NHL’s five most disappointing teams of the 2021 season so far

Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis break down yet another loss for the Calgary Flames and why there were encouraging signs despite the result.

We’re rapidly approaching the halfway mark of the NHL’s season, and even though that only makes for 28 games there is no room for an extended cold stretch.

Today we look at teams that have been disappointments so far and, for some of them, we may look back and conclude that was because of an unlucky or unfortunate start. For almost every team below, we have seen some good with the bad and, perhaps, there’s still time to salvage something.

But they all came with an expectation of either winning a division, making the playoffs or, at the very least, showing some progression from last season.

Here are five teams that have let us down so far in 2021.

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Vancouver Canucks

Even if they’re victims of playoff-infused expectations that got way out of control, the Canucks still shouldn’t be this bad. Staying in the race and having hope into April was their baseline. Having a points percentage closer to Ottawa than anyone else was not really considered among the range of outcomes.

Here are Vancouver’s season-long measures in a few key categories, at any strength. League rank in parenthesis.

Interestingly, Vancouver has played better recently. It just hasn’t translated to enough wins to see it in the standings. After a genuinely horrific start, bad luck is now at play, too.

Since Feb. 8, a 3-1 loss to Toronto in which the Canucks outshot the Leafs 32-19, there has been noticeable improvement in their numbers. In a lot of cases, their stats haven’t been bottom-of-league bad in a month and, in fact, they measure up quite well to the rest of the North Division.

This stretch of 13 games represents nearly half of all games Vancouver has played so far.

For divisional context, the Canucks are fourth in xGF%, third in SA/G, second in GA/G, and third in SV% among Canadian teams since Feb. 8.

Their shooting percentage has bottomed out, and has been about four points worse over the past 13 games than before this little turn. Their power play isn’t paying off enough — but was perfect in the two wins over Toronto.

The primary story of their mini recovery has been the return of “Bubble Demko” as Thatcher has gone from stable to superstar in the past month. By goals saved above expected, he’s among the best in the league.

So, while Vancouver still sits sixth in the North Division by points percentage and is four points behind Montreal for a playoff spot (in five more games played), things have at least been turning for the better recently. They’re 6-5-2 over this stretch, but that’s not a record that’ll pull them back into the playoff hunt. With just a little more luck and some continued solid play here, Vancouver may prove they’re not out of it yet.

It’s just still a far climb.

Buffalo Sabres

What is there even left to say?

The Sabres are the cautionary tale for rebuild wannabes who might be eager to blow up a team and start from complete scratch through the draft.

That night is dark, and full of terrors.

Jack Eichel, in his sixth NHL season, is on his third coach and third GM. Rasmus Dahlin is on his second of each in just his third NHL season. And by no means should that influence conclusions on either player, but rather the unfocused and inconsistent nature of the way this rebuild has been done.

Rebuilding teams with young cores must have consistent messaging from a coaching staff that establishes a culture, or an expectation of how to operate. The GM overseeing it all has to be patient, avoid temptation to rush an agenda that inevitably brings cap trouble and, most of all, chosen wisely. A successful rebuild can take years to pull off and if the approach to it keeps changing, there are all sorts of pitfalls.

Toronto kept a core management group and its coach through a rebuild, and only made notable changes to direction or purpose after they had seen the playoffs a few times.

In 2017-18, Colorado had the second-worst cap-era season, which followed an 82-point campaign. They did not fire their GM or coach, and they did not rush to trade a disgruntled star at the time in Matt Duchene. When they did get around to moving him, they won big and now have Sam Girard and Bowen Byram on their blue line to show for it. They stayed true to the path they wanted to be on.

Not every rebuild will work, but the Sabres’ way has been self sabotaging. They’ve gone back and forth between building through the draft and making big splash signings and/or trades that haven’t worked to accelerate anything. Jeff Skinner should have been trade bait, not an option for a $9-million extension and, now, a multi-time healthy scratch under a different coach. Ryan O’Reilly probably needed to be traded anyway, but a failure to get enough long-term bang for that buck will haunt the organization for years.

None of this is news. Heck, none of this was the fault of the current GM either. Kevyn Adams is in a tough position, trying to make something of this ongoing mess.

So are the Sabres a disappointment after again trying to make up ground by adding vets like Taylor Hall, Eric Staal and Cody Eakin? Sure.

But it ain’t a surprise.

Calgary Flames

When you have hopes of winning a division title and your GM is saying your identity is that “we’re an inconsistent team,” yeah, you’re falling short of expectation.

This is a team that went 24-15-3 after Bill Peters resigned last season, which gave them the league’s ninth-best points percentage and was tops among all Canadian teams. They brought back the same core of players, too, with key additions to the blue line and in goal.

Then Geoff Ward, who led the team through last year’s tumult and signed a contract extension, was removed 24 games in. The answer, GM Brad Treliving hopes, is that Darryl Sutter’s gruff, old-school approach will change how this team competes.

The biggest problem here is that we don’t know what we’re going to get out of the Flames most nights. There are often two different versions of the team in a single game. Bad starts are specifically a problem: Calgary has scored fewer first-period goals (20) than any Canadian team and have allowed the first goal in 15 of their 26 games.

That is the crux of the issue here. You could say that on paper, this is an improved version of the team that finished well last regular season and won the Pacific Division the year before. Either Sutter’s arrival will pay off and you’ll notice a different Flames team, or else they could be just hanging on to dwindling playoff hopes two weeks from now.

Dallas Stars

From Stanley Cup finalists to the draft lottery?

Injuries have certainly impacted this lineup. Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin haven’t played yet this season and Alexander Radulov was hurt eight games in. So there goes your starting goalie and two-thirds of the top line.

Radulov’s injury, in fact, was a demarcation line on a season that didn’t start poorly at all. They were still the defensively stout team that made them a tough beat last season, and they were getting a pile of goals. Joe Pavelski started off with 15 points in his first eight games.

The Stars won their first four in a row and earned points in six of their first eight games.

And that’s when it started to tilt in the other direction.

Dallas followed their 5-2-1 start with a 2-6-4 mark. Their shooting percentage fell off a cliff and they went from being one of the highest PDO teams to among the lowest.

You can look at this two ways. One is that luck over-corrected a bit much on offence and they’ll settle in at something between their early-season average of four goals per game and their 2.00 average of late. The favourable Corsi measure is a nice sign, though the shots against creeping up is out of character for the team.

So you can see reasons why they could get back on track and they have played far fewer games than anyone else in the division.

But that’s also a concern. The Stars have to play 36 games in 63 days after COVID protocols delayed their season start by two weeks and interrupted another week in February. That’s a tight squeeze and demands at least one back-to-back situation every week until May.

Dallas is 1-6-2 against Tampa, Carolina and Florida, and are well off where fans were hoping they’d be right now.

Nashville Predators

Over the years, Nashville has become known as a scrappy, respectable franchise. They went from an underdog in their early years to an organization we now expect to draft and perform well.

So what’s been unfolding this season is such a head-scratcher.

Special teams continue to be a sore spot. There is no smooth transition happening from Pekka Rinne to Juuse Saros. Their two most highly paid players, with a combined $16 million cap space, have come together for just four goals this season. They have made significant salary commitments and now the core group isn’t clicking any more. Four years ago they reached the Stanley Cup Final and its a been a gradual decline since.

Even David Poile’s name has been in the crosshairs and not only are the Predators shaping up to be deadline sellers, but they could be in the market to make a major shift.

It’s just that no on could have foreseen it going this bad. For a team that has always done well with defence and goaltending, seeing the Preds with a minus-21 goal differential that ranks better than just four teams is a different look.

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