Thanksgiving is usually regarded as the time where every team evaluates themselves, makes changes and prepares for the meat of the season in the second and third quarters. This time of year also serves as a checkpoint for seeing which teams could make the playoffs. Ever since the lockout, teams holding a playoff seeding at Thanksgiving, more times than not, have been in good shape for the rest of the year.
Since the start of the 2005-06 season, there have been 96 playoff teams; 75 of those teams held a top-eight seeding in their respective conference at Thanksgiving (78.1%). An average of only 3.5 new teams jump into playoff positioning by the end of the season.
Let’s take a look at the current standings through Wednesday’s action:
|Pittsburgh Penguins||1||Minnesota Wild|
|Florida Panthers||2||San Jose Sharks|
|Boston Bruins||3||Chicago Blackhawks|
|Philadelphia Flyers||4||Dallas Stars|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||5||Los Angeles Kings|
|Washington Capitals||6||Detroit Red Wings|
|Buffalo Sabres||7||Phoenix Coyotes|
|New York Rangers||8||St. Louis Blues|
Which of those teams will not make the playoffs? Who will make the playoffs that isn’t currently in the top eight of their conference?
Let’s start in the East, where Florida and Toronto are raising some eyebrows. Of the current top eight, you’d have to think these two surprise clubs are the most likely to fall out by season’s end. Contrarily, they are both playing great hockey and due to make the postseason. (Remember: 28 teams have made the playoffs since the lockout, with the Panthers and Leafs as the only omissions.)
Kevin Dineen has done an admirable job down in Sunrise as a rookie bench boss, while the whole new energy/attitude GM Dale Tallon has brought on board is making a difference. The Panthers currently lead the Southeast, but Washington will assumedly turn their game around soon enough. Also, how Dineen makes adjustments as the season progresses will be important.
For Toronto, there is no doubt they have enough offense. However, goaltending is a question mark. If James Reimer can stay healthy and make big saves, there are few reasons to believe this Leafs club won’t snap their playoff drought.
If there is one team that could jump into the top eight by the end of the year, it is Montreal. They are currently the only bottom seven team with a plus goal differential. Carey Price and company have played considerably better since a rough start. If not the Habs, don’t be surprised if a healthy Martin Brodeur gets New Jersey back to the playoffs. Tampa Bay, one of the top stories of last season, is struggling and must improve their mediocre-at-best team defense.
Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia are locks. The Sabres and Rangers will be there in the end, too.
At least six, maybe seven, of the teams currently in the Eastern Conference top eight should make it. Look for one of Florida or Toronto to fall out, one of Montreal or New Jersey to slide in.
There are five teams in the Western Conference that can count on printing playoff tickets – San Jose, Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. The rest of the West has an uncertain outlook.
Minnesota, atop the NHL, has been a big surprise. They have won 10 of their last 12 contests and are getting superb goaltending from Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. I wouldn’t expect those two to continue at their current pace, so the offense will have to step up at some point. If that happens, Mike Yeo’s Wild will be tough to beat.
Due to respective off-season departures, Dallas and Phoenix have surprised many. How were the Stars going to fill the void left by Brad Richards? How on earth could the Coyotes keep winning without Ilya Bryzgalov? Jamie Benn and Mike Smith have erased those doubts, as the Stars and ‘Yotes are making things interesting in the Pacific Division.
The Blues have been a different team under the direction of Ken Hitchcock. Will they be able to keep this up? We’ll see. But they pose more of a threat to the West with Hitchcock on board rather than Davis Payne.
Vancouver, Nashville and Anaheim were playoff teams a year ago that are sitting on the outside of the top eight here at the first checkpoint of 2011-12. The Canucks will be there in April, while Barry Trotz’s Predators will likely reside on the playoff bubble most of the year. The Ducks aren’t a good hockey team right now and must dig out of a deep hole. Don’t count on it.
And let’s not forget about the ninth-place Edmonton Oilers. If they don’t make the playoffs this year, they definitely will next. That offense is going to be explosive for many years to come.
So, who in the West’s top eight will drop out? I’d have to say two of the four ‘surprises’ – Minnesota, Dallas, Phoenix and St. Louis. They have all been impressive, but have weaknesses that will be exposed at one point or another. Those teams’ consistency will judge their playoff outlook. Look for the Canucks and Predators to return to their usual spots in the top eight.
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