For as fun as it is to think about the breakout stars that will arrive with the dawn of a new NHL season, there’s also the other side of the coin: the players who will inevitably move in the opposite direction.
That’s what we’re in search of today — 10 players who are poised to take a step back in 2021-22. This could be a star who’s showing signs of decline, someone who broke out last season but appears likely to fall back down to Earth or a player who simply performed at a level that’s beyond his abilities.
Before we get into the methodology, it’s important to remember that a player isn’t “bad” if they wind up on this list. There are a lot of high-end names, some that I in fact really like. Regression in the context of hockey is simply the theory that a player’s results will normalize closer to their ability level over time. Therefore, if a player appears here it simply means that their 2020-21 results were perhaps overstretched and due to correct, not that they’re necessarily going to be a poor performer all of a sudden.
With that caveat out of the way, the process for identifying regression candidates is mostly percentages-driven. Hockey’s such an erratic sport where an inch or two here or a lucky bounce there can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes you just have a season where all those little bounces fall in your favour in a way that almost certainly won’t be repeated moving forward. There are other factors like age, team and linemate quality and role that we’ll be considering but we’ll mostly be leaning on underlying stats that can help gauge sustainability.
Here are the 10 players who enter this season at risk of producing less than they did in 2020-21, in no particular order.
Darnell Nurse, LD, Edmonton Oilers
The timing for Darnell Nurse’s breakout could not have been more perfect on a personal level.
Edmonton’s No. 1 defender exploded offensively, ranking second among all blueliners with 16 goals in 56 games and finishing fifth among his peers with 23 five-on-five points, entering the summer with just one year left on his contract. The 26-year-old was handsomely rewarded accordingly, netting an eight-year, $9.25 million AAV extension that will make him the fifth highest-paid defenceman in the league in 2022-23 when the deal kicks in.
Nurse is a workhorse with a ton of value to offer as a player but he’ll need to maintain last season’s performance to live up to his big extension. That’s an extremely tall order considering the context of how he achieved those gaudy results. All but one of Nurse’s 16 goals came at even-strength where it’s typically quite difficult for a defender to put themselves in prime scoring positions. It would be tough for any defenceman to replicate the 22-goal per 82 games pace that Nurse scored at last season, let alone one that won’t get top power-play minutes with Tyson Barrie back in the fold.
No NHL defender who’s appeared in at least 1000 minutes has managed to maintain a double-digit shooting percentage over the span of the last three seasons. That spells trouble for Nurse who went from scoring on 2.9 percent of his shots in 2019-20 to 10.3 percent of his shots last season.
Look no further than Morgan Rielly as a template for what can happen in these situations. Rielly’s shooting percentage spiked from 3.3 percent to 9 percent during a career year in 2018-19 where he scored 20 goals. The following year his production came crashing down with just three goals in 47 games.
Nurse should continue reaping the rewards of playing more than half his five-on-five minutes alongside Connor McDavid but considering his previous career high for goals was 10, it seems reasonable to deduce his scoring rate will decline in 2021-22.
Marcus Foligno, LW, Minnesota Wild
With his size, two-way chops, imposing physical game and leadership, I’ve long been a fan of Marcus Foligno. He’s a valuable piece for the Minnesota Wild on a perfectly reasonable contract. What he accomplished offensively in 2020-21, however, feels like a flash in the pan. A bottom-six grinder for most of his career, Foligno set a career high with 26 points despite appearing in just 39 games.
Red flags should be raised anytime a longtime bottom-six player explodes to produce at a 22-goal, 55-point pace, especially one like Foligno, 30, where young age can be ruled out as a reason for drastic improvement. A further look under the hood confirms the skepticism.