Does Kuemper face pressure in Colorado? How about Jones in Chicago?
The Vegas Golden Knights are already 1-0 and the Seattle Kraken have lost their first game. The NHL has five more games tonight, including Vancouver at Edmonton. It's the opener for both teams.
Here is a projected order of finish for Western Conference teams, plus a list of one player from each team who needs to step up because he's facing heavy pressure or he might be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful season:
Colorado Avalanche: Goalie Darcy Kuemper is trying to replace Martin Grubauer who was a Vezina Finalist last season with a 1.95 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Kuemper is now with a team that is favored to win the Stanley Cup. With greater opportunity comes greater pressure.
Winnipeg Jets: Defenseman Nate Schmidt. The Minnesota native didn’t originally want to go to Winnipeg. He vetoed the trade. But he changed his mind and decided to play with this talent-laden Jets squad. The Jets needed defensive help and now the pressure is on Schmidt to play better than he did in Vancouver. The Jets need him to be the confident force he was in Vegas.
Minnesota Wild: Left wing Kirill Kaprizov. He played amazingly well (27 goals in 55 games) for 55 NHL regular-season games and the Wild agreed to pay him $9 million per season for five seasons. Any reason to be concerned?
Chicago Blackhawks: Defenseman Seth Jones. The Blackhawks brought in Jones with hope that his presence will help them transform quickly into a consistent playoff team. That’s an overflowing amount of pressure to absorb. Jones needs to have an exceptional first season in Chicago.
Dallas Stars: Captain Jamie Benn. He’s the poster child of how lucrative, long-term contracts can go bad. He has four seasons remaining on a contract paying an average of $9.5 million per season and he’s not the player he once was. Not even close. If the team looks like it won’t make the playoffs, and Benn hasn’t stepped up, the season could get uncomfortable.
St. Louis Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko. He asked to be traded in the offseason. They didn't move him. Now the Blues have to count on him heavily if they want to make the playoffs. How well will he play? Will fans turn on him if he doesn’t score early? This isn’t going to be an easy position for Tarasenko to be in.
Nashville Predators: Center Matt Duchene. The Predators desperately need him to raise his level of play. Since the Predators agreed to pay him an average of $8 million per season, his productivity has dropped significantly. He has played 100 games for the Predators and scored 19 goals.
Arizona Coyotes: General manager Bill Armstrong. He has the unenviable task of deconstructing a competitive team. He’s moved out Conor Garland, Kuemper, Christian Dvorak, and Oliver-Ekman Larsson. Others are to follow. The Coyotes are a mess. It’s going to take a long time to dig out.
1.Vegas Golden Knights: Center Nolan Patrick. If Patrick, 23, wants the hockey world to view him as a top six forward, he must put up numbers for the Golden Knights. The Philadelphia Flyers drafted Patrick with the No. 2 draft pick in 2017 and he didn’t develop into the scorer they hoped he would be. This is a new beginning for Patrick.
2. Edmonton Oilers: Goalie Mike Smith. Every Edmonton fan wanted the Oilers to acquire a goalie this offseason. They chose instead to re-sign 39-year-old Smith. He was sharp last season (2.31, .923 save percentage). But fans will turn on him in a hurry if he falters in 2021-22.
3. Vancouver Canucks: Defenseman Oliver-Ekman Larsson. His $7.2 million per season contract will be heavy to carry if he doesn’t play for the Canucks like he did earlier in his career in Arizona. He’s only 30, but his offensive production and impact have fallen off the past two seasons.
4. Los Angeles Kings: Center Phillip Danault. He wanted an expanded offensive role and he got it by signing with the Kings as a free agent. He will be the team’s No. 2 center and will be expected to score more than he has in the past. Expectations come with a side order of pressure.
5. Calgary Flames: Right wing Johnny Gaudreau. He’s their most important player and most frustrating player. If he has a strong season, they can make the playoffs. If he is so-so, they probably won’t. They probably should have traded him last summer. Win or lose, he might use his free agency to go elsewhere.
6. Seattle Kraken: Defenseman Mark Giordano. The Kraken need Giordano to have a strong season. If he plays well, some contender may give the Kraken a first rounder for Giordano at the deadline.
7. Anaheim Ducks: Rookie Trevor Zegras: He’s 19 and could lead this team in points this season. From my seat, Zegras and Jamie Drysdale are the two most important players in the Ducks organization. As this team moves forward, the Ducks will go as these two guys go.
8. San Jose Sharks: Rookie William Eklund. He’s only 18, but he’s important because he might be the start of the major overhaul that this team must endure.