Although there are varying degrees of pressure and expectations on all 30 NHL coaches (from raw rookies to battle-tested veteran bench bosses), some may be feeling the heat earlier and more intensely than others heading into the start of training camps on Sept. 17. Here's a look at five of them:
Marc Crawford, Dallas Stars
Crawford was the first hire of new Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk when Nieuwendyk took over in June 2009. Crawford's predecessor, Dave Tippett, went on to earn coach of the year honors in Phoenix last season, while Crawford's Stars missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Ouch.
At no point last season did the Stars win three games in a row, and their lack of consistency (or rather consistent inconsistency) was one of the key factors in missing the playoff ferry. Crawford will have use all his coaching acumen to coax the Stars back into the postseason given the talent buildup in the Western Conference and the departure of veterans Mike Modano and Marty Turco. He also may be without longtime Star Jere Lehtinen, who remains undecided about returning to the team.
One of the knocks on Crawford in his previous role as coach of the Los Angeles Kings was he didn't handle the team's young players properly. Crawford will have to prove that was either untrue or a blip on the radar, as the Stars' hopes ride on the shoulders of a young nucleus, including James Neal, Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and Fabian Brunnstrom, among others.
Among the areas Crawford will have to address is the penalty kill, as the Stars were 27th overall last season. They also were an uncharacteristic 23rd in goals allowed per game, although a healthy, focused Kari Lehtonen in goal may help that situation. Still, you have to figure there's not much wiggle room in Dallas, where ownership woes and fading fan attention have combined to rock one of the league's most solid franchises.
Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Will we see the Ron Wilson who deftly guided the underdog Americans to the silver medal (and within a hair of gold) at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics? Or the Ron Wilson whose Toronto Maple Leafs have shown almost no improvement and have regressed on a number of fronts since he took over as coach in June 2008?
Hey, we get it: Any coach is only as good as the players who sit in front of him. But the fact that the Leafs found a way to finish dead last in both penalty killing and power-play efficiency last season is a bit perplexing. Worse, perhaps, is that the Leafs have been last in penalty killing two seasons in a row. Is that a man-power issue or a coaching issue? The Leafs were also last in the East (29th overall) in goals allowed last season, although Wilson has a lot more tools at his disposal at the start of this season than a year ago.
New captain Dion Phaneuf will be fully ensconced on the blue line, Mike Komisarek has recovered from shoulder surgery and Tomas Kaberle is back (at least for the time being), joining Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn and a cast of thousands. Goaltending should be better, too, with the tandem of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, who are both comfortable with life in Toronto.
Offensively, Wilson will have to cobble together scoring from a group that still lacks a defined No. 1 center. Still, Wilson's reputation as a top NHL coach has been made on his preparation and ability to get production from up and down his lineup. He'd better do just that out of the blocks, or the cries for his head that became more muted after the Olympics will be in full voice by the time Halloween rolls around.
Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals
No team fell as far and as hard as the Washington Capitals this past spring. After laying waste to the rest of the competition during the regular season, setting team records for wins and points and leading the NHL in goals scored for the first time, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead against eighth-seeded Montreal in the first round of the playoffs.
One of the challenges for Boudreau (for our money, still the same quality coach who a year earlier won coach of the year honors) will be in keeping the gruesome memories of April at bay. It won't be easy given that nothing the team does during the regular season will be good enough. Only playoff success, and meaningful success at that, will push this talented team forward and dispel the notion that it's San Jose East.
Boudreau will have his hands full in keeping this squad on the right mental plane. First, he will have to keep his captain and franchise player, Alex Ovechkin, on track after he was flayed for his play at the Olympics and then making sport of Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak early in the playoffs before the Caps' collapse. (It's worth noting that the powerhouse Caps scored just one power-play goal in the series after dominating the power play during the regular season.)
Then, there's Mike Green. How does Boudreau handle the two-time Norris Trophy candidate, who suffered through a second straight postseason despite lighting it up offensively once again during the regular season? Boudreau has shown he has the game plan to get his team to the top of the heap; now, he'll need to prove he can get the Caps in to the right headspace to forget the past.
Todd Richards, Minnesota Wild
This is a big season for both Richards and GM Chuck Fletcher, as both enter their second season as the Wild's top men.
After the disappointing end to the Jacques Lemaire/Doug Risebrough tandem in Minnesota, Richards and Fletcher essentially got a pass in their first season in 2009-10, but the rubber will hit the road this season for a franchise that has been stuck in neutral.
The Wild have missed the playoffs three times since the lockout and failed to win a playoff round since 2003. Richards, who was brought in to turn the plodding Wild into a more up-tempo squad, has to get more offense out of a team that ranked 22nd in goals scored. Worse, the Wild were 24th in five-on-five scoring, one of the main reasons they finished outside the playoff bubble.
Richards will have to find a way to coax more offense out of his entire lineup and address the team's goals-against average. (Minny finished an un-Wild-like 21st in goals allowed per game.) The team was surprisingly efficient on the man advantage, ranking 10th overall, and that number shouldn't dip with the addition of veteran center Matt Cullen, who can man the point or play the half-wall. Getting off to a good start will be crucial, especially after the Wild dropped their first eight road games last season. Still, in a conference filled with talented, well-coached teams, Richards will have to prove he can play with the big dogs.
John Tortorella, New York Rangers
We start our discussion about Tortorella by suggesting the NHL is always going to be a more interesting place with the combustible bench boss in it. That said, Tortorella will have his hands full on Broadway as the Rangers continue to studiously avoid filling crucial gaps in their lineup, like a top center and power-play quarterback, thanks in large part to the perpetual malaise that afflicts the GM position held apparently for life by Glen Sather.
The Rangers missed out on the playoffs for the first time since the lockout on the final day of the regular season -- in a shootout, no less. Their penalty kill was seventh, and they were 10th in goals-against. But Tortorella will once again need to coax NHL performances out of a blue line that is young (assuming veteran Wade Redden starts the season buried in Hartford) and may be more prone to taking Tortorella's bombast to heart.
Up front, there are plenty of holes, too, mostly down the middle. Tortorella will have to be at his best, not just patching together linemates for offensive stud Marian Gaborik but also finding offense from the other three lines so the burden doesn't rest entirely with the Gaborik line.
To be sure, Tortorella is far more than a fiery glare and a granite jaw. But in the tough Atlantic Division, Tortorella will have to up the ante to get his Rangers back into the postseason.