Change is the word in Southeast
With training camp here, it's time to look at the big questions that confront every NHL team. So far, I've taken a look at the Central, Northeast, Atlantic, Northwest and Pacific. Now, let's turn the spotlight on the Southeast, where the Lightning sport a dramatic new look.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Where's Dr. Neil Clark Warren when you need him?
No knock on the abilities of a staff that includes Rick Tocchet, Cap Raeder and Wes Walz, but stylish new coach Barry Melrose might want to add another experienced hand to his roster of assistants. Faced with the unique challenges presented by a lineup that features only 10 players who were with the team this time last season, Melrose might want to contact the e-Harmony founder for a bit of advice on finding, and building, chemistry.
After a summer-long shopping spree that completely revamped the look of last season's cellar dwellers, there may be no team surrounded by more question marks as it enters the 2008-09 campaign. The dilemmas of who'll earn key minutes in net, and who'll be counted on to run interference for those goalies, should resolve themselves in camp. But with so much youth on the back end, whatever success comes this season will be based on a blistering offense...and that will depend upon finding some of that old black magic.
Fortunately, the league has given Tampa Bay a unique opportunity for team building. The Lightning open the season with back-to-back games in Prague, and then have six days before their home opener and another five until their next contest. That should give Melrose plenty of time to tinker, without losing any ground in what should be a competitive Southeast.
Is Jose Theodore a net loss?
Burdened by family issues and the pressures of living up to his 2001-02 Hart Trophy season, Theodore lost his job in Montreal to Cristobal Huet back in 2005-06. Three years later, his ability to at least live up to the short-term legacy of his successor in D.C. could determine whether the Capitals build on last season's surprise story or struggle to make the playoffs.
Washington was one of the best teams in the league after Bruce Boudreau took the reins, and expectations are running high that the Caps can play somewhere close to that pace for 82 games. But as much as they improved over the year, they didn't establish themselves as a playoff team until the surprise acquisition of Huet at the deadline. The Frenchman went 11-2 in his 13 regular season games, posting a 1.63 GAA and .936 save percentage.
Truth is, Huet would have been hard-pressed to match that level of play over an extended period, so expecting Theodore to even approach it is unrealistic. Theodore regained enough of his mojo to wrestle the starter's job from Peter Budaj in Colorado, but he gave up nearly a goal more per game -- and that with a more experienced defense than the promising but raw group he'll battle behind in Washington.
Their explosive offense will give the Capitals a chance to win every night, but the responsibility of repeating as Southeast champs falls squarely on Theodore's shaky shoulders.
How long is Don Waddell's leash?
The math is simple, and wholly unflattering. Waddell, the only GM in the history of the Thrashers' franchise, has had eight years to get this ship running smoothly. During those eight years, the team made just one playoff appearance ... then backslid so dramatically last season that he had to gas coach Bob Hartley and step behind the bench himself.
The close-up view of the monster that Waddell himself had created couldn't have been pretty. The Thrashers finished 28th overall, their precipitous drop fuelled by the league's most porous defense and special teams that weren't very special at all.
It's no longer a question of whether the Thrashers are heading in the right direction, but whether Waddell is the man to lead them there.
At this point, it's hard to back him up. Waddell made a series of mistakes leading up to that four-and-done playoff appearance against the New York Rangers in 2007 that will have long-term ramifications. He stayed behind the bench himself all last season, even though it was clear that he was failing to impact the team's performance in a positive fashion. And while John Anderson may do a bang-up job as the team's new coach, he's also the fourth bench boss that Waddell has hired. Few GMs survive past the third mistake.
With so much emphasis on developing the team's youth, Anderson will get a long leash in his efforts to turn things around. But if the team struggles early, as expected, Waddell is unlikely to enjoy the same courtesy.
Are they still hungover?
After capturing the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Canes have failed to make the playoffs in each of the last two years. Cup hangover probably played a large part the first time around, with long-term injuries to key players Rod Brind'Amour, Justin Williams, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen derailing their hopes last season. But this team's biggest issue was, and remains, a blueline that neither plays enough defense (ranking 25th last season) or adds enough offensively to make up for its own-zone shortcomings.
There was some natural turnover during the summer as veterans Glen Wesley and Brett Hedican hung up their skates. Those openings led to the trade that acquired puck-mover Joni Pitkanen from the Oilers, and the signings of Euro free agents Anton Babchuk and Josef Melichar. With holdovers Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason, Frank Kaberle and Niclas Wallin, the Hurricanes now have...a pretty mediocre group.
At least, that's the look of things on the surface. Corvo won't match his 21- points-in-23-games pace of last season, but he can be counted on to add some much-needed pop. Pitkanen's puck skills will help in that department, but it's his tendency to make too many mistakes with and without the rubber that led the Oilers to move him. If he's being counted on to play top-pairing minutes, his abilities will be stretched. The rest of the unit is solid, but uninspiring. It's good enough to improve the team's lot, but not by much.
The Canes have some solid prospects in the pipeline -- blueliner Casey Borer should make the jump at some point this season -- but this unit is still in transition.
Can they change their C?
Not just C as in captain -- although these cats do need to address that issue in the aftermath of dishing Olli Jokinen to the Coyotes. No, the real C of concern stands for culture. As in finding a way to disinfect the atmosphere in a room that hasn't seen the postseason since 2000. No small feat, especially considering how hard-pressed this team will be to break the negative cycle this time around. Breaking it will be critically important if GM Jacques Martin hopes to convince impending UFA Jay Bouwmeester that Florida is headed in the right direction, and is thus a viable option for a player desperate to make the playoffs after more than 400 regular season games.
But while postseason play may again elude them this season, the Panthers have definitely taken a couple steps in the right direction, primarily with the hiring of new coach Pete DeBoer. A winner both as a player (OHL champion Windsor Spitfires) and coach (Memorial Cup champ Kitchener Rangers), DeBoer is ideally suited to motivate a young team. Adding the veteran presence of Cory Stillman (Cups with Tampa and Carolina) and bulking up the blueline with Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton should make the Panthers a tougher team to play against.
Of course, the biggest (and best) change they could make is simply staying healthy. Fewer players and a little less time on the IR could be enough to put Florida over the hump.