NHL Power Rankings: Players Under Pressure Edition

NHL insider Corey Hirsch discusses his take on the Vancouver Canucks rookie tourney, who's standing out, who's flying under the radar, and who might not be quite ready for the NHL.

Pressure is inherent in a game unfolding at top speeds with frozen rubber, stiff graphite, sharp blades and zero out-of-bounds.

But as training camps for the 2017-18 season open this week, some players — due to shaky performance, increased responsibility, trade possibility, or an impending performance review — are certainly striding under more pressure than others.

It’s the NHL Power Rankings: Players Under Pressure Edition.

As usual, all 31 teams are ranked according to their current strength. Unlikely as a threepeat may be, the Pittsburgh Penguins deserve the crow’s nest until shaken off. And, no, the Vegas Golden Knights do not debut in our newly created No. 31 slot.

Under “previous ranking” you’ll find each team’s final standing for the 2016-17 season.

The individual write-ups answer a simple pre-season question: Which player on each team is under the most pressure to deliver this winter?

Rank Team
1

Antti Niemi didn’t receive much positive press in Dallas and was a curious choice to replace Marc-Andre Fleury as the Penguins’ backup goalie. Gone is Matt Murray’s security blanket. A strong support showing by Niemi, 34, could keep him in the league.

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2

Is Corey Perry truly an $8.625-million player right now? Will he be in 2021? That’s how long the 32-year-old winger’s contract lasts. For the first time in the past nine full seasons, Perry was not a 20-goal scorer in the NHL. Anaheim needs a bounce back from one of its leaders.

Previous: 3

3

We know a healthy Steven Stamkos is an impact player. The Bolts’ second-highest-paid forward, Ryan Callahan, is also rebounding from a serious injury (two hip surgeries) and many question the 32-year-old’s ability to still play an important role on a contender. With three more seasons on his deal, Callahan must arrive fast, healthy and motivated.

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4

In hindsight, burning a year of teenage right wing Jesse Puljujarvi’s entry-level deal was probably not a wise development plan. The fourth-overall pick in 2016 found his feel in Bakersfield and will now be encouraged to grab a spot taking passes from Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.

Previous: 10

5

After following a tremendous regular season with a swift playoff ouster, the pressure on Bruce Boudreau’s squad is spread top to bottom, and the Wild need more goals. Matt Dumba — a 23-year-old, right-shot D-man — could’ve been traded but wasn’t. A strong contract year could force the Wild to nearly double his salary.

Previous: 9

6

Boone Jenner’s trajectory is curious. The 24-year-old followed a 30-goal breakout in 2015-16 with “only” 18 goals in 2016-17, a quiet backward step in production that was glossed over by CBJ’s multitude of success stories. Sam Gagner, Scott Hartnell and Brandon Saad are gone. Jenner is entering an RFA year and can raise his value.

Previous: 8

7

Few, if any, expect Connor Murphy to fill Niklas Hjalmarsson’s skates, but the 24-year-old has moved from Arizona to a city where winning hockey matters and the lights are brighter. An incredible opportunity for the emerging workhorse to make a name for himself and contribute to a contender.

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8

John Carlson, 27, could become the most in-demand UFA defenceman with a big season, but no one is under more pressure — from his country, from his teammates, from his owner, from himself — than Alex Ovechkin. The Great 8 has less talent around him in D.C. and vowed to go to an Olympics the NHL is skipping. Get your popcorn ready.

Previous: 5

9

One summer ago, Troy Brouwer positioned as a victory free agent and named alternate captain. In June, he was left exposed to Vegas, who took a pass after Brouwer’s career-worst 25-point effort. Two years and $9 million are still owed to the power forward. Time to prove he’s not a bust.

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10

Anyone else read a positive review about the Predators’ top four defencemen last June? With Ryan Ellis sidelined for four-to-six months, new guy Alexei Emelin (and Matt Irwin and Yannik Weber) will need to pick up the slack.

Previous: 2

11

Jake Allen’s 2016-17 — his first 82-gamer as the Blues’ undisputed Number 1 netminder — was underwhelming to put it politely. If he can be as solid as he looked in the post-season, St. Louis should be fine.

Previous: 12

12

You don’t sign a three-year, $18.75-million deal at age 37 and leave comfy, small-market San Jose for the Toronto spotlight unless you’re ready to embrace the pressure. Soar, and he’ll be a god. But if Patrick Marleau can’t find synergy with one of the Leafs’ top centres, the knives will be out for the team’s oldest and highest-paid player.

Previous: 15

13

The Stars’ sorry performance in 2016-17 helped lower expectations, then wheeler-dealer Jim Nill went out and landed enough significant pieces over the off-season to raise them right back up. Defence remains a soft spot. Highly touted Stephen Johns, 25, must take another step in his RFA year.

Previous: 24

14

With reliable Marc Methot poached by Dallas (via Vegas) and Erik Karlsson spending Opening Night in the press box, Frederik Claesson and Johnny Oduya will need to play their jocks off to ensure the Sens don’t start losing ground early.

Previous: 4

15

Nick Bjugstad finished 15th in team scoring (14 points in 54 games). Yes, the big, young pivot was injured, but he’s a $4 million player. Management is expecting a big leap.

Previous: 23

16

By dealing Derek Stepan to Arizona, the Rangers placed a mountain of faith in Mika Zibanejad, who must live up to his splashy new $26.7-million contract and the 1C role in New York City.

Previous: 11

17

It would serve more than a few veteran Kings forwards (Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown) well to produce numbers more in line with their salaries. Anze Kopitar, under the weight of a new captaincy and a $10-million paycheque, buckled last season. No one will put more pressure upon Kopitar than himself to reestablish himself as one of the elite two-way centres in the game.

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18

Off-season addition Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck, who signed a one-year, prove-it extension, share the big pressure by co-occupying a seemingly big net in Winnipeg. “We need better goaltending,” stated Jets captain Blake Wheeler. Blunt truth.

Previous: 20

19

After cashing in on July 1, 2016, Mikkel Boedker failed to fit in San Jose, posting an underwhelming 10 goals and 26 points (Troy Brouwer South?). With winger Patrick Marleau out and no significant forward additions made to the Sharks’ roster, a bounce-back season is there for the 27-year-old to seize.

Previous: 13

20

The Bruins’ success lives and dies with Tuukka Rask, an all-world goaltender who battled injury and still saw a career-high 65 games played because no one else could stop the puck. Boston failed to improve its No. 2 spot in the off-season and will roll the dice with Anton Khudobin. Or maybe this is the year Malcolm Subban breaks through?

Previous: 14

21

When Marc Bergevin announced that Jonathan Drouin would be playing centre (sorry, Chucky) and gave him the contract bump to match, the former Lightning highlight instantly became the No. 1 hope/target in Montreal.

Previous: 7

22

The ex-Blackhawks. Greater individual roles and less surrounding talent awaits Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Scott Darling. The latter, in particular, was paid big bucks to inherit No. 1 duties from Cam Ward. Is Darling the next Cam Talbot, or will he suffer by not playing behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and all their wisdom?

Previous: 21

23

We’re not so concerned with Jack Eichel’s contract year. The dude’s awesome. If he’s healthy, he’ll get paid. More intriguing is Evander Kane, whose contract also ends July 1. Is he a trade chip? Does he mesh well with new coach Phil Housley, stay healthy enough to hit 30 goals, and take a step toward improving his reputation and dependability ahead of free agency?

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24

Claude Giroux doesn’t miss games, but he plays hurt and his decreasing production — three years and counting — has led outsiders to wonder if he’ll still be a Flyer when his contract runs out in 2022. The captain is harder on himself than you are, and after a long summer, should come back determined.

Previous: 19

25

Jordan Eberle’s ability to strike quick chemistry with John Tavares could not only ease his own fresh start but help keep the franchise player with the franchise.

Previous: 17

26

Hockey fans will need to adjust their expectations for first-overall draftees after watching Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews back-to-back rookie performances. Due to centre Travis Zajac’s long-term injury, however, Nico Hischier could get thrust into the top nine and be forced to create offence at 18.

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27

Tons of players under pressure to pick from here, but we’ll go with Jacob Markstrom, the 27-year-old, slow-groomed goalie who’s finally been handed the keys to the No. 1 job. Does he have the ability and the mental fortitude to own that crease while playing through all the losses expected to come?

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28

Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Dylan Strome, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak—no team has been better positioned to have a cluster of young forwards all make their mark in the same season since… well, last October’s Leafs. As a 100-point OHL star who failed to reach Game 8 of the NHL last season, Strome in particular is under the gun to prove he can make it in the bigs.

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29

Vegas’s real pressure lifted when the Knights sold a bunch of tickets. On the ice, veteran wings James Neal and David Perron could parlay strong showings into a deadline trade and hop from an expansion team back to a contender.

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30

Which Petr Mrazek will we see this season — the one who stole Jimmy Howard’s starting job or the one who gave it back? Mrazek went unprotected and unclaimed in the expansion draft and has been available in trade. Heading into an RFA year in which the 25-year-old could see his salary drop, the heat is on.

Previous: 25

31

As much pressure as Avs GM Joe Sakic feels to get a decent return in a Matt Duchene trade, Duchene needs to do his part and play better hockey, which will help grant his own trade wishes. The centre is coming off his worst NHL season (18 goals, 41 points) and failed to stand out on Canada’s silver-medal world championship squad (one point in 10 games).

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