2021-22 NHL Season Getting Ready
Change is a constant for pretty much every NHL team. Even the eventual Stanley Cup champion will futz and fiddle with their roster, and each organization this offseason will have no choice but to incur some turnover with the expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken set to take place in July.
In some cases, though, this inevitable change is going to be starker. We're talking about full-scale teardowns and rebuilds and measurable regression. And it's important to take stock of these regression candidates now. It will make assessing the 2022 Stanley Cup field that much easier over the offseason. So, let's talk about NHL teams that will decline in the 2021-22 season, shall we?
NHL Teams Headed For Decline
Housekeeping notes must be tackled before we get started.
The criteria for this exercise are subjective. We're basing our selections on teams that are older, have a ton of free agents, are expected just to try something new after multiple seasons toiling away in the same spot, or just played so far above their head in 2020-21 they have nowhere to go but down.
And just so we're clear: This isn't us predicting who the worst squads will be entering next year. It is just a list of franchises we are fairly certain will take a significant step back during the 2021-22 campaign compared to how they performed this past season.
Nobody saw the Florida Panthers coming this season. They were supposed to be on the outskirts of the playoff discussion and instead went 37-14 while ranking fifth in goals scored per game and ninth in goals allowed. Season-long surprises don't get much bigger.
They also don't get much more unsustainable.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning ended their Cinderella run, the Panthers entered the offseason with under $2 million in cap space. That's problematic knowing they have two key unrestricted free agents and three critical restricted free agents they'll need to re-sign if they want to keep the good vibes going.
Feel free to circle back here if general manager Bill Zito figures out a way to create cap space and keep the crux of this roster intact. For now, though, expect them to tumble down next year's standings.
New York Islanders
To answer your question: Yes, including the New York Islanders feels mega icky. They came within one victory of making the Stanley Cup Finals. We should be talking about how much of a problem they're going to be moving forward.
And in some ways, we can have that discussion. But we also have to recognize how ahead of schedule they were with their semifinals appearance. On top of that, they have next to no cap space yet need to render verdicts on a handful of important free agents.
If that doesn't sway you, the variance in their offensive production should. They ranked 21st in goals scored per game before lighting it up between the posts during the playoffs. As the end of their series with Tampa Bay showed, that postseason uptick seems to be more of a mirage, which means the Islanders are still an offensive weapon or three short of sticking as a real Stanley Cup threat.
It felt like something was ending for the Pittsburgh Penguins when they fell to the Islanders in the playoffs. And no, we're not just talking about the postseason series itself. The ending felt more final than that.
This core is getting older. Sidney Crosby turns 34 in August. And Evgeni Malkin is about to turn 35. Their own declines are coming. In fact, they might have already started.
Making matters even more complicated, the Penguins' so-called "Goalie of the Future" in Tristan Jerry struggled during the playoffs after a scorching-hot close to the regular season. Pittsburgh may find itself in need of putting another starter in between the posts while they're still trying to keep the championship windows of Crosby and Malkin open. That's not a great place to be.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Consider this an inclusion of circumstance.
The party was supposed to end for the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. But COVID-19 forced a divisional and schedule realignment, leaving them to play in the Canadien division and opening the door for another playoff appearance.
Toronto won't be so lucky next season. The NHL is expected to reinstall their previous divisions, which means the Maple Leafs will be joining an Atlantic sector that includes four playoff teams from this year.
Given that increase in competition level and a cloggy cap sheet that's oversaturated with forwards, the Leafs don't profile as a 2022 playoff team.
The Winnipeg Jets are a difficult case study.
Sure, on paper, they have one of the league's deepest rosters. But they achieved a lot of their success this season with stellar power-play minutes. When it came to performing at even strength, their numbers were decided lackluster.
Perhaps the Jets can make some moves on the margins. But this would require them to have semi-significant cap space. They don't.
And not only that, but they'll actually, in all likelihood, be down talent next season. They're among the teams that are expected to lose a higher-end player to Seattle in the expansion draft.
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