Things change quickly in the NHL. Every year, 16 teams make the playoffs. Every year, all 16 of those teams head into the following season expecting to make it again. And every year, a big chunk of them don’t.
Since the start of the salary cap era, the average turnover from year-to-year in the playoffs has been five teams. The most was seven, from 2014 to 2015, and the fewest was three, from 2010 to 2011. The most common number is five, which has happened six times in 10 seasons.
This season is shaping up as another high-turnover year. If the playoffs started today, six of the 16 playoff spots would have new occupants, meaning we’d have a total of 12 teams switching columns from last year, either from in to out or out to in.
Of course, the playoffs don’t start today, and we still have four more months of action for the standings to shift before we settle on our actual playoff matchups. It’s a strong bet that at least a few teams in today’s playoff picture will drop out, replaced by teams that are on the outside today.
But who? Today, let’s look through that list of turnover teams and try to figure out which ones will stay where they are, and which ones will shift back to where they were last year.
They’d be in: Montreal Canadiens
Where they are today: They’ve spent almost the entire season in first place overall, a spot they finally yielded last night when the Penguins passed them.
What’s gone right?: The big piece has been Carey Price, who’s return to full health has transformed the team. Getting one of the best players in the world back will do that for you. The addition of Shea Weber and Alexander Radulov has helped, Max Pacioretty is heating up, and until he got hurt, it looked like we were getting a breakout season from Alex Galchenyuk.
What could still go wrong?: As we saw last year, any sort of extended absence by Price could change everything.
Their odds of staying put: We’ve seen this team start strong in each of the last few seasons before coming back to the pack as the year went on—and last year, plummeting right past the pack and out of the playoffs. But they’ve banked so many points that they’re all but a lock for a spot already; the playoffs odds at sportsclubstats.com have them as a 99-percent favourite.
They’d be out: Tampa Bay Lightning
Where they are today: Spinning their wheels in the midst of an extended cold streak. Last night’s win in Calgary halted a three-game skid, but they’ve still won just two of their last nine. That’s left them outside the playoffs, and part of a weird phenomenon: All four teams from last year’s Atlantic bracket (including the crossover wildcard) would be out right now.
That said, the Lightning aren’t out of the running by any stretch, even with the Metro running away with the two wildcards. They’re just three points back of Boston and Ottawa for an Atlantic spot.
What’s gone wrong?: Other than Nikita Kucherov, the offence has been stagnant; Steven Stamkos went into last night’s game as their second-leading scorer, which is a problem given that he’s been out of action for a month. Ideally your goaltending would bail you out when that happens, but Ben Bishop hasn’t been very good. And the Lightning don’t seem to be falling victim to bad luck or fluctuating percentages; their numbers across the board just point to them being a very average team this year.
What could still go right?: The long-rumoured Bishop trade could bring in helpful reinforcements, and Andrei Vasilevskiy might already be an upgrade as the full-time guy. You’d expect some of their better young players to heat up. And if they can hang in the race until March, they’ll get Stamkos back.
Their odds of staying put: The Lightning were a preseason Cup pick for many of us, and it still seems unthinkable that they could miss the playoffs altogether. But the turnaround needs to start soon.
They’d be in: Edmonton Oilers
Where they are today: Back in the playoffs after a decade, which was pretty much the point of this season. They’re tied with the Ducks for second in the Pacific, two points back of the Sharks.
What’s gone right?: Connor McDavid is amazing, Leon Draisaitl is emerging, the blueline is improved, Cam Talbot has been very good, and Milan Lucic is about what they expected. It hasn’t been a perfect season, but there have been far more positives than negatives, which is why they’ve had a secure grip on a playoff spot all year.
What could still go wrong?: Wait, we did say “secure grip,” right? Because today the Oilers have lost more games than they’ve won and are just five points up on a group of teams that includes the Kings and Predators, both of whom somehow have four games in hand. They’re going to be fine, right? The sportsclubstats.com odds still have them at 83 percent, and the Western Conference is a mess this year so you won’t even have to be all that good to get in. Yeah, they’ll be fine. Probably.
Their odds of staying put: It’s Edmonton. What could go wrong?
They’d be out: Los Angeles Kings
Where they are today: Sitting outside the playoffs, but only barely. They’re tied with the Predators for the last wildcard, and only drop based on the fourth tie-breaker.
What’s gone wrong?: Jonathan Quick got hurt. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a big chapter of it. This is a team that’s built to dominate possession, play strong defence, score just enough, and get good goaltending. They’ve done three of four, but Quick’s absence has probably cost them a win or two along the way, which is the difference between chasing first place in the Pacific and sitting outside the playoffs entirely.
What could still go right?: Quick is reportedly going to be out until March. Dean Lombardi doesn’t have much cap space to work with, so it may be Peter Budaj-or-bust for the next few months.
Their odds of staying put: They’re the Kings. We’ve seen this act before. Every year, they cruise through the regular season without breaking a sweat, then slide into the playoffs and flip the switch. They’ll be fine. (Of course, we said that in 2014–15, too….)
They’d be in: Boston Bruins
Where they are today: Sitting tied for second in the Atlantic, three points clear of the Lightning for one of the three Atlantic spots.
What’s gone right?: Man, the Bruins are a weird team. They’ve won 16 and lost 15 and have a negative goals differential, and that’s with Tuukka Rask playing out of his mind and David Pastrnak looking like Mike Bossy, so it’s tempting to just chalk them up as an early-season pretender that will eventually yield its spot to the one of the better teams down below. But then you dive a little deeper, and the Bruins start to look like a sneaky-good team. They lead the NHL in 5v5 possession, and their PDO is actually one of the league’s lowest thanks to an unsustainably poor shooting percentage. As big a surprise as they’ve been so far, it’s at least possible that they’re actually a very good team that’s underperforming.
What could still go wrong?: They’ve missed the playoffs two straight years and few were picking them to break that streak this year, so maybe Rask comes back to Earth and we turn out to have been right all along. It’s not like they’ve given themselves much margin for error, so even a short slump could cost them a spot.
Their odds of staying put: They still seem to be on shaky ground, but I like their odds better than Ottawa’s.
They’d be out: New York Islanders
Where they are today: Dead last in the Eastern Conference.
What’s gone wrong?: Pretty much everything. Just about everyone is underperforming, they’re getting crushed in possession, and the goaltending isn’t anywhere near good enough to make up the difference.
What could still go right?: It was around this time last year that everyone was getting ready to write off the Penguins before a coaching change transformed them into Cup contenders. But the Islanders seem to want to stand pat, and with all due respect to them, they’re not the Penguins.
Their odds of staying put: They’re done.
They’d be in: Ottawa Senators
Where they are today: Surprisingly tied for second in the Atlantic with Boston. But they’re cooling off, with last night’s loss to the Sharks handing them their first three-game losing streak of the season.
What’s gone right?: New coach Guy Boucher has a Senators team that nobody seemed all that excited about playing well. They’ve been consistent, posting a winning record both at home and the road. And it’s not like they’re picking their spots; they’re the only team to have beaten the Canadiens twice.
What could still go wrong?: Wins are what matters, but most of the other numbers point to the Senators being a team that’s posting a better record than they deserve. They’re getting consistently outshot and out-chanced, and they’ve posted the same true goals differential as last place teams like the Sabres and Islanders.
Their odds of staying put: The win/loss column still looks good, but not much else does. Despite holding down a spot today, their sportsclubstats.com odds of finishing the season with one sit at just 33 percent; Senators fans won’t like it, but that seems about right.
They’d be out: Detroit Red Wings
Where they are today: In a logjam of four Eastern teams that are all sitting at 30 points, which has them still within range of an Atlantic spot. But they’ve been flailing for the better part of the season; after a 5-2-0 start, they’ve won just two of 23 in regulation, and just one of their last 14.
What’s gone wrong?: Time catches up with us all, hockey teams included. The Wings came into the season seeming like a shaky bet to continue their league-leading playoff streak, and so far they’ve looked like what we feared they were: an old team that just isn’t good enough. They lost to Arizona on Monday, and nobody’s even sure if the Coyotes are still trying to win.
What could still go right?: Jimmy Howard is back, and if he can keep playing at anything close to his early-season pace then he’ll steal some games outright along the way. And it’s not like the Atlantic looks all that strong; if Ottawa or Boston fade, somebody will have to catch them, and the Wings are in as good as position as anyone.
Their odds of staying put: You never say never, especially with this franchise. But other than the Islanders, they’re the biggest longshot on this list.
They’d be in: Calgary Flames
Where they are today: In third place in the Pacific. Wait, no, first. Now they’re fourth. That division is weird.
What’s gone right?: After an awful start that made it seem like they were going to be out of the running by January, they’ve turned things around and had won six straight before last night’s loss to the Lightning. Chad Johnson is standing on his head, Johnny Gaudreau is back, and the young kids are slowly but surely getting on track.
What could still go wrong?: They’ve still lost as many as they’ve won, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a powerhouse here. Earlier in the year, they looked like a fragile team that would fall apart if the goaltending struggled. Johnson fixed that, but he doesn’t exactly have a long track record of NHL success, and if he falters things will start to look shaky again.
Their odds of staying put: Like the Oilers, they’re being trailed by teams with a ton of games in hand. The Kings, Stars and Predators are all chasing them, and unless two of those teams finish on the outside, that means somebody in the West has to fall out. Calgary’s recent win streak is a good sign that it won’t necessarily be them, but this feels like a team that will be in and out of a wildcard spot all season.
They’d be out: Dallas Stars
Where they are today: In a three-way tie with the Kings and Predators for the West’s last wildcard spot, although they’ve played three more games than either of those teams.
What’s gone wrong?: The goaltender has been analyzed to death, so let’s just say that it’s not good enough. Injuries up front have played a role, and the loss of Alex Goligoski seems to have at least temporarily torpedoed John Klingberg’s value.
What could still go right?: Remember, this was last year’s top seed in the conference. When they’re healthy, they’re still a good team, and they’re getting there. Plus, while Jim Nill’s patience has been admirable, you have to think he pays up to fix the goaltending at some point. The Stars don’t need to reclaim top spot in the West—they just need to make it to the postseason and do their damage there.
Their odds of staying put: As bad as their start has been, the Stars have stayed close enough to the pack that they’re still in good shape. The sportsclubstats.com odds think they’re in trouble, at just 21 percent, but I’m still betting they’ll be OK.
They’d be in: Columbus Blue Jackets
Where they are today: They’re among the league’s hottest teams, rolling over just about everyone on their way to holding down sixth spot overall. Of course, that’s only good enough for fourth in the Metro, because that division is ridiculous.
What’s gone right?: How much time do you have? The Blue Jackets have been the season’s biggest surprise, and they’re doing it in multiple ways. Sergei Bobrovsky has been great, the offense is shooting north of 10 percent, and the power play has been deadly.
What could still go wrong?: The team is still riding a PDO that’s too high to maintain, and some of those percentages are going to come down.
Their odds of staying put: We’re still not quite sure what the Blue Jackets really are. Is this an actual Cup contender, or merely a reasonably good team riding some better-than-expected luck to an inflated record? But as far as the playoffs go, it may not matter; they’ve banked so many points early on that it would take a major collapse for them to miss the postseason. They’re the Blue Jackets, so we’re not taking “major collapse” off the board entirely, but they’re in excellent shape.
They’d be out: Florida Panthers
Where they are today: Falling fast. After a sluggish start that cost Gerald Gallant his job, the Panthers haven’t been any better under Tom Rowe. They’ve won just two of eight since the coaching change, and have dropped to 12th in the East. And now they’ve shaken up the front office again… maybe. Nobody seems to know what’s going on in Florida.
What’s gone wrong?: Your answer to this question depends a lot on how you felt about their surprising 2015–16 season. If you never really bought them as a contender, you probably just see a middling team that’s come back to roughly where you thought they’d be. If you thought they were the real deal, you probably see a good team that’s seeing a few of their top young players have the kind of struggles that young players often have, or maybe just getting distracted by all the off-ice shuffling.
What could still go right?: The young guys will sort it out; they’re too good not to. The Panthers are also a good possession team that’s being weighed down by some bad PDO luck. And it’s worth pointing out that they’re still just five points back of the Senators and Bruins for the third Atlantic spot. And they hold a game in hand on Boston, who they play twice in the next few weeks.
Their odds of staying put: There’s still time, and there’s enough talent in place in Florida that a comeback doesn’t seem unrealistic. But we need to start seeing some signs of life soon, and lately there haven’t been many. A second-half surge is a possibility, sure. But right now, so is an implosion.