Do three fallen stars have what it takes to return to their former status?
Most established players regard the preseason as little more than a jog before the marathon. For a trio of former franchise-caliber performers, however, these are pivotal times. All three have slipped precipitously in the past year or two, yet all are young enough to return to their all-star form. SI talked to a half-dozen scouts about what has gone wrong for these players and what they need to do to get back on track.
Keith Tkachuk, 28, Coyotes After averaging 47 goals and 177 penalty minutes a season from 1995-96 through '97-98, the 6'2", 225-pound left wing was considered the NHL's preeminent power forward. Since then, he has averaged only 29 points and 117 minutes.
Scout: "For the last couple seasons Keith has been slithering around the outside, playing cute. He has to get to the front of the net, intimidate people and get tip-ins. He's a strong guy with a big ass and great balance, and he belongs in front, where he used to go."
Scout: "Two things happened to Keith—he had an injured left ankle, and he lost confidence when [teammate] Jeremy Roenick [was acquired and] took some of the spotlight. Keith needs to be stroked. There were rumors he would get traded last season, and going to work wasn't fun for him."
Prognosis: Tkachuk appears healthy after off-season surgery removed scar tissue from his ankle. If incoming owner Wayne Gretzky and second-year coach Bob Francis dote on him, we should see the big-ass, bad-ass Tkachuk of old.
Theo Fleury, 32, Rangers In 11 seasons with the Flames the pesky 5'6", 180-pound right wing averaged 34 goals per year. After the Rangers signed him as a free agent last summer, Fleury scored just 15 times.
Scout: "He's miscast. He's a Western Conference scorer playing for an Eastern Conference team. He doesn't get as much space in the East, and he has to learn to create chances in traffic and not off the rush. It will be difficult for him to get back to the level he was at."
Scout: "He hasn't lost a step, so there's no reason he can't rebound. Playing with [ New York's off-season acquisition] Mark Messier will help."
Prognosis: Messier's presence should allow Fleury to regain confidence. Expect him to approach, but not reach, his pre-Rangers form.