Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

What they're saying: NHL preseason questions include 'Can Lightning thrive again?'

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby added the World Cup championship and MVP honors to his two Stanley Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals last month, but for some reason, critics still find fault with him. They shouldn't. Crosby comes up big at big moments and has a chance to lead the Penguins to a second straight Cup title, a feat no team has managed since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

Here are the big questions in the Eastern Conference leading into the season:

Can Florida's teams thrive again?

The Lightning, which reached the Cup final in 2015 and the East final last season, kept forward Steven Stamkos with an eight-year, $68 million contract and foundation defenseman Victor Hedman for eight years and $63 million. It must find salary cap space to re-sign restricted free-agent forward Nikita Kucherov. Jon Cooper is among the NHL's brightest coaches and kept the Lightning strong defensively.

The Panthers won the Atlantic Division last season with a franchise-record 47 wins but lost in the first round of the playoffs, leading ownership to move general manager Dale Tallon to a hockey operations role. Jaromir Jagr, who will be 45 in February, led them in scoring last season with 66 points but should be passed by dynamic youngsters Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. The offseason acquisition of defenseman Keith Yandle should help standout Aaron Ekblad with power-play production. Goalie Roberto Luongo's fiery competitiveness fuels them.

Will goaltender Matt Murray's broken hand slow the Penguins?

Murray broke his hand during the World Cup and was expected to miss three to six weeks, but it's a long season and 2009 Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury can easily step in. General manager Jim Rutherford showed last season he's adept at adjusting on the fly, providing ingredients for a team that progressively improved.

Will the Red Wings' playoff streak continue?

All good things must come to an end, and that likely will include the Red Wings' 25-season streak of making the postseason. Aging and lacking depth, they'll have trouble scoring and will miss the magic of Pavel Datsyuk, who went home to Russia.

Can the Canadiens return to the playoffs?

Goaltender Carey Price was outstanding for Canada during the World Cup, soothing anxiety over whether he would regain his form after suffering a knee injury that limited him to 12 games last season. The Canadiens made headlines over the summer when they sent flashy and popular defenseman P.K. Subban to Nashville for stalwart but slowing Shea Weber, valuing short-term solidity on defense over Subban's production and personality. Coach Michel Therrien will be under a lot of pressure to reach the playoffs.

Speaking of coaches, who's on the hot seat?

The Penguins' success after they changed coaches at midseason could put some coaches under intense pressure to start well. That could include Therrien and Boston's Claude Julien if his team has a slow start following its nonplayoff finish last season.

Which teams are on the rise?

Buffalo is, with 2015 No. 2 overall draft pick Jack Eichel (24 goals and 46 points as a rookie), emerging defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, free-agent find Kyle Okposo and 2016 No. 8 pick Alexander Nylander. Their speed should give opponents fits. Toronto, 30th overall last season with 29 wins and 69 points, can get only better — and it will. This year's no. 1 overall pick, forward Auston Matthews — who made news during camp when one of his shots shattered the glass in the practice rink — will lead the Maple Leafs toward respectability as they get younger and faster. They're hoping goalie Frederik Andersen can be durable.

Will the Presidents' Trophy again be a goal for the Capitals?

It wasn't much consolation after they led the NHL in wins (56) and points (120) but lost to Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs. They were so dominant for so long that they might have lost their edge: They won only three of their last nine regular-season games and weren't improving or establishing a rhythm as the playoffs approached.

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