“There’s a lot of pressure in the Washington area with the Caps when it comes to the playoffs.”
That was then-coach Barry Trotz, about three months before he and Washington hoisted the Stanley Cup. It took the Capitals 43 seasons, and it took Trotz 19. Doing so lifted a crushing emotional load off their shoulders.
On whom does that weight fall now? Plenty of teams enter 2018-19 with pressure, and it comes in different forms. Obvious contenders such as Tampa Bay and Nashville will consider their seasons failures with anything less than a championship. Other teams face pressure to win because their windows are closing. Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose count on several players deep into their 30s, while Columbus and Dallas have key UFAs to worry about next summer. Some rising teams, such as Toronto, Colorado and New Jersey, face newfound pressure to advance deeper in the playoffs. Edmonton and Montreal must rebound in their hockey-mad markets or be devoured by wolves.
We get bottom-dweller franchises like Arizona and Buffalo facing pressure to merely show a pulse in 2018-19. And then there’s Vegas, which faces the pressure of…pressure. They’re underdogs no more.
Here is our 2018-19 Pressure Ranking. It’s a good year to be a Capital.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Three conference final appearances and a Cup final in the past four years. Bolts are the league’s most stacked team. Championship or bust.
A trip to the final as a bottom seed and a second-round ouster as the Presidents’ Trophy winner. A relatively young squad, but the Cup window is now.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Honeymoon over. Tavares signing spikes expectations massively. Long-term deal means Leafs don’t need Cup right away, but another first-round exit won’t do.
Chiarelli regime gets another year but must build something strong around McDavid after a massive regression in 2017-18. Heads will roll otherwise.
Traded Hamilton. Signed Neal. Hired new coach in Peters. Flames got aggressive in the hopes of returning to playoffs and even making a Cup run.
Still missed post-season after being so active in 2017 free agency. Must deliver a playoff berth and more, especially if they want to retain Seguin.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Bobrovsky, Panarin are UFAs next year. Taskmaster coach Tortorella typically has short shelf life. Jackets need to at least win a series.
Only so many years left of effective hockey from captain Getzlaf and fellow veteran Perry. Team’s window may have closed already.
Long-serving B’s hope for another Cup before passing torch to rising youth. Chara’s career is almost over, and Bergeron’s prime years will soon end.
May enter season as the top Cup contender. Young team has many fruitful years ahead, though. Hardly a disaster if Jets don’t go all the way in 2018-19.
This rank is low by Habs standards. There will always be heat in Montreal, but informed fans know this team has an uphill battle to be competitive.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Doubled down on size instead of speed with Kovalchuk. Kings have $50 million in payroll committed to seven players, six of whom are well into their 30s.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Many key contributors, from Burns to Pavelski to Thornton, are on the wrong side of 30. Sharks still looking for their first Cup in franchise history.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Injection of youth means they are as much rebuilders as they are retoolers, but GM Armstrong’s leash might shorten if they miss playoffs again.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Last year was magical. Now they’re expected to win their division. With an NFL team coming, they need to keep their fans happy and devoted.
Don’t need to make playoffs, but with No. 1 overall pick Dahlin plus Mittelstadt on board, this team must show progress, some sign of life.
Missed playoffs on season’s final weekend. No reason for a team with Barkov, Trocheck, Ekblad & Co. not to make the big dance this coming season.
A team used to success may feel pressure to deliver for fans, but objective outsiders see the Hawks’ mini-dynasty is over. It was a great run.
Conservative strategy has paid off, and prospects are maturing into legit contributors, complementing vets like Giroux. Ready to ascend but need a goalie.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Way ahead of schedule after surprising 2017-18. Still on a long-term trajectory but, hey, a team with the league MVP in Hall is expected to keep winning.
Would rank higher in a more engaged market. Must avoid last year’s horrific start and build on the momentum of a vastly improved second half.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Losing Tavares signals rebuild, but there’s mild pressure to show fan base that all hope is not lost with team building around Calder winner Barzal.
GM Sakic still playing the long game. Avs have really exciting ‘D’ prospects on the way. Sustained success would be nice but isn’t a must yet.
Franchise already engulfed in flames, and no one expects playoffs, but there’s pressure to avoid last place, as Colorado gets Ottawa’s top 2019 draft pick. Gulp.
Owner Tom Dundon gutted front office and bench and wants culture change, but that won’t happen in one year. Canes will have growing pains.
New GM Paul Fenton has to row through choppy salary-cap waters. Wild may need to get worse to get better later. Playing in NHL’s toughest division hurts.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Blueshirts are committed to rebuild and prioritizing their kids. Only person in the organization who may feel burning need to win now is Lundqvist.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Wings’ mature fan base understands it will take more than a couple playoff misses to right the ship after 25-year playoff streak ended in 2016-17.
Anything but winning feels strange for Pens, but no one’s getting fired if they fail to win a Cup next season after championships in 2016 and 2017.
They’ve bottomed out, amassed some exciting prospects, said goodbye to the Sedins. It’s a blank slate now. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Finally won the Cup when people stopped picking them to win the Cup. With no pressure this year, who knows? Maybe they’re so relaxed they repeat.
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.