NHL Rookies Facing the Most Pressure in 2013-14 Season
Since the 2004-05 lockout, NHL general managers have been forced to fill out their rosters with talented young players who bring speed and skill to the ice but don't take up much of the salary cap.
As young players with entry-level contracts, rookies are under a lot of pressure to perform at a high level and become box-office players who sell tickets and make their teams a staple of the surrounding community.
After a strong 2013 draft in which a lot of the top 10 picks could earn a spot on NHL rosters in training camp, the expectations on rookies will be even greater during the 2013-14 season.
Let's take a look at five rookies under the most pressure to perform.
Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars
The Dallas Stars haven't made the playoffs in five seasons and finished 25th in attendance percentage last season, per ESPN. These are two reasons why the Stars' selection of NHL-ready forward Valeri Nichushkin with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft was a smart move.
At last week's Traverse City Tournament, the Stars rookie was one of the best players in attendance. ESPN's Craig Custance tweeted: "One observer watching Stars first-rounder Nichushkin in Traverse City: 'He's a man-child.' Lindy Ruff says his skating compares to Malkin."
The Russian winger is a physical forward who scores goals, goes hard to the net and creates quality scoring chances with great playmaking skills and a high hockey IQ. He's drawn comparisons to other Russian wingers such as Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk because of his speed and incredible offensive talent.
As a player capable of excelling in a top-six role as a rookie, Nichushkin will be under a lot of pressure to provide scoring production on a consistent basis while also forming strong chemistry with top-line left winger Jamie Benn and No. 1 center Tyler Seguin.
So far, he's off to a good start with two goals scored in his first preseason game.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
As the No. 1 overall draft pick in June, Nathan MacKinnon is going to be under a lot of pressure to take charge of the Colorado Avalanche revival under the leadership of new front office executive Joe Sakic and first-year head coach Patrick Roy.
He's an extraordinary playmaker who creates high-quality scoring chances for teammates and scores goals with an accurate wrist shot and a high level of offensive awareness.
Roy has played MacKinnon on the third line for most of training camp and the early preseason, which will help him transition to the speed and physicality of the NHL game. With that said, if MacKinnon struggles to produce offensively (including the power play) over the first month or two of the regular season, the criticism from fans and the media could become a distraction for him.
Colorado finished 26th in goals scored and 24th in power-play percentage last season, and to improve in those areas, MacKinnon will need to play a major role in the offense.
The Avalanche have missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, including the last three. As a top draft pick with No. 1 center talent, MacKinnon will be among the players most responsible for getting Colorado back to the postseason.
Torey Krug, Boston Bruins
Torey Krug emerged as an offensive star in last year's playoffs for the Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins. The former Hobey Baker Award winner scored four goals in his first five postseason games and brought an element of speed and puck-moving skills that the Boston blue line lacked before his arrival.
His stellar playoff run has raised the expectations of Krug in 2013-14 to a level far beyond what he could have imagined before last season.
Not only will he be expected to make the NHL roster in the preseason, but the 22-year-old will also likely play a major role on the Bruins' power play, which has been an Achilles' heel of this team since All-Star center Marc Savard suffered a bad concussion during the 2009-10 season.
Boston finished 26th in power-play percentage last season, but it improved in the playoffs thanks to the playmaking skill, powerful shot from the point and quick decision making that Krug brought to the blue line.
As a mobile, puck-moving defenseman (which the Bruins have lacked in recent seasons), Krug is going to be under a lot of pressure to perform at a high level consistently and take major strides in his development this year.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
As an NHL-ready center with amazing size and incredible offensive skill, Aleksander Barkov will be expected to make a substantial impact as a rookie in a top-six role.
Florida ranked 29th in goals scored last season and lost No. 1 center Stephen Weiss to the Detroit Red Wings in free agency, which will give Barkov plenty of opportunities to play big minutes and receive lots of power-play ice time.
He's certainly capable of playing this kind of role from Day 1. He handles the puck well, scores goals with a powerful shot and creates scoring chances with exceptional vision and playmaking skills.
The Panthers don't have a lot of elite talent, and as a two-way player who excels with a power forward type of game, the pressure on Barkov to play well and give Florida a marketable player to help attendance will be immense.
Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings
After an impressive playoff debut in which he tallied six points in 12 games, Tyler Toffoli is ready to make a bigger impact as a top-nine forward for the Los Angeles Kings in 2013-14.
Given the team's lack of elite talent on the wings (especially on the left side), Toffoli will be asked to provide consistent scoring and power-play production as a clutch goal scorer and a player who creates chances with a high hockey IQ and strong playmaking skills. He tallied five points (two goals, three assists) in 10 regular-season games a year ago.
As a player with the versatility to play right wing, left wing or even center, Toffoli could add valuable depth to a Kings offense that ranked 10th in goals scored and 10th in power-play percentage last year.
Playing an important role and more minutes on one of the league's top Stanley Cup contenders isn't an easy job for a rookie, but given Toffoli's talent and impressive development at the AHL level in Manchester, there's no question he's ready for this challenge.
With Dustin Penner leaving the team in the summer via free agency, it's Toffoli's time to become an important part of L.A.'s offense.