With November coming to a close, so too does the window for players, coaches and GMs to sneak in that early-season filler line we’ve all come to know and love.
The American Thanksgiving playoff deadline is upon us, meaning the “It’s early” crowd is officially on notice. If you’re not familiar, a quick refresher: Nov. 28 marks the 2019 iteration of the American holiday, which in turn marks the point in the year that’s historically been a pretty accurate predictor of what the post-season might look like come April.
Look back in recent league history, and the majority of teams in a playoff spot by American Thanksgiving remain there by the time Game 82 hits — which, of course, means teams that aren’t in a playoff spot by now face long odds of getting back by the season’s end. How great a majority? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the 2005-06 season — the first in the league’s salary cap era — 76 per cent of clubs holding a playoff spot by American Thanksgiving have finished the season with a post-season berth.
That isn’t to say it’s impossible to climb back in if you haven’t by the start of December — last year’s Stanley Cup champ proved that possibility emphatically, clawing their way back from last place and finishing with a ring. But for every Blues redemption story, there’s a trail of hopeful comeback efforts left unfinished amid an early summer.
With that said, let’s take a look at how the standings shake out at the moment:
One name clearly stands out among the bottom-of-the-table crowd here.
The Tampa Bay Lightning entered the season as a bona fide Cup contender, rolling out one of the best on-paper squads in the league. While they find themselves on the bubble, the strength of their roster — and the fact they haven’t had health on their side, with both Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov dealing with injuries during the early goings — suggests a change of circumstance could help them mount a climb up the standings. The fact they’ve played the fewest games of any team in the conference helps, too.
Elsewhere in the East, things look even less promising. The Montreal Canadiens, who have seemed to make strides over the past two seasons but have ultimately missed the playoffs in both, find themselves on the bubble once again. And an injury to star forward Jonathan Drouin doesn’t figure to make their effort to upend that trend any easier this time around.
To get back in, it looks like they’ll have a better chance at trying to catch the Toronto Maple Leafs in the divisional race rather than closing the gap on a wild-card spot, but getting past the suddenly-surging Leafs won’t be easy. While Toronto sat outside the playoff picture as recently as Wednesday, the dramatic personnel and tactical shifts that were brought on by the team’s recent coaching change leave them as essentially a different team, and one that’s looking far more dangerous through the first few games of their new era.
The New York Rangers, who headed into 2019-20 an optimistic bunch after adding marquee names like Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, sit well out of the mix, too — a thorn in the side of their attempt to sprint out of their brief rebuild this season. As do the New Jersey Devils, who similarly stocked up in the summer, and who desperately need success this season if they hope to keep pending UFA Taylor Hall.
In the west, the outlook is good for the majority of the Canadian contingent, with Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver all sitting in the post-season mix at the moment.
Two clubs on the outside looking in seem likely to make things interesting down the stretch, however. The Calgary Flames entered 2019-20 as the defending conference champs, and yet have looked out of sorts since Game 1 this season. If no drastic change to the Flames’ style of play comes in Calgary, the Pacific Division playoff hopefuls likely don’t fluctuate much. But if a shift in direction or significant trade can breathe life back into the Flames’ game, last year’s success suggests they have enough in the lineup to throw a wrench into the current standings.
The Nashville Predators — winners of the past two division titles — seem likely to try their hand at a move up as well, especially with what should be an improved forward corps that now includes Matt Duchene.
That said, history suggests not all of these talented teams on the outside will make it back in, if any do at all. Circumstance will dictate whether that trend continues in 2020, but with current playoff-bound teams rolling and bubble teams having to go through the process of sorting out their issues before they start piling up the needed wins, closing that few points’ gap won’t be as easy as it seems.
For clubs like the Edmonton Oilers, sitting atop their division and looking unshakeable on their path back to the post-season, securing that berth will depend on whether their style of play can withhold the game tightening up as the season wears on.
The key questions remaining: As the season moves past this early phase, as the intensity ramps up and that time and space disappears, whose style of play will flourish and whose will be stifled? And more importantly, who’s built up enough of an early-season lead to withstand any potential slide?