And considering that the roster remains largely intact, Carolina’s top players really have to step it up, according to former Hurricane Jeff O’Neill.
“When you have a lot of long-term [contracts], guys locked in to big money, there is a philosophy around the league that you are only as good as your bad contracts,” O’Neill told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation.
And that leaves at least a few players under some pretty intense scrutiny for the 2014-15 season. Chief among them, according to O’Neill, is goaltender Cam Ward.
“I look at their team and they have some really good pieces there, but Cam Ward, he’s gotta be to the Carolina Hurricanes what Jonathan Quick is to the LA Kings,” O’Neill said. “I love the guy, but he hasn’t been good enough or consistent enough to give the team a chance to win every night.”
O’Neill, who played seven seasons for the Canes, expects Anton Khudobin to push even a healthy Ward for the starting position, leaving Ward in a pressure-laden spot heading into camp.
“This is probably the last chance for him in this organization because he’s being pushed to the brink by Khudobin,” said O’Neill, who now works as a television analyst.
O’Neill also said that Eric Staal and Jordan Staal both need to be better to form the power tandem the Hurricanes envisioned when they united the brothers in Carolina. And young defenseman Justin Faulk has to be at his best for the ‘Canes to truly compete for a playoff spot.
And don’t even get O’Neill started on Alexander Semin, whose contract he finds “disgusting” and suspects will go down as “the biggest mistake" former GM Jim Rutherford has ever made.
Semin is inked through 2018 on a five-year deal that pays him $7 million annually.
“I like him for five-minute segments, but when the going gets tough, he just doesn’t compete,” said O’Neill, who is known for both his colorful personality and unapologetic opinions. “If he had any work ethic or intangibles, he’d be better than [Alexander] Ovechkin. He’s that talented.”
But O’Neill does see some positive things on the horizon for his former club, namely Francis’ unwavering desire to win and the hire he made to help lead the way.
Though many suspected that Francis would hire Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, the GM opted instead for Peters in a move that few expected.
“I give Ron Francis a lot of credit, because I thought he’d go with one of his close friends like Ulf Samuelsson. It’s pretty easy to go with someone you know, but he went outside of the box with someone that was talked about a lot in coaching vacancies,” O’Neill said. “I really don’t know a whole lot about [Peters], but he will have fresh ideas. What I like about [having] a new coach is there are no ties there, it’s a fresh start, and it’s an opportunity for everyone to prove themselves right off the hop.”
O’Neill isn’t buying into the idea of a culture change just because of those changes, though. That starts from the top down, but ultimately it’s for the players to enforce, and the Hurricanes have to prove they are up for the task.
“I hear the term 'culture change' tossed around quite frequently, but that only happens when you have a visiting coach come in and you hear, ‘These guys are tough to play against,’” O’Neill said.
Playing against the New Jersey Devils, O’Neill was always aware that there was no margin for error, no leeway for making stupid plays. He sees that in a similar fashion with the Los Angeles Kings right now.
“You know every time you touch the puck, they are going to kill you,” O’Neill said. “Toronto, Carolina, the Islanders, they just seem to have no culture right now.”
Leetch remembers how it felt when people started calling him captain, the recognition that came with wearing the 'C' of an Original Six team and the responsibility that came with representing such a proud franchise.
“When you talk about Original Six teams, a big market and a passionate fan base, that adds to the focal point. It is a special thing,” Leetch told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. “When Mark left and I was named captain, I was proud of that. I was disappointed why [it happened] -- with Mark not being re-signed -- but I was very proud to wear the Rangers jersey and wear the 'C.'
“It probably means something in every franchise, but when you see a Montreal Canadiens jersey, a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, a Chicago Blackhawks jersey,” Leetch said, rattling off fellow Original Six teams, “it certainly carries a certain weight.”
McDonagh, a smooth-skating, offensively skilled and physical young blueliner, would be a fine choice for the Blueshirts, according to Leetch, who helped lead the Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in 1994 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP that season. Leetch thinks McDonagh will have tremendous support from his teammates.
“That group of guys have been together [McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi] so that leadership is a shared thing. The roles within the locker room have been established. If [McDonagh] is given the captaincy, it won’t change his approach in how he interacts with his teammates,” Leetch said. “I think it’s a natural thing and I agree he seems to be a logical choice. He’s a main guy for the foreseeable future.”
The St. Paul, Minnesota, native took a huge leap this past season to the point where his name entered the Norris Trophy conversation. Leetch, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, has enjoyed watching McDonagh’s game evolve.
“It’s fun to see a player gain that confidence and take that next step, and that is certainly what he did,” Leetch said. “The coaching staff deserves credit, too. You need that confidence from the coaches, your teammates, to be given that kind of responsibility as well as the opportunity to make mistakes.”
Although McDonagh has ascended to the top-pair shutdown role with Girardi for his stout defensive ability, his offensive potential was nurtured and encouraged, Leetch said.
“A lot of times you need to be reminded of that. He wanted to be as good as possible defensively, and his skating allowed him to do that, to shut down other players, but you saw that ability to make the tape-to-tape passes and skate the puck out of the zone,” said Leetch, who holds the Rangers’ franchise scoring record among defensemen. “He’s got more and you really need that push every day from coaches and teammates. I saw that happen throughout the year.”
The Rangers’ sturdy back end was a huge component in their playoff success this past spring, when they made a run to the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Anton Stralman signed with Tampa Bay in free agency, but Leetch would like to see much of that defensive corps remain intact.
Priority No. 1, of course, is signing Staal to a new extension. (His agent, Paul Krepelka, told ESPN.com via email, “all quiet on that front right now.”) Although Staal has been hampered by a string of serious injuries in recent years, he returned to form with a strong performance in the 2014 playoffs.
“I think it’s really important to have that group of guys back there. I add Girardi in the mix as well, just the stability and familiarity, and the personalities. They're very good teammates in locker room, good people, and they have that continuity, plus the ability to perform on the ice in front of Henrik Lundqvist,” Leetch said.
“My fingers are always crossed that Marc can stay healthy because he’s on the verge of getting to that next level. Obviously, that’s my hope for him, and I think he’s an elite player with the ability to be a top D in the league if he can continue to play and get those reps.”
As for Leetch’s future, he’s not quite sure of what lies ahead. Since he left the NHL’s Department of Player Safety earlier this month, Leetch’s most pressing plans have been the deep-sea fishing expeditions he’s taken this summer (shut out only once, he adds).
And although he enjoyed the gig with the league’s disciplinary arm, he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family.
“Those West Coast teams were too much for me,” Leetch joked of the long hours spent watching NHL games each night. “I didn’t mind the rest of it. In fact, it was very interesting, and I really liked the responsibility, but the hours away from the family [was tough],” Leetch said.
“I’ll do some TV work again with MSG [Network] and I’m talking about doing some other things, but nothing is set in stone.”
The Blues built a 2-0 series edge against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference quarterfinals only to surrender that lead to their hated division rival in a stunning six-game set.
That bitter defeat will be a sore subject when training camp begins next month, no doubt, but according to former Blues star Keith Tkachuk, it may serve as quite the learning experience as well.
“I think you’ll see a lot of angry guys, pissed-off guys [in camp].”
Those young guys are the key to the Blues’ future and remain a bright spot for a team that has gone into recent postseasons as one of the elite squads out West and then run into some of the most fearsome opponents.
Tkachuk, who recorded 1,065 points in 1,201 NHL games and spent nine seasons with the Blues, sees defenseman Alex Pietrangelo thriving this season with another year of experience under his belt. And he views Jake Allen as a strong competitor who will push Brian Elliott for the starting goaltending job.
Tkachuk says the 24-year-old Allen has done things “the proper way,” paying his dues and rising up the ranks steadily after years in junior hockey and the American Hockey League. He also has good size, keen stickhandling skills and a growing sense of confidence. Tkachuk thinks his development, and the Blues’ stability in net, will benefit from that.
“This is the perfect situation. Elliott is a little bit later [into his career] and Allen who needs more NHL seasoning,” said Tkachuk. “If you have Elliott, who is a great pro, and they push each other in practice, Elliott’s working habits in practice will have a big-time influence in Allen. Whoever’s playing well is going to play.”
That’s not to say that Tkachuk did not support the Blues’ bold move to trade for Ryan Miller in February last season. It was a bold decision from management, namely general manager Doug Armstrong, that indicated the club was ready to go all-in on the 2014 postseason.
But the acquisition did not go as planned. Miller posted a pedestrian 10-8-1 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and .903 save percentage for St. Louis, and the Blues chose not to re-sign the longtime Buffalo Sabres netminder, who subsequently signed a free-agent deal with the Vancouver Canucks in July.
“It was definitely worth a shot,” said Tkachuk, who spends the majority of his time traveling to watch his two teenage sons play hockey and coaching his youngest in midget minor. “Last year, there were a lot of question marks with Jaroslav Halak, so [the Blues] made the move and I’d have done the same thing. It didn’t work, but it’s not all on him. As a team, sometimes you need a change. Jake Allen, as well as he did in Chicago, deserves to be here.”
Tkachuk also said he loves the signing of center Paul Stastny, which adds depth down the middle and gives captain David Backes some help at the position.
“It brings some much-needed offensive help, not just 5-on-5 but on the power play, which is huge,” Tkachuk said.
Heck, in a Central Division that keeps raising the caliber of competition, the Blues had no choice but to ante up.
“It’s a challenge every night,” Tkachuk said. "You’ve got the two-headed monster in [Patrick Kane] and [Jonathan] Toews, who really played well [in the playoffs]. You know Colorado is going to have another good year, especially adding [Jarome] Iginla. Dallas has gotten better with [trade acquisition Jason] Spezza.
“I think Stastny was a huge move shown by management and ownership that we want to take it to the next level, but it’s definitely a tough division. We have to close out teams when we have them.”
He suspects current Hawks superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who inked matching eight-year, $84 million deals this summer, will experience the same.
If that’s the case, watch out.
Getting the two players under contract until 2023 was a huge coup for a team that has won two Stanley Cup championships in the past five seasons and is among the select few for which the D-word -- dynasty -- can be thrown around in the salary-cap era.
"I think it was very important," said Roenick, who now works as an NHL analyst for NBC Sports. "Two quality players like that, most teams do not possess that luxury. Pittsburgh has [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin, and Anaheim has [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry, but [most teams] don’t really have those elite star players that can change the course of the game like they have."
Having those players to build around for years to come -- Kane and Toews are 25 and 26, respectively -- will ensure that Chicago is a perennial contender. In fact, Roenick sees no reason that Chicago won’t be the favorite once the preseason projections roll in for 2014-15.
"I think they’re one of the strongest-built teams in the league," said Roenick, who played eight seasons for the Blackhawks and scored 513 goals in his 21-year NHL career. "With them, they have amazing star power surrounded with good quality core players. The addition of Brad Richards coming over there as a role player who can help on the power play and be a good leader brings another experienced guy into a locker room of winners."
"I think the team has done a very good job of putting together the pieces, and with Kane and Toews signing these megadeals, they’ll be playing with so much confidence. There’s no competition between the two. They are both top-five players getting paid like it, and it shows the loyalty that the Blackhawks have become known for and [for] building championships."
That said, the Blackhawks will likely be forced to make some sort of trade to move salary out, given the cap constraints facing the club. According to Capgeek.com, the Hawks are $2.26 million over the cap for next year with 23 roster players.
That won’t be the only challenge facing the team, which will square off against stiff competition in what promises to be a stacked Central Division.
Last year’s race was a tight one, and Roenick expects that to be the case this season as well, with one team in particular with something to prove.
He still thinks the Blackhawks are the team to beat but anticipates it being a dogfight.
"I think the St. Louis Blues are gonna come out extremely angry and embarrassed about bowing out early," Roenick said about the Blues’ first-round exit last spring after losing a six-game series to the Hawks.
"I know how Hitch [Blues coach Ken Hitchcock] is, and those two teams are gonna be battling tooth and nail again. I don’t see anyone else really challenging either of those teams.”
Vanbiesbrouck brought that strength to a number of teams he played for throughout his 18-year career, most notably during his time with the Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers.
And though the Panthers have undergone a massive facelift this summer -- new coach, a first overall pick, some marquee free-agent signings -- he thinks the team’s most significant change heading into the 2014-15 season was actually made in March: adding veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo at the trade deadline.
Vanbiesbrouck, who now serves as the general manager and director of hockey operations for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, thinks Luongo could help lead the Panthers back to the playoffs, especially with the help of talented young stars such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov.
“I don’t think you can think you’re a playoff team without having a top quality goalie who can be a workhorse and I think that’s the word -- stability,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who amassed 374 career wins. “Take nothing away from the guys they’ve had in the past, but I just think that Roberto adds such a quality, a gold standard, to the position.”
Though Luongo dealt with a goaltending controversy in Vancouver that persisted over the past few years, Vanbiesbrouck thinks he has been able to maintain a level of consistency (.919 save percentage over the past 10 seasons) and professionalism that is impressive.
“He’s got a great head on his shoulders, a great mind for the game and he’s very consistent,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “[Canada’s] gold medal in Vancouver, for most people they think that’s the pinnacle of his career, but I think his consistency ... is his gold standard within the league.
"You go in facing Roberto Luongo and you know you will have a tough night scoring goals. That’s like having a 20-game winner on your mound every night.”
Among the offseason acquisitions the Panthers made, Vanbiesbrouck thinks Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell and Shawn Thornton will add a needed dose of veteran experience and leadership.
Having those guys to mentor younger players will be essential.
“I like the way they got some good character guys in the room,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I think they can keep it together."
Vanbiesbrouck also thinks coach Gerard Gallant will provide a strong new voice inside the room. Gallant spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens under Michel Therrien, and Vanbiesbrouck said he found the Habs to be a team whose coaching staff really coaxed the most out of its players.
“I think he’s going to be demanding, yet sensible,” Vanbiesbrouck predicted.
Now a hockey executive, Vanbiesbrouck has a newfound appreciation for the many layers of skill and experience it takes to assemble a quality organization from the top on down.
He also can appreciate the time it takes for a team to adapt to a new philosophy.
“I’ve learned a ton as far as how to handle people. You learn from mistakes mostly, which is humbling,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I'm trying to create a strategy here, and strategies take a lot of time to have your vision come to fruition.
“My goals and ambitions are to make Muskegon the best I can make it, and hopefully good things happen from that.”
The 44-year-old Hall of Famer and his wife, professional golfer Allison Micheletti (daughter of former NHLer Joe Micheletti), recently celebrated the birth of twins Jack and Kate.
But even while juggling a pair of newborns, Modano has time to get excited about the changes underway for a Dallas Stars team building toward the future.
Seguin, however, thrived and helped make the Stars one of the most exciting young teams. And the club made the playoffs for the first time in six years.
This summer, Nill added another elite center, trading for Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza to give the Stars a formidable one-two punch down the middle. Nill also signed skilled winger Ales Hemsky to a three-year, $12 million deal.
"I think it's been very positive, a kind of piece-by-piece process, but that pretty much goes with a lot of teams rebuilding. Bits and pieces become available, there are big trades to acquire the personnel you want and Jim did that with the Seguin deal," Modano told ESPN.com in a phone conversation. "Energetic youth comes in and kind of has a lot of work ethic, and obviously this summer [Nill] gets that No. 2 center, so taking care of Spezza was a big deal.
"They have the pieces and the personnel, it’s just a matter of whether it will come together."
Trades for top playmaking centers like Seguin and Spezza don't come by often and they aren't easy to make, but Modano -- who helped bring Dallas a Stanley Cup in 1999 -- wasn't surprised Nill was able to pull it off in consecutive offseasons.
Modano, regarded as one of the best U.S.-born centers to play the game, has known Nill for a long time and knows he has a savvy hockey mind. Nill understands how to treat his players, as well as the business side of the game.
"I think it says a lot about Jim Nill. Good GMs around the league have a way of luring good players to play for their organization," said Modano, who had 561 goals and 1,374 points in 1,499 NHL games. "That comes with his history with the [Detroit Red] Wings, working with [GM] Kenny Holland, [owner Mike] Ilitch.
"You create some opportunities for individuals getting a second chance or reinventing themselves as players. He's kind of got that asset to him that he's able to do that and get them excited about being here. The stability with ownership here, that does a lot, too."
Nill and the Stars' ownership can't really afford to sit back and be patient, though. Given the absurd level of competition in the stacked Central Division, teams feel tremendous pressure to make themselves better with each offseason.
"The division is fast, skilled, big, a lot of those components," Modano said. "You try to keep up with the Joneses or you get passed by."
But he doesn’t see that happening. He thinks the Stars should be able to earn another postseason berth in 2015.
"If they can get out of the gates strong the first few months, they can give themselves some breathing room," Modano said. "Though they still might have to scratch and claw down to the last week."
Just this past year, Modano has taken on the role of executive adviser and alternate governor with the Stars. It allows him to be around the team and help out more than he did immediately after retiring in 2011. He might become more involved in the future, but for right now he is happy with how things are going.
After all, having two newborns doesn’t leave him much free time. Or sleep, for that matter.
"As time goes by, there are little niches I enjoy doing that hopefully evolve into something, a bigger responsibility going forward, down the road," Modano said. "But for right now, I'll keep doing what I've been doing."
Hockey is not just a sport in Minnesota, it’s a rich cultural tradition reinforced by the steady crop of elite talent produced each year.
Had you told Johnson, who went on to play in the NHL for almost 20 years, that he'd eventually be coaching his son's hockey team in the sunny locale of Southern California, he may have wanted to get his ears cleaned.
The fervor for hockey is on the upswing. The outdoor game between the Ducks and Kings at Dodger Stadium last season stoked the flame. As did the seven-game series between the two clubs in the 2014 postseason.
“That playoff series between the Kings and Ducks, you could really see the passion for the game out here,” Johnson said. “Those flags on top of the cars, they're usually [for the] Lakers. But during that time, it was Ducks flags and Kings flags.”
Johnson thinks that rivalry will retain its fierce competition, especially with the offseason additions made by Anaheim, namely acquiring Ryan Kesler via trade.
Kesler's presence will give the Ducks more depth down the middle -- a necessity if they want to match up against the defending champs. Last spring, that might have hamstrung the Ducks in the series against L.A.
"[Last] year, just looking at it from a fan's standpoint, the Ducks had to match up [Anze] Kopitar with [Ryan] Getzlaf and that's a matchup the Kings didn't really mind," Johnson explained. "Adding Kesler will allow Kesler to go against Kopy and give Getzlaf a little more freedom. It's a tough league. Those three California teams, it's a murderers' row."
The 42-year-old Johnson now coaches his son on the Santa Margarita Catholic High School hockey team in the Anaheim Ducks High School League and has seen the sport catch fire firsthand.
Though the St. Paul, Minnesota native played only one season for the Ducks in 2003, he spent plenty of time in SoCal while playing for the Los Angeles Kings from 1996-2003. He saw the genesis for the sport’s growth begin then and has seen the participation take off from there.
“I remember when I first came out here in 1996, when I was traded, the [Wayne] Gretzky impact was huge for hockey out here,” Johnson told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation. “When Wayne Gretzky first came out here, maybe 2,000 to 3,000 kids were registered to play hockey. Now, we're sitting in California with 24 to 26,000, somewhere in there.”
Of course it has not hurt to have two elite teams in the area, separated by less than 31 miles and boasting what has become a captivating rivalry.
Johnson has a divided house with a 13-year-old son, Ryan, who is a Ducks fan and a 16-year-old son, Eric, who is a Kings fan. He said the Ducks’ Stanley Cup championship in 2007 gave a huge boost to the hockey cache in California. Now, with the Kings winning in both 2012 and 2014, the buzz seems to be reaching its apex.
"You go to schools now and kids have Ducks jerseys on or Kings jerseys," Johnson said.
As a result of the increased interest and participation, the skill level and quality of competition has grown tremendously.
“The level is definitely rising now,” Johnson said. “More and more kids are playing because of the success of the Ducks and the Kings.”
Johnson has seen the Ducks’ high school league he coaches in grow from just one team with 16 players to a recently expanded five-division league of 41 teams with more than 1,000 players. Kids are having a blast, representing their high school and finding something new to play in addition to some of the other traditional sports.
Johnson has witnessed baseball players, lacrosse players and soccer players convert to hockey, putting their skills on ice as part of a growing trend.
“What we try to do with the young players is ensure they play multiple sports,” Johnson said, “which is great for their upbringing and development. It’s hard to grind out a sport 12 months a year.”
More and more players are coming out of California -- Beau Bennett, Emerson Etem, Matt Nieto, to name a few -- but the area still has strides to make before establishing itself among the other hotbeds across the U.S., places such as Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Johnson said he'd love to see schools such as the University of Southern California or University of Arizona establish hockey programs. Unfortunately, most good college programs are on the opposite coast. Scouts don't frequent California as much and kids have to take on tons of travel to participate in the sort of showcase events that could lead to a scholarship.
But a local program could change matters.
“Until this happens, it’s hard,” Johnson said. “Most of these schools are on the East Coast.”
Still, hockey has taken root in Southern California and it's there to stay.
What he witnessed with his former club’s surprising run to the playoffs last spring was a reinvigorated fan base, encouraged by the team’s success and optimistic about the team’s future.
“I think the fans got a taste of it the first time around,” Modin said of the team’s short-lived appearance in 2009 when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. ”But this year was great, as loud of a building as I have ever played in, just the buzz around town is a great measuring stick to how the fans here enjoy their team.”
Modin, who won a Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, said he thinks that experience will be invaluable for the team moving forward, especially for the young players who got a taste of what playoff action is truly like.
“[I was] impressed with how the team came together and seemed to find their identity during the run last year,” Modin told ESPN.com when reached via email from Sweden. “[I] think the coaches and the players were looking to play that type of game all season but didn't really get the consistency early on. The team has lots of young talented players with limited experience that played big roles during the Pittsburgh series. Going through that will make them stronger both as individuals and as a team.”
Speaking of young players who will be influential in the team’s future, Modin thinks getting dynamic, young center Ryan Johansen is a top priority for the club. Johansen, a 22-year-old restricted free agent, remains in a contract stalemate with Columbus as negotiations have grown contentious at times this summer.
“I hope they can agree on a contract before camp,” Modin told ESPN.com. “I think Ryan is and will be a big part of this team’s success. [He’s] a very talented player that can develop into something special.”
Modin thinks the offseason acquisition of Scott Hartnell, who came to Columbus in a trade with Philadelphia, was a shrewd one. Modin also thinks the return of Nathan Horton, who was sidelined for much of last season due to injury, will make a significant impact as well. Both players should play key roles as veterans as the Blue Jackets prepare for the 2014-15 season.
“Scott Hartnell is a great addition to this team, [he's a] veteran player that knows what is needed to be successful,” Modin said. “And a healthy Nathan Horton will also be a big boost to the team this season.”
Modin, who spends time watching his 10-year-old daughter play local soccer and lacrosse and coaching his 13-year-old son’s hockey team, tries to watch as many Blue Jackets games as he can.
The 39-year-old Sundsvall, Sweden, native marvels at the way the game has steadily improved since his retirement in 2011.
“It seems every year the game gets faster,” Modin said. “Players are bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled.”
And the way the Blue Jackets developed a hard-working, strong-skating, blue-collar mentality should suit them well again this year against some of the elite teams. After all, they proved they can hang with those teams this spring.
“As a fan, you get the sense this team is moving in the right direction,” Modin said. “Again, young talent that has a year or two under their belt now and some playoff experience. I think we'll see the Jackets in another playoffs this year. This is a team that is tough to play against, hard forechecking, lots of speed. You need to play well to beat them.”
And while Brodeur reigned supreme as the face of the franchise for years, leading it to three Stanley Cup championships while establishing himself as perhaps the best goaltender of all time, the time has finally come for him to part ways with his long-time team.
That may be a good thing for the Devils.
With the departure of Brodeur, the Devils have since swung full support behind incumbent Cory Schneider, who recently inked a seven-year, $42 million extension.
"He was ready to take that mantle,” former Devils goatlender Kevin Weekes told ESPN.com in a telephone interview last week. “I like that the franchise was able to put that to bed and start that transition.”
Schneider, who was mired in long goaltending controversy in Vancouver before he was acquired by the Devils in a stunning trade in June 2013, was clearly the heir apparent in New Jersey, but Brodeur seemed reluctant to relinquish the throne.
“It’s a unique situation,” said Weekes, now an analyst for NHL Network. “Because he’s Marty Brodeur, he’s earned the right to his influence and impact. Sometimes, the problem with that is it’s not always what’s best for the Devils’ personnel.”
The Devils, who finished 10th in the Eastern Conference, missing the playoffs by five points with a disappointing 35-29-18 record, may benefit from having a clear-cut starter moving forward. And Schneider, who posted a 1.97 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage last season, has proved himself more than capable of assuming the No. 1 job.
Weekes, who has known Schneider since he was an NHL rookie, said the 28-year-old Marblehead, Massachusetts, native is a gem.
“He’s a first-rate individual,” said Weekes, who finished his career as a Devil. “Classy, super-intelligent and he handles himself like a pro.”
Weekes was also thrilled to see veteran goal scorer Mike Cammalleri sign with New Jersey as a free agent this summer. He thinks he’ll be a great fit with the Devils and will provide the club with leadership and much-needed offense, especially after a strong 2013-14 season with the Calgary Flames.
“He’s obviously a goal scorer and it’s not just his shot, but also his legs. He kind of got back to doing things to get open space, finding holes, eluding defenders, setting himself up in position to shoot,” Weekes said. “I think he did an unbelievable job at that last year in Calgary. He really rediscovered his game.”
Add in a long-term contract for well-respected blueliner Andy Greene and a healthy captain in Bryce Salvador, and the Devils have a strong veteran presence on their blue line.
But what Weekes is most intrigued to see is how 21-year-old Adam Larsson fits into the plan moving forward. The Devils’ handling of the young Swede has been a puzzling case for many, particularly vexing to some Devils fans who’d like to see the talented prospect develop into the type of defenseman anticipated when he was selected fourth overall in the 2011 draft.
Instead, he has struggled to find a consistent spot among the Devils’ regular defensemen.
“I do know there is definitely a value to having a player earn it -- trust me, I know what that is like,” said the 39-year-old Weekes, who spent time in both the AHL and IHL before cracking an NHL roster. “It’s a curious case for me. He obviously has an exceptional ability, he’s built beyond his years, has a good shot, he’s very smart, a good kid, but for some reason the organization isn’t fully buying in on where his game is at.
“He is still young. But he’s good enough to be an everyday regular.”
That will be one of the many storylines to follow come training camp. Peter DeBoer, who signed a contract extension last season, enters his fourth season as head coach. He’ll have some challenges ahead, but with an Eastern Conference that is wide open -- especially compared to the uber-competitive West -- the Devils should have a good chance to make the playoffs this season.
“I think anything is possible in the NHL,” Weekes said, “but especially in the East.”
That hasn’t been the case, however, with the Buffalo Sabres.
Despite the team’s abysmal 21-51-10 record and last-place finish this past season, the Sabres were able to attract high-caliber talent on the open market as the club continues to revamp its personnel in hopes of turning things around.
Even the acquisition of Josh Gorges via trade with the Habs took a pitch -- Gorges called former Habs teammate Gionta to consult whether to waive his no-trade clause this summer.
Not bad for a team that floundered at the bottom of the league standings for virtually the entire year before finishing 30th.
And the influx of new talent, new management and new coaching staff (Ted Nolan was hired in November before receiving an extension this summer, while assistants Arturs Irbe, Bryan Trottier, Danny Flynn and Tom Coolen recently joined the staff) brings a culture change.
“The thing is, it started over a year ago,” said former Sabres goaltender Martin Biron, who still resides in the area with his family. “They traded three captains -- Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Steve Ott, with Ryan Miller also traded -- so that’s four guys gone in a 12-month span. They retooled, rebuilt, brought in some picks, some young players and prospects to try and build from the ground up.”
According to Biron, who retired last season while playing for the New York Rangers, that push toward progress likely started at the behest of team owner Terry Pegula.
“From being in this area, and living here, that change of direction probably came from the top, from Terry and Kim [Pegula] on down. They did a lot of studying and crunching numbers on success and where it comes from. It comes from the draft and developing players,” Biron told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation.
That change of direction likely winnowed the list of GM candidates that ultimately led then-president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine to select Murray as the guy to lead the team (LaFontaine curiously resigned a few months later, less than four months after taking the job). Murray had experience in drafting and developing players from serving as the GM of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators and as the assistant GM of the Ottawa Senators.
“When they switched things up [following the dismissal of former GM Darcy Regier], that was a hot topic on the table. How will you be able to accomplish this?” Biron said of the development aspect. “I think the biggest part of his hiring was knowing [Murray] was going to be on board with that.”
Though they have seen some of the team’s biggest names and most beloved players leave, the Sabres boast some well-respected veterans as well as some burgeoning young leaders such as Drew Stafford. Add in some prospects who are challenging for a spot and a bevvy of draft picks in the future and the Sabres are all of the sudden an interesting team to watch.
One thing that could prove to be an Achilles' heel, however, is their goaltending. After trading Miller to the St. Louis Blues last season, the Sabres are left with Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth, neither of whom are considered bonafide starters.
“Obviously, that is a bit of a question mark moving forward,” Biron said. "For many years people in Buffalo have been lucky to have top goaltenders, [Dominik] Hasek, [Ryan] Miller, now they’re going into a bit of an unknown with Enroth or Neuvirth."
But Biron insists that the Sabres are well-stocked between the pipes with an abundance of quality goaltending prospects.
Nathan Lieuwen gained some NHL experience with seven games last season. They also have Calvin Petersen, Russian netminder Andrey Makarov and a pair of Swedes: Jonas Johansson and Linus Ullmark, the latter of whom caught Biron’s eye at a recent development camp.
Biron probably will be keeping tabs on those prospects given his new position as director of goaltending at the HARBORCENTER Academy of Hockey, which will open in October.
Between that and regular television work as an analyst for TSN, NHL Network and French-language RDS, Biron won’t be sitting back and taking it easy during retirement.
Already this summer he’s barely had a spare moment bouncing between his son’s baseball and football schedule and his daughters’ horse shows.
“It’s better that way,” Biron said. “I can’t sit around.”
They’ll do so, however, without former captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenseman Josh Gorges. The two well-respected players are now members of the Buffalo Sabres -- Gionta signed as an unrestricted free agent, while Gorges was sent to Buffalo in a trade -- leaving a huge void inside the Montreal dressing room.
Former Hab Mathieu Darche thinks that will be the biggest challenge facing the team this season. But he sees plenty of younger players who are ready to step up.
Chief among those? Star defenseman P.K. Subban, who inked an eight-year, $72 million extension earlier this month.
““My only concern is that I feel like they let go of a lot of leadership,” Darche told ESPN.com in a phone conversation while on vacation with his family in Maine.
There's nothing wrong with keeping some cockiness. In every sport you need to be confident, and cockiness is not necessarily derogatory. P.K. [Subban] gets that.” -- Former Hab Mathieu Darche
“I can see him [Subban] with a 'C' on his jersey,” Darche said. “Why not? If not him, you could go with Brendan Gallagher. You talk about leadership by example. He could have it.”
The 37-year-old Darche, who was a teammate of Subban's with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and for three seasons with the Habs, says he is a “P.K. backer” and lauds Subban's fierce competitiveness and sometimes-polarizing personality. Darche has seen Subban evolve, both on and off the ice, and has nothing but great things to say about the 2013 Norris Trophy winner’s progress toward becoming a true pro.
Subban is learning to straddle the line of being humble while maintaining the trademark swagger that makes him such an electrifying presence on the ice.
“There’s nothing wrong with keeping some cockiness,” Darche said. “In every sport you need to be confident, and cockiness is not necessarily derogatory. P.K. gets that. On the ice, he just wants to be the best player.”
And no one should be worrying that Subban will get comfortable now that he has cashed in on his success. Darche said Subban is driven by wanting to be the best, not by dollar signs.
“If there is one guy I don’t worry about sitting on his contract, it’s P.K. He wants to have his numbers in the rafters at Bell Centre,” Darche said. “He knows the better he is, the better the team has a chance to win.”
Though the negotiation process between Subban’s camp and the Habs was perceived by many as contentious, with a deal being struck after arbitration but before the final ruling could be made, Darche said there won’t be any awkwardness as a result. That’s just not Subban’s way.
Instead, Darche feels the deal is good for both sides. Subban gets security, but Darche thinks that in two or three years, the Habs may feel they got a bargain.
“They were lucky they got the deal done before the arbitrator’s ruling,” Darche said. “He’s leaving money on the table. Trust me, had he made it to unrestricted free agency, he would be making over $10 million a year.”
Darche, who was a key figure within the players' union during the last lockout, is flourishing in the business world since deciding to hang up the skates in 2013.
In fact, he turned down a few NHL opportunities since retirement to work in the corporate world, putting his marketing and international business degree from prestigious McGill University to use while working for customs brokerage company Delmar International.
Darche has enjoyed the experience -- his travels last year took him to China and Vietnam, among other locales -- but he could see himself returning to the NHL if the right management opportunity ever opened up.
He remains connected to the game by doing work for the French-language television station RDS, where he has dissected and analyzed his former team plenty.
He thinks the Habs have a good thing going, despite the departure of some key “glue guys.” Subban is locked up, and they have top goaltender Carey Price coming back after a knee injury during the Eastern Conference finals ended his season in May.
Price’s return should bode well for the Habs, Darche said.
“To me, Carey Price is the best goaltender in the league,” he said. “I’ve been saying that for three years now. It’s night and day what can happen with [Price in goal]. He can take you places. When you’ve got Carey Price, the sky’s the limit.”
Oh hey roger pic.twitter.com/Guuh6GfG6P— Brandon Prust (@BrandonPrust8) August 8, 2014
Last day... Coming back to Detroit. pic.twitter.com/OmOnElsEqM— Pavel Datsyuk (@Datsyuk13) August 5, 2014
He won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1979. He spent a decade patrolling the back end for the Caps, where he won two Norris Trophies as the league’s best defensemen. His acumen was so revered that he earned the nickname “the Secretary of Defense” during his time in D.C.
The Capitals have lacked a strong defensive corps in recent years, but Langway thinks that is starting to change with this summer’s key offseason acquisitions.
The Caps landed the most coveted free agent in the class of 2014, inking defenseman Matt Niskanen to a seven-year, $40.25 million deal. The 27-year-old Minnesota native had a breakout year for the Pittsburgh Penguins this past season and could not have timed it better, setting himself up for a massive pay raise when the market opened on July 1.
The 57-year-old Langway, reached via phone at his residence outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, said he thinks an improved defense will be a huge asset for the Capitals moving forward. The Capitals also added another former Penguin, veteran Brooks Orpik, for good measure to round out a back end that was a weakness for the team last season.
"They have more balanced defensemen now,” Langway told ESPN.com “They have their 1-2 defenseman, their 3-4 that can play against top players but might rather not, and their 5-6 can play on the penalty kill, fill in, or be tough guys that play against tough guys. That can change the momentum. I don’t think the Capitals have had that for years."
Whereas Mike Green was once considered among the elite defensemen in the league, particularly for his offensive abilities, he has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency in recent years. John Carlson has been regarded as one of the top young blueliners in the league, but the defense struggled as a whole this past season. Now, with more depth, certain players like Carlson and Green may have a little less responsibility and a little more freedom to produce offensively.
That won’t be the only positive spillover effect, either. Langway thinks an improved defense could also pay dividends for the likes of Ovechkin, who was routinely criticized for his defensive shortcomings last season despite leading the league with 51 goals and nabbing his fourth Maurice Richard Trophy.
Langway said the better the defense, the more time spent in the offensive zone, which should free up the Russian dynamo.
“He’s a highlight film. When he’s on, he’s a highlight film,” said Langway, who still attends 30-35 Caps games per year and serves as an alumni ambassador for the team at charity functions. “I know he can be a team player because he’s not afraid of the physical stuff. When you have other players on the back end that have the same mentality of the physical presence, not just fighting but taking players out of play when [the] puck is loose, it makes it a lot easier and makes more room for the skill players.”
Knowing that the window to win a Cup these days is becoming increasingly narrow, Langway feels like the Caps are building toward a more well-rounded team that gives them a chance to contend.
“I think they understand that they’ve made a commitment to goaltending. They’ve got the offense. They’ve secured the defensive side of it," Langway said. "They have four or five years to make a difference to make a run at a Cup. How many more years is Ovechkin going to be an elite player in the league?”
Langway has also spotted a star in the making in highly touted forward prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who he calls a “diamond in the rough.” Langway was impressed by the 22-year-old forward in the games he played with Washington and thinks he has a bright future.
All of that is up to new coach Barry Trotz to put together now. Langway doesn’t know Trotz well personally, but he knows enough to know the club is in good hands with a guy whose reputation among hockey types is rock-solid.
“He’s a typical hockey guy, no diamond rings or Rolls-Royces. He’s one of the guys,” Langway said. “He’s been coaching for 15 years. When you last that long -- I've got a lot of respect for him.”
How he manages practice, what he likes in a team meeting, how he likes to send a message -- all those areas have been shaped by his previous experiences.
And having played for the likes of both Barry Trotz and Peter Laviolette during his 17 seasons in the NHL, the 41-year-old former Nashville Predator has a unique perspective on the changing of the guard in Music City, where Laviolette replaced Trotz, who was the longest-tenured active coach in the NHL when he was dismissed following his 15th season in April.
"It’s funny because I had both of them and they’re both great people. The overall thing is, it’s going to be different,” Walker told ESPN.com in a phone conversation Tuesday. “It’s going to take a bit -- some players have been through this once or twice, but some players have only heard one voice and it’s going to take them a little while to adjust.”
That’s not a bad thing for the Predators, who finished this past season in 10th place in the uber-competitive Western Conference. A new voice and fresh ideas can be a good thing for everyone involved.
“Sometimes, it can infuse a little bit of excitement amongst the players, not because one guy is bad or good, but just because it’s different. You want to prove to the new coach, that ‘Hey, I’m a good player.' Sometimes, it can be a positive,” Walker said. “Some players will adapt and do well and some will struggle because they like to play under Trotz."
Walker described both men as “very detailed, very prepared,” but there are some obvious differences.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that Lavy is a more offensive coach and Barry is a bit more defensive-minded. [Trotz] got the most out of our team. There weren’t too many years where we underachieved. I think that comes from the coach,” said Walker, who played for Trotz in Nashville from 1998 to 2004.
Walker described Trotz as the type of coach who really took time to know each and every one of his players. He cared about them individually. Walker said Laviolette’s strength was his ability to inspire his charges. Having played under Laviolette after being traded to Carolina in 2006, he knows that the Predators' new coach will light a fire under the team.
“Peter was very emotional, very inspirational,” said Walker, who amassed 151 goals and 391 points in 829 career games. “He knows just what to say and when to say it.”
That may be the type of spark the Predators need to get back on track this season. In addition to hiring Laviolette in May, Predators GM David Poile acquired winger James Neal in a trade with Pittsburgh and signed veteran centers Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro.
Walker tries to keep tabs on his former teams -- he also played for the Washington Capitals and Vancouver Canucks, in addition to the Predators and Hurricanes -- but there isn’t a ton of time what with coaching one of the top junior teams out there.
Walker led the Storm to an OHL championship last season, with his team losing to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Memorial Cup championship.
He was always intrigued by the possibility of returning to junior hockey -- he played for Owen Sound as a teen -- and pursuing ownership opportunities (he also serves as owner of the Storm). Developing young players has become his niche, where he remains committed to helping each player develop individually in hopes of reaching the pros.
“For me, my biggest philosophy is, every day helping them get to the next level,” he said.
Seeing that process take shape and the advancement of junior hockey as a whole has been a treat for Walker.
“It’s amazing to see how far junior hockey has come. The talent level is amazing,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to see and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
This summer, however, we have seen that infused with new faces, diverse backgrounds and fresh ideas.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the league's movement toward embracing analytics.
Whereas champions of advanced stats have previously been the subject of scorn and derision from the mainstream hockey world -- labeled as nerds or contrarians and mocked for never having played the game at the professional level -- their insight is now being courted. Many of these bloggers and statisticians have made huge leaps in collecting and interpreting data, primarily possession statistics, as predictive for a team's success.
Teams are starting to recognize that as a valuable asset.
On Tuesday morning, TSN's Bob McKenzie broke the news that Tyler Dellow, one of the people at the forefront of the advanced stats movement and followed by many via his Twitter handle @mc79hockey, has been hired by the Edmonton Oilers.
Dellow's hiring, which a source confirmed to ESPN.com, is just the latest in this trend toward more innovative additions to a club's traditional front office or hockey operations staff.
Before Dellow, professional poker player Sunny Mehta was hired Friday by the New Jersey Devils to head the team's new analytics department (a move that was recommended by new owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer) and FiveThirtyEight analytics writer Eric Tulsky has worked for teams, including the Nashville Predators. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs, a consistent target of those in the advanced stats community for the club's atrocious possession numbers, seem to realize the need for a new perspective.
In November, months before the Leafs' epic collapse, GM Dave Nonis said he felt that many advanced stats being employed were "not accurate" or relevant. Apparently, others within the organization now feel differently. The Leafs hired youngster Kyle Dubas as an assistant general manager after the 28-year-old proved himself at the junior hockey level in large part because of his strength in employing analytics.
This is still new territory. These jobs signal a paradigmatic shift in the making, but by no means have traditional types been given the heave-ho.
What will be perhaps the most fascinating part of this phenomenon is how these two groups co-exist. How much of a club's resources will be devoted to analytics and how much will the findings dictate the club's hockey-making decisions? Will these new hires be given a sense of autonomy by the organizations, or will they have to fight against a healthy dose of skepticism from front-office vets who aren't yet on board with using Fenwick and Corsi stats as meaningful methods of evaluation?
The landscape is changing, and teams are keen on gaining any type of competitive advantage. If those forward-thinking clubs start to reap the benefits, you can imagine there will be many more teams scouring the bowels of the Internet for the type of statistical wunderkind who might give them a leg up too.