Over a month into the NHL's shortened 2020-21 season, there are several notable players encountering difficulties in the early going.
Some, such as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, are longtime superstars unaccustomed to being in this position. Others, like Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray, are trying to adjust to their new teams following offseason moves. There are also rising stars, like Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson, who are struggling through a rough start to the schedule.
Here's a look at 10 NHL players off to disappointing starts this season. We'll examine the factors behind their difficulties and what they could do or are doing to reverse their fortunes.
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers
Big things were expected for Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart following his solid sophomore campaign in 2019-20. He backstopped the Flyers into the 2020 playoffs and outdueled childhood hero Carey Price during their first-round elimination of the Montreal Canadiens. This season, however, the 22-year-old netminder is off to a rocky start.
The Flyers had been lacking a reliable starting goaltender since Ron Hextall in his late-'80s heyday. Selected by Hextall during his stint as Flyers general manager in the 2016 NHL draft, Hart was expected to be that long-awaited answer.
While he's won five of nine starts this season, his 3.49 goals-against average and .897 save percentage suggest a young goalie struggling to adjust to heightened expectations. He also hasn't been helped by the shaky efforts of the Flyers defense.
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are not just the top pairing on the Columbus Blue Jackets but are also among the NHL's best pairings. They're supposed to be the backbone of their blue line, but as The Athletic's Aaron Portzline observed Feb. 4, both have struggled defensively through the early going.
The 26-year-old Jones is the better all-around defenseman, capable of logging big minutes and playing a strong game at both ends of the rink. He was on the plus side of the plus/minus stat over the previous four seasons, but his minus-9 in 2020-21 ranks among the league's worst.
Werenski, 23, is the better offensive blueliner. He's reached or exceeded 41 points in three of the last four seasons, including a 20-goal effort in 2019-20. However, he managed just four points in his first dozen games before being sidelined Feb. 4 with a lower-body injury. Werenski has collected two assists since his return to action on Saturday.
Portzline suggested the defensive instincts of Jones and Werenski have been hampered this season by hesitation and indecision. Nevertheless, there's plenty of time left for the Jackets' dynamic defensive duo to put their subpar start behind them.
Ryan Johansen, Nashville Predators
Coming off a subpar 36-point performance in 68 games last season, Ryan Johansen entered 2020-21 in need of a bounce-back effort with the Nashville Predators. However, the 28-year-old center managed just four points in 10 games before being sidelined on a week-to-week basis with an upper-body injury.
Johansen netted 54 points or more for six straight seasons between 2013-14 and 2018-19. As the Predators' first-line center between wingers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, the 6'3", 218-pounder garnered a reputation as a big, skillful playmaker. The recent decline in his stats is troubling, especially given that he's earning $8 million annually through the 2024-25 campaign.
That hefty contract could become increasingly burdensome for the struggling Predators if he doesn't return to form when he comes back from injury. Johansen acknowledged this was a pivotal season during a Jan. 14 interview with The Athletic's Adam Vingan. He'll have to prove he's not an overpaid center whose best years are behind him.