Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stars' questions involve how Spezza, Lehtonen fare

The Dallas Stars made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. General manager Jim Nill then went out and added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to the mix, bolstering the offense and setting the Stars up for a chance at a deep playoff run this season.

To do it, they'll have to answer the following five questions:

1. Will Spezza fit in? -- Spezza targeted the Stars for the chance to play behind Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and for the opportunity, as he said, "to try to win the Stanley Cup." This should be a seamless transition for him as he goes from being the captain of a team in Canada to a second-line center and likely letter-less leader in Texas.

But Spezza has to produce. He has to be the No. 2 center Dallas didn't have last season if the Stars want to have any chance to compete in the Western Conference, where the best teams have excellent center depth and win in part because of how good they are down the middle.

2. Is Kari Lehtonen the right goalie to help the Stars get to the next level? -- The words came out of Nill's mouth without even a hint of hesitation.

"We have an elite goalie in Kari Lehtonen," he said earlier this summer.
So the Stars believe in Lehtonen as they continue to wait for Jack Campbell. Elite, though, might be a strong word when you judge Lehtonen solely on his limited playoff experience.

He's 30 years old and has played in eight playoff games, posting two wins, a 3.88 goals-against average and an .874 save percentage. He had a 3.29 GAA and .885 save percentage in six playoff games last season.

If the Stars do what is expected of them and return to the playoffs, Lehtonen will have a chance to prove himself. He is signed through the 2017-18 season with a $5.9 million salary-cap charge.

3. Can Tyler Seguin do it again? -- Seguin had 84 points in his first season in Dallas and developed chemistry with Benn that should stick. He is playing his natural position and has found a home after a solid if controversial start to his career with the Boston Bruins.

Seguin isn't a one-hit wonder. He is a talented center with equal ability to score and be a playmaker. Benn benefitted from him as much as Seguin benefitted from Benn. They are one of the best 1-2 forward duos in the NHL and should be again.

4. How can Dallas improve its special teams? -- The Stars penalty kill was 21st in the NHL at 81.4 percent and their power play was 23rd at 15.9 percent last season.

Dallas' horrid start on home ice is a big reason why the power-play percentage was so low. The Stars were 6-for-80 (7.5 percent) on the power play at American Airlines Center through their first 21 home games. They went 18-for-78 (23.0 percent) in their last 20 home games.

The power play should be better with Spezza and Hemsky. Spezza, in fact, might bump Cody Eakin off the man advantage, or at the very least reduce his role, giving Eakin a chance to focus on becoming an elite penalty killer. Nill and Ruff like Eakin because of his versatility.

5. Will the defense hold up or do they need an upgrade? -- The plan for Dallas is to go with a top-six of Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, Jordie Benn, Brenden Dillon, Sergei Gonchar and one of Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Cameron Gaunce and Kevin Connauton.

Nill liked what he saw at the end of last season, when Daley and Goligoski found chemistry as a pair and Dillon, Benn and Nemeth came on and played better. Oleksiak, Nemeth and Gaunce got championship experience in the Texas Stars' run to the Calder Cup.

"I'm very comfortable with it," Ruff said. "I think there is room for growth."

Stars counting on Nichushkin in second season

A year ago, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill was curious to see how then 18-year-old rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin would respond to the North American game, the rigors of an 82-game schedule and the obstacles that would inevitably confound the big Russian living in a new country and learning a new language on the fly.

"It was all brand new to him last year," Nill told NHL.com. "He had some frustrating times."

Nichushkin still scored 14 goals and had 34 points in 79 games playing in unfamiliar cities featuring smaller rinks and bigger and better competition than he had ever faced before. Stars coach Lindy Ruff said he counted as many as nine breakaways that Nichushkin missed on.

"A little better finish, he could have easily been up there close to 20 goals for us," Ruff said.
He was without question one of the many positives to come out of the Stars' surprisingly successful season. As this season approaches, Nill's curiosity about Nichushkin has advanced to how he will respond to being unshackled from all that was once new and different.

The Stars expect to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs again. They expect to be a contender once they get there. They'll need secondary scoring behind Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. They're counting on Nichushkin.

"We're going to see it," Nill said. "He stayed here for the summer again. He's been training every day. He's excited, itching to get back at it. I think we're going to see more growth from him now. He's been around the League. He just has to worry about hockey."

Nill has already seen more growth in Nichushkin's body.

"I think he's gained 15 or 20 pounds already this summer," Nill said.

Nichushkin was listed at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds last season. He was able to go into the corners against bigger men like Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber and come out with the puck. Can you imagine the power game he'll be able to play at 6-4, 220 or 225?
"Well, I can't answer that, but I don't ever look at putting on weight as a thing that's going to make you turn the corner unless you put on the right weight," Ruff said. "He's a very powerful skater and I don't want to see him get any slower, but obviously there is room for him to get stronger and I think that's what he's trying to improve on. I'm excited about him."

Spezza is too. Nichushkin is yet another reason why the former Ottawa Senators captain targeted the Stars after requesting to be traded.
"I remember we played against the Stars in Dallas and he blew by a guy who I thought was an exceptional skater," Spezza said on July 1, after he was traded from Ottawa to Dallas. "He made him look like he was barely moving. If I get to play with him, hopefully we can find some chemistry."

Ruff has to determine where he feels Nichushkin fits best. It could be on a line with Spezza and Ales Hemsky, or with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, the duo Nichushkin played with last season. It likely will be some combination of those players.

"We saw glimpses of what the upside is going to be," Nill said. "Now that he's North Americanized it's going to be intriguing to watch what he can become. There were times last season when it was unbelievable what he did."

Stars excited to build off trip to playoffs

The Dallas Stars learned how to win last season with little expected of them. They wound up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years.

"I think we did surprise a few people," Stars coach Lindy Ruff told NHL.com.

They won't anymore.

If the Stars don't wind up in the playoffs again this season they'll be seen as a disappointment because expectations on them are rising now that Ruff and general manager Jim Nill have their fingerprints all over the team.

"It's about learning how to win consistently and it's about learning how to win the right way," Nill said. "You've got to respect winning."

Nill isn't talking about respecting a winner, even though the Stars have earned respect across the NHL for what they did last season and the moves they made during the offseason. They acquired Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators, signed Ales Hemsky to a three-year contract and created goalie competition behind Kari Lehtonen by signing Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas.

Nill, though, is talking about respecting the art of winning -- as in don't take it for granted because the NHL, particularly in the Western Conference, has a way of humbling those who do.

Dallas was the fifth of five Central Division teams to make the playoffs last season, falling in line behind the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. All of those teams expect to be better than they were last season, when each had at least seven more points than the Stars' 91. Dallas has to be better too.

"When you look at how young we are with some of our talent, it will be how they manage those expectations that are going to be placed upon them," Ruff said. "There's going to be no free nights."

The good news is Dallas fared well against the Avalanche, Blues, Blackhawks and Wild in the second half last season, going 5-2-1. Overall, Dallas was 12-10-6 against the other playoff teams in the West, including 5-2-2 against the three Pacific Division qualifiers.

"Our guys know they can compete against those teams," Nill said. "That's what excites me about our group. Our dressing room is unbelievable. They play for each other and they play the right way."

Nill has given the Stars the tools by making several shrewd personnel decisions since he was hired 15-plus months ago. His focus has been on building through the middle.

He started last summer by acquiring centers Tyler Seguin and Shawn Horcoff. Seguin, in particular, became a star, leading Dallas with 84 points and developing chemistry with captain Jamie Benn, who was second on the team with 79 points.

Nill continued to build the Stars' center depth this offseason by acquiring Spezza. To top it off, he signed Hemsky, who had 17 points in 20 games playing primarily with Spezza after arriving in Ottawa late last season. Spezza played in 19 of those games and had 20 points.

The Stars have the potential for a first-line pair of Seguin and Benn and a second-line pair of Spezza and Hemsky. Ruff can figure out the rest of the lineup around that, likely using Valeri Nichushkin and Erik Cole as the remaining two top-six forwards.

"We have lots of flexibility," Nill said. "Even some of the players we have in our so-called bottom six can move up."
He's specifically talking about Cody Eakin, who had 35 points last season and is in line to be the No. 3 center. Eakin, who is still a restricted free agent, is versatile enough to play the wing on either of the top-two lines, and he's accustomed to playing on the power play and penalty kill.

The Stars were 23rd on the power play (15.9 percent) and 21st on the penalty kill (81.4 percent) last season. They need to improve in both areas.

"We've gotta share some ice time," Ruff said. "We've added Spezza, who has been a No. 1. We have Seguin, who is up around 20 minutes. Eakin's ice time was going up in the playoffs. Players have to make some adjustments."

Ruff is hoping the competition for ice time increases in training camp as some of the Stars prospects, particularly on defense, vie for roster spots.

The Texas Stars, Dallas' American Hockey League affiliate, won the Calder Cup last season and had young players doing the heavy lifting, including defensemen Patrik Nemeth (22 years old) and Jamie Oleksiak (21), who is 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds.

The Stars have six returning defensemen, including the still unsigned Brenden Dillon, a restricted free agent, but Nill is hoping Nemeth, Oleksiak and Cameron Gaunce make a case for jobs in camp. Nemeth could have the edge after playing in the playoffs last season.

"You can't just be a guy who comes in and says, 'Well, I'll be a five, six or seventh guy,'" Nill said. "You've gotta show you want to be one of the top guys."

Just as the Stars have to show they want to be one of the top teams.

Forsberg, Jarnkrok lead Predators' top 10 prospects

For the Nashville Predators, patience has remained an important part of developing their younger players. That was reinforced by watching what top prospect Filip Forsberg went through.

The heralded 19-year-old center made the Predators' roster on opening night last season but struggled in his adjustment to the North American game, scoring one goal and five points in 13 games. After a star turn for Sweden at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, he finished strong in the American Hockey League, scoring 15 goals and 34 points in 47 games for Nashville's affiliate in Milwaukee.

The hope is the patient approach pays off with Forsberg as well as other prospects the team hopes will develop into building blocks for the future.

Here's a look at the Predators' top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Filip Forsberg, C

How acquired: Trade (Washington Capitals), April 13, 2013

Last season: 47 GP, 15-19-34, Milwaukee, AHL

Forsberg, who turns 20 Aug. 13, started last season in Nashville but struggled to adjust to the North American game. He got back on track with an outstanding run at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he helped Sweden win the silver medal, led all players with 12 points in seven games, and was named the tournament's most valuable player. The 6-foot-1, 186-pound forward finished the season in the AHL and is poised to continue his ascent.

"Last year was a little bit of a transition year to North America for him," Predators chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty said. "You saw at the World Juniors what he could do, the performance he had there. Now it's just a matter of continuing to mature. We had him at our development camp … and you could see the maturity and the next step in his game. We viewed him all along as a high-end offensive talent and we think it's just a matter of time for him.

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

2. Calle Jarnkrok, C

How acquired: Trade (Detroit Red Wings), March 5, 2014

Last season: 63 GP, 18-27-45, Grand Rapids/Milwaukee, AHL

Acquired at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline in exchange for David Legwand, Jarnkrok was a player Kealty said the organization had been tracking since before he was drafted. Seeing the 5-11, 156-pound forward up close last season confirmed their thoughts about the 22-year-old, especially the way he and Forsberg gelled playing on the same line in the AHL. That was enough for Jarnkrok to get into 12 games with the Predators.

"Hopefully you got a little glimpse of the future there with the chemistry they could have," Kealty said. "With Jarnkrok you've got a highly skilled centerman who can make plays and distribute the puck. And then you've got a guy like Forsberg on the wing that can shoot and he's got that great release. The two of them, their games really complement each other well."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

3. Colton Sissons, C

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 50), 2012 draft

Last season: 62 GP, 25-19-44, Milwaukee, AHL

The 20-year-old made a seamless transition to the pro game in his first professional season and impressed enough to earn a 17-game NHL call-up. The 6-1, 187-pound forward had one goal but displayed a strong two-way game that drew the attention of the Predators.

"He does so many things for you," Kealty said. "He's a very good two-way player. He competes hard in all areas of the ice, kills penalties, can play the power play, can play against top people. He also produces. He had 25 goals last year as a young, first-year pro in the American league. He played 17 games in Nashville, but if he were to have been in Milwaukee the whole year he may have scored 30. That gives you an idea of what he's all about. You take that type of production combined with all the other qualities and he's going to be an important player for us down the road."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

4. Austin Watson, LW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 18), 2010 draft

Last season: 76 GP, 22-24-46, Milwaukee, AHL

Two 20-goal seasons in the AHL have the Predators hoping the 22-year-old power forward is ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL this season.

"We hope that he's ready to come into camp and push for a job," Kealty said. "He's had two years in Milwaukee, scored 20 goals in each season. He's a two-way player, he's a big body (6-4, 193), got some versatility where he can play center or the wing. It's a maturity process with him. We've seen growth in that every step of the way. We hope he's ready to take that next step."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

5. Kevin Fiala, LW
How acquired: 1st round (No. 11), 2014 draft

Last season: 17 GP, 3-8-11, HV71, SWE

The 18-year-old Swiss-born Fiala impressed everywhere he played, and the 5-10, 180-pound forward was the only player in the world to register a point at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, the World Junior Championship and the 2014 IIHF World Championship.

"Every step of the way, he showed the high-end offensive ability he had and he showed us the real competitiveness that he had," Kealty said. "And that flare where he wanted the puck, wanted to make a difference. And when you combine the two, the talent that he has and the competitiveness that he has, we really think he's got the potential to be a top-line player down the road."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

6. Brendan Leipsic, LW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 89), 2012 draft

Last season: 60 GP, 39-59-91, Portland, WHL

Though the scoring numbers for the 5-foot-9, 165-pound forward look impressive, the Predators were just as happy to see the 111 penalty minutes the 20-year-old was assessed last season. The hope is that mix of skill and grit carries over as he starts his professional career this season.

"That shows you some of the feistiness and agitation he's got," Kealty said. "We've said since we drafted him that we'd love to have him be a Brad Marchand- or Brendan Gallagher-type player."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

7. Felix Girard, C

How acquired: 4th round (No. 95), 2013 draft

Last season: 58 GP, 11-32-43, plus-30, Baie-Comeau, QMJHL

Girard, 20, was a captain the past two seasons with his junior team, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the 5-10, 185-pound forward grow into a leadership role as he starts his professional career.

"He's all character, all leadership," Kealty said. "Everything he does is for the benefit of the team, and quite simply you need those types of guys to win. He's excellent on faceoffs, two-time defensive player of the year in the Quebec league. He competes like mad, he's strong, can play in a lot of different roles for you. He's one of those guys that makes you better and harder to play against. … There's certainly a lot of ingredients that he has that you want on your team that are going to help you win."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

8. Juuse Saros, G

How acquired: 4th round (No. 99), 2013 draft

Last season: 44 GP, 16-16-8, 1.76 GAA, .923 SVP, HPK, FIN

Whether he was playing for his club team in Finland's top professional league, at the World Junior Championship or the World Championship, the one thing the 19-year-old did was win. And last season he won a lot, including the rookie of the year in Liiga, a gold medal at the WJC and a silver medal at the Worlds.

"He's one of those kids that is mentally strong and as tough as you're going to find at that position," Kealty said. "That's a very important quality. He's not the biggest guy in the position (5-10, 178) but I think that this kid is one of those guys that finds a way to overcome that. He has terrific instincts; he sees the play really well. … He's one of those guys that when it counts the most he seems to rise to the occasion. That's the type of guy you want in the net when it comes down to it. I think he's got the ability to be a special player one day."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

9. Jack Dougherty, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 51), 2014 draft

Last season: 55 GP, 6-16-22, USA U-18

As much as his skill on the ice stands out, what impressed most about the 18-year-old was the seamless transition he made from high school hockey to the United States National Team Development Program last season.

Most players in the program need two seasons to develop, but the 6-1, 186-pound freshman quickly assimilated and turned into the program's best defenseman. He'll continue that development at the University of Wisconsin next season.

"Jack made that adjustment in one year and handled himself quite well," Kealty said. "For some kids, that would be a little overwhelming. But he handled himself quite well and had a very good year. … He's a very sound two-way defenseman. He's got good mobility, he moves the puck well, he contributes at both ends of the ice and he competes hard. He's a guy that will be able to do a lot of different things for you."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

10. Miikka Salomaki, RW

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 52), 2011 draft

Last season: 75 GP, 20-30-50, Milwaukee, AHL

In his first season in North America, the 21-year-old Finnish power forward didn't disappoint, tying for fifth in scoring among AHL rookies.

"He's a bull," Kealty said. "He's 5-foot-11 and about 205 pounds. He's extremely strong on his feet, very hard with the puck. In a lot of ways he's probably better suited for the game in North America because he can get into the corners and battle for pucks. He's got a little bit of an underrated skill set. … He's another guy that can contribute and has that hard competitiveness and mentality that's going to make you a better team and help you win."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

Neal, new centers could help Predators lineup

After back-to-back seasons without a playoff berth, the Nashville Predators changed coaches for the first time in franchise history.

Peter Laviolette replaces Barry Trotz, and he will have a natural goal scorer at his disposal that this roster has been missing for a few years. General manager David Poile's other big move of the offseason was trading for James Neal, who should have a chance to break the franchise record for goals in a season (it is 33, by Jason Arnott, in 2008-09).

There is also a cadre of new centers, in part because Mike Fisher will miss the start of the season with an Achilles injury. Poile went on a bargain-bin shopping spree, scooping up Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy for a combined total of $500,000 more than Vinny Lecavalier, who was speculated as an option for the Predators.

A healthy Pekka Rinne is also a huge addition for Nashville. The Central Division looks brutally tough, but Rinne could be the best goaltender in the group. He might need to be to help the Predators back into the postseason.

Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Predators:


Colin Wilson - Mike Ribeiro - James Neal

Matt Cullen - Olli Jokinen - Filip Forsberg

Gabriel Bourque - Calle Jarnkrok - Craig Smith

Viktor Stalberg - Paul Gaustad - Eric Nystrom

Derek Roy - Richard Clune

Colin Wilson's linemates last season were Fisher and Patric Hornqvist, so one of the new centers and Neal seem like a natural fit (Ribeiro and Neal were with the Dallas Stars together). The two keys to the Nashville forward corps puzzle is how do the centers line up and do Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok fit somewhere?

The Predators would like to give Forsberg a chance to prove he's ready for important NHL minutes. Jarnkrok could be the odd man out, but he had some success between Gabriel Bourque and Craig Smith after arriving from Detroit just before the NHL Trade Deadline.

If Jarnkrok solidifies a spot, that probably means one of the three veteran additions sits, and Roy seems like a good bet to do so at the start of the season. Having legitimate NHL players in the press box is not a bad thing.

It will be interesting to see how Laviolette deploys his centers after he establishes a depth chart. Trotz relied quite heavily on Gaustad for defensive-zone faceoffs.


Roman Josi - Shea Weber

Mattias Ekholm - Seth Jones

Anton Volchenkov - Ryan Ellis*

Victor Bartley

Seth Jones played about an equal amount of time with Shea Weber and Matthias Ekholm at even strength, but the Predators could try to see if he's ready to anchor a pairing full-time in his second NHL season. Weber was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2013-14.

Each of the team's top four defensemen were at 50 percent or better in Fenwick for percentage, with Josi leading the way at 51.1 percent. Ryan Ellis' NHL career remains more about potential than production, though a fresh start with Laviolette might help.
Anton Volchenkov was, like the centers, a low-cost, low-risk addition. He's not going to help improve Nashville's puck possession numbers, but he might still be able to offer steady play in a limited role.

A potential pitfall for the Predators is depth on defense. If there is more than one injury, the next man up is going to be someone with very little NHL experience unless there is a late addition before the season starts.


Pekka Rinne

Carter Hutton

The Predators were, by several ways of measure, a perfectly decent team in 2013-14, one capable of reaching the postseason with the right breaks. Then Rinne needed hip surgery, and the rest of the campaign was a struggle in search of competent goaltending.

Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec were OK at times, but by the time Rinne returned Nashville's playoff chances were pretty dim. Those two, plus maybe Magnus Hellberg, could vie for the backup role behind Rinne during training camp.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Taylor Beck*, F Austin Watson, D Anthony Bitetto, D Garrett Noonan, G Marek Mazanec

*Restricted free agent

Healthy Rinne should make difference for Predators

As hard as the Nashville Predators worked to stabilize their season during the first half of last season, they were unable to do so without injured goaltender Pekka Rinne.

The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist had major hip surgery in May 2013. Less than three weeks into the 2013-14 season, the hip became infected and he was sidelined for more than four months.

With the Predators using a young defense that included a 19-year-old and three 23-year-olds, the goaltending duties fell to two players who entered last season with one combined game of NHL experience, Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec. Hutton eventually became consistent, but there were some growing pains along the way; the Predators had a four-game losing streak in November in which they were outscored 17-2.

Rinne owns a career save percentage of .918, although that dipped to a career low (in seasons in which he has played in more than two games) of .902 last season. The four other goalies used by the Predators posted a collective save percentage of .904 in 2013-14.
It seems a fairly safe bet that if the Predators had a healthy Rinne and if he played anywhere close to his career norms, Nashville would have been a playoff team last season.

The question is whether the 31-year-old Rinne, who led the NHL in wins in 2011-12 with 43, will return to top form. Predators general manager David Poile is betting that he will, citing the fact that Rinne was named the most valuable player at the World Championship in May. Rinne had a .928 save percentage and three shutouts during the tournament, leading Finland to the gold medal game, where it lost 5-2 to Russia.

He also finished last season with two shutouts and one regulation loss in his final seven games. Poile said the hip severely curtailed Rinne's offseason regimen in 2012 (a year before he had surgery), making this summer his first normal one in three years.

"Pekka was good at the end of the season," Poile said. "I think he confirmed that to himself by playing at the World Championships and being named MVP of the World Championships. We've been in touch with him over the summer and he feels really great, which he hadn't been able to work out actually the last two summers…. A healthy Pekka Rinne makes everybody look better."

One factor that remains an unknown in terms of how it will affect Rinne is a change at the goaltending coach position. Mitch Korn, who departed to follow former Nashville coach Barry Trotz to the Washington Capitals, earned something of a reputation as a guru at the position. Korn played an integral role in developing Rinne, who was an eighth-round pick (No. 258) in 2004.

The Predators' new goaltending coach is Ben Vanderklok, who worked under Korn and served as Nashville's assistant goaltending coach for the past five seasons. In a news release announcing the promotion of Vanderklok, Poile called him a "natural fit" and cited Vanderklok's history of working with Korn.

In the highly competitive Central Division, Rinne could be a difference-maker. Rinne is the only goalie in the division other than Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks who has won all four games in a playoff series, a feat he has accomplished twice.

Predators' new-look offense among five questions

Since the middle of last season, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile has talked about wanting to create a different look among the team's forwards. That's where the bulk of the change has come, from a personnel standpoint and a philosophical one.

Consequently, most of the questions surrounding the Predators have to do with their forwards and the offense. Poile said that "on paper" he thinks Nashville has "16 NHL forwards."

"I'm hoping [scoring] comes from a lot of different sources," he said. "[James] Neal, how he's scored and how he's played in the past, that would be a huge shot in the arm and move in the right direction for our team offensively. But we've also got other players on our team that I would say didn't perform to the levels we expected and they expected last year, and we're hoping for bounce-back years from a number of players. Again, it's a whole different mix."
Here are five questions the Predators have to answer to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

1. How will the Predators adapt to new coach Peter Laviolette's system? -- In Barry Trotz's 15 seasons as coach, Predators forwards were asked to play a two-way, puck-possession game with an emphasis on defense first. With that mentality ingrained in a number of the team's forwards, the Predators will have to adapt to Laviolette's system in which attacking and the use of two forecheckers will become the rule.

The positive is that a number of Predators forwards will be new: Neal, Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy. Matt Cullen has played for Laviolette in the past, while Viktor Stalberg and Colin Wilson were not productive in Trotz's system and could benefit from the change.

But a system also includes defense, and the addition of Laviolette appears as if it were made in part to take advantage of a group comprised of excellent skaters. Only Anton Volchenkov seemingly lacks the requisite skills to get up the ice and play at a higher tempo.

If it works, it could make Bridgestone Arena a much more entertaining place to watch games. However, if the Predators endure prolonged growing pains, they could get left back in the divisional race.

2. What impact will Neal make? -- If Neal can surpass Jason Arnott's single-season franchise mark of 33 goals, the Predators would be ecstatic. Ribeiro has history with Neal dating to their time as teammates with the Dallas Stars. If Ribeiro can make good on his promise to steer clear of the off-ice problems that plagued him with the Phoenix Coyotes last season, he could make a reunion of their partnership a productive one.

It's also worth noting that for much of last season the Predators owned one of the top power plays in the League. With Weber, who led all NHL defensemen last season with 23 goals, Neal could be in position to pick up plenty of goals on rebounds. Neal's presence will give the Predators' power play a threat down low that it has lacked for years, making it harder for opposing teams to shade toward Weber as they have in the past.

Regardless, the Predators are counting on him to score in a big way.

3. How will the center position shake out? -- Nashville has so many centers that it's dizzying: Mike Fisher will start the season injured but Roy, Jokinen, Ribeiro, Calle Jarnkrok, Paul Gaustad, Wilson and Cullen all play the position.

Some will wind up on the wing and some might end up not on the team at all.
"We're going into camp with the idea that we have more depth, thus more competition, which hopefully will bring better results from our forwards," Poile said. "We're committed to selecting the best guys; if that happens to be a younger player, that's what we're going to choose. If it's a veteran player that doesn't play as well, he can find himself being traded or on waivers and playing in Milwaukee [American Hockey League]."

4. What will become of Fisher after he recovers? -- Fisher arguably has been Nashville's top center since he arrived in February 2011, and prior to rupturing his Achilles tendon last month had been one of the team's most durable players. But at age 34 and with at least 4-6 months of recovery ahead of him, how will he take to an up-tempo offensive attack?

5. Will Seth Jones make a big leap in his second season? -- Jones, the fourth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, had 25 points and a minus-23 rating in 77 games last season, but led all defensemen with 11 points in eight games for the United States at the 2014 IIHF World Championship, and was named the tournament's top defenseman. Laviolette coached that team and Predators assistant coach Phil Housley also was on the coaching staff.

It's possible that in his second season Jones will have less pressure on him and a greater understanding of what it takes to excel in the League, which would allow him to take a major step in his development.

Predators change coach, switch focus to offense

In any other season the Nashville Predators would have looked at the previous season's standings, seen that they missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by three points despite No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne missing 53 games and made a reasonable guess on how 2014-15 could turn out.

But this is not any other season.
For the first time in the Predators' 16-year history, they have a new coach, and to an extent a new philosophy. It's not as simple as plugging in what could be six new forwards and then going about predicting how the Predators will perform.

Out as coach is Barry Trotz and in is Peter Laviolette. The only holdover on the coaching staff is assistant coach Phil Housley. The goaltending and defense, with the exception of the addition of Anton Volchenkov and subtraction of Michael Del Zotto, remain the same.

The major difference, along with the new faces up front, will be the philosophy, which will focus on generating more offense. Last season the Predators had four 20-goal scorers for only the second time since 2007-08 but finished tied for 18th in the NHL in goals per game (2.61). Nashville has had four players reach the 30-goal mark in its history and the franchise's single-season record for goals is Jason Arnott's 33 in 2008-09.

"I think it's going to be exciting, it's going to be interesting," general manager David Poile said. "What we know for sure it's not going to be the same and that's because of the number of changes, especially at forward; the coaching staff with a little bit different philosophy in how we're going to play. Pekka coming back is another situation that should be positive. I'm excited about the possibilities."

While some teams chose to go with a youth movement, the Predators have opted for the opposite, to an extent. By the time center Mike Fisher returns from a ruptured Achilles tendon (his return is projected between November and January), the Predators could have eight forwards who are at least 31 years old.

Their signings in July included Volchenkov (age 32), and centers Mike Ribeiro (34), Olli Jokinen (35), who could be shifted to the wing, and Derek Roy (31). The message is clear. The Predators might play in the toughest division in the League, but the mission is to return to the playoffs.

"That's our only goal, to make the playoffs," Poile said. "We're on the outside looking in, two years out of the playoffs. That's not where we want to be. I think competition is unbelievable in our conference. It didn't get any easier with [Paul Stastny] switching teams [from the Colorado Avalanche to the St. Louis Blues] and staying in our [division]. It's going to be tough but that's our goal and our only goal."

The other major change the Predators made was trading forwards Patric Hornqvist, a member of the team's leadership group, and Nick Spaling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward James Neal, who has scored 88 goals in 179 games the past three seasons (0.49 per game). Poile said the expectation is that Neal will play with Ribeiro, as the two once were linemates with the Dallas Stars. Poile has discussed the likelihood that Neal, who finished as a First-Team NHL All-Star in 2011-12 as a right wing, skating at left wing. That could set up 24-year-old Craig Smith, who had a breakout season in 2013-14 with a team-leading 24 goals, to round out the top line on the right.

On defense, Roman Josi and captain Shea Weber, a three-time Norris Trophy finalist who is coming off arguably his best season (23 goals, team-highs of 33 assists and 56 points), anchor that group. They ranked fifth and fourth in the League, respectively, in time on ice per game last season. Rinne, the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, returns in goal, as does backup Carter Hutton, who won 20 games last season.

After the Predators elected not to make a qualifying offer to Del Zotto, his replacement will be a more defensive-oriented and shot-blocking type in Volchenkov. Poile he said he wants Volchenkov to take some of the "hard" defensive minutes, such as penalty killing, from Weber and Josi so they can play a more offensive role.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Volchenkov also should add some muscle to a pair with Ryan Ellis (5-10, 175). The other pair is likely to be Mattias Ekholm, 24, who was excellent in his first full NHL season, and Seth Jones, the fourth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft.

Poile said he wants Jones to "take off where he left off" last season

"For 19 years old I'm not sure what you're supposed to expect, but he did a lot of really good things," Poile said. "I know he had some bumps in the road. I think his plus/minus (minus-23), you'd like to be better, but he went over to the [2014 IIHF] World Championship and played really well; best defenseman in the tournament. He's been working out all summer. I'm expecting real good things. Just a little bit better in every area."

If the Predators are just a little bit better in every area, it ought to get them back to the playoffs, no matter how tough the division is.

Jets feel AHL success will help top 10 prospects

The managerial team of the Winnipeg Jets can take pride in the fact they've solidified a foundation of good, young talent by way of the NHL Draft.

The pipeline is brimming with blue-chip prospects ready to make their mark. Forward Mark Scheifele, a 2011 first-round pick (No. 7) and defenseman Jacob Trouba, the team's 2012 first-round pick (No. 9) are two recent top picks who've already established themselves.

"The goal once we came to Winnipeg was to try and increase the depth in the organization and I think [general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff] and the other management group have provided us with a lot of picks over the years and given us an opportunity to try and improve the depth and grow our organization from within," Jets director of amateur scouting Marcel Comeau told NHL.com. "That's the mantra [Cheveldayoff] has in place and that's what we're trying to do."

After making 30 picks at the past four drafts, Cheveldayoff should be pleased. The team's American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps, reached the Calder Cup Final last season before losing to the Texas Stars in five games. That team, coached by Keith McCambridge, was fortified with talent on both ends of the ice.

"It was extremely beneficial for our prospects to play high-caliber games, intense games, against good competition for a significant period [in the AHL playoffs]," Comeau said. "When the big team is not playing, the management is keeping a close eye on the prospects so they had a chance in front of the people who make the decisions to show what they have and how close they are. Because of that they'll probably earn themselves a longer look in training camp."

Here's a look at Winnipeg's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Joshua Morrissey, D

How acquired: 1st round (No. 13), 2013 draft

Last season: 59 GP, 28-45-73, Prince Albert, WHL

The 6-foot, 186-pound defenseman received invaluable experience with the IceCaps during their playoff run last season and contributed two goals and nine points in 20 postseason games. He served as captain for Prince Albert last season, his fourth in the WHL, and set career-highs in goals, assists and points. If Morrissey doesn't earn a roster spot for the Jets out of training camp, he will return to Prince Albert for one more season before turning pro. The Jets project the 19-year-old will be a top-four defensemen whenever he gets to the NHL.

"The thing that really stands out is his hockey IQ," Comeau said. "I think he really reads situations well offensively and defensively and has the ability to push the pace. He played in 20 AHL playoff games when the chips were on the line, so you know he's pretty close as a 19-year-old. Now it's up to him to push the envelope."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

2. Adam Lowry, LW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 67), 2011 draft

Last season: 64 GP, 17-16-33, St. John's, AHL

The 6-4, 187-pound Lowry was drafted as a left wing out of Swift Current in the Western Hockey League. But he was shifted to center the season after Winnipeg selected him, and the move has benefited both parties. The 21-year-old is the type of player a coach would have confidence in putting on the ice in any situation.

"I think everybody likes size and strength down the middle and we certainly think Adam brings that," Comeau said. "We like to have people who can play both ends of the rink. He's a good faceoff man and good penalty-killer."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

3. Nikolaj Ehlers, LW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 9), 2014 draft

Last season: 63 GP, 49-55-104, Halifax, QMJHL

Before joining the Mooseheads, Ehlers spent time with Biel in Switzerland's top professional league and had Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars as teammates during the 2012-13 season. The 18-year-old had 11 goals and 28 points in 16 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoff games as a rookie last season in Halifax.

He might not be NHL-ready this season, but Comeau believes he isn't too far off.

"There's some really dynamic offensive upside there," he said. "This guy has big time speed and puck skill and we think he's one of those players who you know is going to make something happen whenever he gets the puck. He's not a big guy (5-11, 162), but we know he'll do what he can to make himself as strong as possible to compete against men at the next level."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

4. Michael Hutchinson, G
How acquired: Trade (Boston Bruins), July 19, 2013

Last season: 24 GP, 17-5-1, 2.30 GAA, .923 SVP, St. John's, AHL

Hutchison (6-foot-3, 174 pounds), chosen by the Bruins with the No. 77 pick in the 2008 draft, was re-signed to a two-year contract July 2 and is in line to become the full-time backup to Ondrej Pavelec. He got a taste of the NHL last season, going 2-1-0 with a 1.64 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in three late-season starts. The 24-year-old then played 21 games (12-9) in the Calder Cup Playoffs and was exceptional with a 1.95 GAA, .938 save percentage and three shutouts to help the IceCaps reach the final.

"I think Michael's concentration level and rebound control are good," Comeau said. "He doesn't give up a lot of bad goals. He's a guy who's focused, limits his second chances and really does a good job of making the other team earn everything they get."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

5. Ben Chiarot, D

How acquired: 4th round (No. 120), 2009 draft

Last season: 65 GP, 6-14-20, St. John's, AHL

The physically intimidating Chiarot (6-3, 215 pounds) had a strong AHL season and made his NHL debut in November. He had two goals and five points in 21 postseason games for the IceCaps, and agreed to terms on a one-year, two-way contract July 23. In 144 AHL games, the 23-year-old has eight goals, 34 points and 196 penalty minutes, all with St. John's.

"He's a big defenseman who can move the puck and give you some physical play in your own zone," Comeau said. "He's tough on people in the corners but can also handle team quickness."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

6. Nicolas Petan, C

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 43), 2013 draft

Last season: 63 GP, 35-78-113, Portland, WHL

Despite his 5-9, 165-pound frame and being a focal point of the opposition each game, Petan continued to light up the scoreboard; he has 95 goals and 269 points in 198 WHL games. He also was fourth in scoring during the WHL playoffs last season with 28 points in 21 games to help Portland advance to the WHL final. He scored four goals and had five points in seven games for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.

Petan, 19, is a prototypical puck-distributor, anticipates well and would work wonders on a power play.

"Some of the things he does on the ice just wow you," Comeau said. "He creates opportunities for himself and others. He doesn't play on the outside; he's in the battle all the time."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

7. Connor Hellebuyck, G

How acquired: 5th round (No. 130), 2012 draft

Last season: 29 GP, 18-9-2, 1.79 GAA, .941 SVP, 6 SO, Massachusetts-Lowell, Hockey East

Hellebuyck, who will turn pro this season, went 5-3-0 in eight starts in March to lead the River Hawks to their second consecutive Hockey East tournament championship with back-to-back shutouts at TD Garden in Boston, and an appearance the Northeast Regional Final against Boston College. He made 30 saves in a 4-0 victory against the University of New Hampshire in the Hockey East championship game to earn MVP honors, becoming the first player to win the award twice. He also was the recipient of the first Mike Richter Award as the most outstanding goaltender the NCAA after leading the nation in goals-against average and save percentage in 2013-14.

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

8. J.C. Lipon, RW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 91), 2013 draft

Last season: 72 GP, 9-32-41, St. John's, AHL

Lipon (6-foot, 183), 21, is quite effective in his role as an agitator. As a rookie for the IceCaps last season he had a team-high 136 penalty minutes but also proved his ability as a playmaker. He also is versatile, evidenced by the fact the right-shot forward played right and left wing in St. John's. He's projected as a bottom-six forward but could be an extremely valuable commodity in that role.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

9. Scott Kosmachuk, RW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 70), 2012 draft

Last season: 68 GP, 49-52-101, Guelph, OHL

Comeau said he feels fortunate the organization was able to get the 5-11, 185-pound right-handed shot in the third round two years ago; all he did in four OHL seasons with Guelph was pile up 120 goals and 246 points in 271 games. Kosmachuk, 20, also had 10 goals and 28 points in 20 playoff games to help the Storm win the OHL title and earn a berth in the Memorial Cup.

"He had an exceptional year in Guelph and was one of the key players all year," Comeau said. "He's worked himself up the lineup, and when we drafted him we thought he would be a top-nine [forward] rather than a top-six, but I think he's elevated his game so much at the major-junior level that we now view him as a player who can possibly play on your top two lines.

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

10. Eric Comrie, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 59), 2013 draft

Last season: 60 GP, 26-25-9, 2.57 GAA, .925 SVP, Tri-City, WHL

Comeau said Comrie (6-1, 167) is a solid candidate to represent Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto in January. Getting that opportunity will enable him an opportunity to show how mentally strong he is in pressure situations.

The 19-year-old won a gold medal with Canada at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup but sustained a hip injury that required season-ending surgery in February 2013 and delayed his development. He progressed well enough last season that he got into two AHL games.

"We really like his technique and work ethic and liked the way he always kept his team in the game," Comeau said. "He didn't really have strong teams in Tri-City the last couple of years but he's the kind of guy who battles and keeps you in the game every night. The injury situation is not an issue moving forward; he played in 60 games last season and had impressive numbers for team that wasn't strong."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

Jets need Pavelec to play like No. 1 goaltender

There will be no shortage of issues and question marks for the Winnipeg Jets this season. Team fitness, the power play and depth on the blue line are chief among the potential trouble spots.

However, no issue stands out more for the Jets, and among Winnipeg fans, than the performance of Ondrej Pavelec, the team's No. 1 goalie. Whether the Jets can climb out of last place in the Central Division will hinge, in large part, on Pavelec.

Pavelec will be 27 years old when he begins his sixth season as an NHL regular, but he is still trying to establish himself as capable of moving into the middle-tier of starting goaltenders.

Keeping the puck out of their own net has been an issue for the Jets since the team relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. Coach Paul Maurice ironed out some of the more glaring defensive deficiencies, but the team still ranked No. 21 in the League in goals-against last season.
Pavelec played a significant role in the defensive problems in the 2013-14 season. His 57 games tied for No. 13 among NHL goaltenders, but four of Pavelec's starts ended with Maurice, or former coach Claude Noel, pulling him from the game. In all, Pavelec finished 22-26-7 with a 3.01 goals-against average.

Pavelec's .901 save percentage was a career full-season low for him and placed him No. 46 among 51 qualified NHL goaltenders last season. Team management believes improved team defense and an improved commitment to fitness among all players, including Pavelec, whose fitness has been a subject of scrutiny in Winnipeg, will boost the goaltender's performance this season.

During the first nine games after Maurice replaced Noel, Pavelec had a .925 save percentage as the Jets' shots-against per game in that span was 27.2. Whether or not the Jets, who allowed 30.1 shots per game overall, can maintain that pace defensively through an entire season will be another question.

The franchise missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh consecutive season and Pavelec was criticized for his role in the failure. Frequently his name was mentioned as a possible candidate for a compliance buyout this past June.

This season, rookie Michael Hutchinson will likely serve as Pavelec's understudy. Hutchinson, 24, began last season in the ECHL before snagging an opportunity with the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps. Hutchinson was 17-5-1 with the IceCaps with a 2.30 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Hutchinson went 2-1-0 with a 1.64 GAA and .943 save percentage with the Jets.

The Jets saw enough in Hutchinson to allow Al Montoya to leave via free agency to the Florida Panthers, and now they are counting on Hutchinson to push Pavelec for playing time. In all, Pavelec has started 167 of the 212 games the team has played since arriving in Winnipeg.
Still, even if Hutchinson can establish himself as a capable NHL backup goaltender, the Jets have insisted all along that Pavelec is their goaltender.

"Yes, Ondrej Pavelec is the No. 1 goalie going into next season," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said after last season.

Nothing during the past four months would indicate that Cheveldayoff's confidence in Pavelec has wavered, either.

Jets bank on improvement from youth in lineup

In three seasons since moving from Atlanta, the Winnipeg Jets have finished with 84, 51 (about 87 over a full season) and 84 points.

It is fair to say the time for tangible progress has come. The question for the Jets is whether a step forward can happen in what looks like the toughest division in the NHL?

There were not a lot of changes made. Adding Mathieu Perreault to replace Olli Jokinen might not have garnered a lot of attention in early July, but it can be a slight upgrade. There are some intriguing young talents with the ability to improve, and that appears to be the most likely path to an improved point total and maybe postseason contention.

The biggest problem is the other six teams in the Central Division. Five participated in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the sixth, the Nashville Predators, welcome back one of the best goalies in the world from injury and made other improvements during the offseason.

Here is the projected lineup in 2014-15 for the Jets:


Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Michael Frolik

Evander Kane - Mark Scheifele - Blake Wheeler

Carl Klingberg - Mathieu Perreault - Dustin Byfuglien

Eric Tangradi - Jim Slater - Matt Halischuk

TJ Galiardi - Chris Thorburn

Michael Frolik and Blake Wheeler split time on Winnipeg's top line last season. Add in Dustin Byfuglien's move to forward and the Jets have three options on the right side that could be part of a fluid situation.

Mark Scheifele could be one of the League's breakout stars in 2014-15, and that would be a major boost for the Jets. It could also help Evander Kane, as could an uptick from his 7.6 percent shooting percentage last season.

There is a spot in the top nine that appears up for grabs as training camp beckons. Carl Klingberg provides an interesting option. Another option is 2014 first-round pick Nikolaj Ehlers, who had 60 goals and 132 points in 79 combined regular-season and playoff games last season for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

None of the other options available for the final spot on the third line or any of the fourth-line roles provided much offense in 2013-14. That could lead to an extended look for Ehlers or Patrice Cormier, who hasn't done much in limited NHL opportunities.


Tobias Enstrom - Zach Bogosian

Mark Stuart - Jacob Trouba

Adam Pardy - Paul Postma

Grant Clitsome

Moving Byfuglien to forward did not help the Jets in the puck-possession department, and he's been a favorite of the analytics community for a while now. What could help is improvement from Jacob Trouba, who had a nice rookie season and could be a No. 1 guy in the future.

Grant Clitsome and Paul Postma both missed large chunks of last season with injuries, but this group could be deeper with both of them at full strength. Adam Pardy saw very sheltered minutes but played well in his most NHL action since his first two seasons with the Calgary Flames in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

If Ehlers is the prospect to watch during camp up front, then Joshua Morrissey is that guy on the blue line. Trouba played as a 19-year-old for the Jets, and Morrissey went four spots later in the draft a year later.


Ondrej Pavelec

Michael Hutchinson

In the past three seasons, 29 goaltenders have played at least 100 games. None had a worse save percentage than Ondrej Pavelec's .904 in that span. His team's ability (or inability) to play defense in front of him is not enough of the reason for this -- Pavelec just hasn't been good enough.

For the Jets to have a chance at making the playoffs, they need better goaltending. Pavelec has three seasons remaining on his contract, but there are several intriguing prospects queuing up behind him. Michael Hutchinson had a strong run in the Calder Cup Playoffs and is likely to get the backup nod to start the season. Eric Comrie and Connor Hellebuyck are young but talented.

This feels like the last chance for Pavelec to prove he can be at least an average starting goaltender for the Jets. To this point, he has one season (2010-11) in five where that was the case.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Nikolaj Ehlers, F Anthony Peluso, D Keaton Ellerby, D Joshua Morrissey, G Juho Olkiuora

Maurice, Frolik top Jets' five questions

Even a busy offseason would have left the Winnipeg Jets in a difficult position to push their way into Central Division contention.

The Jets finished in last place in the Central Division in 2013-14 with a 37-35-10 record, but general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff elected to keep his roster mostly intact, with third-line center Mathieu Perreault as his only significant addition. If the Jets are to push aside some of their Central Division competition and reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, they will need to answer these five questions:

1. Can coach Paul Maurice impose his values on the Jets? -- Former coach Claude Noel failed to change the losing ways which accompanied the Jets from their former home in Atlanta, and it cost him his job.

Maurice established some early success with the Jets in winning nine of his first 11 games, but Winnipeg's losing ways resumed late in the season. Maurice brings with him the credibility of more than 1,100 games as an NHL coach, and he has a mandate to change the Jets' ways on and off the ice.
The coach sent his team into the summer with a warning that it should expect a very grueling training camp as he attempts to improve its conditioning and fitness. The Jets had six regulation or overtime/shootout losses when leading after two periods.

Maurice must also improve Winnipeg's power play, which ranked No. 25 last season and No. 30 in 2012-13.

2. What will happen with versatile forward Michael Frolik? -- The one-year deal signed by the popular Frolik this summer leaves open the possibility he could depart next summer as an unrestricted free agent.

The Jets and Frolik are allowed to resume contract negotiations in January. If the Jets remain in contention but negotiation talks are not showing significant progress, Cheveldayoff could be left with a very difficult choice at the NHL Trade Deadline -- retain Frolik for a much-awaited playoff push but risk losing him for nothing next summer or move Frolik in a trade while the Jets are still in contention.

3. Can the Jets avoid letdown games? -- Last season the Jets managed to defeat the Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks (twice) on the road. However, they managed to negate the effects of those big wins by losing several road games against non-playoff teams. In an 18-day span in December, the Jets lost road games against the Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers, all of whom missed the playoffs. The Jets must show a better ability to bear down and defeat teams below them in the NHL standings.

4. Can the Jets improve against the Central Division? -- A 9-15-5 record against their division brethren thwarted any chance that the Jets had to mount a playoff challenge. Their divisional play and their play at home (18-17-6) must improve.

Four of Winnipeg's first seven home games are against Central Division competition. An early failure to win divisional games at MTS Centre could doom the Jets.

5. Can Ondrej Pavelec break his way out of the bottom echelon of NHL goaltenders? -- This one is simple. If Pavelec fails to establish himself in his sixth full NHL season, the Jets missing the playoffs this season might be the least of Cheveldayoff's headaches.

There is little evidence to suggest that anything other than a phenomenal performance from backup Michael Hutchinson would threaten Pavelec's starting job. Another sub-par season from Pavelec would only intensify the critics calling for the Jets to ship out their starting goaltender.

Jets looking for answers to end playoff drought

The Winnipeg Jets will need to find answers from within if they hope to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, when the franchise was based in Atlanta.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made few changes, opting to retain all but four players from a team that finished last in the Central Division and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the third consecutive season since the Jets hired him in 2011.

"There are still some irons in the fire that haven't come to fruition yet," Cheveldayoff said to the Winnipeg media July 1, a few hours after the Jets had signed free-agent center Mathieu Perreault.

"You're in some deals, and maybe you're not in some deals."

As it turns out, nothing much materialized for Cheveldayoff.

While the Jets' six Central Division counterparts stocked up their rosters this summer, the Jets remained mostly quiet. Cheveldayoff added Perreault from the Anaheim Ducks to replace veteran Olli Jokinen. Perreault scored 18 goals with the Ducks in 2013-14.

Cheveldayoff added to the Jets' contingent of bottom-six forwards in late July with the signing of TJ Galiardi, who scored four goals and had 17 points in 62 games with the Calgary Flames last season.

Much of the Jets' biggest offseason news has involved a player who has not left the organization. Left wing Evander Kane has been the subject of trade speculation all summer, but he is very likely to at least begin the season in Winnipeg.

Kane is a probable candidate to play on the second line with center Mark Scheifele and right wing Blake Wheeler, who led the Jets with 28 goals and 69 points last season. Captain Andrew Ladd likely again will flank center Bryan Little on the left side of the top line alongside Michael Frolik, whom the Jets retained on a one-year contract. Perreault is expected to center Dustin Byfuglien and a forward-to-be determined on the third line.

Rather than bringing in reinforcements from outside the organization, Cheveldayoff will count on having a full season of coach Paul Maurice and his emphasis on improving the team's physical conditioning. The Jets gave Maurice a four-year contract after last season. They also hired Craig Slaunwhite, who spent five seasons with the Florida Panthers, as their new director of fitness.

Instead of a roster makeover, Maurice's presence and his ability to reshape his team will be a major factor this season. After replacing Claude Noel on Jan. 12, Maurice led the Jets to nine wins in their next 11 games and moved the team into playoff contention before a crush of injuries in March ended any postseason hopes.

"We're trying to move to the middle of the pack en route to becoming a team that competes in the postseason," Maurice said after signing his new contract.
Maurice made sure that his players departed Winnipeg in April with his fitness-first message firmly in mind after a 90-minute skating session in the final week of the regular season. He vowed that it would be a taste of what his players could expect at training camp in September.

"First [players have] to know what is expected before you can hold anyone accountable, and that is on and off the ice," Maurice said in April. "The structure of who you are, this is what we do and this is what we hold you accountable to."

Maurice has another major task this season beyond fitness, and that is better goal prevention. When he took over, the Jets had allowed an average of 3.00 goals per game. With Maurice guiding them, they allowed an average of 2.74 goals in their final 35 games, but even that would have only been good for 19th in the NHL.

Maurice made improved team defense a priority for this season, but he'll also need goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to take a major step forward. The Jets finished 17th in the League with an average of 30.1 shots against; their 2.89 goals-against average ranked 21st.

The Jets' quiet summer means that they will be counting on Maurice, Pavelec and further growth from Scheifele, defenseman Jacob Trouba and a group of American Hockey League prospects. The Jets' AHL team, the St. John's IceCaps, advanced to the Calder Cup Finals.

"One thing you can't dismiss, and don't want to dismiss, is to see where the [summer] progression of your young kids comes along, and how much closer they might be after a summer," Cheveldayoff told Winnipeg reporters July 1. "If you're fortunate enough, your young kids could force you to make decisions at training camp."

Penguins adding forwards to top 10 prospects

Under former general manager Ray Shero, the Pittsburgh Penguins' philosophy was to prioritize defensemen in the draft. That led to the Penguins producing a number of high-end defense prospects but comparatively little up front. Now the forwards are starting to catch up.

"We're starting to get these forwards coming through the turnstiles," Penguins assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. "We feel like we've got them coming through now when in the past we haven't. We feel like we've got some forwards now finally coming through instead of being deep in just [defensive] depth."

Here is a look at the Penguins' top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Derrick Pouliot, D

How acquired: 1st round (No. 8), 2012 draft

Last season: 58 GP, 17-53-70, plus-40, Portland, WHL

Pouliot was third among all Western Hockey League defenseman in points and was named the league's best defenseman. But what really impressed Fitzgerald was how Pouliot not only excelled offensively but raised his defensive play; he had a plus-40 rating with Portland and had five points and a plus-2 rating for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"Derrick is a fantastic skater," Fitzgerald said. "He plays with his eyes up. He utilizes the four other teammates on the ice and makes it look easy at times. We asked him to work on his [defensive] zone play, engagement, being quick and physical, take away time and space with the puck. And we've seen that."
Pouliot had shoulder surgery in May that likely will sideline him through the first six weeks of the NHL season. However, he remains a major part of the Penguins' future.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

2. Kasperi Kapanen, RW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 22), 2014 draft

Last season: 47 GP, 7-7-14, KalPa, FIN

A shoulder injury, a last-place club team and a poor showing at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship had Kapanen happy his 2013-14 season was over. While he might not have liked it, scouts did, especially those in Pittsburgh, who were ecstatic that he remained available when their turn to draft came. They were even happier after getting to see him in action at the team's development camp.

"I saw him play in August [2013] with his peer group in Lake Placid [at a junior evaluation camp]," Fitzgerald said. "And I said there's a potential for this kid being that type of player that could play [in the NHL] as an 18-year-old because of the way he skates, the way he thinks the game, shoots the puck, can play 200 feet. ... He's a willing skater. He likes to jet around, he really likes to play at a high pace and that's what we really love about the kid. We feel like this kid could come in at training camp and battle for a spot. That's how high up the totem pole we think of him."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

3. Philip Samuelsson, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 61), 2009 draft

Last season: 64 GP, 3-19-22, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL

The Penguins weren't thrilled when Samuelsson left Boston College after two seasons, but last season, his second as a professional, he played well enough to earn a five-game NHL call-up and put himself in the running for a full-time spot in Pittsburgh this season.

"He's really come a long way," Fitzgerald said. "He had to work on his quickness, he had to work on his agility, he had to work on his strength. But he took every situation as a challenge. ... He's got such a strong work ethic, he's got the lineage. People might put a lot of emphasis on that, some people might not. But from our experience that really helped him. His dad [former NHL player Ulf Samuelsson] worked with him during the summer, showed him the conditioning part of it. He got stronger, his skating has improved. He's put himself in position to win a spot in Pittsburgh."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

4. Tristan Jarry, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 44), 2013 draft

Last season: 63 GP, 44-14-3, 2.24 GAA, .914 SVP, 8 SO, Edmonton, WHL

Most people saw the player who was named the best goaltender in the Western Hockey League and the starter in net for the team that won the Memorial Cup. However, Fitzgerald said what makes Jarry such a big part of the Penguins' future is how he recovered after going 3-5-0 and allowing 24 goals in his first eight games.

"I gave him the, 'We love you,' story," Fitzgerald said. "We moved up in the draft to take you for a reason, we signed you right away for a reason. We're sending a development coach out there to spend time with you for a reason. We envision you being the future Pittsburgh Penguins backstop here. Don't worry about what we think. Don't worry if you're disappointing us because of your numbers because you're not disappointing any of us. ... I said just go play, I don't care if you stop another puck this year. It doesn't matter, it doesn't change the way we feel about you. I think that put him at ease.

"I don't think I talked to him after that, just congratulations on goaltender of the year, the Memorial Cup, some text messages back and forth. He basically took his career in his own hands and he took ownership of it."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

5. Brian Dumoulin, D

How acquired: Trade (Carolina Hurricanes), June 23, 2012

Last season: 53 GP, 5-16-21, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL

In his second professional season, Dumoulin did enough to earn himself six games with the Penguins. If he continues on his upward trajectory, there will be more NHL games in his near future.

"When it got down to crunch time, the [American Hockey League] playoffs, the last two seasons, Brian was our best defenseman, probably the best defenseman in the league come playoff time," Fitzgerald said. "He looked like an NHL player playing in the American Hockey League. We get excited about that. ... We believe he can play in the NHL every day."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

6. Josh Archibald, RW

How acquired: 6th round (No. 174), 2011 draft

Last season: 37 GP, 29-14-43, Nebraska-Omaha, NCHC

Archibald doesn't wow anyone with his raw skills, but his strong work ethic has him in the organization's plans.

"He works so hard and he competes and his speed creates so much for him offensively," Fitzgerald said. "He gets opportunities a lot because of his work ethic and the way he gets to the net. He's not afraid of traffic. We envision a guy like that challenging [for an NHL spot]. Is he going to need time in Wilkes-Barre? Absolutely. But if he can challenge for that competition call-up spot and get experience that way, and then grow the confidence back in Wilkes-Barre, maybe he becomes a Tyler Kennedy and finds his way to being an everyday player."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

7. Scott Harrington, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 54), 2011 draft

Last season: 76 GP, 5-19-24, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL

His numbers might not explode off the page, but the 21-year-old plays with a maturity to his game far beyond his years or his peers.

"He plays like he's played for 15 years as a pro," Fitzgerald said. "He's got very good poise, he doesn't get rattled, he gets every shot from the point through to the net or at least to the back boards. There's so much to like about him. He's an unassuming player where at the end of the day you might not notice him but the coach is always throwing him back over the boards.

"You saw that in his junior career in London [OHL]. The one thing with Scott Harrington compared to some of the young defenseman we've had as 20-year-olds or first-year pro guys, he's the only one on the list of guys we've had that played every game for us. Joe Morrow, Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, Philip Samuelsson, those guys were healthy scratches at least once, because pro hockey is hard. But not once with this kid."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

8. Bryan Rust, RW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 80), 2010 draft

Last season: 40 GP, 17-16-33, Notre Dame, Hockey East

In four seasons at Notre Dame, Rust developed from a bottom of the roster player to a versatile, important member of a winning team. The Penguins project that growth continuing as he starts his pro career in the American Hockey League this season.

"Bryan has turned out to be a real good hockey player," Fitzgerald said. "He's a jack of all trades, master of none. He does a lot of good things. ... Things weren't real rosy there at Notre Dame. But you saw the maturity in the player, not only his game but the mental side of it. He became a leader, and then his work ethic became a signature of what he was."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

9. Jean-Sebastien Dea, C

How acquired: Signed as free agent, Sept. 17, 2013

Last season: 65 GP, 49-26-75, Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL

Dea is listed at 6-feet and 155 pounds, but his offensive numbers belie his lack of size.

"He came highly recommended form our Quebec scouts," Fitzgerald said. "They saw a smart hockey player, they saw compete. They saw a small player, but the other parts we believe will compensate for his lack of height or weight. He seems to be getting bigger, he's getting stronger. One thing you can't teach is hockey sense, and he's got that and he's got good skill. He distributes the puck well. We're excited to add him to the mix."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

10. Scott Wilson, C

How acquired: 7th round (No. 209), 2011 draft

Last season: 31 GP, 7-12-19, UMass-Lowell, Hockey East

Wilson gained more of a reputation for his physical play than his scoring during his three seasons in college, but the Penguins love the former and think there's more of the latter that will come as he grows his game in the AHL.

"There's a lot to like about this kid," Fitzgerald said. "He shoots the puck. He's got a quick release. Not a big kid [but] he knows how to hit. He knows the benefit of an open-ice hit, checking someone with their head down and driving through their chest. He has that in his game, along with the scoring ability. We're real excited about Scott Wilson."

Penguins lineup needs more from bottom-six forwards

The Pittsburgh Penguins have won four Stanley Cup Playoff series in the past five seasons, a stretch preceded by back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final with what was the NHL's best collection of young star power.

When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy and on the roster, the expectation is to win four playoff rounds every season. There has been plenty of regular-season success in Pittsburgh, but the roster has eroded around them and losing three straight games after taking a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the second round meant the end for general manager Ray Shero and, eventually, coach Dan Bylsma.

New GM Jim Rutherford has tried to bolster the Penguins' depth, and he's earned deserved praise for some low-cost, low-risk additions. His big roster move, trading talented sniper James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, played to mixed reviews.

The other big acquisition is coach Mike Johnston, who had plenty of experience as an NHL assistant and plenty of success with Portland in the Western Hockey League, but is now the lead guy at this level for the first time.

Pittsburgh has won 15 playoff games in the past two seasons, and that cost the GM and the coach their jobs. The Penguins might not be the standard for success in the NHL anymore, but that hasn't lowered expectations. They are the favorites to win the Metropolitan Division again, but whether they deserve to be considered among the NHL's elite remains to be determined.


Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Pascal Dupuis

Patric Hornqvist - Evgeni Malkin - Beau Bennett

Nick Spaling - Brandon Sutter - Steve Downie

Blake Comeau - Marcel Goc - Craig Adams

Jayson Megna - Zach Sill

The Penguins were a pretty simple team to figure out last season. When Crosby or Malkin were on the ice, they were one of the best teams in the League. When they weren't, they were a lottery team. All teams see drop-offs from their stars to their grunts, but the chasm in puck possession was alarming.

Hornqvist will have to score to replace Neal, but whether Spaling can be more than an average third-line player could be the key to that trade. Having a healthy and productive Pascal Dupuis, once a Spaling-like add on to a major trade, is critical. Crosby still won the League scoring title and MVP, but the rotating cast of characters on his right side was a drag on his output.

Steve Downie could be a steal on a one-year deal, but he's had some serious health issues. A full season of Marcel Goc and the addition of Blake Comeau is a huge boost for the fourth line, which was one of the worst in the NHL last season.

It is still going to be up to Crosby and Malkin to carry the offense, but the hope is that a little more help from the bottom two lines could go a long way in the postseason.


Paul Martin - Christian Ehrhoff

Olli Maatta - Kris Letang

Simon Despres - Rob Scuderi

Robert Bortuzzo

Christian Ehrhoff was one of the best signings of the offseason. He might not match Matt Niskanen's traditional production from 2013-14, but he could be an upgrade and help the Penguins keep the puck a little more. Paul Martin has been the best defenseman on the roster for the past two seasons, and remains underappreciated in the city after a slow start to his tenure with the club.

Kris Letang is supposed to be the best defenseman on the roster, and he's being paid like an elite player. If he can put his health problems from last season behind him, this could be a big year for him to try to reestablish his value.

Letang played well with rookie Olli Maatta, who was a revelation early in the season, dropped off a bit by the end and could miss the start of the season after having shoulder surgery in May. He and another young defenseman, most likely Simon Despres, have a chance to help make this defense corps one of the best in the East.
Several other young defensemen, including Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson, could make a play for a roster spot during training camp.


Marc-Andre Fleury

Thomas Greiss

Marc-Andre Fleury was fine during the 2014 postseason, which is obviously a big upgrade from the 2012 and 2013 disasters. However, he's in the last year of his contract and probably needs to be more than fine in 2014-15 to not have his future with the organization in doubt.

Thomas Greiss was another strong, sneaky pickup by the Penguins. Greiss has three seasons with at least 16 games played and a .912 save percentage in the past four, including a .920 in 25 during the 2013-14 campaign. Having an above-average backup goaltender can be the difference in winning a division title or claiming the top spot in the conference, something the Penguins will aspire to do.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Kasperi Kapanen, F Andrew Ebbett, D Brian Dumoulin, D Scott Harrington, G Jeff Zatkoff

Penguins need Ehrhoff to replace departed Niskanen

Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff had a whirlwind offseason.

After being bought out from his contract with the Buffalo Sabres, the 32-year-old was signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins to a one-year, $4-million contract shortly after free agency opened July 1. Now he enters the 2014-15 season as an instrumental piece to the Penguins' defensive corps.

Pittsburgh was unable to retain defensemen Matt Niskanen, who had a career year in 2013-14 with 10 goals and 46 points, and Brooks Orpik, its most tenured player entering the offseason. Each signed with the Metropolitan-Division rival Washington Capitals, making their losses sting that much more.

But the Penguins shifted their focus away from landing a possible top-six forward in free agency and instead decided to solidify their defense by adding Ehrhoff, who could more than make up for the losses of Niskanen and Orpik.
"For me, definitely, a puck-possession game is huge," Ehrhoff said. "I'm a player who likes to move the puck, get the puck to the forwards quick and tries to be involved in the offense too, and so it would definitely fit my style of play. … When you have [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin on the team, it's pretty obvious you have two of the top players in the game, and especially at the center position it's huge to have two guys like that in the lineup.

"I think the supporting cast is very good too. To me, the defense still looks good too, so I think all around, we have a good lineup and Pittsburgh is always one of the names when you talk about teams that have a chance to win the Cup."

Niskanen was pivotal in the development of 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta in his rookie season. It will most likely be Ehrhoff's responsibility to ensure Maatta avoids a sophomore slump while defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin are paired.

Maatta will benefit from the Penguins adding someone who is strikingly similar to Niskanen, although possibly more consistent throughout his career.

Niskanen's career numbers were bolstered by his offensive output last season, often utilizing his impressive slap shot while on the power play. Ehrhoff brings a similar skill set to Pittsburgh, but has proven its dependency throughout his career.

Ehrhoff has averaged .45 points per game through 692 games. Niskanen has averaged .34 points per game in 491 and that average was below .30 prior to his notable 2013-14 season.

But Niskanen was the better player last season, with four more goals and 13 more points. Ehrhoff is capable of replicating or possibly surpassing the output Niskanen produced with Pittsburgh in 2013-14, but if he doesn't, it is possible the Penguins have taken a step back in terms of offensive production from their blue line.

"We did have a little bit of concern about our defense. We were very fortunate to sign Christian Ehrhoff to fill that void that Niskanen and Orpik left when they went into free agency," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "We feel that our young defensemen can do the same job as a lot of these other defensemen that got signed. But the fact that we could sign a guy like Ehrhoff, that made a big difference.

"Ehrhoff is a player that can play in a lot of situations. … He's in great shape. He's a great team guy and he can really skate."

New coach, players among Penguins five questions

The Pittsburgh Penguins will enter the 2014-15 season as a different team, for better or worse.

After another disappointing result in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pittsburgh overhauled its managerial and coaching staffs, then retooled its roster. The Penguins have been one of the NHL's more consistent franchises in recent years, but their lack of satisfaction with regular-season success has led to a new direction.

Here are five questions the Penguins must answer if they plan to remain the steady franchise they were under their previous regime:

1. Will the new coach pay immediate dividends? -- Pittsburgh replaced Dan Bylsma, who led it to a Stanley Cup in 2009, with Mike Johnston, who has never been an NHL head coach or player.

Johnston could prove he was the right hire.

While coaching the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, he employed an up-tempo system that seems catered to how the Penguins are built to play. Pittsburgh has two of the NHL's best players in forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering their top two lines, which should help the Penguins transition into Johnston's scheme.

"I like to come out as a pack, just because I think there's more options for the puck carrier," Johnston said. "Once you stretch the zone really quick, then your puck carrier is isolated often and he has to chip the puck in, dump it in and there's no support."
But having Crosby and Malkin in their primes could be an unenviable scenario. The Penguins' window to win with this core will eventually close. Johnston enters the season with substantial expectations and that puts a gigantic amount of pressure on a coach who is just getting his feet wet in the NHL.

2. Will the new-look roster produce a better result? -- These are not the same Penguins that bowed out in the second round of the 2014 playoffs.

Forward James Neal was traded to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Forwards Jussi Jokinen, Joe Vitale and Tanner Glass are gone, as are defensemen Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland.

A noteworthy portion of the Penguins' lineup has been lost, but they've used the past few months to fill some of their roster holes. Pittsburgh signed defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who should make losing Niskanen and Orpik more manageable, as well as forwards Steve Downie and Blake Comeau.

3. How healthy is the first line? -- Pittsburgh has arguably the League's most impressive top line when healthy, assuming it uses the same line as a season ago. But it's uncertain how ready Crosby and forward Pascal Dupuis will be in October.

After struggling to score throughout the postseason, it was discovered Crosby was playing with an injured wrist. He elected not to have surgery and it remains to be seen if that will affect the defending Hart Trophy winner in his quest for back-to-back League MVP honors.

Dupuis, who sustained a season-ending ACL tear on Dec. 23, expects to be fully recovered for training camp in September. But even if he is healthy, missing 43 games last season could amount to some level of rust.

4. Will Malkin thrive with a new line? -- Malkin, Neal and Jokinen were Pittsburgh's most consistent trio last season. Malkin must adjust to two new linemates quickly.

Hornqvist is expected to take one spot alongside the Hart, Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy winner while Beau Bennett could get one more chance to claim the other wing. Malkin has a penchant for making those around him better, and he will need to showcase it yet again.

5. Will Kris Letang return to form? -- Letang had a rough 2013-14 season. He missed 45 games due to several injuries, including a stroke sustained in late January.

But after being paired with defenseman Paul Martin a few games into the playoffs, Letang's defensive game dramatically improved while his notable offensive skill set remained intact. He is expected to enter the season paired with Martin, which could see him return to the level he reached as a Norris Trophy finalist in 2012-13.

Rutherford, Johnston eager to help Penguins rebound

After another disappointing Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been taken in a different direction featuring new leadership and a retooled roster.

The Penguins will set out to prove the changes were worth the risk.

Pittsburgh was eliminated in the Eastern Conference Second Round despite a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers heading back to Consol Energy Center for Game 5. The Penguins scored one goal in each of the following three games and were outscored by seven.

In five years since winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, the Penguins have yet to return to the Stanley Cup Final. The dissatisfaction with postseason futility led Pittsburgh to make notable changes throughout the organization.
General manager Ray Shero was fired May 16, followed by coach Dan Bylsma on June 6. New general manager Jim Rutherford, who was hired the same day Bylsma was let go, and coach Mike Johnston replaced the duo that played a key role in establishing Pittsburgh as one of the preeminent franchises in recent years.

One of Johnston's first acts as Penguins coach was to reach out to forward Sidney Crosby, who decided against having offseason surgery on an injured wrist.

"We didn't talk a lot about the injury," Johnston said. "We talked more about how he's feeling, sort of the situation with the team, how the team was, just different dynamics. It's a chance to interact with him and get a feel for where he's at, and I knew him a little bit before but I never really sat down and talked to him extensively like that."

Rutherford didn't take long to make his mark on the team, firing Bylsma and hiring Johnston as well as trading forward James Neal during the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patrick Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal, a former 40-goal scorer, was a pillar on Pittsburgh's second line next to forward Evgeni Malkin.

But Neal was criticized for making questionable decisions on the ice, which played a factor in him being traded, Rutherford said. Hornqvist will most likely take the place of Neal or forward Jussi Jokinen, who signed with the Florida Panthers during free agency, next to Malkin.

Hornqvist could benefit from playing next to Malkin in much the same way Neal did after being traded to Pittsburgh from the Dallas Stars during the 2010-11 season.

Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was also involved in that 2010-11 trade, signed with the Washington Capitals during free agency along with defenseman Brooks Orpik. A hole was left in the Penguins' defensive corps, which was partially filled by the signing of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

The expected pairings of defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, and defensemen Olli Maatta and Ehrhoff seem set, but there remains opportunity for a young player to make a mark on Pittsburgh's defense.

Defenseman Simon Despres could receive another chance to live up to his potential under a new regime. Defensemen Brian Dumoulin, who has played in six NHL games, and Derrick Pouliot, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, could also earn a spot on the opening-night roster.

"It's always an opportunity," Dumoulin said. "Even last year and coming into this year, coming into training camp, I just want to prove to them that hopefully I can make that team, and I'm going to do everything from now until that point to put myself in the best position to have an opportunity. So I'm looking forward going into this training camp."

The Penguins will enter the season looking vaguely familiar to the team they were a year ago. They are still headlined by Crosby, Malkin, Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. That core remains intact.

But not much else is the same, and that's led to more uncertainty surrounding Pittsburgh than there has been in several seasons.

Johnston traveled to Russia to meet with Malkin in addition to his meeting with Crosby. His intention has been to meet with several players in order to eliminate some of that uncertainty.

"That's what I really want to do with our players over the course of the summer, as many as I can, get to meet with personally," Johnston said. "It's a matter of getting to know their personality, getting to know a little bit about their background so that when it comes to training camp, you're involved with so many people at one time that you don't have the chance to spend 1-on-1 time with these guys and everything goes really quick.

"And I want to make sure before training camp that I get a chance to connect with all the guys."

Roster moves spotlight Rangers' five questions

After struggling through a marathon nine-game road trip to start the 2013-14 season, the New York Rangers found their footing by the holidays before enjoying a memorable march to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years.

With many key players leaving in the offseason and more potential roster changes coming next summer, here are five questions the Rangers face entering this season:

1. Can Dan Boyle help replace both Brad Richards and Anton Stralman? -- Boyle, 38, signed a two-year contract with New York, and the veteran defenseman has the unenviable task of trying to replace two recent departures in defenseman Anton Stralman and forward Brad Richards.

The offseason started with the Rangers using a compliance buyout on Richards and then trading Derek Dorsett to the Vancouver Canucks before Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle departed in free agency. Other than Boyle's $9 million contract, New York didn't make waves in free agency.
On the power play, Dan Boyle replaces Richards, who quarterbacked a unit that ranked 15th in the regular season before disappearing entirely in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Boyle has already spearheaded top units with the San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning, and could help improve New York's special teams.

"When it looked like we couldn't get something done with Anton, Dan Boyle was a guy we identified," Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said. "Knowing we were going to lose Brad Richards and having Danny out there to handle the power play and be that right-handed defenseman that could be in our top four, he can fill two roles for us."

The true challenge will be replacing the puck possession and defensive responsibility Stralman provided before signing a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Lightning. Stralman's 56.5 Corsi-for rating led all Rangers regulars last season.

2. How will the Rangers supplement the forward depth they lost? -- In his first year as Rangers coach, Alain Vigneault rolled all four lines and got consistent scoring from the top three units. He'll be challenged to do that again this season.

New York got key plays from Richards and Pouliot, who signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers. A fourth line considered among the NHL's best was also dismantled when Brian Boyle signed with the Lightning and Dorsett was traded.

The Rangers hope free-agent additions Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass, Chris Mueller and Matthew Lombardi, and some of their young talent, can help maintain that forward depth.

3. Will the Rangers sign Marc Staal to an extension? -- New York could experience similar free-agent drama next summer when forward Martin St. Louis becomes an unrestricted free agent and Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin become restricted free agents. But their biggest free agent could be defenseman Marc Staal, who has expressed his wishes to sign an extension before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.

The Rangers secured their core early last season by signing goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Dan Girardi to extensions. Doing the same with Staal would lock up a team leader and important defender.

4. Who will replace Pouliot on that key left wing spot? -- While New York developed chemistry and consistency from December through June, the trio of Brassard, Zuccarello and Pouliot emerged as a top offensive threat.

Playing for his fifth team in five seasons, Pouliot blossomed, scoring a career-high 36 points and becoming a Vigneault favorite. But like Stralman, the Rangers couldn't match another team's offer. Chris Kreider features similar reach and speed, but it remains to be seen who can fill the hole left on that line.

"The coaches have some ideas and we've talked to them about that. There's definitely a few guys that we'll look at," Gorton said. "I think it will be a little trial and error."

5. Can Rick Nash return to elite form? -- New York's success drew attention away from a disappointing season for its highest-paid skater.

Nash led the Rangers in goals last season, but 26 goals and 39 points in 65 games aren't necessarily numbers befitting a star player responsible for a $7.8-million cap charge in each of the next four seasons. Nash's production dropped precipitously during the postseason, when he scored three goals in 25 games.

With St. Louis and Stepan potentially serving as linemates, Nash will be expected to recapture the form that saw him score 38 or more goals three times with the Columbus Blue Jackets.