The young Blackhawks took a major step forward last season, making their first postseason appearance since 2002, but when it came time to play the games that counted, Nikolai Khabibulin was between the pipes, leaving Huet to stew on the bench. Now that Khabby's bolted to Edmonton, it's up to Huet to lead Chicago to the conference finals and beyond, and prove that he's more than just a $5 million backup.
2 of 14Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images
Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton
The top two picks in the 1997 draft boast a rare blend of size and physical talent that allows them to dominate games from October through April. Their lack of emotional will, however, has been at the core of the Sharks' playoff failures -- a sad state that was finally addressed when the A and C, respectively, were ripped off their chests. Unless the duo discovers their inner William Wallace, it'll be another short spring in San Jose.
3 of 14David E. Klutho/SI
Though he led the league with 45 wins, Kipper was nowhere near his old Vezina form in 2008-09. He failed to finish among the top 30 in either goals-against average or save percentage, and it was his inability to make that big save when it was needed most that ultimately sank the Flames last spring. Any further deterioration in his game will doom Calgary to playoff irrelevancy.
4 of 14Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
After spectacularly torching his bridges in Ottawa, the netminder spent a season in exile in Russia's KHL where he excelled on the ice (22-8, 2.12 GAA) but added new chapters to his legacy of troubles. Physically, there's little doubt that he can carry the load for a contender. Emotionally, though? That's the gray area in which Philadelphia's Stanley Cup dreams will live or die.
5 of 14Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Did he salvage a reputation sullied by a series of ill-considered free agent signings, or will this summer's acquisition of Marian Gaborik be remembered as Slats' final, fatal mistake? No denying the former Wild star has the breathtaking skill to pull the Rangers out of the offensive ghetto, but his impact could be blunted by his fragile health. If Gabby flames out this season, it could mean the end of Sather's tenure...especially now that Mark Messier is in the wings.
6 of 14Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Expectations are running unfairly high -- that June's first overall pick will emerge as the Isles' answer to Sidney Crosby. He's not that guy, but Tavares can be an impact player, perhaps as soon as this season. He'll have to adjust to the faster pace and larger opponents, but his hockey sense -- and that uncanny ability to get to the seam just as it opens -- should smooth the transition for the junior scoring star.
7 of 14David E. Klutho/SI
The Blue Jackets finally discovered the path to the playoffs after years in the wilderness, and they do not want to go back. With few off-season reinforcements, the onus to stay competitive falls on the team's young core, primarily Mason. His load will be lightened with the arrival of competent backup Mathieu Garon, but last season's Calder-winner still has to prove that he's not just the next Andrew Raycroft.
8 of 14Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
After defaulting on more than $500 million worth of loans last spring, the owner of the Dallas Stars assured fans that his financial situation wouldn't impact the club. A diminished payroll suggests otherwise, but the Stars are indeed safe...for now. The start of the season blocks creditors from pursuing the team until August at the earliest, but until this matter is resolved (perhaps through the sale of his Texas Rangers or Liverpool FC holdings), Hicks' hold on the franchise is tenuous.
9 of 14Genevieve Ross/Getty Images
A summer spent clear of golf carts has Johnson back to full strength, but is he ready to resume his position as the Blues' top defender and help propel this promising young squad past the first round? During the early preseason going, he looked like a player who'd been out of action for a full season, but he shouldn't have to dig too far to rediscover the transitional skills and poise that made him the first overall pick of 2006.
10 of 14Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI
Offseason surgery landed the talented but fragile Lehtonen on the sidelines (again) to start the campaign, setting up another season of goaltending limbo for Atlanta. Tantalizing stretches like that one last March (5-0, 1.18 GAA, two shutouts) hint at how good he can be, but can this team really move forward when he's one split save from another three-month stay on the IR?
11 of 14David E. Klutho/SI
All-Star starter in February. Whipping boy by April. Battling both a glacial glove hand and a rapid loss of confidence, Price squandered the mystique that defined his rookie campaign. Though he appears to be in a better frame of mind, he had some rough moments in the preseason. If that continues, it'll be tough for Montreal's reconstructed roster to gel.
12 of 14Damian Strohmeyer/SI
The Sabres showed their faith in the playmaking center by awarding him a two-year, $9 million extension last March. That's a stout commitment to a player who has averaged just 40 games per season over the past four years. Connolly has proven he can be an impact player (47 points in just 48 games in 2008-09). Now he has to prove he can stay in the lineup.
13 of 14David E. Klutho/SI
Entering the final season of his contract, the enigmatic Russian forward has been prominent in trade rumors -- a reflection both of his value to others and his expendability to the Kings. Frolov has the talent to be part of their long-term success, but he needs to show more than flashes of potential if he wants to earn an extension that keeps him in L.A.
14 of 14David E. Klutho/SI
Is he the guy who scored 15 goals in the final 25 games, or the one who netted 13 in the first 57? Joining the Sedins on the top line after the All-Star break ignited his breakthrough season, and it looks like he'll start there with them this year. Now the pressure's on the combative winger to prove that he deserves that opportunity full-time.
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