It’s December and the 82-game NHL season is not even half over. Think what you will about the “Thanksgiving Rule”, but a lot can change over a long season. There’s no telling exactly how things will shake out this early in the campaign.
Yet, it seems almost impossible that the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs entries from the Atlantic Division are not already set. The Tampa Bay Lightning (23-6-2, 48 pts, .774 PTS%) are the best team in the league. The Toronto Maple Leafs (20-13-1, 41 pts, .603 PTS%) are second in the division and tied for second in the Eastern Conference in points, despite a current three-game losing streak. The Boston Bruins (15-10-4, 34 pts, .586 PTS%) are the closest team to the Leafs in terms of points percentage in the East and rank third in points in the division with the least games played in the NHL. The rest of the teams in the Atlantic are not even close.
The Montreal Canadiens (14-14-4, 32 pts, .500 PTS%) perhaps represent the best bet at a spoiler in the Atlantic, but needed a 6-2-2 record in their last ten just to get to .500. The team is still struggling to find its identity under Claude Julien and there has been more talk of a rebuild than a playoff run this season. The Detroit Red Wings (12-13-7, 31 pts, .484 PTS%) are overachieving this season in the opinion of many, yet are still a ways out in the Atlantic. Despite a talented roster, the Florida Panthers (12-15-5, 29 pts, .453 PTS%) are in even worse shape. The Buffalo Sabres (8-18-7, 23 pts, .348 PTS%) are challenging for the worst record in the NHL and, with the team in turmoil, the Ottawa Senators (10-13-7, 27 pts, .450 PTS%) are trending in that direction as well.
As of now, these five Atlantic Division teams hold the five worst records in the Eastern Conference and five of the seven worst records in the entire NHL. Not only will they struggle to catch the Lightning, Leafs, and Bruins, but a wild card spot versus the relatively dominant Metropolitan Division also seems far outside the realm of possibility. If the Metro’s worst team is the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (16-14-3, 35 pts, .530 PTS%), how could any of the five hope to beat out its fourth and fifth best teams, currently the identical records of the New York Rangers and New York Islanders (17-12-3, 37 pts, .578 PTS%)?
A lot can change over the course of the NHL season, but in 2017-18 it seems very likely that the Atlantic Division playoff status is already set before the 2018 segment of the season even begins. Tampa Bay simply has too much talent to slow down. Toronto has the talent and youth to keep pushing forward. Boston is only now getting healthy for the first time this season. All three teams are likely to get better as the season progresses and, in turn, the gap between them and the remainder of the Atlantic will only get worse.