Five players in particular will be feeling the heat of the spotlight this season. Here's why:
1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins -- Serving as the league's resident superstar does not come without its drawbacks. And after another disappointing spring in Pittsburgh -- one that cost both general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma their jobs -- Crosby knows that all too well, having shouldered much of the blame before the massive upheaval within the organization. We know now that he was hindered by a wrist injury in the playoffs, but his underwhelming postseason had media and fans clamoring for answers as to why he couldn't get the job done and the Pens coughed up a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Now, Crosby faces another challenge with new coach Mike Johnston behind the bench and new GM Jim Rutherford at the helm. Though the Pens boast two of the best players in the game in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the club has not won a Stanley Cup since 2009. Since then, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings have won twice. Another premature exit from the playoffs could rattle the Pens and again cast doubt on whether Crosby remains the best player around.
2. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens -- With a huge contract comes huge expectations, especially in the hockey-rabid hotbed of Montreal. Now that the 25-year-old defenseman signed a monster eight-year, $72 million deal this summer, he will be expected to perform in a way commensurate with his salary. Add to that the fact that the Canadiens lost two stalwart veterans -- Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta are now with the Buffalo Sabres -- and Subban's importance will be magnified.
Subban, named as one of four alternate captains for the Habs in wake of former captain Gionta's departure, will be expected to provide a strong dose of leadership at a young age. He'll also be expected to help anchor a Habs blue line that is now missing his defense partner for most of last season, Gorges. With 10 goals and 53 points, Subban was second on the team in scoring last season and led all Habs defensemen. He averaged almost a point per game in the playoffs, chipping in 14 points in 17 games during a run to the Eastern Conference finals. Offensive production won't be enough to keep the critics from surfacing, however, because the charismatic young star will be counted on to be stout in his own end as well. Good thing about P.K. and the spotlight? He won't shy away from it.
3. David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs -- Suffice it to say that Clarkson's first season in Toronto did not go as planned. The gritty winger signed a whopping seven-year, $36.75 million deal in the summer of 2013, one that immediately raised some concerns. Those concerns turned out to be valid, with Clarkson earning himself a 10-game suspension before the season as a result of a brawl in a preseason game against the Sabres. And instead of showing he could be a useful offensive player and power-play threat, as he did in his last few years with the New Jersey Devils, Clarkson had a woefully unproductive season, managing only five goals and 11 points in 60 games.
This year will be critical for the 30-year-old forward. Though he'd otherwise be a prime buyout candidate, the structure of his contract (according to Capgeek.com) has so much money tied up in signing bonuses that cap relief would be negligible should the Leafs buy out Clarkson. He also has a modified no-move and no-trade clause in his contract, which makes things even stickier. If he can't prove that last season was simply a fluke, the Leafs have an absolute mess on their hands and Clarkson becomes persona non-grata in Toronto.
4. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes -- The Hurricanes are already limping into the season with the devastating news that Jordan Staal is out for 3-4 months because of a broken leg. They can't afford to have questions in goal, that's for sure. And the way Anton Khudobin acquitted himself last season, Cam Ward does not have a long leash to prove he is the guy in Carolina. Though Ward's NHL career began in stunning fashion -- he led the Canes to a Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2006 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process -- it has cooled off considerably.
The 30-year-old netminder, dogged by injury last season, has not posted a save percentage above .920 since 2010-11. In fact, that is the only time he has reached that benchmark during the regular season since that Cup run eight years ago. Ward has struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons. In the meantime, Khudobin posted a 19-14-1 record, a 2.30 goals against average and a .926 save percentage in 36 games for a pretty bad Hurricanes team last season. Pressure's on for Cam in Carolina.
5. Mike Smith, Arizona Coyotes -- Ward's not the only goaltender feeling the heat. After a stunning 2011-12 campaign in which he posted a 38-18-10 record, .930 save percentage and 2.21 goals against average and helped lead the Coyotes to the Western Conference finals, Smith has posted rather pedestrian numbers since then. The Coyotes have stuck with him, though, making this a critical season for both him and the team. Failing to make the playoffs for two straight years, the Coyotes need Smith to be at his absolute best for the team to hang with the big boys in the Western Conference.
The Coyotes do not have a roster studded with star power. They play a sound, structured game under head coach Dave Tippett, and to some degree Smith has probably been the benefactor of that in recent years. But considering the teams they will face on a regular basis in the Pacific Division, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, they will not have an easy route to a postseason berth. Some skeptics wonder whether Smith's numbers three years ago were a mere anomaly. It is up to the 32-year-old netminder to prove they weren't.