As the 2021-22 NHL season arrives, so does the pressure of expectations. Every player, coach and general manager feels the heat to some degree. But some feel its intensity like a neglected hamburger under a fast food restaurant lamp, sizzling and spoiling and preparing to be tossed away.
Here are my “hot seat” rankings for the upcoming NHL season, for individuals who could face serious consequences for their careers if things don’t go as planned. We’ve ranked five players, coaches and general managers here, with the acknowledgement that there are many more who would have qualified.
Keep in mind that these “hot seats” are ranked based on conversations around the NHL but are also the byproduct of perception. I remember one season I wrote a hot seat piece on general managers and heard from someone in the front office of a scrutinized executive. They said, “He’s not in danger. The only way he’s leaving that job is on a gurney.” To which I replied, “Well that would be a cold seat then, now wouldn’t it?”
Here are the players, general managers and coaches feeling the most pressure this season.
To paraphrase “The Dark Knight,” you either hoist the Stanley Cup or play long enough to become the scapegoat. Marner’s slow transformation from homegrown franchise golden boy to lightning rod for criticism probably started when a contentious contract negotiation resulted in a $10.903 million average annual salary on a six-year deal. (He’s now in Year 3.) It has intensified due to the Leafs’ inability to win in the postseason.
Marner’s not necessarily to be blamed for that, but he’s also not blameless, having failed to score a goal in his past 18 playoff games. (He does have 10 assists in that span.) There are still wells of goodwill for Marner in Toronto, and he can flip the script with an active role in the Maple Leafs winning a playoff round. Or he pays the price for their continued futility, as the team shatters its core like it was dipped in liquid nitrogen.
The 23-year-old winger hit 44 goals in 2017-18 and hasn’t come close to recapturing the magic of his sophomore season. The Jets cut ties with him by flipping him to Columbus for Pierre-Luc Dubois, and he scored 10 goals in 45 games with the Blue Jackets.
It’s a critical season for him, not only for his future in the NHL but for his future earning potential: He’s a restricted free agent after this season, one in which he’ll make $7.5 million. Columbus added Jakub Voracek to his line to help locate the real Patrik Laine again, assuming he exists.
It was a nightmare season for the maligned center in 2020-21: 29 points in 41 games, two bouts with COVID-19 infections and an embarrassing suspension for breaking COVID-19 protocols during the season. That was after his three-game NHL suspension in 2019 for failing a drug test at the IIHF world championships. But when I was in D.C. recently, I heard that Kuznetsov was having a strong camp.
“It was a hard year for him. Things didn’t go his way in a number of areas, and he wants to show people a response year,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told me. “I think everybody expects more. Teammates, management, ownership. We know there’s a really good player in there. He was given a good contract and played well. He just had a bad year.”
The Capitals very much need him to have a good year, especially with Nicklas Backstrom‘s health in question. If he doesn’t, this could be his last ride in Washington.
The Avalanche paid a hefty price to land Kuemper after the unexpected defection of Philipp Grubauer to the Seattle Kraken. The pressure mounts for him on two fronts. He’s tasked with being the primary goaltender for a Stanley Cup favorite, which couldn’t be a more starkly different vibe than “be the best thing about the Arizona Coyotes.” But he’s also playing for his next contract as an unrestricted free agent.
He’s not going to hurt for offers next summer — he’s a starting goalie in the NHL reaching free agency, after all — but his asking price would be raised exponentially were he to lead the Avalanche to the Cup.
Oh, there’s just a little on the line for Carter Hart this season.
His play will determine whether the Flyers return to playoff contention or drop down the standings in the Metro Division, which will ultimately lead to people losing their jobs. His play will help determine whether he’s the franchise goalie many saw him becoming before last season’s disastrous campaign, or whether he’s just another in a seemingly unending line of players whose promise is torched in the Philadelphia goalie incinerator.
So yeah, a little on the line for Carter Hart, who is essentially walking across the Grand Canyon with a safety harness, considering Martin Jones is his backup. Hopefully he makes it to the other side.
The only general manager in Predators history felt the singe of the hot seat last season, with the team’s collection of owners feeling “angry and confused” when the team was struggling in February. That was before Juuse Saros went 16-6-1 down the stretch and dragged the Predators into the playoffs.
Poile was aggressive in the offseason, trading away stalwarts Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Ellis while dangling Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen in the expansion draft. But if the team misses the playoffs this season, perhaps that seat warms up again and he gets kicked upstairs.
This isn’t to say Adams could get fired this season, because if the expectations for his team were any lower, they’d be buttressing the Earth’s molten core. But when the Jack Eichel trade happens, he has to maximize the Sabres’ return. It has to be a bounty that propels the team into its next incarnation.
There’s palpable organizational angst left over from the Ryan O’Reilly trade, which undeniably set the team back. Take those stakes, multiply them by about $50 million and you have the pressure of the Eichel trade.
On Bob McCown’s podcast, Dubas acknowledged that he’s on the hot seat. “I think it’s certainly fair to say that if there aren’t changes to our performance in the end that there will be changes to the organization. That comes with the territory in operating in a market like this and operating with a team that hasn’t reached its potential in the playoffs,” he said.
Dubas has been the Leafs GM since only March 2018. It just seems longer because the Leafs’ failures have been that epic. They haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. What happens to Dubas if history repeats itself this postseason?
The Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade was one of the most blatant kicking-of-the-can deals in recent memory by a general manager. Let someone else figure out what to do with a 35-year-old defenseman making $7.26 million against the cap with a full no-move clause in 2026-27! Jimmy’s general managing for the now!
Benning is signed through the 2022-23 season, but if the Canucks are an also-ran in the Pacific Division it’s hard to imagine he makes it that far. Not with the arena already awash with “Fire Benning!” protests.
Breaking glass on an emergency Darryl Sutter hiring last season has a whiff of desperation. Treliving was hired in 2014, and the Flames have won a single playoff round during his tenure. But his teams have had a .552 points percentage in the regular season.
The Flames are a middle-of-the-pack team, and Treliving’s moves have the same up-and-down quality. On paper, he had a productive offseason. But if the Flames miss the playoffs in a very vulnerable Pacific Division, Treliving might be extinguished. Then again, if he lands Eichel — and the Flames have pursued that — things could shift dramatically.
It’s hard to fathom that a coach with a .619 points percentage since 2017-18 and three straight postseasons with a playoff round victory would be feeling a slight burning sensation. But if the Avalanche can’t break through to the conference final — or worse, take a step back this season — it’s not impossible that Bednar is sent packing. He doesn’t have a contract beyond this season. He also wouldn’t be the first coach to go because the team believes it needs a “new voice” to “get them over the hump.” Or some such.
The 2019 Stanley Cup winner reportedly isn’t signed beyond this season. The team hasn’t gotten out of the first round since hoisting the chalice. GM Doug Armstrong has been known to swap out his coaches since joining the organization in 2008. Keep in mind that Jim Montgomery, the head coach who left the Stars to deal with an addiction to alcohol, is an assistant coach in St. Louis. He had a .579 points percentage in two years with Dallas. Speaking of Dallas …
Bowness was handed a two-year contract after leading the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final in the 2020 postseason bubble. The 66-year-old couldn’t get them back to the postseason in a season marred by injuries, a COVID-19 outbreak and delays caused by the catastrophic winter storm in Texas.
The Stars are entering a critical season, with Joe Pavelski, Alexander Radulov and John Klingberg all potential unrestricted free agents next summer. It’s the kind of team on which a hot-shot coaching change during a midseason slump doesn’t seem out of the question.
Should GM Ken Holland have been on the hot seat? Maybe. But general managers usually get to hire more than one coach before they’re tossed out, and Tippett was Holland’s first hire in 2019. He has experienced tremendous regular-season success in Edmonton, which has a .610 points percentage in his two seasons (thanks to annual MVP performances from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, if we’re honest). But the Oilers have only a single postseason win under Tippett, and that came in the qualification round of the expanded playoffs in 2020.
This is the last year of Tippett’s three-year deal and could be his last one with the Oilers if they don’t push further. But hey, silver lining for the Oilers: They can finally sign a goalie besides Mike Smith if Tippett is gone.
It’s hard to know where to start with the Blackhawks. GM Stan Bowman is in the midst of a multiyear extension and an investigation involving allegations that an assistant coach sexually assaulted two players in 2010. His future with the team is anything but certain.
On the ice, it’s Colliton’s future that’s murky. He’s signed through 2022-23. Chicago’s only postseason appearance in his three years with the team was when the Blackhawks were dragged into the Edmonton bubble when the NHL expanded its playoff field to 24 teams in 2020. There’s no question he has overseen a reloading period, with the roster getting progressively younger. There’s also no question that his teams seem incapable of playing defense at a competent level: Chicago’s 2.64 expected goals against per 60 minutes during Colliton’s tenure ranks worst in the NHL.
The great thing about the NHL is that with a few good months, even the hottest seats can cool off. Good luck to all in the 2021-22 season.
Jersey foul of the week
From reader “Tiger Physics” on Kingston, Ontario’s own Scott Harrington:
— TigerPhysics (@TigerPhysics) September 29, 2021
We’ve seen these “fashion jerseys” floating around the web for various Blue Jackets players. While we appreciate the rock-ribbed patriotism inherent in questioning whether getting Harrington’s name on one is an affront to American values, we’re going to go with “Not a Foul” here. It’s all in keeping with the Blue Jackets’ team aesthetic. But we appreciate you sending this photo that depicts every Scott Harrington jersey ever ordered.
Three things about the preseason
1. Super bummed about Quinton Byfield. The L.A. Kings center suffered a left-ankle fracture in a game against the Coyotes on Tuesday, on one of those plays that immediately made you wince. He played only six games last season in the NHL, and the 19-year-old No. 2 overall pick from 2020 looked solid in the preseason; now, he’s out indefinitely, according to the team.
It’s not the start you want in your first full season, and not an ideal start for a Kings team that has designs on heading back up the standings in the Pacific.
2. The professional tryout contract is like an NHL internship, except instead of college freshmen, it’s 10-year veterans. (So, more like Robert DeNiro in “The Intern.”) Congrats to Alex Galchenyuk for earning a one-year contract with the Arizona Coyotes. Fingers crossed for Brian Boyle (Penguins), Tyler Ennis (Senators) and Bobby Ryan (Red Wings) to make their respective teams.
Fare thee well to Nikita Gusev, who was released from his PTO with the Maple Leafs and continued one of the oddest falls from grace for any recent NHL winger.
3. After watching the Seattle Kraken in the preseason, I think we can make it official: Their road jerseys are far superior to their home jerseys.
nothin’ but smiles tonight! 😁 pic.twitter.com/UJDruSpDlX
— Seattle Kraken (@SeattleKraken) September 30, 2021
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Robin Lehner
The Vegas Golden Knights goalie got the conversation going this week about the alleged medical malpractice being perpetrated by some NHL teams towards their players, like giving them pain medication without a prescription. He got the attention of the NHLPA and the NHL, both of whom he called out in his Twitter thread.
On Tuesday, he said his public pressure would cease, and that he’d try to affect change behind closed doors. Here’s hoping that Lehner doesn’t hesitate to use his platform — and the public support that’s rallied around him — to call out either entity if they don’t follow through on their promises.
Lehner had the best intentions, but his callout of Flyers coach Alain Vigneault as a bullying “dinosaur” was too easily jumbled with his other critiques of pill pushing by teams. So 48 hours after Lehner spoke bold and important truth, the message was muddled by Vigneault’s denials and Lehner’s clarifications. An unfortunate miscommunication on all fronts.
Winner: Sunshine State of Hatred
— 𝙼𝚊𝚛𝚒 𝙵𝚊𝚒𝚎𝚕𝚕𝚘 (@faiello_mari) October 6, 2021
Five fights and 96 penalty minutes … in a preseason game. In case their playoff series didn’t make it obvious, the rivalry is finally on.
Loser: This injury
Ryan Reaves injured in preseason after getting tangled with PK Subban pic.twitter.com/YLvhgrUmqY
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) October 6, 2021
P.K. Subban injured Ryan Reaves as their legs were tangled up in a game on Wednesday. Subban said “legs get caught and things happen,” while wishing for a speedy recovery for Reaves. Both coaches felt the play was unintentional. Rangers fans felt it was a slew foot.
The bottom line: You hate to see this happen, but especially in a practice game.
Winner: Dustin Tokarski
Loser: Dustin Tokarski
Just to reiterate: He has to tend goal for the Buffalo Sabres.
Winner: Kirsten Welsh
Congrats to the Ontario Hockey League referee for becoming the first woman to serve as an on-ice official in league history.
“Just being one of the first women to do this, it really opens that door to women in hockey who want to have an alternate avenue that maybe isn’t playing in the Premier Hockey Federation or playing on a national team,” she said.
Loser: Evander Kane
The San Jose Sharks winger is being investigated by the NHL after allegations that he submitted a fake COVID-19 vaccination card to the league. If true, this is selfish, despicable behavior, but it’s even worse when you realize Santa Clara County — where the Sharks play — was one of the first places in the U.S. impacted by COVID last year and home to some of its longest-lasting public safety protocols.
The Sharks now have several options for terminating their relationship with Kane. But hey, he scores goals, so…
Stan Fischler on Wayne Gretzky off the ice: “When my younger son, Simon, was suffering from heart failure, Gretzky heard about it and came through with an autographed stick. Later, when Simon worked at Cosby’s hockey store in Manhattan, Gretzky would drop in to say hello.”
The 10 rookies to target in your fantasy draft.
Massachusetts Hockey says that abusive parents and coaches are to blame for the league being down 900 officials (!) this season.
From cancer to clearing the crease: The Owen Brady story, from Ken Campbell.
If you’re a hockey media nerd, I highly recommend this edition of “The Chris Johnston Show,” where CJ and Julien McKenzie discuss him leaving Sportsnet, joining TSN and the new path forward in the business.
Police are looking for the owner of approximately 90 autographed hockey cards that were found in southeast Edmonton. Yes, good luck finding someone in Canada that collects hockey cards.
From your friends at ESPN
Clinton Yates chats with Evan F. Moore and Jashvina Shah, authors of the book “Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It,” as well as Everett Fitzhugh, the voice of the Seattle Kraken. Must-listen episode of “Black History Always” here.