As the NHL season sets to kick off in earnest tomorrow night, I thought this would be a good time to point out five players who merit keeping an eye on this season as they will be key to their teams fortunes in the upcoming campaign. So with no further delay:
- Marc-Andre Fleury: Not surprisingly, we start out in the 'Burgh where expectations are completely reversed from this time last year. I don't think most people really expect the Pens to take the Cup this season, but they are expected to continue to mature and progress and to at least make it past the first round of the playoffs. Having said that, despite Sidney Crosby and all that young offensive talent on this Penguins team, the Pens will only go as far as MAF can take them. Personally I think that is far, but the defensemen in front of him are going to have to play much better than in last season's series against Ottawa for it to matter. As far as the regular season goes, MAF is going to play a ton (barring injury) and I think he has a legitimate shot at taking a run at Martin Brodeur's shiny, new single-season wins record. MAF is in position to blow by Tom Barrasso's franchise mark of 43 wins and make a strong push for 50. Keep an eye on this guy, Sid may be the face of the franchise, but MAF is the backbone.
- Eric Staal: It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Eric Staal's 100 point season and Stanley Cup title. Well, things didn't work out quite so well for the franchise center last season and there was a significant drop off in both his numbers and the Hurricanes' win total. I think the 'Canes are poised to turn it around this season and I think Jordan's big brother will be a big reason why. Look for Eric to have a career year as he leads Carolina to the Southeast division title and back to the postseason.
- Markus Naslund: The Canucks have Roberto Luongo and not a whole lot else to be excited about heading into the new season. If the Canucks are going to go anywhere this year they are going to need consistent offensive production from someone not named Sedin, and Naslund is the likely candidate. For the Canucks to mount a serious challenge for the Cup this season their captain is going to have to break out of his funk and regain his pre-lockout form. Hopefully his pending free agency will be enough motivation to get Naslund back on top of his game. The arrival of Peter Forsberg wouldn't hurt either.
- Vesa Toskala: Sure there are tougher jobs than being the starting goalie for the Maple Leafs, but not many. Leafs fans have high expectations and most will be looking to Toskala to get this storied franchise pointed back in the right direction. The Leafs are a strange mix of youth and vets, but if Toskala can handle the pressure in Toronto and perform the way he did in San Jose, the Leafs may be able to sneak up on teams and snag one of the last playoff spots in the East.
- Todd Bertuzzi/Bobby Ryan: Okay, so this isn't s single player here, but hear me out. The big stories surrounding the Ducks this season have almost all revolved around who is not currently with the team as opposed to who is (or for that matter, defending their championship). With Teemu Selanne undecided on whether he is going to play or not this season, the Ducks will have to look elsewhere to replace his 48 goals from a year ago. That is where bad boy Bertuzzi and number 2 overall pick Ryan come in. if these two can combine to give the Ducks 50-60 goals that would go a long way towards lessening the impact of Teemu's absence. If they can perform to that level and the Ducks can coax Selanne back at some point, then the Ducks may be well on their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.