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Key players, brass face increasing pressure to produce

by | Staff Writer

Ales Kotalik has been something of a surprise this preseason for the Calgary Flames, putting in a couple of goals already for a team that had the league's second-worst offense last season. Funny thing is the Flames did everything they could to get rid of him this summer, including waiving him and letting him shop for a Russian team.

Kotalik, 31, actually showed some flashes of a scoring touch early in his career with Buffalo, but has faded in the past few seasons. After the Flames acquired Kotalik in a deadline trade last season, he was as much of a bust in Calgary as he was in New York.

Ales Kotalik scored just 11 goals in 71 games with the Flames and Rangers last season. (Getty Images)  
Ales Kotalik scored just 11 goals in 71 games with the Flames and Rangers last season. (Getty Images)  
But Kotalik still has two more years and $6 million on his deal, so he's still around, he says with an "I'll show them" attitude.

"You have to have it," Kotalik told Calgary media over the weekend. "It's not easy to come from a tough season and hearing all the things -- mostly from you guys -- like 'Is he capable to play in the NHL still? Is he good enough?' That drives you. You want to prove to everyone who lost that trust in you, that's wrong."

The question though is whether Kotalik will prove that once the games are for real. It's the pressure he faces to continue his career on this side of the ocean, but it goes with the territory not only for some players, but for coaches and GMs as well.

Here's a look at a dozen individuals who will be under the gun this season.

Carey Price: Few NHL players -- maybe none -- feel the kind of heat a Montreal Canadiens goalie does. Ask Patrick Roy. But Price might have it worse right now than any of Montreal's legends because few fans seem to have any faith in him. It doesn't help that the guy he pushed out took away his job first and then was a playoff superhero. Price may be the organization's golden boy and he's only 23, but GM Pierre Gauthier really needs him to live up to his expectations after trading away Jaroslav Halak. He had better pray harder because Price doesn't seem to be dealing with the pressure well. He looked awful in his first two preseason starts.

Ilya Kovalchuk: His free-agency saga lingered all summer and ended with the best player ever to be available through the process staying put and getting a nine-figure contract to boot. Now Kovalchuk has to prove he was worth the effort. For him, that will require more than just the 40 or so goals he should score. Now Kovalchuk has to be a difference maker on a team that has some real talent but has been unable to make enough out of it. The Devils are as good as it gets during regular season, averaging more than 100 points since the lockout and winning four division titles. But New Jersey hasn't been beyond the second round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003, and the Devils have been bounced in the past three opening rounds. Now they've invested $100 million in Kovalchuk and everyone is expecting a big return.

Roberto Luongo: Barring some sort of unforeseen disaster, Vancouver will make the playoffs this season. But that won't be enough for the Canucks, who have legitimate visions of a Stanley Cup. More important, the Canucks believe their path has widened this season as long as their franchise goalie holds up his end of the bargain. Luongo is still talked about as one of the real elites in the league but he looked vulnerable for Team Canada in the Olympics and hasn't lived up to his billing for the Canucks in the playoffs. He'll have to this season.

Joe Thornton: His San Jose Sharks have been the league's biggest dud since the lockout, looking like a team that could win the Stanley Cup each season and then finding a way to fall short. Thornton has taken some heat for that because of his playoff performances, although he had several impressive moments last spring before the Sharks were swept out of the Western Conference finals. There were suggestions that San Jose might overhaul things, yet the most significant changes were the departure of goalie Evgeni Nabokov and the retirement of defenseman Rob Blake. Patrick Marleau was even re-signed to a long-term deal. Thornton will be looking for one as well when his contract expires after the season. Another disappointing ending for his team won't help him get it.

Dion Phaneuf: Nobody has talked about him in Norris Trophy terms lately, unlike the first couple of years of his career when he was considered a shoe-in to win the best defenseman award in the future. Phaneuf is still only 25 and getting a fresh start away from Calgary. Unfortunately, he's in Toronto, where the long-suffering Leafs are looking for a foundation defenseman to build around. Phaneuf has shown the talent to be that guy in the past, but he has to get there again. And he'll have to do it as the new captain of the Leafs, which means the scrutiny will be even heavier. The natives are getting restless.

Alexander Frolov: He's 28, which means he's in the prime of his career, and Frolov has socred 30 goals twice for Los Angeles and more than 20 three other times. Still, the Kings didn't think he was worth re-signing. Apparently a lot of teams agreed and Frolov lingered on the open market until late July, when the offense-starved Rangers signed him to a one-year deal. Frolov is a talented player but he doesn't always show up and the Kings got tired of his act. New York is desperate so Frolov will get plenty of chances to strut his stuff. If he doesn't, the NHL part of his career could be over.

Taylor Hall: It's not fair to put the figurative weight of the world on an 18-year-old's shoulders, but Hall gets it by default in his first year with the Oilers. Edmonton is coming off a miserable season, the worst in franchise history, but the Oilers landed Hall with the first overall pick last June as a result. Anyone who has seen highlights of him has seen an electrifying game-breaker who was the MVP of the past two Memorial Cup junior championship tournaments. The Oilers have a couple of other hot-shot rookies named Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi who have been exciting folks in training camp, but the spotlight is going to be on Hall. He's the guy expected to be the latest in a line of franchise-changing post-lockout first overalls like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos.

Martin Havlat: No one expected Havlat to completely fill the void Marian Gaborik left in Minnesota last summer, but when a money-conscious team like the Wild steps up with $30 million, it expects more than 14 goals. That's about half of what Minnesota was expecting, particularly since Havlat was slated for the top line and plenty of power-play time. He got that, didn't produce and ended up with a team-worst minus-19. The bright side for Havlat is that his deal still has five years to go.

Jaroslav Halak: OK, so there won't be anywhere near the scrutiny in St. Louis for Halak, but lots of eyes around the league will be trained on him to see if he was a flash in the pan. Halak took the Canadiens further than they should have gone by stealing series against Washington and Pittsburgh, but his departure was inevitable because of the organization's mindset. Thing is Halak made out very well, get the best contract of any free-agent goalie and a clear distinction as the No. 1 for the Blues. St. Louis has some good young talent that has been coming together in the past couple of seasons and expects to take a big step forward in this one. Halak has to be a key part of that.

Ron Wilson: You get the feeling that the Leafs coach's job is safe as long as Brian Burke is the GM. And since Burke isn't going anywhere, Wilson might not either. But this will be the third full year of their time together in Toronto, and so far little visible progress has been made. Burke has made some real upgrades in the past eight months, all of them with an eye to creating the kind of team that won the Stanley Cup with in 2007 in Anaheim. The offense still needs work, but on paper, Toronto is a lot better in goal, along the blue line and even up front than it was at the start of last season. If the Leafs don't get to the playoffs, or at least seriously contend for a spot, Burke might not be able to protect Wilson any more.

Randy Carlyle: He was Burke's guy in Anaheim and may end up working for him again one day in Toronto. In the meantime, Carlyle will be in a tough spot with the Ducks this season as the franchise goes through its biggest transformation since the lockout. Carlyle, a one-time Norris Trophy winner, led the Ducks to the 2007 Cup when he had Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin on the blue line. But they're all gone now. Anaheim is rebuilding, going young and trying to stay competitive in the West, where several teams have a jump on them with their youth movements. Usually that involves changing the coach at some point.

Darryl Sutter: It's not hard to find people who are amazed that Sutter is still the GM in Calgary. The family gets cut a lot of slack in Alberta -- no one there really batted an eye when he hired brother Brent to coach last season -- but Sutter's player moves in the post-lockout era have made for a lot of head scratching around the league. Maybe that's because the Flames seem like a vastly overrated team, riding on memories of a Stanley Cup Finals trip in 2004. But the Flames went down in the next four first rounds and didn't make the playoffs last season. Unless things improve quickly, Sutter might not last.


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