Leafs, Penguins among the NHL’s five most pressure-packed markets in 2014-15

Randy Carlyle (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
Randy Carlyle (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

The NHL has always been a pressure-packed league, but from year-to-year, some teams face more pressure than others. Which franchises are going to be dealing with an especially hot seat once the 2014-15 season begins? These five:

5. Washington Capitals. When the Caps missed the playoffs last year and owner Ted Leonsis cleaned house on the management side, some observers expected them to go the same route with their underachieving roster. They did no such thing, and instead doubled down with two high-priced free agent acquisitions (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen). Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee they’ll even make the playoffs in the mediocre Metropolitan division. And if they fall on their faces again and miss the post-season for the second straight year – the first time that will have happened since 2005-07 – what will ownership’s response be then?

4. San Jose Sharks. Sports has a long tradition of identifying underdogs – i.e., teams not expected to do well because they’re lacking in depth or talent – but the Sharks are now officially overdogs: a team not expected to do well despite having all kinds of depth and talent. San Jose GM Doug Wilson’s criticism of his group of players after last spring’s playoff collapse against the Kings should have everyone walking on eggshells as soon as training camp begins, but any kind of serious stumble during the season could lead to major changes.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens have two of the league’s premium talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but since they won a Stanley Cup in 2009, the organization has won only four playoff series. That’s why head coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero were dismissed by owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle – and that’s also why their replacements (GM Jim Rutherford and bench boss Mike Johnston) will feel the heat as soon as the 2014-15 campaign kicks off. Unfortunately, no matter what they do in the regular season, Pittsburgh’s players and management won’t be judged until the post-season begins.

2. Edmonton Oilers. When you haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, there’s going to be pressure on you. But when you’ve had the good fortune of amassing a slew of No. 1 draft picks, that pressure is amplified. And when your GM comes into the job promising big moves, only to leave the team’s core of youngsters intact, that amplified pressure is amplified again. This is what’s facing Oilers GM Craig MacTavish, coach Dallas Eakins and Edmonton’s players this season. The main group has been in place for years now, and if they do what they did last season – finish dead-last in the Western Conference, 10 standings points behind the second-worst team – there’s no telling how irate their fans will be, and what major moves take place.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto’s fans have endured a lot of agony since their beloved Leafs’ last Cup championship 47 years ago. But the level of rancor reached new heights last year after the team’s brutal collapse – and when new president Brendan Shanahan chose to retain the services of head coach Randy Carlyle, the anger from the fan base bubbled over. Shanahan’s subsequent moves (including hiring Kyle Dubas as their new assistant GM) have placated critics, but once games begin being played, the vice will begin squeezing on Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis. If there’s any hint of serious trouble, both Nonis and Carlyle will be seeking employment in a hurry.