With training camp still beyond the horizon and loads of free agents twisting in the wind, there's always time to start thinking about players who might capture our imagination. Players who may step to the fore or wilt under the pressure of our watchful eye. And so it is that we take a look at the top players by position that we'll be paying particular attention come the start of the 2010-11 season.
Down the middle we'll be curious about how a group of veteran pivots responds to some tough times and what a couple of kids do after jumping into the spotlight last season.
The past few years haven't been kind to the former No. 1 overall draft pick and the face of the Lightning. Whether it was shoulder and wrist injuries or rumors of being dealt because of his monster contract, a cloud has hovered over Lecavalier. The Lightning captain has seen his goal totals drop systematically from 52 to 24 over the past four seasons. But new GM Steve Yzerman has apparently assured Lecavalier that he has no intention of moving him and perhaps that, along with good health, will see Lecavalier bounce back to elite status. If he does, the Bolts should be back in the postseason.
Spezza is another elite player who has suffered through some difficult times. The big center got off to a grisly start offensively last season, caught fire, got hurt and then came back strong, ending up with 23 goals in 60 games after three straight seasons of 30-plus goals. He scored just once in a first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh and suffered at the hands of the Ottawa boobirds, prompting speculation the Senators would trade Spezza. They didn't, and Spezza said he's come to terms with the discord. His production is key to the Senators returning to the playoffs.
All of a sudden the "big" Joe in San Jose this past spring wasn't Joe Thornton but Pavelski. The talented pivot from Stevens Point, Wis., lit it up for the Sharks in the playoffs, especially early on against Colorado and Detroit, with nine goals and 17 points in 15 postseason games. His continued emergence as a top center is one of the main reasons the Sharks will again be favorites to be at or near the top of the Western Conference standings in 2010-11.
Although he missed the tail end of the regular season and playoffs with injury, the Avs think they have a keeper in the big center from Bloomington. Mueller had nine goals and 20 points after coming over from Phoenix at the trade deadline, better production than he showed in 54 games for the Yotes. Of all players who switched teams during the regular season, Mueller was the only one to average more than a point per game. If he keeps it up the Avs will be well-positioned for another trip to the postseason.
If there's one thing that sums up Jokinen's career, it's his failure to score a shootout goal with a playoff berth on the line for the New York Rangers in Game 82 of the regular season. After flaming out (sorry, couldn't resist) with Calgary and being dealt to the Rangers, Jokinen was inexplicably repatriated by Calgary GM Darryl Sutter this offseason. Maybe the second time will be a charm for the big Finnish center. Or not.