The Thrashers showed signs of life last year (18-15-1 after the All-Star break) and have teased with their potential before. In nine years, they've made the playoffs exactly once and were four-and-out that year. Maybe this is the year they finally turn the corner.
FENWAY BECKONS: Last year's Winter Classic - played outdoors at Wrigley Field between Detroit and Chicago - was a screaming success on many levels, including box office, where the game sold out virtually instantly. In order to create a level playing field for ticket allocation this year's Fenway Park date between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, Canadian fans have until Monday to register for an on-line lottery to distribute tickets. More information is available at www.nhl.com/winterclassic. Winners will be notified by Oct. 20 if they have the right to pay anywhere from $50 to $350 (all currency U.S.) for a pair of tickets … As tempting as it may be, it's dangerous to read too much into opening night results, even if three division winners from last year - San Jose, the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks - all lost. The Sharks and Bruins, who ran 1-2 in the overall standings, were both routed. Likely, they remember last year, on banner night in Detroit, the Red Wings lost to the Maple Leafs. Form eventually prevailed over 82 games, with Detroit advancing to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final, and Toronto missing the playoffs.
HOW THE WEST WILL BE WON: One theory making the rounds is that San Jose may prevail because of the challenges facing the other major contenders; that they will have minimal Olympic representation compared to say Detroit (even Thornton and Heatley are not automatic selections for executive director Steve Yzerman); and sometimes a team wins in a year everybody jumps off the bandwagon because it lessens expectations.
Makes sense on a weird level, especially when you consider the challenges facing the other main contenders.
Detroit: Two trips to the Stanley Cup final in a row; they start in Europe and they've turned over a quarter of their roster. Plus, it's an Olympic year and every one of their difference makers - Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg - will be immersed in the competition. Will they collectively have enough gas in the tank when the season finally grinds to a halt?
Chicago: A messy off-season that saw them lose their GM Dale Tallon, their leading scorer, Martin Havlat, and their difference-maker in goal, Nikolai Khabibulin. On paper, Marian Hossa is an adequate replacement for Havlat, but he is not healthy and won't be around for awhile. Meanwhile, Cristobal Huet needs to show he's capable of handling the No. 1 job. Oh and they too open the season in Europe. Pittsburgh's championship last year notwithstanding, that often has a lingering negative effect on a team that can't afford to go backwards in the suddenly ultra-competitive Central Division.There is still upside in Chicago, but if their questions are all answered in the negative, the Blackhawks may struggle out of the gate.
Calgary: Brent Sutter is supposed to provide the missing structure and Jay Bouwmeester the defensive conscience, but the fact remains: three of the top six forwards heading out of training camp are David Moss, Rene Bourque and Nigel Dawes. Exactly. Who will score, if Miikka Kiprusoff doesn't bounce back in a big way?
Vancouver: See Calgary. Monster pre- and post-Olympic road trip could wear them down and who, beyond the Sedin twins, can score on a regular basis?
Meanwhile, the Sharks get to see if the chemistry between Heatley and Thornton develops the way logic says it should - putting one of the NHL's most reliable scorers on the same line as a player who led the league in assists in three of the past four years. McLellan may be required to show some patience, until a level of familiarity develops, however.
"Me, and anybody that's ever coached Joe before has asked him to shoot the puck more," said McLellan. "He has many opportunities a night and he doesn't take them. He's a pass-first guy. So if we're not able to change Jumbo (Thornton) and get him exactly to the point where we want him too, taking the 400 shots a year, then whoever he dishes the puck to better be shooting it.
"Dany Heatley shoots pucks. He's a big man. He gets himself in position to shoot pucks; and Devin Setoguchi shoots pucks. So if we put that group together, offensively, I hope that we get a lot of production out of Joe, because of his skills, because the other two are going to shoot the puck."