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A look at who's on the hot seat in the East

by John Kreiser
The days are shorter now, the temperatures are cooler and the ice is ready. Another NHL season is ready to begin -- and 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:

Chris Mason, Atlanta
-- Goaltending never has been a strength in Atlanta, so it's not a big stretch to say that Mason -- signed as a free agent after two solid seasons in St. Louis -- could be the best goalie in franchise history. With a new coaching staff, 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 win over Philadelphia when a big hit by Mike Richards on Krejci in Game 3 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 in NHL history 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 from Edmonton to keep Vanek, 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 and 53 last season. The Sabres need Vanek to revert to the offensive force he was three years 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 Hurricanes now are unquestionably 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 Stanley 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 who went 24-12-3 in 2007-08 to a player who spent most of last spring's playoffs wearing a baseball cap. But with Halak gone, the Habs have no real Plan B if Price's struggles continue for another season.

Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey -- Anyone who signs the kind of contract Kovalchuk did with the Devils is bound to be on the hot seat anyway. But in the 27-year-old Russian's case, he has to prove he's willing and able to play at both ends of the ice (something he hasn't had to do for much of his career, but something required of every Devil), while still putting up the kind of offensive numbers (six consecutive 40-goal seasons) that earned him the big deal in the first place. He had 27 points -- but just 10 goals -- in 27 games after coming over from Atlanta, and that's nowhere near enough.

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, Ottawa -- At 36, Gonchar wanted a three-year deal badly 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, Philadelphia -- 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, Pittsburgh -- 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 and Jordan Staal -- who will miss the start of the season with a foot injury), 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 Lecavalier's drop to 24 -- the third straight season his production has fallen. 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 Phaneuf in from Calgary before the Olympics and is centering his rebuilding efforts around him -- to the point that Phaneuf was named captain during the offseason. The Leafs 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 scored in 26 games after coming over from the Flames.

Mike Green, Washington -- Green has been the NHL's biggest offensive force on the blue line over the last couple of seasons, but his regular-season success hasn't carried over into the playoffs -- a big reason the Caps have left early both times. Green is still young (he turns 25 on Oct. 12), and hasn't hit his peak. The Caps need him to make better decisions in his own zone, continue to improve defensively (he did go from plus-24 in 2008-09 to plus-39 last season) -- and, most importantly, step up his game when it matters most.
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