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Believe it or not, Crosby can actually still improve

by John Kreiser

Sidney Crosby may follow in the giant footsteps of Wayne Gretzky in terms of improvement in shooting & goal scoring production from year two to year three.
Sidney Crosby already is the NHL’s first teenage-scoring champion and the League’s youngest-ever captain. For the Pittsburgh Penguins to be as good as a lot of people think they are, Crosby will have to keep building on those accomplishments.

At age 20, Crosby is still a work in progress. Though he led the NHL last season with 120 points, he’s still growing, in terms of both maturity and skill.

Wayne Gretzky’s third NHL season was his breakout year, when he scored a league-record 92 goals and broke the 200-point mark for the first time. The game has changed -- it’s not likely that anyone will hit 92 goals or 200 points anytime soon. But don’t be surprised to see Crosby’s goal total surpass last season’s 36. One of the big changes in Gretzky’s game between seasons two and three was his increased willingness to shoot. Like “The Great One,” Crosby may find that shooting more will give him additional room to make plays for his teammates.

Five Up -- Five players who are off to fast starts or in line to do so:

Jonathan Bernier -- How’s this for your NHL debut: You stop the first 22 shots you face and 26 of 27 overall to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the League’s first game in Europe? That’s what Bernier did last Saturday in the Los Angeles Kings’ 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in London. The Kings think he might be the long-term answer to their long-running problems in goal.

Mike Cammalleri -- The Kings got an early return on their decision to accept Cammalleri’s arbitration award when he scored three goals in L.A.’s two games against Anaheim in London this past weekend. He looks primed to surpass last season’s 36 goals.

Corey Perry -- With Dustin Penner now an Oiler and Teemu Selanne undecided about whether to come back, Anaheim needs Perry to step up. He did just that on Sunday, scoring two goals and adding an assist in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the Kings in London.

Jason Spezza -- If the preseason (4-5-9 in five games) is any indication, Spezza is primed for a big season. Ottawa’s No. 1 center looks like he’s ready to build on last spring’s trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Derek Roy -- With Buffalo’s top two centers from last season gone via free agency, the Sabres need Roy to step up and become their No. 1 center. If the preseason is any indication, Roy is up to the task: He led all scorers with six goals and 13 points.

Five with something to prove -- Five players under the gun to produce:

Martin Biron -- The new-look Philadelphia Flyers are counting on Biron, a late-season acquisition from Buffalo, to be their No. 1 goaltender. He had a 1.39 goals-against average in the preseason.

Rick DiPietro -- The New York Islanders underwent a lot of personnel movement during the off-season, but the most important happening was DiPietro’s hip surgery. For the Islanders to make the playoffs again, DiPietro has to be even better than he was in 2006-07, when he became the first goalie in franchise history to win 30 or more games in back-to-back seasons.

Zdeno Chara -- The NHL’s biggest defenseman wasn’t a bust in his first season in Boston. But for the Bruins to contend for a playoff berth, they need Chara to return to what he was in Ottawa -- a physical force and an offensive threat from the blue line.

Eric Staal -- One reason for the Carolina Hurricanes’ slide from Stanley Cup champs to playoff outsiders was Staal’s dropoff from 45 to 30 goals. He didn’t score a goal in the preseason, but did lead the ‘Canes with six points (all assists) in five games.

Jonathan Cheechoo -- It’s not that 37 goals is a bad season. But when your center is Joe Thornton and you had 56 goals in the previous season, more is expected. The San Jose Sharks need Cheechoo to score 40 or more goals this season in order to stay near the top of the Western Conference.

Injury news and notes -- Philadelphia took a couple hits before the season started. Forward Scottie Upshall, counted on for 20-plus goals, is out for at least a month with a broken left wrist that required surgery, and center R.J. Umberger will miss at least the first week of the season after having screws inserted into his left pinky. … Anaheim was shorthanded for its trip to London. The defending Cup champs are without defenseman Scott Niedermayer and star right wing Teemu Selanne, both of whom are still deciding whether to retire, as well as goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere and checking center Samuel Pahlsson (sports hernia surgeries). Pahlsson’s absence in London over the weekend ended his games-played streak at 275. … New Jersey is also starting the season at less than full strength. Defenseman Colin White's eye injury will sideline him indefinitely, forward Jamie Langenbrunner is for at least a month after surgery to repair a sports hernia, and forward Cam Janssen will start the season on the shelf after undergoing surgery on the shoulder he injured during the Devils’ first exhibition game. … The Tampa Bay Lightning may struggle in the early going without top defenseman Dan Boyle, who’s out for at least another couple weeks with a wrist injury. He had surgery on Sept. 23 after a freak injury, in which the tendons of his left wrist were cut by a skate blade when the skate fell off a hook in the locker room. Tampa Bay is also without forward Ryan Craig, who has a herniated disc in his back. … Buffalo defenseman Teppo Numminen is recovering from surgery last month to repair a heart valve. He might be back in the Sabres’ lineup by the New Year. … Forward Ales Kotalik is likely to miss the Sabres’ opener against the Islanders with a knee injury. … Goalie Ray Emery won’t start Ottawa’s opening game; he’s still not fully recovered from off-season wrist surgery, meaning Martin Gerber will get a chance to play. … Nashville will be without high-scoring forward Steve Sullivan, possibly until December. Sullivan had back surgery in September. … Toronto’s Kyle Wellwood, projected as the Leafs’ No. 2 center behind Mats Sundin, also will start the season on the shelf after surgery to fix a sports hernia. Wellwood had an operation earlier this year to repair a sports hernia, but it apparently didn’t heal. The Leafs will also be without defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo at the start of the season as he deals with pain in his surgically repaired knee. … St. Louis defenseman Jay McKee, who missed most of last season with injuries, won’t be able to play until early November at the earliest after breaking a bone in his right foot during an exhibition game. … Florida defenseman Steve Montador will be lost for an undisclosed amount of time with a knee injury. … Detroit defenseman Kyle Quincey has a broken bone in his left hand and will miss for the early portion of the season.

Schedules and stuff -- The Anaheim Ducks could be a little tired when they visit Detroit Wednesday night. The Ducks got only two days off after opening their season in London over the weekend. The defending champs visit Columbus Oct. 5 and Pittsburgh Oct. 6 before their home opener against Boston Oct. 10. … The Los Angeles Kings, who played their Southern California rivals twice at the O2 Center, get almost a full week off before their next game, at home against St. Louis Oct. 6. ... Boston opens the season with a five-game swing through the Pacific Division; after that, the Bruins play their last 77 games in the Eastern time zone. … New Jersey starts its season with a nine-game trip before opening its new arena in Newark Oct. 27. The Devils visit Florida twice in a six-day span. … In addition to the Ducks and Kings, two other pairs of teams — the Islanders and Sabres and Senators and Maple Leafs — open with a home-and-home series. It’s the third consecutive season in which the Senators and Leafs have opened against each other and the second straight in which they’ve opened with a home and home.

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