NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout the month of September.
Summer has melted away like a Popsicle on a sidewalk and teams are headed for training camps. It's almost time for another NHL season, and the pressure is already starting to build for some players who know they'll have to be big-time producers for their teams to improve or contend.
Here's a look at a player from each of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference who'll be under pressure to perform as soon as the puck drops:
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins -- Few NHL players can do so many things so well as Bergeron, which is why the Bruins need the center in the lineup so badly. Bergeron had such a litany of injuries by the time the Bruins lost Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks he likely wouldn't have been able to play if the series had gone to Game 7. He spent his summer resting and rehabbing, and he said he's ready for training camp. That's good news in Boston because his absence affects every aspect of the Bruins' game.
Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres -- Myers' performance during the past three seasons has overshadowed the fact he was regarded as one of the NHL's top young defensemen after winning the Calder Trophy in 2010. The Sabres brought back his partner from that season, Henrik Tallinder, from the New Jersey Devils in an offseason trade undoubtedly hoping he'd spark a revival in Myers. With the Sabres apparently in a rebuilding mode, they need Myers to be the kind of defensive anchor they expected after his rookie season.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes -- Skinner, like Myers, is a player whose performance has never matched that of his Calder Trophy-winning season (2011). Injuries and inconsistency have plagued Skinner since he scored 31 goals and 63 points as an 18-year-old. He's been switched from center to a full-time left wing and is being counted on for top-six production in the first year of a long-term, big-money contract as the Hurricanes try to get back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets -- The goaltender carried the Blue Jackets on his back for the last two months of the 2012-13 season, bringing them within a tiebreaker of the final Stanley Cup Playoff berth in the Western Conference. The Blue Jackets are now in the Eastern Conference as part of the new Metropolitan Division, and any hope they have of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009 is dependent on Bobrovsky performing for a full season the way he did for the final eight weeks of '12-13.
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings -- Detroit's four Stanley Cups from 1997-2008 were won without relying on a goaltender to stand on his head; the Red Wings' puck-possession game and deep roster were the keys to victory. But times have changed, and management has made a major financial commitment to Howard, who's the unquestioned starter and key to Detroit's success. He was among the NHL's best last season with a 2.13 goals-against average and a save percentage of .923, then helped Detroit upset the Anaheim Ducks and nearly do the same to the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs. He has to play to that level again for the Red Wings to get back to the postseason.
Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers -- The Panthers figure to be one of the NHL's youngest teams, especially on defense. That will put a lot of pressure on Campbell, whose performance in 2011-12 was one of the major reasons Florida made the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Campbell takes a regular shift, quarterbacks the power play, and sees time on the penalty kill. If he's not proficient at all three, it's going to be a long season in South Florida.
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens -- If the NHL season had ended after the first week of April, there would be no doubt of Price's status as one of the NHL's best goaltenders. Instead, he lost seven of his last 10 regular-season starts, then surrendered 13 goals in the first four games of the playoff series against the Ottawa Senators before being knocked out with a knee injury. The Canadiens are hoping new goaltender coach Stephane Waite will help Price bounce back.
Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils -- Zach Parise left New Jersey for the Minnesota Wild last summer. Ilya Kovalchuk went home to Russia this summer. That puts a lot of heat on Zajac, the Devils' No. 1 center, to step up his offensive game. Zajac was able to play all 48 games in 2012-13 after missing most of the previous season with an Achilles tendon injury and the rehab that followed, and he managed 20 points. The Devils need him to at least match the 25 goals and 67 points he had in 2009-10 if they're going to compete for a playoff berth.
John Tavares, New York Islanders -- No one in the NHL means more to his team than Tavares, who has become the face of the franchise on Long Island while emerging as one of the League's top players. The Islanders' new captain was a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season after his 28 goals and 47 points helped carry New York to its first playoff berth since 2007. As the linchpin of a talented-but-young team, Tavares will have to be even better this season (figure a minimum of 35 goals and 90 points) for the Islanders to return to the postseason. He makes them go, on and off the ice.
Rick Nash, New York Rangers -- Nash was far from awful in his first season in the Big Apple (21 goals, 42 points in 44 games). But the wing wasn't the big offensive weapon the Rangers needed to remain among the elite in the Eastern Conference, and he struggled during the playoffs. New coach Alain Vigneault is more offense-minded than predecessor John Tortorella, and with forwards Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin likely to start the season on the shelf following shoulder surgery, the Rangers need Nash to be the kind of player he was in 2008-09 for the Blue Jackets, the last time he reached the 40-goal mark.
Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators -- The pressure on Spezza is twofold. Not only do the Senators need him to regain his status as one of the NHL's best offensive centers following a season in which he missed 43 of 48 games with injuries, they need his veteran presence to soothe a dressing room that will be dealing with the departure of longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson. Spezza said his knee is fine after offseason surgery and he's enthused at taking on a greater leadership role.
Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia Flyers -- Few players crashed and burned last season as badly as Hartnell, who went from 37 goals and 67 points in 2011-12 to eight and 11 in 32 games (he missed 16 with a broken foot) with the Flyers. The 31-year-old forward lost his role as Claude Giroux's sidekick and never quite found another home. With a six-year, $28.5 million contract kicking in this season, Hartnell has to rediscover the scoring touch he showed while averaging 26 goals in his first five seasons with the Flyers.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins -- The goaltender had a fine regular season (23-8-0, 2.39 GAA, .916 save percentage). But he imploded during a first-round series against the Islanders, was yanked after surrendering six goals in Game 4, and never saw the ice again. Backup Tomas Vokoun is not going to carry a starter's load at age 37, so it's up to 28-year-old Fleury to shake off his playoff struggles after a third straight shaky postseason.
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning -- The No. 2 pick (after Tavares) in the 2009 NHL Draft has been a competent defenseman in his first four seasons in the League. But competent isn't good enough on a team that has plenty of offensive weapons but struggles to keep the puck out of its net. The Lightning need Hedman to take several steps forward and play to the level of the elite defenseman they envisioned when they selected him.
David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs -- For the first time in Clarkson's career, he'll be under the microscope. That's part of the price you pay when you sign a seven-year contract with your hometown team. The Maple Leafs are coming off their first playoff appearance since 2004 and Clarkson will be expected to add offense as well as muscle up front, even though he's scored more than 20 goals and 45 points in a season once in his career.
Mike Green, Washington Capitals -- Green's revival last season flew under the radar, but the only defenseman in the 21st century to reach 30 goals in a season led blueliners with 12 (in 35 games) in 2012-13. Green was a lethal offensive force on the Capitals' blue line from 2007-10, but injuries cost him more than 80 games in the next two seasons. With his team in a much tougher division and having fewer weapons up front, the Capitals need Green to show the form he had before he was bitten by the injury bug.
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