Training camps will open Sept. 17, thus beginning the inexorable journey toward a Stanley Cup champion next June. Such a long journey. So many questions as yet unanswerable. Here's a look at some burning questions for the Metropolitan Division.
What's next for Rick Nash?
There's always a sense of feast-or-famine with the former No. 1 draft pick. Nash silenced many critics with 42 regular-season goals last season and for a time was in the midst of Hart Trophy discussion. But he also managed to score just five times over the final 22 regular-season games. While Nash did score five times and collect 14 points in the postseason, he was held without a point in nine of 14 games after the first round -- including the Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals. With the retirement of Martin St. Louis and the departure of Carl Hagelin, the pressure on Nash certainly isn't going to go away anytime soon.
Chris Kreider: Man or boy?
With St. Louis gone, Kreider is the only other 20-goal scorer returning from last season's roster outside of Nash. The big, 6-foot-3 winger with incredible speed from Boxford, Massachusetts, chipped in five game-winning goals for the Rangers, who will be counting on Kreider's significant skill set even more this season. How does he respond? Well, when it mattered most in the playoffs, Kreider potted seven goals, including two game-winners, but he was without a point in the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals. This season looms large for the 24-year-old as he enters his third full season in Manhattan.
Keith Yandle: Staying or going?
It's always hard to get a sense of just how well -- or how poorly -- a player really fits with a team after the trade deadline. This is especially true of high-skill players like defenseman Keith Yandle, who was a surprise add by the Rangers in March. Yandle had just 11 points in 21 games after the trade deadline and had the exact same scoring line (two goals, nine assists) in 19 postseason games. Already there has been talk that the Rangers might look to move Yandle, who is in the final year of his current contract, to try to add depth and productivity up front.
The answer depends on how close you thought the Caps -- who lost Game 7 in overtime to the Rangers in the second round -- were to their first trip to the conference finals since 1998. Ward was a dynamo in the playoffs and has proven himself to be a springtime player. But Williams has three Stanley Cup rings. Oshie has struggled to stay healthy and produce in the playoffs (the two elements are mutually inclusive) but, if healthy, could give the Caps the top-end right winger they've been looking for to play with Alex Ovechkin. In the end it has to be better than a saw-off for the Caps.
How good can Evgeny Kuznetsov be?
The short answer is really, really, really good. There is a wide belief that Kuznetsov's coming-out party in the playoffs -- he had five goals in 14 games, tying Ovechkin for the team lead -- is just the tip of the iceberg for the 23-year-old center from Chelyabinsk, Russia. Watching Kuznetsov control the puck, coming off the half-wall and making plays with a high level of confidence, was a welcome tonic for an organization that wondered for a time if the 26th overall pick in 2010 would ever make his way to the team. If he can stay on the developmental arc, Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, who may not be ready to start the season, are going to give the Caps a potent one-two punch down the middle that will make them even more difficult to handle this coming season.
Is this a battle to the death of Barry Trotz's system versus the Caps' playoff ghosts?
Coach Trotz accomplished so much of what he and general manager Brian MacLellan set out to do last offseason. They changed the team's identity and became much more of a Western Conference team, hard to play against, physically challenging with a high dose of skill mixed in. But when push came to shove in the second round and the Capitals were up 3-1 against the Rangers, all the old ghosts started their caterwauling and the Caps faded, unable to close out a series they had no business losing. Was that just a blip on the radar for Trotz? Can he keep his team focused on the prize? Well, that's what they brought him to Washington to do. This is as good a team on paper as the Caps have had in many years, maybe forever. In short, it's time for Trotz et al to do some good old-fashioned exorcising.
How will the move to the Barclays Center change things?
After years of dithering and political infighting on Long Island surrounding the issue of retrofitting Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum or building a new arena, the team is headed to Brooklyn and a new home that is close -- but not really close -- to its fan base. Will new revenue streams and a home in the city change things for a team that is also in the throes of an ownership change? Will the Islanders become more of a destination franchise now that they've moved out of a building that for years has been charitably described as a dump? What will the fan base look like after decades of being on Long Island? So many questions and challenges for a team about to add a new chapter to a storied history.
Standing pat or standing still?
Last year, oft-criticized GM Garth Snow made two bold moves on the eve of training camp, adding Johnny Boychuk from cap-challenged Boston and Nick Leddy from Chicago, and in effect changed the complexion of their defensive alignment. Both players flourished and the Islanders ended up in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Both times, though, they were knocked off in the first round, although they pushed Washington to seven games despite being decimated by injuries to the back end. But the Isles were very quiet this offseason, making essentially no significant roster moves save shuffling backup Michal Neuvirth out and bringing in Thomas Greiss. Were the Islanders that close to being a contender that essentially the same roster can be expected to vault the team even further? Or will the static nature of the personnel moves come back to bit the Isles?
So, who steps up?
If the Isles are really ready to take a jump forward, which players will be taking a bigger role to assist veterans like captain and resident superstar John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo, who is entering a contract season? Rookie Anders Lee played much of last season with Tavares and will be looking to build on a 25-goal campaign that had him fourth among all first-year players. Brock Nelson, 23, started on fire and finished with 20 goals, and 22-year-old Ryan Strome, the fifth overall pick in 2011, finished third in team scoring with 50 points. All three have the potential to do even more this season. There is also Josh Ho-Sang, a kind of wild card of a prospect with a big personality and high skill whom the Isles took with the 28th overall pick in 2014, who could add another offensive jolt to the team.
Phil Kessel: Yay or nay?
Outside of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, is there a player with more attention focused on him than the former Toronto sniper who was cast off by the sad sack Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason? The Leafs believe they are adding to their character and identity by subtracting Kessel, while the Penguins believe they may have finally found the pure goal-scorer to play alongside Sidney Crosby (or perhaps Evgeni Malkin). What's the top end for Kessel playing with either center? Forty goals? Fifty? More?
Can the blue line keep up with the offense?
The Penguins were dumped in five games in the first round of the playoffs last spring by the Rangers in large part because they were without Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff -- three of their top four defenders. Defensive anchor and Letang's partner Paul Martin is in San Jose now and Ehrhoff is an L.A. King, which means the burden is going to fall squarely on Letang and Maatta to carry the team forward. Both have to prove they are healthy enough for that kind of responsibility. There's also Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Adam Clendening, who came in the deal that saw Brandon Sutter sent to Vancouver for Nick Bonino. The three youngsters will vie for playing time with veterans Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy. And of course there's 41-year-old Sergei Gonchar, who is looking for one last hurrah with a team for whom he toiled when it won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Is the window propped open or simply closed?
Since winning that Cup, the Penguins have advanced beyond the second round just once (and were swept by Boston in 2013). They've changed coaches and the GM, and again this summer have undergone wholesale changes to the roster, with Bonino, Kessel, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen all joining David Perron, who came to Pittsburgh midseason from Edmonton, looking for playing time up front. The one thing that distinguishes the forward group is that aside from Beau Bennett, a 23-year-old prospect who has never really evolved the way the team imagined, the forward group is almost exclusively in its mid-to-late-20s or older. That suggests the time is now if the Pens are to reassert themselves as Cup contenders. The one young forward to watch is Sergei Plotnikov, a 25-year-old signed away from the Kontinental Hockey League. But the mantra is clear: Win now (or else).
Can the Blue Jackets stay healthy (and what did we learn when they couldn't)?
There is so much optimism surrounding the Blue Jackets heading into training camp, but all that optimism and the thoughts of returning to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons have to be tempered by a little bit of caution, and that caution has all to do with good health. The lack thereof last season derailed another promising season in a hurry. By the end of the day, the Blue Jackets had lost a colossal 508 man-games to injury last season. But here's the interesting part: Even though they looked to be dead and buried early in the season, the Blue Jackets soldiered through their incredible injury misfortune to produce one of the best second-half records in the NHL. From March 1 on, the Blue Jackets were 16-4-1, the 16 wins tied with the Ottawa Senators for the most in the league over that period. In short, in the face of long odds, the Blue Jackets actually got back within shouting distance of the playoffs. Now if only they can stay healthy. Did we mention that?
How big an impact will Brandon Saad make?
We are guessing the answer is "big." The Chicago winger played a significant role in the Blackhawks' run to the 2015 Stanley Cup and is just coming into his own as an elite forward with speed, great hockey smarts and a terrific shot, and he looks to be a solid fit with top center Ryan Johansen. The move also should prove to the rest of the Blue Jackets and to the fan base that GM Jarmo Kekalainen wants to be playing with the big boys. Saad is the kind of impact player who is going to give head coach Todd Richards lots of options.
So, what is realistic for this team?
The Eastern Conference remains, for us, an open field. Lots of teams with promise, lots of teams having to sort through lots of questions. The Blue Jackets' defense is a pressure point. Losing collegiate prospect Mike Reilly to Minnesota didn't help. But Richards' team plays hard and is built for the playoffs with balance and grit. Throw in a former Vezina Trophy winner in net in Sergei Bobrovsky and this is a team that should be in the hunt for a Metropolitan Division crown and should at the very least settle into the top three and earn another ticket to the playoffs.
Is Dave Hakstol the guy to guide the Flyers out of the doldrums?
Credit to GM Ron Hextall, now in his second season as GM of his old team, for thinking outside the box when it came to replacing former head coach Craig Berube. Hakstol isn't exactly your prototypical Flyers head coach, coming out of a long and successful career in the NCAA with the University of North Dakota, where he reached the Frozen Four seven times in 11 years -- the most of any program over that period. But, and this is just stating the obvious, we'll do it anyway, NCAA hockey is a million miles from the NHL in terms of the demands on players, the travel, the pressure and the coaching. But Hextall obviously was impressed with Hakstol's hockey smarts and the plan he has for getting the Flyers back on track.
Hextall has done a masterful job of unloading some unfriendly contracts, including dealing Chris Pronger's contract and Nicklas Grossman to Arizona at the draft. But what remains an obvious headache is the continued presence of Vincent Lecavalier on the books for this season and two more with an annual cap hit of $4.5 million. Now the actual dollar amount declines to $3 million in the next two seasons, which might make Lecavalier more attractive to a team looking to spend less actual money while padding to the cap floor (hello, Arizona). But in the interim, what will Hackstol do with a former Stanley Cup winner and captain who had just eight goals in 57 games and was moved out of his natural position as a center for a time because, well, Berube wasn't exactly sure what to do with him? Is it possible that Hakstol can find a place for Lecavalier to be more productive and thus perhaps more desirable as trade bait or, heck, so productive they decide not to try to move him?
What's next for the dynamic duo, and will it be enough?
One of the good-news items for the Flyers in the offseason was the signing of emerging star Jakub Voracek to an eight-year contract extension worth $66 million. It's a lot of term and a lot of dough for a young man who took some time to evolve after being drafted seventh overall in 2007. But it's hard to argue with the results the past couple of years, including his 81 points last season, fourth best in the league. His 33 power-play points were tied for third among all NHLers. The man with whom Voracek has played with most of the past couple of seasons and arguably is still the team's most important player is Claude Giroux, who endured a stretch in the middle of the season when he scored just twice in 24 games but still ended up with 25 goals, 73 points and 13 power-play goals. If the Flyers are going to defy most prognosticators and jump back into the playoffs, Giroux is going to have to more closely resemble the Giroux of two seasons ago who had 86 points and was a Hart Trophy finalist. And Voracek is going to have to closely resemble, well, the Voracek of last season. Perhaps the bigger question is whether Hakstol keeps the two together or splits them in the hopes of providing more scoring balance to his lineup.
New coach, new GM, new path to success?
With all due respect to Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello, who stepped down as GM and then shocked the hockey world by taking over as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, most of the past decade has not been kind to the Devils. It means his successor, Ray Shero, has his hands full in replenishing a shockingly bare cupboard in terms of prospects and remaking a team that has gotten shockingly old up front. Shero, who built a Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh spending to the cap every year, is going to have more flexibility and fewer expectations in New Jersey, and he's already making his presence felt by hiring highly respected AHL coach John Hynes out of the Penguins' organization, where he had good success with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins. Shero also changed front office personnel and closed the door to veterans Scott Gomez and Dainius Zubrus. It won't get done overnight, but Devils fans have to feel good about the new course being charted from the top on down at The Rock.
Is Adam Larsson really worth six years and $25 million?
Shero thinks so and, if you're going to build a team, you'd better build it from the back end out. Cory Schneider is an elite netminder -- is he your starter for the U.S. team at the World Cup of Hockey next fall? -- but they haven't come close to having a stud anchor on the blue line since Brian Rafalski departed for Detroit in 2007. Larsson was to be that guy when the Devils drafted the big Swede fourth overall in 2011. It hasn't worked out that way, but the 6-foot-3 Larsson started to show signs he's getting the NHL game, and at 22, he's far too young to toss away. So Shero not just committed but committed long-term to Larsson and his place as an anchor on the Devils' blue line. If Shero is right, the Devils will be back in the thick of things sooner than later.
Um, anyone in this lineup able to score?
The Devils ranked 28th in goals scored per game last season. Mike Cammalleri, who played just 68 games, was the runaway leader with 27 goals. The next-highest goal-producers were Steve Bernier and Adam Henrique, who had 16 apiece. Yikes. The Devils had the eighth -ranked power play, which tells you their five-on-five scoring was nonexistent (actually 28th, almost a full goal per game less than the league-leading Rangers), although they were also dead-last in terms of power-play opportunities, which tells you they didn't have the puck nearly enough to draw penalties. Kyle Palmieri, coming over from Anaheim, will get a chance to produce, but the bottom line is goals will once again figure to be scarce for the Devils and, unless there is an unexpected source for said goals, the playoffs will once again be out of reach.
Is this Eric Staal's swan song in Carolina?
The Canes' captain and one of the most popular and important players in team history is entering the final year of his contract. The team cannot afford to pay him nearly what he's being paid now -- he will make $9.5 million in real dollars this season and carries an $8.25 million cap hit -- but the question is what is his value to the team moving forward? Will Staal agree to a massive pay cut to stay with the team that drafted him in 2003? And at 30 years old, will he be content to remain with a team that is years from contending again? If he would like to finish out his career with a better chance to win a second Stanley Cup, what kind of return would the big center yield? In short, the Canes and Staal, who controls his fate with a no-trade clause, have to decide if it's better for both the player and the team if he moves on. Difficult questions with even more difficult answers to be delivered.
Is Eddie Lack the heir apparent in goal?
GM Ron Francis faces a similar dilemma with franchise goaltender Cam Ward. The playoff MVP during the Canes' Stanley Cup run in 2006 is 31 and likewise in the final year of a contract that will pay him $6.8 million (his cap hit is $6.3). Does Ward have some value on the market? Too many factors come into play at this stage to say. But Francis did open the door to a successor by adding Eddie Lack from Vancouver, and one has to imagine he'll get every chance to earn the starting job. Lack can also become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but with starting jobs in short supply, this might be Lack's best chance to settle into a long-term situation. The Canes hope he gives them reason to consider just that.
Can this team get the ownership it needs and deserves?
With all due respect to Peter Karmanos, the man who moved the Hartford Whalers to Carolina in 1997 and who this fall will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, it's time. Karmanos has been trying to find local investors to take on a percentage of the team's ownership and lessen his own financial burden. Makes sense. But Karmanos still wants to maintain a controlling interest. Tough to imagine potential owners pouring in millions and not getting the final say on a team that regularly bleeds red ink and ranked second-to-last in average paid attendance last season. Perhaps it's time for Karmanos to step further back, selling off a controlling interest at the least in the hopes that a local group will step to the fore and quash what will no doubt be ongoing rumors and innuendo that the team could be primed for relocation.