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Under Pressure: Five players who have a lot to prove this season

From major free-agent signees to those in need of bounce back campaigns, which five players are facing significant pressure to perform this season?

Say what you will for his underlying numbers and some awful shooting luck, but statistically speaking, William Nylander’s 2018-19 campaign was forgettable. Sure, he was a half-point per game player, but fresh off of a lengthy contract impasse with the Toronto Maple Leafs that wasn’t rectified until the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, Nylander’s seven goals and 27 points simply weren’t up to the standards his six-year, $45-million pact had set.

And that’s what makes the 2019-20 campaign such an important one for Nylander. With a full training camp and an entire pre-season under his belt, the expectations were high for Nylander and the pressure has been on since Toronto’s most recent first-round exit for the versatile 23-year-old winger to hit the ground running this season. Alas, hit the ground running he has. Though it’s been just four games, and though the season is still awfully young, Nylander has already registered nearly one-third of last season’s goal total – he’s scored in back-to-back games to give him two tallies on the season – and his four points have given him a nice head start on replicating the kind of production that the Maple Leafs faithful have come to expect.

Of course, Nylander has to prove himself in more than the opening week. He needs to continue to shoulder a significant load throughout the season. And it’s something he looks prepared to do. Skating alongside Auston Matthews and Andreas Johnsson in the early going, Nylander has looked quick, he’s looked lethal and he’s looked more confident than he did in the late stages of last season.

What would the ideal season look like for Nylander? Well, it would probably start with another 20-goal campaign, which would be the third such season of his career. Ideally, too, Nylander would manage to exceed his previous career-best point total. The two-time 61-point player has all the tools to make that possible, particularly with a full season spent alongside Matthews, who is still scratching the surface of his ceiling. If he accomplishes one or both, Nylander will do his part to silence his critics and prove, maybe once and for all, that he’s as integral to the core as Matthews and Mitch Marner. That would go a long way in quashing the trade rumors that persisted throughout the latter months of last season and throughout the summer.

Nylander isn’t the only player entering this season with plenty to prove, however. Here are four others who are facing considerable pressure this season:

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
The contract says it all. After a drawn out negotiation, Laine and the Jets landed on a two-year, $13.5-million deal that has “show-me” written all over it.

Though it’s almost inarguable that his game took strides last season, particularly without the puck, the biggest thing for Laine, 21, at this point is proving that he can bring the kind of game-in, game-out consistency that separates the true superstars from the big-time point producers. That’s exactly what he was lacking last season, too. Yes, in what was considered a down year, Laine still mustered 30 goals and 50 points, but, as has been echoed time and again, 18 of those goals came in the span of one month. There were long stretches where Laine was held off the scoresheet and rendered ineffective by the opposition. And therein lies the issue.

If a motivated Laine can turn in another 40-goal campaign or crack the 50-goal plateau, which some have projected him to do since his sophomore season, he’ll be right back on track in Winnipeg.

Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers
It might not be fair to Hart, who is only still getting his feet wet in the NHL and has all of 32 career big-league games under his belt, but he’s been anointed the future in the Flyers’ crease and some are of the mind that the 21-year-old will put an end to the goaltending carousel that has plagued Philadelphia for many years. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a sophomore netminder, particularly when he wasn’t supposed to be a full-timer in the NHL last season and didn’t become one until the second half of the campaign.

The good news for Hart is that he’s insulated by what should be a fairly strong defense corps and is playing under a coaching staff that is primed to drive Philadelphia forward. He also has the benefit of having a few excellent two-way forwards, including Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, in front of him for long stretches during each outing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee success, and in a notoriously tough market, Hart is going to need to piece together a quality campaign to stay out of the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

James Neal, Edmonton Oilers
Money equals expectation, and Neal did not live up to his contract in the first season of a five-year, $28.75-million pact with the Flames. The result? He was shipped down the road for Milan Lucic, who is facing similar pressure to perform with Calgary this season. But why Neal, 32, makes this cut here and Lucic doesn’t is that the former is expected to make an impact offensively and turn in a performance more akin to the 20-goal, 45-point player he was upon his arrival in Alberta. The latter is going to be a bottom-six, crash-and-bang type for the Flames. Big difference.

Neal should benefit from the opportunity to play alongside Connor McDavid, who could probably turn your run-of-the-mill beer leaguer into a 15-point player in the NHL, and already the pairing has paid dividends on the power play. In two games, Neal has two goals with the man advantage and McDavid registered assists on both. In a top-six that is thin on the wings – and we’re talking thin thin – Neal can be an important contributor. And if not, he’s a new albatross with which the Oilers will have to deal.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers
There are only two goaltenders in the NHL with eight-figure cap hits. One is Carey Price, who has been the backbone of the Montreal Canadiens almost from the moment he stepped foot in the blue paint at Bell Centre. The other is Bobrovsky, 31, the Panthers’ big-ticket free-agent acquisition who has been tasked with bringing steady netminding to Florida in an effort to propel the Cats into perennial playoff contention.

The problem for Bobrovsky early is that he’s going to need to adjust to new teammates and a new coaching staff early in the campaign, and his early results, granted against a prolific Tampa Bay Lightning offense, have left something to be desired as he has allowed seven goals on 64 shots, good for an .891 save percentage through two games. But despite ups and downs, Bobrovsky has been a Vezina Trophy contender in each of the past three seasons, has two top-goaltender victories on his resume and led the league last season with nine shutouts all the while facing nearly 30 shots per hour of action.

The Vezina-contending Bobrovsky is undoubtedly the goaltender the Panthers want to see on a near nightly basis this season, too, and his seven-year, $70-million pact means that failure isn’t really an option.

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