Can Montreal's Andrei Markov stay healthy for the entire shortened season? (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Can the top line rebound? After Corey Perry won the Hart and Rocket Richard Trophies in 2010-11 with 50 goals and 98 points, the trio stalled last year, dropping from 245 to 174 combined points. Bobby Ryan’s name has been seen in trade rumors and Ryan Getzlaf and Perry are both in the final year of their deals, so the combo may not be together for long.
Can Tuukka Rask thrive without the safety net of Tim Thomas’ presence? The 25-year-old excelled 2009-10, compiling a 22-12-5 record and 1.97 GAA in 45 games, but now it’s just him and understudy Anton Khudobin, who has seven games of NHL experience, holding the fort.
Who is Cody Hodgson? Is he a center with star upside, as was speculated when the Canucks picked him 10th overall in 2008? Buffalo will give him every opportunity to establish himself as a first-liner and improve on the three goals and eight points he tallied in his first 20 games as a Sabre.
Sven Baertschi had a five-game cup of coffee last season in which he scored three goals and brought fans out of their seats in excitement rather than in exit. The 2011 first-rounder is being penciled in on the top two lines, but is it too much to ask to have a Calder Trophy-caliber season?
What will Alexander Semin bring to the table? The enigmatic Russian has three 30-goal seasons and one 40-goal season already in his career, but hasn’t reached either benchmark the past two years. When he’s on, he’s lethal, but when he’s off, he becomes expendable.
Patrick Kane’s 88 points in 2009-10 put him on the cusp of elite status. But he followed with 73- and 66-point campaigns and has fallen in that range in four of five seasons. Is it time to accept Kane isn’t that good? Or, at 23, is he still young enough to become a marquee scorer?
Teenage captain Gabriel Landeskog is mature and talented enough to tackle the dreaded sophomore slump, but what about the added pressure of leadership? He plays in every situation, ranks among league leaders in hits and has been billed as a future captain since his draft year.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Does Columbus have a No. 1 center? Derick Brassard teased last season with 25 points in 33 games after the All-Star Game, but his leash will be short. Newcomers Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky are in the mix for first-line pivot duty – a role Dubinsky once filled on Broadway.
How high can Jamie Benn soar? The 23-year-old may center Jaromir Jagr. Benn’s offensive totals have increased each season and he’s approaching a point-per-game pace. Of course, he also needs a new contract, which brings its own set of queries and pressures.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Brendan Smith, hockey’s 16th-best prospect according to THN’s Future Watch, boasts a nice blend of size and skill. He looked like he belonged during a 14-game call-up. He’ll be a solid NHL D-man, but can he log huge minutes right away on a team desperate for blueline help?
Injuries have limited Ryan Whitney to just 86 games the past two seasons and that has to change for Edmonton’s defense to gain traction. He hasn’t scored in double digits since his second and third seasons in the league with Pittsburgh. Can he prove he’s a No. 1 blueliner?
The departed Jason Garrison was third in goals among NHL D-men last season, but lost in his unexpected success was partner Brian Campbell’s contribution. Campbell’s 53 points were the second most of his career. Can he repeat the magic and help elevate Dmitry Kulikov, or any other blueliner?
LOS ANGELES KINGS
How many games will Jonathan Quick play? The elite goalie had a relatively easy run to the Cup, but has burnt out before, so a shortened season will be a huge help. He gets big bucks on a 10-year contract, so year-in year-out consistency is now expected.
An unheard of six Wild prospects were among the NHL’s top 75 in Future Watch. How many can have a significant impact in 2012-13? Mikael Granlund is a shoo-in to add another layer of skill. Knocking on the door are Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Brett Bulmer and Jason Zucker.
How much does Andrei Markov have in the tank? The answer will go a long way toward determining Montreal’s fate. The 33-year-old played just 20 games over the past two years thanks to a bad knee and hasn’t topped 45 in a season since 2008-09, when he had 64 points in 78 games.
The Predators quietly had a top-10 offense last season, but need more high-end scoring. Is 2008 first-rounder Colin Wilson ready to be a top-six producer? He had 35 points in 68 games last season, up from 34 in 82 in 2010-11. Nashville needs him in the 20-goal, 50-point range now.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Are the Devils the team that went to the final or the one that was nearly knocked out in the first round? Coach Peter DeBoer heaped huge responsibility on Ilya Kovalchuk, who topped NHL forwards with 24:26 of average ice time. That maxes out Kovalchuk. Others must step up.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Can the kids take bigger than baby steps? The plethora of top-10 first round picks, such as Kyle Okposo, must start paying off soon if the Islanders don’t want to waste their blossoming superstar John Tavares. They hope Okposo will realize his potential alongside him.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Will Rick Nash thrive or dive under coach John Tortorella? Those betting on the latter are forgetting Nash enjoyed playing for hard-knocks bench boss Ken Hitchcock in Columbus. With Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan, Nash has the supporting cast to star on Broadway.
Can Erik Karlsson live up to the honors and the dollars? His Norris-winning season and seven-year, $45.5-million contract extension will drastically raise expectations, but let’s not forget he’s only 22 years old. If he plateaus for a year or two, nobody should be shocked or angered.
Will the Flyers’ brittle blueline allow its offense to outgun the opposition? Kimmo Timonen is 37 and the anchor of a ‘D’ that’s minus Matt Carle, Chris Pronger, Andrej Meszaros and Andreas Lilja. Luke Schenn helps, but Philly knows it’s in trouble, hence its failed pursuit of Shea Weber.
How good is young blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson? His 13-goal, 32-point sophomore season rewarded Phoenix’s patience developing him. If he takes the next step, the Desert Dogs have an even better Keith Yandle-led back end with a great mix of rushers and shutdown kings.
Can Brandon Sutter seamlessly slide into the third-line center role and can he step up if needed? Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have each missed significant periods the past few seasons and having Jordan Staal helped the Penguins through long stretches without their stars.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Will Martin Havlat’s body survive even a shortened season? He lost half of last season on a spill over the boards while trying to jump on the ice for his shift. Traded from Minnesota for Dany Heatley, Havlat’s impact has dwindled in San Jose, where someone not named Couture needs to step up offensively.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Can one of St. Louis’ rookie forwards – Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko or Ty Rattie – make an immediate scoring impact? All three have higher offensive ceilings than any current Blue. Schwartz is the best bet to contribute in ’12-13 after playing seven games last season.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
First passes out of the zone have been an issue in recent years and Matt Carle’s arrival is supposed to remedy that. But with Mattias Ohlund still on the shelf and the oft-injured Sami Salo as the other major blueline addition, is the defense corps deep enough?
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Coach Randy Carlyle has had a few months to settle after replacing Ron Wilson in March, but will his rugged game plan fit with a speed-and-finesse-based Toronto roster? Carlyle was just 6-9-3 after taking the reins and Burke hasn’t remade the team in his likeness. Carlyle must be flexible.
Can David Booth and Mason Raymond regain their goal-scoring magic? They’re still young (27), but Booth has had seasons of eight, 23 and 16 goals since his 31-goal, 60-point campaign with Florida in 2008-09. And Raymond’s annual production dropped from 25 to 15 to 10.
What kind of team will Washington be under new coach Adam Oates? The freewheeling Caps were taken hostage by Dale Hunter’s grind-’em-out style, but it got them within one win of the Eastern Conference final. Oates is offense-minded, but success can’t be ignored.
What is Evander Kane’s status? Mentioned in trade rumors through last season and over the summer, Kane’s six-year extension hasn’t done much to quell those notions. He is one of the league’s rising stars and scored 30 goals in 2011-12. This is a player to build on, not use as trade bait.