Fully healthy at last after a year-plus battle with concussion symptoms, the game's premier player takes the ice with some key questions: how long before he returns to top form? How will the physical demands of the short schedule affect him? The answers will determine whether the Penguins redeem themselves for their ugly first-round playoff loss to the Flyers last spring and play for their second Stanley Cup since 2009.
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A career-low 65-point 2011-12 season and talk of his decline shadow him after two down years. If new coach Adam Oates can unleash the Ovechkin of old, we should see the return of arguably the game's most electrifying player. The trick will be his quick adjustment to a move to right wing, an idea that Oates believes will benefit Ovechkin's passing and shooting.
3 of 15Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images
His production has declined steadily since his 30-goal, 88-point career season for Chicago's Stanley Cup championship team in 2009-10 and his party boy image has been a growing cause for concern. The 24-year-old winger reportedly kept his nose clean (thanks to his mom) while playing in Switzerland (13 goals, 23 points in 20 games for Biel) during the lockout, and a strong season for the Blackhawks will greatly enhance their chances of reaching the playoffs and making a deep run.
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If it's always sunny in Philadelphia, then this enigmatic and entertainingly flaky netminder is caught in the glare. His ability to handle pressure was questioned last season, so just imagine what he'll face in the heat of a short schedule full of fierce Atlantic Division rivalry games. And he's coming off a not-exactly-stellar lockout stint in the KHL.
5 of 15Gregg Forwerck/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty Images
Is he the supremely skilled winger who amassed 197 goals and 408 points during six seasons with the Capitals, or the frustrating vanishing act that Washington allowed to walk as a free agent last summer? The Hurricanes are about learn the answer to that $7 million question. If Semin stays on his game (he produced seven goals and 16 points in 20 KHL games during the lockout), the retooled Hurricanes' improvement will be dramatic . His presence in Carolina will add a little spice to their Southeast battles with the Capitals. (First meeting: February 26.)
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The most high-profile piece of trade bait in the wake of the lockout, Luongo found himself in a kind of limbo as GM Mike Gillis said he is in no hurry to make a deal until he gets the right offer that will improve the Canucks. Luongo reacted with class and said he will do what's best for the team. Florida and the improved Panthers seem to be his ideal destination, rather than the pressure cookers of Toronto and Philadelphia. In the meantime, Cory Schneider will get the chance to prove himself worthy of the No. 1 role for a team that still has Stanley Cup aspirations although the clock may now be running down on them.
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The Wild's splashy acquisition of free agent plums Zach Parise and Ryan Suter took the spotlight off this 32-year-old winger who led the team in scoring (24 goals, 53 points) last season while playing with a knee injury that required surgery in April. His offensive output has declined markedly from his consecutive 50-goal, 100-point campaigns with Ottawa (2005-07), so as the Wild try to jumpstart their offense (they ranked last in goals-scored in 2011-12), Parise's presence on their top line could be the spark that rekindles Heatley, who reported to camp healthy and in shape.
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With the loss of Ryan Suter to free agency, Weber (the target of $110 million offer sheet from the Flyers during the summer) is now the pillar of the Predators' defense as Nashville tries to regain its momentum toward Cup-contender status. Weber will have a new partner, possibly more than one depending on the game situation, as coach Barry Trotz has said he will try pairing him with 22-year-old Roman Josi, who has played all of 52 games in the NHL, and Ryan Ellis (also 22, with 32 games on his resume) as well as veteran Scott Hannan. Weber's performance will clearly reveal his true value.
9 of 15Tony Ding/Icon SMI
Replacing Nicklas Lidstrom will be no easy task, but this pair of Wings will try to make up for his absence and sustain Detroit's run of consecutive playoff appearances (now at 21). The hard-hitting Kronwall, an assistant captain, is now the mainstay of the blueline corps, and a stylistic departure from Lidstrom's savvy positional play. The much respected Zetterberg, 32, has been given Lidstrom's C and, like the recently retired future Hall of Famer, will lead by quiet, productive example. "He's a leader of men," coach Mike Babcock said. "He's a fierce competitor."
10 of 15Graig Abel and Bill Wippert/Getty Images
Miller, the 2010 Vezina-winner and Buffalo's cornerstone, suffered through a 2011-12 season marred by concussion effects after he was run by Boston's Milan Lucic. The Sabres also struggled in front of him, in no small part due to injuries (broken wrist, foot) to backliner Myers, the towering (6'-8", 222 pound) 2010 Calder Trophy-winner. As Buffalo's questionable offense tries to squeeze out more goals, Miller will have to be extra sharp to keep the Sabres in the hunt for a playoff spot. A return to health and form by Myers is essential.
11 of 15Graig Abel/Getty Images
Once called "the NHL's best defenseman" by former Leafs coach Ron Wilson, the bruising blueliner has since suffered the indignity of being voted the league's most overrated player in a poll of his peers conducted by SI. (Frustrated fans echoed the sentiment in the <italics>Toronto Globe and Mail</italics>.) Phaneuf, 27, is coming off his best offensive season (12 goals, 44 points) since 2008-09, but he was also -10 as the Leafs coughed up the second-most goals in the league. He'll be key to plugging that leaky D and giving the Leafs a shot at their first playoff berth since 2004.
12 of 15Debora Robinson/Getty Images
As a wave of young talent takes over the league, there are some notable graybeards to appreciate, not the least of which is the eminently likeable 42-year old Finnish Flash, who has returned for his 20th NHL season. Selanne, who produced 26-goals and 66 points last season, will likely benefit from the long offseason (he skated several times a week to stay in shape) and come out flying for what could be his farewell tour. Then again, who knows? He's said the 2004-05 lockout, which cost him a season (he's been through all three work stoppages since 1994), added years to his career.
13 of 15Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The first overall draft pick (by St. Louis) in 2006 has yet to live up to that lofty status, but the Avalanche believe he can do it and they awarded the big, swift-skating defenseman a four-year, $15 million deal last July. He's now Colorado's highest-paid blueliner and he's still only 24, a key piece of the team's young, promising core. Johnson's just been promising longer than the rest. Will this be the year he delivers?
14 of 15Jamie Sabau and Michael Martin/Getty Images
The suspense of a goaltending duel in Columbus may not be what hockey-starved fans were pining for during the lockout, but as the Blue Jackets attempt another climb to respectability, this pair of 24-year-olds will try to revive their careers. Mason won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2009, but has since failed to live up to his promise, struggling for a team that can't afford bad netminding. And "Bob", yet another former "answer" to Philadelphia's continual shortcomings in net (he started in the 2012 Winter Classic), will be out to prove that the Flyers gave up on him too soon.
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As the perennially rebuilding Isles try to make some progress in the tough Atlantic, the injury-plagued DiPietro (<bold>GALLERY: The painful saga</bold>) will try yet another comeback. (The first goalie ever drafted No. 1 overall still has nine years left on his contract.) And after the loss of productive winger P.A. Parenteau, the team hopes to catch proverbial lightning in a bottle with Boyes, 30, who had 43- and 33-goal campaigns for St. Louis (2007-09) before pulling a Cheechoo (see: Jonathan, former 56-goal scorer) and tallying all of five and eight for Buffalo the last two seasons respectively. Success by either or both could qualify as the season's top resurrection tale.
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