinds of situations that arise when you take a 14-day break instead of an All-Star weekend to relax. And it isn't like the competitors are going to be doing much relaxing.

    Teams are sending their best players to compete, and the level of that competition is incredibly high. It's hard to imagine players coming back more rested than they would be if the season wasn't interrupted.

    The Olympic break will loom large over the season, especially if a star player goes down or the games disrupt a special streak of some kind in the NHL.