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.

 

Players

5. Mitchell Marner, W, Toronto Maple Leafs

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.

 

4. Patrik Laine, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets

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.

 

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Washington Capitals

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.