A question for each NHL team heading into training camp

Auston Matthews and John Tavares sit down with Elliotte Friedman to discuss the Maple Leafs captaincy, free agency, and handling high expectations.

And just like that, summer is over.

NHL training camps are opening up around the league, which means the new season is upon us. Games will start next week and the season opens less than a month from now, on Oct. 3.

Every team comes into this part of the calendar with optimism and hope that everything will work out. Roster battles are plentiful around the league as rookies look to make their mark, while injured players try to get back in time for puck drop next month. All of these storylines will have an impact on the 2018-19 season.

Here’s a look at a question facing each team heading into training camp:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston: Can one of three young rookies earn third-line centre spot?
When the Bruins head to China to play a couple pre-season games against the Calgary Flames this week and next, their top two centres won’t be with them. So as Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci rest up at home, a trio of youngsters will be given prime minutes and an opportunity to make the case to stick with the NHL team when the real games start in October.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Trent Frederic and Jack Studnicka all became pros last season, the latter two of whom graduated after their NCAA and OHL seasons, respectively. Forsbacka-Karlsson scored 32 points in 58 AHL games and may have the inside track as the most offensively gifted of the bunch, but Frederic brings the tenacity some teams love in their bottom-six, while Studnicka comes with a playmaking ability that saw him lead the Oshawa Generals with 50 assists in 2017-18. The departure of Riley Nash has opened the door for someone to take advantage.

Buffalo: Can Casey Mittelstadt break in as a productive second-line centre?
The Sabres are expected to be one of the most improved teams in 2018-19, but as natural as the Jack Eichel-Jeff skinner connection appears to be, they’ll need to get a good amount of support scoring from the secondary unit to actually take that step.

Mittelstadt will be a massive factor in this regard. The eighth-overall pick in 2017 was a leading scorer for the University of Minnesota last season, tied for the scoring lead at the world juniors and ended the year with one goal and five points in six NHL games with the Sabres. Zemgus Girgensons is a bottom-six player at this point and Patrik Berglund, acquired in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, hasn’t topped 40 points since 2010-11.

Detroit: Can Evgeny Svechnikov crack the roster out of camp?
His brother will break into the NHL with great fanfare as the second-overall pick, but can the older Svechnikov earn an opening-night spot one year after a bit of bad luck set him back? While Andrei is one of the early Calder Trophy favourites with Carolina, Evgeny is coming off a disappointing season that started with an injury in the pre-season.

Heading back to the AHL, he followed up his 20-goal rookie season with just seven goals and 23 points in 57 games. First-rounders Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina may already have the inside track on cracking the roster, so the longer Svechnikov goes without making it, the harder it will become. This is an important camp for the soon-to-be 22-year-old.

Toronto: Who will be the No. 6 defenceman?
Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are the expected five locks to man Toronto’s back end this season, barring injury. But that No. 6 spot appears wide open heading into training camp.

Justin Holl and his two goals in two NHL games will be a factor, along with Connor Carrick who signed a one-year, $1.3-million extension to be a depth player for the club. After that, Russian rookie Igor Ozhiganov and the two Swedes brought in last season, Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, will be looking to make some noise. First-rounder Timothy Liljegren may be more of a long shot given the Leafs won’t want to rush him, but he could end up in the call-up discussion at some point this season.

Montreal: What do the top-six forwards look like?
Max Domi and Tomas Tatar are the two newest faces and both figure to slot into the top-six somewhere, but just what those two lines look like is still to be determined. If the playmaker Domi catches pre-season chemistry with Brendan Gallagher and his 30-goal upside, it could make for a potent top unit. Phillip Danault is a candidate to have a breakout season, but does he end up on Line 2 with Tatar? Different combinations will surely be tried in the pre-season games, so it will be interesting to see what coach Claude Julien experiments with.

Florida: Will Owen Tippett make the cut this time?
The 10th-overall pick from 2017 cracked the NHL roster out of camp a year ago and played seven games with the team, scoring once. In his NHL debut, Tippett logged 11:39 of ice and recorded seven shots on goal, after which Panthers coach Bob Boughner said Tippett was his best player. Tippett didn’t stick, however, and went back to junior where he scored 36 times in 51 games. Tippett didn’t make last year’s Canadian world juniors team and missed this year’s summer camp due to injury, but should be given another chance to earn his way into the Panthers’ lineup. Still just 19, if he doesn’t earn a full-time job this time, he’ll go back to junior again.

Tampa Bay: Will Andrei Vasilevskiy be able to overcome Tampa Bay’s defensive issues?
Although Vasilevskiy was a Vezina Trophy finalist, he faded badly down the stretch. From Jan. 1 onward, his .905 save percentage ranked 38th in the league, tied with the likes of Petr Mrazek and Alex Lyon. During that time he also faced the third-most shots against so those numbers were negatively affected by the massive workload, but it is noteworthy how drastically he fell off from a .934 save percentage in his first 31 games. Tampa Bay had a bottom-10 defence when measured by shot suppression last season and figure to give up a lot again in 2018-19.

Ottawa: Will Brady Tkachuk make the team out of camp?
It could be a long season in Ottawa. In the bizarre Eugene Melnyk “interview” this week, the team owner alluded to the pending rebuild and that this year’s team would run out a number of young players and that number would rise a season from now. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene are pending UFAs and now, with Karlsson gone, top trade candidates.

So what does that mean for a player like Tkachuk? On the one hand, you certainly don’t want to rush a player to the NHL, only to thrust him into a difficult and losing situation. On the other, you don’t want to hold him back if he’s ready. The early reviews are positive and Tkachuk is eyeing a spot on the NHL roster, but would it be better for him in the long run to play this season in OHL London?

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Carolina: Where is the scoring going to come from?
Usually at this time of year we’re talking about how the underdog Carolina Hurricanes will surprise everyone by making the playoffs, and pointing to their strong underlying numbers as to why they’re a smart pick. But last year the ‘Canes were 23rd in goals with an average of 2.74 per game and bottom-10 in preventing goals, allowing an average of 3.09 per game. Jeff Skinner was dealt and Carolina made an immediate upgrade on defence with the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton, though that also set the team back another high-potential forward (Elias Lindholm), so how will an offence that fell short of the post-season improve?

Keep an eye on two players this pre-season who have the potential to step up big in this role: Valentin Zykov and Sebastian Aho. Zykov scored 33 goals in 63 AHL games and then was nearly a point-per-game player in 10 late-season NHL games, while Aho is somehow flying under the radar despite scoring 29 times in the NHL last season. On top of those two, highly regarded prospect Martin Necas is coming off a strong rookie tournament showing and, like Buffalo’s Mittelstadt, dominated last year’s world juniors.

Washington: Can first-round pick Ilya Samsonov earn the backup job?
Twenty-seven of the 30 players chosen in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft have gotten into at least one NHL game — the only ones who haven’t are Bruins prospects Jakub Zboril, Zachary Senyshyn and Washington goalie Ilya Samsonov. The Russian puckstopper has been playing well at a high level for nearly three years now, though, posting save percentages of .936 and .926 in the KHL the past two seasons.

Now 21 years old, the team suggests Samsonov will be given a chance to earn the backup job over Pheonix Copley this pre-season. After Braden Holtby’s struggles led to an increased workload for backup Philipp Grubauer last season, the Capitals know the importance of having a backup goalie capable of carrying the water.

Pittsburgh: Is Daniel Sprong ready for the next step up?
After the Penguins were eliminated last season, GM Jim Rutherford pointed to Sprong as someone who was expected to make the NHL roster full-time in 2018-19. A second-round pick in 2015, Sprong played his first full pro season in 2017-18 and was a point-per-game player in the AHL. Sprong has been given NHL looks before: he played 18 games in 2015-16 and got into eight last season, but although he’s shown positive flashes, has only scored five points.

“He should be (an NHL regular),” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He has to have a good camp. You can’t just give a job to somebody, but he’s gone through his development stage. We know he can score. Now his training camp should be about who he’s going to play with. That’s going to be up to him.”

Columbus: Will Joonas Korpisalo see an increased workload?
The top two storylines in Columbus this season centre around the futures of pending UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. With both up in the air, it’s possible one or both players get traded. “I can’t,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told NHL.com when asked if he could commit to both players starting the season in Columbus. There is one obvious replacement should the team have to move on from one of their cornerstones. Korpisalo, 24, has apprenticed as Bobrovsky’s backup for three seasons now.

“If he’s gonna take some games, he’s gonna have to earn it,” coach John Tortorella said recently. Korpisalo played 18 games last season, posting an .897 save percentage.

N.Y. Islanders: Which rookies, if any, will make the cut?
Without John Tavares, the Islanders are going through a re-tooling of sorts, but already have a pretty good collection of young players to start with. Matt Barzal is looking to build off a very strong rookie campaign in which he won the Calder Trophy, and while getting Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson in the draft was a huge win, it may be too early to expect either to make the jump.

But what about Kieffer Bellows? If any rookie makes the cut he’s got to be the favourite after scoring 41 WHL goals a season ago. Will Josh Ho-Sang be given a shot just to see if there’s anything there? Sebastian Aho, the defenceman, earned a 22-game look from January to March and averaged 16:15 per game. The problem is that the Islanders threw so many contracts at veterans this summer that there may not be any room for these types of players to excite the fan base out of the gate.

N.Y. Rangers: How will the centres shake out?
A roster weakness last season, the Rangers will enter camp with all sorts of possibilities around their lineup of centres. Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad are the returning veterans, Vlad Namestnikov can play the position and Peter Holland is likely set for the fourth line. But a trio or rookies are making things interesting. Rangers GM Jeff Gorton recently told the New York Post’s Larry Brooks that he doesn’t want to play any of Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil and ‘Boo’ Nieves out of their natural centre position and that he won’t hold back any young player from a roster spot they’ve earned, regardless of the veteran contracts on the books.

Philadelphia: Will Carter Hart emerge as the starting goalie?
A two-time CHL Goalie of the Year and three-time WHL Goalie of the Year, Flyers fans are hoping Hart solves the team’s long-running goaltending issues. The Brian Elliott-Michal Neuvirth tandem returns, but their team 5-on-5 save percentage last season (.919) ranked 21st in the league and neither goalie was in the league’s top 20.

It’s not often a CHL goalie makes the jump this quickly — Hart was a second-round pick in 2016 and you have to go all the way back to the 2012 draft to find a goalie who has established himself as an NHL starter. So Hart is a long shot to make the team out of camp. He would need an exceptional showing to do it, but everything about his career to this point has been just that.

New Jersey: Will Cory Schneider return to form?
Long one of the more underrated goalies in the league, there are now legitimate questions whether or not the 32-year-old’s best days are behind him. Over his past 100 games, Schneider has a .908 save percentage and is coming off an injury that may even delay the start of his regular season. He had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left hip on May 1, and the recovery time takes him right up close to the start of the season.

If Schneider isn’t ready, or doesn’t return to form, Keith Kinkaid will again take the reins. The 29-year-old Kinkaid played a career-high 41 games last season, but the jury is still out on if he’s capable of being a season-long starter for a playoff team.

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PACIFIC DIVISION

Arizona: Will Alex Galchenyuk return to centre?
Drafted as a centre when he was picked third overall in 2012, many thought Montreal didn’t give him enough of a chance to grow at the position in his time there, and by the end Galchenyuk was a full-time winger on the team. The Coyotes are an interesting new location for him, though. With Derek Stepan the only other obvious top-six centre talent, there’s a good chance Galchenyuk moves back down the middle. And there are reasons to believe that move will make him more of a shooter again, which is the main strength in his game, and opens up the possibility of a bounce back towards the career-high 30 goals he scored in 2015-16. The Coyotes are a potential bounce back candidate after finishing last season strong, and adding a 30-goal scoring centre would go a long way towards hitting that goal.

San Jose: How will Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson be used?
Last season, Burns averaged 25:15 per game and Karlsson was at 26:44 per game so, if the Sharks want, they could have either one of the Norris Trophy winners on the ice at all times.

Last season, most of Burns’ even strength minutes were played with Joakim Ryan or Brenden Dillon, which would leave Karlsson to pair up with Marc-Edouard Vlasic if all stays the same. On the power play, San Jose would mostly run out four forwards along with Burns on the top unit — does that change so that the two share a unit, or will they be split across two? Either way, this is one heck of an exciting team and GM Doug Wilson is all in on getting his first Stanley Cup as GM.

Los Angeles: How does Ilya Kovalchuk look?
The last full NHL season we saw from Kovalchuk, he scored 37 goals (he had 11 in 37 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13). But for the past five years he’s been elite in the KHL and was last season’s top point-getter in Russia’s top league. Now he returns to the NHL on a three-year contract with a $6.25-million cap hit and a whole bunch of questions. Kovalchuk is now 35 years old and the NHL game has gotten much faster since he last played. The Kings, too, are an aging roster with concerns if the NHL game is passing them by. Will Kovalchuk be able to adapt well enough to put up point and goal totals to make the Kings’ investment worthwhile?

Anaheim: How will the Ducks ‘get faster’?
Everything was trending up for Anaheim heading into the playoffs last season — they won eight of their last 10 regular season games and slid into home-ice advantage. But they were dismantled by San Jose in four games, and GM Bob Murray said “we’ve got to make some changes.”

But the Ducks return with basically the same team, the only noticeable difference being that free agent signing Luke Schenn — who isn’t exactly known for his speed — is on the roster. Without naming Corey Perry, the GM appeared to challenge the former sniper with those comments after Perry failed to score 20 goals for the second season in a row. The Ducks should remain a tough team to handle, but with the same players back and head coach Randy Carlyle still in place, what has changed?

Vancouver: How do the kids look?
With the playoffs a long, long, long shot, this season is again all about development for the Canucks. Brock Boeser set the bar high for any rookies joining the team and looks to build on his 29-goal season that was shortened to 62 games by injury. But now the attention turns to the next set of youngsters. At the top of the list is Elias Pettersson, a centre who could start on the wing and coming off a record-setting season in Sweden’s top professional league, which he led in regular season scoring then earned playoff MVP.

While Pettersson is as close to a lock to make the opening night roster as you can get, some others will need to earn it in pre-season. Adam Gaudette won last year’s Hobey Baker Award and played five NHL games at the end of the season. Thatcher Demko is the hopeful No. 1 goalie of the future, but can he earn NHL starts now, with the same tandem returning from last year’s Canucks? Jonathan Dahlen is making his North American debut after sharing a line with Pettersson, and Olli Juolevi believes he’s ready to step on to Vancouver’s blue line now. The signing of various veterans over the summer will hold some of these players back, but it makes for an interesting training camp.

Calgary: Which winger will join Monahan-Gaudreau on top line?
The Flames have already skated informally and free-agent signing James Neal was skating with the top-liners, so he has to be the early favourite to stay there when the season opens. Elias Lindholm, acquired in the Dougie Hamilton trade and a favourite of coach Bill Peters, is another potential linemate as the Flames try to unlock the offensive potential held by 2013’s fifth-overall draft pick. Keep an eye on how the lines work out in the pre-season.

Edmonton: Can any of the low-cap forwards fill a secondary scoring role?
As Mark Spector wrote next week, can the Oilers find their own Jake Guentzel/Bryan Rust/Conor Sheary? Teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins thrive by being able to get strong supportive production from players cheap against the cap, and the Oilers need one of their own to help take part of the load off Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Tobias Rieder was signed to a one-year, $2-million contract and though he brings good foot speed, hasn’t yet approached 20 goals. Ty Rattie was brought in late last year to try and fill that role, then scored five times in 14 games. Jesse Puljujarvi was picked fourth overall in 2016 and, at that time, was counted on to fill this role. At the very least, $6-million man Milan Lucic needs to score more — much more — than 10 times.

Vegas: Was last year a mirage?
At least parts of the Golden Knights’ first season appear unsustainable, the most obvious being that William Karlsson will not be a 43-goal scorer converting on nearly a quarter of his shots. The Stanley Cup finalists will have to prove it all over again, but may have actually upgraded their roster. Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty are not only familiar with each other, but both are potential upgrades on the losses of David Perron and James Neal. Even if Karlsson’s regression pulls back his line’s production a bit, this new second line could effectively become the new first.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago: Is Corey Crawford healthy?
The best chance Chicago has to return to the playoffs is having Crawford back fully healthy. One of the top goalies in the game, Crawford himself said he wasn’t yet 100 per cent in July and just last week ‘Hawks president John McDonough said he was hopeful the goalie would be at camp, but wasn’t certain that would be the case. If he’s out, Cam Ward would be the fill-in starter, but his combined .908 save percentage over the past four years ranks 30th among goalies who played at least 160 games.

Colorado: Who is the starting goalie?
Semyon Varlamov was a top-11 goalie by save percentage last season, but health has been a concern for him the past few seasons. He’s also heading into the final season of a $5.9-million deal and Colorado now has a backup to legitimately push him for starts.

Philipp Grubauer was brought in for a second-round pick, and though he’s been a backup his whole career the signs of a starter are there. Not only did he wrestle the job away from Braden Holtby for a time last season, including the first playoff start, but over the past three seasons Grubauer has the third-best save percentage of all goalies with at least 70 games played.

Dallas: How quickly will Miro Heiskanen rise to stardom?
If Dallas were willing to give up 2017’s third-overall pick, they may already have Erik Karlsson on their roster, but there’s a reason why Heiskanen is a deal-breaker: The 19-year-old comes with an entry-level contract and sky-high potential. He played just half the games in Finland’s top professional league last season, but was still a top-23 scorer at his position and finished with the best points-per-game average at 0.77. Heiskanen dominated the recent Traverse City Prospect Tournament, and now finally we get to see him against the world’s best.

Minnesota: Will this be the team that ends the season?
The Wild have made the playoffs six straight seasons, but have gotten out of Round 1 just twice and have a total of two wins in Round 2. General manager Cliff Fletcher was let go over the summer and Paul Fenton could look to put his own stamp on this team to shift direction if the team isn’t taking that next step.

Youngster Luke Kunin won’t be ready to go at the start of the season, but Bruce Boudreau mentioned three other players he’s looking forward to seeing in camp: Jordan Greenway, Nick Seeler and Joel Eriksson-Ek. The rise of some of these players could push Fenton towards a move. Though the GM didn’t pull the trigger on anything major in the summer, the Wild were in the rumour mill connected to various players, namely Max Domi before he was dealt to Montreal.

Winnipeg: Which players from the next wave of prospects can crack the roster?
The Jets are all-in on taking a run at the Stanley Cup this season, but before long they’ll be having to inject some players on entry-level contracts as the salary cap becomes an issue. There are no shortage of guys who could make the team even this season. Jack Roslovic has the inside track to earn a spot after he showed well late in the regular season and playoffs as an injury fill in, but the big one to watch up front is Kristian Vesalainen. If he doesn’t make the NHL roster, he could still return to Europe for the season, but he has a big body and was a top scorer in the Finnish League, which could translate to immediate success.

And on defence, as long as RFA Josh Morrissey is without a contract, there could be opportunity for Tucker Poolman or Sami Niku to wiggle their way into a spot with strong camps. Without Morrissey there is a gap in left-shot defenders, which gives Niku an advantage.

St. Louis: Can any of Robert Thomas, Klim Kostin or Jordan Kyrou crack the roster?
The Blues missed the playoffs last season after qualifying for the previous six and never getting over the hump. But this is still a team that has designs on winning rather than stepping back. Ryan O’Reilly was their big summer acquisition, but they could also look to these three highly regarded rookies to fill out the roster with speed and skill. Given the roster set up, it’s not likely they all make it. Thomas is the only one who would have to be returned to junior if he didn’t make the team.

Nashville: How many starts will Juuse Saros get?
Pekka Rinne had one of his best seasons in 2017-18 and won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder. But he’ll turn 36 in November and is in the last season of his contract, so the Predators need to start considering a succession plan. Saros has been the backup the past two seasons and has posted save percentages of .923 and .926. He’s undersized at 5-foot-11, but it will be interesting to see if the Predators use him for more than the 26 games he saw last season for a couple reasons — not just to see how he takes to an increased workload, but also to rest Rinne a little more to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

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