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.
Who's got the name tags?
For a team that got within one win of the Stanley Cup finals, the Ducks sure underwent a significant makeover this past summer. General manager Bob Murray, a finalist for GM of the year, added four new forwards (Chris Stewart, Carl Hagelin, Mike Santorelli, Shawn Horcoff), a top-four defenseman (Kevin Bieksa) and a backup goaltender (Anton Khudobin). Will they offset the losses of Matt Beleskey, Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, Francois Beauchemin and James Wisniewski (who didn't really factor in for the Ducks after being acquired at the deadline)? The Ducks don't have far to go, but they've got lots of new faces to get them there.
How will the goaltending situation play out?
The acquisition of Khudobin from Carolina pushes super prospect John Gibson down the Ducks' goaltending depth chart and into the American Hockey League, at least to start the season. A year ago, we were pondering the one-two tandem of Gibson and Frederik Andersen. Now Andersen is the man between the pipes for the Ducks after a strong regular season, one that he followed with what was for the most part a strong playoff run. Did Andersen run out of gas a bit against Chicago in the Western Conference finals? Sure, but that's part of a young netminder's evolution, no? Plus, we like Khudobin to shoulder a bigger load if Andersen does falter. Regardless, goaltending will continue to be an evolving story for the Ducks as the season moves along.
One step closer, or Game 7 curse?
Yes, the Ducks blew a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference finals and lost a Game 7 at home for the third straight season. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Ducks have taken one step further each year under head coach Bruce Boudreau. With Chicago taking a decided step back, it's hard not to consider the Ducks as the team most likely to take the Hawks' spot at the top of the Western Conference ladder. Assuming, of course, that each step forward comes with an appropriate lesson learned.
Will the Coyotes be barnstormers soon?
They're not ready to travel North America in a bus just yet, but we have not written our last story with the words "lease agreement" and "Coyotes" in the same sentence after the team and the City of Glendale avoided scheduling chaos by reworking the team's lease at Gila River Arena. Of course, that new lease is for just two years, which means the Yotes may well be looking for a new home -- did anybody say downtown Phoenix? Scottsdale? -- when the current lease expires. Here's to the team finding a home where the local politicians aren't straight out of Green Acres, whether it's in the state of Arizona or elsewhere in the hockey universe.
Are they front-runners in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes?
In a word, yes. Hard to imagine a team further removed from the playoff picture than the Coyotes will be when the season starts. And, really, wouldn't it be hand-in-glove if Matthews, the Arizona kid who is projected to go first overall in next June's draft, ended up being selected by the hometown team he grew up watching? If kids like Anthony Duclair and Max Domi light it up, and the defense returns to solid form and Mike Smith gets his mojo back, all of a sudden we're looking at a team more closely resembling the 2012 model that went to the Western Conference finals. But that's a lot of ifs and maybes.
What will we see from Smith?
Now, that's a good question. We mentioned 2012, when Smith was simply on fire. Smith won 38 games that season and turned in a .930 save percentage, then topped that with a .944 save percentage in 16 postseason games. Since then, well, the train has left the track. Smith won just 14 games last season and had a GAA of 3.06. Can he get the wheels back on the track? The answer to that question will tell much of the story of how this season will unfold for the beleaguered franchise.
Has GM Brad Treliving been charged with theft yet?
The Flames' heist of top-four defenseman Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins (for a first-round pick and two second-rounders) was THE story of the draft. The Flames then locked Hamilton up with a six-year deal. The addition of the No. 9 overall pick in 2011 helps insulate the Flames against an immediate step back after their delightful surprise run to the second round of the playoffs last spring. It also adds another young cornerstone piece to a franchise awash in promising young talent.
Can Mark Giordano rebound from injury?
One of the many reasons few people gave the Flames a shot at making the playoffs, let alone making a dent, was the loss of Mark Giordano, the team's captain and its heart and soul. The defenseman required surgery in early March to repair a torn biceps tendon that sidelined him for the rest of the season. There were some who believed Giordano was on pace to win a Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, and had he stayed healthy he would likely have been a finalist for the honor. Now, fresh off signing a new six-year deal at a very manageable $6.75 million cap hit, he's going to be expected to pick up where he left off. Possible? Better be.
Is this Karri Ramo's year?
One thing we've always loved about Bob Hartley as a coach (apart from the fact he always calls our colleague Craig Custance "The General") is that he's never afraid to go with the hot hand in goal. Hartley deftly handled Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and, at times, Joni Ortio, ultimately settling on Ramo as his guy as the Flames were ousted in five games in the second round by Anaheim. Could the Flames repeat as playoff participants using a tandem or even troika again? Perhaps, but we're looking for Ramo, 29, to finally seize the moment as a true NHL starter. At 6-foot-2, he's got the size, and while he's maybe not a textbook goalie, there is a competitiveness that should serve him well in trying to wrest the starter's job away from Hiller. Both netminders, it should be noted, are eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, so lots on the line for all concerned.
Who's that kid again?
Oh, you mean Connor McDavid? Haha, just a little super-prospect humor there. We've been talking about McDavid and his possible impact on an NHL franchise for months, and since the Oilers won the McDavid draft lottery back in April we've been wondering whether he is the kind of presence and talent who can finally lead the Oilers out of the wilderness, where they've been meandering for, oh, about a decade. He is already sparking comparisons to Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky; it will be fascinating to see how the quiet 18-year-old handles himself and what kind of impact he'll have for a team going through a dramatic renaissance.
How different will this Oilers team be?
You can forgive fans for yawning and wondering if this is the same-old, same-old given that McDavid represents the fourth No. 1 overall pick the Oilers have had since 2010, following Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. But it's not just McDavid, it's the overall change the team is undergoing. It starts at the very top with former Hockey Canada head honcho Bob Nicholson taking over, then the hiring of Peter Chiarelli as GM and Todd McLellan as head coach, moves that suggest this is a different thing altogether. There's a new arena under construction in downtown Edmonton. There is, dare we say it, unbridled optimism that in spite of all the other false starts and failures to launch over the past decade the Oilers are on the path to redemption.
Can Cam Talbot deliver the mail?
There are a million things that have gone wrong for the Oilers over the years, and about half of them have gone wrong in goal. Talbot doesn't have much of an NHL résumé -- the 6-foot-3, 28-year-old from Caledonia, Ontario, has played in just 57 NHL games, all for the New York Rangers -- but what makes Talbot so attractive is his maturity and ability to step into the breach a season ago for Henrik Lundqvist, basically keeping the Rangers afloat. The undrafted Talbot went 21-9-4 with a .926 save percentage while Lundqvist was out. Pretty impressive. If he's the guy the Oilers have been searching for, and the defense can take at least a step and a half forward, this team could make things interesting in the Pacific.
Can the Kings stay out of trouble?
Strange that a team so focused on family and solidarity has seen a rash of players go off the rails. Slava Voynov was arrested and charged with spousal abuse last October, and missed most of last season while under suspension. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and also faces an immigration hearing. His return to the team remains uncertain. Jarret Stoll was caught with drugs at a Las Vegas resort pool after the regular season, and later signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers. And Mike Richards, demoted to the American Hockey League last season, was charged by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in late August with possession of a controlled substance believed to be OxyContin, an investigation that prompted the Kings to nullify his contract. That is being appealed by the National Hockey League Players' Association, but the Kings have quickly moved from a team revered by the rest of the NHL to one that has had to undergo some serious soul-searching.
Are they still a contender?
Despite all that transpired last season, the Kings were very much on the Stanley Cup radar until the moment they were eliminated from playoff contention in the final days of the regular season. The added (if unwelcome) rest should do wonders for a team that won Cups in 2012 and 2014 and advanced to a Western Conference finals in between. By adding Christian Ehrhoff to the blue line and Milan Lucic to the top-six forward group, the Kings should find their way back to the top eight in the Western Conference next spring, and should be a force once they get there.
How will Anze Kopitar's contract situation play out?
As with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Steven Stamkos, there is no higher priority for GM Dean Lombardi than bringing his most important player under contract. It'll get done. There is little doubt about that, even though early signs indicate the two sides are not close. However, will there be any room for the Kings to keep Lucic in the fold, assuming he's the kind of fit we imagine he'll be for a Darryl Sutter-coached team that puts an emphasis on hard-nosed hockey? That's the tough part, predicting the domino effect of a Kopitar signing.
Beginning of the end, or blip on the radar?
The Sharks had been a playoff fixture every season since 2003 before falling out of the tournament last spring. True, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are edging toward the twilight of their careers, but the additions of proven playoff performer Joel Ward, a prototypical Western Conference forward if ever there was one; top-four defender Paul Martin; netminder Martin Jones; and new head coach Pete DeBoer, suggest GM Doug Wilson isn't thinking about rebuilding, but rather returning to contention.
Is Jones the answer?
Maybe a better way to frame this question would be to ask if Jones is a significant upgrade over Antti Niemi, who saw his game decline the past couple of seasons. Wilson believes Jones is the answer, although the 6-foot-4, 25-year-old from North Vancouver has played in just 34 NHL games. Is he Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback? If he's more Bishop than Lindback, then the Sharks will be back in the playoffs. If he's not, well, it won't look good for Wilson, who sent a first-round pick and the rights to unsigned prospect Sean Kuraly to Boston to acquire the big netminder.
How does the Thornton-Wilson feud play out?
Winning solves a lot of problems, so if the Sharks get off to a good start maybe the acrimony that has existed for the past couple of years between GM and star center will fade into the background. But if the Sharks hit a rough patch, expect the issue of whether Thornton might be on the move (along with Marleau) to resurface pretty darned quickly. Of course, Thornton and Marleau control their own destinies via no-trade clauses, and if the Sharks go on the rocks once again, it's hard to imagine Wilson surviving unless either or both agree to be moved.
How did last season happen, exactly?
In the end, it's less a question of whether the Canucks can repeat as the runners-up in the Pacific Division and make the playoffs (highly unlikely) and more a question of how they did it in the first place. Well, it was a combination of continued production from twins Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, and linemate Radim Vrbata, and off years for the Kings and Sharks. With the Sharks, Kings and third-place Calgary -- the team that knocked Vancouver out of the playoffs in the first round -- all having improved, there's no room at the playoff inn for the Canucks as they are currently constituted.
So, what's the plan?
With the team's management group in its second season and the front office still evolving, this is a team that looks adrift. Bieksa is gone (see above) and hasn't really been replaced. Nick Bonino went to Pittsburgh in the deal for Brandon Sutter. Jacob Markstrom, who has never really cut it as an NHL netminder in spite of nice American Hockey League numbers, is the backup to Ryan Miller. In short, if the Canucks were a color, they'd be off-gray. Not really good, not really bad. Not really anything.
What now, Brandon Sutter?
If there is one move that could inject color into the Canucks' picture and redraw the playoff discussion, it is the addition of Sutter. At times in Pittsburgh he looked like he could step into the shoes that were never really filled when Jordan Staal went to Carolina. At other times, he's looked like a nice third-line center. The Canucks are going to need a lot of the former and little of the latter.