Summer continues to melt like a Popsicle on a sidewalk. Teams are less than a month away from training camps. It's almost time for another NHL season, 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.
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:
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins -- With Tim Thomas taking a year off, the No. 1 goaltending job in Boston belongs to Rask, who is coming off a groin injury in March that brought his season to an early conclusion. Rask, who signed a one-year deal this summer, provided a safety net behind Thomas, but he's flying solo now and will be expected to carry the load in goal for a team that feels it's more than capable of regaining the Stanley Cup it failed to retain last spring.
Center - BUF
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 39
SOG: 108 | +/-: 5
Steve Ott, Buffalo Sabres -- "Feisty" isn't a word you'd use to describe the Buffalo Sabres in recent seasons. But it's one of the best ways to describe Ott, who was acquired by the organization during the summer and figures to shake up the culture of a team that hasn't been all that hard to play against. Ott has enough skill to earn third-line (and even second-line) ice time, and he figures to provide the kind of edge the Sabres have lacked in their play during the past few seasons.
Alexander Semin, Carolina Hurricanes -- Semin was an enigma during his time with the Washington Capitals -- his skill level and production often didn't come close to being equal. But he's got a new start with the Capitals' Southeast Division rival in Carolina, and a season to prove that he's up to the challenge of being an elite player. The Hurricanes have the chance to make a make move upward, but they'll need Semin to compete hard on an every-night basis.
Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers -- Campbell was the linchpin of the Panthers last season as Florida won the first division title in franchise history and made the playoffs for the first time since 2000. He was tied for No. 2 in points among NHL defensemen and saw more ice time than anyone in the League. But with running mate Jason Garrison now with the Vancouver Canucks, Campbell will be asked to do even more to keep Florida's attack running.
Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens -- Pacioretty's emergence as a 30-goal scorer less than a year after suffering a serious injury was one of the best stories of last season. The Canadiens rewarded him with a six-year, $27 million extension that could keep him in Montreal through 2018-19. The 23-year-old will be counted on to boost his team-leading total of 65 points as he continues to mature -- and as the Canadiens try to dig out of last season's last-place conference finish.
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Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils -- Kovalchuk had his best all-round season in 2011-12, earning First-Team All-Star honors and leading the Devils with 37 goals and 83 points (as well as setting NHL records with 11 shootout goals and seven game-deciding goals in the tiebreaker). But with Zach Parise gone to the Minnesota Wild, Kovalchuk will have to increase those numbers this season to give the Devils a chance of matching their trip to the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders -- The Islanders were a lot more competitive last season when Nabokov was in the net -- he was 19-18-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average on a team that finished 14th in the East. At 37, the question for Nabokov is his health -- he played in 42 games last season and there is no proven, healthy alternative if Nabokov can't carry a bigger load this season.
Rick Nash, New York Rangers -- The Rangers made a huge commitment to bring Nash to New York from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nash has scored 30 or more goals in five consecutive seasons, but he also has seen his point total drop in each of the past three seasons. The Rangers are coming off a season in which they finished first in the East and made the conference finals, so anything short of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final likely will be regarded as a failure. To say Nash will have big expectations on his shoulders would be putting it mildly.
Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators -- A decade after Ottawa made Spezza the No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft, he finally became one of the NHL's elite players, finishing fourth in the scoring race and leading the Senators to a surprising playoff berth. But on a team that made few changes following its leap forward, the pressure will be on Spezza to build on his best season in four years to keep the Senators among the top eight in the East.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers -- Bryzgalov's first season in Philadelphia was a roller-coaster ride that featured wild ups and downs. His 33-16-7 record and 2.48 GAA weren't bad, but his .909 save percentage was a sharp drop from .921 in his final season with the Phoenix Coyotes. With the defense riddled by injuries (Chris Pronger, Andrej Meszaros and Andreas Lilja all will miss at least the start of this season), Bryzgalov will be under a lot more pressure and figures to get a lot less help.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins -- Few people will dispute that when he's healthy, Crosby is the best player in hockey. The challenge for No. 87 as he enters his age-25 season is twofold: He has to show that he's capable of playing a full season at his usual high level after missing all but 22 games since Jan. 5, 2011 -- and he and the Penguins will have to prove they can mesh again after last spring's playoff debacle. A healthy Crosby integrated into the lineup could be the difference between a playoff team and a Cup winner.
Goalie - TBL
GAA: 2.42 | SVP: 0.912
Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning -- How did a team with 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos and stars Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier miss the playoffs by eight points? One reason is the goaltending struggled. Enter Lindback, whose path to a starting job with the Nashville Predators was blocked by Pekka Rinne. That won't be the case in Tampa Bay, where Lindback is being counted on to grab the No. 1 job, run with it, and hopefully carry the Lightning back to the playoffs.
James van Riemsdyk, Toronto Maple Leafs -- Van Riemsdyk came to Toronto from Philadelphia in an old-fashioned "hockey trade" -- the Leafs surrendered defenseman Luke Schenn, the No. 5 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, for van Riemsdyk, a forward who was the second player chosen in '07. Leafs general manager Brian Burke is counting on 23-year-old van Riemsdyk to blossom into the player the Flyers thought they were getting five years ago, even though Toronto may move him to center, a position he's never played at this level.
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals -- As he turns 27, Ovechkin remains one of the NHL's best players, but he hasn't been an elite player for the past few seasons. Part of the problem has been the Capitals' metamorphosis into a defense-first team despite having one of the League's most potent group of forwards. New coach Adam Oates made the Hall of Fame as one of the NHL's most creative playmakers and should be able to strike a better balance between offense and defense. Having an offensive-minded coach could be just what Ovechkin needs to regain his place among the NHL's top stars -- and move the Capitals back up among the NHL's elite teams.
Olli Jokinen, Winnipeg Jets -- A lack of production in the middle was a major reason the Jets came up short of the playoffs in their first season in Manitoba. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hopes he's fixed that problem by signing Jokinen, who at 33 is coming off a 23-goal, 61-point season with the Calgary Flames -- his best since 2007-08. Jokinen has the size and skill to give the Jets' offense a boost, as long as they're not expecting the player who scored 30-plus goals four times in five seasons from 2002-03 to 2007-08.