The 2010-11 season has arrived. This weekend marks the opening of training camp for all three New York area teams and the end to the summer speculation hockeyheads have leaned on in lieu of on-ice action. Starting this weekend, we’ll finally get some answers to some key questions. Here are the top five facing the Rangers, Devils and Islanders as the curtain rises.
Who will be the Rangers’ first-line center?
In speaking to the media, head coach John Tortorella said that the only jobs that had been decided beyond King Henrik's continued reign in the crease were the two top-line wingers, Marian Gaborik and Alexander Frolov. Who acts as their pivot is still up for grabs and fantasy hockey players especially are eager to find out.
One candidate it Erik Christensen. The 26-year-old, acquired last year from Anaheim, finished the season strong with 2 goals and 6 assists in his last six games. However, he posted just 26 points in total, not exactly the type of production you expect from a top-liner. Brandon Dubinsky and Vinny Prospal also spent time skating with Gaborik last season, and veteran Todd White could be in the conversation as well.
Will there be new blood?
Tortorella also noted that Derek Stepan, Evgeny Grachev and Ryan McDonagh will get long looks this training camp. Stepan and Grachev could be welcome additions to a roster that has struggled to score. McDonagh’s task is slightly tougher given the shortage of blue-line openings, but he’s been impressive in rookie camp and at the Traverse City prospect tournament.
How long will Wade Redden last?
Tortorella says it’s not automatic that Redden will be banished to the minors. Is he just trying to say the right thing and do right by a veteran player? Or does Redden really have a shot?
It seems like he’s a dead man walking (skating?) since his play for the Blueshirts has been sub-par and sinking his salary-cap hit in the minors solves the Rangers’ money problems. If Redden sticks on the Rangers roster -- and let’s be clear, that seems to be a gigantic IF at this point -- there will be some massive shakeups to compensate and clear the needed $4 million-plus to get below the cap.
Who rounds out the blueline?
We hit on this yesterday. Marc Staal, Daniel Girardi, Michal Rozsival and Michael Del Zotto appear to be locks for the top four spots. That leaves two active spots, with the team possibly carrying a seventh defenseman. Steve Eminger, Matt Gilroy, rookie Ryan McDonagh, AHL veteran Mike Sauer and invitees Garnet Exelby and Alexei Semenov will duke it out for those final slots.
How fast can Mats Zuccarello-Aasen adjust?
It’s almost a cliché. Every time a European player makes the jump to North America you’ll see some skepticism about how well he can adjust to this continent’s smaller ice surfaces. Yeah, the question’s warn out, but it wouldn’t be asked it if wasn’t true. Most European players play a finesse game. On a smaller sheet, with guys like Zdeno Chara defending the lanes, there’s less room to maneuver. If last season’s scoring leader in Sweden can adapt early, he could be a very welcome weapon.
Is Patrik Elias really going to play LW?
New head coach John MacLean told the media that Elias will enter camp as a left wing. Come again?
That likely puts him on the third line and leaves us wondering who skates with top LWs Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on the other two lines. Elias has played some center in the past, but with MacLean's statement it seems Travis Zajac and Jason Arnott will center the top two scoring lines. Having a star like Elias on the third line will give the Devils some tremendous depth, in theory, but it will be interesting to see if his style can synch up with a grind line.
Which prospects will make the team?
LW (there’s that position again!) Mattias Tedenby is the top prospect, but don’t discount C Jacob Josefson. The Devils could use some depth down the middle since Arnott’s not exactly a spring chicken and if push comes to stomach punch, GM Lou Lamoriello may need to trade Zajac out of desperation in order to get below the salary cap at the start of the season. Which brings us to …
Until something breaks, Dainius Zubrus and Bryce Salvador are going to be skating like guillotines in tow. They’re the owners of the biggest contracts that don’t include no-movement clauses. Of course, those big contracts also make them rather unpalatable to other teams, so trading them will be a tall order. One way or the other the Devils need to get below the cap ceiling, which means some veteran players are heading out the door. Until they do, there will be some dark clouds hovering over Prudential Center.
Can Kovalchuk’s style mesh with the Devils?
After acquiring Kovalchuk from the Devils, the team’s playing style started to skew from a workman-like dump-and-chase to a more skill-based game. Grinding is what the Devils do best. Streaking down the ice and scoring is what Kovalchuk does best. Can the two exist in harmony?
Can Kovalchuk stand the spotlight?
The single biggest topic this summer revolved around Kovalchuk’s free agency and contract. He’s going to be under scrutiny from the media in camp and early in the season. How well will he handle it?
Who wins the blueline battle?
Mark Streit and James Wisniewski look like they’ll anchor this unit with a lot of other fairly proven names (Jack Hillen, Mark Eaton) also in the picture. I could go on, but Lighthouse Hockey’s already shined a very nice spotlight on the coming competition.
Will the kids stick around?
There’s nothing that excites a rebuilding franchise like new blood and the Islanders have some very choice prospects. But will they make their mark in 2010-11?
Nino Niederreiter, Kirill Kabanov, Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic comprise four of the Isles’ top eight prospects according to Hockey’s Future.
It’s expected that El Nino will make the strongest run to remain on the roster, but there’s no shortage of top talent in this system. Some veterans will be pushed hard to keep their spots.
Can Kabanov behave?
I kind of hate to ask this one, since I’d prefer to give an 18-year-old the benefit of the doubt. However, Kabanov keeps making his enigmatic behavior a big issue.
If he can keep in line for the duration of camp, that will go a long way towards dispelling the notion that he’s a headache not worth dealing with -- the same perception that allowed someone of his elite talent to slip to the third round of the draft.
Will Rick DiPietro be up to full speed?
The netminder says he feels good and he’s ready to go this season, but staying healthy has never been the former top pick’s strong suit. Even if he’s not up to par, it’s unlikely the Isles make a move to acquire another goalie, but there are still some veteran options (Jose Theodore) out there should DiPietro again find himself sidelined, with some prospects waiting in the wings as well.
Is there a big year coming from John Tavares?
You can’t usually tell much in the preseason, but a lot of eyes will be on him to see if he can take that next step. Steven Stamkos set the bar (impossibly?) high with his 51-goal campaign in his sophomore season. Tavares may well have the ability to match that feat, but does he have the supporting cast? The Lightning may not be the team they once were, but Stamkos is still surrounded with a cast of stars in Tampa. The Isles aren’t without talent, but it’s just not the same setting for Tavares.
For what it’s worth, Tavares is ranked No. 54 in ESPN’s fantasy projections, with 30 goals and 64 points.
Got questions of your own? Post them in the comment section below and we’ll check them out as the preseason unfolds.