Every year there are stars and personalities in the NHL who demand attention and this year it seems there are scads of them.
The annual free agent migration alone has put several top players in new environments where they may flourish or fade, and there is new talent ready to test themselves against the world’s best.
Here’s a look a some players to watch for the 2009-2010 season:
1. Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Alex Ovechkin: Between them, they will almost surely win the Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Hart Trophies. It is only a question of which leads the league in scoring and goals and which ends up as most valuable player. All three are spectacular talents who dominate the highlight reels, so one can’t avoid watching them. And they’re all young and should be making those dazzling plays that for many years more.
2. Marian Gaborik, Rangers: After eight mostly injury-marred seasons in Minnesota, the Rangers went out on a limb by signing one of the NHL’s most talented wingers to a five-year contract. He missed almost the entire 2008-09 season while having hip surgery, but if he can play a full season, Gaborik is probably the league’s only player who could challenge Crosby, Malkin or Ovechkin for the scoring title. Then he had groin trouble in training camp and Wild fans said “We told you so,” and New York fans wasted no time calling team boss Glen Sather every imaginable name.
3. John Tavares, New York Islanders, and Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay: The top two picks in the June draft go together because they are both in the same boat – highly talented teenagers taking their first steps in the NHL. It will be tougher for Tavares, where the talent-thin Islanders need him to score from the get-go. The Bolts signed Swedish veteran Mattias Ohlund partly to be a mentor to the rangy Hedman, who has played big minutes in the pre-season and looks to be settling in nicely.
4. Alex Kovalev, Ottawa Senators: There were fans who picketed the Bell Centre urging Montreal to re-sign their gifted but enigmatic winger, but there was no money left after the Kovalev camp dithered on the offer they received. So the Artiste, as he came to be called, wandered down highway 417 to the rival Senators. He had just arrived when he caused a stir by saying he’d like to return to Montreal one day. Now it’s Cory Clouston’s turn to deal with a player who can dominate games or disappear from them at any moment. For a coach who stresses team play, that could be a challenge.
5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: For all the moves GM Bob Gainey made in the off-season – 11 players out, seven new ones in – the Canadiens’ fortunes still rest on the goalie of the future they drafted fifth overall in 2005. After a promising debut in 2007-08, his play fell off last season, particularly in a four-game sweep by Boston in the playoffs. The big, rangy but nervous-looking young goaltender says he is healthy and refocused after a summer back home in British Columbia. If he struggles again, Gainey’s gamble could be just as perilous as Burke’s.
6. Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs: To cap all the crash, bang and muscle general manager Bryan Burke amassed this summer, he traded his next two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to Boston for a flashy goal-scorer who is reputed to be a difficult personality. He scored 36 times last season, but was well down the list of key players on the talent-stacked Bruins. The Leafs need scoring, however, and took a huge risk. If Burke’s moves fail, Boston could end up with a sweet draft pick.
7. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: The No. 1 draft pick of 2008 needed half a season to find his legs in the NHL and then showed promise that he could be a special player. He skates, passes, shoots and he’s big. With Vincent Lecavalier in better health than a year ago, and if Stamkos takes another step forward, the Lightning could have a one-two punch at centre that is not quite the Crosby-Malkin combo in Pittsburgh, but impressive nonetheless.
8. Sean Avery, New York Rangers: He was on best behaviour at the end of last season after Rangers boss Glen Sather rescued his career by acquiring him from Dallas after the infamous ‘sloppy seconds’ outburst in Calgary. Can he keep anything resembling a low profile for an entire season and just be that gritty winger who helps the Rangers win games? History would say no. And with the outspoken John Tortorella as head coach, the next Avery Show could be highly entertaining.
9. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks: Every city the Blackhawks visit, their young star is going to hear about the run-in he and his cousin had with a cab driver in the wee hours one morning in his hometown of Buffalo. Amid the jeers, quarters and dimes are sure to be offered – the obvious dig at the dispute over 20 cents in change for the fare that ended with Kane going to court for assault. Will it affect his play? Probably not. He’s taken his medicine, made a public apology and looks like he’ll just ride it out until it blows over.
10. Semyon Varlamov, Washington Capitals: Note the spelling of the first name. It used to be Simeon, but Varlamov insists that North Americans pronounce it correctly in Russian and changed it to make sure they get it right. And they say today’s goalies aren’t as quirky as the old-timers. What’s more to watch is whether the 21-year-old will steal veteran Jose Theodore’s starting job, as he did last spring while stretching the Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the playoffs. Or was he a flash in the pan? Theodore’s been confirmed as No. 1, at least to start the season.
There could be a long list of honourable mentions – veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin taking over for Dwayne Roloson in Edmonton, Jay Bouwmeester’s move to Calgary, Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson’s debut with Toronto and Saku Koivu finally united with Teemu Selanne in Anaheim among them. And will Marian Hossa, out to start the season with a shoulder problem, take a third team to the Stanley Cup final only to lose? What will volatile goalie Ray Emery do in Philadelphia after a year’s exile in Siberia? It goes on and on.