When the NHL’s unofficial second half kicks off this week, there will be substantially fewer teams with playoff hopes than when the first half began back in October. Of course, no team has been statistically eliminated yet, but a quick look at the standings can help to rule out more than a handful of the league’s bottom-dwellers. In fact, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn had seven teams with less than a 5% chance of reaching the playoffs in his latest model: the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, and Philadelphia Flyers.
On the other hand, there are also quite a few teams whose first-half success has given them near certainty of playing beyond the regular season this year. Luszczszyn’s projections give eleven teams an 85% chance or better of qualifying for the postseason: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vegas Golden Knights, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets, and New York Islanders.
This leaves 13 clubs remaining – the “fringe” teams – who are vying for a possible five playoff spots. Eight of these teams will miss out. Who least wants to be part of that group?
Well, the team who has been a member of the early off-season club the longest would certainly like to change things up. The Carolina Hurricanes have gone nine seasons since making a postseason appearance and have come close the last few years but fallen short. The team could crack 90 points this season for the first time in eight years, but it might not be enough in the tight Eastern Conference wild card race. The two other teams who are desperate to get back to the playoffs are the Buffalo Sabres, who are on a seven-year drought, and the Arizona Coyotes, who are six years out from a postseason appearance. The Sabres got off to a hot start this season and looked to be a surprise playoff team, but have regressed recently, with three wins in their past then games, and are now tied with Carolina for ninth place in the East. The Coyotes have been resilient in the deep Western Conference wild card race, battling injuries and inconsistency to stay in the mix, but Arizona has their work cut out for them the rest of the way.
Then there are the teams who have made the playoffs recently but not performed. The Blue Jackets – who have never won a playoff series in franchise history – will almost certainly have another shot this year, but what about the Florida Panthers? Many have dismissed the team this season, but the Panthers have plenty of talent and have fallen short of expectations until recently. They face an uphill battle to make the postseason but if they do, the team would have a chance to snap the league’s longest streak without a playoff series win. Florida has not won a round since 1996, a whopping 21 seasons without postseason success and longer than the Blue Jackets have even existed. That’s a substantial mark on the franchise. It’s been a decade now since the Colorado Avalanche have won a postseason series as well and now that they are armed with one of the league’s best forward lines, have a chance against anyone if they can win a spot. The Avs looked like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender early this season and with some trade deadline reinforcements could be a factor this spring. However, recent struggles have plummeted them into the thick of the wild card race in the West and they are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.
Then, there are teams that simply entered the 2018-19 campaign with high expectations and need to meet them. The defending champion Washington Capitals are of course part of this group. Among the most likely fringe teams to make the postseason, it is nevertheless hard to ignore the disastrous play of the Capitals of late. Three wins in their past ten games, including a number of blowout losses, has begun “Stanley Cup hangover” talk and has legitimately injured Washington’s playoff odds. The team needs to right the ship soon or risk falling out of the current playoff picture. A team on the opposite trajectory are the Minnesota Wild, who have improved their play of late and have pulled away in the race for the final Central Division berth. Minnesota is another team that entered the season with high expectations and are still searching for the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup final appearance. With hopes reaching new highs this season, a collapse for the Wild would be devastating.
Unlike the Capitals and Wild, there are also teams with high expectations who don’t have promising playoff outlooks right now. The Edmonton Oilers and the league’s best player, Connor McDavid, sit atop that list. Edmonton is currently in 13th in the Western Conference and in danger of dropping out of the playoff conversation sooner than any fringe team. The organization has already fired their head coach and general manager this season amid another year of disappointing results and face slim odds that this campaign will end any differently. McDavid and company maintain that the Oilers are a playoff-caliber team, but something has to change with this team down the stretch for that that hypothesis to be tested this postseason. The St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars certainly look like playoff teams on paper, but both have been mediocre at best this season. The Blues, a popular dark horse Stanley Cup pick before the season, have been disappointing in every regard and there has been talk that the team could blow it up this season. A recent improvement paired with the struggles of others in the Western Conference playoff race have revived postseason hopes, but few expected that making the playoffs would be this difficult for St. Louis this season. The same goes for Dallas, who has had highly-publicized feuds between ownership, coaches, and players alike this year as the team continues to fall short of expectations. The Stars currently hold the top spot in the wild card race, but a recent history of late season collapses casts doubt over their ability to hold on to that spot.
There are still many teams whose playoff futures this season remain in question. These franchises all have varying degrees of desperation based on history and expectations. Of the 13 “fringe” teams, which team is under the most pressure to make the playoffs?
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