NHL Stars Facing the Biggest Question Marks in the 2014-15 Season 

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2014

NHL Stars Facing the Biggest Question Marks in the 2014-15 Season 

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    A number of NHL stars will face questions entering this season. Superstars will confront the challenge of reaching greater heights. Aging stars will hope to maintain their place among the league's elite. Promising youngsters will be under pressure to take their game to the next level.

    Some will be under more scrutiny than others. Several will face the challenge of heightened expectations that come with playing for a new team. A rising young superstar will encounter pressure to justify an expensive new contract. A superstar scorer must adjust to yet another new coach. A veteran leader must address doubts over his leadership. 

    The following is a ranking of 10 NHL stars facing the biggest questions this season as well as a list of honorable mentions. Age, production, skills, salary and value to their respective clubs factored into this ranking.

    Unless otherwise indicated all statistics via NHL.com and all salary information via CapGeek.com.

Honorable Mention

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    Andy Marlin/Getty Images

    Dan Boyle, New York Rangers. Can he lead the New York Rangers' defense corps this season? At 38, Boyle's best seasons are behind him.

    Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins. Has age (37) finally caught up with the 6'9”, 255-pound Boston Bruins captain and former Norris winner? Though still a formidable defender, Chara appeared to slow down during last year's playoffs. 

    Pavel Datyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings. Can this aging duo lead the Detroit Red Wings to their 24th consecutive playoff appearance? Datsyuk (36) and Zetterberg (who turns 34 in October) were hampered by injury last season.

    Evander Kane, Winnipeg Jets. Will this be the 23-year-old left wing's final season with the Winnipeg Jets? Trade rumors dogged Kane over the past two years.

    Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils. Does he have enough left to once again lead the New Jersey Devils' offense? Age could catch up with the 42-year-old Jagr

    Vincent Lecavalier, Philadelphia Flyers. Will his scoring touch return to justify the $4.5 million annual salary the Philadelphia Flyers invested in him? Last season, Lecavalier managed just 37 points in 69 games.

    Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers. Can he backstop the Florida Panthers into the playoffs? The 35-year-old goaltender could face a heavy workload behind a young Panthers defense.

    James Neal, Nashville Predators. Will his scoring touch from his days in Pittsburgh carry over with the Nashville Predators? He won't have superstar teammates like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to set him up.

    Brad Richards, Chicago Blackhawks. Will he be a good fit as the Chicago Blackhawks' second-line center? The 34-year-old slowed down noticeably as the 2014 NHL playoffs went on.

    Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators. Does he believe his long-term future is with the Ottawa Senators? Ryan will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The 27-year-old right wing could prove a costly signing.

    Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks. Can they regain their offensive touch and carry the Vancouver Canucks back into playoff contention? The twins suffered through injuries and a steep decline in their production last season.

    Mike Smith, Arizona Coyotes. Will he regain the form that enabled him to backstop the Arizona Coyotes into playoff contention? Smith struggled through injuries and inconsistency over the past two seasons.

    Thomas Vanek, Minnesota Wild. Can he provide the additional offense the Minnesota Wild need to become Stanley Cup contenders? Vanek has six 60-plus-point seasons on his resume but struggles with consistency in the postseason. 

10. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The question: Will P.K. Subban justify his new eight-year, $72 million contract?

    Analysis: Subban's new deal and his style of play has its critics. Former Canadiens forward Alex Kovalev told TSN he's not a fan of the 25-year-old's defensive game. “I'm not saying that he isn't a good hockey player – he's not the guy,” said Kovalev. He called Subban a “risky defenseman” and doesn't understand why he was paid so much.

    Subban's style may involve risk, but it certainly works in his favor. He won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman in 2013, led the Habs during the 2014 playoffs in scoring and ice time and finished second in regular-season scoring in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Yahoo! Sports indicates he was third on the team last season in hits (135) and fourth in blocked shots (125).

    Conclusion: Over the past two seasons, Subban emerged as an elite NHL defenseman. Barring injury, his best seasons lay ahead of him. He should have little difficulty justifying his new contract.

9. Paul Stastny, St. Louis Blues

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    The question: Is Paul Stastny the missing piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle for the St. Louis Blues?

    Analysis: After eight seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, Stastny signed a four-year, $28 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jeff Gordon reported the signing addressed the club's need for a natural playmaking center for one of their top two lines.

    Stastny certainly has the skills with six seasons of 53-plus points on his resume. It now remains to be seen how well he adjusts to his new teammates. He won't be lacking for scoring wingers. David Backes, Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko are among those who could end up on his line.

    Conclusion: Given Stastny's skills and experience, he should have little difficulty fitting in with the Blues. He should put them one step closer toward Cup contention.

8. Rick Nash, New York Rangers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The question: Can Rick Nash overcome his inability to score in the playoffs?

    Analysis: Since joining the Rangers two years ago, Nash has proved himself a reliable regular-season scorer. He led the Rangers in goals during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and in an injury-hampered 2013-14 campaign. If the 30-year-old winger stays healthy this season, he should reach or exceed the 35-goal mark.

    It's in the playoffs, however, where Nash runs into trouble. He scored only once (along with four assists) in the 2013 playoffs. During the 2014 playoffs, Nash tallied only three times (along with seven assists) in 25 games and was held scoreless in the Stanley Cup Final.

    Conclusion: During the 2014 playoffs, Newsday's Arthur Staple reported Nash was contributing in other areas for the Rangers. Regardless, he was acquired to be a scoring leader and has come up short in postseason competition. Great players find a way to rise to the occasion. If the Rangers hope to return to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, Nash must improve his playoff production. 

7. Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars

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    The question: Does Jason Spezza have a future with the Dallas Stars?

    Analysis: After 11 productive NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators, Spezza was traded on July 1 to the Stars. He told reporters he was “very excited” about the deal. NHL.com's Dan Rosen believes Spezza will become the Stars' second-line center.

    Spezza, however, will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. His annual cap hit is $7 million in actual salary this season he'll earn $4 million. The Dallas Morning News reports Stars general manager Jim Nill remains confident in being able to re-sign Spezza. “When we made the trade the vision was he's going to be a Star for a long time,” said Nill.

    Conclusion: It could come down to asking price and performance for both sides. The 31-year-old Spezza has a few productive years left, and he could prefer spending them with a Cup contender. He could also attract expensive offers via free agency. If the Stars fail to significantly improve this season, he could opt for greener pastures as a free agent.

6. John Tavares, New York Islanders

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The question: Will John Tavares' performance be adversely affected by last season's knee injury?

    Analysis: Tavares tore the MCL and meniscus in his left knee playing for Team Canada last February in the Sochi Winter Olympics. Newsday's Arthur Staple reported Islanders GM Garth Snow was furious over the incident, losing his best player for the remainder of the season. Tavares didn't require surgery and was medically cleared in May to resume skating, but that came too late to save the Islanders' season. 

    Though the young Islanders played surprisingly well (12-7-4) without Tavares, they're a much better team with their captain in the lineup. Their playoff hopes this season depend upon Tavares enjoying a healthy, productive performance.

    Conclusion: Tavares, who turns 24 in September, is a proven NHL superstar. He was among the NHL's leading scorers last season (66 points in 59 games) prior to his injury. As long as there's no recurring issues with his knee, he should once again rank among the league's top scorers. The fact he didn't require surgery to repair the injury bodes well for a productive return.

5. Ryan Miller, Vancouver Canucks

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    The question: Can Ryan Miller carry the Vancouver Canucks back into the playoffs?

    Analysis: Just over four years ago, Miller was the NHL's top goaltender, winning the 2010 Vezina Trophy. He also backstopped Team USA to a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and carried the Buffalo Sabres into the 2010 NHL playoffs. Since then, however, his performance has declined.

    Some of the blame can be placed upon the decline of the Sabres over the same period. Dealt to the powerhouse St. Louis Blues late in the 2013-14 season, Miller struggled to adjust to his new team, as the Blues were bounced from the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks. In July, he signed a three-year deal with the Canucks.

    Conclusion: Miller could be a breath of fresh air for a Canucks team coming off two years of goaltending uncertainty. He should be keen to prove he's still a capable starting goaltender. The 34-year-old's experience and leadership should provide stability between the pipes. That could bolster the Canucks' confidence and improve their chances of contending for a playoff berth.

4. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

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    The question: How will San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton perform after being stripped of the team captaincy?

    Analysis: The San Jose Mercury News' David Pollak reports not only did the Sharks strip Thornton of the captaincy, but they didn't bother to tell him about the move ahead of time. Thornton instead got the news from a reporter. Regardless of how one feels about Thornton's leadership abilities, he deserved better than that.

    This move is fallout from the Sharks' epic playoff collapse in last spring's opening-round series against the Los Angeles Kings. Pollak also noted Thornton and teammate Patrick Marleau were subjects of trade speculation this summer, but both have no-movement clauses and want to stay with the Sharks.

    Conclusion: It's easy to assume this move could push Thornton out of San Jose. It's worth recalling, however, that Marleau was stripped of the captaincy five years ago and remains a key player for the Sharks. The 35-year-old Thornton will likely follow the example of his teammate. Expect him to be among the Sharks' best players this season. 

3. Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

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    The question: Can Eric Staal recapture his high-scoring form?

    Analysis: Staal's offensive numbers in 2013-14 (21 goals, 40 assists, 61 points) were his lowest in a full NHL season since his rookie campaign in 2003-04. One reason behind those numbers was the Hurricanes lack of scoring depth, finishing 22nd in goals per game and 28th in power-play percentage (14.6). Staal's slow start last season can be attributed to a knee injury suffered during the 2013 World Championships.

    The Hurricanes did nothing this summer to bolster their scoring depth. NHL.com's Davis Harper reports new Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters expects a bounce-back performance from Staal, intending to rely heavily on the center in all situations. Staal underwent surgery this summer to repair a core muscle injury but is expected to be ready for training camp.

    Conclusion: A healthy Staal will undoubtedly be motivated to improve this season, and he should return to his usual 70-plus-point form. However, he cannot do it all by himself. Linemates Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty must also rebound from subpar performances if the Hurricanes are to contend for a playoff spot.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

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    The question: Has goaltender Pekka Rinne finally overcome his nagging hip injury?

    Analysis: After struggling through the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Rinne underwent hip surgery in May 2013. Last October, he was diagnosed with an infection in his surgically-repaired hip, which sidelined him until March

    Prior to Rinne's surgery, he was among the league's top goaltenders, becoming a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2011 and 2012. It's no coincidence the Predators failed to make the playoffs during the seasons Rinne was hampered by his hip injury.

    Conclusion: NHL.com's John Manasso believes a full season with a healthier Rinne should make a difference for the Predators, who narrowly missed qualifying for a wild-card berth last season. Rinne hasn't played a full season in two years. The Predators should avoid overworking the 31-year-old to ensure he remains in peak form throughout the season.

1. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The question: Can Alexander Ovechkin and new Capitals head coach Barry Trotz peacefully coexist?

    Analysis: Trotz joined the Capitals this summer with a reputation as a defensive-minded coach. Earlier this year, The Hockey News' Ken Campbell reported on the offensive-minded Ovechkin's apparent disinterest in two-way hockey. Seems like this pair could mix about as well as oil and water.

    Trotz downplayed his reputation in an interview with Yahoo! Sports' Greg Wyshynski. He pointed out instances where the Predators were among the league leaders in goals under his watch. Trotz also told NHL.com's Dan Rosen he wants to enhance Ovechkin's offensive gifts.

    Conclusion: Rather that try to turn Ovechkin into a two-way player, it sounds like Trotz wants to build on the winger's strengths. That could be the best way to get the Capitals captain to buy into whatever system Trotz intends to implement. If it works, the Capitals should be a significantly improved team this season.