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The pressure's on: Five NHL players who have a lot to prove this season

Josh Anderson's contract dispute puts him in the spotlight as he prepares for his first game of the 2017-18 NHL season, but he's not the only one who will be watched closely this season.

Few players have more to prove this season than Josh Anderson.

That’s not because he’s coming off of a career-best year, which he is, nor is it because there are high hopes for the Columbus Blue Jackets, which there are. Rather, the expectations for Anderson have increased — almost tenfold, really — due to an off-season contract dispute with the Blue Jackets that saw the two sides, team and player, dig in on their demands. The situation with Anderson and Columbus grew so contentious, in fact, that there were rumblings of him heading overseas to play this season, reports of Hockey Canada’s interest in scooping the 23-year-old up for the Olympics in February and even rumblings of a trade request, though the latter was shot down by both the Blue Jackets and Anderson’s agent.

The contract dispute made Anderson a frequent topic of conversation in hockey circles, too, so much so that even those who weren’t all that familiar with his 17-goal, 29-point performance last season started to wonder what his potential upside was. But now, with Anderson under contract after accepting a three-year, $5.5-million offer, some would suggest that he now has the chance to prove he was worth not what he was paid, but what he was after — reportedly $150,000 more per season than the $1.85 million he’ll be paid annually.

As far as getting off on the right foot, Anderson has certainly done that. After inking his three-year pact with the Blue Jackets, he headed down to the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters on a conditioning stint as a way to get into game shape after missing all of training camp. And, after practicing with the team, Anderson shone in his first outing in the minors. He didn’t find the scoresheet, but he led the Monsters with seven shots on the night and certainly showed he can make an offensive impact.

His stint in the AHL has been short-lived, however, as Anderson is back up with the big club and will suit up in the NHL for the first time when the Blue Jackets roll into Carolina to play the Hurricanes on Tuesday. The meeting will kick off what is without a doubt the most important — and likely to be the most-watched and most-scrutinized — season of his young career.

So, what would a successful season for Anderson look like? Well, it’s one of those cases where the obvious answer is the right one. For Anderson to show he was worth the lengthy negotiation he’ll have to surpass his career highs, flirt with the 20-goal plateau and use his big frame to become a dominant power forward and net-front presence. He’ll gain a bigger responsibility when it comes to ice time and see an uptick from the 12 minutes he averaged last season. He’ll skate with better linemates and be given more chances to produce. And when he gets his opportunities, he’ll be expected, not asked, to capitalize.

Anderson isn’t the only player under the microscope this season, though. Here are four others who will be facing pressure to perform:

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

It’s no secret that Hellebuyck played poorly last season. Seen by some in Winnipeg as the present and future of the crease after a solid rookie campaign, Hellebuyck turned in a subpar .907 save percentage and had a bloated 2.89 goals-against average as goaltending sunk the Jets and their high-powered offense. And while it wasn’t exactly a vote of non-confidence, it wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the Jets’ faith in Hellebuyck when GM Kevin Cheveldayoff went to the open market to scoop up goaltender Steve Mason to help hold down the fort.

Thus, Hellebuyck comes into the 2017-18 campaign with the intention of showing he’s worthy of No. 1 duty in Winnipeg and that the Jets were wrong to bring anyone in to give him support. Doing so will mean improving big-time on last season’s numbers and putting his name back in the conversation as one of the best young goaltenders in the league. He’s off to a good start, too. In two games, one of which was a start, Hellebuyck has only been beaten on four of the 50 shots he faced, good for a .920 SP.

Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

The Rangers made some off-season changes, but arguably the biggest was saying goodbye to top-line center Derek Stepan and passing the torch to Zibanejad. Not only did Zibanejad get pegged for top-line duty, though, but he was rewarded with a five-year, $26.75-million contract as a restricted free agent, a deal which makes him the second-highest paid forward on the entire club. Suffice to say, the Rangers are putting a lot of stock in Zibanejad’s continued development.

Now, unlike Hellebuyck who needs to bounce back, what Zibanejad needs is more of the same to relieve the pressure the organization will be putting on him. While some may not consider him a top-line pivot, Zibanejad has continually increased his rate of production and has shown he’s a capable two-way player. Offensively, his 0.66 points per game rate last season was the 45th-best mark among all centers who played at least half the campaign, putting him in the same category as David Krejci, Nathan MacKinnon and, yes, Stepan. Already, Zibanejad has four goals in three games and he appears more than ready to accept his new role.

Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid has been under immense pressure, and performed under the watchful eye of the entire hockey world, for the better part of the past half-decade, so when he signed his big-money extension – an eight-year, $100-million deal that will kick in next season – it didn’t really increase the pressure on him all that much. He’s expected to be the best in the game, as he was last season, so he was paid as such. When it comes to Draisaitl, though, many saw his new deal, which pays $8.5 million per year, as an exorbitant contract for a player who had one outstanding season while playing alongside McDavid. And that’s why Draisaitl has a lot to prove.

Though he’s primarily playing alongside McDavid to start the year once again, it would stand to reason that Draisaitl will eventually be given the chance to run his own line this year. And when that opportunity comes, Draisaitl has to step up to the plate. The eight-year, $68-million deal he signed was as much about producing like a top-line player as it was about securing a 1-2 punch down the middle for the Oilers, so Draisaitl will be expected to carry the load on his own line at one point or another. The sooner he can do that, too, he’ll shake the tag as simply McDavid’s wingman and prove that he was worth every penny.

Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens

The Tampa Bay Lightning had a decision to make this summer when it came to who stays and who goes. As it turned out, it was Drouin, an immensely talented playmaker, who was shown the door by way of a trade to the Canadiens. Now is Drouin’s chance to prove that not only was it the wrong move by the Lightning, but that he can be much more than Tampa Bay had pegged him to be.

That starts with playing down the middle. Drouin was drafted as a center, but hadn’t really been given the chance to run his own line in Tampa Bay. Montreal, however, started the 22-year-old as a center and the intention, or so it would seem, is to keep him as a pivot for the duration of the campaign. Proving he can produce and defend at the NHL level as a center is the first test for Drouin, especially if he wants to prove the Lightning wrong and the Canadiens right.

Additionally, Drouin will have to prove he can be the focal point of the offense. While Montreal has other weapons in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, Drouin is the second-highest paid forward for a reason. The expectation is that he can be a force that drives production. Through three games to start the year, his one point, an assist, hasn’t shown that to be the case. He’s got time to turn things around, however.

Finally, Drouin is facing the additional pressure of being a Francophone Quebecer playing for the bleu, blanc et rouge. The Canadiens have been waiting for a player like Drouin to come along and be the hometown hero for quite some time, and now that he’s in Montreal, the hope is that the one-time QMJHL MVP can be the next big thing in his home province.

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