Star Players with the Most to Prove During 2013-14 NHL Season

Nicholas GossCorrespondent ISeptember 9, 2013

Star Players with the Most to Prove During 2013-14 NHL Season

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    The upcoming NHL season will bring new challenges, high expectations and lots of pressure for star players to perform at a high level.

    A lot of the stars with the most to prove this year are players who changed teams over the summer, signed expensive contracts as free agents or need to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 campaign.

    As we get ready for the long-awaited return of hockey, let's take a look at the star NHLers with the most to prove during the 2013-14 season.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

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    Roberto Luongo enters the new season as the clear-cut No. 1 goalie of the Vancouver Canucks, a situation that seemed very unlikely going into the offseason.

    Instead of being traded after losing his job, it was goalie-of-the-future Cory Schneider who was dealt in the summer, giving Luongo a fresh start and an opportunity to start in net for the Canucks again.

    With his job back, Luongo not only has to prove that he's capable of leading Vancouver past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the 34-year-old must also impress Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock with his performance in the first few months of the season.

    The goalie competition for Canada's Olympic team is wide open, but as the only player with gold medal and starting experience in Olympic competition, Luongo is the frontrunner for the No. 1 role. If he helps the Canucks start the season on the right foot, there's a strong chance that Luongo maintains his position as Canada's top choice in net.

    Overall, this is the most important season in Luongo's career. He's faced a lot of criticism from fans and the media over the last few years, and with a fresh start, a new coach and an Olympic spot to play for, Luongo has all the motivation needed to silence his doubters in 2013-14.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers

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    Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made the immediate jump to the NHL after being taken No. 1 overall in the 2011 NHL draft, and a Calder Trophy nomination during his rookie campaign proved that he was ready for the next level.

    But the concerns about him not having the size and strength to be durable in the NHL have been valid thus far. Nugent-Hopkins missed 20 games in his rookie season and eight last year due to injuries.

    Shoulder problems, including one surgery in April, have prevented the 20-year-old center from staying healthy over the last year. TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted on September 6 that "[Edmonton], likely without Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder rehab) for month of October, will at least try Hall and Gagner as top 2 centres."

    When he returns from rehab, Nugent-Hopkins needs to prove his durability long-term.

    The Burnaby, British Columbia native has superstar talent, and his ability to provide point-per-game scoring production at center is extremely valuable to the team's success. But if he's unable to stay on the ice consistently, the Oilers will be without their best playmaker and a key part of their future.

    After battling injuries in his first two seasons, teammate Taylor Hall got stronger and stayed healthy last year, playing in 45 of 48 games. The Oilers are hoping that the same will happen to Nugent-Hopkins in 2013-14.

    If it does, Edmonton will have a strong chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars

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    Tyler Seguin was traded to the Dallas Stars on July 4 after another poor postseason performance and questions about his maturity and professionalism.

    Some inappropriate tweets and rumors of partying created a few PR issues for Seguin to deal with during his final days in Boston, but with a chance to start fresh in Dallas, the 21-year-old star is aiming to lead the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

    "I had some comments on Tyler at the (2013) draft regarding his professionalism and him acting like a professional," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli in July. "I prefaced that by saying he’s only 21, and he’ll figure it out. You know what you have to manage your team, you have to manage your players, you have to manage your cap, and that was part of the reason why we [traded him]."

    There's no denying that the former No. 2 overall draft pick is blessed with extraordinary talent. He has impressive goal scoring ability, exceptional playmaking skills, great hands and game-changing speed. The defensive aspect of his game has also improved quite a bit since the Brampton native debuted for the Bruins in 2010-11.

    The challenge for Seguin next season is to prove that he's capable of working just as hard off the ice as he does on it. The best young centers in the NHL, including Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, work extremely hard in the summer to add strength and get the proper nutrition. This is the kind of effort that will be required of Seguin in Dallas.

    To be fair, Seguin is only 21 years old and not all young stars are as professional and mature as a Jonathan Toews. With that said, Seguin must become a leader on and off the ice, in addition to scoring at or close to a point-per-game rate if this franchise is going to return to prominence.

David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Any player who signs a massive free-agent contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs is going to be under the microscope 24/7.

    David Clarkson was that major signing during the offseason, and as someone who models his game after former Leafs star Wendell Clark, expectations of the former New Jersey Devils winger are going to be extraordinarily high.

    Clarkson only has one All-Star-level season on his resume. In fact, he's only scored more than 17 goals in a season one time. After a breakout 30-goal campaign in 2011-12, the 29-year-old power forward tallied only 24 points (15 goals, nine assists) last year.

    As a highly-paid top-six forward playing for arguably the most popular, criticized and talked about team in the league, Clarkson has a lot to prove in 2013-14. Is he the player from two years ago who scored a ton of goals and impacted games with punishing physical play, or is he the average winger who doesn't put up top-six-caliber stats?

    This is a question that Clarkson must answer next season. If he doesn't get off to a quality start, the criticism and daily questions about his performance will become a distraction.

Brad Richards, New York Rangers

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    Brad Richards was awful last year. There's no other way to describe his performance. It got so bad that the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner was scratched in the final two Rangers games of the season during their second-round series against the Boston Bruins.

    Not only did Richards lack speed and fail to skate well, his scoring production also declined. Aside from a strong April, Richards contributed very little to the Rangers offense, which resulted in him moving from a top-six role to the fourth line.

    With a new head coach in Alain Vigneault, who will use a style of hockey that is less defensive, more uptempo and caters more to playmakers like Richards than the previous bench boss' system, the 33-year-old veteran has a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a bounce-back season.

    If Richards is unable to tally anywhere from 55-70 points and be a productive member of New York's struggling power play, it's possible that he will be bought out next summer.

    Richards needs to prove that he's still a reliable top-six forward this season.

     

Nathan Horton, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Offseason shoulder surgery will prevent Nathan Horton from beginning the regular season on time, but when he does makes his debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the veteran winger must prove that he's capable of staying healthy consistently.

    Multiple injuries, including two concussions, prevented Horton from playing a full slate of games for the Boston Bruins over the last two years. Despite battling a difficult shoulder injury throughout last year's playoffs, Columbus signed him to a risky seven-year, $37.1 million free-agent contract in the summer.

    As a top-tier power forward who scores goals, plays physical and provides clutch scoring during the postseason, Horton will be asked to play an important top-six role in the Blue Jackets offense. For him to thrive in this role, he needs to make sure he's taking care of his body to avoid injuries.

    In addition to injury concerns, Horton must also prove that he can be a consistent scorer. The 28-year-old forward would go through long stretches without scoring in Boston, which was incredibly frustrating for fans to watch. This level of inconsistency won't be tolerated on a Blue Jackets team that finished 25th in goals scored and 28th in power-play success last season.

Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins

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    Loui Eriksson was acquired in a trade that sent an ultra-talented young star in Tyler Seguin out of town, so naturally, there is a ton of pressure on the former Dallas Stars winger to prove he's a top-tier player at both ends of the ice.

    There's no question that Eriksson is a better fit for the defensive-minded Bruins than Seguin. His two-way skill set and ability to excel on special teams should help him make a smooth transition to the lineup.

    "(Eriksson is) a good two-way player," said Chiarelli in July. "He knows where to find the spots to score. Has a good shot, good release from either side. Can play on the (power play). He can play the right side, and he has left-shot skill. He spreads out your power play. He’s a fast and a good two-way player. There’s a lot of his game that fits into how we play."

    With Boston in win-now mode, Eriksson will be asked to make an immediate contribution, especially on the power play. As a player with the skill needed to tally 65-80 points per season, his offensive production will be a key part of the Bruins success because the team finished 13th in goals scored last season (the team ranked second in 2011-12).

    If Eriksson is able to prove that the Bruins made the right decision to give up on a player of Seguin's caliber to acquire him, the 28-year-old will quickly become a fan favorite in Boston.

     

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft. All quotes obtained first hand and salary information is from CapGeek.