September 18, 2010
Training camps are opening all over the NHL, and there are plenty of interesting battles, controversies and storylines in the Western Conference.
Here are 15 burning questions about the West. We hear there's an ointment to help with that burning ...
Chicago Blackhawks: Who takes over for the dearly departed?
Seven players who completed in Chicago's Game 6 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers are no longer with the club. (Eight if you count Cristobal Huet(notes).) The core of this team is one of the best in hockey; but who will become part of their supporting cast. Fernando Pisani(notes), Ryan Potulny(notes), Viktor Stalberg(notes), Jeff Taffe(notes) and Jack Skille(notes) are among the ones to watch at forward.
Jackets: What will the Scott Arniel Blue Jackets look like?
The talk of the Jackets being an "up-tempo" team is a welcome change from the Hickcockian conservatism in past seasons. But as Greg May noted for The Fourth Period, it may not be first-year coach Arniel who brings that attacking style to Columbus:
Enter Bob Boughner, hired by Arniel to serve as an assistant coach. Speaking of transformations, nobody has undergone quite the makeover Boughner has. Once an NHL tough guy nicknamed The Boogieman, Boughner has ascended to the top of everybody's list of up-and-coming coaches. And he didn't get there by intimidating or fighting the other guys vying to be on that list. While leading the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL to back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010, Boughner's teams ranked 1st both seasons in goals for. Those teams also ranked 1st and 5th in goals against, but Boughner was hired to coach the forwards and the power play, and help fulfill the promise of an "attacking, up-tempo" style of play more than anything else. A former goon, now an offensive genius. After suffering through years of teams that are offensively challenged, Columbus fans shrug at this and ask, "Why not?
Detroit Red Wings:
How will the Lidstrom/Rafalski split play?
It's not the first time Coach Mike Babcock has discussed splitting the Wings' top defensive pairing, but he indicated to MLive.com that it might be the best move for this season's team:
Babcock said he'll pair Lidstrom, a six-time Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman, with Niklas Kronwall(notes) and play Brian Rafalski(notes) with Brad Stuart(notes), Kronwall's former partner. This gives each pairing a physical presence (Kronwall, Stuart) and top-flight puck mover (Lidstrom, Rafalski).
Babcock said he wants ice time to be distributed more evenly -- "three groups at 20 minutes, that's how we're thinking,'' he said -- and indicated he also might alter the third pairing of young Jonathan Ericsson(notes) and veteran newcomer Ruslan Salei(notes).
So will that be the plan coming out of camp as well?
As The Tennessean noted in its camp preview, Rinne's understudy is a role yet to be cast:
The Predators don't have a proven backup goalie coming into camp. None of the stoppers on the roster, besides Rinne, have any NHL experience. Mark Dekanich(notes) seems like the top candidate. He started in Milwaukee last season, and has enough professional experience to make the jump. But 2008 first-round pick Chet Pickard(notes) has openly said he wants the job. Pickard struggled in Milwaukee last year, but he has the pedigree. If neither Pickard nor Dekanich perform, Predators General Manager David Poile may look outside the organization for help.
With several options still available in free agency, it may not be the worst idea.
St. Louis Blues: How does life change with the next generation running the show?
The Blues have three players on their roster who are 30 or older. Gone are some key veterans; St. Louis now belongs to the group of players who came through the system together. From Fox Sports Midwest, here's David Backes(notes):
In addition to counting on that trio to improve, the Blues are also are expecting big years out of several key young players. The club hopes Erik Johnson(notes), T.J. Oshie(notes), David Perron(notes), Patrik Berglund(notes) and Roman Polak(notes), just to name a few, all take their game to the next step after picking up another year of valuable experience a season ago.
"There's no more Keith Tkachuk(notes) or Paul Kariya(notes), 1,000 point guys that you just expect to go out there and get a clutch goal or do it every night," Backes said. "There's going to be other guys in those roles and it's time to either step up and earn that spot or be pushed away by somebody else who is going to do the work and earn the ice time."
Camp Payne will be a competitive one.
Calgary Flames: Will Iginla and Tanguay regain the touch?
If the Calgary Flames are going to be better than last season, then Jarome Iginla's(notes) going to need to be better than last season, too. The Flames reacquired Alex Tanguay(notes) to pair with Iginla again, and the two were already working together prior to camp in order to regain that familiarity that had them combine for 175 points in 2006-07.
The Avalanche's three top lines are rather cemented at the moment, but there is competition down the lineup for ice time. Power forward Ryan Stoa(notes) saw 12 games in the regular season and one in the playoffs for the Avs. He's the fifth-best rated prospect in their system; defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is No. 1, with the kind of offensive game this roster could use. There are other rookies vying for blue line spots, but he's the one to watch.
The trio blew away fans during rookie camp, and the Edmonton Sun thinks that they'll make the cut regardless of their preseason play:
With all of Edmonton salivating for these three - the whole season is pretty much predicated on watching them grow - how can management not bring them all on board for the regular season? Can you imagine Steve Tambellini addressing fans after the last cuts: "Sorry, folks, they're not quite there yet and we don't want to rush them. Eberle and Paajarvi are going to Oklahoma and Hall is going back to junior. See you next year."
Hard to imagine, or swallow if you're a season ticket holder. "I think you just have to let them play, there's going to be expectations and pressure, no matter what you do it's going to be there," said the GM. "I think you just have to let show what they can do. Every period, every game they'll be more comfortable in this atmosphere. I think their play will speak for itself."
Will they end up on the same line? Scattered around the lineup? How much special teams play will they see? Making the Oilers seems a given; these questions are the intriguing ones.
Minnesota Wild: What did Todd Richards learn after Year 1?
Observers have Coach Todd Richards firmly planted on the hot seat after the Wild failed to turn his system into a playoff appearance last season. He told the Star Tribune that this camp will be different:
Last year coming in, we were trying to figure out a lot of things. Both [General Manager] Chuck Fletcher and myself, we didn't know the players, we didn't know the type of depth we had, we didn't know what the players could do in different situations. We feel we understand the players now. Most things should be in place already. It should be more of a refresher and guys know how we do things -- more of a review type thing than a teaching atmosphere. So that should get us ahead a lot.
The addition of defensive coach Rick Wilson will no doubt help the defense start the season better as well.
Vancouver Canucks: Where does the lumber fall in the logjam on defense?
The logjam on defense has been discussed since July 1st. Unless they do something almost criminally insane, Dan Hamhuis(notes), Keith Ballard(notes), Alexander Edler(notes), Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and Kevin Bieksa(notes) have starting gigs. Chuck in what's left of Sami Salo(notes) (when or if he decides to return) and that spells some problems for the remaining guys: the resigned Shane O'Brien(notes), the maligned Andrew Alberts(notes), the dependable yet forgettable Aaron Rome(notes), Nolan Baumgartner(notes), brother buddy Lee Sweatt, Travis Ramsey(notes) (who at 6'4'' is just as large as Alberts) and the Mathieu Schneider(notes) parting gift in Sean Zimmerman(notes). Salo won't be playing for awhile, so the logical battle would be between SOB and Alberts for the remaining ice time. It's a shame Rome may not have a prayer to make the opening cut. Even if Connauton, Sauve or Tanev have fantastic camps, can they unseat anyone in the logjam in front? Or what if Bieksa gets moved before the start of the NHL season?
Wait, Sami Salo is injured? How strange.
Interesting wrinkle at the start of Ducks camp: Bobby Ryan, fresh off a new 5-year contract extension, will be tested as second-line center with Teemu Selanne(notes) on his wing. From the OC Register:
If Ryan moves to center the second line, it would break up the Saku Koivu(notes)-Selanne-Jason Blake line, which began to click late in the season. Koivu scored 20 points in his last 19 games, and Selanne scored 21 points in his last 18 games.
Murray said the rationale for the Ryan experiment at center is to have three strong lines. "Bobby played a few games at center at the end of last year, and Randy (Carlyle, Ducks coach) and I both liked what we saw," Murray said Friday at Honda Center, while players were undergoing their annual pre-camp physicals and fitness tests. "It gives us more options."
And if things don't work out, Ryan just returns to one of
the best lines in hockey...
His production has dropped way off in recent years, but if he can regain some of his old form he'd give the Stars a right shot that can score, something the team could use. He's going to get a look on the right side with Morrow and Ribeiro in camp.
Here's to a productive camp for Cheechoo ... even if it may
simply result in an underwhelming regular season.
The long-gestating goaltending prospect will compete with
Erik Ersberg(notes) to backup (or share time with) Jonathan Quick(notes) this season. Rich Hammond of
LA Kings Insider writes that bringing up Bernier isn't set in stone:
Far from it. If I had to bet, I would bet that Bernier would be with the Kings, but we're going to have to go through training camp to figure that out. If it does happen, it's hard to imagine Ersberg going to Manchester. It's more likely that he would go through waivers or decide to play in Europe.
Quick played 72 games last season.
There will be some changes in the middle for the ‘Yotes, according to David Vest:
Center Matthew Lombardi also left the team via free agency and center Robert Lang was not-re-signed. Who will replace them on the depth chart? Early in the off-season, Maloney and Tippett spoke about how Wojtek Wolski(notes) might be switched from winger to center, a position he played while developing into an NHL forward. That plan may be shelved considering the Coyotes recently signed free-agent center Eric Belanger(notes) and invited free-agent center Kyle Wellwood(notes) to camp for a tryout. Kyle Turris(notes) also will be given a chance to join Martin Hanzal(notes), Vernon Fiddler(notes) and, presumably, Belanger on the depth chart at center.
Hopefully Wellwood didn't bit off more than he can chew.
The former Detroit Red Wings defenseman was a camp invitee for the Sharks, and Coach Todd McClellan is cautiously optimistic:
"He's a stay-at-home defenseman, understands his limitations," McLellan said. "He's very solid, he's a heavy player. He defends well, a very good penalty killer and blocks a lot of shots.
"He understands us at coaches - Jay and myself anyhow - and how we want to play so there's a familiarity there for him as well as for us.
"After that, it's wide open. We've seen him play some tremendous games in the league and he was part of a championship team. Can he still do it? Will he fit our needs? We'll have a few weeks to make those decisions."
And most of all: Is there room on the blueline