Top 10 NHLers who must step up: East

Carey Price (left), Tyler Bozak (centre), and Jason Spezza (right) will need to step up next season. AP/CP
August 12, 2013, 11:18 AM

With the 2013-14 NHL season right around the corner, players who struggled last year will start with a clean slate. Moreover, It will be a chance to show their team and their fans that this past season was just a down year.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at 10 players from the Eastern Conference that need to step up their games in the coming season.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens may have won the Northeast Division and finished second in the Eastern Conference last season but it was not because of the play of their starting goaltender, Carey Price.

While Price finished the season with a 21-13-4 record, 2.59 GAA, .905 save percentage and three shutouts, the goaltender that played last season was not the same confident one that everyone is use to seeing in Montreal. Price allowed several soft goals, often found himself out of position and lacked focus.

This all came to a head in the post-season where Price was one of the main reasons the team was knocked out in the first round by the Ottawa Senators. In the playoffs, Price was 1-2 with a 3.26 GAA and a .894 save percentage while displaying the kind of goaltending that wouldn’t help any team win a round.

With Price’s old goalie coach Pierre Grouix gone and Stephane Waite hired as the new one, it will be up to the duo to reestablish his game and get in the right frame of mind for what is probably the toughest franchise to play for in all of hockey.

Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins

There is no doubt that Milan Lucic was terrific in the post-season for the Boston Bruins this past year.

The regular season, however, was a different story. In 46 games, Lucic had just seven goals and 20 assists for 27 points.

For someone who is a power forward and had scored a combined 56 goals the past two seasons, those numbers weren’t expected. Lucic is a player that needs to score goals and use the body to have success. Unfortunately, last season his team and their fans didn’t see to much of that.

Coming off a strong post-season and almost another Stanley Cup ring, do not be surprised if Lucic has a big 2013-14 season.

Marian Gaborik, Columbus Blue Jackets

For a player with a ton of offensive talent and goal-scoring ability, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Marian Gaborik is sure tough to figure out.

After scoring 41 goals and 76 points in the 2011-12 campaign, Gaborik scored just 27 points last season – 12 goals and 15 assists – that was split between the New York Rangers and Blue Jackets. It was a strange year for Gaborik, who scored just 19 points in 35 games with the Rangers and was then traded to the Blue Jackets at the deadline.

When he arrived in Columbus, Gaborik started playing like he did in 2011-12 as he racked up eight points – three goals and five assist – in 12 games and looked confident in his offensive abilities once again playing with old teammates Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Vinny Prospal.

With a clean slate on tap for Gaborik, don’t be surprised to see him get back to his point-producing ways this upcoming season.

Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils

With Ilya Kovalchuk out of the picture in New Jersey, someone is going to need to step up on offence in a big way for the Devils.

Travis Zajac has to be that guy for his hockey club. In a playoff-less season last year, Zajac had just 20 points – seven goals and 13 assists – in 48 games and was mostly unnoticed on the ice. He wasn’t the same player that had put up over 60 points in both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons and instead, played like someone that lacked the offensive punch needed to help his hockey club succeed.

While Zajac didn’t perform up to standards last season it might have been because he played in just 15 games the year before due to an Achilles injury, even though he did play well in the post-season. In the regular season, however, it was apparent that his legs and timing weren’t there, which might have contributed to his struggles.

Zajac will need to step up his game in a big way if he wants to help his club get into the playoffs in the upcoming season.

Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators

When Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza is healthy, there is no doubt that he is one of the best players in the game.

With that said, his health is always questionable. Spezza played just five games last year due to a back and knee injury. In limited action, however, Spezza had five points – two goals and three assists – as he continues to prove that when he is healthy and in the lineup, he can produce.

Not only is Spezza ready to prove that he is healthy, but he is also motivated because Team Canada did not invite him to their Olympic camp. Spezza should also feel inspired because with Daniel Alfredsson now a member of the Detroit Red Wings, the 30-year-old centre has a terrific opportunity to step into a bigger leadership role with the Senators.

With Spezza now healthy and raring to go for the upcoming season, one should expect him to have a great 2013-14 season.

Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes

With the Carolina Hurricanes not having made the post-season since 2008-09, it is obvious that someone besides Eric Staal and Cam Ward need to step up their game.

After struggling with just 24 points – 13 goals and 11 assists – in 42 games last season, Jeff Skinner needs to be that guy for his hockey club. Since bursting onto the scene with 63 points – 31 goals and 32 assists – in his Calder Trophy winning 2010-11 season, Skinner has since finished each of the last two seasons with 44 and 24 points, respectively, while also struggling with injuries.

For a 21-year-old, those numbers aren’t terrible. However, for a player with a six-year deal worth 34.4 million, those numbers don’t cut it.

For the Hurricanes to move forward as a franchise, Skinner needs to start producing more offensively this upcoming season.

Tyler Bozak, Toronto Maple Leafs

Playing in Toronto always comes with a lot of responsibility.

The pressure will be double for Tyler Bozak as the Leafs signed him in the off-season to a five-year deal worth $21 million. For a player that hasn’t cracked the 50-point mark once in his four seasons, that’s a lot of dough.

Even more peculiar is the fact that Bozak had just 28 points – 12 goals and 16 assists – in 46 games in the regular season last year and just two points – one goal and one assist – in five playoff games. While these numbers aren’t terrible, it’s not exactly the type of production that warrants a five-year deal.

With a new contract in hand and the pressure of the Leafs’ organization and fans expectations upon him, it will be up to Bozak to have a big year in 2013-14.

Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators

New Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan is usually a goal-scoring machine.

With the Anaheim Ducks last season, Ryan wasn’t that. In 46 games, Ryan had just 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points.

No one is quite sure why he slowed down but it could have been the fact that his name was constantly involved in trade rumors for the past two seasons. During the season that had to weigh on in his mind.

With Ryan’s future more secure than it was in Anaheim, look for Ryan to get his goal scoring back up in the 2013-14 season.

Drew Stafford, Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres might not know what direction they are going in as a franchise but one thing that is known is that forward Drew Stafford needs to step up his game.

Stafford clearly had an off year this past season. In 46 games, Stafford notched just six goals and had 12 assists for 18 points.

These numbers were a far cry from what Stafford did the previous two seasons. In 2010-11 and 2011-12 combined, Stafford scored 51 goals and added 51 assists for 102 points in 142 games.

For the Sabres to move forward next season, Stafford must be one of the players that steps up.

Brad Richards, New York Rangers

For someone who is being paid a lot of money to produce for the New York Rangers, Brad Richards sure played like he didn’t deserve his large contract.

While Richards had 34 points – 11 goals and 23 assists – in 46 games, he was often inconsistent, had trouble on the power play and simply didn’t display the offensive instincts that he was known for having. Throughout the season, Richards didn’t look confident, was hesitant with the puck and often didn’t know what role he was trying to fill under head coach John Tortorella.

Richards’s struggles continued in the post-season, where he was a healthy scratch for two games. In 10 post-season games during the 2012-13 playoffs, Richards had just one goal and was a minus three.

With the Rangers having decided to not buy out his contract in the offseason and a new head coach behind the bench in Alain Vigneault, Richards should come into the upcoming season ready to display the offence that has made him so successful throughout his career.

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