Can Sidney Crosby, right, keep the upper hand in his friendly rivalry with Alex Ovechkin? That's one of the big questions heading into 2007-08.
2007-08 NHL Preview
Five Burning Questions
Mysteries abound as the NHL gets ready to drop the puck on a new season
Last Updated Fri., Sept. 28, 2007
By Jesse Campigotto CBC Sports
What's the meaning of life? How does the human brain operate? Who was that guy in the Members Only jacket? The world is full of tough questions, and the NHL's 90th season is no different. CBCSports.ca examines a handful of key storylines that could impact who hoists the Cup come springtime.
1. Do the Ducks have what it takes to repeat?
With their core of big, fast youngsters and skilled, still-at-the-top-of-their-game veterans, the Ducks looked like a dynasty in the making last June as they rolled over the Senators in five games to capture their first Stanley Cup. But a rough off-season may have left Anaheim hard-pressed to become the first team since Detroit in 1998 to go back-to-back.
The champagne had hardly dried from Anaheim's Cup celebrations when Conn Smythe Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer revealed he was mulling retirement. The all-world defenceman still hasn't made up his mind, and will begin the season on the sidelines.
Equally indecisive is veteran sniper Teemu Selanne, whose contract expired after he captured the first Cup of his 540-goal career. The Finnish Flash remains an unrestricted free agent, but has said he's only interested in playing for the Ducks… if he decides to play.
Anaheim was also dealt a blow in free agency as promising winger Dustin Penner — who scored 29 goals in his rookie season — bolted for a five-year, $21.25-million offer from the Edmonton.
With his championship roster eroding before his eyes, GM Brian Burke decided he wasn't ready to pin his fortunes on the Ducks' remaining cast of young guns, led by 22-year-old forwards Ryan Getzlaf (25 goals last season, plus a team-high 17 points in the playoffs) and Corey Perry (17 regular-season goals, 15 playoff points).
Rather, Burke opted to hedge the gamble that Niedermayer and Selanne will return by plucking free agents Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi from the Detroit Red Wings. But with Schneider trying to recover from a broken ankle suffered in training camp, and Bertuzzi trying to mend a career a decline, a second straight Cup is anything but a sure bet for the Ducks.
2. Will Mike Keenan light a fire under the Flames?
Here's another question: What got into Calgary last year? Maligned both pre- and post-lockout as a team that couldn't put the puck in the net, the Flames blossomed into the NHL's seventh-highest scoring team last season under first-year coach Jim Playfair.
The newfound offensive flair, though, came at a price. The league's stingiest team in 2005-06, the Flames dropped to 11th in goals allowed and were bounced in the first playoff round by the more defensively sound Detroit Red Wings.
The long arm of Mike Keenan figures to bring a more controlled approach to the Flames this season. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
Little surprise, then, that D-minded general manager Darryl Sutter, who guided Calgary to the 2004 Stanley Cup final during his two-plus seasons behind the bench, demoted the free-wheeling Playfair at season's end and installed like-minded disciplinarian Mike Keenan as the new coach.
Iron Mike is expected to forge the team in his — and Sutter's — image, so many envision a tougher, tighter-checking team than the one that graced the Saddledome ice a year ago. But with a reputation for wearing out his welcome (the Flames are the eighth team he has coached), Keenan must show he can get the most out of stars Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Miikka Kiprusoff.
If he grates on his best players (ask Kristian Huselius, a mainstay in Keenan's doghouse in Florida who flourished under Playfair), Calgary's new coach could find his season — and his tenure — ending prematurely.
3. Can the Sabres still cut it?
Perhaps no team suffered a worse off-season than the 2006-07 Presidents' Trophy winners. After falling in the Eastern final for the second-straight year, Buffalo lost two of its top three scorers — and both its co-captains — to free agency as Daniel Briere and Chris Drury inked mammoth deals with Philadelphia and the Rangers, respectively. Throw in the departure of late-season pickup Dainius Zubrus to New Jersey, and the Sabres were left with a major void in both the scoring and leadership departments.
The troubles didn't end there for the blue and gold. With Buffalo's rabid fan base frothing at the loss of the popular Drury and Briere, cap-conscious GM Darcy Regier had no choice but to match the Oilers' dubious offer of seven years and $50 million US for young gun Thomas Vanek, who was coming off a breakout 43-goal season.
Then, just as training camp opened, word surfaced that rocksteady defenceman Teppo Numminen needed open-heart surgery and would be sidelined indefinitely, further depleting an already thin blue line.
Still, all is not lost in the Queen City. Buffalo still has an electrifying No. 1 line in Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy, and could have an ace in the hole in Tim Connolly.
The 26-year-old centre is the definition of injury-prone — he's played only 65 games over the last three regular season combined, mostly due to concussion problems — but Connolly's silky hands could be just the thing to smooth over a ragged Sabres power play that dropped 14 spots to 17th in the league last season.
4. Could a new shutout king by crowned?
Even by his lofty standards, Martin Brodeur had an incredible 2006-07 season. At the age of 34, the New Jersey Devils' living-legend goalie set a new NHL record for wins in a season (48) while leading the league in shutouts (12) and topping his conference in both goals-against average (2.18) and save percentage (.922). Those numbers won Brodeur his third Vezina Trophy in the last four seasons and even earned him consideration for MVP honours.
With apologies to the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, Brodeur has established himself as the NHL's best active goalie. Now it's time for the three-time Stanley Cup champ to chase history.
The Devils will be all smiles if Martin Brodeur can break the all-time shutout record, but a season-opening nine-game road trip is no laughing matter. (Tom Hanson Canadian Press)
Brodeur, who begins the season with 92 shutouts, needs two more to tie George Hainsworth's record of second all-time, and 11 to match Terry Sawchuk's record of 103. Considering Brodeur posted a dozen white-washings last year, Sawchuk's once-daunting mark appears reachable by season's end.
But sinister forces could be working against the Devil. For one, he led the league with 78 games played a year ago — quite a workload for a guy in his mid-30s. Plus, the Devils will start the season with nine consecutive away games as construction wraps up on their new arena in Newark, threatening more wear and tear on the veteran netminder and his mates.
Indeed, that punishing road trip could go a long way toward determining not only whether Brodeur breaks the shutout record, but also where New Jersey finishes in the standings.
5. Is Alex the Great still a worthy challenger to Sid the Kid?
Hard to remember now, but at this time last year many observers considered Washington's Alexander Ovechkin superior to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby following their classic Calder Memorial Trophy duel in 2005-06. Ovechkin's 52 goals and 106 points had trumped Crosby's 39 and 102 for rookie of the year honours, and many were hailing the dynamic, charismatic Russian as the game's next great superstar.
Then came 2006-07. Crosby took a giant leap forward by winning both the scoring title and MVP honours with a captivating 120-point season that lifted the surprising Penguins from the Eastern Conference basement into the playoffs. Ovechkin, meanwhile, was left spinning his tires as he dipped to 46 goals and 92 points and the lowly Caps finished next-to-last in the East for the second consecutive year.
Now Sid the Kid heads into 2007-08 as the reigning boy king of the NHL. But that doesn't mean Ovechkin is ready to relinquish his claim to the throne. Forty-six goals hardly qualifies as a washout sophomore season, and the electrifying winger's unmatched goal-scoring ability will again make him a fixture on highlight reels.
Ovechkin, though, will ultimately be judged on the performance of his team. The off-season additions of centres Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov and defenceman Tom Poti should help, but the Caps still have a lot of work to do if their best player is to emerge from the long shadow of you-know-who.
2007-08 NHL Preview
- Scott Morrison's Blog
- Scott's power rankings
- Ducks rookie Bobby Ryan learns NHL no-comfort zone
- Familiar faces behind benches in Boston, Calgary, Ottawa
- Q&A: NHL commissiner Gary Bettman
- Canucks' Naslund looks to regain scoring touch
- Bob Gainey could face scrutiny if Habs miss the playoffs again
- Pengiuns aim high with new captain Sidney Crosby
- Revamped Oilers look to rebound from nightmarish season
- High-powered Senators need Eaves to inject secondary scoring
- Young Leafs forwards could hold key to playoffs
- Q and A: Flames forward Matthew Lombardi
- Belak recalls his English odyssey
- Finding hockey in England
- Photo Gallery: Rookies to watch
- Photo Gallery: The NHL's new jerseys | Your View
- Photo Gallery: 25 old faces in new places
- Photo Gallery: 10 on the hot seat
- Training camp notebook
- Off-season moves
- Players under pressure
- Hotshot rookies
- Familiar faces behind benches in Boston, Calgary, Ottawa