- Craig Custance
In just one night of hockey, we learned so much. Last night, Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer buried a shaky preseason. Jaromir Jagr looks as if he's ready to form a lethal duo with Claude Giroux. The Matt Cooke transformation is off to a good start. And Tyler Seguin is ready to produce in his second year.
This weekend, highlighted by a 13-game Saturday, should be even better. These three weekend storylines are grabbing attention:
1. Hockey returns to Winnipeg. The Jets host the Canadiens at 5 p.m. ET Sunday, and the party has already started in Winnipeg. On paper, the Jets don't look like a playoff team, so the franchise may have to lean on the energy produced by the fans to find its way. If the Jets can feed off the city, it will be interesting. We should get a good idea Sunday.
2. Will the Richards addition offset the Staal subtraction? The Rangers start their season in Sweden with a 1 p.m. ET game against the Kings today. They play again Saturday against the Ducks, so when the weekend closes, we'll have a better idea of how John Tortorella will handle the absence of defenseman Marc Staal, out while recovering from a concussion. These games will also provide the first regular-season look at how new addition Brad Richards will mesh with Marian Gaborik. A potent offense will go a long way in helping New York survive injuries on defense.
3. Carter in Columbus. The Blue Jackets start their season at 7 p.m. ET Friday, hosting the Nashville Predators. They will do so without the suspended James Wisniewski, but it will mark Jeff Carter's home debut with Columbus. If Columbus goalie Steve Mason can a have night like Reimer, that would help ease the biggest concern about the rebuilt Blue Jackets.
On to the mailbag. You can submit your queries here for next time. As always, thanks for the questions:
A local hockey mag predicted that Ryan Suter would win the Norris trophy, and they had Jonathan Toews in the top-five players, but not (Pavel) Datsyuk -- please tell me I'm not the only one questioning this. -- Tomi, Finland
Suter for Norris is a pretty bold choice, although it would certainly be a good time for him to do it, considering that his contract is up. He's not in my top-five Norris candidates, which looks like this: 1. Duncan Keith, Blackhawks; 2. Shea Weber, Predators; 3. Zdeno Chara, Bruins; 4. Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings; 5. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ducks.
As for Toews vs. Datsyuk, that's a tough one. If I were starting a franchise, I'd probably take Toews because of age and his ability to immediately become my captain. If I were picking teams to win a game tonight, I'm grabbing Datsyuk.
What are the chances the Isles make the playoffs? -- Craig, New York
Despite developing firepower up front, I don't see the Islanders in the playoffs this season in a competitive East. I'm concerned about their depth on defense, although a healthy Mark Streit will go a long way in helping them get off to a better start this season. I'm also in the camp that if you're choosing between three goalies to be your No. 1 goalie, you really don't have one. I expect the Islanders to be tough to play against again this year because of Jack Capuano, but they're not a playoff team yet.
What's the biggest factor for a successful year for the Caps? -- Mike, Washington, D.C.
Health. When I asked George McPhee what went wrong last year, his answer was similar. "It was our lack of depth on the blue line. We had too many injuries," he said. "Lots of people think there was something wrong with the team. ... I thought we were fortunate to get through the first round."
It'll be the same this year. McPhee has done everything right in assembling a roster capable of winning a Stanley Cup, but if they enter the playoffs with injury issues again -- especially on defense -- it won't happen.
Who is most likely to be wearing the Winged Wheel this time next year -- Shea Weber, Ryan Suter or Zach Parise? -- Rick, St. Louis
Not sure if Rick is a concerned Blues fan or a transplanted Detroiter, but the Red Wings will certainly be a team to watch this summer. Nicklas Lidstrom may retire, which would clear $6.2 million. Jiri Hudler ($2.875 million) is likely gone, and there's enough other potential UFAs that GM Ken Holland will have plenty of flexibility for a franchise that can spend to the cap. So of the players you mention, I'll rank the probability:
1. Ryan Suter, Nashville -- If the Predators can't find a way to get a contract extension done with Suter before July 1, he'll be one of the most sought-after free agent defensemen since the lockout. It's likely he will be able to command $6 million to $7 million per season on the open market, and Detroit will have the cap space to spend it. It would be quite the coup for the Red Wings to lure him away from a division rival, but they may not be division rivals anymore after realignment.
2. Zach Parise, New Jersey -- This is a long shot since the Red Wings are going to need help on defense more than anything and the Devils will be working hard to sign Parise to a long-term deal. If he reaches free agency and there isn't a franchise defenseman available, maybe Parise becomes Plan B for Holland. A top line featuring Pavel Datsyuk and Parise would be fun to watch.
3. Shea Weber, Nashville -- This one is a distant third. Weber is restricted, so it would take a blockbuster trade to lure Weber away from the Predators during the offseason, and I'm not sure the Red Wings have enough young NHL talent and prospects to put together the kind of package it would take.
Do you think Minnesota can sneak into the playoffs this year? The Wild upgraded their offense big-time, but lost defensive talent. Do you think it'll be enough to snag the seventh or eighth seed? -- Colezy, Minnesota
I don't. The Wild will be much better offensively but downgraded on defense. They have good young talent in the system, but it's not ready yet. The West is so deep and talented that even with the offensive improvement in Minnesota, I don't see them being a playoff team. One year from now may be a different story, when Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle are ready to go.
I'm looking to trade for Chris Stewart in a keeper league. Do you see him as a 40-goal, 80-PIM player? -- Tread42, Evansville
I think you would be wise to trade for Stewart. In our ESPN mock fantasy draft that we have since decided to play out, I was thrilled to get Stewart at the end of the eighth round. He's certainly capable of 80 PIM and is somebody to grab if your league rewards power-play goals. He had 12 last season in 62 games. If he can manage to play 82 games this season, I'd conservatively pencil him in for 35 goals.
Who is your preseason pick to win the 2011-2012 Stanley Cup? -- Chris Fiegler, Lathan, N.Y.
I picked the San Jose Sharks, and since that's the annual selection of colleague Pierre LeBrun, I've taken some good-natured heat. To answer a question I've been asked a couple of times, no, it's not in my contract to pick the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup.
I'm a believer in Todd McLellan and like the growth and evolution they've shown since he's taken over behind the bench. I like the grit Doug Wilson added in the offseason and think Brent Burns is exactly the kind of player they needed on defense. When healthy, Martin Havlat can fly under the radar in San Jose and produce offensively without being saddled with the pressure of being one of the top offensive threats. Logan Couture is one of the game's great young emerging players, and Antti Niemi should be even better than he was last season now that he's more comfortable in San Jose. So yeah, I like the Sharks.
Can the Rangers survive if Marc Staal misses significant time this season? -- Jimmy Hascup, @jhascup22
I enjoyed Mike Hume's take on Staal, posted Thursday on ESPNNewYork.com. And I agree. The Rangers were among the NHL's most resilient teams last season while dealing with injuries, but they did it in part because they were able to play well defensively. Losing Staal for a significant amount of time would be a major blow to this team, and it doesn't help that New York has one of the younger blue lines in the East.
Can the Rangers survive? Yes, but it certainly knocks expectations down a notch. With a healthy Staal, I think the Rangers are a team that can advance to the conference finals and maybe challenge for a Stanley Cup. Without him, I think they fight to get into the playoffs. The good news for New York is that Staal is dealing with his post-concussion symptoms now rather than having the injury hit in the second half of the season. I've been told that Staal is being more forthcoming with the symptoms and the recovery than he was at the end of last season, which is a good thing for him and the Rangers. He can make sure he's completely healthy before returning, which will help prevent him from dealing with it again later in the season.
How long until touch icing is gone? -- Bryan Reynolds, @ReynoldsSBN
I wouldn't be surprised if it's gone by this time next season. There are some general managers, such as Brian Burke, who are very much in favor of implementing hybrid icing, something that's been successful at the USHL level. It was tested at the research and development camp and was well-received there. There's momentum gaining, and anytime you have a serious injury like we had in the preseason, the motivation for change increases that much more. It'll be on the agenda when the general managers meet in November, and I expect there will be a strong push to fast track it over the course of the next year.
Finally, instead of a question, I had a reader submit a video he created while interning at Digital Kitchen in Seattle. One of his personal projects included interviewing random Americans to test their knowledge of hockey. As an American who loves hockey and interacts with knowledgeable hockey fans on a daily basis, I know this isn't typical, but Jordan Scott does such a great job with the animations in this video that you can't help but laugh. Click here to watch.
Craig Custance writes about the return of hockey to Winnipeg before getting into his mailbag, answering questions on the 2011-12 prospects of the Islanders, Capitals and Wild.