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Eastern Conference players on the hot seat

by John Kreiser
Summer is in the home stretch. Teams are less than a month away from training camps.  It's almost time for another NHL season -- and the pressure is already 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'll be under pressure to perform as soon as the puck drops:

David Krejci, Boston -- They may have won the Stanley Cup, but the Bruins still don't scare anyone offensively. Krejci tied for the team lead in scoring with just 62 points and scored only 13 goals -- just one more than he scored in the playoffs while leading all scorers with 23 points. As their No. 1 center, Krejci has to put up the kind of numbers he did in the postseason to give the Bruins the chance to repeat.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo -- One year after winning the Vezina Trophy, Miller regressed from great to merely good. His 2.59 goals-against average was right in the middle of the pack, and his .916 save percentage was a significant drop from his .929 figure in 2009-10. New owner Terry Pegula is pumping resources into the Sabres, but his efforts to build a Cup-winner will flounder without a big season from Miller.

The Hurricanes captain Eric Staal tallied 100 points during their 2005-06 Cup winning seasion. However, Staal has not been able to match that same level of produciton since. (Photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI)

Eric Staal, Carolina -- Staal's 100-point season in 2005-06 fueled Carolina's surprising run to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Though he's had at least 70 points in each of the five seasons since then, the eldest son of one of hockey's most famous families hasn't come close to matching his breakout season -- and not coincidentally, the Canes have missed the playoffs four times in five years. Carolina's captain can't settle for being "very good" when that hasn't been good enough to make the Canes a consistent playoff team.

Stephen Weiss, Florida -- As last season's leading scorer (21 goals, 49 points) and one of the few veterans still on the team, Weiss faces pressure on two fronts. Not only does he have to step up his offensive production, but he's also going to be counted on to provide leadership and stability for a franchise that figures to lead the NHL in roster turnover as it tries to avoid an 11th consecutive non-playoff season.

P.K. Subban, Montreal -- Subban had a spectacular rookie season on Montreal's blue line, putting up 14 goals and 38 points. But he was also minus-8 and showed an alarming propensity for following a great play with a bad one. With Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges coming off knee surgery and Roman Hamrlik now in Washington, the Canadiens need Subban to develop the kind of consistency that will bring out the most in his obvious talent.

Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey -- Kovalchuk's poor start was a big reason John MacLean became an ex-coach before Christmas; his turnaround under Jacques Lemaire was a huge part of New Jersey's second-half revival. For last season's debacle to be more than a one-year blip, Kovalchuk has to return to being the kind of big-time scorer he was while piling up six straight 40-goal seasons from 2003-04 through 2009-10.

Mark Streit, New York Islanders -- The Isles' season took a turn for the worse when Streit, their best defenseman, was lost for the year after injuring his shoulder in a training camp scrimmage. All indications are that Streit is healthy again; if he is as productive as he was in his first two seasons on Long Island, it would be a major boost for a team trying to end a four-year playoff drought.

Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers -- The one home-run hitter on the Rangers' roster slipped from 42 goals to 22 and 86 points to 48 last season while missing 20 games with injuries. The Rangers spent a fortune this summer to bring in playmaker Brad Richards with the expectation that he'll help Gaborik return to the form that's made him a two-time 42-goal scorer. The plan has to work for the Rangers to be more than just a team contending for a bottom-level playoff berth.


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Jason Spezza, Ottawa -- Spezza, now 28, says he's pumped up about the Senators' new direction following last season's crash landing. As the only returning forward who scored more than 35 points (57 in 62 games), the No. 2 pick in the 2001 Entry Draft knows that new coach Paul MacLean will be counting on him to provide offense -- and, as one of the team's few veterans, he'll have to become more of a leader as well.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia -- The Flyers' goaltending struggles during the playoffs convinced them to remodel their team -- and sign Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million dollar deal. With the offense in a state of flux following deals that sent Jeff Carter to Columbus and Mike Richards to L.A., the Flyers need Bryzgalov to play the way he did in 2009-10, when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist in Phoenix.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh -- While the loss of Sidney Crosby attracted most of the attention, Malkin's struggles to deal with a knee problem that ultimately required season-ending surgery slipped under the radar. With no idea of how soon Crosby will be able to play -- or how he'll stand up to contact -- the Penguins have to have Malkin play like the superstar who won the Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophies just two years ago.

James Reimer, Toronto -- The Leafs have run through starting goaltenders the way some teams run through tape -- but they're hopeful Reimer is the answer to the revolving door in the crease. He went 20-10-5 after a midseason call-up, taking the No. 1 job and earning a three-year contract; now he has to prove he's more than just a kid who had a good half-season as a rookie.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay -- Stamkos' hot start (21 goals in 22 games) sparked talk that he could score 50 goals in 50 games; instead, he finished with 45 in 82 games. His 96 goals in the past two seasons are the most of anyone in the League, and he signed a new deal this summer that will keep him in Tampa Bay for another five seasons. But there will be more pressure on the Lightning after their surprise playoff run, and Stamkos will be under the gun to produce following the Lightning's trip to the conference finals.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington -- There was little talk of "Ovechtricks" by the end of last season after Ovechkin's career-low 32 goals and 85 points. Ovechkin often seemed to lack the little something extra that made him a megastar -- opponents didn't fear him as much and were able to take away some of his favorite moves. After another early playoff departure, the heat will be on Ovechkin to regain his 50-goal touch and lead the Caps on a long postseason run.

Andrew Ladd, Winnipeg -- Few players face as many challenges as Ladd, who's expected to build on his career-best 29-goal, 59-point season while helping his team cope with the upheaval of relocation. After Atlanta's move to Winnipeg was approved, the Jets wasted little time signing their captain to a five-year deal that will make him the face of the franchise, on and off the ice, as it endeavors to make the playoffs and get used to its new home.

Follow John Kreiser on Twitter: @jkreiser7nhl
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