Barry Trotz finds himself in a unique position.
You see, in most cases, a coach who had just guided his team to the Stanley Cup would enter the season with sky-high expectations. At the very least, his team would be expected to make the post-season and win a round or two. But Trotz, well, he doesn’t quite face that same burden. Having split from the Washington Capitals in the off-season, one of few coaches in NHL history to depart immediately following a Stanley Cup victory, Trotz now finds himself behind the bench with the New York Islanders and staring down the possibility of a draft lottery finish as the coach of a franchise in flux after the departure of its biggest star of the modern era.
That’s not to say Trotz will enter the season entirely devoid of pressure. The Islanders are going to want to see signs of progress under the defending Cup-winning coach, who inked a five-year pact with New York over the summer. Defensively, the team will need to prove greatly. Offensively, they’ll be tasked with showing that the firepower didn’t leave town along with John Tavares. And in the crease, with long-time Trotz cohort and goaltending guru Mitch Korn also landing in New York, the Islanders will want to see growth and glimpses of a true No. 1 netminder from free agent signee Robin Lehner.
But if the Islanders lose and lose often, if they end up being in the mix for the first-overall selection at the 2019 draft, Trotz won’t have to worry about his job and New York’s fans will be willing to give the veteran coach more latitude than they did the since-relieved Doug Weight last season.
The same, however, can’t be said for the five coaches below, as each will be feeling the heat once the season begins with varying degrees of expectations placed upon each.
JOEL QUENNEVILLE, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
‘Coach Q’ has been in the spotlight for more than a year following Chicago’s first-round flameout against the Nashville Predators during the 2016-17 post-season. He was spared to begin the 2017-18 campaign, though, and then given a stay despite the Blackhawks failing to make the playoffs. But Quenneville might have the warmest seat of any coach in the league heading into the new season, and it’s already been made clear on a number of occasions by those in Chicago’s front office that there’s little room for this team to continue to be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Luckily, the bar for Quenneville is probably somewhat lowered than previous seasons. Making the post-season and at least making a series of it in the first round should be enough to prove he’s still in total control in Chicago. The Blackhawks have a young team and they’re in the midst of retooling on the fly. A step or two forward with this group might be all Quenneville needs to relieve any pressure he’s under.
BRUCE BOUDREAU, MINNESOTA WILD
The Wild made some changes in the front office this summer, relieving longtime GM Chuck Fletcher of his duties and installing former Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton into the vacated post. The turnover came as a result of Minnesota exiting the post-season in the first round for the third consecutive season, which also marked the second year in a row that Boudreau failed to coach this Wild bunch out of the opening series.
It’s the lack of post-season performance that has turned up the heat for ‘Gabby.’ While he’s undoubtedly proven himself to be one of the best regular season coaches the league has to offer, his teams have repeatedly fallen short in the playoffs. Only so much of that can be put on the coach, of course, but Minnesota doesn’t appear as though it’s progressing much in the Central Division battleground. The Wild need to show that they can push beyond the first round in an ultra-competitive division, and it’ll be on Boudreau to get them there.
JON COOPER, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Cooper’s presence should make it clear that this isn’t a list of coaches on the chopping block. The Lightning have been led by Cooper for five full seasons and barring a season in which injuries marred any chances Tampa Bay had, he’s done nothing but succeed behind the bench, appearing in three Eastern Conference finals and guiding Tampa Bay to one Stanley Cup final. The pressure Cooper faces now, though, is the pressure to win it all.
Luckily, GM Steve Yzerman has built a team that has all the pieces in place to compete for the Stanley Cup this season. The Lightning are the favorite of some to be the last team standing this coming season, and Cooper has an offense that can keep pace with any other in the league, a defense that is led by a Norris Trophy winner and a young, up-and-coming goaltender fresh off of landing a spot as a Vezina Trophy finalist. With those pieces in place, Cooper will be asked and expected to at least earn another berth into the conference final. From there, the Lightning have to hope they can close out the series and finally scale the mountain they’ve come so close to summiting in recent seasons.
MIKE BABCOCK, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
When you’re the highest paid coach in the NHL and patrol the bench of a franchise that just ponied up a $15.25-million signing bonus and committed $77 million over seven years to win arguably the most significant free agent sweepstakes in NHL history, there are going to be some expectations. When all those things are true and you’re also the coach of the Maple Leafs, you can rest assured that nothing less than excellence is going to be accepted. And that’s what Babcock is facing as he gets set for his fourth season on Toronto’s bench.
Like Cooper in Tampa Bay, though, Babcock is fortunate in that he’s had a roster assembled by the Maple Leafs’ front office that should be more than capable of challenging for the Stanley Cup. The offense is deep and deadly, with big-money man Tavares added to a group that already includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and (the yet to be re-signed) William Nylander, among others. Sure, the defense needs work, but the honest expectation for Toronto this season should be a post-season berth and trip to the second round. That alone would see Babcock reach some goals with his young group. That it would be the Maple Leafs’ first trip beyond the first round in nearly 15 years doesn’t hurt, either.
TODD REIRDEN, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Just because it’s not Trotz heading up the Capitals’ coaching staff doesn’t mean Washington’s bench boss is off the hook. Think of what Reirden is facing this coming season: not only is he a first time NHL head coach after eight seasons as an assistant and associate coach, he’s going to be leading the defending Stanley Cup champions into battle on the heels of the championship-winning coach leaving town on the highest of high notes. But no pressure, right?
There’s every reason to believe Reirden can be successful in his first foray in the top job at the top level, though. The Capitals roster has been kept intact for the most part, and Washington has a deep stable of scorers and solid blueline corps. Goaltender Braden Holtby, despite a down year, guided the Capitals to a Stanley Cup last season and has been among the league’s best starters for the past several campaigns, too. As the old adage goes, show me a good goaltender and I’ll show you a good coach, so Holtby alone can take some of the heat off of Reirden in his first season.
Regardless, Reirden will be tasked with getting the Stanley Cup-hungover Capitals back to the post-season and there will be those who expect at least a couple-round run out of Washington. It’s going to be a tough test, though one Reirden is surely more than prepared to undertake.