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Six players who must bounce back big

Zdeno Chara of the Bruins among six key NHL players who must return to form during the 2015-16 season.

Training camp is still a few weeks away, but Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is itching to get back on the ice.

The 38-year-old veteran is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued season that saw him miss 19 games with a knee injury before hobbling through the final three with a broken fibula.

“It’s never fun to be playing with injuries that are limiting you,” Chara told The Boston Herald. “I’m just glad I’m going to be healthy again to start the season.”

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Chara also revealed that he's modified his legendarily grueling summer workout regimen ahead of this season. “You make adjustments, but I wouldn’t say you make major changes,” he said. “You always try to go back to what’s working for you and go back to your bread and butter. You make some small changes, but the biggest thing I think was being smarter in taking some time off and recovering and doing more quality stuff than quantity.”

Whatever he’s done, the B's are crossing their fingers that the change pays off. There’s no overstating his value to this team.

A healthy Chara last season would have been the difference between Boston making the playoffs and the Bruins setting a record for most points ever accrued by a non-qualifier. His presence will be even more critical this year as the B's work some youngsters into their blueline mix while trying to compensate for the loss of top-four defender Dougie Hamilton, who was traded to Calgary at the draft.

Anything short of a return to form by the veteran workhorse and the Bruins could be looking at another DNQ.

Chara is one of several players who are under the gun to rebound from a disappointing 2014-15 season. Here are five others who are being counted on to bounce back in a big way.

Jeff Skinner, Hurricanes


This feels like a make-or-break season for Skinner, a gifted player who can’t find consistency in his game. He broke onto the scene with a dazzling 31-goal rookie season in 2010-11, stumbled, then regained his footing with a 33-goal campaign in 2013-14. There were high hopes that he’d finally hit his stride in 2014-15, but Skinner struggled through the worst year of his career, scoring just 18 goals and 31 points.

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Some of that can be attributed to tough luck. He suffered a concussion in an early October game and that caused him to miss time because of head trauma for the third consecutive season. But he’s now reached a point where the “injury-prone” tag can’t simply be shrugged off.

And it’s not just his health. Skinner needs to rediscover the spark and creativity that make him one of hockey’s most entertaining wingers. And he needs to do it on something close to a nightly basis.

Just 22, he could be an incredibly valuable piece of the puzzle for a Carolina team that’s still in the early stages of a rebuild ... or he could be one of those guys who gets shipped off in exchange for a better-fitting (and more reliable) piece.

Valeri Nichushkin, Stars

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Hip surgery limited the 20-year-old to just eight games last season and he didn’t look particularly comfortable in them, recording a single assist despite skating (primarily) alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

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With Nichushkin fully healthy now, the Stars are counting on the 6' 4", 210-pound winger to step back into their top-six ... but there are obstacles in his path. Newcomer Patrick Sharp is expected to take over at right wing on the top line, which will force the left-handed Nichushkin to switch sides and play the left wing with Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. That adjustment will take him out of his comfort zone, but the more pressing issue he faces is the need to prove that he’s more than just a big body who can protect the puck. He must show that he can read and react to the play at an NHL level and establish himself as a dominant physical presence who can challenge defenses with his speed and his strength. If he can be that guy, watch out for Dallas.

Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche


After watching him ramp up his off-season program last summer, I pegged the reigning Calder Trophy winner to emerge as a point-per game player for the Avs in 2014-15.

That didn’t quite happen.During a season that saw him miss games due to injury (broken foot) and get benched for ineffective play, MacKinnon scored just 14 goals and 38 points to rank among its biggest disappointments.

A mere bump in the road? Probably. Plenty of prodigiously talented teenagers have stumbled through their sophomore campaigns, so it’s hard to imagine anyone in Colorado being too stressed about MacKinnon at this point in his development. Still, the pressure is on him to build on some positive signs from before his injury—his first career hat trick, for example, along with improved two-way play. For the young Avs to get back in the playoff mix, MacKinnon must be a consistent contributor both at five-on-five and on a power play that limped along at an anemic 15% last season, 29th in the league.

Robin Lehner, Sabres


Of all the bold, brilliant additions made by general manager Tim Murray during the past few months, none will have a more immediate impact on the success of the Sabres than Lehner. Simply put, his ability to perform as a No. 1 goalie will make or break their season.

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The 24-year-old has shown that he’s capable of carrying the mail in fits and starts over the years in Ottawa, but he could never seize the starting job. His consistency hasn’t yet matched the potential that made him a second-round pick back in 2009. Lehner has posted losing records, along with a goals-against above 3.00, in each of the past two seasons. In 2014-15 he dropped 10 of his final 13 decisions and failed to win back-to-back games after the month of October. No wonder the Sens deemed him expendable.

Lehner’s margin of error will be much more slim in Buffalo than it ever was in Ottawa. The Sabres couldn’t ring up wins despite solid goaltending from Jhonas Enroth and Anders Lindback last season. If Lehner delivers anything less, it could be a long, painful year.

Ryan Miller, Canucks


Miller was the model of consistent excellence during his years with the Sabres, a player who could be counted on to patch over the rough spots and elevate his team above its station. Since leaving Buffalo, things haven’t gone quite as well. He was a disaster as a trade deadline acquisition by St. Louis despite playing behind a more talented defense and then he struggled through injuries and spotty play during his first season with the Canucks.

Despite that uneven showing, the team’s management put all its eggs in Miller’ s basket this summer, trading steady backup Eddie Lack to the Hurricanes. That leaves unproven prospect Jacob Markstrom as the safety net if Miller stumbles again ... which at this point seems like a 50/50 proposition.

The Canucks are at an odd point right now. GM Jim Benning and coach Willie Desjardins are entering their second season with the club, and the team is on the verge of introducing several young prospects into the mix. That said, it’s not a rebuild (at least not yet) because the team continues to rely heavily on 35-plus players like the Sedin Twins and Miller. That, however, can only last so long. Vancouver’s on the precipice. If Miller regains his footing, the Canucks could return to the playoffs and make things interesting in the West. If not, it could trigger a serious change in organizational philosophy.

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