The 2019-20 NHL season has been a crazy and unprecedented one. But it’s still hockey, and there were some teams that had an incredible season, surprising fans and analysts. And there were some teams that severely underperformed, despite their expectations. Below are some predictions for risers and fallers for the 2020-21 season.
Who’s up and Who’s Down in 2020-21 Season
These are the teams that exceeded expectations this year and look to keep improving next year.
Coming into the season, the Islanders were expected to be one of the better teams in the Metropolitan Division. But no one expected this type of dominance from them in the playoffs. After handily taking care of the Florida Panthers, the Islanders completely shut down their division foe, the Washington Capitals. Their neutral zone pressure didn’t allow the Capitals to get anything going offensively, other than dump and chase hockey. Then, the physicality of the Islanders prevailed, allowing them to get clean zone exits. Combine this defence with the star goalie tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, and the Islanders are a tough team to score on.
The defensive playstyle of the Islanders has been dubbed “boring” by most fans, but their offence has stepped up as well in the playoffs. Anthony Beauvillier in particular, with nine goals through 19 games – the most on his team. Their trade deadline acquisition, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, has also been playing very well – 11 points through 19 games. And of course, Mathew Barzal has been stellar too, with 10 assists, 5 goals, and a plus/minus of +4.
Next season, the Islanders look to continue with their dominance. With over $8 million in cap space, plenty to re-sign their free agents, the Islanders are in total control of their future. With the playoff position in the Metro unclear for next season, the Islanders could end up at the top.
The Minnesota Wild have been stuck in a cycle of mediocrity for quite some time now. They would just miss the playoffs, and then receive a low draft pick. But during this playoffs, they showed that they are capable of breaking that vicious cycle. Even though they lost to the Vancouver Canucks in four games, the Wild showed flashes of brilliance. Their physical style emulated by so many other teams in the playoffs worked for a little while against the Canucks. Against slower teams that physical play style tilts the advantage in the Wild’s favor.
The Wild had no trouble scoring, lighting the lamp 10 times over four games. Leading that offence were forwards Eric Staal and Kevin Fiala, each averaging at least a point per game. And, with the addition of former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Nick Bjugstad, the Wild’s offence is shaping up to be better than average. The goalie tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock is also capable of winning games for the Wild, even if their numbers aren’t the greatest.
The Central Division is starting to become weaker than past years. The Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues look to be on downward trends, so the Wild could steal a wild card spot come next playoffs. With over $13 million in cap space, and with Mikko Koivu likely being traded or retiring, another $5.5 million will come off the books for the Wild. They could go after another top-four defencemen for a short-term contract if they choose, further bolstering their team.
This season’s expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets were low. After going all-out at the trade deadline last playoffs, the Blue Jackets’ only success was sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in round-one. In the offseason, they lost huge names, including Artemi Panarin to the New York Rangers and Sergei Bobrovsky to the Florida Panthers. So, there didn’t seem to be much hope for the Blue Jackets coming into the season. But, they proved everyone wrong. Led by Jack Adams award finalist John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets finished with the exact same win percentage as the Toronto Maple Leafs – .579. After knocking out the Leafs, the Blue Jackets fell to the red-hot Lightning, scoring the exact same amount of goals as Tampa in that series.
The goalie duo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo was stellar in the playoffs, both averaging less than two goals allowed per game and saving over 94 percent of the shots they faced. Pierre-Luc Dubois was the star player, averaging a point per game in 10 games. Even though Cam Atkinson was contained extremely well by the Lightning, the entire Blue Jackets offence stepped up in his absence, scoring an average of 2.4 goals per game. And the defensive core of the Blue Jackets performed up to their high standards as well. The duo of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski is the best top pairing in the league, and did a great job limiting the damage of the high-powered Leafs and Lightning offences.
With only a few restricted free agents to sign this offseason, and about $7 million in cap space, the Blue Jackets are likely going to retain most of their roster. With a dominant goalie duo, lockdown defence, and a much-improved offence, the Blue Jackets could be a surprisingly good team in the toughest division in hockey. After proving everyone wrong this season, they’re looking to rise up in the ranks of the Metro.
These are the teams that severely underperformed this season, and don’t have any hope for next season.
How can a team go from winning a cup to the downfall of their team in under five years? They had a red-hot goalie in Braden Holtby, and veteran players who were still at the peak of their performance. Plus, with two-time Jack Adams award winner Barry Trotz at the helm, the Capitals had the perfect storm to win the Stanley Cup. But, now that magic has faded. Trotz moved on to the Islanders, and Holtby had a miserably bad season this year. Through 48 games, he let in 142 goals, an average of 3.11 goals per game, with a .897 save percentage. Those are some pretty awful numbers for a starting goaltender.
To make matters worse, he is a free agent, so the Capitals will have to rely on Ilya Samsonov if they do decide to not re-sign Holtby. The Capitals’ skaters are still great players, but they are aging fast. The Capitals are two years older as a team average than the league. John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin had fantastic seasons, but they can’t keep that up for multiple years.
The problem for the Capitals comes with their youth and leadership. Ilya Samsonov, Jakub Vrana, and Tom Wilson look to be the future of the Capitals, but they have one of the worst prospect pools in the league. Once the old veterans burn out and cannot produce anymore, the Capitals will have no one left to turn to. To cap it all off, the leadership of the Capitals is in question. After Barry Trotz left, the Capitals replaced him with Todd Reirden, who was promptly fired after two seasons and disappointing playoff losses. Currently searching for a new coach, the Capitals will have to rely on their players’ leadership. With only a few years left before the veterans are out of their prime, the Capitals’ future looks bleak.
For the Sharks fans out there, this is going to be a rough next few years. The Sharks were expected to be a top Pacific team at the beginning of the year, and then disaster struck. Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goaltenders in the league, with a 3.00 goal-against-average and a .896 save percentage. The Sharks’ offence was lacking, scoring 20 less goals than the league average. To make matters worse, key players Tomas Hertl and Erik Karlsson went down with injuries midway through the season. The Sharks switched coaches midway through the year, firing Peter DeBoer and hiring Bob Boughner, although the success didn’t increase.
There are many problems with the Sharks’ future. With only a few young players, their future looks weak – similar to the Capitals. Their front office has also negotiated some terrible contracts. They have two contracts of $8 million AAV for multiple years, and Karlsson’s contract is $11.5 million AAV for multiple years. And Martin Jones is still signed for four more years at $5.75 million AAV, a horrible contract for an underperforming goalie. They have limited draft picks in the upcoming draft, and a bottom three prospect pool. The Sharks are on a sharp decline, and are going to be a bottom-tier team in the Pacific and the league next year.
The Flames are the most inconsistent team in the league. Their defence is lacking, and their goaltending is unimpressive. The offence can be good, but when the first two lines are cold, the Flames score very few goals. They beat a banged-up Winnipeg Jets team to advance to the first round, but the Dallas Stars easily took care of them. The Flames have not made it past the second round since the 2008-09 season. And now with rumours of Johnny Gaudreau being traded, the Flames could be falling apart before our very eyes.
With 11 players to re-sign from the current roster (including goaltender Cam Talbot and winger Andrew Mangiapane) and $16 million in cap space, the Flames will likely not have an opportunity to go after any big-name free agents. Even though the Flames made the playoffs this year, their future does not look great. They’ll most likely be stale and not make any progress, or will have to enter a rebuild and miss the playoffs for a few years.