10 players under pressure to prove their worth this season

The Calgary Flames have set the bar high after making several key acquisitions in the off-season, Irfaan Gaffar explains.

As training camps officially open around the league, so too begins the slowly building pressure for many NHLers to earn their place, prove they should remain, or beef up their next contract.

For a number of players, the stakes are as high this season as they’ll ever be, with 2017-18 serving as a much-needed shot at redemption for some, and a chance to secure a better future for others.

That being the case, let’s look at the top 10 players in need of a big showing this season:

1. Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames
Sam Bennett‘s agent entered the off-season in a supremely difficult position. How do you negotiate a new deal for a young star – the highest draft pick in his club’s history – fresh off a mediocre sophomore season, on a team overflowing with young talent and Stanley Cup hopes? The result was a bridge deal of two years at $1.95 million per season.

It came on the heels of Leon Draisaitl, picked one spot above Bennett in the 2014 draft, earning a hefty $68-million extension. Obviously there’s plenty of contextual factors affecting that discrepancy, but still, the gap is significant. Now with two years to prove he’s as promising as Calgary’s other youngsters – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk – it’s time for Bennett to show the Flames what his ceiling is.

2. Rick Nash, New York Rangers
Once considered one of the most talented offensive contributors in the game, Rick Nash‘s stock has fallen over the years. Despite posting the best goal-scoring season of his career just a few years ago (42 tallies in 2014-15), Nash has seen his name pop up in trade rumours over the course of his time in New York. Entering a contract year set to potentially end with unrestricted free agency, it’s up to Nash to show the rest of the league that he’s still at the top of his game, and deserves to be paid as such.

3. Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres
Evander Kane‘s NHL career has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. While the Vancouver native has certainly had his ups and downs, he managed to right the ship somewhat with a strong 2016-17 effort, posting 28 goals and 43 points in just 70 games. Those totals were Kane’s highest since his career-best 2011-12 campaign, the only in which he’s reached 30 goals. Entering the final year of his current deal, Kane is playing for a new contract in 2017-18. The central issue? Last season marked the first time in his career that he was healthy and productive enough to post 20 or more goals in back-to-back years. If he gets sidetracked once again, his next contract will likely take a hit.

4. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Speaking of the previously mentioned Draisaitl, that weighty new deal doesn’t come without increased expectations. He impressed with a dominant 77-point effort in 2016-17, but still some aren’t completely sold on the young forward. First some argued he enjoyed a ‘Taylor Hall bump’ and in 2016-17 that transitioned into the ‘Connor McDavid bump.’ Exactly how much Draisaitl’s linemates are owed for his production is unclear, but the stakes regarding that discussion are now much higher. It was all well and good when Draisaitl was earning a rookie paycheque. Now with his cap hit just a few short steps from Sidney Crosby’s, the onus is on Draisaitl to silence his doubters and live up to his price tag.

5. James Neal, Vegas Golden Knights
Though he was for a time considered one of the game’s top pure snipers, James Neal has now been handed off by three separate NHL clubs. Those weren’t teams looking to offload talent for rebuilding purposes either, but rather, teams in need of quality scoring who didn’t see Neal as a talent they could keep on the roser. This time around, he’ll enter the season as his club’s unequivocal top offensive threat. If he can prove he’s able to carry the mail, and perhaps even take on a clear leadership role, Neal can rewrite the narrative surrounding his NHL tenure thus far.

6. Kyle Turris, Ottawa Senators
Centreman Kyle Turris has transitioned from an underrated prospect in the desert to a bona fide top-line pivot in Ottawa, and the time has come for him to cash in on that transformation. Entrenched as the Senators’ No. 1 centre, Turris is owed a hefty raise on his current $3.5 million-per-year price tag and he’ll get it soon enough as unrestricted free agency hits after this season. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said he plans to talk with Turris’ agent before the season begins, so perhaps the situation will wrap up quickly. Don’t forget, Turris is no stranger to getting his due, as he showed during the lengthy holdout that led to his trade to Ottawa. If negotiations last through the season, Turris has to prove he’s worthy of an elite scorer’s contract.

7. Mike Smith, Calgary Flames
For all that’s been going on outside the Scotiabank Saddledome, the Flames’ on-ice future seems secure and full of promise. Progressing well in both ends of the rink, the Flames look poised to continue rising in 2017-18, with the addition of defender Travis Hamonic leading some to wonder if Calgary can become one of the best in the west. The X-factor is goaltender Mike Smith, who takes over the No. 1 job from fellow veteran Brian Elliott. Smith has been a top-tier netminder in this league, but he enters 2017-18 35 years old, behind a defensive corps he’s never played with. As Calgary continues to push for a step forward, the pressure will be on Smith to not be a weak link on a strong squad.

8. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks
Fresh off a career-best 52-point campaign, Bo Horvat has taken the reins on the Vancouver Canucks’ future. The 22-year-old managed to finish last season as the first non-Sedin to lead the Canucks in scoring in over a decade, and he earned a hefty $33-million contract for his efforts. Though Daniel and Henrik Sedin look to be staying in the mix for the near future, it’s clear to all that the club is slowly becoming Horvat’s team. Before that can truly happen, the young pivot must show the Vancouver faithful that he has the consistency to be the team’s leader when the post-Sedins era arrives.

9. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
After all the fireworks, David Pastrnak remains a Boston Bruin. The standout Czech winger finally reached an agreement with his club on Thursday, signing a six-year deal paying him $6.67 million per season. Now the real work begins. While Pastrnak posted a dominant 2016-17 stat line (34 goals, 70 points), he’s yet to prove he can be a consistent threat in the big leagues. Doing it once is impressive, doing it again, after everyone’s adjusted and studied your tendencies, is the true path to superstardom. He’s now the third-highest paid forward on the Bruins roster, and earning more than Brad Marchand, who’s also only just entering the first year of his new extension. After everything that went down, Pastrnak has to prove he was worth the fuss.

10. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
Of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ three standout rookies, William Nylander‘s contract situation is undoubtedly the most intriguing. Auston Matthews is going to get his top-of-the-line deal, and the way Mitch Marner is trending, he’ll be in line for a big-ticket contract as well. But Nylander is a different beast. His place in the lineup seems slightly more tenuous and, more importantly, the timing of his new deal doesn’t line up. While Matthews and Marner will head into restricted free agency together just like past star duos, Nylander is entering the final year of his contract this season. It’s on him to hit that next level and, in doing so, show the Leafs brass just how high his ceiling is.

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