Pressure is on for underachievers
Rangers' Richards, Nash need to step up under new coach
10 players with something to prove this season:
The former playoff MVP managed to collect 34 points in 46 games after the lockout came to an end, but Richards struggled mightily in the postseason with just one goal in 10 games before being made a healthy scratch in the Rangers' second-round series against the Boston Bruins. There was much discussion about whether Richards would be bought out of the balance of the nine-year deal he signed in the summer of 2011. The Rangers decided Richards would return, although it's possible they could use a second compliance buyout (they used their first to buy out Wade Redden before the start of last season) on Richards if he does not rebound this season. Still, we're expecting big things from the 33-year-old under new head coach Alain Vigneault.
Rick Nash, New York Rangers
There were lots of nights during the lockout-shortened regular season that Rick Nash was the best player on the ice for the Rangers. Unfortunately for Nash, acquired in July of 2012 from the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Rangers didn't bring Nash to Broadway to light it up during the regular season; they brought him in to win a Cup. Oops. During 12 postseason games last spring, the one-time goal-scoring champ (he tied with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2004) managed just one goal, and the Rangers were dismissed easily in the second round of the playoffs by Boston. Nash, like Richards, should enjoy more offensive freedom under Vigneault, although the true test won't come until April or May or, if things go well, June.
The former Vezina Trophy winner and MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament in Vancouver has hit some hard times in the past couple of seasons. The Sabres, in spite of an infusion of cash thanks to new owner Terry Pegula, have missed the playoffs the past two seasons, and they have not won a playoff round since back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007. Miller struggled during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and was jeered by hometown fans near the end of the regular season. In spite of speculation he would be traded (or wanted to be traded), Miller will start the season as the Sabres' netminder, although he is entering the final year of his contract and it remains unknown whether he wants to stay in Buffalo or conversely whether the Sabres' long-term plans include the netminder. At the U.S. Olympic orientation camp held in Washington before training camp, Miller sounded determined to play his way back to form and believed the Sabres could become one of those dark-horse playoff teams.
It was more than a little damning that before Tyler Seguin could play a game under his contract extension from the Boston Bruins, the team had enough of the young forward and traded him to Dallas. During the playoffs last spring as the Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years, head coach Claude Julien refused to move Seguin into the more demanding role as a second-line center when Patrice Bergeron was injured. Seguin finished with just one goal in 22 postseason games. Although he is just 21 and coming off a 29-goal season in 2011-12, the Bruins clearly did not believe Seguin was going to live up to his billing as a franchise player. New Dallas GM Jim Nill is banking Seguin will grow into a franchise center and sacrificed underappreciated Loui Eriksson in the deal. No time like the present to start making good on that kind of trust.
Nathan Horton, Columbus Blue Jackets
Nobody asked us, but we still don't quite get what was so unpleasant about playing in Boston, where Nathan Horton lined up alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic to form a potent trio that won a Cup in 2011 and went to the finals last spring. But Horton decided he'd had enough and signed a seven-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.3 million with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now the Blue Jackets are an up-and-coming team. But now Horton will move from the relative shadows in Boston, where he was a complementary player behind guys like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, etc., to being a prime-time player in Columbus. Does he have the mental fortitude for that kind of jump? Horton has established himself as a clutch playoff performer, but he's also notoriously streaky. His debut with the Blue Jackets will have to wait until late in the calendar year or early 2014 as Horton recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, adding to the pressure the 28-year-old will face when he finally pulls on his new jersey.
There was a time not so long ago when you could have mentioned Ryan Kesler in terms of Hart Trophy worthiness and it would have been a valid discussion. But since he won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the game's best two-way forward in 2011, the same year Kesler's Vancouver Canucks went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, injuries have taken their toll on the rugged center. Kesler, who had 41 goals in 2010-11, played in only 17 games last season. He had two goals in four games in the playoffs as the Canucks were swept by San Jose -- the second straight year they were early first-round playoff fodder. If the Canucks are going to return to contender status under new head coach John Tortorella, Kesler will be a key component -- or more to the point, he must be a key component. In an interview with ESPN.com prior to training camp, Kesler said he feels better than he has in two years and is embracing a chance to put his recent past behind him. Further, he still believes the Canucks are a team capable of contending once again for a Cup.
Jarome Iginla, Boston Bruins
So the former Calgary captain ended up in a Bruins jersey, it was just about three months later than expected. Everyone knows, of course, the tangled web that was the Iginla trade from Calgary to Pittsburgh after it was believed he was going to the Bruins at the deadline. In the end, Iginla never fit in Pittsburgh the way he and the Penguins had hoped. He put up decent enough numbers for the Pens -- 11 points in 13 regular-season games and 12 points in 15 postseason games -- but he came up dry with the rest of the squad in the conference finals when the Penguins were swept by Boston in a series that saw Pittsburgh score just two goals. After the series, Iginla admitted he had not been the player he'd hoped he'd be for the Penguins. With the departure of Horton, Seguin and Jaromir Jagr, Iginla will get plenty of opportunity to prove that the ship has not sailed on one of the game's classiest performers and is penciled in as the team's No. 1 right winger, playing with Milan Lucic and David Krejci.
The young Russian, the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft, arrived with much fanfare after the lockout and, while there were bright spots (he did register five points in his first two NHL games), there were plenty of moments that reminded us of how difficult the learning curve is for most rookies no matter how talented. Head coach Ken Hitchcock believes Tarasenko will learn much from his first season, even the parts that included being a healthy scratch for all but one of the Blues' postseason games. For a team that this writer liked to win the Cup last season and remains a viable contender in 2013-14, Tarasenko's offensive contributions are vital.
OK, it wouldn't be a Philadelphia Flyers season without controversy and questions surrounding the team's goaltending, and the 2013-14 season will be no different. While Ray Emery hopes to parlay a strong season backing up Corey Crawford for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks into a starter's role with the Flyers, the interesting part of the Philadelphia goaltending equation is Steve Mason. The former rookie of the year and Vezina Trophy nominee has seen his career go adrift since that shining rookie season in 2008-09. He came to the Flyers in a late-season trade after another former Flyers netminder, Sergei Bobrovsky, helped elevate Columbus to a playoff contender en route to a Vezina Trophy. Mason won his final four starts for the Flyers but that's a pretty small sample. Still, if his late-season play for the Flyers is a harbinger of things to come, then it will make for an interesting goaltending battle. We chatted with Philadelphia goalie coach Jeff Reese during training camp and he raved about Mason's game, saying he believes the big netminder has turned a corner and can and will return to his earlier form.
Didn't we have Marc-Andre Fleury on our "things to prove" list in last season's preview, too? The former No. 1 overall draft pick who won 30 postseason games between 2008 and 2009 (and a Stanley Cup) was yanked after Game 4 of the Penguins' opening-round series against the New York Islanders last spring. When veteran Tomas Vokoun started Game 5 of that series, it marked the first time since Fleury turned pro that he did not start a playoff game for the Pens. He did not make another start as the Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. Although it would have been understandable had GM Ray Shero moved to trade Fleury, who seems to have misplaced his mental mojo come playoff time, the Penguins instead insisted they expect Fleury to bounce back and that he remains the team's No. 1 netminder. Unfortunately for Fleury and the Pens, even if he goes 70-0 this season, the same questions will be waiting for him when the playoffs start.
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