With a brand new National Hockey League season around the corner, it's time to take a final look back at last season before we wipe it from our memories completely.
The Los Angeles Kings proved their worth as a legitimate threat to be the first dynasty of the "New NHL" era, and will be looking to repeat this year while capturing their third Stanley Cup in four years.
Teams will be placing a big target on the backs of the Kings - Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim and San Jose are all Western powerhouses looking to knock the Kings off their perch as rulers of the West, while Boston, Pittsburgh, New York and Montreal will battle it out for the right to reclaim the Eastern Conference's former glory as the superior conference.
While the teams as a whole present interesting story lines in their own right, what about the players who ruled the headlines throughout the regular season? Some were in the headlines for the wrong reasons - be it injuries, off-ice issues, or the like - while others flourished and grabbed national attention through impressive on-ice performance and substantial improvements in the developments as professional hockey players.
The players featured on this list wowed us with incredible finishes to last season - goal scorers who got in the zone, play-makers who we're setting up their teammates at will, and goaltenders who could not be beaten by even the best of scoring chances. The challenge for those players then becomes: can they carry that momentum into next season? For the fans, teammates, coaches and management of these players, the hope remains that these players can not only replicate the way they finished last season, but also improve upon the impressive numbers they put up during crunch time of the regular season.
These players could make or break the fate of their teams' playoff chances in 2014-2015, so they will no doubt be worth following all season long.
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20 Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
Jakub Voracek sneaks onto the list at #20 for a couple of reasons. For one, his offensive talent is undeniable. Combine that with good size and speed, and you've got a prototypical power forward with a dash of flair to his game. Voracek hasn't always been consistent, though - and while he's been mostly frustrating, he did finish off last season at a good clip, chipping in 22 points in the last 23 games of the season to finish with a solid 62 points. If Voracek can match that total (or better, improve upon it), the Flyers offense will be in good shape.
19 Thomas Vanek, Minnesota Wild
Thomas Vanek rode the Montreal roller coaster of emotion last spring - you might even say he did so throughout the entire season. Getting traded twice will do that to you, and while he struggled during his first few games with the Habs, he caught fire during to end the regular season, finishing up with 15 points in 18 regular season games with the Habs. His playoff performance left a lot to be desired, but expect Vanek to come out of the gates flying knowing that he can play out this season without worrying about getting traded for the foreseeable future.
18 Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens
Max Pacioretty was arguably on a roll for the entire 2013-2014 season. After a slow start (perhaps not aided by David Desharnais' similarly woeful debut to the season), Pacioretty became a goal-scoring machine. It only got better when the aforementioned Thomas Vanek joined the team at the trade deadline - Pacioretty finished the year with 23 points in his final 23 games. While he won't be able to surprise anyone anymore, Pacioretty has looked good in the preseason and will have the added motivation of essentially auditioning for the Canadiens vacant captaincy.
17 Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
It's no surprise to ever hear the name "Crosby" and "hot-streak" in the same sentence. Crosby spent the last quarter of the seasoning widening the gap between himself and those chasing him in the scoring race. He finished the regular season with 26 points (eight of those were goals) in his final 22 games as Pittsburgh ran away with the Metropolitan division. The Pens are being heavily scrutinized after a lackluster playoff performance and a complete organizational overhaul during the off-season, so expect Crosby to start the season with a chip on his shoulder in an attempt to silence those who question his status as the league's best player.
16 Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins
Patric Hornqvist will be an intriguing name to watch this season. For the first time in his career, he'll have the luxury to not only play on an offensive minded team, but he'll get to do it with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. That bodes well for a guy who's managed to pot 20 goals four times on a Nashville team led by defensive-minded Barry Trotz. Hornqvist finished last season with 12 goals and 23 points in his final 22 games - expect those numbers to continue.
15 Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars
After a disappointing year for the Ottawa Senators, it was clear that Jason Spezza was not going to remain in the Canadian capital for another season. Spezza was clearly frustrated with the lack of success and the direction the team was going in. Now, the nifty center will get a chance to revitalize his career in Dallas, with a team that is on the upswing. He won't be the focal point of the offense, as team's will be focusing on shutting down Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn first. That'll open the door for Spezza to build the end of last season, where he put up 21 points in his last 21 games. If Spezza gets anywhere near a point a game pace, the Stars will be a legitimate dark-horse threat in the West.
14 Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
If you're Canadian, you'll get the reference:
"YOU'RE THE NUMBER ONE COP ON THE FORCE, BOBROVSKY"
Jay Onrait's classic "Bobrovsky!" calls are stuff of legend north of the border, and while Bobrovsky may not have a future in law enforcement, he certainly fit the billing as the number one goalie of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He carried the Jackets to a playoff berth, posting a 12-6-2 record with a sparkling 2.13 GAA and .932 save percentage in his final 21 games of the regular season. Bobrovsky goes into the season as a Vezina favorite and the horse the Jackets will once again be hitching their wagon on. After putting a scare into the Penguins during last year's first round, Bobrovsky and his teammates will be full of confidence riding into the beginning of the season.
13 Mike Cammalleri, New Jersey Devils
The name "Mike Cammalleri" doesn't pop the way it did back when he was a member of the Los Angeles Kings or Montreal Canadiens, but there's not denying that "Cammy" still has a lot of goals left in him. Few can bury pucks the way Cammalleri can, but he's been buried on some less than stellar rosters over the past few season. Cammalleri still managed to finish off last season with 13 goals and 24 points in the last 22 games of the season. Now he'll be called upon to bring some offense to a punch-less Devils offense that has been relying on a 42-year old Jaromir Jagr for goals. It's not like the Devils have much more to offer Cammalleri than the Flames did, but at least he'll probably get a chance to play with Travis Zajac, which should lead to (at the very least) his standard 25-30 goal season.
12 Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
Joe Pavelski might be more motivated by the Sharks horrendous playoff exit last season, but he can also take solace in the fact that he was one of the best players in the league down the stretch. Pavelski is a huge talent, and proved it with a career-high 79 points in 2013-2014. A good chunk of that came at the end of last season, as he finished the final 23 games of the regular season with 25 points. If the Sharks have any chance of remaining dominant in the West, Pavelski will have to be one of the Sharks stars who steps up at the start of season, to at least keep the doubters at bay.
11 Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
Semyon Varlamov went from an underachieving prospect in Washington to a bonafide superstar goaltender with the Avalanche. Varlamov is coming off a remarkable season of 41 wins, and he brought his best when the intensity was at it's highest. He posted a 13-3-1 record with a 2.21 GAA and a .936 save percentage over his final 17 games of the regular season. While the Avalanche didn't get the results they wanted in the playoffs, Varlamov proved to himself and his critics that he's a top-10 National Hockey League goaltender, and he'll no doubt continue to show his worth once the puck drops on the new season.
10 Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Patrice Bergeron has finally wriggled his way into the conversation as one of the best players in the National Hockey League. It took longer than it should have, as Bergeron has been a consistent force for the Bruins for the past several seasons. Bergeron has continued to improve the offensive side of his game, proven by his last season surge that saw him finish his final 23 games with 24 points. Bergeron continued his brilliance throughout the playoffs, though he's hoping the Bruins won't have to go through Montreal again, who seem to be the only thing between the Bruins and another chance at a Stanley Cup.
9 Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lighting
Ondrej Palat was far and away one of the most impressive rookies throughout the entire league during the 2013-2014 season. He turned his game up a notch at the end of last season, collecting 25 of his 59 points over the last 23 games of the regular season. Palat will be expected to increase that number this season alongside a formidable cast of offensive linemates in Tampa Bay, including Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Jonathan Drouin.
8 Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Tuukka Rask's career year led to his first Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender. Rask has entrenched himself as one of the league's top-5 best goalies, and he will look to add to his trophy case with another big year in 2014-2015. Rask put up gaudy numbers down the stretch to help the Bruins win the President's Trophy, as he finished his final 15 games with an 11-2-2 record to go along with an impressive 1.83 GAA and .935 save percentage. Rask and the Bruins will be looking to start to season on a tear after a disappointing second round exit last season at the hands of arch-nemesis Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens.
7 Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
Ever since he was drafted first overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, the expectations have been sky-high for Taylor Hall in Edmonton. Now entering his fifth season, he finally seems to be on the verge of a true breakout season - if he stays healthy. Hall created reason for optimism with his solid end of season numbers, as he finished up with 24 points in his final 22 games. Edmonton head coach Dallas Eakins will be looking for more goals from Hall, however, who finished with only 27 last season despite a career-high 80 points.
6 Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
Corey Perry can sometimes be forgotten as one of the league's most prolific goal scoring talents. While perpetually in the shadow of Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, Perry once again proved his worth as a top-flight NHL goal scorer last season, finishing the year second only to Ovechkin with 43 goals. He had a better end of the regular season than Ovy, though, potting 13 goals and 9 assists over his last 21 games for a total of 22 points. If Perry can keep his regular season hot streak going, he'll once again be in early contention to challenge for the Rocket Richard trophy.
5 Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar put the hockey world on notice last season, as he emerged as one of the most dominant players in the league - specifically during a spectacular playoffs which saw him put up 26 points in 26 games, en route to a Kings Stanley Cup victory. He must have been riding the momentum from the end of the regular season, where he finished with 23 points over the season's final 23 games. Nothing if not consistent that Anze Kopitar. Kopitar will look to continue to assert his stature as a top-1o player right off the hop this year.
4 Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Jamie Benn was a absolute beast for the Dallas Stars last season. He finished with a career-high 79 points, which may not seem like "elite" numbers - put him through the "eye-ball test" though, and you'll see how dominant Benn could be on any given night. Benn capped off his regular season with an impressive end-of-year run, putting up 28 points in his final 23 games and helping the Stars squeeze into a playoff date with the Anaheim Ducks.
3 Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings
During the second half of last season, it seemed like Gustav Nyquist was scoring every night the Red Wings played - sometimes it seemed like he was scoring more than once ever second game. Nyquist went on a tear throughout the second half of the season, and ended the season with 14 goals over his last 24 games, tying only Patrice Bergeron for the most goals over that span. He ended the year with a total of 28 goals - goes to show you how hot he got over the last stretch of the season. Expect that number to rise this season.
2 Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Tyler Seguin was arguably the most improved player in the NHL last season. After seeming disgruntled by the way his Bruins career ended, Seguin set out to prove all of his doubters wrong for labeling him a draft bust. Seguin finished the season with 28 points in his last 24 games, vaulting him into 4th overall in points to end the year. Seguin will be looking to prove that last year wasn't a fluke, and a reinforced Stars lineup will help him get off on the right foot to start 2014-2015.
1 Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
Claude Giroux had a strange year to say the least. His numbers were atrocious through the first month of the season: he only had 6 assists in 11 games in October. The firing of Peter Laviolette and the subsequent hiring of Craig Berube seemed to have ignited Giroux, who ended up finishing 3rd in points with 86. While he was on fire for most of the season, Giroux was unstoppable in the final 23 games of the year, where he netted 9 goals and added 20 assists for a total of 29 points, the most of any player in the league over that span. Giroux will be looking to get hot from the start of the season this time around, and is a good bet to do just that.
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