The 2009-10 season is still a couple of months away. But while teams take it easy before reporting to training camp in September, 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 new 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:
Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta --
The Thrashers are assembling a nice base of young talent, but the team is still built around Kovalchuk, their all-time leading scorer who's entering the final year of his contract. He struggled through the first half of last season -- but was nearly unstoppable after being named captain, finishing with 43 goals and 91 points while taking several steps forward in the leadership department. At 26, he's just three goals short of 300 for his NHL career and remains the key to the Thrashers' improvement.
Zdeno Chara, Boston --
At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, "Big Z" is a cornerstone of the team that finished first in the Eastern Conference last season. For the Bruins to reach those heights again (and improve on a second-round playoff loss to Carolina), Chara will have to build on last season's Norris Trophy-winning performance (19-21-50, plus-23 while averaging 26:04 of ice time in 80 games). He's the big man on Boston's blue line -- in more ways than one.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo --
Had Miller not missed nearly a month with a high-ankle sprain last season, the Sabres likely would have made the playoffs. Instead, they came up short for the second year in a row. With no solid backup in place, the Sabres again will rely on Miller to carry the load. Despite being limited to 59 games due to the injury, Miller is coming off his best season (34-18-6, 2.53 GAA, .918 save percentage and five shutouts). He'll likely have to do even better to get the Sabres back into the playoffs.
Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina --
The Hurricanes' captain turns 39 next month and looked his age for most of last season. He struggled to score and finished with a career-worst minus-23 rating. He's still among the NHL's best in the faceoff circle and in the locker room, but the 'Canes can't afford to have Brind'Amour go through another season on the ice like 2008-09 if they hope to catch Washington in the Southeast Division.
David Booth, Florida --
Booth was rewarded with a six-year contract after leading the offensively challenged Panthers with 31 goals last season. That's a big investment in a 24-year-old who's played just two full NHL seasons. With goals still likely to be scarce in South Florida, the Panthers will need Booth to live up to his new contract by boosting his offensive numbers even more if they hope to snag the playoff berth that has eluded them since 2000.
Carey Price, Montreal --
Program sales figure to be brisk in Montreal this season after GM Bob Gainey tore apart his team. The one constant figures to be Price, whose struggles during the second half of last season mirrored those of his team. For the Canadiens to make the playoffs, Price must revert to the player who was a sensation as a rookie in 2007-08 (24-12-3, 2.53 GAA, .920 save percentage), rather than the one who struggled as a sophomore (23-16-10, 2.83, .905).
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey --
The all-time wins leader in NHL history saw his season end with a thud last April when Carolina scored twice in the final 80 seconds of Game 7 to bounce the Devils out of the first round. Brodeur is coming off a season in which he missed 50 games with a elbow injury -- the first serious injury of his career. At 37 -- and without a proven backup -- he'll be expected to carry the load for a team that has a new coach (Jacques Lemaire
) and will look a lot different after the loss of some key veterans to free agency.
John Tavares, New York Islanders --
Tavares went home to Ontario last week after rookie camp for his final few weeks as a kid. When he shows up at the Islanders' training camp in September, he'll be under a microscope from the first time he steps on the ice. Like Sidney Crosby
, Tavares was a sensation in junior hockey; he's also coming to the team that finished last in the overall standings last season and struggled to score. Long Island fans are hoping he's the player who can be the linchpin of the franchise's revival, on and off the ice. He may become that player -- but expecting him to get the Isles anywhere near the playoffs this spring is asking a lot.
Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers --
The Rangers freed up some salary-cap space by dealing center Scott Gomez
to Montreal, then used it to sign Gaborik to a five-year contract. No one questions Gaborik's skill -- he's among the best offensive players in the NHL -- but his health is another issue. Gaborik missed all but 17 games with Minnesota last season due to leg and hip problems that required surgery. If he stays healthy and plays like the player who had 42 goals for the Wild in 2007-08, the Rangers could contend for the Atlantic Division title. If he has more health problems, they'll be hard-pressed to make the playoffs.
Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa --
The Senators acquired Leclaire from Columbus at the trading deadline in March, knowing that he wouldn't step on the ice for them until this fall. GM Bryan Murray is counting on Leclaire to rebound from an injury-plagued season with the kind of numbers he put up for the Blue Jackets in 2007-08 -- 24-17-6 with a 2.25 GAA, a .919 save percentage and nine shutouts. With Alex Auld
gone, the No. 1 job is his for the taking -- and the Senators will be in trouble if he doesn't take it.
Ray Emery, Philadelphia --
The Flyers have one of the NHL's best offenses and a defense that now includes Chris Pronger
. What they don't have is a proven No. 1 NHL goaltender -- unless Emery proves he can handle the job. Emery led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Final just two years ago, but little has gone right for him since. He's returning to the NHL after a season in Russia during which he made the All-Star Game. If he can't handle the job, the cap-strapped Flyers could see their dreams of a long playoff run go sailing away.
Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh --
The Penguins have the NHL's best 1-2 combination up the middle in Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
. But it was the addition of Kunitz (and later Bill Guerin
) late in the season that finally gave them some production on the wings. Kunitz struggled to score in the playoffs, but given the chance to play with Crosby or Malkin for a full season, he should be able to improve on last season's 23 goals while providing the kind of physical edge needed to play coach Dan Bylsma
's up-tempo forechecking system.
Mike Smith, Tampa Bay --
The Lightning's season totally fell apart when Smith, their starting goaltender, went down for the season at the end of January with a concussion. Before the injury, Smith proved he was a more-than-adequate netminder (14-18-6, 2.82 GAA, .916 save percentage), and the Lightning are counting on him to stay healthy and improve on those numbers this season.
Jason Blake, Toronto --
GM Brian Burke
has improved the defense and brought plenty of toughness to Toronto. But someone still has to put the puck in the net, and Blake is one of the few Leafs with proven offensive skills. After a slow start, he wound up leading the Leafs with 25 goals and 63 points. Whether he can repeat or improve on those numbers at age 36 will be one of the keys to the Leafs' hopes of ending a three-year playoff drought.
Jose Theodore/Simeon Varlamov/Michal Neuvirth, Washington --
With Alex Ovechkin
leading one of the NHL's most-dynamic offenses, the Caps don't need their goaltenders to be the hero on most nights -- but they do need someone who makes the saves that need to be made. Theodore was adequate for most of the regular season, but Varlamov took the starting job in the playoffs and Neuvirth led Hershey to the AHL title. One of the three needs to stand up and take charge if the Caps are going to get further than the second round of the playoffs.