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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

avalanche injuries
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.