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Welcome to What Went Wrong, which is a series where we take a look at each team that failed to make the playoffs with an emphasis on why they fell short. We’ll also end each team’s outlook by highlighting some players in the organization to watch going forward, either because the team is looking for them to be key members in the future or because they have something to prove after a less than ideal year.
In a way, it feels inaccurate to paint the 2020-21 campaign as having gone wrong for the Detroit Red Wings. It’s true that there were some aspects of their season that were less than ideal, but after posting a historically bad 17-49-5 record in 2019-20, Detroit at least showed signs of modest progress in 2020-21.
Their defense was still bad, but their goaltending situation was largely tolerable. Thomas Greiss finished with an 8-15-8 record with the Red Wings, but that was in part because of a lack of offensive support. In starts where he allowed two or fewer goals, he had a 5-5-4 record. Think about that for a moment. Games where your goaltender holds the competition should be consistent wins. Sometimes there’s going to be a goaltending battle that you end up on the unlucky end of, but certainly when a netminder finishes a campaign with a mediocre-to-bad record in games where he allowed two or fewer goals, that speaks volumes about the lack of support he got.
Nevertheless, Greiss’ more hit-than-miss performance and the continued solid play of Jonathan Bernier provided the Red Wings with a solid one-two combination that can feasibly serve as the backbone of this growing team.
We also saw defenseman Filip Hronek continue to establish himself as a genuine top pairing option and the Red Wings’ April acquisition of Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2022 second-round pick from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Anthony Mantha shows the potential to be a significant win. Vrana fit right in with the Red Wings, scoring eight goals and 11 points in 11 games and Panik is a decent middle-six forward. Combine that with the draft picks and the Red Wings got a ton of value for Mantha.
All that being said, while a 19-27-10 record in 2020-21 represents progress, that’s only because the bar has been set so low. Their core of forwards have potential, but no forward on the team reached the 15-goal or 25-point milestones. It’s also not clear if head coach Jeff Blashill, who owns a 172-221-62 record is the answer for the Red Wings. Detroit did sign him to an extension in May, so clearly they still believe he’s the man to guide Detroit through this rebuild, but only time will tell.
The Red Wings have now gone five straight years without a playoff berth and that will likely become six unless they make some major moves this offseason. It’s hard to blame Blashill for that given what he’s had to work with, but if they can’t show more progress in 2021-22, then it will be fair to question if the Red Wings are really making meaningful strides towards being a contender or if they’re just stuck in the mud.
Dylan Larkin – Dylan Larkin appeared to be well on his way to being a star when he recorded 63 points in 82 games in 2017-18 and followed it up with 32 goals and 73 points in 76 contests in 2018-19. He dropped to 53 points in 71 contests in 2019-20 and fell further last season with nine goals and 23 points in 44 games. After all those ups and downs, you might be surprised to hear that he’ll only be turning 25 on July 30th. If the Red Wings are to become a contender in the next couple years, it will probably be in part because Larkin found his way and re-established himself as an offensive leader. He’s entering the final season of his five-year, $30.5 million contract, so the pressure will also be on next season for him to show that he’s worth a new long-term deal.
Jakub Vrana – As mentioned above, Jakub Vrana showed a lot of promise in his brief stint with the Red Wings at the end of the 2020-21 campaign. When he was playing for Washington he averaged just 14:22 minutes and that ballooned to 17:16 minutes after being acquired by Detroit. The Washington Capitals never had a first-line spot for him so he’s going into 2021-22 with the best opportunity he’s had in his career to date.
Filip Zadina – Taken with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Red Wings are hoping Filip Zadina will become a pillar of this franchise. The 2020-21 campaign was his first full season with Detroit and he did alright, scoring six goals and 19 points in 49 contests, but Detroit will be looking for significantly more from him going forward. He’s still just 21-years-old and has plenty of upside, so he’ll be one of the main Red Wings to watch next season.
Tyler Bertuzzi – Tyler Bertuzzi has established himself as a solid power forward at this point, but he only participated in nine games last season due to a back injury. He ultimately had surgery on April 30 and it’s possible that he’ll be fine for the start of training camp. Keep him in the back of your mind as a late round option for next season’s fantasy drafts because the stage is set for him to enjoy a comeback campaign.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
The San Jose Sharks entered the 2019-20 campaign as perceived Stanley Cup contenders and finished it with a 29-36-5 record. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015, there was doubtless some hope that the Sharks could shake off that campaign and prove it was a fluke. After all, San Jose followed up their 2015 playoff miss with a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. When San Jose missed the postseason in 2003, they bounced back with a run to the Western Conference Final in 2004. So there was a bit of a precedence here of following up disappointing campaigns with big ones.
It’s not like the Sharks went into the season without hope either. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson provided the Sharks with a potentially great one-two punch on the blueline, and their forward core included a lot of potential threats in Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, and Kevin Labanc. The big X-Factor though was their goaltending. Martin Jones was a big part of the problem in 2019-20 and the Sharks’ solution was to add Devan Dubnyk, who struggled with Minnesota in 2019-20. The hope was at least one of those two could bounce back in 2020-21 to provide the Sharks with at least decent goaltending. That didn’t happen.
Jones had a 3.28 GAA and .896 save percentage in 34 starts and Dubnyk wasn’t any better with a 3.18 GAA and .898 save percentage in 17 contests. The Sharks ended up allowing 3.50 goals against per game, which was tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the second worst in the league.
Not that their offense ended up being much better. Kane actually had a fantastic season with 22 goals and 49 points in 56 contests and Tomas Hertl wasn’t far behind with 19 goals and 43 points in 50 games. However, Logan Couture had his worst points-per-game total since his rookie season, finishing with 17 goals and 31 points in 53 contests. Brent Burns did okay offensively from the blueline, but the now 36-year-old showed signs of aging and Erik Karlsson further reinforced that he’s not the offensive threat he once was. He’s completed just two seasons of his eight-year, $92 million contract and that deal already is shaping up to be a pretty bad one.
That highlights part of the Sharks’ problem going forward. Couture is owed $8 million annually through 2026-27, Kane is locked at $7 million through 2024-25, Karlsson comes at $11.5 million through 2026-27, Burns will be at $8 million through 2024-25, and Vlasic, whose role is rapidly diminishing at the age of 34, has a $7 million cap hit through 2025-26. Even Martin Jones is locked at $5.75 million through 2023-24. The Sharks have committed to this core and with those players aging and many of them already not living up to their cap hits, the Sharks seem geared up for years of pain.
San Jose finished the 2020-21 campaign with a 21-28-7 and were in the bottom-10 of the league both offensively and defensively. If the Sharks aren’t able to find some way to get out from under some of those contracts or otherwise have a very strong offseason then this situation could easily get worse, not better, in 2021-22.
Evander Kane – Evander Kane was one of the few bright spots for the Sharks in 2020-21 and at the age of 29 (30 in August), he’s one of the few members of the Sharks’ core who is still in his prime. That being said, he performed far better than he usually does from a points-per-game perspective, and it will be interesting to see if he can come even close to maintaining that over the course of a full 82-game season. Keep in mind he was on a roughly 72-point pace over 82 games and his career-high is 57 points, which was set back in 2011-12. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if his scoring pace slows next season with him instead finishing in the 50-60 point range.
Logan Couture – If the Sharks are going to regain some of their former offensive glory, Logan Couture needs to be a big part of that. He wasn’t bad last season with 17 goals and 31 points in 53 games, but he performed well below his career bests. In 2018-19 he had 27 goals and 70 points in 81 contests. I wouldn’t expect him to match those totals next season, but him bouncing back with 55-60 points is feasible.
Erik Karlsson – Erik Karlsson’s eight goals and 22 points in 52 contests last season was the worst of his career from a points-per-game perspective. His days of getting over 70 points in a campaign or being a Norris Trophy finalist are likely done, but the Sharks need more out of him than they got last season. No defenseman has a higher cap hit than Karlsson and given how much time is left in it, that contract could end up holding down the Sharks like an anchor if he’s not able to stage some kind of comeback.
Tomas Hertl – Tomas Hertl played his part last season with 19 goals and 43 points in 50 contests. He has lost some time over the last three seasons due to injury, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been great. The bigger issue here is the fact that the 2021-22 campaign will be the last season of his four-year, $22.5 million contract. If he continues to perform the way he has in recent years then he’ll be in line for a big payday, but with all the other big contracts the Sharks have already handed out, it will be tough for them to afford Hertl. More to the point, signing a soon-to-be 28-year-old to a long-term deal might not make a lot of sense for the Sharks given that, whether they want to or not, they might ultimately find themselves in the early stages of a rebuild soon. If the Sharks can’t find a way to turn things around in the early months of the 2021-22 campaign, then Hertl could be one of the biggest trade chips on the market leading up to the deadline.