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5 NHL head coaches on the hot seat entering the season

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Expectations are a part of sports, and hockey is no exception. The most talented teams believe they can win the Stanley Cup, and anything less is a disappointment.

Then there's the middle of the pack, comprised of teams fighting for a playoff spot and hoping for the best when they get there. For these clubs, their expectations are lower, but failure to meet them usually has consequences.

No one takes the fall for their team's inability to meet those standards more than head coaches. Whether or not they deserve it, NHL bench bosses are often the first to go when their squads don't achieve what it'd hoped, regardless of how realistic the expectations were.

Heading into the new season, several head coaches are under more pressure than others for one reason or another. Here's a handful who could find themselves out of work if their teams underachieve:

Jared Bednar

The Colorado Avalanche head coach wasn't entirely to blame for the way last season ended for his club. Colorado's Game 7 loss to the Dallas Stars in the second round was somewhat forgivable because injuries ravaged the Avalanche throughout the 2019-20 campaign.

Bednar got a pass after losing starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer for the abbreviated regular season's final month and most of the aforementioned playoff series while also playing without two-thirds of the team's dominant top line for extended periods. In fact, he deserves praise for guiding the club to the NHL's third-best record amid all the injuries.

However, expectations are even higher for Colorado this season. If the team stays healthy but fails to reach the final four, Bednar's future will undoubtedly come into question. The Avalanche are absolutely loaded with talent, and as such, they're a Stanley Cup favorite. It's reasonable to expect them to at least knock on the door of the championship round. Failing to do that could spell doom for Bednar.

Paul Maurice

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Maurice has enjoyed plenty of job security with the Winnipeg Jets over the years, and for good reason. He's one of the NHL's most widely respected head coaches, so it's not much of a surprise that only one bench boss (Tampa Bay Lightning's Jon Cooper) has held his current position longer.

That being said, it won't be too shocking if Jets management feels a change is necessary if the club underachieves this season after getting bounced from the qualifying round in August. Winnipeg reached the conference finals in 2017-18, but besides that result, the Jets haven't made it past the first round since Maurice took the helm in 2014.

Last season's postseason format was an aberration, but there'll be no excuses if a team featuring the Vezina Trophy winner and a dynamic group of forwards fails to go on a deep postseason run in 2021.

Mike Sullivan

Bill Wippert / National Hockey League / Getty

Sullivan built up plenty of goodwill in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and among its fans for guiding the squad to back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.

However, things have gotten progressively worse for him and his team since then. The Penguins lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2018, got knocked out in the first round the following year, and then suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the underdog Montreal Canadiens in August's qualifying round.

Pittsburgh's championship window is clearly closing. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are 33 and 34, respectively. While Sullivan's not the one building the roster (that's general manager Jim Rutherford, who made several questionable offseason moves), he'll be expected to guide the Penguins further than they've gone since their championship years.

Sheldon Keefe

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Keefe has only been behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench since November 2019, when team president Brendan Shanahan fired Mike Babcock and replaced him with the club's current head coach, who'd worked wonders alongside Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas in the OHL.

It doesn't seem likely that Shanahan and Dubas would have a quick trigger finger with Keefe unless things significantly deteriorated in Toronto. However, it's also clear that expectations are high for the Leafs bench boss in 2021 after the Columbus Blue Jackets knocked Toronto out of the qualifying stage last season, thanks in part to a stunning Game 3 comeback.

Dubas addressed several needs in the offseason, bringing in TJ Brodie to bolster the defense as well as Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Jimmy Vesey up front. Given how last season ended and the fact the roster's been upgraded, it's on Keefe to get his players to perform. If they don't, the head coach's abilities will surely be scrutinized even more heavily than they were after last season's collapse.

Geoff Ward

Dave Sandford / National Hockey League / Getty

Much like Keefe, Ward hasn't been his team's head coach for long. The Calgary Flames promoted him to the top job on an interim basis following Bill Peters' departure last November before removing the interim tag in September. But the length of Ward's tenure may not matter if the Flames sputter out of the gate or fail to improve on last season's results, which ended with a first-round exit.

On the one hand, the pressure cooker is hotter for the Canadian teams, and the competition between them will be as fierce as ever in the realigned North Division.

On the other, the Flames are expected to take a step forward after landing goaltender Jacob Markstrom in free agency, and they still have a solid core in front of him. Whether or not it's justified, Ward could pay the price if Calgary doesn't progress given their upgrade in the crease and the skill the club already possesses.

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