Training camp notebook
With training camps opening this week, here are some key matters, thoughts and predictions to consider -- one for each team.
Kari Lehtonen's maturation process has been anything but linear. However, his play late last season when the team struggled was impressively resolute. The Thrashers need him show the same mettle each and every night all season long and I believe he can be counted on to provide consistent goaltending.
With Patrice Bergeron back from post-concussion symptoms that kept him out of 79 games including the playoffs, the Bruins will hope that their offense improves like their defense did last season. But that would be expecting a 67-goal jump due to one player. It's not going to happen. Still, the Bruins' attack will be more diverse and potent with a healthy Bergeron back in the mix.
Ryan Miller is a difference-maker in goal. Actually, his performance cuts in either direction. He struggled at the beginning of last season and in shootouts and the Sabres missed the playoffs. If he has a good start and can find the form in the shootout format that he displays on in-game breakaways, Miller will indeed prove the difference between playoff-bound and an idle spring again.
The move to a younger, more mobile defense won't make the Hurricanes better. Not markedly, anyway, because they already had a good, if underachieving, team last season with veterans in the mix. Their makeup hasn't really changed, as they've always emphasized moving the puck and getting it to their forwards in full flight. The 'Canes just need to stay healthy -- both on the blueline and particularly up front.
Is there enough scoring here to get them to the post-season? It's always perilous to base predicted success on projections of increased productivity. That's especially true when the Panthers are pinning their offensive fortunes on upticks from young players like Nathan Horton (27 goals), David Booth (22), Rusty Olesz (14) and rookie Shawn Matthias. I don't think they'll get enough to make the playoffs.
It's fair to wonder if last season's point total of 106 was a mirage, but the Habs were maybe ahead of schedule last season. GM Bob Gainey's gang has arrived. They're fast, skilled and present a nice blend of youth and experience throughout their lineup, including stellar netminder Carey Price at just 21 years old. They are a legitimate top team and will be for the foreseeable future.
New Jersey Devils
Will the return of veteran mainstays Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik translate into continued success? Not if you define success as being what the Devils have been in the past: an elite team with the Stanley Cup as a real possibility. However, if you describe success as a team that is tough to play against and hard to beat on a nightly basis, one that could scratch its way into the playoffs and possibly win a round, then change the answer to yes.
New York Islanders
Remember when we all thought that Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract sounded exorbitantly long? This season alone may seem longer for the goaltender, new head coach Scott Gordon and long-suffering Islander fans everywhere as the team starts to rebuild yet again.
New York Rangers
Look at the pedigrees of the incoming players this season: Markus Naslund (Vancouver), Nik Zherdev and Dan Fritsche (Columbus), Patrick Rissmiller (San Jose) and Wade Redden (Ottawa) all hail from defensively disciplined organizations. Further, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury both played for, and won championships with, teams that had dominant goaltenders. Entering their second season with the Blueshirts, that frame of reference -- as it relates to the players who have been brought in -- is paramount in this process, as the Rangers have stalwart puck-stopper Henrik Lundqvist as their centerpiece for success. The personnel now matches the team's established identity under coach Tom Renney and his staff.
The changes on the blueline will be positive in the near term. By adding Filip Kuba and moving Cristoph Schubert back to his natural position full time, the Senators may actually be more consistent, although less dynamic, than they were with the energetic but at times erratic Andrej Meszaros (moved to Tampa for Kuba) and former-but-fading All-Star Redden.
The Flyers can expect a return to form by winger Simon Gagne -- assuming full physical and mental recovery from post-concussion syndrome. Gagne joins a team that exhibited exemplary balance on the attack last season. That means there won't be any undue pressure on him to put up big numbers right away, but don't be surprised if he isn't producing right out of the gate.
Nothing really changes for the Stanley Cup finalists, despite all the changes. Even though seven players off that team have moved on, the young core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang remain intact and as such, formidable.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Can this shuffled deck yield a royal flush? Yes. It can also lead to 52-card pick up. The new-look Lightning will probably end up somewhere in between those two extremes, but with first overall pick Steve Stamkos joining Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis along with the cast of thousands that was added this summer now at the disposal of new coach Barry Melrose, the Lightning may be a hand worth gambling on.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The recent work of GM Cliff Fletcher is an overdue and necessary part of the rebuilding process. If you're going to change a stagnant culture, you have to stir the pot. In this case, that means moving away from over-reliance on veterans with onerous contracts and infusing some young legs into the lineup. Remember, though, especially at mid-season when the Leafs are falling -- that this is just the beginning of the change in direction.
The Caps can, um, capitalize on last season's surge. Coach Bruce Boudreau brought it all together in stunning fashion, but for two-plus campaigns the Capitals had been building their foundation as hard team to play. In other words, despite how it came about and appeared, the Capitals aren't an overnight sensation.