There isn’t a foolproof way to predict at roughly the quarter mark of the season which teams will end up qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
However, auditing the standings at U.S. Thanksgiving helps give us a solid framework for understanding which teams are positioned well and which others need to pick up the pace throughout the winter months.
Since last season was unconventional on several levels – realigned divisions, limited opponents on a repetitive schedule and a regular season that didn’t begin until January – there isn’t necessarily an abundance of data from 2020-21 we can apply to the current NHL campaign.
Looking back at previous seasons, though, we can begin to get a clearer picture of how the 2022 post-season brackets might shape up.
From the 2013-14 season to 2017-18, a whopping 62 of 80 of teams in a playoff spot at U.S. Thanksgiving wound up qualifying for a playoff spot.
That works out to 77.5 per cent, which is significant, and it’s also in line with trends during full seasons in the salary cap era, regardless of divisional alignment.
The most recent time we had the familiar divisional alignment at U.S. Thanksgiving was back in 2019 during the 2019-20 regular season that was cut short by anywhere from 11-14 games – no team played more than 71 games and none fewer than 68 – after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
Due to the circumstances surrounding the suspension of the regular season, an expanded playoff format was agreed upon with 12 teams from each conference afforded an opportunity to compete in the post-season. The top four teams in each conference were given a bye into the first official playoff round while teams ranked 5-12 competed in best-of-five series.
Below you'll be able to compare the current standings to the 2019-20 standings at this time two years ago. Keep in mind, the 2021-22 season began towards the end of the second week of October when usually regular-season action gets underway early in the first week, which explains this year’s lower point totals.
Atlantic Division standings at U.S. Thanksgiving in 2019-20
1. BOS (17-3-5) 39pts
2. FLA (12-8-5) 29pts
3. TOR (12-10-4) 28pts
Metropolitan Division standings at U.S. Thanksgiving in 2019-20
1. WSH (17-4-5) 39pts
2. NYI (16-5-2) 34pts
3. PIT (14-7-4) 32pts
Wild Card race at U.S. Thanksgiving in 2019-20
*CAR (15-9-1) 31pts
*PHI (13-7-5) 31pts
MTL (11-8-5) 27pts
TBL (12-8-2) 26pts
NYR (12-9-2) 26pts
CBJ (10-10-4) 24pts
In 2019-20, Boston maintained its spot atop the Atlantic and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the only team to reach 100 points that season. The Panthers and Islanders both went from second place at Thanksgiving to much more tenuous positions -- the Islanders were one point back of the East's second wild card spot at the 2020 pause (with two games in hand), while the Panthers were three points out of a playoff spot. Because of the unique bubble parameters the two teams played against each other in 2020's additional "qualifying round" with the Islanders coming out on top. Columbus was trailing by seven points in the wild-card race at Thanksgiving yet wound up holding the second wild-card spot at the pause and pulled off a qualifying round upset over Toronto.
Buffalo, New Jersey, Ottawa and Detroit were well on the outside looking in when the mashed potatoes and gravy were passed around the table and each had an early start to the off-season.
Central Division standings U.S. Thanksgiving in 2019-20
STL (15-5-6) 36pts
DAL (15-9-2) 32pts
WPG (15-9-1) 31pts
Pacific Division standings at U.S. Thanksgiving in 2019-20
EDM (16-8-3) 35pts
ARI (15-8-3) 33pts
VAN (12-10-4) 28pts
Wild Card race at U.S. Thanksgiving in 2019-20
*COL (14-8-2) 30pts
*VAN (12-10-4) 28pts
VGK (12-11-4) 28pts
CGY (12-12-4) 28pts
SJS (13-12-1) 27pts
Vegas and Colorado were wild-card contenders at Thanksgiving 2019 yet finished with the second- and third-best records in the West when the season was paused. The Oilers and Coyotes couldn’t maintain their strong starts. Edmonton failed to secure a bye and sat behind Vegas at the pause, while the Coyotes were four points out of the wild card when the season came to a halt in March. Both were eliminated in the qualifying round. The Sharks were above .500 and one point behind Vancouver at Thanksgiving, but all three California-based teams fell out of the race and didn't even qualify for the expanded playoffs.
Overall, when you take all of the above into consideration, teams like Carolina and Florida should feel confident about their positions this season. Have Ottawa, Montreal and the Islanders dug themselves too deep a hole to dig out of come the playoffs? It’s too early to worry about a team like the Bruins and Stars and, heck, even Detroit and New Jersey shouldn’t be written out of the playoff race. Kraken and Coyotes fans probably shouldn't love their post-season chances, unlike fans in Alberta where Calgary and Edmonton lead the Pacific.
On average, roughly three teams that are outside of the playoff picture on American Thanksgiving end up qualifying by the end of the season. Who are the teams best situated to make the climb in 2021-22?