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.
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’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.)
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.
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.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.