The 8 Biggest Disappointments from the 2020-21 NHL Regular Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2021

The 8 Biggest Disappointments from the 2020-21 NHL Regular Season

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Every NHL team and player approaches the start of each season with a sense of optimism. It was the same for those going into this shortened 2020-21 campaign.

    Some look to build upon a promising performance from the previous season. Players who have changed teams hope a fresh start will improve their stock. Teams that made significant roster changes anticipate positive shifts in their fortunes.

    While those instances worked out for some, things failed to pan out as hoped for others.

    As we'll see, several teams struggled to follow up on last year's potential. Some who made big moves wound up with little to show for their efforts. A few players who changed teams had difficulty adjusting to their new clubs.

    Here's a look at the eight biggest disappointments from this NHL regular season.

8. Canucks Miss the Playoffs

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    Rich Lam/Associated Press

    The Vancouver Canucks ended their 2020-21 season with a 6-2 loss to the Calgary Flames. It was a sad conclusion to a campaign they won't look back on with any fondness, finishing out of the playoffs in last place in the North Division.

    This wasn't the ending envisioned when this season began. The Canucks reached the playoffs last year for the first time since 2014-15. Led by core stars Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Thatcher Demko, the Canucks eliminated the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues before falling in seven games to the Vegas Golden Knights.

    The Canucks were thought to be a playoff contender this year. However, they lurched from the gate with just nine wins in their first 25 games. Pettersson suffered a season-ending upper-body injury on March 2, while Hughes struggled through a sophomore slump. On March 30, a COVID-19 outbreak sidelined 21 players. By the time they returned to action on April 18, their playoff hopes were dashed.

    General manager Jim Benning faces a busy summer attempting to address his roster's defensive weaknesses. He also faces contract negotiations with Pettersson and Hughes as the restricted free agents are due for significant raises coming off their entry-level deals.

    This season could turn out to be just a temporary setback for the Canucks. They possess a talented core and should rebound if they can improve their defensive depth. Nevertheless, this year's disappointing effort will put pressure on Benning to get this club quickly back on track.

7. The Laine and Roslovic-for-Dubois Trade

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Thanks to the NHL's salary cap, significant early-season trades are rare occurrences. Just 11 days into this season, however, the Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets managed to pull off a big move. On Jan. 23, the Jets shipped forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Blue Jackets for center Pierre-Luc Dubois and a 2022 third-round pick.

    It was a trade involving players in need of a change of scenery. A high-scoring winger, Laine was seeing second-line duty with the Jets, while Roslovic was stuck in a third-line role. Dubois, meanwhile, only committed to a two-year contract with the Blue Jackets. He seemed unhappy in Columbus, earning a benching during his final game with the Jackets.

    Laine was expected to provide a boost to the Jackets offense, while Roslovic was given an opportunity to play as a center on the top two lines. Dubois, meanwhile, was expected to fill the second-line center position for the Jets.

    The early reviews, however, weren't promising. Laine had the worst production of his NHL career with just 10 goals and 21 points in 45 games with the Jackets. Dubois didn't fare any better, with 20 points in 41 games. Only Roslovic showed improvement with a career-high 34 points, but more time is needed to determine if he can handle a full-time top-two center role.

    The rigors of a compressed schedule and adjusting to teammates and a new city likely contributed to Laine's and Dubois' struggles. Both players are better than what they showed during 2020-21 and should return to form next season. Still, this year's outcome was not what the Jets and Jackets were expecting when they put together the trade.

6. Up in Flames in Calgary

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    Rich Lam/Associated Press

    The past two seasons were disappointing for the Calgary Flames. They topped the Western Conference in 2019 but bowed out in the first round to the Colorado Avalanche. The following season, they tumbled to eighth overall and were bounced from the first round by the Dallas Stars.

    General manager Brad Treliving turned to free agency last offseason to improve his roster. In came goaltender Jacob Markstrom, defenseman Chris Tanev and winger Josh Leivo.

    Treliving's moves, however, did little to move the needle. After winning only 11 of their first 24 games, he fired head coach Geoff Ward and brought back Darryl Sutter for his second tenure behind the Flames bench.

    The Flames responded by dropping 11 of their first 16 contests under Sutter. They turned things around over the remainder of the season by winning 10 of their final 16 games. By that point, however, they had lost too much ground in the North standings and missed the playoff cut.

    Treliving goes into the offseason facing some big decisions. Leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau and team captain Mark Giordano are a year away from unrestricted free-agent eligibility. Winger Matthew Tkachuk is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights next summer. Shake-ups could be coming after this disheartening season.

5. The Decline of Evgeny Kuznetsov

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    This season has been difficult for Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Washington Capitals center was placed on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list on Jan. 21 and again on May 4. He was also sidelined by an upper-body injury in late February. His regular-season production tumbled to 29 points in 41 games.

    Kuznetsov's output, however, was declining before this season. Following a career-high 83 points in 2017-18, he tallied 72 points the following season and just 52 points in 63 games in 2019-20.

    In September 2019, the league suspended him for three games for "inappropriate conduct." On May 4, TSN's Pierre LeBrun pointed out Kuznetsov and Samsonov were scratched from a recent game for missing a team function.

    Kuznetsov also became the subject of late-season trade rumors. LeBrun claimed the Capitals are willing to entertain offers for the 29-year-old center this summer. He's heard some with the club's organization are getting irritated with Kuznetsov's antics.

    The Capitals are amid a tough first-round series with the Boston Bruins. They need Kuznetsov at his best if they hope to stage another Stanley Cup run. If he doesn't step up, he could end up playing elsewhere next season.

4. Dallas Stars Lose Some Luster

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Dallas Stars were among last season's biggest surprises. While they finished a respectable fourth place in the Western Conference during the regular season, they weren't among the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

    Despite losing starting goalie Ben Bishop to a knee injury and center Tyler Seguin being hampered by a hip injury, the Stars reached the Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. They marched past the favored Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.

    Expectations were high for the Stars entering this season. However, they failed to qualify for the playoffs, suffering a league-leading 14 overtime losses. A COVID-19 outbreak delayed the start of their season to Jan. 22, forcing them to play a grueling compressed schedule to make up their postponed games.

    Bishop missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery. Seguin only appeared in three contests following offseason hip surgery. Alexander Radulov was sidelined for all but 11 games, while Roope Hintz was plagued by a nagging groin injury.

    With a healthier lineup and some additional scoring punch, the Stars should enjoy a bounce-back performance next season. However, that's cold comfort following last year's exciting postseason run.

3. Carter Hart's Hellish Season

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    Carter Hart enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign in 2019-20. The Philadelphia Flyers goaltender backstopped his club to a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. He outdueled Carey Price to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens from the first round of the 2020 playoffs and won three of six games against the New York Islanders in the second round before falling in seven games.

    Big things were expected for Hart this season, but events didn't unfold as hoped. Following last season's 24 wins, 2.42 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, the 22-year-old won just nine games in 27 appearances this year, sporting a league-worst 3.67 GAA and .877 save percentage. He missed the final 13 games of the season with a sprained MCL.

    Hart's difficulties, however, had little to do with his knee injury. The young goalie seemed to lose confidence in his abilities over the course of the season. He struggled to adjust to the condensed schedule, especially following a COVID-19 outbreak among the Flyers in early February. He also didn't get much help from the porous defense in front of him.

    The Flyers' poor performance this season wasn't solely Hart's fault, but his shaky play was among this season's biggest disappointments. Given his youth and potential, however, a bounce-back effort next season isn't out of the question. He should benefit from a return to a normal schedule and any improvements the Flyers make to their blue line.

2. Montreal Canadiens Since Mid-February

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Montreal Canadiens fans greeted this season with excitement. Their club salvaged a terrible 2019-20 regular-season performance by upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoff qualifying round before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games.

    During the offseason, general manager Marc Bergevin acquired goalie Jake Allen, defenseman Joel Edmundson and forwards Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Corey Perry. With their deepest roster in years, the Canadiens were expected to be a serious playoff team entering this season.

    The Habs burst from the gate with a record of 9-4-2. By mid-February, they were among the league leaders in goals and among the top five in the overall standings. However, they soon slid down the standings as their offense dried up and their defensive game became shaky. They finished the season clinging to the final playoff spot in the North Division.

    Most of the new additions played well, but the Canadiens still struggled to string wins together. Replacing Claude Julien as head coach with Dominique Ducharme on Feb. 24 did little to improve the situation. A postponement of four games because of a COVID-19 pause in March further compressed their schedule. Injuries sidelined goaltender Carey Price, captain Shea Weber and winger Brendan Gallagher down the stretch. 

    Having limped into the postseason, the Canadiens face the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs in their opening-round series. Even if they somehow get past the Leafs, their regular-season performance since February was among the season's biggest disappointments.

1. Taylor Hall's Tenure with the Sabres

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Several factors contributed to the Buffalo Sabres missing the playoffs this season. Team captain Jack Eichel suffered a season-ending neck injury. They never got back on track following an outbreak of COVID-19 in early February. Offseason acquisition Eric Staal was a bust. An 18-game losing skid killed their postseason hopes.

    Signing left wing Taylor Hall to a one-year, $8 million contract in October also contributed to the Sabres' woes. It was also this season's biggest NHL disappointment.

    The Hall signing stunned the hockey world. It was a gamble on both sides. The Sabres hoped Hall would develop solid offensive chemistry and help them end their long postseason drought. The 29-year-old left winger, meanwhile, wanted to boost his stock in hope of landing a lucrative deal with the Sabres or another club via this summer's free-agent market.

    Hall's presence, however, did nothing to improve the Sabres. He managed just two goals and 19 points in 37 games before the Sabres gave up and shipped him to the Boston Bruins before the April trade deadline.

    The Sabres have gone 10 straight seasons without reaching the playoffs. To add insult to injury, Hall regained his scoring touch in Boston. He tallied eight goals and 14 points in 16 regular-season games with the Bruins. As of Saturday, he also has two goals and three points in four playoff games in their series against the Washington Capitals.

                  

    Stats as of May 22 via NHL.com. Some additional info via Hockey Reference and CapFriendly.

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