Maple Leafs, Rangers, Oilers among teams facing most pressure to win this season

Toronto Maple Leafs
Claus Andersen, Getty Images

The start of a new season always brings optimism for most fan bases.

Maybe this is your team’s year. Maybe that free agent addition or offseason trade will bring your team that Stanley Cup you have been waiting for. Or perhaps your team going through a perpetual rebuild finally breaks through and makes the playoffs. It is a clean slate and new season for everybody.

Some teams, though, enter the season facing immense pressure where a certain level needs to be reached for the season to be a success.

Here we are going to look at seven teams around the NHL that are facing the most pressure to win this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

No team has the spotlight on it more this this season than the Maple Leafs. They are six years into this thing with this core and all they have to show for it is one North Division championship and five consecutive first-round exits.

Do you know who that is good enough for? Nobody. Not ownership. Not the fans. Definitely not the Toronto media. Certainly not the players. Through all of those postseason disappointments the Maple Leafs have kept their core together and not made dramatic changes, outside of swapping Mike Babcock for Sheldon Keefe behind the bench.

That will almost certainly not continue through a sixth consecutive First Round exit. There is certainly pressure for Auston Matthew and John Tavares to be the duo that finally brings the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, but before they can do that they have to get through the First Round of the playoffs. There is no way another First Round exit results in anything other than wholesale changes to the team.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are a fascinating situation because they have been wildly successful during their first four years in the NHL, reaching the semifinals three times already.

It is the most incredible start to a franchise in the modern NHL.

It has also raised the bar to a nearly unreachable level. There is already pressure for this team to win it all, especially after back-to-back losses in the Conference Finals to teams that they were favorites against. The Golden Knights are ruthless in their quest for a championship and will make whatever change they need to make. Fire the coach that took you to the Stanley Cup Final in year one? Done. Toss aside the face of your franchise and reigning Vezina Trophy winner? No problem! There is not a blockbuster move that this team is not interested in, and they will do whatever it takes to make it happen. If they do not make another deep playoff run there could be another round of dramatic changes on the way.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are still highly regarded as one of the league’s best teams and Stanley Cup favorites. But they have hit the Second Round ceiling. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But at some point there is going to be pressure on this group to do something more. We saw what happened with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals every time they lost in the Second Round. Heck, we saw what happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning for losing in the Conference Final every year (same is true with Vegas). Eventually people want to see those teams and superstar players win, and doubt starts to creep in when they do not. If the Avalanche want to avoid that criticism, a trip to the Western Conference Final would be a good place to start.

New York Rangers

The Rangers’ rebuild seemed to be going along smoothly. They have accumulate a ton of young talent in the form of high draft picks, they have an MVP candidate in Artemi Panarin, they have a Norris Trophy winner in Adam Fox, and a young franchise goalie in Igor Shesterkin. They have not yet established themselves as a playoff team, but they are on the right track. That still was not enough — or fast enough — for ownership. They fired coach David Quinn, changed general managers, and made some pretty significant changes to the roster by bringing in players like Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow this offseason. It is clear what ownership wants to see this season: The playoffs. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago’s only playoff appearance over the past four years was the 2019-20 bubble season when they snuck in as the 23rd ranked team. Their drop off from Stanley Cup contender to bottom-tier team has been sudden and unforgiving.

They spent the offseason spending a ton of money to build the team back up, acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, and Seth Jones, spending a huge amount of money in the process. It is pretty clear they abandoned the whole idea of a long-term rebuild with those moves and are back focussed on trying to make the playoffs right now.

Trying to salvage what is left of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane‘s careers with the team? Trying to distract from the sexual assault lawsuits the team is facing? Maybe a little of both? Whatever it is, any team that spend the amount of money the Blackhawks spend this offseason in acquiring the veterans it acquired is going to be expected to win. If they do not make the playoffs does Stan Bowman stay on board through that?

(Some might ask how he has stayed on board to this point.)

Edmonton Oilers

Perhaps the only team that is facing pressure that is even somewhat comparable to Toronto’s.

The Oilers have the two best offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, both of whom are in the prime of their careers. They have combined to win three of the past five MVP awards and the type of players you should be building a championship contender around. Especially by this point in their careers.

The Oilers, though, have mostly done nothing with them. They have just two playoff appearances to show for them, only one playoff series win, and this past year they could not even get a single playoff win against a good, but not great Winnipeg Jets team. That is just not good enough, and there is reason to be skeptical of their chances this season given their offseason moves, the makeup of their defense, and the question marks in goal.

Most teams never get one player like McDavid or Draisaitl, let alone two at the same time in their primes. It is maddening to see them go to waste. Every year they do not take a step forward seems like a wasted year.

Florida Panthers

This is definitely not a Stanley Cup or bust type of season, but here is a somewhat wild fact about the Panthers — they have only made the Stanley Cup playoffs two years in a row just one time in their entire existence. In nearly three decades in the NHL. Just one time. That is stunning. They have a legitimate chance to make that happen again this season. The 2020-21 season was arguably the best single season in the history of the franchise, and this year’s version looks even better following the offseason additions of Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton, as well as the possible emergence of Spencer Knight in goal.

The biggest reason the Panthers have struggled to develop a consistent following in South Florida is they have never given the fan base a reason to be excited. This group has a chance to do that. Aleksander Barkov is signed long-term, the roster is outstanding, they have a chance to become a steady playoff team with this core. They can not lose that progress they started a year ago. They have to keep moving forward.

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.