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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.
This is one of those teams where the phrase “What Went Wrong” feels unfair. Obviously every team goes into the season wanting to make the playoffs, but ultimately they’re a rebuilding team that can take a lot of positives from this season.
That certainly wasn’t the way things were trending in the early portion of the campaign though. Ottawa got off to a 2-12-1 start. A big part of the issue was their goaltending. Matt Murray’s four-year, $25 million contract was questionable before his first game and he didn’t do anything to make it look better with his 2-7-1 record, 3.69 GAA, and .882 save percentage in 12 contests through Feb. 11. Not that the alternative, Marcus Hogberg, was any better. Hogberg had a 0-5-0 record, 4.88 GAA, and .836 save percentage in seven contests.
The Senators stabilized after that rocky start though. Their longest losing streak the rest of the way was a reasonable four games and they largely held their own, finishing with a 23-28-5 record, which translates to 21-16-4 from Feb. 13 onward. Part of the Senators’ bounce back was because their goaltending situation stabilized a bit. Murray still left plenty to be desired with a 3.14 GAA and .901 save percentage the rest of the way, but at least he was better. On top of that, Hogberg posted a 2.77 GAA and .909 save percentage in seven contests and Filip Gustavsson shone with a 2.16 GAA and .933 save percentage in nine contests, so some of the Senators’ alternatives in net were solid.
Ottawa also rounded out to have a decent season offensively. Brady Tkachuk has proven to be a good power forward, Connor Brown has made the most of his top-six opportunity in Ottawa, Drake Batherson took a huge step forward after enjoying NHL stints in each of his previous two seasons, and Joshua Norris as well as Tim Stutzle had strong rookie campaigns.
All five of those forwards had 29 or more points and four of those five are 23 years old or younger, so it was a great showcase of the Senators’ youth movement.
The Senators seem well on their way to becoming competitive with the biggest roadblock right now being their division. They’ll be back in the Atlantic Division next season with the likes of the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs. All five of those teams made the playoffs this season and two of them are presently playing in the Stanley Cup Final. It will be difficult for the Senators to squeeze into the playoffs given what they’re up against, but they can’t be overlooked either.
Tim Stutzle – Although Tim Stutzle was taken after Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, he had the best showing in 2020-21. That doesn’t necessarily mean Stutzle will go on to have the best career of the trio, but it’s certainly an encouraging start for him and the Senators. That said, the Senators will be looking for him to continue to grow going forward. His 12 goals and 29 points in 53 contests was solid for a rookie campaign, but in the long run the Senators hope he’ll become a standout first-line forward. If Stutzle takes a big step forward in his sophomore season then it’ll go a long way towards the Senators making the playoffs.
Shane Pinto – Shane Pinto started the season with the University of North Dakota and had a strong sophomore season, scoring 15 goals and 32 points in 28 NCAA contests. After that he signed with the Ottawa Senators and added a goal and seven points in 12 games this season. That was a pretty good showing for him, especially given that he was averaging a modest 12:31 minutes. Pinto will enter training camp with a chance to earn a top-six, but it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s some growing pains in his first full NHL campaign.
Brady Tkachuk – Brady Tkachuk has enjoyed three solid seasons now, but he might have another level in him. The Senators have some solid depth at this point and if Tkachuk can become an offensive leader in addition to being a physical force, then Ottawa will be in a strong position. It’s also worth noting that Tkachuk has completed his entry-level contract, so one of the biggest questions surrounding the Senators this summer is how much it will cost to re-sign him and how long the Senators can lock him down for.
Matt Murray – As mentioned above, Matt Murray’s first season with the Senators didn’t go particularly well. He had a 10-13-1 record, 3.38 GAA, and .893 save percentage in 27 contests. Given that he also struggled in his final season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s particularly discouraging. If he does bounce back, it would be a huge boost to the Senators, but I wouldn’t bet on him being a net positive for the Senators next season. I think his four-year, $25 million contract will be seen as a misstep when all is said and done.
The Arizona Coyotes were able to squeak into the playoffs in 2020 for the first time since 2012, but they ultimately lost in five games to the Colorado Avalanche. That wouldn’t have been so bad if they were able to build off that playoff berth in 2020-21. Unfortunately, the Coyotes ultimately went 24-26-6 and consequently missed the postseason by nine points.
It didn’t help that Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta both missed big chunks of the season due to injury, but what hurt the Coyotes even more was their mediocre play when healthy. A major part of the Coyotes’ 2019-20 success was their goaltender. Kuemper had a 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage in 29 starts while Raanta had a 2.63 GAA and .921 save percentage in 33 games. Contrast that with 2020-21 where Kuemper had a more pedestrian 10-11-3 record, 2.56 GAA, and .907 save percentage in 27 starts and Raanta left plenty to be desired with a 5-5-2 record, 3.36 GAA, and .905 save percentage in 12 contests.
That’s a big problem because the Coyotes’ offense isn’t nearly good enough to win without a strong showing in net. To be fair, Phil Kessel bounced back from a poor 2019-20 campaign to score 20 goals and 43 points this season and defenseman Jakob Chychrun broke out with 18 goals and 41 points in 56 contests. Meanwhile, Conor Garland, Clayton Keller, and Christian Dvorak each surpassed the 30-plus point milestone. So that’s a respectable six players with at least 30 points, but their offense as a whole was still bad.
Arizona averaged 2.68 goals per game, which placed them 23rd offensively. Compare that to the Winnipeg Jets, which finished 12th with 3.04 goals per game. The Jets had six players with 30-plus points, so one less than the Coyotes, but while Kessel led Arizona with 43 points, Winnipeg had four different players with 46 or more points. On top of that, Winnipeg had 11 players with at least 20 points to Arizona’s nine. So the Jets, a roughly middle-of-the-road team offensively, had an edge over Arizona both in terms of star power and offensive depth.
So the Coyotes ultimately missed the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, but to make matters worse, it’s not clear that they’re trending in the right direction. One would think that after missing the playoffs so many time they’d have developed a good young core from the draft and while it’s certainly true that they have some young talent, it hasn’t played out as they may have hoped.
For one thing, they actually only had one top-10 pick in the last four drafts and they used that selection on Barrett Hayton in 2018, who still has plenty of time to grow, but hasn’t contributed much yet and doesn’t appear to be on the verge of a breakout. The most recent draft they had that produced clear NHL talent was in 2016 when they took Keller and Chychrun. As noted above, Chychrun is fast emerging as a standout defenseman, but Keller has been more of a mixed bag. After recording 65 points as a rookie, Keller took a bit of a step back, which is unfortunate for Arizona both because they’re hurting for offensive leadership and because he’s only completed one season of an eight-year, $57.2 million contract that they locked him up to back in September 2019 when they saw him as a pillar of their future.
On top of that, Arizona lacks a first-round pick in 2021 because it was forfeited for violating the NHL’s Combine Testing Policy. So the Coyotes are in something of a weird place where they’re not a truly a rebuilding franchise, but they’re also not a real Cup contender either.
That all being said, Arizona’s situation isn’t hopeless. They still do have some young talent on the team and even some of their older players like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Darcy Kuemper are still in their prime. Plus the Coyotes are moving on from head coach Rick Tocchet and while I hesitate to point the finger at him, a coaching change does give the team a fresh start and it might help spark some of the younger players who arguably aren’t quite living up to their potential.
Clayton Keller – With 14 goals and 35 points in 56 games, Clayton Keller certainly wasn’t bad last season, but he also wasn’t what you’d hope for from a player on an eight-year, $57.2 million contract. He’s played in four full seasons now and his first campaign is still his best, which is concerning. That said he’s only turning 23 on July 29 so it’s still entirely possible that he’ll reclaim his initial success and perhaps even surpass it. The Coyotes’ coaching change offers him a fresh opportunity, so it will be interesting to see how he responds in 2021-22.
Nick Schmaltz – Nick Schmaltz is another young player who had one really strong season early on and hasn’t built on that since. Schmaltz had 21 goals and 52 points in 78 contests as a sophomore in 2017-18, but he was limited to 40 games in 2018-19 and then recorded 11 goals and 45 points in 70 contests in 2019-20. As far as 2020-21 goes, he scored 10 goals and 32 points in 52 contests. From a points-per-game perspective, that’s just a touch below his 2017-18 pace, which remains his career high. He’s 25-years-old now so he’s not a prospect anymore, but there still has to be some hope that he can grow at least a little more, especially given that he still has five seasons left in his seven-year, $40.95 million contract.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – The Arizona Coyotes wanted to trade Oliver Ekman-Larsson last year, but the Coyotes captain has a full no-movement clause and would only accept a trade to Vancouver or Boston. That didn’t happen, so Ekman-Larsson played out the 2020-21 campaign with the Coyotes, scoring three goals and 24 points in 46 contests. Arizona is reportedly going to try shopping him again this summer, but Ekman-Larsson still has that no-movement clause so he’s still in control of his situation. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out and if the Coyotes could even get much if they traded him. Ekman-Larsson is a valuable offensive defenseman, but he’s playing on an eight-year, $66 million contract that runs through 2026-27 and he’s turning 30 on July 17, so there is a real risk that he’ll start to decline before that deal is up. That fear combined with the flat cap and Ekman-Larsson presumably restricting the Coyotes trade options might make it better for Arizona to keep him rather than trade him at an underwhelming price. If they do keep him, Ekman-Larsson should be strong yet again in 2021-22.
Darcy Kuemper – When Darcy Kuemper is at his best, he can carry the Coyotes and given the state of Arizona’s offense, they really need him to be at his best. The 2020-21 campaign was far from an ideal season for Kuemper, but it’s well within the realm of possibilities that he’ll bounce back this season. Kuemper will also have some added motivation given that he’s on the second half of his two-year, $9 million contract. He’s never signed a big contract before and at the age of 31, he’s running out of chances to do so. Given his great 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns, if he can string together another strong season in 2021-22, that should be enough to set himself up for a nice payday.