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NHL players with something to prove: mission accomplished?

By Allan Muir

Prior to the season, the SI.com staff identified 19 players who had something on the line in 2013-14. These players faced pressures that went beyond what others had to deal with -- from living up to either their hype or their fat paychecks (or both), to getting back to the qualities that made them noteworthy in the first place.

Today, with the season in the home stretch, we went back to that original list to examine those expectations and see which players met them ... and which fell short, sometimes miserably so.

Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks

Bryan Bickell of the Chicago Blackhawks Playoff hero Bryan Bickell (29) has had an up and down season for the defending champs. (Elise Amendola/AP)

What we said then: Bickell emerged as a game-breaking power forward (nine goals, 17 points in 23 postseason games) during Chicago's run to the Stanley Cup last year, exactly the sort of player that several teams were seeking in free agency. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman recognized how hot a commodity Bickell had become and signed him at full value (four years, $16 million), though he had to trade Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik to create cap space. Even at 27, Bickell remains a work in progress. Stretches of inconsistency are inevitable, but he needs to translate that playoff magic into 25-plus regular season goals. We think he will.

The verdict now: After getting off to a solid start with four goals in October, Bickell's season has been defined by extended periods of ineffective play. He's been limited by injuries -- a lower-body ailment cost him 15 games in November and December, and he's currently out with an upper-body issue -- but it's the inconsistency of his physical play that's more troubling than his weak numbers (10 goals, two assists). Coach Joel Quenneville has cut Bickell's minutes and has even benched him, but he hasn't been able to ignite the passion or the offensive touch that was expected from the big winger. Anything short of another magical postseason for him and his new contract will veer towards bust.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets Where would the Blue Jackets be without Sergei Bobrovsky manning their net? (Jeff Roberson/AP)

What we said then: His stunning Vezina Trophy-winning season gave the upstart Blue Jackets a real shot at the playoffs. Now he must show that he's not a one-off a la Jose Theodore, who won the Vezina and Hart in 2002, but never approached those heights again. Bobrovsky also strongly considered returning to the KHL. Will his heart and game still be in Columbus? Don't assume he'll regress back to his career average numbers. His stats may dip slightly, but he'll remain a top-tier stopper.

The verdict now: Bobrovsky's stats regression has been more pronounced than we expected -- his GAA has gone from 2.00 to 2.47 while his save percentage has dipped from .932 to .919 -- but he's shaken the one-year-wonder concerns by starting 19 consecutive games down the stretch and keeping the Blue Jackets in the thick of the playoff hunt. No need to clear space in the trophy case for another Vezina, but he's been solid.

David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs

David Clarkson of the Toronto Maple Leafs As the Maple Leafs fall, David Clarkson (71) comes under more intense scrutiny. (Keith Hamilton/Icon SMI)

What we said then: The 29-year-old was a plumber until 2011-12, when he broke through with 30 goals for the Devils. He started shooting more, and earned him more ice time, especially on the power play where he feasted down low. By 28, he was an All-Star goal scorer. Now he has a seven-year, $36.75 million deal with the Maple Leafs. Clarkson doesn't have to score 30 goals to live up to that fat contract. As long as he makes the other team miserable with a consistent physical presence and pots 20-25, everyone will be happy.

The verdict now: The only team he's made miserable this season is the Leafs. It's not just that Clarkson isn't scoring -- he's had four goalless streaks of at least 10 games, including his current skid of 15 and counting -- or that he's been suspended twice. It's that he looks completely out of touch with his own game. The scale of this disaster is so epic that there's already talk of buying him out of the remaining six years of the mega-deal he signed just last summer. Funny thing is, it might take a move, and some diminished expectations, to get him back to the lunch pail ethic he once had -- the one that made him so desirable in the first place.

Cory Conacher, Buffalo Sabres

Cory Conacher playing for the Ottawa Senators Cory Conacher (89, in white) showed a lot of promise, but his play has plummeted. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

What we said then: A rookie sensation with Tampa Bay early last season, the diminutive, undrafted winger cooled off and was dealt to Ottawa with a fourth-round pick for goalie Ben Bishop. He scored twice in 12 regular season games for the Sens, then saw limited playoff ice time and was a healthy scratch in Game 4 of Ottawa's second-round series vs. the Penguins. Has he turned into a press box pumpkin after his fairy tale start? His net drive and corner work could allow him to start the season in a top-six role, but he'll be in tough to keep it as last season's scoring frustrations carry over.

The verdict now: They carried over, alright. Conacher scored just four goals through 60 games with Ottawa, losing the faith of the organization so completely that he was waived at the deadline. He was picked up by Buffalo, where he's getting more ice time, but the results have been similarly lackluster.

Dany Heatley, Minnesota Wild

Dany Heatley of the Minnesota Wild Dany Heatley, once one of the game's premier scorers, needed to save his career. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

What we said then: His production has declined in each of the past three seasons. Now he's coming off shoulder surgery at age 32. Had he not gotten hurt, he would have been a compliance buyout candidate. In order to build on their first playoff appearance in five years, the Wild will need more offensive punch. Heatley will never return to the level that saw him twice score 50 goals, but he came into camp in top shape and motivated to perform in his contract year. Enhanced power play opportunities could get him back to 30-goal form.

The verdict now: Heatley's hands have slowed to the pace of his legendarily leaden feet, making him an ill-fitting piece on Minnesota's underperforming fourth line. With his contract up at the end of this season, he's likely done in the NHL.

 

Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche

Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche The burden of being a No. 1 draft pick had affected Erik Johnson's play. (Michael Martin/Getty Images)

What we said then: The first overall pick in the 2006 draft is still only 25, but it feels like he's been a promising young man for 40 years. His development slowed by injuries, Johnson showed just enough to entice Colorado into giving him a four-year deal in July 2012. But we've all seen enough of him by now to know what he is: an inconsistent performer who'll never live up to his draft status. No reason to think that'll change, though the Avs are counting on him to shore up a defense that scored all of four goals last season while it ranked 27th in the league in goals-against per game.

The verdict now: Coach Patrick Roy made the same point to Johnson -- forget about being a former No. 1 -- and he's responded with one of the better seasons of his career. His puck decisions still make you shake your head from time to time, but his overall game is solid and he's eating a ton of minutes while stabilizing a Colorado defense that has improved from 27th in 2012-13 to 15th this year.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins The Penguins' fortunes usually depend on how reliable Marc-Andre Fleury (29) is in goal. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

What we said then: The Penguins brought in a new goalie coach (Mike Bales) and sent their erstwhile No. 1 netminder to a sports psychologist in an attempt to restore his confidence. In 2009, Fleury proved himself capable of winning the Stanley Cup, but has since been prone to alarming postseason meltdowns. The one last May landed him on the bench. This team still has championship aspirations. His coach believes in him. His teammates believe in him. We're just not sure Fleury believes in himself. He'll be fine during the regular season, but once the playoffs roll around, will those old ghosts return to haunt him and the Pens?

The verdict now: Yep, he's been fine so far, leading the Pens to the verge of a Metropolitan Division title while putting up numbers that are almost identical those from each of his past three seasons. Of course, none of it will matter if he has another one of his patented playoff meltdowns. Let's grade Fleury as incomplete until we see how he performs in April and beyond.

 

Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils

Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils Adam Henrique (14) had to overcome a sluggish start to validate his new contract. (Paul J. Bereswill/Getty Images)

What we said then: A Calder finalist and spark plug during New Jersey's run to the 2012 Cup final, Henrique suffered a thumb injury while playing in the AHL during the lockout, then produced somewhat disappointing numbers (11 goals, 16 points, -3 in 42 games) during the Devils' season as a 2013 also-ran. With Ilya Kovalchuk in the KHL and David Clarkson in Toronto, the Devils need all the offense they can get. Will Henrique, 23, prove to be worth the six-year, $24 million deal he was given in August? Playing between a couple of plodders like Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe isn't ideal, but we think the crafty Henrique will find a way to match his rookie year.

The verdict now: After a slow first half of the season -- he scored just six goals before Christmas -- Henrique found his groove in the new year. He has set a new career high with 23 goals (and counting) and has assumed a key role on the league's No. 1 penalty kill. In terms of his development, it's hard to imagine this season going much better for the 24-year-old forward.

 

Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs

Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri (43) came into the season seeking a fat new contract and started off fast. (Michael Tureski/Icon SMI)

What we said then:  After one promising, albeit lockout shortened season (44 points in 48 games), the restricted free agent's demand for a six-year deal reportedly for "John Tavares money" ($5.5 million per) led to a summer's worth of contentious contract talks with the cap-squeezed Leafs. Kadri, 22, settled for two years at a total of $5.8 million. Humbled, he will shut up, put his head down and get to work proving that he can be a point-per-game player.

The verdict now: Last season's golden boy started off strong, piling up 13 points in 14 October games ... and then he fell off the map. His inconsistency on both sides of the puck so frustrated the organization that GM Dave Nonis freely spoke about being willing to trade the young center. And while that didn't happen, the rumors should have Kadri on notice: with only one year left on his current deal, he needs to elevate his two-way game or get ready to deal with the beating that a full season of trade talk will bring.

 

Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

Goaltender Roberto Luongo with the Vancouver Canucks Once thought to be trapped in Vancouver, Roberto Luongo's fortunes changed dramatically. (Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

What we said then: The center of the summer's great hockey soap opera, Luongo's emotional state has been questioned in the wake of the stunning trade of Cory Schneider to New Jersey. Trapped in Vancouver by his massive contract, can he settle into his old role as the Canucks' No. 1 and play with total commitment for fiery, demanding new coach John Tortorella? You know he's a competitor and part of him wants to just crush it. "I've been sitting on the bench for a while and I want to show everybody what I can do," Luongo told the Vancouver Sun." It's a big year for me." But is his heart really into this team? This is already looking like it'll be another rough season for Bobby Lu.

The verdict now: Give him credit. Luongo put last season behind him, pulled on his big boy pants and authored a solid comeback campaign ... and then was traded to the Panthers at the deadline. Not that that's a problem -- Sunrise is where he wanted to go all along -- but it made for an unexpected twist to cap off his tumultuous eight-year stint in Vancouver.

 

Ryan Miller, St. Louis Blues

Goaltender Ryan Miller with the Buffalo Sabres Before his departure, Ryan Miller performed gallantly for the awful Buffalo Sabres. (Bill Wippert/Getty Images)

What we said then:  The subject of much trade speculation after Buffalo's second successive failure to reach the playoffs, Miller has fallen on tough times since he won MVP honors at the Winter Olympics and the Vezina Trophy in 2010. Now in tough to return as Team USA's starter, he's also in the last year of his contract with the Sabres. Whether he stays or goes, he's eager to prove that he's not in permanent decline at age 33. With the Olympic carrot dangling in front of him, and benefiting from a better defense, look for him to get off to a great start that complicates whatever trade scenarios the Sabres have cooked up.

The verdict now: Miller played well enough despite the turmoil in Buffalo to work himself into the Vezina Trophy mix, but it wasn't until a pre-deadline trade sent him to the Blues that he got the benefit of a sturdier defense. The transition hasn't been seamless -- call it culture shock -- but he's finding his way. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see him lift the Cup before the end of June.

SI Vault: Ryan Miller in St. Louis spotlight (3/24/14)

 

Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres

Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres The game of Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers (57) hasn't always been as big as the man himself. (Getty Images)

What we said then:  One of only seven defenseman to win the Calder Trophy since 1983, the NHL's 2010 rookie of the year has struggled mightily to fulfill his potential. Since getting his seven-year, $38.5 million extension (plus a $10 million signing bonus) in 2011, Myers' offensive decline and defensive lapses have created concerns about the towering 6'-8" blueliner. He came to camp last year out of shape and his lost season (three goals, five assists, -8 in 39 games) ended in April with a broken leg. "A lot of things went on last year that got in my head," Myers, 23, told AP. The return of old partner Henrik Tallinder and a concerted approach to mental and physical readiness over the summer should propel him back to his Calder form, or something resembling it.

The verdict now: It didn't happen, but Myers clearly took steps in the right direction this season. While there was still room for frustration with his game, he began to assert himself with his skating and puck movement. The question now is whether new GM Tim Murray sees Myers as a long-term fixture on a blue line that's about to undergo a serious facelift, or if he has more value as a trade chip ahead of the draft.

 

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets

Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets Winnipeg's success has been largely dictated by the play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

What we said then: In the second season of his five-year, $19.5 million deal, the common refrain is that the Jets are paying Pavelec like a franchise goalie, so it's high time he starts playing like one. His GAA over the past four seasons is a barely competent .908, and he plays behind a defense that allows about 30 shots a game. The franchise is avidly seeking its second playoff berth, and first since 2007, when it was based in Atlanta. Pavelec's play could be the x-factor in the outcome of that quest. The math hints at another season of frustration.

The verdict now: The math was right ... and so was everyone who said he couldn't get the job done. When they do the postmortem in Winnipeg, Pavelec's inability to provide even average goaltending will be identified as the key reason for the Jets again missing the playoffs. After several years of Pavelec ranking among the league's worst starters, it's time that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff finally cuts ties with the Czech stopper and finds a replacement better suited for a No. 1 role.

 

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues Alex Pietrangelo was expected to play like a cornerstone on the Blues back line. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

What we said then:  After a lengthy impasse, the Blues gave their RFA All-Star defender a deal that will bring him an average of $6.5 million per season for seven years, an identical paycheck to Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson's. St. Louis isn't just a better team with Pietrangelo in the lineup. It's a different team. Faster. Smarter. More effective with the puck and more tenacious without it, a legit Stanley Cup contender. Now Pietrangelo needs to start proving he's worth not just the team's investment, but its faith.

The verdict now: He's done that and then some, playing 25 heavy minutes a night in all situations and firmly establishing himself as one of the top two-way defenders in the game. He's worth every penny they're paying him.

 

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Goaltender Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens Carey Price benefited from playing for Team Canada in the Sochi Winter Olympics. (Kay Kopinski/Icon SMI)

What we said then: The goalie always gets the lion's share of credit or blame, and the heat in Montreal will be higher as Price, 26, comes off a career-worst regular season, a miserable playoff performance during the Habs' quick first-round exit, and a knee injury. Since he took over as their No. 1 for 2010-11, they have two playoff one-and-dones and a no-show on their resume. Clearly he needs to change something up. Look for former Blackhawks goalie coach Stephane Waite to tweak Price's approach just enough to get him back in the groove.

The verdict now: Whatever Waite did, it worked. Price resumed a position of prominence as one of the best in the game, highlighted by a performance for the ages in Sochi. The confidence he gained in February could go a long way toward propelling the Canadiens past April and into May.

 

Brad Richards, New York Rangers

Brad Richards of the New York Rangers Buyout candidate Brad Richards has faced the challenge of reviving his flagging game. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

What we said then:  After struggling through a campaign that saw him descend to the fourth line and onto the bench during the playoffs, the 12-year veteran center who was in the second season of a nine-year $60 million deal became a compliance buyout candidate. Everyone agrees that Richards, 33, lost a step (or two), but a fresh start under new coach Alain Vigneault, perhaps on a new spot at left wing, might be exactly what he needs to ignite his confidence in the offensive zone. Just don't expect him to live up to that $9 million salary. That ain't happenin'.

The verdict now: It hasn't happened, but Richards did pull himself up to become a reliable frontline center again. The production isn't where you'd want it to be -- he'll end up just north of 50 points -- but his habits are exactly what you'd want. He's shooting the puck every chance he gets (234 shots, 14th in the league) and he's venturing more frequently into the greasy areas.

GALLERY: Brad Richards among marquee stars brought to Broadway

 

Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars

Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars Tyler Seguin (91) brought a bad boy image to Dallas that he had to live down. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

What we said then: The big question at the 2010 draft was "Taylor (Hall) or Tyler?" and Seguin wound up in Boston as the No. 2 pick. After he outperformed Hall in 2011-12, he was handed six-year, $34.5 million deal. Then his development stalled, he was branded as a hard-partying loose cannon and traded to Dallas. With a new owner and new coach, the Stars are seeking a fresh start and so is Seguin, 21, who must live up to his original billing while playing center. He'll struggle on the draw and the defensive side of the puck, but he'll be magic with the biscuit. Expect a new career high in points.

The verdict now: He'll struggle on the draw (check) and the defensive side of the puck (check), but he'll be magic with the biscuit (double check). And Seguin did more than set a new career high in points or lead the league in four-goal games or slide effortlessly into the No. 1 center's role. He became the face of Dallas' new high-tempo offense and, in the process, recalibrated the expectations for his future. Superstardom beckons.

 

Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes

Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes Jeff Skinner (53) had to prove that he can still be a key part of the Hurricanes' future.  (Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images)

What we said then: Coming off two concussion-marred seasons, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner has a six-year $34 million contract extension that kicks in this season. He still has great wheels and that terrific shot, but Skinner's become too predictable and too easy to defend. And while you have to admire his willingness to play in traffic, you have to worry about his ability to stay healthy. He being counted on as one of Carolina's cornerstones, and the Hurricanes need him to return to form if are to succeed in the new and much tougher Metropolitan Division.

The verdict now: He's still injury prone -- an 11-game stint on the IR for an upper-body issue in November this time around -- but Skinner managed to move the chains this year with a more aggressive and varied offensive game. He smashed his old personal best for shots on net (215) and kept his shooting percentage consistently above 10 percent, which has him closing in on a new career high for goals (31, set as a rookie in 2010-11). He's reestablished himself as a part of Carolina's foundation.

 

Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers

Goalie Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers Once promising netminder Steve Mason came to Philadelphia as a reclamation project. (Matt Slocum/AP)

What we said then: The 2009 Calder Trophy winner was unable to deliver on his promise during his five seasons in Columbus. Now he'll get a chance to do it in the crucible of Philadelphia, where Ilya Bryzgalov melted in the heat of the Flyers' quest to find a cornerstone netminder. A trade deadline acquisition, Mason, 25, will battle Ray Emery for the starting role while he tries to regain his confidence and fix his game, which has yielded more than three goals per outing since 2010. Good luck.

The Verdict: The stats geeks have been circling like hyenas anticipating the regression that would allow them to pick his bones clean, but Mason has defied the math by playing some of the best hockey of his career. No one's mistaking him for Glenn Hall, but he's done enough to win 30 games for just the second time in his career, and has helped carry Philadelphia toward a playoff berth that seemed unimaginable back in October.

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