As we head into the 2011 NHL preseason, the majority of players and teams get the chance to start fresh—the injuries, failures and challenges of last season are gone. A clean slate exists. This is the time for optimism.
For some players though, the pressure to perform has already been heaped on weeks before the first drop of a puck.
Here is a look at some of those players facing more pressure than most to lay down career seasons.
Evgeni Malkin has been the silent contributor for the Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby being the face of the franchise, and arguably one of the faces of the NHL, the reserved Malkin generally fades to the background. Up to now, he has been the Robin to Crosby's Batman—the partner that contributes invaluably to the success of the team but does't always get the front page credit.
With Crosby still not cleared to play and battling concussion symptoms, the pressure of carrying the Pittsburgh Penguins into the 2011-12 season falls squarely on the shoulders of a 25-year-old Russian.
Malkin had career years in 2007-08 and 2008-09, scoring 106 and 113 regular season points respectively. Since then, he has battled injury problems of his own. He only suited up in 43 games last season for the Pens. Pittsburgh desperately needs Evgeni Malkin to stay healthy and regain his former All-Star form if they are going to be competitive in the East this season.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review caught up with him on the subject of filling the void left by Crosby. "I think it's not for sure if Sid will start playing at the beginning of the season," Malkin said. "If not, it will be hard. But I think we have a good team. I'm ready."
For the Penguins' sake, he had better be ready.
All Semyon Varlamov has to do to be successful in Colorado is play like Patrick Roy.
In stepping into the Colorado goaltending void, Varlamov enters what is arguably one of the most high-expectation, pressure-filled situations in the NHL. The Avalanche have been searching unsuccessfully for a successor to one of the greatest netminders in NHL history since Roy's retirement in 2003.
A series of goaltenders have come and gone since then, with the Avalanche quietly hoping each would have a surprise, breakout year and turn into something special. They have come up empty so far. Colorado has never paid as steep a price as they did for Varlamov, though—he cost the team a first and second-round draft pick.
Semyon Varlamov has shown flashes of brilliance. He has owned one of the higher save percentages in the NHL in recent years, and his limited playoff experience has been impressive. But he has struggled with injuries and has never faced the pressure of carrying an NHL team for an entire regular season as a starter.
In fact, he has never started more than 27 regular season games in one year in the NHL.
The pressure is on the young Varlamov to step up and prove he can be an elite NHL goaltender. The Avalanche are clearly banking that he will be able to do so. Might the Avs have finally found their long-term solution to the goaltending problem? Time will tell.
Drew Doughty seemed to have a good thing going. He was a rising star on a young, talented team featuring the likes of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. The Los Angeles Kings seemed committed to locking him in as a cornerstone, franchise defenseman for the long term.
And then came the contract negations.
Recent rumors have stated that Doughty turned down a nine-year deal worth around $61 million. That kind of cash would have put him in the ranks of the highest paid members of the team, including Kopitar. A contract that large certainly heaps performance pressure on a player. Turning down that kind of an offer is a whole other ballgame.
Whether the issue is that Doughty doesn't want to commit for a lengthy term or that he is holding out for more money, he is going to have to prove that he is worth the extra negotiating power beyond what would have been a record contract for a 21-year-old.
Regardless of where he ends up this season, Drew Doughty has placed the pressure on himself to have a career year and prove that he is truly a first-class player—worthy of this kind of attention—and not just another entitled, professional athlete.
Roberto Luongo has long been criticized for being inconsistent in big situations. He had the opportunity to silence those critics during the Canucks' 2011 playoff campaign. While he was very good in some, if not a majority, of those playoffs, he stumbled enough to keep the doubts alive.
By all accounts, Luongo had a great season for the Canucks. He posted a 38-15-7 regular season record along with a .928 save percentage. But it's the high pressure situations that build reputations, and in the playoffs, Luongo stumbled. He gave away soft goals in key moments and in several games didn't even earn the starting job. The final blow was a 4-0 loss to Boston, at home, in Game 7 of the finals.
With patience in Vancouver running thin and a star-caliber backup in Corey Schneider waiting in the wings, Luongo needs to have a career year and a great playoff run to maintain his elite status.
On Monday of this week, it was announced that 26-year-old Ryan Callahan would inherit the captaincy of the New York Rangers. He certainly has his work cut out for him. With his new leadership role comes the pressure of guiding an Original Six team in one of the largest hockey markets in the country.
Callahan, who had a career year last year (23 goals, 25 assists, 48 points in 60 games) inherits a franchise with a reputation for having star-studded, high payroll teams that flop in the playoffs. While he is surrounded by talent, history has shown that team chemistry and cohesiveness drive a team to a championship. Great captains are catalysts of that type of chemistry.
With the "C" comes the pressure to lead, create and guide—all while continuing to produce on the ice. It is safe to say that Ryan Callahan is in for the most pressure-filled season he has experienced thus far in his hockey career.
The Rangers and their fans hope he is up to the challenge and can guide this team into the uncharted waters of the Stanley Cup Finals.