Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends.
Today marks a pivotal date on the NHL calendar: the soft cut-off for playoff positioning. Over the past few seasons, roughly 75 percent of the teams in playoff position by this date end up making the post-season. Last season, of the top eight teams in the East and West on Thanksgiving, only the Blue Jackets (7th East, 12th overall), Golden Knights (4th West, 10th overall), Ducks (5th West, 11th overall) and Jets (7th West, 14th overall) ended up missing the cut.
With the advent of three-point games and massive parity across the league, it has become incredibly difficult to overcome a poor showing in the first quarter of the season and make the playoffs. The races will be tight, but the reality is only a handful of teams will be able to sneak in, and at least five teams should be planning for the trade deadline and the lottery. This week’s edition will start putting teams into tiers, from serious Cup contenders to early entrants into the Bedardathon.
Numerous upsets last night and witnessing the end of both the Devils’ and Bruins’ winning streaks saw a little shuffle in the Power Rankings, but we’ve seen enough to take a good guess at just how good each team will be. Biggest climbers this week: Stars, Red Wings, Penguins, Blues, Canucks. Biggest tumblers: Hurricanes, Rangers.
(All fancy stats are 5v5 and courtesy naturalstattrick.com. CF% stands for Corsi For Percentage and xGF% represents Expected Goals For Percentage.)
1. Boston Bruins (17-3-0, +37. CF% league rank: 9, xGF% league rank: 6)
For the second straight week, the Bruins and Devils finished with identical records and goal differential, which means the Bruins retain the top spot, but the margin is still razor-thin. They can switch spots and no one should bat an eye. Mark down Dec. 23 and 28, when the Bruins and Devils play two of their three matchups this season, both of which will be in Jersey. With a roster without any big holes and plenty of experience, the Bruins are a serious Cup contender.
2. New Jersey Devils (16-4-0, +28. CF%: 2, xGF%: 1)
Before the Avs won with Darcy Kuemper/Pavel Francouz in net, I would’ve said no, you need an undisputed starter. In reality, all you need is a goalie who peaks at the right time to make a deep playoff run, and there’s a chance Vitek Vanecek or even Mackenzie Blackwood can do just that. But there’s definitely something to be said about experience, overcoming playoff heartbreak to learn tough lessons before winning the big one, just like the Avs and Lightning. Still, given their performance, how can you argue the league’s second-best team by points percentage is somehow not a contender?
3. Vegas Golden Knights (16-4-1, +25. CF%: 20, xGF%: 5)
It was a short hiatus, but the Knights are back in Cup contender status. Bruce Cassidy’s system works well for young Logan Thompson, and they’ve got balanced scoring all over the lineup. Statistically speaking, Thompson’s having the third-best season (.920 SP/2.40 GAA) in Knights history behind Marc-Andre Fleury in the inaugural season (.927/2.24) and in his Vezina-winning season (.928/1.98).
4. Dallas Stars (12-5-3, +23. CF%: 12, xGF%: 14)
Not sure what kind of voodoo magic Peter DeBoer performs, but he’s been very, very good at improving teams in his first season with a new club. Jake Oettinger’s performance last season proved that they don’t need much else to win playoff games. With added depth, the Stars will be a popular dark-horse pick.
5. Colorado Avalanche (11-6-1, +18. CF%: 16, xGF%: 23)
Cup contender, of course. The defending champions have remained near the top of the Western Conference despite injuries to key players, and their gamble on Alexandar Georgiev has paid off. The Avs will surely make another push at the trade deadline, just as they did last season.
6. New York Islanders (13-8-0, +14. CF%: 24, xGF%: 24)
Much like the Stars, the biggest reason for the Isles to go on a deep run is Ilya Sorokin. Their success shows that this group can win games without having to play a grinding style, and it’s more important to have the players buy in. Mathew Barzal looks like he’s having an elite season, and the Isles have lost to the eventual champions both times in their most recent playoff runs. They’re a dark horse like the Stars but need another piece or two to really contend.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs (11-5-5, +6. CF%: 10, xGF%: 10)
All that matters is if the Leafs enter the playoffs with a healthy lineup. They will get through this stretch without Morgan Rielly just fine, and at worst, it should only cost them home-ice advantage in the opening round. The playoff showings have been disappointing, but at full strength, the Leafs should be just as good as they were last season, and they came within one game of beating the Lightning.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning (11-7-1, +3. CF%: 14, xGF%: 12)
Never count out the team that has won two of the past three Cups. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s subpar season is slightly concerning, but it’s best not to be against him. The only thing uglier than the Lightning’s blue line depth are their Reverse Retro jerseys. Cool gimmick, but it still doesn’t work on the ice.
9. Winnipeg Jets (11-6-1, +4. CF%: 19, xGF%: 21)
Of the top 10 teams, I am most skeptical about the Jets, but also acknowledge that Rick Bowness’ teams always seem to be more successful than expected. Connor Hellebuyck is the key to their Cup chances – no one else on his team comes close to making the impact he does – and any sort of slide in his performance and the Jets might be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff berth. The Jets will need to at least maintain this pace to convince me they’re more than just a playoff team.
10. Carolina Hurricanes (10-6-4, even. CF%: 1, xGF%: 2)
Before dropping out this week, the Canes were the only team ranked in the top five every single week, and it’s been a bizarre losing streak where they’re losing games despite outshooting and out-chancing their opponents. The Canes are contenders, but they really need to get out of the second round.
11. Florida Panthers (10-8-2, +3. CF%: 3, xGF%: 3)
Last season’s playoff showing was so bad, it’s hard to speak of the Panthers as contenders without my eyes rolling to the back of my head. They’ve been coming on strong lately, but need to at least finish near the top of the standings to be considered contenders. Their cap situation is more dire than the Leafs’ and will also need a lot of things to go right and their players to stay healthy to be a contender.
12. Seattle Kraken (11-5-3, +12. CF%: 15, xGF%: 13)
The Kraken are in a really good spot to make the playoffs after a debacle of a first season, sitting four points clear of the wild-card spot, which is held by a division rival. The biggest chance for them this season has been their scoring, but let’s get real – no team with Martin Jones as the starter is going to win much.
13. Detroit Red Wings (10-5-4, +4. CF%: 30, xGF%: 28)
This is the part of the list that starts to get interesting. The Wings hold the third spot in the Atlantic, but they’re also only one point away from finishing outside the playoff picture. The Wings are still too inconsistent and too thin on defense to be anything more than playoff contenders.
14. Pittsburgh Penguins (10-7-3, +7. CF%: 13, xGF%: 7)
It’s hard to count out Sidney Crosby, but the Pens haven’t really looked dominant for any stretch of the season. To be contenders, they need Tristan Jarry playing at a high level and possibly one more defenseman who can be relied on to play 20 minutes.
15. Edmonton Oilers (10-10-0, -6. CF%: 21, xGF%: 20)
One thing about winning teams is that if you study their cap structure, they don’t have $25-million mistakes. A team lacking depth on forward and defense just spent way too much on the wrong goalie, and Jack Campbell’s contract’s going to keep handcuffing them going forward unless he turns it around. There’s just too little surrounding their two top players to take them seriously as contenders. They’re firmly in the second tier behind the contenders.
16. St. Louis Blues (10-9-0, -10. CF%: 27, xGF%: 19)
The year the Blues won the Cup, they were second-last at 7-10-3 at American Thanksgiving, so there’s definitely still a chance. However, the Blues are incredibly streaky and definitely less stout on defense than in past seasons. Neither of those things are good when the playoffs become marathon-like grinds, and it might take another few seasons before Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou lead them back to contender status.
17. Los Angeles Kings (11-9-2, -6. CF%: 7, xGF%: 4)
The Kings are playoff contenders despite their goaltending and defense, but they also showed last year that the playoffs are more suited for their style of play. Talent-wise, they’re pretty outmatched by all the other playoff contenders.
18. Calgary Flames (9-7-3, -3. CF%: 4, xGF%: 9)
They should definitely be better, and they’re another team that has been surprisingly streaky. Darryl Sutter hasn’t found the right combos for his lines, and until that happens, they won’t be reaching their maximum potential. They’re playoff contenders right now, but that’s their floor.
19. Minnesota Wild (9-8-2, even. CF%: 18, xGF%: 15)
The buyout penalties are prohibiting them from acquiring additional depth, and climbing back to a winning record following Marc-Andre Fleury’s horrendous start has been low-key impressive. Their acquisition of Fleury and Ryan Reaves for a draft pick means they’re in win-now mode, ensuring they’re a playoff contender.
20. New York Rangers (10-7-4, +5. CF%: 5, xGF%: 8)
The Rangers often look good, and their analytics definitely are good, but their record doesn’t scream “contender” despite making the final four last season. The race in the East is tight with only two points separating the fifth to 10th seeds, and their secret weapon remains Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers are in the upper tier of playoff contenders and could move further up if their record improves.
21. Montreal Canadiens (10-9-1, -9. CF%: 23, xGF%: 25)
The Habs are only two points out of a wild-card spot, but it’s not really in their best interests to make the playoffs so soon. They need more in the cupboard, and making the playoffs serves little purpose because it’ll just lead to a first-round exit and a middling first-round pick. They’re a playoff contender relative to their spot in the standings, but really should still focus on selling assets at the deadline.
22. Nashville Predators (9-9-2, -12. CF%: 17, xGF%: 18)
The Preds hold the second-longest post-season streak at eight seasons, and unless Juuso Parssinen has alternate plans, I bet that streak ends this season. The race is tighter than before, and the Preds aren’t getting career seasons from Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg again to sneak in. The Preds may think they’re playoff contenders, but they’re really borderline and need to go on a big run to change my mind.
23. Buffalo Sabres (9-11-0, +5. CF%: 6, xGF%: 17)
They’re a wildly entertaining team, but they’re maybe one more season away from being a playoff contender. Their positive goal differential tells you how good they can be, but they’re five points out of a wild-card spot, which is quite a bit and also the same margin between them and last-place Ottawa. The Sabres have too much talent to lose many games, putting them out of the Bedard sweepstakes, but playing competitive games right now is more important for the development of their current core.
24. Vancouver Canucks (7-10-3, -9. CF%: 25, xGF%: 26)
Their owner wants them to make the playoffs, and that’s usually the end of the argument in Vancouver, but Bo Horvat’s free agency looms, and it’s put the team in a pivotal spot. There’s enough talent to be a playoff contender, but which coach is leading them there? And which players? There are too many distractions for the Canucks to really focus on making the playoffs, not to mention Bedard is the hometown guy.
25. Washington Capitals (8-10-3, -11. CF%: 11, xGF%: 22)
The Caps look kind of done. They’re four points out of a playoff spot, too many key players are on injured reserve and there will be tons of cap space to play with in the summer to address their roster. Swallowing the tough pill for one season won’t be bad when they land a top-10 pick.
26. Arizona Coyotes (7-9-2, -14. CF%: 31, xGF%: 32)
We’re firmly in the Bedard sweepstakes tier because none of these teams have a shot at making the playoffs. The Coyotes are preparing to trade Jakob Chychrun and are asking for two first-round picks, so it’s a no-brainer where their mind is at.
27. San Jose Sharks (7-12-3, -13. 1. CF%: 22, xGF%: 16)
They were maybe taking the wait-and-see approach, but considering their record and how Erik Karlsson’s trade value hasn’t been this high in over five seasons, it’s a good chance the Sharks get a haul for him and properly strip down the roster. Long-term deals for Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl ensure the Sharks’ tank job won’t be super obvious.
28. Chicago Blackhawks (6-10-3, -20. CF%: 32, xGF%: 31)
After what they did over the summer, is there any illusion what their plan is?!
29. Philadelphia Flyers (7-8-5, -15. CF%: 28, xGF%: 29)
John Tortorella can only coax so much out of a roster that has Joel Farabee and Owen Tippett as their best wingers. Like it or not, the Flyers just aren’t good and need to inject a ton of talent into their roster. Maybe things will be better next season when, hopefully, Sean Couturier is healthy.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets (7-11-1, -25. CF%: 29, xGF%: 27)
Their goaltending is poor, Patrik Laine can’t stay healthy and none of their young prospects have taken a leap. I hear it’s a nice city to live in, though.
31. Ottawa Senators (6-12-1, -10. CF%: 8, xGF%: 11)
They shouldn’t be this bad, but their road record (1-6-1) is atrocious. Good thing Ryan Reynolds can take attention away from everyone else.
32. Anaheim Ducks (6-13-1, -31. CF%: 26, xGF%: 30)
If Bedard and Trevor Zegras ever end up on the same team, their dekes per 60 minutes will be through the roof.
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