PHT Power Rankings: Teams under the most pressure to make Stanley Cup run

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The championship-or-bust mentality we have with sports teams can be a dangerous and frustrating one because it usually sets us up for nothing but disappointment, anger, and, sometimes, shockingly bad sports takes.

We have high expectations for teams, especially those loaded with high-end talent, and view them as disappointments or underachievers (or worse, “chokers”) if they do not reach the arbitrary goals we set for them. Sometimes, depending on the makeup of the team in question, even one championship is not viewed as good enough. But the reality in sports is that for even the very best teams in any given season the chances of winning a championship are remarkably low with the odds being overwhelmingly stacked against them.

Chances are, your favorite team is going to end its season with a loss, no matter how great it may be, and that loss is going to be greeted with massive amounts of disappointment.

When you are a fan of a team you are rooting for that one team against the field. Taking one team against the field is always a bad bet.

Often times the biggest opponent your favorite team faces isn’t any one team lining up across from it, it is the battle against the expectations that were set for it.

Still, having said all of that, some teams do face higher expectations and more pressure to win than others.

With that in mind, we are using this week’s PHT Power Rankings to look at the teams facing the most pressure to win the Stanley Cup, or at least make a serious run at it, this postseason.

Just for added emphasis: This is not a ranking of the best teams or a statement on where each team stands on the ice in terms of its ability — it is a ranking of teams facing the most pressure to win. 

With that said, to the rankings!

The expectation is a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Now that the Washington Capitals broke through their glass ceiling and finally gave their fans a championship, the Lightning, at least with this current group, are the new “so close, yet so far” away team. The only difference is the Lightning’s situation is probably even more frustrating because of how painfully close they have been the past four years, reaching at least the Eastern Conference Final three times, only to fall just short in spectacularly bad ways.

Just look at how their past four seasons have ended.

  • In 2014-15 they had a 2-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final and then never won another game in the series, scoring only two goals in the three games.
  • In 2015-16 they had a 3-2 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 on home ice, and were outscored by a 7-3 margin in Games 6 and 7, losing both.
  • In 2016-17 they were decimated by injuries during the regular season and missed the playoffs by one point.
  • In 2017-18 they had another 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Final and were then shutout in Games 6 and 7 while giving up seven goals.

If you are a Lightning fan that is … frustrating. Your team has clearly — CLEARLY! — been one of the NHL’s best over the past five years and has not only won a ton of regular season games, but also a ton of playoff games. Since the start of the 2014-15 season only one team (Pittsburgh, with 39) has won more playoff games than the Lightning’s 36. You have some of the best individual talent in the league with front-runners or actual award winners at every position (and behind the bench and in the front office). It is all there. Now your team this season is the best it has ever been and might actually be one of the best single season teams in league history. Again, I hate “championship or bust” mentality because it is setting yourself up for failure and disappointment, but if it ever had to apply to a team, this is the team.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — Heaven help this team if they lose to Boston in the first round again because the pitchforks will be out. A reasonable approach to this team would be that they have a great core, a strong future, and a pretty good team that probably isn’t quite good enough to win the Stanley Cup right now. But nothing surrounding this team is reasonable. The core is great, but they still haven’t won a playoff series yet. Mike Babcock gets paid more money than any other coach in the NHL and is still regarded as an elite hockey mastermind even though he has coached in the second round exactly one time since 2010, while 23 different coaches have won a playoff series since he last did. If this team, with all of that following them around, loses again in the madhouse that is Toronto it is going to be absolute mayhem. Pressure!

3. San Jose Sharks — When it comes to their forwards and defense the Sharks might be the best team in the Western Conference (at least when they are healthy) and should be the favorites to win it. They have also invested heavily in this season to go all in. Erik Karlsson is a free agent after this season, they are running out of time to get Joe Thornton a championship, and they gambled at the trade deadline that Martin Jones and/or Aaron Dell will get their act together and start stopping some pucks. If they do not start stopping pucks this team is going to be in trouble, and that will not be good news for anyone.

[Related: Sharks goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup Contender]

You need to do something

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — The Blue Jackets entered the NHL at the start of the 2000-01 season. Since then, they are one of just two teams (the Florida Panthers being the other) that has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in that time. They have only won five playoff games (total!), a level of futility that has been matched only by the Panthers. At some point you have to do something come playoff time, and this season would be a good time for that something to happen given the circumstances surrounding the roster. They not only decided to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky throughout the remainder of the season (a decision I agree with, for what it is worth) knowing they will almost certainly lose them over the summer, but went all in on trading for even more potential rentals in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. Barring a terrible collapse over the next week they have probably done enough to avoid the embarrassment that would have been missing the playoffs entirely after all of that, but this is currently a franchise that has to be over the “just happy to be here” phase.

5. Nashville Predators — Probably the Western Conference version of the Lightning at this point, only without  quite as much “oh so close” frustration. General manager David Poile was aggressive in the trading game once again and has put together an impressive roster that is not only signed long-term, but also still has plenty of wiggle room under the salary cap. Expectations should be high.

6. Boston Bruins — Here is a sentence that has probably never been said or written about a Boston sports team in the past 10 or 15 years: They are really underrated, probably overlooked, and have very quietly been one of the most dominant teams in the league this season, especially when you take into account the injury situation they have dealt with at times. The biggest obstacle they face is playing in the wrong division with two other Stanley Cup contenders, but it shouldn’t shock anyone if they are playing in June.

7. Winnipeg Jets  — After reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago and coming back with a roster that boasts one of the best collections of high end forwards in the league this should be a team expected to go on another lengthy run, especially if they can hold on to the Central Division lead and draw a Wild Card team in round one.

8. Calgary Flames — The Flames have been a huge surprise this year and there probably were not many people that had them pegged as a potential Stanley Cup team at the start. But when you are the No. 1 seed in a conference that definitely brings some expectation to win. Nobody in Calgary should be mad if they fall short of a championship, but at this point there should be an expectation to at the very least make it to the second or third round.

9. St. Louis Blues — The Blues went on a huge spending spree over the summer in an effort to boost an offense that kept them out of the playoffs a year ago, and they seem to have found a goalie — at least for this season — that has not only put them in the playoffs, but has given them a chance to maybe steal the Central Division in the final week of the regular season. Given the way Nashville and Winnipeg have played at times down the stretch neither one of them looks unbeatable in the first two rounds, and the Blues have been one of the league’s best teams ever since Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington were added to the mix. The door is open for them.

10. Dallas Stars — Always the winners of the offseason, never the winners during the season. This has been a truly bizarre year in Dallas that began with the team’s CEO publicly ripping his best players even though they were (and still are) the only ones producing any sort of offense. Given the way the goaltending has played they are going to be a tough out if that continues. The trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn can take over any game offensively at any time, but there is not much after them. Realistically? Not a championship team at the moment. But given how the GM is always looking for the blockbuster move and the way the CEO acted this season it would probably be beneficial to not go out early.

You get the benefit of the doubt

11. Washington Capitals

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

13. Vegas Golden Knights

All three of these teams get to go together because the same rule applies to all of them and I would say the same thing about all of them. The players and coaches are professionals that are wired mentally to compete and win and go all in every game, and they will. In their eyes as coaches and players anything less than a championship will be a disappointment because this is what they play for. But if you are a fan of any of these teams you really don’t have a reason to be too disappointed if the season ends with anything less than a championship just because of what they have accomplished lately. The Capitals are literally the defending champs, you get at least a one year grace period. The Penguins have played in four Stanley Cup Finals over the past 10 years, winning three of them, including two of the past three. As for Vegas? You are still in the honeymoon phase as a fanbase and were able to experience more excitement, enjoyment, and winning in your first year of existence than fans of probably 90 percent of the league have been able to experience in the past decade. Or more. Not only that, in year two your team might be even better and has a great chance to do it all over again. You have literally never experienced bad hockey.

Nobody expects you to win, but you better make the playoffs

14. Montreal Canadiens — It feels weird saying the Canadiens are under pressure to simply make the playoffs given how low my expectations were for them at the start of the season, but they have maintained a spot in the top-eight for most of the year and to fall out of that at the very end, after going through a couple of ugly late-season collapses in recent years, would be less than ideal and a bad look for everyone.

15. Colorado Avalanche — This is a very flawed team that still has plenty of reason for optimism in the future. They have three outstanding young forwards just now entering their prime years in the league, they have some good young talent coming through the system and they are going to add to that with a top-four pick in 2019 that might even be the top pick in the draft. Still, they were a playoff team a year ago and started the season with 17 wins in their first 29 games. That should be enough to get in the playoffs, especially in what has been an historically weak Western Conference Wild Card race.

The playoffs are a bonus

16. New York Islanders — Look, this entire season has been an incredible ride for Islanders fans, and with their goaltending playing the way it has all year there is every reason to believe they can make some noise in the playoffs and maybe do something meaningful. Even if they do not, Islanders fans are going to look back at this season and this particular team fondly because of what they accomplished and the way the team gave a giant middle finger to everybody that counted them out (me included) at the start given the way free agency went.

17. Carolina Hurricanes — No matter what happens this season with the Hurricanes it almost feels like a new beginning for a franchise that had been, quite frankly, forgotten about. The future is bright, the team is fun during and after games, and all of it together has re-energized a fanbase that has known nothing but losing and disappointment for the past decade.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago and have been completely decimated by injuries for most of the season. Nobody would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they struggled on the ice again. Making the playoffs would be an incredible accomplishment and a huge stepping stone for the organization.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.