under pressure

Under pressure: Jakub Voracek

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Jakub Voracek’s big contract extension won’t kick in until 2016-17, but expectations rose the minute the ink dried.

Fair or not, Philadelphia Flyers fans (and just about everyone else) may struggle to keep perspective regarding his huge contract extension if next season goes poorly. That’s the nature of the beast when you sign an enormous eight-year, $66 million extension.

The jump from a $4.25 million cap hit in 2015-16 to $8.2 million going forward means that the Czech winger will be placed under the microscope, yet it was easy to see the logic that GM Ron Hextall laid out after the big deal was announced.

“Once the season ended, you start looking at your priorities and clearly it was our No. 1 priority,” Hextall said in late July. “The Jake Voraceks of the world are few and far between. He certainly wasn’t a player we wanted to risk losing.”

If nothing else, it doesn’t sound like Voracek got a big head after scoring 22 goals and 81 points last season, the fourth-highest scoring total in the NHL. Really, it sounds like he needs to prove to himself that he is in select company.

“It’s hard,” Voracek said back in April, per CSNPhilly.com. “It’s been a long season. If I do it next year, maybe I can admit that I belong there [in that club]. Right now, I had one good season. It doesn’t end for me. Nothing changes. I will work hard this summer.”

Really, though, he’s been outstanding from more or less the moment he arrived in Philadelphia.

Since 2012-13, Voracek generated 189 points, the 10th best total in that span. (Claude Giroux is in third with 207.) You don’t do that well thanks to just “one good season.”

The most promising thing is that, even with more than 500 games of regular season experience, Voracek’s still quite young.

He turned 26 on Aug. 15, so he’ll be 27 when the extension begins. The Flyers still get some of his peak years, and his chances of living up to that contract increase greatly.

Maybe that’s why Jeremy Roenick believes he has plenty left in the tank?

Under Pressure: Lindy Ruff

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The Dallas Stars were a fun dark horse candidate for some time, but this summer ensured that they can’t get away with being a “work in progress” any longer. Much of the pressure to advance falls on Lindy Ruff’s shoulders.

Plenty of questions remain on defense

When you look beyond the flashy set of forwards and the gaudy prices on goalies, one cannot help but wonder if Dallas will still struggle to keep pucks out of its net.

Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi should (potentially) at least give them average-to-good goaltending most nights, but will the Stars’ hyped defensive prospects mature in time to patch up a leaky group of blueliners?

For one thing, it’s a little odd that Tyler Seguin wasn’t shaken off of his belief that Stars couldn’t just outscore their opponents in 2014-15.

“We felt we had all these top players, all this firepower that could score a ton of goals. Automatically in training camp we were scoring a ton, but we weren’t focusing on defense,” Seguin told Sportsnet in early August.

“That’s not the on the coaches or GMs at all. That was all on us. We felt we could outscore every team.”

Yes, Seguin lets management off the hook, but it still seems a little strange.

Rising expectations

On the bright side, the Stars were a pretty strong possession team. Defending Big D goes deep on that front.

To some extent, the formula might not be ideal, though; the Stars’ blistering offense (third in the NHL in “SAT For”) in some ways camouflages the fact that Dallas also gave up far more scoring chances than they would have preferred (20th in “SAT Against”).

How much can we reasonably expect the Stars’ defense to improve from there? Again, it’s difficult to say which prospects may make an impact (and when), so the blueline may be largely similar to the shaky one from last season. Johnny Oduya serves as a nice upgrade over Trevor Daley, but only to a certain extent.

Fair or not, Ruff will absorb plenty of blame if the same problems blot out the Stars once more.

Under Pressure: Bobby Ryan

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When you’re bringing home the biggest paychecks on your team, people are going to expect big results.

Most won’t demand team-best play from Bobby Ryan, as just about anyone realizes that the Ottawa Senators go as far as Erik Karlsson can take them.

That said, many are going to expect Ryan, 28, to score more than 18 goals now that his hefty contract is kicking in. Disappointing playoff results aren’t going to cut it, either.

His $7.25 million cap hit tops all Senators, and it’s a lengthy deal (the overall cost: seven years, $50.75 million). It’s a contract that could elicit some serious groans in little time, particularly if Ryan doesn’t find a way to be more than the 20-ish goal scorer we’ve seen lately.

Snipers have it tough in a lot of ways, as even the best hit cold streaks, sometimes based largely on bad luck. Even so, Ryan hasn’t exactly given himself a lot of leeway with fans who may otherwise hand him some benefit of the doubt:

It probably doesn’t help the American winger’s cause that the Senators employed cheaper players who produced similar results last season.

He only ranked sixth on the team in goals with those 18, as Mike Hoffman (27 goals, $2 million next season), Mark Stone (26 goals, $3.5M), Kyle Turris (24 goals, $3.5M), Karlsson (21 goals, $6.5M) and Mika Zibanejad (20 goals, $2.625M) all lit the lamp more often than Ryan.

As uncomfortable as that might be considering Ryan’s price tag, it could also stand as a “good problem to have” … at least if the Senators make the playoffs. (Although he’d probably be the first to admit that his 2015 postseason performance was underwhelming, too.)

If that isn’t the case, Ryan will be put under far more scrutiny, and people will again wonder about his ability to spell intensity. Ultimately, it all reads as a high-pressure situation for Ryan.

Under Pressure: Jeff Blashill

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Here’s an understatement for you: Mike Babcock is a tough act to follow.

In the hearts and minds of Red Wings fans, Jeff Blashill may very well face an impossible task in trying to supplant the scowl of Babs. It cannot be easy to jump from the AHL to replacing one of the most respected bench bosses in recent history.

That said, for all the well-earned hero worship Babcock often inspires, there’s an argument that Detroit needed a breath of fresh air.

The Red Wings were as dominant as ever from 2006-07 to 2008-09, making three conference finals, two Stanley Cup Final rounds and winning one ring. They’ve been solid-yet-mostly-unspectacular since then, however:

  • Just one division title (in 2010-11).
  • Three first-round exits in their last six postseason berths, including two straight years of one-and-done. The Red Wings haven’t made it beyond the second round in that span, either.
  • They struggled to make the playoffs more than ever in recent years.

This is likely a case of oversimplifying, yet some may look at this situation in one of two ways:

A) Babcock squeezed every standings point possible out of a fading team.

B) Conversely, the franchise was begging for a jolt of energy.

It’s worth noting that the Red Wings remain a quality possession squad, although their exact rankings vary based on which specific metrics you use. The bottom line is that there’s a solid chance that Blashill has a decent group to work with, even if this obviously isn’t the stupidly dominant group many long associated with the Red Wings brand.

When your team is currently on a record 24-season playoff streak, expectations are inevitable, and Blashill faces a tall task. For all we know, setting the bar so high might not be such a bad thing.

Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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If you want a hockey example of “be careful what you wish for,” look no further than Robin Lehner.

He’s getting what he likely pined for during his time with the Ottawa Senators – the No. 1 gig – yet he’ll face a challenging situation in Buffalo.

It doesn’t help matters that Sabres fans cringed at the cost of acquiring Lehner.

Lehner cost a first-round draft pick in a loaded draft while the Senators also managed to unload David Legwand’s contract. The 24-year-old may need to do a little convincing early on.

A bumpy 2014-15 season

Whether it was crafty veteran Craig Anderson or fast-food sensation Andrew Hammond, Lehner couldn’t snare the starting gig in Ottawa, and things only got worse when concussion issues ended his season altogether.

It’s easy to forget that Lehner sports a perfectly respectable career save percentage (.914) because his 2014-15 season was so unsightly: 9-12-3 with a mediocre .905 save percentage.

Long story short, Lehner has plenty to prove after a bumpy start to his NHL career.

source: AP
Via AP

A big opportunity, but a huge challenge

That said, he’s definitely getting a fair shot with the Sabres and GM Tim Murray. Murray was nothing if optimistic about acquiring the big Swede, as the Ottawa Sun noted after the trade.

“I think Robin needed a change of scenery,” Murray said. “I think he’s a very talented, big strong, young man that is just scratching the surface and, hopefully, we can bring the best out of him.”

Some might roll their eyes at the idea of a change of scenery making a difference, yet it’s not without precedent. Steve Mason’s resurgence in Philadelphia argues that a struggling netminder can thrive after a career Etch-a-Sketch shake.

Granted, it won’t be easy; Lehner’s essentially going from a holding pattern in Ottawa to a trial by fire with Buffalo. What do you think: will he sink or swim?