Evaluating Teams on the NHL Playoff Bubble

As of today, we’re officially down to one month left in the NHL regular season. And that means it’s time to start figuring out the postseason picture, with our annual look at the playoff bubble.

Most teams have about 15 to 17 games left, so it’s a little early to definitively declare anybody in or out — nobody has actually mathematically clinched anything. But I think we can all agree that a few teams are locks. The Ducks, Blues, Hawks, Sharks, Kings, Bruins, Avalanche, and Pens are in. The Oilers, Flames, Sabres, Islanders, Predators, Panthers, and Hurricanes are done. Everyone’s on board with that, right?

That still leaves 15 teams, which seems ridiculously excessive for a so-called bubble. Then again, this is the NHL’s Age of Fake Parity, where Gary Bettman & Co. pretend that every team with a pulse is still right in the thick of things even though we all know most of them really aren’t. (For example, here’s last year’s bubble piece, written with a quarter of the season left; note how absolutely nobody actually moved in or out of a playoff spot.) If that’s the image the league insists on projecting and fans want to embrace, who am I to argue?

In that spirit, let’s take a look at each of the 15 teams fighting for the eight remaining spots.

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Group 1: Should Feel Pretty Safe

New York Rangers

Current status: IN (35-27-4, 74 points, three points up for wild-card spot or Metro berth)

Remaining schedule: The Rangers play 10 of 16 on the road, including five of the next six, but their record away from MSG is actually better than it is at home. In terms of opponents, they have one of the easier schedules of any bubble team; they’ll have 12 games against teams that are currently below them in the standings.

The optimist’s view: They have an easy schedule, they’re relatively hot, they’re just about completely healthy, and they just added a reigning Art Ross winner with a chip on his shoulder.

The pessimist’s view: Well, they just lost Ryan Callahan, so … intangibles? Sorry, I got nothing. They’re in.

Worth noting: It’s unlikely, but if the Lightning end up as a wild card, they could face Martin St. Louis and the Rangers as soon as the second round.

Montreal Canadiens

Current status: IN (35-25-7, 77 points, six points up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: It’s all over the map, bouncing back and forth between top teams and also-rans. Overall, call it medium difficulty.

The optimist’s view: After a tough stretch in January that had coach Michel Therrien on the hot seat, they’ve steadied the ship. The current three-game losing streak is a concern, but they’ve probably banked enough points to weather it.

The pessimist’s view: Goalie Carey Price is still hurt, and at this point we’re not sure when he’ll be back. The Canadiens are not the same team without him, and if he can’t return soon, their cushion could vanish pretty quickly.

Worth noting: If the playoffs started today, they’d face the Leafs for the first time since 1979. And it would be awesome.

Minnesota Wild

Current status: IN (34-22-9, 77 points, four points up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: It’s tough, especially the homestretch; their final nine games include two matchups against the Blues, plus the Kings, Hawks, Bruins, and Penguins.

The optimist’s view: Their best friend right now is the calendar, as they’ve built up just enough of a cushion that they should be OK to ride the season out.

The pessimist’s view: Goaltending is still a question mark, given the health of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom. They were linked to just about every goalie moved at the deadline, but wound up settling for Ilya Bryzgalov.

Worth noting: No team that would currently make the playoffs has scored fewer goals than their 161.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Current status: IN (34-24-7, 75 points, four points up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: Excellent — the Lightning don’t play any elite teams aside from one matchup with the Penguins, and they have four left against the league’s bottom five. They also play six straight at home in April.

The optimist’s view: They just added Steven Stamkos!

The pessimist’s view: They just lost Martin St. Louis!

Worth noting: We’ve been waiting all year for the inevitable Lightning collapse, and it just doesn’t seem to be coming. Their easy schedule and the points they’ve already banked mean they’re a reasonably safe bet.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Current status: IN (35-24-8, 78 points, seven points up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: They’re in the middle of a tough road trip right now that features all three California teams, plus the Caps and Red Wings. But once that’s done it gets easier; they play seven of nine at home against a mixed bag of opponents.

The optimist’s view: They’re seven points up, so at this point, it’s stretching things to even include them as a bubble team. Barring an almost historic collapse, they’ll be fine.

The pessimist’s view: It’s the Maple Leafs. You saw the part about “barring an almost historic collapse,” right?

Worth noting: The Leafs are currently ninth overall in the standings, despite having a negative goals differential and being the league’s second-worst team in Fenwick close percentage.

Group 2: Would Need a Miracle

Winnipeg Jets

Current status: OUT (30-28-9, 69 points, five points back of wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: It’s very tough, with several top teams left to play and a five-game road trip in late March. One bit of good news: Two of those games are against the Stars, who currently hold the last playoff spot.

The optimist’s view: They’ve looked like a different team since Paul Maurice replaced Claude Noel. And with those two games against Dallas, they have some control over their own destiny. If they can sweep the Stars, they’re right back in the middle of it.

The pessimist’s view: If they don’t sweep, they may be done. And, in fact, they may be done anyway, thanks to a tough first half that left them with just too much ground to make up.

Worth noting: The last NHL playoff game in Winnipeg was in 1996.

Ottawa Senators

Current status: OUT (28-25-12, 68 points, five points back of wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: It’s middle-of-the-pack in terms of opponents, and features 10 of 17 at home. One bit of bad news: They have no games left against Columbus, Detroit, Philadelphia, or Washington — the teams they’ll likely need to catch.

The optimist’s view: Deadline-day acquisition Ales Hemsky has six points in his last two games. He’s fitting well with Jason Spezza, which gives the Senators two solid scoring lines.

The pessimist’s view: Even though they’re only five points back with 17 games to play, they’ll have to pass four teams to get there. In the era of three-point games, that kind of climb is nearly impossible without a massive win streak. And those streaks are awfully hard to come by when you’re as terrible defensively as the Senators are; they rank third-last in goals against.

Worth noting: It looks like the Senators will end up falling just short of the playoffs in a season in which they spent far less than teams like Nashville and Phoenix. Their owner swears that was a strategic decision, that “any idiot can spend money,” and that “cost per point” is the only stat he cares about. Um … are you guys sure you’re OK with this, Senator fans? I won’t say anything if you won’t. Just let me know.

Vancouver Canucks

Current status: This.

Remaining schedule: Fourteen games, all of which will include a third period, which is unfortunate.

The Vancouver fans’ view: This Canucks season is the worst thing that has ever happened.

Everyone else’s view: This Canucks season is the greatest thing that has ever happened.

Worth noting: Sorry, Vancouver, it may be time to just wave the white flag and … oh, you’re already on that.

Group 3: The True Bubble Teams

Columbus Blue Jackets

Current status: IN (34-26-5, 73 points, two points up for wild-card spot or Metro berth)

Remaining schedule: Nothing especially onerous. They have one game left against each of the Rangers and Flyers, the two teams they’re battling for one of the Metro spots.

The optimist’s view: They’ve been fairly hot in March. Sergei Bobrovsky has played well in four of his last five. And maybe most importantly, they’re in the Metro, where earning a guaranteed spot by finishing third could require fewer points than snagging a wild card.

The pessimist’s view: Their main move at the deadline was dumping Marian Gaborik, which doesn’t exactly scream “going for it.” Also: They’re the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Worth noting: If the playoffs started today, they’d face former captain Rick Nash and the Rangers, which would be fun.

Dallas Stars

Current status: IN (32-23-10, 74 points, one point up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: Some tough matchups, but not too daunting overall. They’ll play 10 of 16 on the road, including a five-game trip that starts at the end of the month.

The optimist’s view: After an up-and-down season, they’ve seemed to be peaking at the right time in the past two months, winning 11 of 16 since January 21.

The pessimist’s view: They just lost Rich Peverley for the season (and perhaps beyond) in horrifying fashion. They also recently lost starting goalie Kari Lehtonen to a head injury, and there’s no word yet on when he could return. They did add goaltending depth in former Vezina winner Tim Thomas at the deadline, but he’s no longer a guy you want to rely on for long stretches.

Worth noting: Tyler Seguin has quietly moved into a tie for fourth in league scoring.

Philadelphia Flyers

Current status: IN (33-25-7, 73 points, two points up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: It’s quite possibly the toughest of any bubble team, bordering on ridiculous; based on the current standings, they don’t get to play a single non-playoff team until the Sabres on April 6. The good news is that they play 10 of 17 at home.

The optimist’s view: Claude Giroux has been red-hot lately, rebounding nicely from a first half that had him headed toward an off year. (That’s right, I said it again. Come at me, Flyer fans.) They’re mostly healthy, and they’re playing well, earning points in every game since January but one. And they added one of the league’s most sought-after trade targets at the deadline in Andrew MacDonald.

The pessimist’s view: Do we all like Steve Mason this week, or is he terrible? It gets hard to keep track. More importantly, the defense has been shaky all year, and MacDonald may not be much help there. And that schedule really is brutal.

Worth noting: The Flyers haven’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since 1994.

Detroit Red Wings

Current status: OUT (29-23-13, 71 points, two points back of wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: Almost an even home/away split, but with a tough mix that includes games against the Hawks, Bruins, Penguins (twice), and Blues. Also worth mentioning: Starting March 27, they play nine straight against Eastern Conference opponents.

The optimist’s view: It’s the Detroit Red Wings. Of course they’ll make it. And while they’ve been inconsistent lately, they’ve recently seemed to be saving their best performances for the other teams in the wild-card hunt, such as a 6-1 win in Ottawa and a 7-4 win over New Jersey.

The pessimist’s view: They’re still missing a ton of players, including Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. They’re also well back of all the teams they’re chasing in terms of regulation wins, which is the first tiebreaker.

Worth noting: The Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since 1990.

Washington Capitals

Current status: OUT (30-27-10, 70 points, three points back of wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: They have a brutal five-game stretch starting on March 18: a three-game road trip against the California teams, then back home to face the Kings and Bruins. But if they’re still in the race after that, the opponents get a lot easier over the season’s final two weeks.

The optimist’s view: They’re talented, they’re reasonably healthy, and they shored up their goaltending at the deadline. And they finally added much-hyped prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov to the mix. And remember, we were all ready to dance on their graves last year, and they roared back into the contenders mix.

The pessimist’s view: They can’t keep the puck out of their net — only five teams have allowed more goals. Adding Jaroslav Halak should help, but the defense been a teamwide issue, not just a goaltending problem.

Worth noting: The Capitals have been eliminated by the Rangers in a seventh game in each of the last two years. If they can catch the Flyers and Jackets for third in the Metro, they’d play New York again.

Phoenix Coyotes

Current status: OUT (31-24-11, 73 points, one point back of wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: A reasonable mix of good teams and bad, and an even split of home and away games. That part could be key, since they’ve been awful (12-13-8) on the road.

The optimist’s view: After a largely disappointing season, goalie Mike Smith has been better lately.

The pessimist’s view: They’ve been frustrating to watch all season, often looking like a playoff team — but occasionally looking awful. That sort of inconsistency hasn’t hurt some teams in the East, but in the West, it’s basically left the Coyotes with only one team they can realistically catch.

Worth noting: They’ll probably need to pass the Stars to get in, and they play them on the last night of the season.

New Jersey Devils

Current status: OUT (29-24-13, 71 points, two points back of wild-card spot or Metro berth)

Remaining schedule: It’s good — they play 10 of 16 at home (where they’ve been far better), including a five-game homestand that starts Tuesday. And most of their games come against either teams they’re chasing or the league’s bottom-feeders.

The optimist’s view: The Eastern Conference is going to be a logjam for the last spot or two; under those circumstances, why not bet on the healthy veteran team with the sweet schedule? And remember, they’ve got two ways in: the wild card, or by leaping up to snag third place in the Metro.

The pessimist’s view: It’s still hard to make the argument that this is an especially good team. They score less than any current playoff teams other than Minnesota and L.A., and they’re not especially good at keeping the puck out of their net when Martin Brodeur starts over Cory Schneider — which he does, for some reason, almost half the time.

Worth noting: They’re 0-8 in the shootout, so if they do miss the playoffs they can blame the random coin flips super entertaining way we break ties.

Filed Under: NHL, NHL Playoffs, sean mcindoe, Hockey, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

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