Job pressure in hockey can come in all forms. Some is dire: Get results or you’re out of work. Some is a bit more nuanced: It would be great if you performed at or above expectations, and you can rest a little easier at night, but your job isn’t necessarily on the line.
As opening night of the 2018-19 season approaches, ESPN identified each team’s figure — whether it be player, GM, coach or group of players — under the most pressure for the 2018-19 season:
The big three
Forgive us if you’ve heard this before, but the big three (Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry) are aging and the window for this team to win is closing. For Kesler and his nagging hip injury, the situation is especially dire. He missed half of last season, and his availability for the upcoming season is murky.
The new guys
The Coyotes were trending in the right direction by the end of last season; then, for the second straight summer, they added veteran help: Alex Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza combined for 53 goals last season. Galchenyuk and Hinostroza want to prove to the teams that drafted them that those teams were wrong to let them go; Grabner likely has a sour taste after struggling with the Devils after last season’s trade deadline.
Left wing Anders Bjork
The 22-year-old Notre Dame product is one of the Bruins’ top young players. But after a February shoulder surgery cut his season short, the winger watched as other youngsters such as Jake DeBrusk, Ryan Donato and Danton Heinenbasked in the spotlight. Bjork is looking to lock in a full-time role, potentially even in the top six.
Head coach Phil Housley
It’s hard to fault Housley for posting a .378 winning percentage in his rookie season as coach. The roster he inherited was subpar, at best. But Buffalo made big moves this summer: Subtracting Ryan O’Reilly, but adding much-needed veteran depth plus No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, a generational talent on D. Many players have told me recently that they expect Buffalo to be a surprise team this season. If the Sabres don’t improve, ownership might get antsy.
Head coach Bill Peters
With the talent on the roster, there’s no reason the Flames shouldn’t be able to lock up a playoff spot in the wide-open Pacific Division. Management didn’t feel Glen Gulutzan was the right man for the job — likely swayed by a late-season collapse — but the jury might be out on Peters, too. He was hamstrung by bad goaltending in Carolina, but the Canes never seemed to live up to their potential.
Goaltender Scott Darling
Without Cam Ward on the roster for the first time in 13 years, this is firmly Darling’s team now. Then again, it was supposed to be Darling’s team last season, too. If the 29-year-old struggles yet again, Darling — the former Chicago backup who was given a four-year, $16.6 million deal in May 2017 — might be among the bigger free-agent busts in recent memory.
Head coach Joel Quenneville
Everything spiraled out of control for the Blackhawks after Corey Crawford was lost for the season. That gave Quenneville, the league’s longest-tenured coach, a pass after Chicago missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Quenneville will no longer get a Crawford out, even if the goaltender isn’t ready to start the season. Blackhawks president John McDonough wants results. If the Hawks struggle early, Quenneville could be out by Christmas.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov
Varlamov’s five-year, $29 million contract ends after this season, but his status as the Avalanche’s top goaltender might expire before that. GM Joe Sakic pulled off a big trade at the draft to land coveted Capitals backup Philipp Grubauer. Sakic has hinted at a platoon situation, but hey, if Grubauer is significantly better (or healthier), he may well get the starting job to himself.
Kekalainen is a silent assassin. Heck, he orchestrated two trades involving Brandon Saad without as much as a warning shot. The stakes are higher now, as a tenuous contract situation with Artemi Panarin brews. And a long-term decision must be made on goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky as he enters the final year of his contract. For a team on the cusp of contending, Kekalainen must once again maneuver unemotionally.
Center Jason Spezza
The veteran’s five-year tenure in Dallas has been a roller coaster, with the 2017-18 season certainly being a low point (including career worsts of eight goals and 26 points). Now on to his third coach in three years, the 35-year-old must adapt once again and hope he meshes well with Jim Montgomery‘s system. His NHL career might depend on it; Spezza is an unrestricted free agent after this season
Head coach Jeff Blashill
This really should be Ken Holland, considering no team in the league is as hamstrung with bloated, poorly aged contracts as the Red Wings. But the GM has built a lot of equity thanks to past glory, and ownership kept him around with a two-year extension this spring. So now the bull’s-eye is on Blashill, who has a winning percentage below .500, and just one playoff win in three seasons.
Head coach Todd McLellan
If this Oilers team resembles anything like last season’s outfit, McLellan won’t have this job for long. Edmonton can’t waste any years in Connor McDavid‘s prime just trying to tread water. The team regressed significantly last season, especially in even-strength play.
Right wing Troy Brouwer
The winger had two years remaining on a four-year, $18 million deal with the Flames before being bought out, but has been able to log decent minutes and produce in his early 30s. There still should be a role for Brouwer in the NHL, but if he doesn’t make Florida’s roster, he could be Europe-bound.
The old guard
There are 10 players on the roster over the age of 30, including a handful — Ilya Kovalchuk, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick and Anze Kopitar — considered essential to this team’s chances of winning. The championship window is narrow for the Kings, who overperformed in 2017-18 and paid big for Kovalchuk this summer, hoping that the 35-year-old still has his scoring touch despite a five-year absence from the NHL.
GM Paul Fenton
The first-time GM inherited a roster that is good enough to win plenty of games in the regular season but hasn’t figured out a way to get it done in the playoffs. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter still have term on their contracts but aren’t getting any younger. Parise told Greg Wyshynski he was surprised the Wild didn’t make more of a splash this summer. Fenton wasn’t hired to maintain the status quo, after all.
Everyone involved in the Max Pacioretty situation
Yes, the Habs had a deal at the draft to ship their captain to the Los Angeles Kings. No, it didn’t materialize in the 11th hour. Pacioretty’s new agent Allan Walsh has voiced a few thoughts on Twitter that illustrate just how deep the distrust is. Either sign Pacioretty long term or orchestrate a move and let him move on. The longer this situation festers, the more toxic it gets.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne
Entering the final year of his contract, Rinne enters this season coming off a playoff meltdown. What’s more, he knows his heir apparent, 23-year-old fellow Finn Juuse Saros, is waiting for a larger opportunity. Can Rinne stave off the inevitable — and help this loaded team back to the Stanley Cup Final?
Every forward not named Taylor Hall
It was the Hall show last season in New Jersey. Yes, the 26-year-old was exceptional, but he edged out Nathan MacKinnon for league MVP by singlehandedly carrying the offensive load, scoring 41 more points than his closest teammates. The Devils made virtually no free-agent additions, meaning others need to step up if New Jersey is going to get back to the playoffs again this season.
GM Lou Lamoriello
Lamoriello can cement his legacy as the true rebuilder of franchises if he can pull off a turnaround for his third GM stint. Lamoriello’s initial post-John Tavares moves were uninspiring, if not confusing. Has the 75-year-old lost his touch or is this all part of a long play? After a summer of heartbreak for Islanders fans, the least Lou can do for them is show that he has a plan, and it’s not just throwing darts at the board, biding time for prospects to develop.
Center Kevin Hayes
The winger set a career high with 25 goals in 2017-18 and has expressed a desire to stay in New York long term — even as New York works through a rebuild. But when management and Hayes’ camp tried to avoid arbitration, all they could compromise on was a one-year deal (albeit for a pretty decent cap hit of $5.15 million). If Hayes does want to remain a Blueshirt forever, he’ll have to start hot or he’s prime trade-deadline bait.
GM Pierre Dorion
The team’s three most talented players — Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone — are each in contract years. The franchise is embattled, spending the better part of the past year in headlines for off-ice drama (while floundering on the ice). Can the GM persuade any of these players to stick around for a rebuild, or at least recoup some value?
Left wing James van Riemsdyk
The Flyers landed arguably the most coveted free agent on the open market not named John Tavares. That single move felt like enough to catapult Philadelphia into a Stanley Cup contender. Well, van Riemsdyk, you have $35 million now. All eyes are on you to elevate this team on your second stint in Philadelphia.
Goaltender Matt Murray
An awkward subplot of the 2017-18 season? Former Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury outperforming Murray. The Penguins still probably made the right decision exposing Fleury in the expansion draft, but after an injury- and tragedy-plagued season, a bounce-back season from Murray will be essential to the Penguins rebounding. Murray’s .907 save percentage represented his lowest mark since he was an 18-year-old in juniors.
GM Doug Wilson
Wilson is always going after the biggest names — he was especially active this past calendar year — and yet, Wilson enters the season with a very similar roster to the one in 2017-18 after striking out on Ilya Kovalchuk, John Tavares, Erik Karlsson (so far) et al. Of course, he has bought in on Evander Kane, inking the winger to a massive extension, but in the waning years of the Joe Thornton/Joe Pavelski era, more moves might be needed for this team to win it all.
Goaltender Jake Allen
The Blues were perhaps the splashiest team of the offseason, including making major improvements to their forward depth via trade (Ryan O’Reilly) and free agency (Tyler Bozak, David Perron). Add in Robby Fabbri and a healthy Jaden Schwartz and the expectation is a legitimate playoff run. However, defense remains shaky and goaltending did not improve. Jake Allen has No. 1 potential, but without the handcuff of Carter Hutton (or Brian Elliott before him), can Allen rise to the occasion?
Right wing Ryan Callahan
Look, pressure is certainly on coach Jon Cooper, who guides what most in the league believe to be the NHL’s most complete roster. But Callahan, 33, is coming off offseason surgery for the third time in four years. Callahan, who carries a $5.8 million cap hit in each of the final two years of his contract, adds tremendous value to the Lightning when he’s on the ice. But he’s under pressure just to get healthy — and stay that way.
Left wing Josh Leivo
With so much attention paid to the Maple Leafs’ top forward talent this summer (especially their top two centers), the bottom half of this roster features intrigue. A player such as Leivo, a 2011 draft pick who has yet to crack the regular lineup and appeared in only 16 games last season, is fighting for his Toronto livelihood.
The future captain
Without the Sedins on the roster for the first time in more than two decades (yes, before top prospect Elias Peterson was born), Vancouver will need leaders to emerge. And yes, the Canucks will need a captain. At BioSteel camp in Toronto earlier this month, defenseman Erik Gudbranson said he doesn’t feel the captaincy designation in the NHL is overrated, as some have surmised in recent years. Somebody needs to step up; Bo Horvat feels like the early favorite.
Center William Karlsson
One of the more fascinating arbitration cases in recent memory ended with … a whimper. A one-year contract felt like an anticlimactic, if not wholly inappropriate, conclusion for Karlsson’s dilemma. After all, how can you commit long term to a player who leaped from six goals to 43? If last season wasn’t an aberration, Wild Bill will be compensated as such. If it was, well — we’ll always have the memories of that magical inaugural run for Karlsson and the Golden Knights.
Head coach Todd Reirden
The longtime assistant coach was so coveted as a head coach elsewhere that the Capitals were fine parting with Barry Trotz — who, of course, finally won the franchise an elusive Stanley Cup. There are plenty of reasons for the Trotz/Washington divorce, so instead of relitigating that here, let’s pose the more forward-looking question: Can Reirden deliver the results? Yes, the team is tired after a long playoff run, but Washington returns essentially the same roster.
Defenseman Jacob Trouba
The relationship between Trouba and the Jets hasn’t been a soap opera — but it hasn’t been a simple one, either. After being awarded a one-year deal this summer (worth $5.5 million) in arbitration, there’s a sense of urgency for Trouba to prove he is among the elite defensemen who should be paid as such — in Winnipeg or elsewhere.
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