The stock market has been brutal in 2022. By Wednesday evening's closing bell, only 26% of the 503 tickers on the S&P 500 market index could claim positive year-to-date returns. Among the remaining 74% that traded down over the same period, 52 stocks fell more than 30%.

That's a bleak landscape, but we're not done digging deeper into the darkest nooks and crannies of this market. The four stocks below are the S&P 500's worst-performing tickers this year.

This is where the story takes a positive turn: Some of these low-priced tickers may have deserved their brutal haircuts, but others look like fantastic buys at these ultra-low prices. It's time to separate the wheat from the chaff -- let's dive in.

Carnival Cruise Lines lost 51.3%

Cruise-line operator Carnival (CCL 0.13%) has been a volatile ticker ever since the coronavirus pandemic started. The company is exposed to many forces well beyond management's control, including COVID-19 travel restrictions and unpredictable consumer-spending patterns. In order to keep the lights on, Carnival more than tripled its long-term debt load in the last three years and added massive dilution to its stock through cash-raising stock offerings.

CCL Total Long Term Debt (Quarterly) Chart

CCL Total Long Term Debt (Quarterly) data by YCharts.

These risks aren't going away anytime soon, and the massive debt balance will weigh heavily on Carnival's quarterly results for years to come. I would not recommend buying Carnival shares today, even if the stock stands 64% below last September's 52-week highs.

Match Group is down by 52.2%

Dating-app operator Match Group (MTCH 2.05%) is another deeply troubled ticker. Earnings reports have been spotty in recent years, falling short of analyst targets as often as they exceeded expectations.

First, its flagship dating app Tinder is currently searching for a new CEO. Next, currency-exchange effects reduced the company's revenues by nearly 6% in the second quarter. And finally, mature markets, like North America and Europe, are struggling to deliver top-line growth and higher active-user numbers.

Knee-deep in these business challenges and executive turnover, Tinder has nixed its exploration of services in the metaverse and an upcoming virtual currency. These moves may sound like reasonable cash-saving actions in a challenging market, but they also undermine the company's ability to deliver unique and profitable services in the long haul.

That's enough to keep me away from Match Group's stock. These shares have a good reason for their disappointing performance.

Align Technology took a 56.5% price cut

So far, not so good. The two underperformers we looked at so far are actually in bad shape. However, the situation is turning brighter at this point. It's always darkest just before dawn, right? Indeed, the two worst performers on the index seem to be the two best investment ideas on this short list.

It's not all wine and roses, of course. Orthodontic-equipment maker Align Technologies (ALGN 0.10%) faces some unique issues.

More than half of the company's Invisalign dental aligner sets are shipped outside the North American market, exposing the company to the same currency-based risks as Match Group. Currency-exchange effects reduced Align's second-quarter sales by more than 4%.

Furthermore, orthodontists don't install aligners when another COVID-19 variant is running rampant. Therefore, the omicron mutations have limited Align's order volumes in 2022.

Align also comes with a unique business advantage: Orthodontic problems don't fix themselves. The unfilled demand for Invisalign gear will still be there when the coronavirus issues fade out again.

Align might need to adjust its product pricing in order to protect its financial interests in key markets like China and Japan. This isn't a no-brainer buy today, but Align Technology seems poised for a strong recovery in the long run. It might just take a while to get the rebound started.

Netflix plunged 62.4% lower

Shares of digital-video veteran Netflix (NFLX -0.83%) have started a recovery, rising 22% in the last month. Nevertheless, Netflix remains the worst-performing stock on the S&P 500 this year.

The stock posted fresh all-time highs as recently as November 2021, but bearish investors were quick to reverse that skyrocketing chart at the first signs of negative subscriber growth. The pain intensified when Netflix's management doubled down on the negative subscriber trend, and the recent upswing was based on rosier subscriber guidance in July's second-quarter report.

The stock is moving on any hint of positive or negative subscriber-growth news. That used to make sense, but Netflix is actively shifting its business focus away from subscriber growth.

Instead, the new core strategy is to seek profitable growth in the long run. For example, Netflix is exploring ways to earn money from people using its video services for free via shared passwords. This effort is poised to boost Netflix's top line without making any difference in the subscriber count.

Under these circumstances, it seems ridiculous to build your Netflix analysis exclusively around the subscriber count while ignoring the company's rising revenue and solid cash profits. Trading at a modest 21 times trailing earnings, Netflix strikes me as the best investment idea on the market today.

A hand picks up gold nuggets from a patch of dirt.

Image source: Getty Images.

There are treasures to be found in the deepest pits of the struggling S&P 500 this year. At the same time, some of these nuggets aren't golden. Shrewd investors can sort out the good names from the debris, and those diamonds in the rough should deliver fantastic returns in the next five years or more.