The summer sun is a reminder that we're still a couple of months away from the start of the 2010-11 season. But while players and management take it easy for a few more weeks before training camp starts in September, the pressure already is starting to build for some players who know they'll have to be big-time producers for their teams to improve or contend in the upcoming season.
Here's a look at a player from each of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference who will be under pressure to perform as soon as the puck drops in October:
Chris Mason, Atlanta --
Goaltending never has been a strength in Atlanta, so it's not a big stretch to say Mason -- signed as a free agent after two solid seasons in St. Louis -- could be the best goalie in franchise history. With a defense that's hardly rock-solid and a mostly young group of forwards, the Thrashers are going to need a big season from Mason to have any chance at making the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history.
David Krejci, Boston --
The Bruins appeared to be on their way to an easy second-round playoff win against Philadelphia when a big hit by Mike Richards
on Krejci knocked the second-year center out of the playoffs with a broken wrist that required surgery. With Krejci gone, the Bruins became only the third team to blow a 3-0 series lead and lose a playoff series. The Bruins expect a healthy Krejci to play a bigger role in their offense this season; if he's not up to the task, scoring goals again will be a struggle.
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo --
Three summers ago, the Sabres matched a huge offer sheet from Edmonton to keep Vanek, then a restricted free agent who appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the NHL's elite goal-scorers. But instead of improving, Vanek has gone backward, dropping from 43 goals and 84 points in 2006-07 all the way to 28 goals and 53 points this past season. The Sabres need Vanek to revert to the offensive force he was three seasons ago if they hope to build on last season's division title -- and avoid another first-round playoff upset.
Eric Staal, Carolina --
Staal got the captain's "C" midway through last season, but with the retirement of Rod Brind'Amour
, the 'Canes unquestionably are his team -- and he's got to be the man, both on and off the ice. Staal's 45-goal, 100-point season in 2005-06 was a big reason Carolina won the Cup, but he hasn't come close to those numbers since then. Last season's 29-goal, 70-point performance wasn't nearly good enough. To get back into the playoffs, the Hurricanes need a superstar season from their superstar.
David Booth, Florida --
Booth's 2009-10 season ended almost before it began when he was blasted by Philadelphia's Mike Richards
in an October game. The resulting concussion basically wiped out his season -- he finished with 8 goals and 16 points in 28 games -- a huge decline after a 31-goal season in 2008-09. Booth has to produce the way he did two seasons ago for the offense-starved Panthers to have any hope of making the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Carey Price, Montreal --
Playoff hero Jaroslav Halak
now is in St. Louis, meaning Price has the No. 1 goaltending job all to himself -- and likely will for the foreseeable future. Now he has to prove he's up to the task. Price has gone backward from the rookie sensation that went 24-12-3 in 2007-08, but with Halak now plying his trade with the Blues, the Habs have no real Plan B if Price's struggles continue for another season.
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey --
Brodeur already owns three Stanley Cup rings and a hatful of goaltending records. But he lost the starting job with Team Canada at the Winter Olympics and didn't look sharp through the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. He's now 38, coming off three consecutive first-round playoff losses and likely will be playing behind a team that's much more offense-oriented than the traditional defense-first clubs he's used to -- with a defense that lacks a real puck-carrier on the blue line. The Devils need their franchise player to turn back the clock a few years to when he was the unquestioned best in the game.
John Tavares, New York Islanders --
Tavares' rookie season mirrored his team's -- a fast start, a falloff in the middle and a good finish. As the Isles continue to accumulate young talent, they need Tavares, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, to have the kind of breakout season Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos
(No. 1 in '08) did when he went from 23 goals in 2008-09 to 51 last season. His strength and stamina have to catch up to his hands, which already are world-class.
Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers --
Here's a scary thought for Rangers fans: Gaborik had 42 goals, stayed healthy enough to play 76 games -- and the team still missed the playoffs. With no new offensive savior on the horizon and no one else on the roster who scored more than 20 goals, Gaborik will have to do at least as well (and stay at least as healthy) in his second season in the Big Apple as he did in his first for the Rangers to get back into the playoffs.
Sergei Gonchar, Senators --
At 36, Gonchar wanted a three-year deal enough to leave Pittsburgh and head to Ottawa, the team the Penguins beat in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. His assignments: play 23-plus minutes a night, run the power play, be solid in his own zone and provide a veteran presence on the blue line. The Senators are counting on Gonchar to help them go from playoff qualifier to Cup contender.
Mike Richards, Flyers --
Philadelphia's captain had a good season in 2009-10 -- but it wasn't nearly up to the standard he'd set for himself in the previous two, as he dropped from 80 points to 62 and plus-22 to minus-2 (and 7 shorthanded goals to 1). It wasn't a bad season, but it's not the kind of performance needed from the player the Flyers have made the face of the franchise with a 12-year contract that runs into the next decade. More will be expected from the Flyers and their captain after last spring's surprise trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins --
A 28-goal, 77-point season (despite missing 15 games) would be pretty good for most players, but it was a huge comedown for Malkin, who struggled offensively after leading the NHL with 113 points in 2008-09 and then winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. With a huge chunk of their salary cap tied up at center (Malkin, Sidney Crosby
, Jordan Staal
), the Penguins can't have Malkin be anything less than the elite player he was in 2008-09 if they want to be among the teams that will compete for the Cup next spring.
Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay --
The Lightning's all-time leading scorer was eclipsed last season by the startling rise of sophomore sensation Steven Stamkos
, whose 51 goals covered up Lecavalier's drop to 24 -- the third-straight season his production has dropped. With teams likely to pay more attention to Stamkos this season, the Bolts need Lecavalier to play the kind of hockey he did in 2006-07, when he led the NHL with 52 goals and piled up 106 points -- numbers he hasn't come close to since then.
Dion Phaneuf, Toronto --
GM Brian Burke
brought in Phaneuf from Calgary before the Olympics and has made him part of the foundation for his rebuilding effort around him -- to the point that Phaneuf was named captain during the offseason. The Leafs obviously hope the added responsibility will help the 25-year-old defenseman find the offensive form he had earlier in his career (54 goals in his first three NHL seasons), and that he's capable of a lot more than the 2 goals and 10 points he put up in 26 games after coming over from the Flames.
Semyon Varlamov, Washington --
With Jose Theodore
now an ex-Cap, it's up to Varlamov to provide enough goaltending support to keep the NHL's top offensive machine humming. Varlamov was 15-4-6 with a 2.55 goals-against average in 2009-10, but was hurt for much of the season and started only 23 games (Theodore started 43). The Caps need the 22-year-old Russian to prove he can carry the load for a full season, something he's never had to do in his two seasons in North America.
Follow John Kreiser on Twitter: @jkreiser7nhl