6 NHL Teams Most Likely to Disappoint in 2021-22

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2021

6 NHL Teams Most Likely to Disappoint in 2021-22

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Earlier this week, we examined several NHL teams expected to make big leaps forward this season. Now, the focus shifts toward those that could disappoint in 2021-22.

    Some of the clubs on this list, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, were Stanley Cup champions within the past five years. Others, like the Boston Bruins, were Cup finalists during the same period.

    Various factors could prove their undoing this season. A lack of depth at a key position, aging rosters or departures of notable players via trade or free agency could contribute to their decline.

Boston Bruins

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    Two years after reaching the Stanley Cup Final and a year after winning the Presidents' Trophy, the Boston Bruins finished 10th in last season's overall standings with 73 points in 56 games. For the second straight year, they were bounced from the second round of the playoffs. This season could be a bigger disappointment if three key problem areas aren't addressed.

    Goaltending remains a big question mark. Longtime starter Tuukka Rask is sidelined until at least late December recovering from offseason hip surgery. The 34-year-old remains an unrestricted free agent but indicated his preference to rejoin the Bruins on a cheaper contract.

    Jeremy Swayman and free-agent signing Linus Ullmark will be expected to hold the fort until Rask returns. If they struggle, however, Rask's return might not come in time to save the season.

    The Bruins kept trade-deadline acquisition Taylor Hall off the free-agent market by signing him to a four-year, $24 million contract. However, they suffered a big setback when longtime second-line center David Krejci opted to return to the Czech Republic.

    Charlie Coyle looks to be the likely candidate to fill that spot, and the team could also try free-agent additions Nick Foligno or Erik Haula in that role. However, they lack Krejci's savvy playmaking talent. The Bruins could be forced into the trade market for help, but finding a suitable second-line center could be difficult and expensive.

    First-line forwards Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak accounted for most of the Bruins' production over the past three years. They'll need more from secondary scorers like Hall, Coyle and Craig Smith. Bergeron, 36, and the 33-year-old Marchand have shown little sign of slowing down. A significant drop-off in production by either of them, however, could hurt the Bruins' offensive attack.

    The absence of a longtime starting goaltender, the departure of a skilled second-line center or the lack of reliable secondary scoring is a difficult issue for any team to address. Combine all three, and the Bruins face a daunting challenge remaining among this season's Stanley Cup contenders.

Dallas Stars

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    Expectations were high for the Dallas Stars entering 2020-21 following their surprising march to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. A COVID-19 outbreak during training camp followed by a rash of injuries to several key players scuttled their playoff hopes.

    The questions for this season begin between the pipes. Starter Ben Bishop missed all of last season recovering from offseason knee surgery. On Sep. 4, the Dallas Morning News' Matthew DeFranks reported the club is uncertain if the 34-year-old goalie will be available or even play at all.

    Veteran backup Anton Khudobin and promising youngster Jake Oettinger carried the load last season. General manager Jim Nill added a twist by signing veteran Braden Holtby to a one-year contract, creating more uncertainty over the status of the team's goaltending.

    Having lost big defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion round, the Stars found a replacement in former Minnesota Wild rearguard Ryan Suter. Now 36, Suter won't log the big minutes he once did but should fit in on their second defense pairing with Miro Heiskanen. If age should catch up to him, however, the Stars could be scrambling to fill that spot.

    The fate of their season could depend upon their top-six forwards. Tyler Seguin played only three games last season after having hip surgery. Core muscle surgery limited winger Alexander Radulov, 35, to 11 games. The Stars will need both in top form to power their offensive attack.

    Team captain Jamie Benn and winger Joe Pavelski will also be worth monitoring. The 32-year-old Benn's production has been dropping in recent years, with him tallying 35 points in 52 games last season. After netting just 31 points in his first season with the Stars, Pavelski enjoyed a fine bounce-back effort last season to lead them with 51 points. Now 37, however, age could start affecting his performance.

    Young forwards Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson could be taking on larger roles. A groin injury last season that required offseason surgery hampered the 24-year-old Hintz. Robertson, 22, was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy but will face heightened expectations in his sophomore season.

    A healthy roster with veteran forwards playing well, a solid top-four defense and a reliable starting goaltender could make the Stars a playoff contender again. Given the number of questions hovering over the club, however, this season could also end in disappointment.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Barely qualifying for the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens shocked the hockey world by reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993. Despite falling in five games in the Final to the powerful Tampa Bay Lightning, the Habs' surprising postseason success provided a big morale boost to their fans during the pandemic-shortened season.

    If the Canadiens faithful expect another trip to the Final this season, they could be in for a rude surprise. The Canadiens were a team in transition before last spring's playoffs and remain that way heading into 2021-22.

    There's still plenty to like about this club. Young forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield blossomed into stars during last spring's playoff run. Last offseason's additions Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen fit in well with their new teammates. Jeff Petry is among the league's best puck-moving defensemen, while winger Brendan Gallagher remains the club's beating heart.

    However, the Canadiens also face several significant question marks entering this season.

    How well goaltender Carey Price recovers from offseason knee surgery is the primary concern. Price was the Canadiens' undisputed playoff MVP, but he endured a pedestrian regular-season effort. He's expected to be ready for training camp, but his performance will determine his club's fate.

    Multiple injuries will sideline captain Shea Weber for the entire season and maybe his career, leaving a significant void in leadership and physical defensive skill. David Savard was brought in as Weber's replacement on the blue line, but he has big skates to fill. The Habs lost more veteran experience with the departures of two-way center Phillip Danault and playoff hero Corey Perry to free agency.

    Winger Jonathan Drouin returns following an indefinite leave of absence. Despite his playmaking skills, he has yet to become the high-scoring forward the Habs hoped he'd become when they acquired him from Tampa Bay in 2017. They also lost Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the Carolina Hurricanes via offer sheet but acquired a worthwhile replacement in two-way center Christian Dvorak.

    Add it all up, and the possibility of returning to the Cup Final appears remote. They could secure one of the two wild-card berths in the Eastern Conference. On the other hand, it wouldn't be surprising if all these changes and turmoil results in the Habs finishing outside the 2022 postseason picture.

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs was during Sidney Crosby's rookie campaign in 2005-06. Several factors, however, could see them miss the cut this season.

    Since winning their last Stanley Cup in 2016-17, the Penguins have been in a slow, inescapable decline. They were eliminated from the second round in 2018, lost in the first round last spring and in 2019, and failed to advance beyond the qualifying round during the expanded 2020 postseason.

    Longtime Penguins stars such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are now in their mid-30s. They've logged a lot of NHL mileage in their long careers, and it's taking a physical toll. Malkin's return from offseason knee surgery remains uncertain, while wrist surgery will sideline Crosby for at least the first four games.

    More concerning is the lack of promising youngsters in the Penguins roster to eventually replace the aging stars. Top-six forwards Kasperi Kapanen, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are between 25 and 29. While talented, they're not in the same class as Crosby and Malkin. Jason Zucker, 29, has struggled since coming over from the Minnesota Wild during 2019-20.

    The defense features just two players (Marcus Pettersson and John Marino) 25 or younger. Mike Matheson has declined from his promising performances earlier in his career with the Florida Panthers. Injuries have sidelined 30-year-old Brian Dumoulin over the past two seasons.

    Losing Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann during the offseason was a blow to the Penguins' checking lines. They provided a strong work ethic, grit and plenty of energy. CapFriendly shows the Penguins pressed against the $81.5 million cap, leaving no room to bolster their roster.

    Goaltending is the Penguins' biggest concern. Starter Tristan Jarry's stats were among the postseason's worst. Backup Casey DeSmith didn't see any playoff action in the Penguins' first-round elimination by the New York Islanders.

    The Penguins enjoyed considerable success over the past 15 seasons, winning three Stanley Cups, reaching the Final four times and the Eastern Conference Final five times. Given their current roster issues, this could be the season their playoff streak comes to an end.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    It's been 54 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Based on the makeup of their roster heading into this season, that drought won't be ending in 2022.

    The Leafs carry plenty of offensive punch this season. Auston Matthews took home his first Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy in 2020-21. Mitchell Marner finished fourth in league scoring with 67 points in 55 games. Team captain John Tavares has recovered from the concussion and knee injury that knocked him out of last spring's playoffs, while William Nylander was their postseason scoring leader last spring.

    Their forward depth, however, drops considerably beyond the top two lines. Nick Ritchie was brought in to replace the departed Zach Hyman, but they'll miss the latter's two-way skills and leadership. Jason Spezza, 38, and 33-year-old Wayne Simmonds have returned, but both are a year older and well past their playing prime.

    Last season's defense corps remains intact. Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl fill the top two pairings, while Travis Dermott and promising Rasmus Sandin fill out the remainder of the blue line. This group performed well during the 2020-21 regular season. However, their difficulty containing the low-scoring Montreal Canadiens' opportunistic scorers contributed to the Leafs' shocking first-round exit.

    Goaltender Jack Campbell took over the starter's job last season and played well in a losing cause against the Canadiens. Petr Mrazek replaces Frederik Andersen, who signed with Mrazek's former club, the Carolina Hurricanes. Neither of them, however, has carried a team on a deep playoff run in his career.

    Management decided to stick with its core and most of last season's roster. It's a team top-heavy at forward with questionable depth through its bottom-six forwards. They also possess a defense corps and goaltenders with a thin resume of postseason success.

    In other words, it's a team not much different from what we've seen of the Leafs in recent years. It has sufficient star power to secure a playoff spot, perhaps even finish among the top clubs in the Eastern Conference. However, the Leafs still haven't proved they can win a playoff round, let alone bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto for the first time since 1967.

Washington Capitals

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Washington Capitals made no significant offseason additions to the roster. Re-signing captain Alex Ovechkin to a five-year, $47.5 million contract was their biggest news of the summer. Whether the 35-year-old left wing has enough in the tank to lead his team back to championship glory is another matter.

    Since winning their first Cup in 2018, the Capitals have done well in the regular season but come up short in postseason competition. They topped the Metropolitan Division twice and placed second in the East Division in 2020-21 but were bounced from the opening round of the playoffs in each of those seasons.

    One reason is the Capitals' aging core. Ovechkin and fellow forwards Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller are all in their 30s. So are top-four defensemen John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Justin Schultz and Michal Kempny. That doesn't mean they're washed-up, but they could have difficulty against younger, speedier opponents, especially in the playoffs when the physical intensity ratchets up.

    Equally troubling is the drop-off in Evgeny Kuznetsov's performance over the last three years, reaching just 29 points in 41 contests last season. His off-ice behavior, including violating COVID-19 protocols, generated trade speculation amid reports management was losing patience with the 29-year-old center. He's still with the Capitals but could be on a short leash for the coming season.

    Goaltending has also become a concern. Braden Holtby's struggles following the 2018 Cup run led to his departure via free agency last fall. Young netminders Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have yet to establish themselves as full-time NHL starters. Things could get ugly between the pipes if they don't improve this season.

    The Capitals are also still coping with the 2018 departures of head coach Barry Trotz and goalie guru Mitch Korn following their championship run. Todd Reirden lasted just two seasons behind their bench before giving away to Peter Laviolette last September. Laviolette has a long, successful record as an NHL coach, but he couldn't find the winning ingredient for the Capitals last season.

    With no significant upgrades to the roster this summer, the Capitals will rely on Laviolette to find a way to get more from his older stars. He'll also need one or both of his young goalies to step up and for Kuznetsov to regain his form and focus from three years ago. Otherwise, they could be in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14.

            

    Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Feel free to express your views on this topic in the comments section.

    Stats and standings information via NHL.com.

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