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Ten burning questions on cusp of new NHL season

Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011

The ever-changing NHL endured a tumultuous offseason. But hockey season finally has arrived and with it a multitude of questions. Here are 10 league-wide questions entering the season:

Will head shots ever go away?

Players and front office types are saying all the right things, but the preseason illustrated that questionable hits remain a serious problem. Sidney Crosby recently called for a ban against head shots, which led to a number of high profile players to echo his words.

Crosby has personal reasons for wanting head shots banned, but when the world's greatest player speaks, action is sometimes taken.

This is clearly an issue that isn't going away.

Nor is fighting. A number of hockey people want fighting banned from the NHL. Although fighting isn't as common as it was in the 1970s and '80s, it remains part of the game.

Is Brendan Shanahan going to make a difference?

Colin Campbell, the former NHL dean of discipline, was a frequent target for criticism regarding a perceived inconsistency with punishments for illegal, dangerous acts.

Shanahan, a popular former player and Campbell's replacement, will be under a microscope.

Shanahan's early work has received praise from players, and his hands-on approach feels refreshing. Yet his job remains daunting, as a faction of players seemingly always will push the envelope with controversial hits.

Will the NHL's biggest rivals renew their battle?

Crosby is attempting to return from a concussion so serious that many believed it to be career-altering. Alex Ovechkin is simply trying to come back from a season of ineptitude that defies belief.

In the modern era, only Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy boast a better goals-per-game average than Ovechkin's 0.63. Yet, Ovechkin's goals-per-game average plummeted to 0.4 last season, as his 32 goals were by far a career low. In fact, Ovechkin needed an entire season to score as many goals as Crosby managed in 41 games before getting injured.

Ovechkin's postseason performance was just as flummoxing, as the Washington star never changed his approach against Tampa Bay and was never really a threat.

So what comes next for hockey's two brightest stars•

Crosby appears close to playing again. Ovechkin is hoping to bounce back and reclaim his spot as hockey's dominant goal scorer.

The NHL badly needs Crosby and Ovechkin to be healthy and successful, as their rivalry is perhaps the league's only mainstream selling point.

Will anyone manage to solve Eastern Conference goaltenders?

The number of top-tier goaltenders in the Eastern Conference is staggering.

A quick look at the Atlantic Division is proof that scoring in the will be challenging. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is emerging from his finest season and is only entering his prime. The Rangers showcase one of the league's finest netminders in Henrik Lundqvist, the Devils boast a legend in Martin Brodeur, and the Flyers finally have a franchise goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov.

Although the Islanders may seem a bit unsettled in net, they are not without options. Al Montoya, Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabakov give the Islanders legitimate talent.

The rest of the East is bursting with wonderful goalies.

Boston's Tim Thomas is fresh off leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup. Joining Thomas in his division is Buffalo star Ryan Miller, coming off an inconsistent season but still regarded among the best goalies. Then there is Montreal's Carey Price, who made the 2010 trade of Jaroslav Halak understandable by producing a magnificent campaign.

The Southeast Division houses a former Stanley Cup winner in Carolina's Cam Ward and Tampa Bay veteran Dwayne Roloson, who played perhaps the best hockey of his career while eliminating the Penguins last postseason. The Capitals acquired former Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, who figures to be an upgrade.

Will this be the final season for teams in Phoenix and Florida?

It has become something of a given that attendance figures in South Florida and Arizona will not be high. Although some Southern and Western markets -- Tampa Bay and San Jose come to mind -- support their teams, hockey's expansion to warm climates a generation ago largely has failed.

The situations in Florida and Arizona are not stable, and either team could follow the path of the Atlanta Thrashers, which become the Winnipeg Jets this season.

Plenty of cities are craving hockey, including Quebec City, Kansas City and Hamilton, Ont. In a recent exhibition game between the Penguins and Los Angeles King, fans in Kansas City, Mo., sold out the Sprint Center -- a building that would immediately rank as one of the NHL's better venues if the city had a team -- and displayed a detectable enthusiasm for the sport.

Will Washington and San Jose ever get over the hump?

Regular-season excellence in Washington is as common as the cherry blossoms in the spring. Problem is, the Capitals wilt when the weather warms, as Ovechkin and Co. have failed time and again to deliver in the postseason.

Washington wisely added Joel Ward, a gritty forward coming off a terrific postseason with Nashville. The Capitals also acquired Vokoun, who is a reliable goaltender.

San Jose's plight is similar to Washington's. The Sharks always boast one of the NHL's better lineups, and this season will be no different.

San Jose has overcome some of its playoff demons in recent years, but still hasn't made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Is this the year?

Has the balance of power shifted?

The Eastern Conference has produced two of the past three Stanley Cup winners and may, for the first time in years, assert itself as more powerful than the West.

Consider the playoff contenders in the East: The Penguins, Rangers, Flyers, Capitals, Lightning, Canadiens, Sabres and Bruins all made the playoffs last season and return strong teams. Now consider how many other Eastern Conference teams are on the rise.

The Islanders were one of the league's highest-scoring teams in the second half of last season and should only get better.

In Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner, along with Ward, the Hurricanes boasted a talented team that figures to make a playoff push.

The Devils are almost always a contender, and the Jets figure to receive a boost from playing in Winnipeg. Toronto improved last season, and Ottawa and Florida made significant additions to their respective teams. In other words, there isn't a pushover in the East, to say nothing of the overwhelming star power from the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk, Staal and new Rangers forward Brad Richards.

Will the NHL get out of its own way?

The league faces a potentially marvelous opportunity for growth this season. Its popularity has grown steadily since the work stoppage that destroyed the 2004-05 season.

It also appears the NBA will endure a work stoppage. The spotlight could belong to the NHL.

This preseason, however, has been overshadowed by Crosby's concussion; a hockey fan in London, Ont., throwing a banana at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who is black; then Simmonds being accused of calling Rangers' Sean Avery a gay slur.

This isn't the kind of publicity the NHL wants.

A healthy Crosby could do wonders. So, too, could the league's ability to expose its players, most of whom are likeable. The negative incidents need to evaporate, now more than ever.

Will Philadelphia fly or implode?

No team will receive more attention than the Flyers during the early part of the season and understandably so. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two of the league's finest young centers with reputations for surliness in the locker room, were traded in a series of stunning June moves.

Enter Jaromir Jagr, himself not one for locker room stability. One of the all-time great players, Jagr spurned the Penguins, Red Wings and Canadiens and ended up in Philadelphia.

Jagr has thrived during the preseason and appears capable of at least one more terrific season. But how will he mesh in a locker room that already possesses an uneasy feel• Chris Pronger, the newly named Philadelphia captain, couldn't be more opposite than Jagr in terms of locker room persona. An in-your-face type, Pronger isn't afraid to say anything to anyone.

Jagr is one of the more sensitive athletes of his time, not to mention one of the great ones.

Philadelphia might possess Stanley Cup talent, but many believe the Flyers are in for a fall. Regardless, everyone will be watching, especially when Jagr makes his return to Pittsburgh on Dec. 29.

Who will win the Stanley Cup?

It's the question fans always ask this time of year. Perhaps more than any time in recent memory, there isn't a clear answer.

As many as a dozen teams fancy themselves as legitimate contenders, and without question the Penguins are on the short list of teams that may receive a parade in June.




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