Of course, it is always exciting to see the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, etc. ply their craft, and I am always intrigued to see how their seasons play out. But this list of five isn't necessarily about being a superstar.
Matt Gilroy-D-New York Rangers: Last year's Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey's top player, Gilroy (pictured above) is a unique rookie in the fact that he is 25 years-old, and brings a maturity to the game that most rookies do not posess just yet. He also brings something quite unique to the Rangers current crop of defensemen---a willingness and ability to jump into the rush, and often lead the rush, to create scoring opportunities. With coach John Tortorella's constant encouragement to remain aggressive, Gilroy has been exciting to watch during the pre-season---witness this awesome goal against the Devils---and is going to play very important minutes on Broadway this season. Dare I say that the Rangers have not had a defenseman with this set of offensive skills since Hall-of-Famer Brian Leetch? Gilroy is not at that level yet, but he is a lot better offensively than what the Rangers have had since Leetch skated away several years ago. Though in excellent physical condition, one question will be how Gilroy adjusts to the grind of a long 82-game NHL season after playing almost half that amount in college.
Pascal LeClaire-G-Ottawa Senators: If LeClaire is healthy, the Senators could be one of the surprise teams in the Eastern Conference this season. But when discussing LeClaire, his health is always a big IF. Last season he was limited to just 12 games of action---and none since December 18---because of an ankle injury that eventually led to surgery over the winter. Ottawa took a chance and traded for LeClaire a month or so after the surgery in a deal that sent Antoine Vermette to Columbus. LeClaire says he is healthy, and has looked decent in pre-season action, so far. But remember that he has played more than 33 games in a season only once in his four previous NHL seasons. However, in that one season where LeClaire remained healthy, he proved he could be a solid goaltender in this league, justifying the high expectations placed upon him since he was the 8th overall selection in the 2001 draft. In 2007-08, LeClaire sparkled in 54 appearances, posting a tidy 2.25 goals against average, .919 save percentage, and 9 shutouts for the Blue Jackets. It is that Pascal LeClaire the Senators are looking to this season. And if they get that type of performance from their #1 goalie, the playoffs are not a farfetched possibility.
Mike Modano-C-Dallas Stars: This team no longer revolves around Modano, now a 39 year-old veteran of 1,400 NHL games with 543 goals on his resume. Last season, Modano accepted a lesser role with more defensive responsibilities and fewer offensive opportunities---15 goals in 80 games---and that will be his lot again this season as he slots into the third line behind top-two centers Mike Ribeiro and a healthy Brad Richards. What makes him intriguing to watch is that he burns for one last go at it with the United States Olympic Hockey Team. And no matter the considerable intangibles he would bring to Team USA, Modano is aware that he still needs to show the powers that be some on-ice production, as well. So will we see a gung-ho Modano trying to recapture a bit of his past? And will he get enough of that opportunity from Marc Crawford in Dallas? And what happens if Modano does not make Team USA, will he be so upset that his play slips down the stretch of the NHL season? These are all intriguing and realistic questions to ask. The answers will play out once the puck drops for real. Modano is a player I have always respected, and my hunch is that he will deliver a strong season and then lend an important supporting role on Team USA in Vancouver.
Jonas Gustavsson-G-Toronto Maple Leafs: Yes, yes, I know that this 24 year-old from Sweden underwent a minor heart operation---can you really say "minor" when speaking about a heart procedure?---and that there is a good chance he will not even be on the Leafs opening night roster, and that Vesa Toskala is the current #1 goalie in TO. But so many teams had interest in this free agent over the summer, which leads you to believe there is something pretty special here. Of all the moves Leafs GM Brian Burke made this wild off-season---including the recent trade to acquire sniper Phil Kessel---the one he might be most remembered for is winning the Gustavsson sweepstakes. By all accounts he is NHL ready, if healthy, though a brief run in the AHL might not hurt his adjustment to North America. But I would expect any journey to the minor leagues to be a short one. For some reason I just keep thinking of how Henrik Lundqvist arrived from Sweden five years ago and was prepared to make an immediate impact in the National Hockey League. Lundqvist did that, and has not looked back since. I think we will be saying the same things about Gustavsson soon enough.
T.J. Oshie-F-St. Louis Blues: First of all, I just love watching this kid play. His combination of energy, determination, grit, and skill makes him a joy to watch each and every time he is on the ice. Oshie had an impressive rookie campaign a year ago with 14 goals, 39 points and an impressive +16 plus/minus rating. However, he was limited to 57 games and you do have to wonder how much of a toll the hard-charging style Oshie plays takes on his smallish frame. The Blues reached the playoffs last season, in part, because youngsters like Oshie, David Perron, David Backes, and Patrik Berglund all delivered strong seasons. For the Blues to remain a playoff team, those kids will have to take another step forward in their collective development. And since Oshie might have been the biggest surprise of that bunch a year ago, he will be the most intriguing of the group to watch as this season unfolds to see if he has what it takes to be, just say for argument's sake, a 20-goal scorer.