One Burning Question for Each of the NHL's 21 Best Players
The first month of the 2011-12 NHL season is quickly coming to a close, and already, several storylines have emerged. There's the Washington Capitals' undefeated streak, the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup hangover, the emergence of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins continuing to win as Sidney Crosby remains out of the lineup.
In the Western Conference, everyone is looking to see if the Columbus Blue Jackets will ever be a contender and how Mike Richards will do in his first year in Los Angeles. Oh, yeah, and how in the heck did the Dallas Stars get into the top spot in the West?
Although there are many great themes surrounding different teams, the NHL's best players also have questions surrounding them, and this slideshow will attempt to answer those.
Here is one question pertaining to each of the league's 22 best players. I tried to include as many stars as I could, but if you feel I left someone out, let me know which payer it is and what question you'd like to see answered about them during the season.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
The question: When will he be back in the lineup?
Until this question is answered, we can't determine anything else about Crosby's 2011-12 season, so let's just start with this one.
Crosby has already been cleared to participate in contact practices, but recently, it was reported that the Penguins practices have not had enough contact for Crosby to get a real workout in. This is because the Penguins' heavy schedule has not allowed for a lot of tough skates and has been limited to game-day practices.
As Crosby explained in The Hockey News article linked above:
"There needs to be times and situations, and we haven't gotten a lot of those lately with our schedule. As things go on, we'll get more and more time and hopefully get a better feel for where I'm at as far as contact is concerned."
Hopefully sooner rather than later, we will know when Crosby will finally suit up and get back into game action.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
The question: Can he lead the Capitals to playoff success?
While the Capitals have had outstanding regular seasons in recent years, winning the last four Southeast Division titles, they have floundered in the playoffs.
Since Bruce Boudreau has taken over the Capitals bench, the Caps have not gotten further than the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 2010, they blew a 3-1 series lead in the quarterfinals with the Montreal Canadiens, and last year, they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the semifinals.
It's hard to pin this on Ovechkin, though, as he does produce in the postseason. Last year, he had 10 points in nine playoff games.
However, he has already been captain for two postseason runs. Sooner or later, his legacy as a captain will begin to form, and part of that will be how far Washington gets or doesn't get in the playoffs.
Will this be the year he steps up and helps the Caps overcome their demons? Can he get playoff underperformers like Nicklas Backstrom to raise their game in April?
Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Ducks
The question: Can he keep producing at a high level?
Selanne had knee surgery this past offseason and debated whether to return to Anaheim for one more year. In September, he announced on a video in the Ducks website that he agreed to another contract.
Last year, he had 80 points in 73 games, rebounding after a 2009-10 campaign that saw him post 48 points when limited to 54 games because of injuries.
So far this season, he has three goals and six points in eight games. He is scoring 0.75 points a game, so if he keeps on that pace, he could put up 55 points. That is a respectable total for a player of Selanne's caliber who is now in the twilight of his career.
However, he has not played a full season since 2006-07, the year the Ducks won the Stanley Cup. So a second question might be, can he stay healthy enough to keep putting up points?
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
The question: Will this be his last NHL season?
Even at 41 years old, Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom can still produce at a high level. Last season, he was second among NHL defensemen in scoring, posting 62 points.
He is a four-time Stanley Cup winner, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner (he has won four of the last six Norris Trophies) and a 12-time NHL All-Star. He is also a member of the Triple Gold Club, reserved for players who have won a Stanley Cup, a World Championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Still, though, Lidstrom is not taking his decision to retire lightly. He did not re-sign until he was sure he had the "motivation and commitment to come back."
He also does not think too far into the future, so don't expect this decision anytime soon. As he told The Detroit News in the above article this past summer:
"At this stage in my career, I have to be motivated. I have to be having fun. That's why I'm taking it year by year, to be sure I am motivated, and that I am playing at a high level."
Lidstrom has four points in seven games to start this year. As long as he is having fun playing, NHL fans are having fun watching him. His retirement plans will no doubt be talked about this year, and it will be a sad day when he holds the press conference to announce he is hanging up his skates, whether that happens this summer or another year from now.
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils
The question: Can he stay healthy enough to help the Devils back to the playoffs?
No matter his age, Martin Brodeur is arguably the greatest goalie of this generation. He has three Stanley Cups, multiple Vezina Trophies, Olympic medals and numerous NHL and Devils franchise records.
But Brodeur's career is winding down, and with his age comes increasing injury problems. Last year, he played in just 56 games because of injuries, and he posted a losing record of 23-26-3 with a .903 save percentage and 2.45 GAA.
On top of that, the Devils had a poor season overall and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Brodeur finds himself back on the injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Before going down, he had yet to get his first win and had a .900 save percentage and 3.00 GAA.
In his absence, backup goaltender Johan Hebderg has been remarkable. He has a 4-1-1 record and is fifth in the NHL in wins, while his .937 save percentage is ranked eighth and his 1.86 GAA is 10th. However, Hedberg is 38 years old and also not getting any younger.
Brodeur needs to get healthy if the Devils want to be in the postseason once again, and he also needs to improve his totals. While he won't be the Marty of the 1990s and early 2000s again, his services are still the backbone of the Devils squad.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
The question: Will he lead the Lightning in scoring again?
Stamkos led the Bolts in scoring during his 2009-10 sophomore season, when he finished with 95 points and also won the Rocket Richard Trophy after posting 51 goals.
Last season, he was second with 91 points behind veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who had 99 points. These are not terrible numbers by any means, but it is curious to see if Stamkos can overtake the scoring lead.
So far, he is tied for third on the team with seven points and is currently scoring 0.78 points per game. If this number stays the same, he is good for at least 63 points. But he has scored 0.95 points per game for his career, so expect his points total to be higher than that.
As St. Louis and team captain Vincent Lecavalier continue to age, expect Stamkos to continue to contend for the top scoring spot. Because really, do you think that current Bolts scoring-leader Marc-Andre Bergeron will stay there all season?
I didn't think so.
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings
The question: How can he win the Selke Trophy again?
Datsyuk won three straight Selke Trophies from 2008 through 2010. He was limited to 56 games last year due to injuries, but still posted 59 points (over a point per game) and a plus-11 rating. However, his shortened season caused him to lose the award to Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks.
So far, Datsyuk has five points and a minus-two rating in seven games. He has been a point-per-game scorer in four of the last five seasons.
All he needs to do to take home the award again is stick to his game and stay healthy, as well as keep the Red Wings in playoff contention. But the last item on that list really shouldn't be a problem.
Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
The question: Will he cool off this year?
Last year, Perry had a monster season, winning the Rocket Richard after posting 50 goals, and he also had 98 points. Perry has improved every season he's been in the NHL.
At the NHL Awards last year, Perry's performance also earned him the Hart Trophy for the NHL MVP.
The Ducks forward currently has five points in eight games, and is tied for second on the Ducks in scoring with Ryan Getzlaf. He also has two power-play goals and two game-winning goals, the latter of which is third in the NHL.
While Perry had an outstanding season last year, there's a good chance his numbers could drop. However, if he already had 98 points, who's to say he can't get 100?
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
The question: Which direction will his play trend towards?
In 2009-10, Thomas went 17-18-8 for the Bruins and was replaced as starting goalie by Tuukka Rask. Rask went 22-12-5 with five shutouts and posted a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage.
But last year, Thomas won his starting job back on his way to a Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup. He put up a record of 35-11-9 with nine shutouts, and he had a .938 save percentage and 2.00 GAA.
So far, Boston has struggled with the Stanley Cup hangover, as they are 3-5 with six points and sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference. Thomas has a .926 save percentage and 2.15 GAA, but he has a record of just 3-3.
Rask, meanwhile, has yet to win a game this year, so right now, he is not a threat towards Thomas' starting job.
Still, Thomas will need to be just as responsible for helping the Bruins get back on the right track. He has to get his play trending towards last year's outstanding season and prevent it from going towards a backup role.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes
The question: Can he overtake Eric Staal for the team scoring lead?
Carolina team captain Staal has led the 'Canes in scoring in three of the last five seasons, including a 100-point season in 2005-06.
Last year, Jeff Skinner finished second to Staal in scoring with 63 points. He is currently sixth in the NHL with 10 points in nine games, and he has 1.11 points per game. If he keeps that pace, he can tally 91 points.
Staal has struggled out of the gate and has five points in nine games for 0.55 points per game. The lowest he could finish with is 45 points. It's worth noting that he regressed in 2009 and 2010 before bouncing back last year with 76 points.
If Staal's struggles continue, Skinner could very well be on top of the 'Canes scoring chart by the end of the season.
Brad Richards, New York Rangers
The question: How will he perform in the first year of his contract?
Richards was the biggest free agent of the 2011 offseason and was courted by several teams. However, he made the decision to sign a nine-year contract with the Rangers.
Richards comes to New York City with high expectations, as this is a young team looking to earn a prominent spot in the playoff discussion. They currently sit in 10th place in the East and have a 3-2-2 record for eight points.
This year, Richards' biggest challenge will be staying healthy, as he missed 10 games last year with a concussion. The closest he has played to a full season in recent years was when he played 80 games in 2009-10. He last played 82 games in 2006-07.
So far, he has five points in seven games and is tied with Ruslan Fedotenko for the team scoring lead. He has the potential to have a third straight 50-point season, and he will need to meet or better that mark to prove that this was a wise signing.
Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
The question: Will this be the year he is traded?
Despite having a no-trade clause in his contract (which he has said he is willing to waive) and the Calgary Flames stating they will not trade their franchise face, the buzz has not quieted down. It is probably going to heat up again, as the Flames are currently 2-4-1 for 14th place in the Western Conference.
Iginla is under contract until 2013 and is making $7 million a year. At 34 years old, he can still produce, as last year, he had 86 points in 82 games for 1.05 points per game. This season, he is currently third in scoring with three points in seven games.
However, with limited other talent on the Flames, Iginla probably wants to get a Stanley Cup soon. It probably will not happen in Calgary, so despite what has been said in the past, this could end up being the year he is moved to a contender.
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
The question: Will he bounce back from rookie year injury?
Hall was one of the brightest rookies of the 2010-11 season, but he sprained his ankle late last season and ended his season after 65 games. Still, he finished for second in scoring on the Oilers with 42 points.
This year, he is currently tied for second on the team in scoring, as he has seven points in seven games. He also leads Edmonton with a plus-five, which is already an improvement on his minus-nine rating from last season.
Hall already appears to be back on track, and he is ready to help other young stars in Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lead the Oilers to prominence.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
The question: Can he lead Chicago back to playoff success?
Toews was a big part of the Hawks' Stanley Cup Finals run in 2010. He had 29 points in 22 games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as Chicago won their first title in 49 years.
Last year, the Hawks were dismantled due to salary cap issues and lost several key players from the championship team. They went into the playoffs as an eighth seed and nearly came back from a 3-0 series deficit against the Vancouver Canucks. However, they lost in overtime of Game 7 of that Western Conference quarterfinals series.
Despite the early elimination, Toews was tied for third in playoff scoring with four points in seven games.
This year, the Hawks have reloaded their team. Key players like Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith remain. Chicago went out and added veterans Sean O'Donnell, Steve Montador and Andrew Brunette while signing goaltender Corey Crawford to a new contract. They also have emerging talents in Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg.
Currently, Chicago sits in second place in the Western Conference with a 5-1-2 record for 12 points. They are in a good position to get a high playoff seed, and Toews will be a part of that, as he already has six points in eight games. Look for the Hawks to once again make the playoffs and get past the first round.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
The question: Will he live up to his new contract?
Doughty was in contract negotiations with the Kings all summer before agreeing to a new eight-year contract in September. At just 21 years old, he has established himself as a face of the emerging franchise and a top defenseman.
However, Doughty has missed the Kings' last four games with an injury. Before he went down, he had one assist in four games and was fourth on the team with 21:03 of ice time. He was also fifth with 2:41 of ice time on the power play and sixth with 1:52 on the penalty kill. He had seven hits to rank seventh on the team.
Doughty will be counted on to help Los Angeles to more playoff success. The team has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the last two years, and as they gain more experience and develop their skills, expectations will be higher.
In order to prove he was worth a big contract, Doughty will need to get healthy and remain a top defenseman. His points totals dropped last year, as he had 40 points. While that is still respectable, he will need to improve on them.
Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
The question: Can he be a leader for the struggling Canucks?
Kesler won the Selke Trophy last year after posting 73 points and a plus-24 rating. His performance helped the Canucks win the Presidents' Trophy and the Western Conference championship, as well as go to the Stanley Cup Finals.
This year, he missed the Canucks' first few games after recovering from hip surgery, missing regular-season games for the first time since 2007-08. In four games since returning, he has posted two points and a plus-one rating.
Despite the fact that the Sedin twins once again lead the team in scoring (Daniel has 12 points, while Henrik has 11), Vancouver is off to a slow start. They sit at ninth in the West with a record of 4-4-1.
Kesler will need to find his stride if Vancouver is once again going to be a contender in the West. Will the injury affect him too greatly, or is he up to the challenge?
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers
The question: Where will he finish in scoring?
Nugent-Hopkins was the first overall pick of the Oilers in this year's draft and made the squad out of training camp.
He is part of a young Edmonton forward group that is looking to help the team get back into the playoff discussion. He has gotten off to a strong start, as he is leading the team with eight points in eight games. Should he continue to score a point per game, he can have 82 points on the year.
Taylor Hall, discussed in an earlier slide, also has a point per game, meaning he could tie Nugent-Hopkins for the team lead. Jordan Eberle, who led Edmonton in scoring last season, is on pace for 71 points.
Even if Edmonton doesn't crack the postseason this year, it will be fun to see which of these young talents is the Oilers' leading scorer, and Nugent-Hopkins is definitely a part of that discussion.
Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers
The question: What kind of captain will he be for the Flyers?
Pronger was named the Flyers team captain before this season after Mike Richards was traded to Los Angeles. He is a strong choice for the role, as he also captained the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks during his career. He was a 2006 Stanley Cup finalist with Edmonton and won the Cup with the Ducks in 2007.
However, Pronger turned 37 earlier this year and missed 32 games last year with injuries. He is also currently out of the lineup with an eye injury suffered when he got hit in the face with a stick. Still, before going down, he had seven points through eight games.
If Pronger can come back strong from this injury and do what he can to lead the Flyers while he is off the ice, he will no doubt be a good captain. The Flyers are still looking to break a long Stanley Cup drought, and he has success in that area.
But there is also a concern that Pronger is getting too old and injury-prone to be an effective player. He will need to keep up his production when he returns to silence those critics.
John Tavares, New York Islanders
The question: Can he continue improving his point totals?
Tavares, the first overall pick for the Islanders in the 2009 draft, has led the team in scoring in each of the last two seasons. He had 54 points in his rookie year in 2009-10 and followed that up with 67 points last year.
So far, he has 10 points through the team's first seven games and is sixth in the league in scoring. He is also fourth with six goals. At over a point per game, Tavares has the potential to have 100 points this season. It's too hard to say if he can actually reach that point, but look for Tavares to keep improving and set new career highs in both goals and points.
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
The question: Can he step up when under pressure?
Roberto Luongo is a solid regular-season goalie, as he has earned three Vezina nominations throughout his career and helped the Canucks to regular-season division and conference championships. Last year, he had his sixth straight 30-win season while posting a .928 save percentage and 2.11 GAA.
However, he has folded in the playoffs and can't seem to get the job done when the stakes are high. During the postseason last year, he was pulled more than once in favor of backup Cory Schneider, who has starting netminder potential.
This year, the Canucks have faltered out of the gate, and Luongo is partially to blame. He is 2-3-1 with a .868 save percentage and 3.45 GAA.
Schneider, meanwhile, has fared better when called upon. His 2-2 record is accompanied by a .927 save percentage and 1.97 GAA.
It's unlikely that Luongo will be dumped in favor of Schneider, but he needs to rise to the occasion and get the Canucks out of this slump. The pressure is on, so this will be a good time for him to play like a dominant goalie and get into a playoff mentality. That way, he won't be so off guard when April rolls around.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
The question: How will he recover from his injury struggles?
During his last healthy season in 2008-09, Malkin finished the year with 113 points and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in the playoffs. He had 36 points in 24 games as the Penguins won their third Stanley Cup in team history.
But in the last two years, Malkin has missed significant time due to injuries. As a result, his production has dropped. He had 37 points in 43 games last year, but tore his ACL in February and missed the rest of the regular season and the postseason.
Malkin started the season in the Penguins lineup, but he missed seven games after complaining of soreness in his injured knee. He returned to action on Tuesday against the Islanders, but went scoreless. He has four points in four games this year.
Will Malkin return to the dominant player he was in 2009, or have injuries forever affected his future with the Pens? Can he put his issues with injuries behind him long enough to answer this question?