Sidney Crosby and 25 Other NHL Question Marks: Will They Rebound in 2011-2012?

Matthew FairburnCorrespondent IJuly 11, 2011

Sidney Crosby and 25 Other NHL Question Marks: Will They Rebound in 2011-2012?

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    The NHL is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.

    In 2010-2011 that was the case, as plenty of players and teams left the hockey world with a funny taste in its mouth by season's end, whether it be a pleasant or unpleasant flavor gracing the palette.

    Regardless, the start of a new season is a chance to turn the page and either right your wrongs, stay the course or continue the regression or progression that caught the league's eye to begin with.

    For players like Sidney Crosby and Jonas Hiller, the biggest question mark is whether or not they will be able to bounce back from injury and maintain a high level of play.

    Meanwhile, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin have some questions to answer about their healthy on ice performances.

    Also gracing this list are some teams and players that have high expectations heading into next season but are still a bit unknown in terms of whether or not they can deliver.

    Here are the 25 biggest question marks heading into next season and how I see things playing out.

25. Dallas Stars

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    It'll Only Get Worse

    With the blazing start the Dallas Stars got off to a year ago, many expected the team to cruise to a Pacific Division Title and make a cute postseason run. Instead, the Stars completed collapsed after suffering multiple injuries, most notably to star center Brad Richards.

    Well, Brad Richards won't be there in the fall, and the players Dallas got to replace him aren't quite up to the task.

    Couple that with the fact that the team still does not have an owner, and things are looking pretty bleak down in Texas.

24. Kari Lehtonen

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    It'll Only Get Worse

    Last season was a demoralizing one for Kari Lehtonen. Out of the gate he was one of the best goaltenders in the entire NHL, carrying the Stars to first place in the division.

    However, as the season wore on Lehtonen wore down and was eventually injured which caused his play to even out over the course of the season.

    Now, Lehtonen still had a solid season, posting a 2.55 GAA and three shutouts, but after his fast start, the big question is which Kari Lehtonen are we going to see in 2011-2012?

    Unfortunately, I only see things getting worse for Lehtonen, who will be relied on even more heavily next season, and as we've seen, he cannot hold up to that kind of punishment.

    There's always a chance he rises to the occasion and becomes the guy the team can lean on, but battling through injuries to play 69 games is not a recipe for success.

23. Chris Pronger

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    Stuck in Neutral

    Has age finally caught up to Chris Pronger? Well, when a guy fails to appear in at least 65 games for the first time since the 2002-2003 season, something isn't right.

    The wrist injury Pronger suffered is one that is likely to linger for the rest of his life, and considering his age, it will certainly continue to effect him on the ice even after surgery. Not to mention the chance of re-injuring the wrist.

    That being said, when healthy Pronger can still play with the best of them, and he has shown no signs of slowing down.

    The Flyers can expect him to miss some games this season, but his on ice performance will remain on par with what they have come to expect.

22. Tomas Kaberle

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    Stuck In Neutral

    After the big trading deadline deal that brought Tomas Kaberle to Boston for what was essentially a King's Ransom, the talented puck moving defenseman proceeded to be one of the most useless players for the Bruins for the remainder of the season.

    Despite his lackluster performance, Kaberle got a big pay day in free agency, signing a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes for an annual cap hit of around $4.25 million. So, will he rebound?

    Something tells me Kaberle's heart is stuck in Toronto, and he will just continue to mail it in the rest of his career. The efforts he put forth throughout the 2011 NHL Playoffs were enough to convince me that this guy just doesn't play inspired hockey.

21. Corey Crawford

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    He'll Only Get Better

    Anytime a young goaltender bursts onto the scene these days one has to wonder whether or not they will continue their success the following season.  

    We've seen Steve Mason, Antti Niemi and Jaroslav Halak all stall out a bit after impressive breakout seasons.

    Next in line is Chicago Blackhawks' backstop Corey Crawford, who was outstanding in Chicago's opening round loss to the Vancouver Canucks. To me, he stands to benefit from the experience but will also remain hungry, having not accomplished anything really in his young career.

    The team around Crawford continues to grow stronger, and he will only become a better goaltender because of it.

20. The Buffalo Sabres

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    After pushing the Philadelphia Flyers to the brink of elimination, the Buffalo Sabres have re-tooled their roster and are set to come back even stronger in 2011-2012.

    Before, Buffalo was relying on their young talent and superstar goaltender to get them into the playoffs. Now, with the additions of Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Reghr and Ville Leino, the Sabres have some experienced veterans to balance out the team.

    Buffalo may have a shot at the 2012 Northeast Division Championship.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Year after year the Columbus Blue Jackets disappoint their fans with lackluster play and little hope for the future. This year, the Jackets hope to change that after some big spending this offseason.

    Columbus has brought in a dynamic goal scorer, Jeff Carter and a talented defenseman, James Wisniewski, to help bring this team out of the cellar and back into contention in the Western Conference. 

    One has to expect at least a marginal improvement considering Rick Nash will have a capable center for the first time in his entire career.

18. Jaromir Jagr

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    One of the most heavily scrutinized signing of this offseason's free agent frenzy was the $3.3 million contract given to Jaromir Jagr by the Philadelphia Flyers. However, Paul Holmgren could prove to be a genius on this one.

    Everyone wants to point out that Jagr is no longer capable of putting up 90 to 100 points and lighting the lamp on a nightly basis. This is completely true, but also the reason that Jagr's contract pays him $3.3 million instead of north of five.

    If Jagr can come in and produce between 50 and 70 points while helping out the powerplay with his experience and mentoring some of the young talent on Philly's roster, the signing will be an overwhelming success.

    If he cannot do any of that, the Flyers are only locked into one year with the Czech forward.

17. Teemu Selanne

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    It'll Only Get Worse

    After posting 80 points a season ago, can things go anywhere but down for the 41-year-old Teemu Selanne?

    If he even returns to the ice next season, there is little doubt in my mind that Teemu Selanne will see his production drop by a significant margin in 2011-2012.

16. Philadelphia Flyers' Goaltending

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    The story of the 2011 NHL Playoffs for the Philadelphia Flyers was the horrendos play between the pipes by Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton.

    The signing of Ilya Bryzgalov changes everything.

    A 2010 Vezina Trophy Finalist, Ilya Bryzgalov figures to vastly improve the Flyers' goaltending situation pretty much by default.

15. Marty Turco

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    Stuck In Neutral

    After being one of the most sought after goaltenders on the free-agent market a year ago, Marty Turco was shown the bench for a solid portion of the 2010-2011 campaign due to the emergence of Corey Crawford.

    Meanwhile, Turco is still unsigned at this point and figures to be nothing more than a very average backup goaltender going forward if he even continues to play.

14. Winnipeg Jets

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    After losing an NHL franchise the first time around, the city of Winnipeg is once again goings crazy for the Jets.

    All signs point to a big time success for the league, the city of Winnipeg, and the Jets in terms of the move back across the border.

    Either way, this figures to be a significant improvement over the situation in Atlanta.

13. Phoenix Coyotes

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    It'll Only Get Worse

    The Phoenix Coyotes' imminent relocation north of the border is well documented, and there's very little hope that this season is going to change anyone's mind.

    Currently owned by the league and kept afloat by large sums of tax payer's dollars, the Coyotes just don't have the foundation for long term success in the desert.

    A relocation is necessary for the league and the franchise. 

12. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Is this the year Brian Burke's Toronto Maple Leafs finally get over the hump and become a playoff team? He better hope so because this is certainly his last shot at success before patience begins to run seriously thin among the Toronto faithful.

    That being said, I expect the Leafs to make a run at the postseason this year. The youngsters have another season to grow, Phil Kessel finally has his center and the franchise goaltender is in place.

    It's time to put up or shut up for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

11. Evgeni Malkin

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    Stuck in Neutral

    Prior to going down with torn ligaments in his knee, Evgeni Malkin was having a lackluster campaign, having only 37 points in his 43 games played.

    Certainly not the numbers we have come to expect from Malkin.

    Meanwhile, his recovery from a severe knee injury isn't going to happen over night. Expect another average year from Evgeni Malkin as he attempts to regain form.

10. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Flyers were a question mark even before the offseason hoopla began. Philly cruised through the regular season only to be swept by the Boston Bruins after being pushed the brink of elimination by the Buffalo Sabres.

    They played uninspired hockey for much of the second half and failed to put anything together in the playoffs.

    Then came the frenzy of moves Paul Holmgren and the front office put into action. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have both been traded, Ville Leino was let go, and role players Kris Versteeg, Daryl Powe and Dan Carcillo have found new homes as well.

    The result is a completely different roster than the team had a year ago.

    So what will become of the Philadelphia Flyers? That is possibly the biggest question heading into next season. Philly should still be a playoff team, but expecting them to beat out the Penguins for the division is a tall task.

    It will be easier to gauge the Flyers once we have seen all of the new faces on the ice at the same time. 

9. Martin Brodeur

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    It'll Only Get Worse

    The regression of Martin Brodeur has been swept under the rug for the last couple of seasons, but it has been painfully evident. Brodeur is simply not the goaltender he once was.

    He can no longer be expected to play in 70 games, nor can one expect his save percentage to be much higher than .910.

    The Devils need to start grooming a replacement for Brodeur and make sure that replacement is capable of taking some of the load off of Brodeur's shoulders this season.

8. Zach Parise

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    After being injured for essentially the entire 2010-2011 campaign, one should expect a rebound from Zach Parise, who has plenty of talent around him to succeed.

    However, the Devils still need to get him under contract, and the star winger has an arbitration hearing coming up.

    If he is under contract, happy and healthy, Zach Parise will have an enormous bounce back season for the New Jersey Devils.

7. Marian Gaborik

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    Marian Gaborik has the talent to be one of the five best players in the National Hockey League. Unfortunately, due to injuries and the talent around him, Marian Gaborik has never been able to put it all together.

    Now, Brad Richards will be his center, and Gaborik will be fully healthy. There are no more excuses. Provided both of them can stay healthy, Gaborik should have a monster season for the blue shirts.

6. New Jersey Devils

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    There was no more Jekyll and Hyde team last season than the New Jersey Devils. The club started the season off on a horrid pace. Injuries and disappointing play from superstars made the Devils one of the worst teams in hockey.

    Then, something clicked. In the second half the Devils were a much better team, but it was too little too late.

    Now, New Jersey has a fresh start, and it should pay dividend. Expect the Devils to carry some of that momentum from last season into the 2011-2012 campaign. 

5. Alex Ovechkin

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    If there is going to be an argument about who the league's best player is, Alexander Ovechkin has to be able to hit 90 points year in and year out, and he absolutely has to get it done in the postseason.

    Ovechkin's point decrease was more than just him focusing on defense too, because the Russian superstar saw a significant drop in plus minus as well.

    Let's chalk up last season to an anomale and expect big things from the Great No. 8 this season.

4. Ilya Kovalchuk

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    After what the New Jersey Devils went through to acquire and keep Ilya Kovalchuk, 60 points is an unacceptable output for the Russian goalscorer. 

    Like Ovechkin, let's consider this one a bit of a fluke. Zach Parise went down with injury and the entire Devils' team was a bit out of whack. With a fresh start, Kovalchuk should be able to get back to 80-point form.

3. Washington Capitals

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    Stuck in Neutral

    What has changed with the Washington Capitals that now makes them a Stanley Cup team? Absolutely nothing.

    This is the same teams that runs through the regular season only to fall flat on its face in the postseason. The coach is back, and so are many of the players, meaning the culture is exactly the same.

    Washington has tried a new system, they have tried bringing in veteran leadership, and now they have a new goalie, Tomas Vokoun.

    Goaltending, the system and youth weren't the issues. The issue has been and still is heart.

2. Jonas Hiller

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    Jonas Hiller was arguably the league's best puckstopper before suffering a concussion and the subsequent vertigo.

    Now, there is a lingering concern that Hiller's injury could effect his longterm success in the league.

    Call me optimistic, but there is too much talent in Hiller for his career to be derailed like this. He is mentally strong and physically gifted, and I have faith that Hiller will pull through this.

1. Sidney Crosby

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    Remember when Sidney Crosby was on a torrid pace and on his way to a career year? Yeah, neither does anybody else. 

    All of the talk surrounding the Penguins this offseason has been about how Sidney Crosby will rebound from his injury and whether or not he will ever be the same player again.

    Sure, a severe concussion is definitely reason for concern, but we're talking about the most gifted hockey player in the world. He has had plenty of time to recoup and collect himself after the two concussions he suffered a year ago.

    Should Crosby suffer another head injury, there will be cause for alarm. However, for now he is still hockey's best player and will continue to be until further notice.

    Expect a terrific season from Pittsburgh's franchise player.