No one is pumping Roberto Luongo’s tires now.
The Vancouver Canucks goalie was the most talked about player during a Stanley Cup final that ended in disappointment when he fell flat against the Boston Bruins.
Four months later, Luongo finds himself back in the spotlight—will he be the player who earned Vezina Trophy consideration during the regular season or the one who endured some struggles in the playoffs?
With the 2011-12 season getting underway, he tops our list of 10 players to watch this year:
1. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks: Adding intrigue to Luongo’s situation is the fact he has arguably the most capable backup in the league. Many believe Cory Schneider is good enough to be a No. 1 man elsewhere and the Canucks intend to give him more than the 25 appearances he received last year. If Luongo struggles, it could end up being a lot more.
2. Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: With all of the focus on Crosby’s long absence from the Penguins lineup, it’s often forgotten that Malkin missed almost half of last year as well. They’ll both be worth keeping a close eye on, particularly if they can return to top form, which would instantly elevate Pittsburgh back to a serious Stanley Cup contender.
3. Jaromir Jagr, Philadelphia Flyers: About the only guarantee that can be made about Jagr’s return to the NHL is that he’ll finally hit the 1,600-point barrier. The Czech starts the season needing just one more point to do it. But after three years in Russia, and at age 39, it’s anyone’s guess what the five-time scoring champion has left.
4. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: The smooth-skating defenceman finally got a big contract out of the Kings, but now he’ll have to earn it. The US$56-million man is the highest-paid member of a team expected to challenge for a championship and will be playing catch up after missing almost two weeks of training camp.
5. Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals: Expectations are even higher than normal in D.C., where the veteran Czech goalie signed a bargain $1.5-million deal for the chance to play for a Stanley Cup. The 35-year-old has consistently been one of the league’s better goaltenders but has yet to win a playoff series.
6. Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks: What can the Hart Trophy winner do for an encore? Perry took his game to another level down the stretch last season, scoring 19 goals in the final 16 games to hit the 50-goal barrier for the first time. The only thing harder than doing it once is doing it again.
7. Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames: The Flames captain has played all 82 games in five of the six seasons since the lockout, but was hampered by back spasms during training camp. So far, Iginla hasn’t shown many signs of age (he had 43 goals and 86 points last year)—can he fend off Father Time for another season?
8. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks captain showed another side during the playoffs, when he nearly willed his team back from 3-0 down to Vancouver in the first round. Rested after a long summer, Toews enters his fifth NHL season as a prime candidate for a breakout year and hopes to surpass his career high of 76 points.
9. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets: The big defenceman is hard to miss on the ice—he’s listed at six-foot-five, 265 pounds (a matter of some debate)—but that’s going to be especially true in hockey-mad Winnipeg. The Jets’ highest-paid player is coming off a 53-point season and finds himself dealing with legal issues after being charged for boating while intoxicated.
10. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: Despite having just 37 career NHL games under his belt, the Maple Leafs are expecting big things of the Morweena Miracle. The team gave him a three-year extension over the summer and labelled him the No. 1 goaltender, putting their playoff hopes squarely on his shoulders in the process. Few players will have their performance scrutinized as closely.