For the longest-serving St. Louis Blues fans, it was a 52-year wait. The franchise joined the NHL as part of 1967-68 expansion and, after reaching the final in their first three years of existence, waited 49 years to return. Finally, the Blues have their first championship. Half a century of fans can die in peace now, and any sense of pressure on this franchise is long gone. St. Louis is easily the team furthest from the hot seat in 2019-20.
Which teams face the greatest pressure this coming season? The top of the list blends (a) great teams squarely in their championship windows; (b) emerging young teams due for steps forward; and, (c) perennially disappointing teams with fed-up fan bases. The bottom of the list includes some recent champions and rebuilding teams not expected to compete for the Stanley Cup until a few years from now.
For the sake of this exercise, markets matter. Canadian teams populate four of the top seven spots – five if you count Buffalo, a market with Canadian-caliber hockey fervor. In these cities, virtually every move is scrutinized during times of relative competitiveness, be it Cup contention or competing for the playoff bubble. The hockey-mad markets do gain a bit of patience during scorched-earth rebuilds. The Ottawa Senators have a lot of runway at the moment.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tied NHL record with 62 victories and…got swept in Round 1. “Devastating” doesn’t do their 2018-19 season justice. It’s Cup or bust for this powerhouse.
- Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the league’s most talent-rich teams hasn’t escaped Round 1 of playoffs during Matthews/Babcock era. Heads roll without major progress this time.
- Nashville Predators
A Cup final, Presidents’ Trophy, first-round exit. The three-year trend goes in the wrong direction. This group has nothing left to accomplish aside from winning the Cup.
- Calgary Flames
Best record in the West should not have yielded the first-round exit. Flames too good not to make a deeper run. But is lack of grit a problem?
- Buffalo Sabres
Barely a whiff of playoffs for Eichel as he enters his fifth season. Robust hockey market deserves better and wants better. Major pressure to improve.
- Edmonton Oilers
New coach, new GM, but don’t label it a rebuild. Can’t be wasting peak years of McDavid and Draisaitl. Pacific Division wide open most seasons, too.
- Winnipeg Jets
Our Cup pick lost to the eventual champs in Round 1. Stacked on paper but must chase title without stud defenseman Trouba after trading him.
- Pittsburgh Penguins
Two years removed from consecutive Cups, Pens carry a high standard. Only so many great years of Crosby/Malkin left. First-round sweep loss doesn’t sit well.
- San Jose Sharks
Spending big to re-sign Karlsson tells us “all-in” phase not over for this core. Conference final or better twice in the past four seasons. Can they win without Pavelski?
- Philadelphia Flyers
Hiring Vigneault as coach, signing Hayes, trading for Niskanen tells us Flyers are sick of rebuild and want to compete for Metropolitan crown.
- Dallas Stars
Reaching Round 2 of post-season qualifies as progress, but Seguin/Benn regime running out of chances. Adding vets Pavelski, Perry says “going for it.”
- Florida Panthers
Too much skill on this team to miss playoffs again. More likely to get in than not with Bobrovsky in net and Quenneville guiding Barkov, Ekblad and Co.
- Vegas Golden Knights
Expansion fan base can only ask for so much in Year 3 but knows nothing but success and expects more of it. Knights remain in contention window.
- New York Islanders
Defied expectations this past season…because there were none. Now Lamoriello’s upstart squad is expected to battle for the division title.
- New Jersey Devils
Adding Hughes, Subban means Devils should be much better and likely a playoff threat. Anything less would be disappointing. Hall a pending UFA.
- Colorado Avalanche
After reaching Round 2, Avs made splashy off-season additions, signalling an end of the rebuild and beginning of contention era. Fan expectations thus rise.
- Boston Bruins
A championship plus two more berths in Cup final since 2011 are nice, but losing Game 7 of 2019 final on home ice creates a hunger to finish the job.
- Montreal Canadiens
Stuck in limbo between a rebuild and retool, but a squad still employing Price and Weber clearly hopes to compete in the present.
- Columbus Blue Jackets
The pressure now isn’t so much to improve on 2019 playoff-series win but to find a way to stay competitive despite catastrophic free-agent losses.
- New York Rangers
A rebuild shouldn’t create pressure in theory, but any team adding Panarin, Trouba and Kakko will be counted on to improve dramatically year over year.
- Minnesota Wild
Not behaving like a full rebuilder or a contender, meaning expectations fall in “just make the playoffs” tier despite a hockey-mad market.
- Carolina Hurricanes
Theoretically, pressure should be high for a team fresh off a trip to the conference final, but ‘Storm Surge’ culture around Canes is too laid back for that, no?
- Arizona Coyotes
Just completed the most successful season from a business standpoint. Must win more to ensure franchise survival. A playoff berth would go a long way.
- Vancouver Canucks
Nearing the end of rebuild. A critical mass of high-end prospects achieved. Playoffs not necessarily the goal, but progress and year-long competitiveness are.
- Chicago Blackhawks
Consecutive playoff misses recalibrated goals… sort of. Youth movement ahead of schedule. A return to relevance could happen as early as this season.
- Los Angeles Kings
Three playoff misses in five years should send message to Kings fans that 2012-14 core isn’t winning the Cup again. Must go backward to go forward.
- Detroit Red Wings
A 25-year playoff streak earned many years of rebuild rope. But will fans expect miracles quicker with Yzerman taking over as GM?
- Anaheim Ducks
The Perry buyout spoke volumes. Ducks willing to go younger at forward, meaning playoffs aren’t a must while the kids cut their teeth under new coach Eakins.
- Washington Capitals
Shine hasn’t worn off 2018 Cup win, but Caps still yearn for another deep run with Ovechkin-led group. No panic unless they lose in the first round again.
- Ottawa Senators
Exciting prospect crop, but Sens are a clear favorite to finish last overall in 2019-20. Starting from scratch. No reason to demand immediate success.
- St. Louis Blues
Waiting so many decades for a championship almost relieves pressure even more, as the euphoria of winning first Cup should last all year.