The importance of having an NHL playoff spot at American Thanksgiving

Elliotte Friedman joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss the possibility of the Canucks contending in a weak Pacific division.

The sample sizes are big enough, the schedule is old enough – we can finally start making wild playoff projections based on actual games played so far. And, historically, looking at the playoff picture as it sits today really does mean something.

It’s not early anymore.

It’s the all-important American Thanksgiving cutoff.

With a little more than a quarter of the season gone, general managers now mostly know what they have, what they need and what their outlook is for the rest of the season. It’s the time for GMs to start making moves and decisions to address something they haven’t liked so far this season.

“Maybe it was the American Thanksgiving juncture point, maybe it was [losing] six out of seven. It felt like it was time,” Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said after he fired Todd McLellan this week.

So as we sit and look at the standings today, it can’t feel good to be a fan of the Los Angeles Kings (eight points out), St. Louis Blues (seven out) or Florida Panthers (seven out). In fact, those Panthers are a great example of how hard it can be to recover from a start like this, even with an excellent finish.

At American Thanksgiving last year, Florida was seven points out of a playoff spot. And despite winning 25 of their last 35 games in the regular season, they still fell short of the playoffs by a single point.

The NHL is a league of parity so there isn’t a great deal of separation between the second tier of teams and those that sniff, but just miss out on, the playoffs. So in that sense, most aren’t truly out of it at this point – you can’t rule out the Vegas Golden Knights making up two points on the Anaheim Ducks. But because teams can get a point by losing in overtime or a shootout, it can be a slow climb up the standings even if you put up a pile of wins.

And, according to NHL PR, this year is trending to have more loser point games than usual – 75 games have required overtime to this point, a record in the 3-on-3 era this far into the season.

But do not fret, fans of teams on the outside looking in. In analyzing the recent past, we can see a collection of teams that were out of it at American Thanksgiving, but landed in a playoff spot come April.

Let’s just check back to the standings at this point a year ago:


*Tampa Bay – 34 *Columbus – 29 *Pittsburgh – 25 NY Rangers – 24
*Toronto – 29 *New Jersey – 28 *Washington – 25 *Boston – 22
Detroit – 23 NY Islanders – 26   Carolina – 22
St. Louis – 33 *Vegas – 27 Dallas – 25 *Colorado – 23
*Winnipeg – 29 *Los Angeles – 26 Calgary – 25 *San Jose – 23
*Nashville – 28 Vancouver – 25   *Anaheim – 23

*denotes playoff team

In the East, you don’t see the Philadelphia Flyers anywhere because they sat at the bottom of the Metro with a 8-9-5 record, four points out. They got a point in 42 of their last 59 games and were the East’s fifth-best team from American Thanksgiving through to the end of the regular season. They got in, but only squeaked by to third place in their division, just two points clear of missing out altogether.

In the West, every team that made the playoffs was either in, or within two points, at American Thanksgiving (Minnesota doesn’t show here, but they also had 23 points). And this was the year that had the most standings turnover of the past five.


*Montreal – 32 *NY Rangers – 29 *Columbus – 23 *Boston – 22
Tampa Bay – 27 *Pittsburgh – 27 New Jersey – 23 Florida – 21
*Ottawa – 25 *Washington – 26   Philadelphia – 21
*Chicago – 28 *Edmonton – 25 *Anaheim – 22 Dallas – 21
*St. Louis – 25 *San Jose – 23 *Nashville – 21 Winnipeg – 20
*Minnesota – 22 Los Angeles – 23   *Calgary – 19

Only one team in the 2016-17 season came from outside the “next three” to reach the playoffs: the Toronto Maple Leafs. They were five points out of a division spot, but just three behind the final wild-card berth, which they ended up getting. To do that they were the East’s sixth-best team the rest of the way (32-19-11) while, more importantly, both New Jersey and Tampa Bay played sub-.500 hockey from here on out. And the Leafs only finished one point clear of the Lightning.

Every other team that reached the playoffs at the end was within two points of a spot on American Thanksgiving.


Montreal – 36 *NY Rangers – 34 *Detroit – 25 *Tampa Bay – 25
Ottawa – 29 *Washington – 31 *NY Islanders – 25 New Jersey – 23
Boston – 25 *Pittsburgh – 26   *Florida – 20
*Dallas – 34 *Los Angeles – 27 *Chicago – 26 Arizona – 23
*St. Louis – 31 *San Jose – 26 *Minnesota – 25 Winnipeg – 22
*Nashville – 27 Vancouver – 24   *Anaheim – 20

Philadelphia and Florida were the two biggest comebacks this season and, in fact, the two biggest over the past three years. The Panthers, five points out of a spot at this point, were the NHL’s second-best team the rest of the way posting a 39-17-5 record from Thanksgiving through April to win the Atlantic Division outright. The Flyers, sitting with 19 points at the Thanksgiving quarter mark, posted the East’s fifth-best record the rest of the way (33-17-9) and again just snuck in to the final wild-card spot, three points clear of the Boston Bruins.

This was a weird year because, of the five teams that came back from outside of the playoffs to make it, two of them won their division. Not only did the Panthers achieve it, but the Ducks posted a 37-14-7 record from here on out, the best mark in the Western Conference.


Pittsburgh Penguins
Sitting five points back of third place in their division, no one should be counting out Crosby, Malkin and Company. To win the Metropolitan Division, they may have to post the top record in the conference from here on out. That may be tough with the lack of support scoring they’ve been getting along with defensive play trending the wrong direction, but Casey DeSmith has been excellent in net and will now run with the job for a while with Matt Murray out.

Vegas Golden Knights
Just two points back of Anaheim for third in the Pacific and three points out of a wild card, things may finally be turning around for the second-year team. Despite having great shot differentials to this point, Vegas has been struck with a bit of bad luck, going through most of the first quarter with one of the league’s lowest shooting percentages. But over their past 10, with other offences slowing down a tad, Vegas’s has been trending up with 31 goals over that stretch. Remember, Vegas had an incredible home record last season, but they’ve only had one home stretch last longer than two games so far. That will start to change in December, while January and February especially bring favourable schedules. Paul Stastny may be back by then, too, which will help fill out the lineup.

Edmonton Oilers
Well, we know the pressure is on and the GM is now the one on the hot seat. Plus, they’ve just added a new head coach in Ken Hitchcock who tends to get immediately positive returns from new teams he joins through stingier defensive play. They have the same number of points as Vegas in two fewer games – no one can dismiss a Connor McDavid-led comeback.

Carolina Hurricanes
Can’t believe I’m including them given the number of times this “analytics darling” franchise has burned pre-season picks. But would you rather wager on the Rangers holding a top-three spot in the Metro or Carolina making up the two points? Once again, the ‘Canes generate a pile of shots and, once again, their goal scoring is lacking a bit. If goaltending can even be just league average, the Hurricanes’ defence puts them in a good spot. If you put a breakout season from Sebastian Aho on top of that, plus more opportunity from rookie Andrei Svechnikov, the offence could improve at least a little. And, who knows, maybe they get some help via trade.


Given that no team has made up more than a five-point deficit at American Thanksgiving to finish as a playoff team in this sample window, it’s interesting to note the following teams who are six or more points out of a spot (division or wild card) right now: Florida, Los Angeles and St. Louis.


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