Every NHL Team's Biggest Question Mark for the 2014-15 Season
NHL teams have been working hard all summer finding solutions to their problems. Some teams were unable to fill holes, others have seen leaks appear after the money was spent and still others appear to be building lottery teams.
Every team has something to worry about, and fans can look forward to new faces in those roles for the coming season. If they work out, success and a playoff spot could be the result. If they don't, it could be a long, cold winter.
Here are the most uncertain positions, by team, in the NHL for the 2014-15 season.
Anaheim Ducks: Defense
The Problem: As Scott Cullen of TSN described in June, the Anaheim Ducks have a lot of good things on the blue line, but they're an aging group.
The Solution: Anaheim introduced two quality rookies in 2013-14. Both Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have performed well and give a great deal of hope for the future. Added to young Cam Fowler and veteran Francois Beauchemin, the group should be strong enough to keep Anaheim in contention for the Pacific Division crown. Bryan Allen, Mark Fistric and new acquisition Clayton Stoner provide size and toughness but are not skilled puck-movers so will face limited roles.
The Backup Plan: The rest of the Anaheim defense is up in the air for the 2014-15 season. Sheldon Souray didn't play a game for the team last year because of a wrist injury, and several defenders are well over 30. Lindholm and Vatanen need to be a big part of the solution for the Ducks.
Arizona Coyotes: Offense
The Problem: The Arizona Coyotes didn't score enough goals in 2013-14 and it derailed a solid year in other areas. Among forwards, only Radim Vrbata and Michael Boedker scored more than 50 points a year ago and Vrbata is gone via free agency.
The Solution: Arizona acquired Sam Gagner from the Tampa Bay Lightning—via the Edmonton Oilers—and hope he can help the offense. Gagner's high-end skill will help, and the Coyotes have plenty of two-way wingers to aid him with his defensive problems.
The Backup Plan: Max Domi is eligible for one more season of junior hockey, but he's an outstanding goal-scoring prospect. A strong training camp may see the young OHL star playing a feature role in the NHL.
Boston Bruins: The Hole on Right Wing
The Problem: The Boston Bruins lost Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton to free agency over the summer. Thornton's role can be filled by an up-and-coming player, but the scoring role filled by Iginla is a major worry.
The Solution: The Bruins are so deep the club still has some impressive wingers. Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Reilly Smith and Loui Eriksson are all capable of posting quality offensive totals. Boston will probably plan on Eriksson returning to previous scoring levels and playing on one of the lines that feature centers David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.
The Backup Plan: Boston drafted phenom David Pastrnak in Round 1 of the entry draft, and he could win a job with an impressive training camp. He's a long-shot candidate, and there's always a chance a trade happens before opening night.
Buffalo Sabres: Experience at Center
The Problem: The Buffalo Sabres lack experience at center. Steve Ott was sent away, and there has been a lot of turnover at the position since opening night 2013-14.
The Solution: The good news is that Buffalo has plenty of options. When Tyler Ennis was signed, there was plenty of talk about him playing center in the short term, as this NHL.com article indicates. Torrey Mitchell was acquired at the deadline and he can play center.
The Backup Plan: Buffalo has a plethora of possible pivots on the horizon. No. 2 overall selection Sam Reinhart plays center in junior and could play there again, although he might spend most of his NHL career as a winger. Former first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko also remains in the picture.
Calgary Flames: Even-Strength Goals
The Problem: The Calgary Flames scored only 139 even-strength goals a year ago, one of the lowest totals in the NHL. To make matters worse, the team's leading goal scorer a year ago will not return, as Mike Cammalleri signed in New Jersey during free agency.
The Solution: The Flames replaced Cammalleri with Mason Raymond, which means they're still behind on goals in all situations. The club has an outstanding prospect in Johnny Gaudreau, who ripped it up for Boston College and could do some damage in Calgary.
The Backup Plan: Calgary could keep No. 4 overall selection Sam Bennett in the NHL if he shows well in training camp. It's a low-percentage bet based on his birth certificate, but he is an option for 2014-15.
Carolina Hurricanes: Better Performances from Top Players
The Problem: The Carolina Hurricanes are not getting value from their high-priced veterans. Cam Ward, Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal are all making more than $6 million per year and are not delivering on their contracts.
The Solution: Carolina has hired a new coach in Bill Peters and hopes a fresh start with a new environment can help the team. This NHL.com article details Peters' immediate plans:
"There's lots of work ahead of us. It's an exciting time. I'm going to get into the inner workings of the organization, start calling some players and building relationships."
The Backup Plan: This can't go on. If Ward and Semin can't deliver close to value, buyouts are possible next summer. If Staal is unable to score more points, he'll probably be traded. Carolina has a quality alternative in goal, as Anton Khudobin may pass Ward this season. The club does not have other options to replace Semin and badly needs a return to form.
Chicago Blackhawks: Second-Line Center
The Problem: The Chicago Blackhawks had a quality group at center in 2013-14, save veteran Michal Handzus. He had been a quality player for many years, but age caught up and he was no longer effective.
The Solution: Chicago signed veteran Brad Richards over the summer to a cap friendly contract. The depth chart now could be the strongest in the NHL. Jonathan Toews, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw give the team exceptional quality for four lines at center.
The Backup Plan: The 'Hawks traded for Peter Regin in order to increase depth, and Chicago's embarrassment of riches means he's the No. 5 center entering camp.
Colorado Avalanche: Scoring Wingers
The Problem: The Colorado Avalanche lost Paul Stastny to free agency this summer. They can replace him in the middle with Ryan O'Reilly. The problem? A big hole on the wing and the need for a scoring winger.
The Solution: Colorado signed Jarome Iginla to impact the offense, and his resume is outstanding. However, he's an older, slower winger and may not be able to keep up with the high-octane offense in the Mile High City.
The Backup Plan: The Avalanche have Iginla, Gabriel Landeskog and Alex Tanguay as veteran wingers. If anyone falters, Jamie McGinn can step up and supply replacement-level offense. The free-agent trade of Stastny for Iginla makes Colorado an old team on the wings and vulnerable to slump and injury.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Scoring Wingers
The Problem: The Columbus Blue Jackets are loaded at center. It's taken forever, but Ryan Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Mark Letestu represent real quality. The problem facing Columbus now: find matching wingers without trading a center.
The Solution: The Blue Jackets made a brilliant trade in the offseason, adding Scott Hartnell to the arsenal. If Nathan Horton can stay healthy, Columbus may have an impact offense in 2014-15.
The Backup Plan: Columbus has a thriving procurement department, and young Boone Jenner looks poised to explode. Added to Hartnell and incumbent wingers Nathan Horton, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and Matt Calvert, the Blue Jackets could make a lot of noise.
Dallas Stars: Changing of the Guard on Defense
The Problem: The Dallas Stars are turning over much of their defensive work to a new generation. Stephane Robidas and Sheldon Souray are long gone, and Sergei Gonchar is playing a support role.
The Solution: The big names on defense for Dallas last season were Alex Goligoski, Brenden Dillon and Trevor Daley. The up-and-coming prospects are Jamie Oleksiak and Patrick Nemeth.
The Backup Plan: It looks like the Stars are all-in with youth on defense. Dallas is an emerging team, and its young blue line is going to be a major part of the story.
Detroit Red Wings: Youth Will Be Served
The Problem: The Detroit Red Wings lost several veterans to injury during the 2013-14 season. The club was forced to elevate Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco into more prominent roles. The club made the playoffs but was bounced quickly.
The Solution: Either by plan or circumstance, the Red Wings were not major players in free agency. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are getting older, and in the past Detroit would gather veterans around its core group for one more run at the Stanley Cup. The plan this time is to run with youth.
The Backup Plan: There are still some free agents on the market who would come cheaply at this point in the offseason. Detroit could still pluck Daniel Alfredsson, Ray Whitney or Devin Setoguchi before training camp, but it appears to be ready for a rebuild.
Edmonton Oilers: Center
The Problem: The Edmonton Oilers were aggressive in free agency this offseason but did not land their second-line center. It leaves a massive hole between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Boyd Gordon.
The Solution: Edmonton drafted phenom center Leon Draisaitl, and all indications have him making the big team with a strong training camp. Mark Arcobello played well in 41 games a year ago and is also in the mix.
The Backup Plan: If Draisaitl falters during training camp, the Oilers can look at Anton Lander from the farm or make a trade. The smart money is on an outside addition, as the busy summer could be derailed without extra help at center.
Florida Panthers: Oh, That Power Play
The Problem: The Florida Panthers power play was very poor in 2013-14. At five-on-four, the club was easily the worst team in the NHL.
The Solution: Florida was active in free agency, signing stalwart power-play performer Jussi Jokinen to impact that part of the game. Jokinen's 21 power-play points in 2013-14 is triple the number of Florida's top forward one year ago.
The Backup Plan: Eleven different forwards scored at least one power-play goal for the Panthers last season. That suggests none of the youngsters is emerging as an obvious answer. Along with Jokinen's added offense, Florida might want to give Brandon Pirri more playing time on the power play.
Los Angeles Kings: Changing of the Guard on Defense
The Problem: The Los Angeles Kings won a Stanley Cup in 2014, partly because of a veteran defense. Willie Mitchell is gone, Robyn Regehr is injury prone and newly signed Matt Greene is not an even-strength minutes eater.
The Solution: Drew Doughty can play half the game, and that's a big advantage for Los Angeles. The club also asks a lot from Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin. For 2014-15, Alec Martinez—who scored the Stanley Cup winning goal—is a good bet to see an increased role. Last year, he played just over 13 minutes a night at even strength.
The Backup Plan: Dean Lombardi is always several steps ahead of the competition. A late-season deal that saw Brayden McNabb arrive from Buffalo gives the Kings depth in this area.
Minnesota Wild: Goaltending
The Problem: The Minnesota Wild employed five goalies during the 2013-14 season. Niklas Backstrom missed much of the year for a variety of reasons. Josh Harding lost a major portion of the season due to his treatment and struggles with multiple sclerosis.
The Solution: The Wild have some very large question marks in goal, which makes the emergence of Darcy Kuemper even more important. He could be anywhere from NHL starter to AHL starter depending on how things look in training camp. The trio of Kuemper, Backstrom and Harding should be able to get the job done.
The Backup Plan: Johan Gustafsson played his first full AHL season in 2013-14 and performed well. It's unlikely he'll be a legitimate NHL option in the coming season.
Montreal Canadiens: Scoring Wingers
The Problem: The Montreal Canadiens are a Stanley Cup contender but need more scoring wingers. Max Pacioretty's 39 goals tower over the rest of the group, and Brian Gionta's 18 goals were lost to free agency.
The Solution: Montreal fell into a terrific deal with the Colorado Avalanche, sending away struggling veteran Daniel Briere for proven scorer P.A. Parenteau. Added to Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller, the Canadiens look better along the wings.
The Backup Plan: The wildly inconsistent Rene Bourque exploded during the postseason. If he can sustain the offense into the 2014-15 season, Montreal could be a strong Stanley Cup contender.
Nashville Predators: New Coach, New System
The Problem: The Nashville Predators have attacked the opposition in the same fashion for their entire existence. John Manasso of NHL.com tells us Barry Trotz built his team in a certain way, and he's gone. New coach Peter Laviolette has a different style and the match of players may take adjustment time.
The Solution: The Laviolette system will be more offensive, and the addition of James Neal is a very nice start. The club added Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy in an effort to increase the offensive options.
The Backup Plan: Things are wide-open in Nashville. Offensive prospects like Kevin Fiala and Austin Watson should be considered unlikely, but a strong training camp from any prospect could lead to surprises on cut-down day.
New Jersey Devils: Need Goals!
The Problem: The New Jersey Devils are a brilliant defensive team. Their button-down style makes scoring goals difficult. They were once again near the bottom in goals scored in 2013-14. The frustrating thing for Devils fans: If the team can make the playoffs, its style is ideally suited for the postseason.
The Solution: The Devils made some moves this summer designed to boost the offense. Mike Cammalleri was the big free-agent addition, and Martin Havlat was an inspired signing.
The Backup Plan: New Jersey fans are sad to see Martin Brodeur leave the scene, but that one move could mean the playoffs for the Devils. Cory Schneider was clearly superior to Brodeur, but the goalie duties were shared this past season. A full season of Schneider as No. 1 will increase playoff chances significantly in New Jersey.
New York Islanders: Who Will Emerge on Defense?
The Problem: The New York Islanders are sitting on a gold mine of young defensemen. They're also going through a period of transition, losing Andrew MacDonald from last year's team and no longer able to count on Lubomir Visnovsky. They are looking at an inexperienced group after Travis Hamonic and Matt Carkner.
The Solution: The embarrassment of riches is a blessing. The Islanders have legitimate prospects in Griffin Reinhart, Ville Pokka, Scott Mayfield and Brenden Kichton. They also have two brilliant young defenders—Calvin de Haan and Matt Donovan—just ahead of the pack with a little more than 50 games of NHL experience. There's a lot of quality but little experience.
The Backup Plan: The Islanders have Thomas Hickey, T.J. Brennan and Brian Strait with some NHL experience. They could cash in one of the youngsters for an experienced player. A lot will depend on who shows well in training camp, but New York fans should be excited about the future on defense.
New York Rangers: Where Did Everyone Go?
The Problem: The New York Rangers lost a number of players from their team this summer. Anton Stralman, Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle and others flew the coop for big money—or in the case of Richards, another chance at the Stanley Cup. Finding effective replacements for so many positions is a daunting task.
The Solution: The Rangers did their best to plug the holes this summer. Dan Boyle was added to the defense, with Lee Stempniak and Matthew Lombardi signed up front. These are quality NHL players who should be able to help in 2014-15.
The Backup Plan: New York has a thriving development system, and there are plenty of candidates for NHL employment. Ryan Haggerty should have a real opportunity to push for a job during training camp.
Ottawa Senators: Who Is the New Offensive Leader?
The Problem: The Ottawa Senators need someone to emerge and replace Jason Spezza. The club received quality offense from him last season with a zone-start push. Kyle Turris played the tough minutes, allowing Spezza softer opposition and a perfect slot to shine.
The Solution: The Senators may have to ask Turris and his line to do it all: play the tough opponents and deliver the majority of the offense. It's the most likely scenario at this point in the summer.
The Backup Plan: Ottawa signed David Legwand and could put him in the Spezza role. It's extremely unlikely he'll deliver the same level of offense. Mika Zibanejad is the most likely of the youngsters to win the job.
Philadelphia Flyers: Who's Healthy?
The Problem: The Philadelphia Flyers have been flirting with the salary cap all summer and in fact are over the number now. However, the big worry for fans is the number of injuries impacting the blue line. The opening-night roster is anyone's guess at this point.
The Solution: The Flyers have a plethora of candidates. The names they're counting on are Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, Brayden Coburn, Nicklas Grossman and Luke Schenn. After that, Philadelphia hopes Kimmo Timonen, Nick Schultz and recently signed Michael Del Zotto can help them this season. Brian Compton, NHL.com's Deputy Managing Editor, wrote about the serious problems facing Timonen.
The Backup Plan: There's not much bubbling under in the near future. The Flyers spent their last first-round picks on defensemen in 2013 and 2014, but neither is likely to push for employment. Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere could see action in 2014-15.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Will the Small Changes Make a Big Difference?
The Problem: The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the NHL's best forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Their problem comes with the real and present lack of quality and depth for the other 10 regular forwards.
The Solution: Pittsburgh traded James Neal to add depth, acquiring Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. The club added Steve Downie and Blake Comeau, while re-signing the valuable and underrated Marcel Goc. The result is a much stronger starting 12.
The Backup Plan: The Penguins don't have a strong group of emerging forward prospects. Beau Bennett has a chance to be a factor in 2014-15.
San Jose Sharks: Where Do You Play All the Enforcers?
The Problem: While other contenders shopped for skill and defense this offseason, the San Jose Sharks added enforcer John Scott and re-signed Mike Brown to a two-year deal. A team devoted to high-octane offense is going to need to make an adjustment.
The Solution: The Sharks will have to alter their style, at least for parts of the game. Their fourth line is likely to house one or two physical players every shift, meaning the possession game will suffer.
The Backup Plan: San Jose has enough talent to return to its beautiful freewheeling-style of past seasons. For NHL fans, the Scott and Brown signings are difficult to see. The San Jose Sharks are the most entertaining hockey team in the game.
St. Louis Blues: Overcoming Sobotka
The Problem: Vladimir Sobotka was invaluable to Ken Hitchcock and the St. Louis Blues. Brilliant on faceoffs, he was also able to deliver possession consistently despite tougher zone starts. The Blues miscalculated their hand, and Sobotka signed in the KHL.
The Solution: Steve Ott was signed quickly after St. Louis lost Sobotka to Russia. He is not a suitable solution, suggesting the Blues were unaware at some level of what Sobotka brought them.
The Backup Plan: St. Louis may use Jaden Schwartz in the role, despite his relative inexperience. The Blues have options, but losing Sobotka casts a pall over their summer.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Bishop Insurance?
The Problem: The Tampa Bay Lightning were locked and loaded for a deep postseason run last spring, when Ben Bishop's injury derailed everything.
The Solution: The Lightning chose veteran Evgeni Nabokov, who will turn 40 in July 2015. A proven goaltender, he hasn't been the No. 1 goalie since 2009-10 and is unlikely to carry a team for an extended period.
The Backup Plan: Tampa Bay has a very good prospect in Andrei Vasilevski, but he's probably a year or two away. Kristers Gudlevskis got his first taste of NHL action last season but is working his way through the system.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Possession
The Problem: The Toronto Maple Leafs led the league in 2013-14 in shots-against per game. The Leafs under coach Randy Carlyle have been a poor possession team, and the club has to find a way to reduce the number of shots reaching its net.
The Solution: The Leafs added defenseman Stephane Robidas and Daniel Winnik, but the additions of veterans with a history of success is only part of the fix. Toronto will need to adjust its deployment and breakouts, and run fewer enforcers into its lineup every night in order to improve possession.
The Backup Plan: Toronto is in a period of transition. James Mirtle reported on the new assistant coaches in The Toronto Globe and Mail, and the club recently hired analytics expert Kyle Dubas as its new assistant general manager. It was announced on the team website. At some point, the coaching strategy of the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to change.
Vancouver Canucks: Reload or Rebuild?
The Problem: The Vancouver Canucks are a few years removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but the exits of Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler and others will be difficult to overcome.
The Solution: The Canucks have been active this summer, and some of the additions are quality. Goaltender Ryan Miller and scoring-winger Radim Vrbata plug major holes in the lineup. Losing Kesler was a blow, but Nick Bonino has ability and should be able to pick up the slack.
The Backup Plan: Vancouver will run with the veterans to start the season, as a lot has been invested in this team. Canucks fans have other options if things go badly, so staying in contention is important. If the playoff chances fade, fans may see several young players take on prominent roles. Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Dane Fox will all be pushing for NHL employment in 2014-15.
Washington Capitals: Even-Strength Scoring
The Problem: The Washington Capitals boast one of the great snipers in the game's history in Alexander Ovechkin. However, they are not a great scoring team and are especially poor at five-on-five scoring. That's a big part of the game, and the Capitals need to improve.
The Solution: Dan Rosen wrote an article for NHL.com about the Capitals new coach, Barry Trotz. Rosen writes specifically about the five-on-five scoring in his article:
"Trotz said he has seen a lot of "glide" in Ovechkin's game and he noted his 5-on-5 production has to improve."
The Backup Plan: Washington has a lot of talent, and Barry Trotz is a successful NHL coach used to working with a goal-starved roster. The skill set of his new team in Washington suggests he would do well to figure out how to fix the scoring. The Capitals should be very good at it.
Winnipeg Jets: Fix the Goaltending
The Problem: The Winnipeg Jets have the weakest starting goalie in the NHL. Ondrej Pavelec finished No. 46 out of 51 qualifying goalies in save percentage in 2013-14. In the previous season, it was No. 34 out of 50 for Pavelec.
The Solution: The Jets have Michael Hutchinson as the backup this season, and he looks like a quality prospect. However, if things go as they did last season, the backup doesn't get as much work as Pavelec despite outplaying him consistently.
The Backup Plan: The Winnipeg Jets deployment of their goaltending has been unusual for some time. A cynic would argue the team is playing Pavelec in order to gain better draft position. A reason more likely, and perhaps more distressing, is that Jets' management really does believe Pavelec gives them a better chance to win. If that is the case, new management will eventually be installed in Winnipeg.