The 2009-10 season still is a few months away, but while NHL teams get in some vacation time before training camp opens in September, the pressure already is starting to build for some players who know they'll have to be big-time producers for their clubs to improve or contend in the new season.
Here's a look at a player from each of the 15 teams in the Western Conference under pressure to perform as soon as the puck drops:Jonas Hiller, Anaheim
-- Hiller took the No. 1 goaltending job from Jean-Sebastien Giguere and was superb for the Ducks down the stretch and in the playoffs, leading them to a first-round upset of Presidents' Trophy winner San Jose and nearly knocking off Detroit. Now it's up to the 27-year-old to prove he's capable of being a full-time starter at the NHL level on a team from which big things are expected.
Olli Jokinen, Calgary
-- Jokinen made a big splash with the Flames in his first week after being acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline, then failed to score in his last 13 games and did little in Calgary's first-round loss to Chicago. With Mike Cammalleri gone to Montreal, Jokinen has to play like a No. 1 center for the Flames to make any kind of a playoff push.Cristobal Huet, Chicago
-- The Blackhawks are Huet's team now that Nikolai Khabibulin -- who took Chicago to the conference finals last spring -- is gone. On a team loaded with talent, Huet is the big question mark. He has to improve on his up-and-down first season in Chicago for the Hawks to take the next step as they try to end the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought. Paul Stastny, Colorado
-- The Avs are in full rebuilding mode. To remain respectable, they'll need a big season from Stastny, who missed 37 games last season due to injuries. With Joe Sakic now retired, Stastny is the No. 1 center in Denver, and the Avalanche will need him to put up the kind of numbers he posted in his previous two seasons (149 points in 148 games) to help them avoid a repeat of last season.Rick Nash, Columbus
-- Nash's all-round play has improved markedly since Ken Hitchcock's arrival as coach in 2007. He's much more defensively responsible and has shown he can be used in all situations. But on an offensively challenged team, Nash's biggest function remains putting the puck in the net -- and the Jackets will need him to better last season's production of 40 goals and 79 points if they hope to take another step forward after making the playoffs for the first time.Brenden Morrow, Dallas
-- The Stars' season began to disintegrate when Morrow, their captain, went down with a season-ending knee injury in November. He's a rare player who can be physical, put the puck in the net and serve as a team leader. The Stars need him to return to the level he played at in 2007-08, when he scored 32 goals and led Dallas to the Western Conference Finals.Chris Osgood, Detroit
-- Osgood atoned for the worst regular season of his career with a superb showing in the playoffs, getting the Wings to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. With backup Ty Conklin gone to St. Louis after a superb season in Detroit, the Red Wings can't afford to have Osgood struggle again -- especially because there's no proven backup behind him this time.Ales Hemsky, Edmonton
-- To watch Hemsky (and many of the Oilers' other talented young forwards) is to wonder why he's not a star, rather than a player who set a career high with 23 goals last season. After three consecutive non-playoff seasons, the Oilers need Hemsky to carry more of the load offensively -- to push himself to put up the kind of numbers his talent says he's capable of generating.Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles
-- The NHL's first Slovenian-born player signed a long-term contract before last season, then took a step back offensively in 2008-09 -- even as his team was improving in the standings. To contend for a playoff berth, they'll need Kopitar (who doesn't turn 22 until next month) to exceed his performance in 2007-08, when he put up 32 goals and 77 points.Martin Havlat, Minnesota
-- The Wild let oft-injured Marian Gaborik leave as a free agent and hope Havlat, Chicago's regular-season scoring leader in 2008-09, will replace him. Havlat stayed healthy last season for the first time since 2003-04 and put up 77 points in 81 games. The Wild will need him to perform at least that well in order to return to the playoffs after missing them last spring.Steve Sullivan, Nashville
-- Sullivan's comeback after missing nearly two seasons with a back injury earned him the Bill Masterton Trophy. But it was the 32 points in 41 games he put up that persuaded the Predators to give him a new two-year contract. Sullivan is one of the few offensively creative players on Nashville's roster, and the Preds need him to build on his comeback numbers if they have any hope of making the playoffs.Kyle Turris, Phoenix
-- Two years after picking him third in the 2007 Entry Draft, the Coyotes need Turris to blossom if they're to have any hope of making hockey bloom in the desert. After a year in college, Turris showed flashes of great promise in his first season as a pro -- but also showed he wasn't quite ready to be a full-time NHL player. The Coyotes hope he's another year stronger and more prepared for the responsibility they need him to bear.Joe Thornton, San Jose
-- Thornton has as much physical talent as any player in the NHL. But 25 goals and 86 points in 82 games is nowhere near enough production from a player good enough to win the Hart and Art Ross trophies three years earlier. The Sharks need Thornton to be dominant, not just very good, if they have any hopes of repeating as the Presidents' Trophy winner and finally pulling off the big playoff run they've failed to make in the past few years.Erik Johnson, St. Louis
-- The Blues surprised everyone and made the playoffs last season even though their defense produced just 15 goals, with no player getting more than four. Part of the reason for the lack of offensive production was the absence of Johnson, the first pick of the 2006 draft, who missed the entire season with a knee injury. For the Blues to build on their surprising playoff appearance, they need Johnson to be healthy and generate some offense from the blue line.Alex Burrows, Vancouver
-- Burrows, an undrafted free agent signed in 2003, came out of nowhere last season to finish second on the Canucks with 28 goals while riding shotgun with the Sedins and helping Vancouver to the Northwest Division title. At age 28, he has to prove he's more than just a one-hit wonder if the Canucks are to take the next step and become a Stanley Cup contender.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist