Mid- to late spring can be difficult for fans of NHL teams who failed to qualify for the playoffs. Even though this year, they got to watch their teams play hockey well into May, that was purely circumstantial. And they weren’t enjoyable circumstances, either.
It would be easy, then, for those fanbases to get down on their teams and go into the off-season with a bitter taste in their mouths. But it’s not all doom and gloom – it never is – and we here at The Hockey News like to look at the bright side.
Plus, the media has already given enough love to the 16 participants in the big dance. The non-invitees deserve some shine, too. Surely there’s got to be some silver lining to their 2020-21 seasons.
Well, I took a look, and indeed there is. For everyone.
Some teams, especially the Stars and Rangers, were right on the playoff bubble and could’ve been recognized for any number of victories, moral or otherwise. I didn’t have to stretch too far to find a plaudit for them. Some other teams took a little longer. But, hey, I grew up a Cincinnati Bengals fan; I’ve got penchant for stuff like this.
So, in any event, here’s a list of (at least) one thing each non-playoff team can feel good about this spring:
NY Rangers: Adam Fox will be a Norris finalist. D-partner Ryan Lindgren re-signed for three more years at a sensible $3 million per season. Assuming Fox signs long-term next summer – he should, given he essentially handpicked the Rangers coming out of Harvard – the twin top-pair 23-year-olds should star on Broadway for years to come.
Dallas: Jason Robertson may not win the Calder, but he’ll be a finalist. And deservedly so. The former OHL Kingston star finished his inaugural campaign with 45 points in 51 games, second only to Kirill Kaprizov among rookies. Robertson is over two years Kaprizov’s junior, too. And his possession numbers look fantastic.
Philadelphia: Stud sophomore Joel Farabee produced 20 goals and 38 points in 55 games for the Flyers in 2020-21. He went through a bit of a swoon in late March through April, picking up just four points in 18 games in that time, but generated momentum going into the off-season, scoring five goals and seven points in his final six games.
Chicago: Alex DeBrincat bounced back from a snake-bit 2019-20 season to score 32 goals in 52 games; only Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid had more. He was slightly fortunate – shooting at 20.6 percent – but even at his career average of 15.6 percent, he’d have scored 24 goals this year. That’s a 38-goal pace in an 82-game season.
Arizona: Jakob Chychrun played himself into fringe Norris contention this year and showed why most prognosticators had him labelled as a potential top-three pick early in the 2016 draft cycle. No blueliner had more goals in 2020-21 than Chychrun’s 18. He also tied Shea Theodore to finish fifth among defensemen in even-strength points, with 27.
Calgary: At even strength, Calgary ranked eighth in the NHL in expected goals-for percentage at 52.48. That’s better than nine playoff teams, including archrival Edmonton. If they lighten Jacob Markstrom’s workload moving forward, it will help immensely. The 31-year-old netminder can be dominant when not tasked with starting nearly 80 percent of the games.
Ottawa: The future is radiant, but you know that. The Sens ranked first in THN’s Future Watch 2021 and had seven prospects among our Top 100. That’s not even counting the graduations of players like Josh Norris and Tim Stutzle. Ottawa gelled late and won nine of in their final 12 games.
Los Angeles: Rookie pivot Gabriel Vilardi stayed healthy and put up a commendable 23 points in 54 games this year. For now, the 21-year-old seems clear of the back issues that once looked like they may derail his burgeoning career. Vilardi was up-and-down in 2020-21, but still has lots of time to grow. He had seven points in his final 10 games.
San Jose: If Patrick Marleau does indeed call it a career, there was no more fitting place for his curtain call than in front of the adoring SAP Center audience. COVID greatly limited the capacity, but at least Sharks fans got to give Marleau his potential send-off. The quintessential Shark became the NHL’s all-time leader in games played this season, finishing at 1779.
Vancouver: J.T. Miller showed leadership by being the guy to stand up to the NHL when Canucks players felt unprepared to be thrown back into the schedule after the COVID layoff. Thatcher Demko transitioned well into the starter’s role, with a laudable goals-saved above expected of 4.9, best of non-playoff goalies (min. 18 games).
Detroit: Jakub Vrana was fantastic after coming over from Washington in the Anthony Mantha trade, a deal Detroit couldn’t afford to lose. Vrana had eight goals and 11 points in 11 games for Detroit. He won’t shoot at 25 percent his entire tenure in Motown, but he’s shown sparks of chemistry with countryman Filip Zadina.
Columbus: Oliver Bjorkstrand played in all 56 games after an injury-plagued 2019-20 season. The Danish right winger had 18 goals and 44 points to lead all Blue Jackets scorers this season. Hometown boy Jack Roslovic posted a career-best in points-per-game average but struggled with effort and consistency. He may benefit from the coaching change.
New Jersey: Only Mark Stone had more takeaways than Jack Hughes this season. The 2019 first overall pick had 11 goals and 31 points in 56 games, with 24 points coming at even strength. He was only a minus-3 because New Jersey netminders had a paltry .887 save percentage when Hughes was on the ice at even strength.
Anaheim: It was a minuscule sample size, sure, but Haydn Fleury was good after coming over from Carolina. Fleury had two goals and three points in 12 games despite Anaheim rocking a woeful 4.85 percent shooting percentage (all strengths) when Fleury was on the ice. He substantially elevated rookie Jamie Drysdale’s possession numbers in their 99:52 together at 5-on-5. He could steward Drysdale moving forward.
Buffalo: Casey Mittelstadt, picked eighth overall in 2017, bounded forward toward in latter stages of the season. The Eden Prairie, Minn. product put up nine goals and 17 points in his final 22 games of 2020-21. He improved on the draw, too, winning 49 percent of the 441 faceoffs he took, the best mark of his career.