The Capitals are deep in talent but the standout remains Ovechkin, their captain, scoring leader and the league's most exciting forward. They're considered Stanley Cup contenders again this season but after coming up short in the 2010 playoffs, the pressure to improve will be considerable, especially for Ovechkin. Expect him to rise to the occasion.
Atlanta Thrashers – Chris Mason
A significant factor in the Thrashers' failure to make the playoffs last season was their inconsistent goaltending, which ranked 25th overall. Management hopes to have addressed this by signing Mason, who is coming off two solid years with St. Louis. The Thrashers have improved their roster depth for the upcoming season but won't be a playoff contender unless Mason provides strong goaltending.
Boston Bruins – Zdeno Chara
Last season, the Bruins struggled to follow up on their impressive '08-'09 performance, sliding to sixth in the Conference. If they're to return to contention for top spot in the East they'll need Chara, their captain and the 2009 Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman, to lead the way and return to Norris-contending form.
Buffalo Sabres – Ryan Miller
He was the main reason the Sabres made the playoff last season as his outstanding performance earned him the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltending. While the Sabres hope forwards Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy have strong performances and blueliner Tyler Myers avoids a sophomore slump this season, they'll need another standout performance from Miller to ensure a playoff berth.
Carolina Hurricanes – Cam Ward
Center Eric Staal is the Hurricanes captain and star forward, but their fortunes rise or fall on Ward's goaltending. He carried them to the Stanley Cup in 2006 and the Conference Final in 2009 but when he struggled through consistency issues or injury they miss the playoffs. Having overhauled their roster for this season with younger, affordable players the Hurricanes will need a healthy, focused Ward to be at this best.
Florida Panthers – David Booth
The Panthers rebuilding process enters its 10th season with few expecting them to make the playoffs. Their offense suffered last season (a woeful 28th overall) in part because Booth, a 31-goal scorer in 2008-09, missed most of the season with a concussion. The Panthers need a healthy Booth to have a career-best performance if they're to make any significant improvement.
Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price
Having shipped out last spring's goaltending hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis, Canadiens management have placed their faith in Price, whose stock has fallen since his promising rookie campaign of 2007-08. Having struggled over the past two years to meet heightened expectations, Price will now face the most intense scrutiny of his young career. His performance could make or break the Canadiens playoff hopes.
New Jersey Devils – Ilya Kovalchuk
The Devils gave up some promising players to acquire Kovalchuk last season then paid a heavy price in salary cap space and fines to finally re-sign him to a long-term contract this summer. The pressure will now be upon Kovalchuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer and former Richard Trophy winner, to prove his worth to the Devils and their fans as a franchise player.
New York Islanders – John Tavares
He had a good debut last season leading the Isles with 54 points but also struggled in the second half, which cost him a shot at winning rookie of the year honors. Tavares has considerable promise as an offensive star but must avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump" this season for the Islanders to have a realistic chance to stay in the playoff chase.
New York Rangers – Marian Gaborik
It was an expensive gamble by the Rangers signing the injury-prone Gaborik in 2009 to an expensive long-term contract but last season he rewarded them with a career-best 86-point performance in 76 games. It remains to be seen if the Rangers can make the playoffs next spring but if Gaborik can match or exceed last season's play it should boost their chances.
Ottawa Senators – Jason Spezza
Disgruntled Senators fans made Spezza the scapegoat for the team's early playoff exit last spring resulting in a summer of trade speculation. It would be foolish for the Senators to move him as they won't get comparable value in return. A healthier season with a return to the 90-point form of 2006 and 2008 would silence his critics and bolster the Senators' playoff hopes.
Philadelphia Flyers – Mike Richards
His performance last spring leading the Flyers into the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final went a long way toward bolstering Richards' reputation as a leader and strong two-way forward. Expectations for the Flyers will be very high this season but with captain Richards to lead the way on and off the ice, they stand a good chance of repeating as Cup contenders.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Sidney Crosby
The Penguins' captain was not only their best player last season but was co-winner of the Richard Trophy as the league's top goal-scorer with Tampa's Steven Stamkos. The Penguins are blessed with two superstar forwards in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but this is definitely Crosby's team and they'll look to him to lead another quest for the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Steven Stamkos
Last season, Stamkos overcame his disappointing debut in 2008-09 by leading the Lightning in scoring with a 51-goal, 95-point performance plus was co-winner of the Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. Veterans Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier remain the team leaders but young Stamkos is now their most important scorer.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Phil Kessel
Although Kessel was the Maple Leafs leading scorer last season (30 goals, 55 points), many Toronto fans remain critical of management trading two first round picks to Boston to acquire him last fall. The Leafs will need Kessel to step it up offensively this season to not only end their six-year playoff absence but also prove his detractors wrong.