The NHL’s unrelenting slate of COVID-induced postponements presents us with the opportunity to sit back and reflect upon the opening salvo of the 2021-22 season, and pinpoint the high points and lowlights of the year to date. The league’s offseason functions as a powder keg for the upcoming campaigns and each franchise’s relative expectations. Have a productive draft and free agent period and many clamour to be the first ones to crown a new challenger capable of toppling the NHL’s established hierarchy. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in the aftermath of significant playoff success, doubly so if it arrives unexpectedly. With that, here are three teams who have failed to meet lofty expectations thus far, and whether they are equipped to overturn their early misfortunes.
Seattle Kraken (10-17-3, 29th in NHL)
It’s only natural to begin with the offseason’s most prominent disruptor, the Seattle Kraken. The foreboding presence of the NHL’s 32nd franchise presence had significant ramifications on the roster building philosophy and transactional landscape of the league well beyond their inaugural on-ice appearance.
Although many rightfully believed that the roster lacked true offensive talent even in the wake of the frenzied free agent chaos (Jordan Eberle is the only skater to ever eclipse 30 goals in a single season), very few could have predicted their struggles at the other end of the ice. They currently boast a -23 goal differential, and have allowed 3.57 goals against per game, a futile number bested only by a pair of even more porous clubs in the Ottawa Senators (3.61) and Arizona Coyotes (3.69).
You don’t have to look far to identify the main culprit. By MoneyPuck’s estimate, Seattle’s prized free-agent target in goaltender Philipp Grubauer has conceded over 20 goals above expected (GSAx), the worst mark in the league. For all of the team’s adherence to responsible defensive play (sixth in 5v5 expected goals against per-60), those efforts haven’t papered over the gigantic German’s committed impression of a pasta strainer in the Kraken net.
Luckily for the Kraken, two things should bring them hope. The first is their strong defensive scheme, providing consistent levels of insulation for their net-minders, and the second is Grubauer’s established sample of starter-level play. Not only is his career save-percentage (SV%) mark of .917 miles ahead of this season’s .882, but he’s dipped below that mark only one other time in his NHL tenure. It’s possible that taking on a bonafide starter’s workload is taking its toll, but Seattle’s underlying defensive numbers are indicative of a diligent process and it’s unlikely that Grubauer continues to fare this poorly for much longer.
Elsewhere, below-average special teams units (both rank in the league’s bottom-half by efficiency) have failed to provide a much-needed lift. Each unit’s lack of proficiency in generating and preventing quality chances inspires little confidence in an eventual reversal of fortunes. Although it may be too late to make a serious challenge for a first-ever postseason appearance, the Kraken should enjoy a much more competitive second-half of the season once Grubauer regains his Vezina Trophy finalist form.
New York Islanders (8-12-6, 26th in NHL)
If I were to tell you that one of the only teams to meaningfully challenge the Tampa Bay Lightning over the past two postseasons, and who effectively brought back the entirety of that formidable roster was ranked 26th at Christmas, you’d be hard pressed to identify what had gone so horribly wrong. However, like so many of the NHL’s other issues in 2021-22, COVID has played an enormous role in much of the New York Islanders‘ disappointing start this season, kneecapping their lineup so often that their schedule was the second to be postponed by the league after the Senators. It didn’t help that Barry Trotz’s men kicked off the season with 13 straight road games while their new arena was being constructed.
Further, the Islanders’ offensive beacon in Mathew Barzal has struggled to emulate his previous levels of production. His 17 points in 23 games this season represents another entry in a worrying trend of stagnating point totals ever since his explosive rookie campaign of 85 points in 82 games. It’s not for lack of trying though, as Barzal is posting the highest shot-attempt (CF/60) and individual expected goals (ixG/60) rates of his career. The slippery center is in the midst of a dire slump that’s only been exacerbated by tumultuous lineup upheaval every night.
The team has also been without defensive stalwart Ryan Pulock for much of the campaign, as the right-handed defenseman has only featured in 12 of New York’s 26 games after suffering a significant foot injury. His absence has unsurprisingly been a critical loss, especially considering his success as one half of the Islanders’ go-to pair with Adam Pelech. Of the defensive pairs to have played at least 300 minutes together last season, the Pelech-Pulock connection dominated play, accounting for 62.7% of expected goals (fourth in the NHL), and ranked second in expected goals against per-60-minutes (xGA/60). For a group whose collective identity revolves around their restrictive defensive blueprint, the loss of Pulock simultaneously neutralizes the most impactful tool at their disposal.
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For now, they’re well behind their main Metropolitan Division rivals (the Pittsburgh Penguins are the closest at a 17-point difference) meaning they find themselves in a crawl to the second, and final, wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. Assuming the NHL’s temporary postponement clears up the league’s outbreak problem, the Islanders should find strength in a more consistent lineup filled with NHL regulars rather than relying on a rotating cast of minor-league stopgaps.
Montreal Canadiens (7-21-3, 31st in NHL)
How the mighty have fallen. The 2021 Stanley Cup runners-up crashed to Earth through the first third of the season, their season marred by the absence or departure of several key postseason contributors in captain Shea Weber, center Phillip Danualt, and Carey Price, among others. Now, the Montreal Canadiens are tussling with the Coyotes for the pole position in the draft lottery, and look night and day from the club which shocked the hockey world last spring.
Notably, several of the Canadiens’ young stars have struggled to acclimate to their increased roles and responsibilities. Nick Suzuki has wobbled as the first-line center, and rookie phenom Cole Caufield (12 points in 20 playoff games in 2020-21) faced a spell in the American Hockey League (AHL) following an extremely slow start to the year. It’s arguable that entering a competitive downswing ahead of the vaunted 2022 NHL draft is beneficial for the franchise in the long run, but such dour results sting when considering the engrossing sliver of success much of this core tasted last season.
It’s not as though the team is snakebitten either, the underlying results paint as grim a picture as a glance at the standings makes the situation appear. They’re not generating much offense at 5v5 (24th in xGF/60) and have struggled to protect their net-minders as well (26th in xGA/60), combining for a miserable mixture of ineptitude.
So, what’s in the Canadiens near future? They may also look to sell off aging assets for prospects and draft capital, with pending Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) defenseman Ben Chiarot looking the likeliest bet to leave town at the trade deadline. Other candidates include Tyler Toffoli (three years, $4.25 million), Mike Hoffman (three years, $4.5 million), and Brett Kulak (one year, $1.85 million), although the probability of each being traded varies considerably due to their respective contract length and cap hit. If new head honcho Jeff Gorton hits the reset button, things could get even uglier for Montreal before the season’s conclusion.
An Unpredictable 2021-22 NHL Season Continues
For each of the three aforementioned franchises, 2021-22 has been a season to forget. The interplay of significant roster turnover, COVID once again wreaking havoc, and bouts of unforgiving puck luck has shunted these teams to the NHL’s basement, left to ponder game tape of the upcoming draft class’ top prospects. There are still 50-odd games left to play in each of their respective seasons, but the odds are stacked against any potential Cinderella runs to the playoffs. Did I miss anyone? Which, if any, other teams have left you feeling unfulfilled? Share your thoughts below.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.