10 NHL Players Having Disappointing Starts to the 2020-21 Season
Over a month into the NHL's shortened 2020-21 season, there are several notable players encountering difficulties in the early going.
Some, such as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, are longtime superstars unaccustomed to being in this position. Others, like Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray, are trying to adjust to their new teams following offseason moves. There are also rising stars, like Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson, who are struggling through a rough start to the schedule.
Here's a look at 10 NHL players off to disappointing starts this season. We'll examine the factors behind their difficulties and what they could do or are doing to reverse their fortunes.
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers
Big things were expected for Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart following his solid sophomore campaign in 2019-20. He backstopped the Flyers into the 2020 playoffs and outdueled childhood hero Carey Price during their first-round elimination of the Montreal Canadiens. This season, however, the 22-year-old netminder is off to a rocky start.
The Flyers had been lacking a reliable starting goaltender since Ron Hextall in his late-'80s heyday. Selected by Hextall during his stint as Flyers general manager in the 2016 NHL draft, Hart was expected to be that long-awaited answer.
While he's won five of nine starts this season, his 3.49 goals-against average and .897 save percentage suggest a young goalie struggling to adjust to heightened expectations. He also hasn't been helped by the shaky efforts of the Flyers defense.
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are not just the top pairing on the Columbus Blue Jackets but are also among the NHL's best pairings. They're supposed to be the backbone of their blue line, but as The Athletic's Aaron Portzline observed Feb. 4, both have struggled defensively through the early going.
The 26-year-old Jones is the better all-around defenseman, capable of logging big minutes and playing a strong game at both ends of the rink. He was on the plus side of the plus/minus stat over the previous four seasons, but his minus-9 in 2020-21 ranks among the league's worst.
Werenski, 23, is the better offensive blueliner. He's reached or exceeded 41 points in three of the last four seasons, including a 20-goal effort in 2019-20. However, he managed just four points in his first dozen games before being sidelined Feb. 4 with a lower-body injury. Werenski has collected two assists since his return to action on Saturday.
Portzline suggested the defensive instincts of Jones and Werenski have been hampered this season by hesitation and indecision. Nevertheless, there's plenty of time left for the Jackets' dynamic defensive duo to put their subpar start behind them.
Ryan Johansen, Nashville Predators
Coming off a subpar 36-point performance in 68 games last season, Ryan Johansen entered 2020-21 in need of a bounce-back effort with the Nashville Predators. However, the 28-year-old center managed just four points in 10 games before being sidelined on a week-to-week basis with an upper-body injury.
Johansen netted 54 points or more for six straight seasons between 2013-14 and 2018-19. As the Predators' first-line center between wingers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, the 6'3", 218-pounder garnered a reputation as a big, skillful playmaker. The recent decline in his stats is troubling, especially given that he's earning $8 million annually through the 2024-25 campaign.
That hefty contract could become increasingly burdensome for the struggling Predators if he doesn't return to form when he comes back from injury. Johansen acknowledged this was a pivotal season during a Jan. 14 interview with The Athletic's Adam Vingan. He'll have to prove he's not an overpaid center whose best years are behind him.
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Injuries frequently sidelined Erik Karlsson over the last two seasons, yet the San Jose Sharks defenseman managed at least 40 points in each of them. Healthy through his first dozen games of the 2020-21 campaign, however, he's collected just four points.
The Sharks are hoping to rebound from their disastrous 2019-20 season in which they finished last in the Western Conference. They were counting on the highly skilled Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, to be a key part of their scoring punch. Instead, the 30-year-old rearguard's struggles are partly responsible for a popgun offense (2.38 goals per game) that sits 26th overall.
Now in the second season of an eight-year, $92 million contract, Karlsson hasn't provided much bite to the Sharks attack. He acknowledged his struggles during an interview with The Athletic's Kevin Kurz last week but remained determined to improve. His best efforts, however, could be hampered by the physical toll the game has taken on his body.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins got off to an uneven start with seven wins and 15 points in their first 13 games. Several of their notable players, including goaltender Tristan Jarry, defenseman Kris Letang and winger Jason Zucker, labored through those contests. Evgeni Malkin's difficulties, however, garnered most of the attention.
A superstar second only to captain Sidney Crosby among the Penguins' core players, Malkin has just three goals and seven points this season. He was held to zero points in six of those 13 contests. According to Pittsburgh Hockey Now's Dan Kingerski, Malkin pointed to a shorter training camp and a lack of preseason games as factors behind his slow start, though he acknowledged his responsibility to get back on track.
It could take the 34-year-old Malkin a little longer to get into game shape. The Penguins star has recently been trending in the right direction, putting up points in four of his last five games, and could finally be putting his poor start behind him.
Matt Murray, Ottawa Senators
After five seasons and two Stanley Cup championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Matt Murray was traded to the Ottawa Senators during the offseason. The 26-year-old goaltender was expected to be an upgrade for the rebuilding Senators, but things haven't gone as smoothly as hoped.
Murray was coming off a subpar 2019-20 season in which he won 20 games while sporting a 2.87 GAA and a career-worst .899 save percentage. Those stats, however, shine in comparison to his 3.69 GAA and .882 SP through 12 games with the 3-12-1 Senators.
In fairness, Murray and backup Marcus Hogberg haven't had much help from their porous defense. And Murray's performance had improved during his four contests prior to being sidelined during the team's loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. Still, his play thus far has been a big letdown for his new club.
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks have had a difficult start to the season. Following their encouraging 2019-20 campaign, they find themselves mired in the bottom third of the league standings. Their defensive play is the chief culprit, but many of their best forwards, especially first-line center Elias Pettersson, have not played as well as expected.
Pettersson led the Canucks in combined points (132) during the previous two seasons. Winner of the 2018-19 Calder Memorial Trophy, he was their leading scorer during his rookie season and finished second in 2019-20. He's the engine driving their offensive game.
At first glance, his numbers (five goals and eight assists for 13 points in 19 games) don't appear to be that bad. However, the 22-year-old center's points-per-game average (0.68) is well below last season's 0.97. His production has increased in recent games, a positive sign for the Canucks as they try to right the ship.
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens played well through the opening month of this season, jockeying with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the league standings. They accomplished this despite a less-than-stellar performance from goaltender Carey Price.
A well-respected netminder who topped the 2019-20 NHLPA player poll for the league's top goalie, Price was superb through last year's playoffs, finishing with a 1.78 GAA and a .936 save percentage. Through nine starts in this season, however, his stats (2.64 GAA, .901 SP) are disappointing compared to backup Jake Allen's (2.01 GAA, .933 SP) in his six starts.
Price's early-season difficulties aren't concerning as long as the Canadiens keep winning and Allen keeps playing well. It buys time for the 33-year-old veteran starter to regain his focus and form. However, there could be a goaltending controversy if Price doesn't improve and Allen keeping outplaying him.
Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers
Expectations were high for the New York Rangers after their improvement in 2019-20. They instead stumbled from the gate with just four wins in their first 13 games. A contributing factor was the woeful production of center Mika Zibanejad.
Coming off a career-best 41-goal, 75-point performance, Zibanejad has managed just three points in 13 contests. He admitted he was feeling frustrated over his play during an interview with The Athletic's Rick Carpiniello last week. Zibanejad also said that his conditioning was unaffected by missing training camp after contracting COVID-19.
His lack of production is among several troubling concerns for the Rangers, from defenseman Tony DeAngelo's banishment following an altercation with teammate Alexandar Georgiev to promising rookie Alexis Lafreniere's slow start. Zibanejad has shown signs of improvement lately, however, suggesting a return to form could be imminent.