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.

NHL, players take collaborative approach in bid to resume

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Collaboration or bust.

Given the gravity of the new coronavirus pandemic and the abrupt decision to place the NHL season on pause in March, it didn’t take commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Don Fehr long to realize they were going to have to work together if play was to resume any time soon.

Nearly four months to the day since the last puck dropped, the two sides put aside past differences to have a return-to-play plan in place, and the assurance of labor peace through September 2026 to go with it.

”When we got to March 12 and decided to take the pause, that began a period of perhaps unprecedented collaboration and problem solving,” Bettman said during a Zoom conference call with reporters Saturday, a day after the league and players ratified a 24-team expanded playoff, set to begin Aug. 1, and a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement.

”It was a recognition by both sides that we were being confronted with an incredibly difficult, a novel, unprecedented situation. I believed we would get to this point because it was the right thing to do for the game and for everybody involved in the game.”

Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association executive director, not only agreed with Bettman, but went out of his way to credit the owners for the approach.

”I was persuaded well before the end of March that not only was this different, but it was being approached in a fundamentally different way. I always thought we would find a way to reach an agreement,” Fehr said.

The bond established between the two was apparent during the 55-minute session, with Fehr agreeing with Bettman and then acknowledging how unusual that was by by saying: ”I think that indicates something about the approach that was taken in these talks.”

Training camps are set to open Monday, which also represents the deadline for players to determine whether to opt out without penalty. If all goes as planned, teams will depart for their two respective hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, on July 26 to open a two-month playoff leading to the awarding of the Stanley Cup.

Many uncertainties remain, with Bettman and Fehr unable to provide definitive answers.

While acknowledging the likelihood of players testing positive for COVID-19, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was unable to say how many players would have to do so for the league to postpone or cancel the playoffs altogether.

Though conference playoffs and Stanley Cup Final are scheduled to be held in Edmonton, a person with direct knowledge of the plans told The Associated Press the site might change if the pandemic spikes in Alberta’s capital. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an alternate plan that’s not been discussed publicly.

Bettman and Daly, who are based in New York, weren’t even sure if or when they could cross the border to personally attend games because those entering Canada are required to self-isolate for a 14-day period.

The only certainty is the NHL became North America’s latest professional sport to forge a path back to playing, but minus the public hiccups experienced by its counterparts.

Major League Baseball’s season was nearly scuttled before the two sides agreed to a 60-game format. Less than three weeks before NFL training camps are set to open, the league is experiencing push-back from its players on whether to play preseason games next month. Major League Soccer has had two teams already withdrawing from competition because of the number of players testing positive for the coronavirus.

And not only is hockey on the verge of returning, the CBA extension assures 12 straight years of labor peace, the NHL’s longest stretch since Bettman took over in 1993. During that time, play has been halted three times by lockouts, the last in 2012-13, when the season was shortened to 48 games.

”I think Don and I both recognize labor peace was something we couldn’t even quantify how important it was,” Bettman said. ”But we both knew that for the business of the game to come back strong, there was enough disruption going on in the world that we didn’t have to add to it.”

Fehr said the months-long talks to reach a solution were a matter of perseverance.

”This is a very bad analogy, but you have to sort of navigate the kayak in a storm until the storm’s over, and then make sure the kayak isn’t full of holes so that you can go on and sail it in calmer seas,” Fehr said in a separate interview with The AP. ”Or to put it another way there was never any pretense that this was business as usual.”

Owners benefit because they can generate much-needed revenue through sponsorships and advertising, even though games will be played in empty arenas.

Though players will likely lose a portion of their salaries for seasons to come to make up for 50-50 split of revenue, they benefit from a CBA that includes the possibility of returning to the Olympics, after the NHL opted out from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. The new labor agreement also addressed players’ demands to gain a post-career subsidy for health care.

Oilers’ Green joins list of players opting out of NHL return

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Roman Polak of the Stars and Mike Green of the Oilers are opting out of playing, and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will try to play after recovering from injury.

In the aftermath of a deal being struck to resume the NHL season, Aug. 1, Green, Polak and three other players joined Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic in choosing not to participate in the expanded 24-team playoffs.

”Due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 and after much consideration, I’ve decided for deeply personal family health reasons not to participate in the return to play,” Green said in a statement. After a trade from Detroit, the defenseman played two games for Edmonton before injuring his right knee.

Boston’s Steven Kampfer, Montreal’s Karl Alzner and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi also decided to opt out. Kampfer, who played 10 games with the Bruins this season, said his wife and son have a congenital defect that could cause complications with the virus and called it ”one of the hardest decisions” he has had to make.

Polak is a pending free agent who last month agreed to a deal in his native Czech Republic next season and told reporters there he wasn’t planning on returning to the NHL if play resumed. Baertschi, who spent most of this season in the minors, is under contract through 2020-21.

”Sven informed us late yesterday that he has chosen to opt out of the NHL return to play program,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. ”It was a difficult decision but ultimately one we respect and understand.”

The Lightning won’t have Stamkos at 100% for the opening of camp because of a lower-body injury, but they’re optimistic he’ll be ready when games get under way in early August. GM Julien BriseBois said Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

While Stamkos has a better chance of being ready for Tampa Bay’s next game than he would have after surgery if the playoffs had started in mid-April, the Flames will have to cope without Hamonic when they open their series against Winnipeg on Aug. 1.

Hamonic became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and my team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

The Minnesota Wild, who face the Canucks in the qualifying round, ruled out defenseman Greg Pateryn indefinitely with an upper-body injury. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday the league will be taking over injury and illness disclosure from teams as a way of protecting player privacy.

”Medical privacy is important in this process,” Daly said. ”Having said that, we understand as a league we have an obligation of some transparency with respect to the COVID virus in particular, so at least for now we’re going to maintain a policy where the league is announcing on basically league numbers and clubs are really prohibited from giving any information with respect to COVID test results, and, for purposes of making the system work, any injury information going forward.”

Lightning’s Stamkos injured again at start of training camp

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Captain Steven Stamkos will be limited at the start of Tampa Bay Lightning training camp because of a new lower-body injury.

General manager Julien BriseBois said Saturday that Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts. Stamkos is expected to be ready for the start of the NHL’s expanded 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs in early August.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

Unlike Stamkos, the Calgary Flames won’t have defenseman Travis Hamonic for the resumption of the hockey season after he decided to opt out for family reasons. Hamonic on Friday night became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

Flames’ Hamonic is first player to opt out of NHL’s return

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Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has been the first player to opt out of the NHL’s Return to Play program.

“Earlier this evening Travis called me to inform us that he has decided to opt out of the NHL Return to Play Program,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “Travis explained that due to family considerations, he has made the difficult decision not to participate in the Stanley Cup Qualifier and Playoffs.

“While we will miss Travis in our line-up, we understand and respect his decision. Our focus remains on preparation for training camp and our upcoming series in the NHL Qualifying Round.”

[Full Stanley Cup Qualifying Round schedule]

As part of the RTP plan that was ratified Friday evening, any player can opt out without penalty by Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline.

In a statement posted through his agent’s Twitter account, Hamonic cited a respiratory virus his young daughter battled last year and the recent birth of his son as the reasons why he will not be joining the Flames.

“My family has and always will come first,” he said. “Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have.”

The 29-year-old Hamonic, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this off-season, played 50 games for Calgary this season. He recorded 12 points and was second the team in average ice time per game (21:12) behind Mark Giordano.

The Flames will face the Jets in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series in the Edmonton hub

MORE:
NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.