Cross Checks: Alumni Report

The Colorado Avalanche surprised plenty of folks last season with their stunning about-face from their last-place finish in the Western Conference in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

With first-year head coach Patrick Roy at the helm, an absolutely outstanding rookie season from 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, and a banner year for goaltender Semyon Varlamov, the Avs grabbed the title in a stacked Central Division that included the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild.

[+] EnlargeClaude Lemieux
Robert Laberge/AllsportClaude Lemieux said he was not surprised that the Avalanche won the Central Division last season.
While most people were gobsmacked by the Avs' success, former Avalanche forward and four-time Stanley Cup champion Claude Lemieux was not. Having played with Roy in Colorado, Lemieux knew that Roy's passionate personality would take the team places no one expected.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Lemieux told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. “I know Patrick is a good coach -- more than a good coach, a really good coach. I knew he would have a big impact. He’s so committed to the game, he’s so well-prepared, and he understands winning. He has been a winner for life and that only translates to being contagious to players.”

Lemieux said he actually expected the Avalanche to fare far better in 2013, but knew it was only a matter of time once Roy was hired. The Avalanche lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Wild, in a seven-game series, but gained valuable postseason experience. Lemieux hopes that will aid them heading into their 2014-15 campaign.

“A big part of the credit goes to Patrick with his ability to get the max out of players,” Lemieux said. “When he was a teammate, he was pushing everyone to the next level. This year becomes critical in truly evaluating where the team is going.”

A main factor will be whether MacKinnon can follow up on his success last season, which earned him a Calder Trophy. It’s not unusual for a star player to suffer a “sophomore slump,” but MacKinnon truly impressed Lemieux beginning with the first game of his NHL career.

MacKinnon looked nervous, Lemieux thought, but he steadily got better as the game wore on.

“He could have cut ice time down, but Patrick kept throwing him out there, throwing him out there. His philosophy is that these young guys are here to stay. I’m going to win or lose with them,” said Lemieux, who played for the Avs from 1995-2000. “MacKinnon was lost and running around in his own end, but then all of a sudden he utilized his gut instinct. He became very physical, used his speed, made some big hits. This kid is gonna be a heck of a great player.”

Lemieux, whose son Brendan is a prospect for the Buffalo Sabres, saw MacKinnon rise to the occasion in the playoffs during the Avs’ playoff series loss to the Wild in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

The newbie finished with two goals and 10 points.

“The men come to play and the kids go to bed during the playoffs,” Lemieux said. “And he was their best player in the playoffs.”

As much as it helps to have a bevy of young stud players -- Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, in addition to MacKinnon -- a veteran presence is necessary as well. The Avs addressed that need this summer, trading for veteran center Daniel Briere and bringing in marquee free agent Jarome Iginla, who tied for the Boston Bruins' team lead with 30 goals last season.

“I like that they did that,” said Lemieux, who now works with Ritch Winter at the 4Sports & Entertainment Agency. “I’m a big believer in having a third, and a third, and a third. A third of players with less than five years of experience, a third of players with five to 10, and a third of players with 10 or more. They were running really low with players of 10 years or more. That’s an important combination to have, because those young guys need that.”
What happens in a hockey-crazed market when a hot start quickly dissipates into a dramatic downward spiral, highlighting a questionable coaching hire in the polarizing John Tortorella?

You have yourself an offseason rife with upheaval, just like the summer of 2014 for the Vancouver Canucks.

The brash and fiery Tortorella was axed after just one season. Longtime general manager Mike Gillis was dismissed, as well. Star center Ryan Kesler was shipped out of town in a trade to Anaheim.

None of it is surprising, according to former Vancouver Canucks player Geoff Courtnall, who spent five seasons playing for the club from 1990 to 1995.

[+] EnlargeGeoff Courtnall
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesGeoff Courtnall recorded 799 points in his 15-year NHL career, part of which was spent playing alongside Trevor Linden.
“Well, I think the owners have high expectations and want to win. They weren’t satisfied with how last season went, so they made some pretty drastic moves," Courtnall told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation.

Among those drastic moves, Vancouver brought in a number of new people. Former Canucks captain Trevor Linden enters his first season as president of hockey operations. Jim Benning, long regarded as a star on the rise for his work under Peter Chiarelli with the Boston Bruins, is now general manager. And Willie Desjardins is on the precipice of his first season as an NHL head coach after spending the past two seasons in the AHL with the Texas Stars, who won the Calder Cup championship last season.

“I think he’s [Desjardins] obviously had success. I know some of the guys who have played for him in the Dallas organization and they all loved playing for him,” said Courtnall, who recorded 799 points in his 15-year NHL career. “He’s probably a guy that’s going to be tough, but will also be fair in giving guys an opportunity to play their best. I think that’s a fine line, to be tough on guys but give them confidence, because the biggest part of the game is mental.”

Walking that line may have been where Tortorella, known for his brash personality and demanding coaching style, faltered. He was widely criticized for leaning too heavily on his top players, who seemed to wear down as the season progressed.

“I think they overplayed some of the top guys in the first part of season and then had lots of injuries,” said Courtnall, who heads the Peruvian-based mining company Lupaka Gold. “They just looked like a team that flailed in the second half and they didn’t seem to be getting much leadership from much of the players.”

Courtnall wasn’t surprised to see Kesler traded to Anaheim, especially given the circumstances around his departure. Kessler was rumored to be unhappy in Vancouver and the Canucks shopped him, unsuccessfully, at the trade deadline last season. Now, the 30-year-old finds himself slotted in as the second-line center on a deep Ducks team.

“I like him. He’s a nice kid and a great player but no one guy can be bigger than the team,” Courtnall said. “I think it’s very difficult when a star player is not happy and you could pretty much see that. I think it’s a move that will maybe bring some of the best out of different players.”

The Canucks brought in some interesting pieces this summer, most notably signing goaltender Ryan Miller. They acquired center Nick Bonino in the Kessler deal, brought in youngster Linden Vey in a trade with Los Angeles and inked tough guy Derek Dorsett.

All the new personnel makes for an interesting combination, and Courtnall knows that Benning’s addition will only augment the team’s ability to scout and bring in new talent for the future.

“I’m very good friends with [Bruins team president] Cam Neely. I think Boston has had a lot of success since Cam Neely has taken over as president and he speaks very highly of Jim Benning,” Courtnall said. “He will definitely work hard and he knows a lot of players in the AHL, a lot of players coming up in junior that maybe people haven’t seen. That’s what it’s gonna take to find players where you least expect to find players. He’ll add to their roster with players that will play above expectation.”

As for Linden, Courtnall knows him well as a former teammate and linemate during their years with the Canucks. Knowing what he is like inside the dressing room, Courtnall has a good idea of what to expect from him as an executive.

“I sat beside him for five years. I think Trevor will not only demand a lot as president of the team, I think he’ll obviously also help Jim Benning,” Courtnall said. “He’s very serious and was an intense player and he came to play with a physical edge every night. He’s a good leader, very demanding, and I don’t think he'll change the way he sees the game now that he’s in management.”

Flames building optimism, says McLennan

September, 15, 2014
9/15/14
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The Calgary Flames are not perceived as a team on the verge. They are not expected to set the NHL on fire. They are not expected to make the playoffs. They are not expected to be one of the top teams in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

That’s just fine, according to former Flames goaltender Jamie McLennan, who played for the club from 2002-04 and then again briefly during the 2006-07 season. As long as management keeps a steady approach to revamping the roster, and fans realize it won’t be an immediate about-face, then there is optimism for this season as a building block for years to come.

“I think the one word that still comes with Calgary has to be patience,” McLennan told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. “They sold to fans a complete rebuild.”

What happened last season, in Brian Burke’s first year as team president and Bob Hartley’s first full season as coach in Calgary? The Flames were in a league-high 49 one-goal games. The Flames still finished sixth in the Pacific Division, but they competed every night.

“They were in every game, which was exciting for the fans,” McLennan said. “Bob Hartley did a great job, but the message still has to be, don’t expect too much. Allowing guys like Sean Monahan another year to see what he’s like, another year of experience for Sven Baertschi and Mikael Backlund. They have some young pieces.“

[+] EnlargeJonas Hiller
Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI/Getty ImagesJonas Hiller's goaltending style should make him a good fit in Calgary, says former Flames goalie Jamie McLennan.
As for the team’s stable of young players, McLennan is excited to see more of T.J. Brodie, who flourished last season while paired with captain Mark Giordano. Johnny Gaudreau also enters this season with plenty of hype and potential. Add in the free-agent acquisition of Swiss netminder Jonas Hiller and the Flames have an interesting mix.

Having the veteran goaltender between the pipes should add an extra level of stability for a young team still working things out, McLennan thinks.

“I think they did it the right way -- add a veteran goalie like Hiller who can weather the storm when the kids aren’t there,” said McLennan, who will work as a color broadcaster for TSN’s regional package during Ottawa Senators games this season. “[General Manager Brad Treviling] did a good job and Burkie -- who has a history with Hiller [from Anaheim] -- did a good job of stabilizing that position.”

McLennan said he thinks Hiller has “plenty” left in the tank. He finds Hiller’s game particularly conducive to a heavy workload because of his unique style, working primarily from his knees.

“He can face a 50-shot night and steal two points or keep you in it,” McLennan said. “I think it was a real smart move to get him and it didn't cost you a real steep price point. They didn't overspend for someone that can give you stability.”

With Hiller the clear-cut starter and Karri Ramo his backup, this also allows the Flames to provide 23-year-old Joni Ortio, who played nine NHL games last season, more time for seasoning in the AHL. Again, a good sign for things to come.

McLennan even liked the signing of tough guy Deryk Engelland, though the move was widely criticized and chalked up to Burke’s signature desire for a team with “truculence.”

With young assets to protect, having a player such as Engelland, or Brandon Bollig (acquired via trade from Chicago at the draft) will ensure that no one gets exposed physically.

The Flames are not rushing the team along. There is a vision and a long-term plan, it seems.

“I think from the standpoint of their overall moves they've all been strategically placed to try to shape that team,” McLennan said.

That might differentiate the Flames from their Alberta brethren, the Edmonton Oilers, whose “rebuild” has not taken shape to the desired effect, no matter how many young stars the team stockpiles through the draft.

Because the Flames just recently tore the whole thing down, the level of pressure to compete for a playoff spot isn’t quite the same.

“You literally started the rebuild last year, so there is patience involved. That’s where you’ve got the benefit of the doubt,” McLennan said. “You lose in the last minute, someone makes a rookie mistake, and it’s hey, they're a couple of years away from that level of expectation.”

McLennan is most intrigued to see where the chips fall in terms of who will eat up minutes for Hartley. Will Monahan continue to improve after an impressive rookie season, or will he take a stutter step? Will the ultra-skilled but smallish (5-foot-9, 150 pounds) Gaudreau be able to handle the physical rigors of an 82-game season? What about Brodie and Baertschi?

“That's the question surrounding the team: Who will be the key contributors on a nightly basis for Hartley?” McLennan asked. “T.J. Brodie, is he ready to step up as a potential elite defenseman? I think he has a lot of tools to do that. Another one is Baertschi. You kind of waited for him to establish himself as an NHL player and he hasn’t done that yet. He’s one to keep an eye on.”

Should make for an interesting season in Calgary, just as long as hopes are not unrealistic.

“They're not going to be surprising a lot of teams,” McLennan said. “You have to temper expectations.”
Despite a disappointing playoff performance last spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning -- who were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round -- actually may be one of the most intriguing teams to watch, with training camp just around the corner.

The Lightning should have a healthy Steven Stamkos and goaltender Ben Bishop, something that was not the case in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Add some splashy offseason acquisitions -- defensemen Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison, and forward Brian Boyle -- and highly touted prospect Jonathan Drouin, and this could be the sleeper team of the NHL.

Former Lightning defenseman and Stanley Cup champion Pavel Kubina is hoping to see his old team emerge as one of top dogs in the East.

[+] EnlargePavel Kubina
Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty ImagesPavel Kubina still lives near Tampa and runs Private Allstar Cars, a private car concierge service.
“I think it’s a great mix,” Kubina told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. “[Jeff] Vinik really got behind them -- he’s one of the best owners I’ve ever played for -- and the team has a great future. They’ll definitely make the playoffs.”

Kubina, who played for Tampa Bay for 10 seasons, still resides in the area and runs Private Allstar Cars, a private car concierge service. Though that passion project keeps him busy, he maintains a close relationship with his former club and keeps tabs on it throughout the year.

Kubina was thoroughly impressed with the play last season of the 6-foot-7 Bishop, who earned a Vezina Trophy nomination after posting a 37-14-7 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average. Unfortunately for the Lightning, he went down with a wrist injury right before the playoffs began.

“Obviously with Bishop in net, even when they don’t have a good night, he’s capable of stealing games and getting them two points,” Kubina said. “They have a chance to win every night.”

Having Stamkos back at full strength also will be a major bonus. The 24-year-old superstar suffered a devastating leg injury in November, and despite an aggressive rehab plan that allowed him to return in March, he was clearly not playing at full capacity.

After a whole summer to rehabilitate the injury, Stamkos is ready to go, and Kubina can’t wait to see the results.

“I could see Stammer having probably 60-70 goals if he plays the whole year and, with Ben Bishop in net and some of their younger players, they could definitely do some damage in the East,” said the 37-year-old Kubina, who played in 970 career NHL games. “They don’t hold back a lot on offense, they create a lot of chances and they don’t sit back and wait to score.”

A big part of that, of course, is Jon Cooper, who made a splash in his first full season as the Lightning’s coach.

Kubina likes his demeanor and the way he has utilized a young, talented roster.

“He’s done a great job with the team,” Kubina said. “When he took over, the team started playing fun hockey. What I like about the system is they skate and play hard. They don’t sit back on a lot of chances . . . He does a good job with that young group.”
After a dramatic, late-season tailspin that transfixed hockey's biggest market, the Toronto Maple Leafs made some sweeping changes over the summer.

Surprisingly, the move many people expected -- the dismissal of coach Randy Carlyle -- didn't happen. Instead, the Leafs brought in Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan as team president, axed Carlyle's assistants and added to their front office with analytics wunderkind Kyle Dubas, who will serve as an assistant GM following a devastating season during which the team was constantly hammered for its poor puck-possession statistics.

How does that all add up? Former Leafs goaltender Glenn Healy said the team appears primed for a culture change, starting with the added personnel that includes a crop of players who come with a hard-nosed, Western Conference pedigree.

The Leafs signed forwards Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, David Booth, Matt Frattin and Leo Komarov (the latter two on their second tour as Leafs) in free agency this summer.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Bernier
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Nathan DenetteJonathan Bernier should give the Leafs a steady presence in goal this season.
"I think they have certainly reshaped their team in a huge way," Healy told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. "They've added some players, particularly in the bottom-six position, to give them more balance and more depth. The players they picked up are Western Conference players. They've reshaped their focus."

Healy thinks they've also bolstered their defense -- the Leafs acquired Roman Polak via trade and added Stephane Robidas in free agency -- a necessity given the fact they spent too much time in their own end "whether that was systems [related] or execution."

Healy thinks they have more mobile, puck-moving players who should help in terms of lessening the load on captain Dion Phaneuf and star forward Phil Kessel, who played monster minutes throughout the season only to see their productivity decline when they needed it most.

That drop-off wasn't exclusive to those two, considering the entire team seemed to wilt down the stretch to fall in stunning fashion out of a playoff spot.

"Look at their season. The first 60 games is a glorious dance. The last bunch of games, the club falls right off the cliff. Whether or not there's not enough depth or too many minutes, or an inability to compete when games really matter, that is their focus," Healy said of the team's need to maintain some semblance of consistency.

Should the Leafs falter and get off to a slow start, Carlyle might be on a short leash.

"[Shanahan] brought in a guy like Steve Spott -- he's going to be an NHL coach," Healy said. "Randy's got some heat on him a little bit. He looks 10 feet to the right and there's an NHL coach. That's a big difference."

That said, Healy thinks Carlyle can be successful if those around him can reinforce his message with a different mode of delivery.

"I think Randy is a good coach. You don't win a Stanley Cup without having that ability to get it. He gets it. The shortfall he had was the other assistant coaches were the same voice as Randy," said Healy, who spent 15 years in the NHL, four with the Leafs.

"Any time a player comes off the ice, the message has to put him in a good spot mentally so he can affect the game on the next shift. If there's that constant yelling, constant overcorrection, at some point, as a player, you throw your hands in the air."

Healy thinks Shanahan's influence can be a steadying one and that his addition will pay dividends for the club.

"Brendan is a guy who is a proven winner," said Healy, who has worked as a successful broadcaster for both the CBC and TSN since retirement. "He's seen great organizations and how they were built. This isn't new to him. He has spent the past number of years watching hockey games as the league's discipline chief."

Beyond the front-office fortification, Healy thinks having the goaltending position solidified heading into camp should be a huge plus. Though the team has been plagued by goaltending controversy in recent years, the Leafs will enter this season with a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender in Jonathan Bernier.

Bernier had an impressive 2013-14 season, posting a 26-19-7 record with a .922 save percentage, though he was hampered by injury in the last month of the regular season.

"He's a quality goaltender for sure," Healy said. "I think what the Leafs need from him is that same level of quality, and he can't have an injury."

Should that happen, the Leafs should be able to earn a postseason berth. But in order for the club to make significant strides, that cannot be enough. Healy insists the standard must be much higher in Toronto.

"Making the playoffs, that's lovely, but that truly can't be your goal," Healy said. "Good teams expect to make the playoffs. Boston is not thinking about making the playoffs. They're thinking about lifting the Stanley Cup."

Young , talented Oilers still not ready

September, 10, 2014
9/10/14
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Toiling at the bottom of the league standings for years, the Edmonton Oilers have stockpiled through the draft what is considered a loaded pool of prospects.

The Oilers boast a roster with a promising crop of talented young players, including Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. But despite that bevy of potential, the club still hasn't been able to put it together.

Will this be the season it turns the corner?

Former Oilers forward Eric Belanger isn't betting on it quite yet. The talent is there, but the experience is still lacking. And what the Oilers have done is thrust some of these bright young stars into the type of roles that have traditionally taken years to earn.

"I remember when I started in the league, guys started on the third or fourth line and were working their way up. You have good veterans, you don't have the pressure to perform every night," Belanger, 36, told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. "I think the game has changed dramatically in that way.

[+] EnlargeRyan Nugent-Hopkins
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsRyan Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers' other young talents still have some learning to do.
"A lot of the young players coming into the league play right away and it's tough for them. I saw Taylor Hall putting so much pressure onto himself. They want to make the playoffs. It's tough because they have to perform every night and they don't have that veteran presence if they don’t do well for a few games."

The difficulty Edmonton has had in attracting free agents compounds the problem. To lure players and compete with other more enticing locales, the Oilers have had to dish out both dollar and term. The team plunked down $20 million over five years for free-agent forward Benoit Pouliot and added defenseman Mark Fayne on a four-year, $14.5 million deal.

Belanger, who will be working as an analyst for RDS this season, said the key will be to stand behind those players they've committed to long term and hope to add veterans via trade. Even that is becoming increasingly difficult, however, with the proliferation of no-move or no-trade clauses among top players.

"They try to sign veterans, but it's a tough place to sign, to get free agents to go there," he said. "They try to do it via trade but now all the top-liners are on long contracts and they have no-trade [clauses] and [Edmonton] is not on the top of the list. It’s tough for them, but I feel bad for the fans because they are the ones paying the price for the last eight years."

Edmonton has not earned a posteason berth since the team's stunning run to the Stanley Cup final in 2006. And though rookie coach Dallas Eakins was supposed to bring about a definitive culture change, with promises of "bold" moves and aggressive retooling from general manager Craig MacTavish, last season still left a lot to be desired.

The Oilers, at 29-44-9, finished in 28th place in the league. They ranked dead-last in goals-against per game, giving up 3.26 on average.

"I just think, first of all, there is a question mark in net," said Belanger, even though the Oilers acquired Ben Scrivens in a trade with Los Angeles in January and added Viktor Fasth as well. "I just don’t know. There are a lot of question marks there. The young guys were given a big role early in their career, which I don’t think was the right thing to do."

Still, there have been positive signs. Belanger loved last summer's trade to acquire David Perron from St. Louis. MacTavish made moves to try and improve the team’s defense, adding Nikita Nikitin and Keith Aulie.

Belanger, a 16-year NHL veteran, hopes to see the rest of the kids flourish as well this season. He said the team’s shortcomings aren't for lack of effort, but rather experience. So, what is reasonable to expect of the Oilers this season?

"It's hard to say. Everybody thought this team was going to be good last year or two years ago, but they didn't really respond to the expectations," Belanger said. "This year, I don't see them making the playoffs."
Compared to some of the competitors in the Western Conference -– the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the dominant Chicago Blackhawks, the surprising Colorado Avalanche, even the talented-yet-wayward San Jose Sharks -– the Arizona Coyotes never seem to warrant much attention.

But former Coyotes forward Brad May thinks that may not be the worst thing for his old club, flying under the radar in an uber-competitive Pacific Division and Western Conference with hopes of getting back to the playoffs this season.

“Nobody really talks about them,” May told ESPN.com, “but I think they’re a much better team than people give them credit for.”

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
Norm Hall/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Coyotes will go only as far as Mike Smith carries them this season.
That said, the Coyotes won't earn any attention if they aren’t winning, and that likely will rest on the performance of one player in particular, according to May.

“Their success hinges, as well as they do play, on Mike Smith,” said May, who will work this season as an analyst for Rogers Sportsnet and for Buffalo Sabres telecasts.

Smith is the Coyotes’ starting goaltender who had a breakout season in 2011-12, when he posted a 38-18-10 record with a 2.21 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. But in the following two seasons, Smith’s numbers have been pedestrian, and Arizona did not make the playoffs.

Smith will be the player to watch -– May credits goaltending coach Sean Burke with being a steadying influence -– but if he can be successful, May believes the Coyotes have a fighting chance in the West.

It will be a veritable cage match with the caliber of teams battling it out and only getting better after an aggressive offseason.

“I think they have to win early and gain confidence,” said May, a 19-year NHL veteran who won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks. “On defense, they have some very good offensive defensemen that are game-breakers. If they keep playing within the right system and have some guys playing a little above themselves, if Shane Doan continues to be that guy even at that age, I like Phoenix. But in the Western Conference, there will be six or seven teams in a dogfight to be in the bottom two or three [playoff spots].”

May characterized the entire West as an “arms race” after the type of talent teams added in free agency. Anaheim traded for Ryan Kesler and Paul Stastny signed a deal with the Blues. Dallas added a legitimate No. 2 center with Jason Spezza. The Kings will have Marian Gaborik for the entire season (he was acquired in a March trade from the Blue Jackets).

The Coyotes’ offseason moves were not nearly as splashy, but that doesn’t mean those players don’t have the potential to make a significant impact.

Among the team’s summer moves, general manager Don Maloney acquired Sam Gagner and B.J. Crombeen from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2014 draft. The latter could prove to be an especially shrewd signing, May predicts.

“He’s a hard-working guy and one thing he would do is instill that work ethic with his friends and players on the team,” May said of Crombeen. “He’s a guy that doesn’t take a shift off.”

But May circles back to the importance of goaltending. After all, in the year Smith earned all those accolades, the Coyotes also marched to the Western Conference finals.

“It’s a tough conference,” May said. “I see them being a good team. With St. Louis, Dallas, [and other teams], where does Phoenix fit in? They’ll have to outplay Minnesota. And the only way they do that is if Mike Smith is their best player.”
Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park believes his former team, the Boston Bruins, have a strong nucleus that could keep the club among the top teams for years to come. But in the salary cap era, with a lower-than-expected cap for the 2014-15 season, the Bruins are feeling the crunch.

The constraints they face forced the club to part ways with veteran forward Jarome Iginla, who tied for the team lead with 30 goals last season. The 37-year-old instead signed with the Colorado Avalanche in July.

Park believes that type of offensive production will be hard to replace.

[+] EnlargeBrad Park
Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesBrad Park Park accrued 896 points in 1113 career NHL games with the Bruins, Rangers and Red Wings.
“I think they have a very strong nucleus,” Park told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. “I think they’ll probably lose some offensive power with Iginla not coming back. I don’t think they have somebody capable of scoring, on a regular basis, 25-to-30 goals. Offensively, that hurts them.”

The Bruins, who recently signed key performer David Krejci to a six-year deal worth $43.5 million, have approximately $69.8 million committed for next season (the cap has been set at $69 million), according to Capgeek.com, and that is with restricted free agents Reilly Smith and Torey Krug still unsigned.

Considering the obstacle that faces general manager Peter Chiarelli, many believe the Bruins will have to trade one of their defensemen. Boston currently has a glut of blueliners as they head into training camp later this month.

Park thinks the Bruins’ back end is particularly solid, and should be a strength for the club, especially if they can stay healthy.

“Defensively, they’re very sound, with [captain Zdeno] Chara, but the guy they missed the most was [Denis] Seidenberg, who is a stalwart defenseman for them,” Park said of the 33-year-old German, who missed much of the season and the entire playoffs with a knee injury. “They had to rely on Zdeno a lot. He looked a little tired and he also had that broken finger, which hindered him in the playoffs.”

As for Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask, Park still thinks the Finnish netminder has another gear to reach despite being regarded as one of the league’s best.

Though Rask was sensational last season, posting a 36-15-6 record with a .930 save percentage and a 2.04 goals-against average, Park wants to see him completely take over a game.

“I think Tuukka is still establishing a reputation. I don’t think he’s there yet,” Park said. “I only say that because it never looked like he was capable of winning a game all by himself. He is a very good goaltender, but the great goalies in the game, they’re capable of winning games all by themselves.”

This is obviously rare territory, Park explained, citing greats like Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and former Bruins legend Gerry Cheevers.

If there is one thing Park would like to see from the Bruins -- and from practically the entire league -- is an increased emphasis on offense.

Park, who accrued 896 points in 1113 career NHL games, said he doesn’t feel there is enough attention to that these days.

“The one thing the league has to do or other teams have to do is really teach more offense,” Park said. "My opinion is that puck control creates consistent offense, whereas dump and chase does not. That came into the game with [the Philadelphia Flyers] because they were afraid of turnovers.

“I look around the league and exactly who's teaching offense? I don’t see a lot of offensive guys coaching offensive skills.”

Park actually pointed to another one of his former teams, the New York Rangers, as a prime example of what an emphasis on offense can bring.

Though the Bruins were considered the team to beat in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, they made a surprising exit in the second round. Meanwhile, the Rangers knocked off the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in their first season under new coach Alain Vigneault.

“There was a dramatic improvement with the Rangers under Vigneault," Park said. "The Rangers had some latitude last year for offense, which under [former coach John Tortorella] they didn’t have that same latitude. It really helped their performance when they weren’t held to such strict guidelines.”

Park still follows both the Rangers and Bruins and, though he has long lived in the Boston area (he and his wife are currently in the process of moving to a warmer locale), Park doesn’t attend many Bruins games in person.

He’s enjoying “semi-retirement,” which includes making appearances, speaking engagements, golf outings and the like. If he were to be at every game, he’d find himself nit-picking and he knows that wouldn’t be too enjoyable.

“When I watch, I critique it,” Park said. “A lot of ex-players go [to games] and critique. I try to stay away from that.”
In the NHL, consistency is king.

That much was true when Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk was dominating the ice back in the 80s, and it remains just as vital now.

It’s a salient point that he stresses to his players as coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts, and it’s an area of utmost importance for his former team, the Winnipeg Jets, as well.

While the Jets have a collection of promising young players, including Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Evander Kane (the latter of which has been dogged by trade rumors for many months), they have not been able to take the next step since moving to Manitoba.

[+] EnlargeDale Hawerchuk
Denis Brodeur/Getty ImagesDale Hawerchuk played in Winnipeg for nine seasons and won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 1982.
The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight years, but that could change this year if those young stars start producing night in and night out.

"They’re young and they’re good, but the one thing you look at with the guys that sign those big-money deals for long terms, what they have in their backgrounds is consistency. That’s what [the Jets] need to do," Hawerchuk told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. "That should translate into the team being consistent every night. Right now, the consistency is what they’d like to achieve. I always tell players, you have to have the whole package to get to the NHL, but you have to have consistency to be a real pro."

Having spent nine seasons in Winnipeg -- beginning when he won the Calder Memorial Trophy for the league’s top rookie in 1982 -- Hawerchuk knows that the brutally-cold locale is not for everyone. It does not have palm trees or a flashy nightlife to offer free agents, as other NHL cities do. Because of that, the organization’s ability to draft well is paramount, Hawerchuk thinks.

"Those good, young players will get the roots and the closeness to Winnipeg. As they get time in there, these guys will develop and they should start to turn corner, but that takes a bit of time," Hawerchuk said.

"Maybe it’s a harder draw for free agents so you need to build within the draft, but the little bit I know from the little bit of time I’ve spent [around the team], they do everything first-class."

One area of optimism is the return of head coach Paul Maurice, who was hired after Claude Noel was fired last season and given a four-year extension (through the 2017-18 season) in April despite missing the postseason.

Hawerchuk thinks that is a sign of positive things to come.

"When he first came in, they were re-energized," Hawerchuk said. "Paul’s got a lot of experience and that should bode well for them moving forward. When you’ve been around as long as he has, a lot of things are second nature to him. That can translate to the players pretty good."

One question facing the organization is what sort of season they will get out of starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who has three years remaining on a five-year deal that pays him $3.9 million annually.

The 27-year-old Czech netminder posted a disappointing 22-26-7 record with a 3.01 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.

Hawerchuk said it’s hard for him to predict whether Pavelec will remain the starter for the foreseeable future, but he stressed the need for stability in net regardless of who is between the pipes.

"They definitely have to find that, whether it’s [Pavelec] or somebody else," Hawerchuk said. "You have to have goaltending."

Though his primary focus now will be on leading the Barrie Colts back to the OHL playoffs -- they finished fourth in the Eastern Conference last season -- Hawerchuk will likely keep tabs on his former team.

Count him as one person that was thrilled when the NHL returned to the 'Peg.

"I really enjoyed my time there and I always had the feeling they’d be back. It’s just too big of a hockey market," Hawerchuk said. "Playing in the NHL for 16 years and seeing other markets and the way they were, it just didn’t seem right that this market wouldn’t have another team."
It’s no secret what topic will be dominating the headlines when the Minnesota Wild open training camp later this month.

Despite making a significant step this spring -- advancing to the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and taking the Chicago Blackhawks to six games in the Western Conference semifinals -- the Wild head into the upcoming season with one big question on everyone’s mind: Who will be their starting goaltender?

Wild head coach Mike Yeo has stated publicly that the team will enter training camp with all three netminders who made starts last season: Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper.

Harding had a sensational start to the season but was sidelined indefinitely in January while continuing to battle multiple sclerosis. Backstrom was hampered by a groin injury. Kuemper entered as an unproven youngster, but he impressed quite a few people.

[+] EnlargeJosh Harding
Marilyn Indahl/USA TODAY SportsJosh Harding's sensational start was sidelined by his battle with multiple sclerosis, but the Wild's goalie is said to be in an "excellent place right now."
Yes, the situation remains fluid and no one can quite predict how it will play out, but there isn’t reason for panic, according to former Wild captain Wes Walz.

“That’s going to be a topic around here, especially as training camp rolls around, but I’m not nearly as concerned with the goaltending scenario as most people,” Walz told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation.

Why is that? Walz said that, from the people he has spoken with, Harding is reportedly in an “excellent place right now.” Moreover, he believes Backstrom is in much better shape following the second surgery to repair his groin issues. And Walz was thoroughly impressed by what he noticed in Kuemper last season, saying that the 24-year-old has “tremendous potential.”

If Kuemper begins the season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, and Harding and Backstrom are healthy to start the season, the club should be in good shape.

“If those two start the season, I think both goaltenders will be among top 10 in the league,” said Walz, who now works as an analyst for Fox Sports North on Wild broadcasts.

Walz thinks the biggest challenge for the Wild is not defending the net, but filling it.

“It’s not a secret that every team in the NHL needs guys that can finish around the net and guys that can score. If you watch all six of our [playoff] games against Chicago, I would say that in five of six of those, they outchanced and outplayed [Chicago], but they had a very difficult time finishing, whether that be 5-on-5 or in the slot on the power play,” Walz said. “That was kind of the theme even throughout the season.”

Enter Thomas Vanek, whom the Wild inked to a three-year, $19.5 million deal as one of the top unrestricted free agents this summer.

Walz thinks that the two-time 40-goal scorer will provide a huge boost to the Wild’s offense, as well as to their power-play unit.

“Signing the biggest fish on the market as far as a guy who can potentially score 40 goals was an outstanding move,” Walz said. “I’m very excited about the term of the deal. Not sure you want to lock in for a guy that is getting a little older -- six, seven years could potentially throw a noose around the organization -- but the money is good, the term is fair and you get a guy who is a right-handed shot in the middle of the power play.”

Walz felt that was a dynamic that the Wild really missed on their man-advantage, which finished 17th in the league. Walz concedes that Vanek, a former standout at the University of Minnesota, may have to deal with added pressure playing back home, but that he will also come into training camp with something to prove following a disappointing run in the playoffs with Montreal last spring.

Whether he was placed in a position to succeed or whether he just plain underperformed, Vanek must be itching to make a statement early this season.

“I’m sure he’s going to want to come here and prove everyone wrong,” Walz said.

Joining Vanek is a loaded crop of young players that includes Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. But asked about which “kid” he is most intrigued to see compete this season, Walz had an unequivocal answer that some people may find surprising: Erik Haula

Though Haula played a good chunk of last season in the minors, he was “absolutely outstanding” when called up. Walz even ventured to say that he may have been one of the team’s most consistent performers down the stretch.

Walz, who played seven seasons for the Wild and served two seasons as an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he recognizes some elements of Haula’s game that remind him of himself as a young player.

He thinks Haula has a great opportunity to become a standout NHL player.

“He’s a checking center, a great penalty-killer, he’s smart away from the puck, very cerebral and coachable,” Walz said. “You can’t teach the way he can skate. He’s got another gear on the ice and when he hits it, it brings people out of their seats.”

Walz saw the way Haula earned more and more trust from Yeo last season, and he expects him to pick up where he left off to continue his progression.

As for the rest of the team, Walz has no doubt the Wild will again be a playoff team, but considering the absurd level of competition in the Central Division, this season will test the club’s mettle, no doubt.

“It’s gonna be a grind right from day one,” Walz said. “It’s going to be paramount you don’t get into five-or-six game skids. It’s going to be important to try to get out of those. The teams that get out of those little funks are the teams that are gonna make it into the playoffs.”

Penguins force Fleury to prove himself

September, 3, 2014
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Recently, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford indicated that the club’s starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would enter the 2014-15 season without a contract extension.

Rutherford said it was not an immediate priority to re-sign the 29-year-old netminder, who is heading into the last year of a seven-year, $35 million deal. His agent, Allan Walsh, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he had no problem with that, saying the decision was “of no consequence at all.”

But that doesn’t mean that the lack of a new deal won’t be in the back of Fleury’s mind when he enters training camp next month. His friend and former Penguins teammate Brent Johnson can only imagine the impact that situation might have if he were in Fleury’s skates.

[+] EnlargeBrent Johnson, Marc-Andre Fleury
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesBrent Johnson says Marc-Andre Fleury is a "lead-behind-the-scenes type of guy."
“I believe, if that were me, I’d probably take it worse than Marc [has],” Johnson told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. “It could weigh on your mind. I’m not saying it will, but it could.”

The 37-year-old Johnson, who backed up Fleury for three years and knows him about as well as anyone, thinks Fleury will handle it like a true professional. A player Johnson describes as “outgoing” and “affable,” Fleury will likely keep any anxiety or unease he may have about the situation private, Johnson said. You won’t see him spouting off to the media or griping behind closed doors, he said. Fleury will want to make his statement in the crease, instead.

“His character is unbelievable,” said Johnson, who will be working for Comcast SportsNet as an analyst during Washington Capitals games this season. “He’s a guy that wants to do all his talking on the ice. Every team wants a guy like that. He’s a lead-behind-the-scenes type guy.”

Johnson was happy to see his buddy bounce back last season after a well-documented implosion in the spring of 2013, when Fleury gave up 17 goals in five games of the team’s first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.

Fleury ranked second in the NHL with 39 wins and posted solid numbers, a 2.37 goals-against average and .915 save percentage during the 2013-14 regular season (2.40 GAA and .915 during the playoffs), despite backing a Penguins squad that was pretty banged up for much of the year.

“I think it was very important for him to have a great regular season and to follow up with a decent run in the playoffs, which I think he had,” Johnson said.

As Fleury’s friend and fellow goaltender, Johnson often encouraged his cohort to let the play come to him, and not lose sight of what got him there in the first place.

Johnson saw much more of that steadiness and consistency in Fleury’s game this past season, and he thinks at least a part of that was the addition of new goaltending coach Mike Bales.

Bales was the only holdover from Dan Bylsma’s coaching staff to be retained when Bylsma was fired this past spring.

“He helped him out and settled him down,” Johnson said of Bales. “Which I think he needed.”

Johnson was actually a candidate for Bales' job after retiring following the 2011-12 season. That’s something he would be open to pursuing in the future, and has enjoyed before -- Johnson has made time for coaching local youth hockey in both the D.C. and Pittsburgh areas in the past.

As for now, though, Johnson is excited about his gig with CSN, working in television despite the requisite nerves that are part and parcel of the job.

He’ll look forward to employing his NHL experience and insight as an analyst covering the Capitals. And he predicts his former Penguins squad will remain a tough team to beat in the Metropolitan Division.

And though he is relatively unfamiliar with new coach Mike Johnston and his staff, he knows the Penguins’ roster is enough to make them a top team every year.

“You have a team there that has the potential on paper every year to go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I don’t think that’s going to change. It’s the small little details throughout the season. I think the big thing in the dressing room is to have character guys,” Johnson said, identifying Pascal Dupuis as one such leader in that category. “I think they missed [him] a ton last year. I don’t know what happened in [the] dressing room at all [last season], but if you’re on a 10-game winning streak and you’re not having fun winning or it’s just ho-hum at [the] office, you tend to lose the excitement.”

Rebuilding? Not the Wings, says Osgood

September, 2, 2014
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The Detroit Red Wings are a revered franchise, steeped in history and with a long winning tradition. For 23 seasons and counting, the Wings have made the playoffs and are aiming to keep that streak intact.

And though they boast some of the biggest names in the league in veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, they are becoming a team that will have to rely on youngsters more than in years past.

That can be a good thing, according to former Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood.

“They’re not rebuilding like people say,” Osgood told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation, instead insisting, “I think it’s a nice transition.”

The luxury of having that core group of veterans (which could also include Daniel Alfredsson, should his health allow him to play this season) and such a strong crop of prospects is what has made the Red Wings such a model franchise.

[+] EnlargeChris Osgood
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesChris Osgood celebrated titles as a Red Wing, and he likes the team's current direction and makeup.
Osgood credits Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and the team’s scouts for their keen ability to draft well. He said back when current Stars GM Jim Nill was with the team, the two were probably the best scouting duo in the league. The result?

“Their depth in the organization is unmatchable,” said Osgood, who now works as an analyst for Fox Sports Detroit.

That depth will be on display as the club opens camp and discovers what it has in a loaded group of prospects that includes forward Anthony Mantha, defensemen Alexei Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, and goaltender Petr Mrazek.

And that’s not to mention the group of young players that already has ample NHL experience: Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan.

With such a deep pool of talent, training camp could get really interesting with roster spots up for grabs.

“Usually with [the Wings], their roster is pretty much solidified when you get there,” said Osgood, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. “Now you have a lot of guys looking for spots.”

Among the most intriguing storylines for Red Wings brass and fans alike will be what happens with Mantha, the team’s 2013 first-round draft pick (20th overall).

Though the winger, who turns 20 this month, will likely have a chance to crack the lineup, he’ll have to make a really strong impression on longtime coach Mike Babcock to earn that opportunity.

What will he have to show?

“That he has a complete game,” Osgood said. “That he can play in his own end. If he’s not scoring that he can still be productive -- that means still playing good defense. Knowing how to play in Babcock's system.”

Traditionally, the Wings have erred on the side of caution when it comes to development, opting for more seasoning rather than expediting the process. Last season was a bit of an anomaly, given the club’s injury-ravaged lineup, but Osgood is interested to see what approach they take with Mantha in particular.

“Don’t forget that in this organization it is instilled that they like to bring guys along slow,” Osgood said. “They’re not gonna be in any rush unless he blows them away. They know he’s gonna be a great player. You don’t want to start him too quickly and have him struggle. He’s going to need to play with confidence.”

Speaking of confidence, that may be exactly what goaltender Jimmy Howard is looking to regain after an inconsistent season (21-19-11, 2.66 goals-against average and .910 save percentage), one in which he was also hampered by injury.

Just being able to stay healthy and clear his mind should provide a huge boost to his game, Osgood predicts.

“For Jimmy Howard, he signed that contract and maybe put a little too much pressure on himself, plus his knee was bothering him,” Osgood said. “I think he just needs a healthy, consistent year where he doesn’t have to worry about anything more than stopping the puck.”

The other major training camp question is whether the Wings will have Alfredsson return. The 41-year-old has not yet made a decision on whether he feels healthy enough to play and contribute.

Osgood said he was really impressed by Alfredsson’s leadership and professionalism last season, suggesting it would be a major coup for the club to have him back.

“He blew me out of the water,” Osgood said. “If he can be healthy and come back and give them that same productivity, that would be a huge boost for the team.”
With news last week that New York Islanders team owner Charles Wang was selling a majority ownership of the franchise, there are plenty of changes in store.

A group led by Jon Ledecky and London-based investor Scott Malkin has purchased a minority share in the team, with that stake slated to become a majority ownership in just two years, pending approval of the NHL board of governors.

But first, the team will bid farewell to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Islanders will call Brooklyn’s state-of-the-art Barclays Center home beginning in the 2015-16 season.

“I'm pretty excited about it. I’ve never run a hockey team or owned a hockey team ... but I can only imagine how difficult it is to do that and try to do it under circumstances that the owner has to deal with as far as the building,” former Islanders great John Tonelli told ESPN.com when reached by phone last week.

[+] EnlargeJohn Tonelli
B Bennett/Getty ImagesJohn Tonelli won four Stanley Cups while playing for the New York Islanders for eight seasons.
And though Tonelli does not lack in nostalgia for the aging old barn, he is excited fans will finally get to enjoy a modern facility.

“As much as it brings a lot of great memories back to me -- the way the building was, the great environment it was to walk into, it was pretty special -- but hey, things change and things need to get upgraded,” he said.

Tonelli, who now works for a title insurance company in New York City, said there were a few times he had clients interested in kicking the tires on an ownership stake with the Islanders, but each time that avenue was explored, the team was not up for sale.

Now that a new ownership group is in place and a new locale is on the near horizon, he’s eagerly anticipating a new era for the Isles.

Tonelli, 57, said he’s looking forward to the shortened commute to games next season. He’s happy to see a zealous and loyal fan base finally rewarded with state-of-the-art digs, and he’s glad the team made some important offseason moves to bolster the roster.

Tonelli, a forward who won four Stanley Cup championships with the Islanders, thinks the addition of goalie Jaroslav Halak and backup Chad Johnson could be huge as they try to make it back to the playoffs after a disappointing last-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season.

“I think they made a great move getting some goaltending help. It’s tough for one guy to carry the load and it always helps when you bring in another guy,” said Tonelli, who played in front of the legendary Billy Smith during the Isles’ dynasty days. “Goaltending seems to be the key . . . it starts from there, taking care of your own end.”

And dynamic young center John Tavares gives the Islanders an electrifying element.

“He’s just such a pleasure to watch,” Tonelli said. “You know, he’s exciting to watch and he wants to lead by example. He wants to be there. He wants to see the Islanders become a great team. As a former player for the Islanders organization, that’s what it’s all about. We all want it to be there. We all wanted to be part of a great team. I see that in [Tavares].”

With Tavares’ potential “unlimited,” according to Tonelli, all he needs is the right players around him to complement his stunning skill set.

The team has some strong components and promising young players, Tonelli said. Now, it’s just a matter of filling in the gaps. The Islanders signed both Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in free agency in July.

“It seems like they have a starting base to really create a very good team going forward,” Tonelli said. “It's a little tweaking here and there of filling in with the right chemistry that can help that core group.”
Though some found it surprising to see the Ottawa Senators ink goaltender Craig Anderson to a three-year deal, amid speculation that Robin Lehner would take the reins as starter this coming season, former Senators netminder Patrick Lalime thinks the tandem will be a strength of the club moving forward.

Having both players under contract should only help to fortify the position for the team’s future.

“I think that’s one of their strengths,” Lalime told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. “Craig Anderson is one of the better goalies in the league. He’s a streaky goalie, but when he’s hot, he’s one of the best. I think Robin Lehner is still learning, but he’s got a good foundation and he’s a battler. He likes to win. He likes to play. He’s got the attitude of No. 1 guy, and eventually he will be. I’m not worried about that.”

[+] EnlargePatrick Lalime
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesPatrick Lalime holds the Senators' franchise record for career wins.
The 40-year-old Lalime, who holds the Senators franchise record in career wins, said he thinks Anderson will come into training camp with top billing but that the two players will push each other in a healthy competition.

Anderson, 33, posted a pedestrian .911 save percentage last season but recorded an NHL-best .941 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season just two years ago.

“I think Craig’s gonna be the go-to guy to start with. I know Robin can do the job -- I have no worries he can do the job. I think the good thing is they have them signed for a pretty good price,” said Lalime, who will join TVA this season as an analyst. “They have two good goaltenders and they can make a decision based on that a little easier. I think Anderson is the guy starting, but I know Robin; once he gets his chance he’ll run with it.”

Lalime said the team’s main challenge will be in scoring, especially making up for former captain Jason Spezza, who was traded to Dallas this summer in a package that included Alex Chiasson going back to Ottawa in the deal.

Lalime described Chiasson as a high-energy, physical forward, the “type of player every team wants,” but he knows it will take a collective effort if the Sens want to make up for the nearly point-per-game production they will lose in Spezza’s absence.

“That will be their biggest challenge this year,” Lalime predicted, “to find a way to get a group of young guys coming in and making a difference.”

Lalime thinks the club will lean on players like Bobby Ryan and Erik Karlsson to be the cornerstone players on both sides of the puck. In terms of leadership, Lalime knows that veterans like Chris Phillips and Chris Neil will take on even more responsibility with the loss of captains Daniel Alfredsson and Spezza in consecutive offseasons.

“Those guys are still there, they know the game, and they are well-liked in the room,” said Lalime, who played with both players during his days as a Senator. “They’re good veterans, good team guys. They’ll have a big part to do.”

But the biggest predictor for the team’s success, and whether they make the playoffs, will probably hinge on what sort of production they get from their centermen. Kyle Turris will take on the top-line center role, with veteran David Legwand expected to slot in on the second line.

Legwand was signed as a free agent this summer, after recording 51 points last season while playing for both the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings. Turris had a career year last season, finishing third among Senators in scoring with 26 goals and 58 points.

“It’s a tough league. You need to be ‘game on’ every night. You can’t have a bad streak,” Lalime said. "They’ll need to get some scoring down the middle lane. ... It’s so important, and that will be the biggest challenge.”
A member of the Philadelphia Flyers’ legendary "Legion of Doom" line, John LeClair played in front of goaltender Ron Hextall for five years.

LeClair knows what Hextall is like on the ice, inside the dressing room and as a pivotal member of a successful team.

Knowing that, the 45-year-old LeClair thinks Hextall will be a terrific fit in his new role as general manager of their former club.

“I think he’ll do a great job,” LeClair told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation this week. “He was a great teammate. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a smart guy who knows what he’d doing.”

[+] EnlargeJohn LeClair
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJohn LeClair played for the Flyers for 10 seasons, hitting the 50-goal mark in three seasons.
In his first summer since replacing Paul Holmgren, who now serves as the team’s president, Hextall did not do much to make waves in free agency.

He inked young defenseman Michael Del Zotto to a modest, low-risk deal. He added depth defenseman Nick Schultz. He re-signed goaltender Ray Emery. And he dealt Tye McGinn for a third-round pick in 2015.

The main reason for the team’s relatively uneventful summer was the salary cap constraints Hextall inherited from his predecessor. According to Capgeek.com, the Flyers are almost $5 million above the salary cap for this coming season (though the Flyers will receive some cap relief for Chris Pronger, who is on long-term injured reserve, per the collective bargaining agreement).

“I think it’s about moving forward,” LeClair said. “It’s not about trying to make a complete overhaul. He’ll assess what he [has] and address what he needs to move forward, and I think he did that.”

Before July 1, Hextall did move long-time Flyer Scott Hartnell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for R.J. Umberger, however. And LeClair thinks that may turn into a shrewd move for a club that struggled during stretches of this past season before ultimately falling in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Rangers. It may be nothing more than tweaking the chemistry, but the team may benefit from mixing things up.

“He was here for a while. He was a centerpiece of the team. I think it will be a pretty good change,” said LeClair, a three-time 50-goal scorer.

LeClair, who now works for Sports Professional Management Inc. with his former agent Lewis Gross, said the game has changed since he was playing. Players are more skilled, the pace is faster, and he thinks the Flyers have adapted their personnel to accommodate that.

Philly boasts one of the top young players in the game in captain Claude Giroux, as well as the perennially underrated Jakub Voracek and the effective Wayne Simmonds, whose net presence proved to be an asset in a career year for him last season.

Add in some stability in net -- starter Steve Mason was hampered with a concussion for part of the team’s playoff series against New York in April but will be ready for training camp -- and the Flyers still have some strong elements.

Their defensive corps still has some question marks -- particularly with the frightening news that veteran Kimmo Timonen is suffering from a blood clot situation that could put his season in jeopardy -- but they have a strong foundation to build upon.

According to LeClair, they should be a playoff team again this season.

“I think they’ll be a playoff team,” LeClair said. “There’s a big difference between getting a playoff spot and being a contender for the Cup and I still think they’re a little bit away from that, but I think they’re moving in the right direction.”

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