The first few weeks of the NHL season are a critical time.  It’s when some coaches will earn a vote of confidence from management following a quick start, and others will find themselves hitting the unemployment line after a disastrous beginning to the season.  Here’s a look at four NHL head coaches that will be feeling the heat to get off to a strong start in order to avoid taking a gig as a TSN analyst before mid-season.

Marc Crawford – Dallas Stars

Crawford has the advantage of being general manager Joe Nieuwendyk’s first hire when he took over the duties last summer.  With this offseason’s exodus of aging superstars, one could bet that Crawford will be given a long leash in an effort to right this ship of uncertainties in Dallas.

Marc Crawford could lose his job if… the Stars don’t improve on their atrocious 254 goals against from a season ago.  A healthy and focused Kari Lehtonen will help, but the Stars are a solid No. 1-3 defenseman away from realistically improving their blue line.

Scoring goals was not a problem for the 2009-10 Stars, the club boasted six players that scored at least 20 goals; Loui Eriksson (29), James Neal (27), Brad Richards (24), Jamie Benn (22), Brendan Morrow (20).  A lame penalty kill (27th) and poor performances on the road (14-20-7) ultimately killed any hope of a resurgence in Dallas, and Crawford will be challenged to improve both of those areas.

Todd Richards – Minnesota Wild

The duo of Richards and GM Chuck Fletcher was supposed to herald a new era of up-tempo offense in Minnesota.  Sure, the Wild were a faster team in 2009-10 but they sure as shit didn’t score much.  The Wild were among the worst even-strength teams in terms of scoring last season, and managed a grand total of only 219 goals as a group – despite owning the league’s 10th best power play.  The Wild’s saving grace was scheduled to be their $6 million man in goal, Niklas Backstrom, but the 32-year old Finnish keeper struggled all season while turning in the worst statistical performance of his 4-year career.

Todd Richards will lose his job if… he can’t find a way to spark Minnesota’s anemic offence.  The addition of two-way players like John Madden and Matt Cullen should help sure up the Wild’s defensive game, but more players are going to have to figure into scoring in order for the Wild to improve upon their 13th place finish from 2009-10.  A healthy Pierre Marc-Bouchard would help, but his status remains uncertain.

Mikko Koivu was involved in 33.2.% of all of the Wild’s goals last season, turning in 20 multi-point games in the process.  A rebound from Martin Havlat and an entire season of the productive version of Guillaume Latendresse are in order, and some consistency from the likes of d-men Brent Burns and Cam Barker could ultimately help propel the Wild back into the competitive end of the Western Conference.

John Tortorella – New York Rangers

“Torts” is one of those coaches that media types love to push when he’s hot under the collar.  Sometimes, all it takes is a little push from Larry Brooks and BOOM!, Tortorella provides us with all the sound bytes we can handle.  In 2009-10, Tortorella was much more entertaining to watch in the post-game interviews every night than his Rangers’ play on the ice.  An average regular season performance was lost on the Rangers when they failed to qualify for the playoffs by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout on the last day of the season.  One could safely say that Glen Sather failed to address several of the team’s glaring needs this offseason.

John Tortorella will lose his job if… Marian Gaborik gets injured.  There’s a hint of sarcasm there, but in all seriousness, this team could easily get lost in the competitive Atlantic Division on account of a lack of depth and no legitimate first line centre.  Gaborik scored 19.2% of the Rangers’ goals in 2009-10 and figured in on 39.3% of the team’s total scoring; if he goes down there’s not much behind to pick up the slack.

A step back in the standings would be a reasonable expectation for the 2010-11 Rangers, how far back that is may depend on what John Tortorella can get out of his rag-tag roster.

Ron Wilson – Toronto Maple Leafs

How bad would the Toronto Maple Leafs have to be in order for Brian Burke to give his good friend Ron Wilson his walking papers?  Worse than last season might be the best answer, which would give Wilson another year to try and turn things around in Toronto.  Although, if the Leafs come out of the gate as limp as they did a season ago then Wilson may be the first man on the chopping block.

Ron Wilson will lose his job if… it’s meant to be.  That’s vague reasoning, I know, but think about this:  despite a roster overhaul to begin 2009-10 and then another one just after mid-season, the Leafs never got better until it was far too late.  Even then, their inspired play trailed off in the final weeks of the season, keeping the club at or near the bottom in both power play, penalty killing, goals for, and goals against.  Changing the culture of a franchise is no simple task, but Brian Burke can only give the roster a makeover so many times before he looks to Wilson as a part of the problem and not a solution to it.