With Tim Thomas in hiatus, the Bruins turn their gaze once again to Rask, who not so long ago was "the answer" in Boston anyway. When Thomas was dealing with hip injuries during the 2009-10 season, Rask played 45 games and led the NHL with a 1.97 GAA. Rask, however, was part of the Bruins' epic playoff collapse in 2010 when they blew a 3-0 series lead (and 3-0 Game 7 lead) in falling to Philadelphia in the second round. Rask is just 22-22-5 in the past two seasons, and the Bruins will be looking for him to prove he's ready for the limelight (again).
Check and see how many references there are to Semin in the past five years that don't include the qualifier "enigmatic," "puzzling," "maddening" or something similar. Not many. That's because few dispute Semin's raw talent and his ability for stretches of time to produce play that would put him among the top offensive talents in the game. The problem is that those stretches are historically followed by long periods where Semin seems completely clueless. Sadly for the Washington Capitals (for whom Semin played since being drafted 13th overall in 2002), many of those fallow periods took place during critical playoff series. The Caps cut ties with the unrestricted free agent and Southeast Division foe Carolina took a gamble, handing Semin a one-year deal worth $7 million. Good risk for GM Jim Rutherford as Semin has 30- to 40-goal potential and should be motivated to silence the many (many, many?) critics of his game in a new environment.
The fears of all Chicago fans were realized in the first round against Phoenix when, in spite of outplaying the Coyotes for long stretches of time, the Blackhawks' goaltending broke down and they were ousted in six games -- the second straight first-round departure since winning the Cup in 2010. The blame can't all be laid at Crawford's skates, but two questionable overtime goals that really sunk Chicago highlighted the team's dilemma: Is Crawford the kind of goaltender who can be counted on in the clutch? That question won't be answered early in the season, but Crawford can help his case immensely by turning in consistent, quality starts from the get-go. If not, look for Stan Bowman to search for goaltending help by the trade deadline.
The former Anaheim prospect became the most sought-after free-agent defenseman after Ryan Suter this summer and shocked many by signing with the Edmonton Oilers. Schultz, along with a handful of the Oilers' young players, lit it up during the lockout for the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Oklahoma. No question the Oilers have a plethora of enticing young talent, but their defense was marginal, ranking 23rd in goals allowed per game. The expectations for Schultz to somehow fix that all without ever playing a single NHL game is something new head coach Ralph Krueger and the rest of the Oilers' management team will have to keep a close eye on.
Between 2008 and 2009, Fleury went 30-14 in the postseason as the Penguins went to back-to-back finals and won the Cup in their second try. He was sensational -- not to put too fine a point on it. We even argued he deserved a shot at the starting job for the Canadian Olympic team in Vancouver (he was the third goalie and never played). But last spring marked a giant setback for the former No. 1 overall draft pick. Fleury looked out of sorts and tentative as the Penguins were dropped in six games by Philadelphia in a series that saw Fleury allow a whopping 26 goals. Fleury has been prone to stretches where his confidence seems in question -- the start of the 2010-11 season, for instance -- so his psyche to start this season will be telling in terms of putting last spring's disaster behind him.
Ryan was part of a large group of underachieving Ducks whose poor play through the first half of the season cost coach Randy Carlyle his job and the Ducks a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the team's three young offensive dynamos, all struggled. But under new coach Bruce Boudreau, the team did show signs of turning a corner and made a spirited bid to get back in the playoff picture late in the season. Ryan finished with 31 goals, his fourth straight 30-goal campaign, but more to the point, he spoke out against Ducks management when his name continued to surface in trade discussions. We have long been a fan of Ryan's candor, and he's a terrific talent, so he should be ready to put last season and the controversy behind him.
Three summers ago, Roy was among those invited to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in Calgary. It was a reflection of the high standing Roy had achieved in terms of his tenacious play and skill set with the Buffalo Sabres. That seems like a long time ago as Roy, traded to Dallas in the offseason for agitator Steve Ott, looks to rebound from shoulder surgery and return to the form that saw him score 86 times from 2007 to 2010. His ability to do that will say a lot about whether the Stars are a playoff team or not.
Not long before Voracek signed a four-year extension worth $17 million, Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren suggested Voracek would get a shot to join the team's top line with Claude Giroux. Now, can Voracek, who came to the Flyers last season in the deal that sent Jeff Carter to Columbus, justify the cash and confidence shown in him?
Ville Leino, Buffalo Sabres
We ran into the personable Leino in Carolina early last season and already could see the strain of a whopping six-year, $27 million deal combined with a slow start to the season was wearing on him. He talked about having to gain the trust and confidence of the coaching staff, but when the dust cleared at the end of the season, Leino had only eight goals and 25 points in 71 games. The entire Sabres squad looks to rebound this season, but few will have higher expectations than Leino, who must prove that the Sabres' faith in him was not wildly misplaced.
The third overall pick in 2009 combined to score 51 times in his first two NHL seasons, but injuries limited Duchene to 14 goals in 58 games last season. There were questions about his commitment and concerns that he and coach Joe Sacco were not on the same page. Duchene signed a two-year deal worth $7 million this offseason, and the implication with the short-term deal is that it's time for Duchene to prove he's a franchise player. He's got the tools, no question, now can he get them back out of the box and propel the Avs back to the playoffs?