The NHL season is about 20-25% done, but a key and important metric is coming up for playoff positioning with the Thanksgiving holiday. Mark Recchi wrote about it for NHL.com last year with some interesting insight about how NHL coaches view the race from the early going.
It’s Thanksgiving week in the United States, which means every coaching staff across the NHL is looking at where their teams are in the standings, and some are starting to stress if their teams are not in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We always hear that the odds are stacked against you if you’re not in a playoff position on Turkey Day in the U.S. It’s true and coaches are talking about it.
If you go back to the 2005-06 season, 76.3 percent of the teams that were in a playoff position on U.S. Thanksgiving made the playoffs, according to NHL Stats. That doesn’t include the 2019-20 season, which paused in March because of COVID-19 and 12 teams per conference were invited to participate in the postseason. It also doesn’t count the 2012-13 and 2020-21 seasons because neither of those seasons started before U.S. Thanksgiving.
However, in the 14 seasons I am including, 171 of the 224 teams that made the postseason were in playoff position on Thanksgiving. We talked about this when I was with the Penguins, that though the playoff field isn’t set in stone, we need to be doing everything possible to be in a playoff position by Thanksgiving because history showed us if you are you’ll have a great chance of getting in. I remember diving deep into it because of how important that stat is.
And, when we first started talking about it, I thought it was incredible and I just couldn’t believe it. It was really mind-blowing and eye-opening to see that stat.
Strong starts can pave the path for the playoffs and even though there is a lot of time left, the start of the season helps confirm preseason expectations for the stronger teams on their way to claiming to a playoff spot with little to no drama. This year that looks like Boston, Toronto, NYR and Carolina on their way to taking half of the East’s playoff spots. That’s true now at Thanksgiving 20ish percent into the season, but really it was also expected to be the case by most on Labor Day before the year even began.
In the early going, I would venture to say there are two (positive) surprise teams in the Eastern Conference heading into Thanksgiving week for me. That would be both teams who find themselves in second place of the divisions today in Florida and Washington.
Admittedly, I was more sour than most regarding Florida coming into this year, with their injury situation and the general uphill battle that the Stanley Cup Final loser has to deal with in most of their following seasons. But the Panthers’ stars have been great, goaltending solid and they’ve shrugged off any hangover to get to a great start. Considering their regular season and playoff success since the start of 2021-22 (2022 Presidents trophy, 2023 Prince of Wales) maybe that shouldn’t be a deep surprise of how strong that the Panthers continue to be.
The Capitals have “smoke and mirrored” their way to a solid start more than most. Their xGF% ranks 27th in the NHL, their power play is in single digits at 7.0% but they’ve caught some magic with hot goaltending and are finding ways to win games. Something to be said about getting positive results, but Washington reeks of the surprise team more likely to fade in the standings over the lengthy 60+ games that still remain.
While the top of the standings is mostly re-affirming what could be expected for strong teams rising to the top, the real race is in the middle. That’s by design of the NHL’s current divisional format.
With the wild card setup, only two teams from the standings below will make the playoffs. There’s a chance that could be three if Washington or another team currently in safe shape completely falls apart, but any way it goes, there are more teams who want to make the playoffs than positions available.
Tampa has floundered a bit without all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy also season so far after a summer surgery, but he figures to be back sooner than later and they’re still on a decent enough start. That’s bad news for the rest of the contenders, since the Lightning are already towards the top of the mix and the early part of the season might be as low as they go.
The rest of the East has been volatile. Not too long ago it looked like Philadelphia and Detroit were fading after red hot starts, but both have shown a little bit of staying power (until Detroit’s 0-1-1 trip to Sweden this week, anyways). New Jersey weathered the loss of Jack Hughes for a few weeks, which washed them down into the pack.
Ottawa, NYI and Pittsburgh have all been streaky on several multi-game win and loss streaks depending on the week and bouncing around the middle of the pack accordingly.
In the dangerous area at the bottom the table and in the sub .500% points percentage: Buffalo hasn’t had a smooth start and will be without Tage Thompson for a while. Montreal is fading away with four losses in a row after a pesky opening 8-10 games of the season. Columbus is the only team at risk of losing touch with the pack this early and could be the only team that might find themselves out of the mix before the season even really heats up.
There’s a long way to go, but there is a reason that media members tout the Thanksgiving positioning and why Recchi says that NHL coaches also take stock of the standings at this time of year and their own team’s positioning.
At this point, it could be said that playoff prospects are already looking grim for three teams for one reason or another (BUF, MTL, CBJ). None are close to eliminated, and any could make rallies, but being under .500 makes for a tough haul the rest of the way.
On the flip side, there are six teams that could/should look increasingly comfortable to confirm the majority of preseason projections for them being playoff teams (in no order; BOS, TB, TOR, FLA, NYR, CAR).
For a team like the Penguins that was probably always going to be a 4th-5th place division team, this showcases the truth that there is a thin needle to attempt to thread. If Pittsburgh can’t catch New Jersey (which..seems like a fair outlook), the Pens will have to finish above ALL of WSH, NYI, DET, OTT and PHI to clinch a playoff spot. Right now they’re four points back of the Capitals and in virtual dead heats with all the others.
Thanksgiving is far from make or break points since there is so much of the season still to go, but it does lay out what will unfold. The overall outlook for the Penguins should be on their own business every day and continuing to try and push for a 95ish point total that will get them where they need to be at the end of the year.
For those outside the team who are afforded a more broad view to compare/contrast against the competition, Thanksgiving brings into focus what should be the key teams for playoff jockeying. Right now for the Pens, that means the teams of most of interest for now and possibly for the rest of the season will be Washington, NYI, Detroit and Ottawa.