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Comeback campaigns

Ray Emery joined the Philadelphia Flyers after spending last season in the Kontinental League. (Photo courtesy Norman Y. Lono)

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Ray Emery joined the Philadelphia Flyers after spending last season in the Kontinental League. (Photo courtesy Norman Y. Lono)

With the passing of August and the knowledge that NHL training camps will soon be underway, we’re getting excited around the THN campus. The Season Opener edition of the magazine is already in the works and office chatter surrounding intriguing 2009-10 storylines has picked up considerably. And with this being an Olympic year, everything hockey is heightened.

Of the compelling plot lines set to unfold this season, one involves players with something to prove - the ability to battle back from injury (or simply stay healthy for the first time in recent memory) or bounce back from a sub-par campaign. Maybe it’s a high draft pick looking to demonstrate he was worth the risk, or a grizzled vet out to show he’s still got some game left.

Whatever the reason, redemption is a theme that runs through each and every season. And every team in the NHL – heck, every team in any league anywhere – has a player or two who wants to make amends. We’re limited to 10 here, but we think they’re the 10 most provocative. Here is THN.com’s Top 10 redemption-seeking players this season.

10. Rod Brind’Amour, C, Carolina
The Hurricanes captain is 39 years old and looking to prove he still has what it takes to hack it in the best league in the world. Known for being a workout freak, Brind’Amour started showing his age last season – easily his worst since the lockout. His points-per-game average was the fourth-worst of his 19-year career, a problem compounded by his minus-23 rating. That mark was not only by far the worst of his career, but also second-last in the league, 884th overall. If he can’t show that he can score and/or effectively check the opposition’s top players any longer, Brind’Amour’s NHL days will quickly draw to a close.

9. Dustin Penner, LW, Edmonton
Pro sports can be a cruel profession. There aren’t many jobs where you can be reviled after just 261 official workdays, but that’s where Penner is right now. The Oilers threw beaucoup bucks his way and risked the ire of the entire league when they poached him from Anaheim a few years back, but have yet to reap the rewards for their trouble. After starting the season on the No. 1 line last year, Penner finished it on the fourth line, even enduring a healthy scratch or two along the way. The 26-year-old will have to prove he has the work ethic needed to survive in Edmonton and the NHL.

8. Anze Kopitar, C, Los Angeles
Entering the first year of a massive contract that will cost the Kings $6.8 million a season through 2015-16, Kopitar needs to step up his game to the level he’s being paid at. Still just 22 and entering his fourth season, the 6-foot-4, 221-pound man-child saw his goal and point totals drop from his sophomore season, along with his plus-minus. As the highest-paid player on his team, Kopitar will have to prove he can be The Man on a rising squad, not just another guy on a poor one.

7. Marty Turco, G, Dallas
Predictions are always tough and in the 2008-09 Yearbook we had the Stars finishing fourth in the West. Of course, they tumbled to 12th in the conference and 23rd overall. Much of the blame was put on Sean Avery and his antics early in the season, but Turco was far from immune. His goals-against average ballooned to 2.81 - the highest of his career - and his save percentage dipped below .900. This year we have predicted the Stars to make a comeback of sorts and finish seventh in the West. Much of that rests on our faith in Turco to turn it around. In the final year of his contract, Turco is out to show the world he’s still an elite goalie, worth every penny.

6. Vesa Toskala, G, Toronto
No one ever accused Toskala of being a true No. 1 netminder until former Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. “pried” the Finn out of San Jose along with pricey minor leaguer Mark Bell for a first, a second and a fourth round pick. Toskala acquitted himself well in Year 1 with a horrible Toronto squad, but imploded last season, ranking 45th out of 47 NHL goalies in goals-against average and 44th in save percentage. He was shut down late in the season and underwent hip surgery. With the arrival of Jonas ‘The Monster’ Gustavsson from Sweden, the pressure is squarely on Toskala’s pads to prove last year was an injury-induced aberration and he is truly a No. 1 NHL goalie.

5. Erik Johnson, D, St. Louis
Remember the 2006 draft? Stanley Cup winner Jordan Staal went second overall. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews went third. Nicklas Backstrom, he of 88 points for Washington last year, went fourth. And 36-goal man Phil Kessel went fifth. But it was Johnson who went first overall and this season he must prove he was worth it. He acquitted himself well enough in 69 games as a rookie, but lost last season to a blown knee sustained during a golf outing with teammates in the pre-season. For a good, young Blues squad to take the next step, Johnson, still only 21, will have to become the blueline leader the Blues sorely need. Pressure? What pressure?

4. Dion Phaneuf, D, Calgary
The 24-year-old had the worst season of his career in 2008-09, collecting his lowest goal, point and plus-minus totals yet. Phaneuf got himself in trouble by becoming enamored with the big hit, frequently finding himself out of position as he endeavored to knock players on their butts. With the arrival of Jay Bouwmeester, Phaneuf no longer has the pressure of being the sole offensive piece on Calgary’s blueline. But a different kind of pressure will rear its head if he doesn’t get his game back in shape. A $6.5-million cap hit for an underachieving No. 2 (even No. 3) defenseman on a capped-out team is not what the doctor ordered. Expect trade talk to heat up if Phaneuf’s game doesn’t.

3. Carey Price, G, Montreal
Playing in the Montreal fishbowl is never easy, but when you’ve been anointed the next Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy, it’s next to impossible. Price seemed to crack under the pressure of expectations last year (to be fair, the entire Canadiens team did, too) and the scrutiny every star player in Montreal faces. The difference is in this age of camera phones and 24-hour-a-day news, it’s hard to escape the public eye – and the public’s ire. Depending on who you talk to, last season Price was either the victim of an overzealous public scrutinizing his every move or the victim of overzealous partying screwing his game. Either way, the 22-year-old is out to prove last season was nothing more than a sophomore slump.

2. Marian Gaborik, RW, New York Rangers
He just may be the most electrifying player in the league, when he’s actually playing. Gaborik’s reputation precedes him - and it’s not a good one. He topped an unflattering Top 10 list earlier this summer. And he made headlines late last season when he was quoted basically as saying he hadn’t been watching Minnesota games and only cared about his comeback, not the Wild’s playoff aspirations. When he did get back, Gaborik posted 13 goals and 23 points in 17 games, numbers that would have won him the Rocket Richard Trophy and placed him second in the scoring race if he had played the full season. Gaborik is looking to show Rangers fans he is worth $7.5 million a season by staying healthy, putting up lots of points and being a good teammate. If those don’t happen, Broadway will be merciless.

1. Ray Emery, G, Philadelphia
Was there a more interesting signing this summer than Emery with the Flyers? Here’s a team primed for a deep, deep playoff run (we picked them to win the Cup) with an outstanding group of forwards and a blueline second only to Calgary’s, if that. All they needed was a goaltender to win them a few games and not lose them many. Enter the returned-from-Russia Emery. After being run out of Ottawa and basically banished to the Kontinental League, the 26-year-old posted outstanding numbers and showed he could still play well against pros, even if he did have a classic YouTube run-in or two. But is he still the goalie who led Ottawa to the 2007 Cup final? That’s what he’s out to prove. That and also that he can again be a good teammate. Whether he can accomplish any of it is still up in the air, but he’s definitely looking to redeem himself.

The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.

If you enjoy this feature, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine for the exclusive countdown, Starting From 5, and other great features from the world of hockey.

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