The NHL trade deadline has passed and the long regular season has entered its final quarter; no team has more than 20 games remaining on their schedule. The chase for playoff places is heating up in both conferences. However, the action is particularly tight out West where only the Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers are completely out of the race. Sports Jerseys Canada breaks down the current state of play.
Playoff Locks: Nashville, St Louis, Anaheim and Chicago
The Nashville Predators, St Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks are in positions where it’s just about inconceivable that they wouldn’t make the playoffs. It’s reasonable to lock them. We’ll also make the slightly more contestable decision to place the Chicago Blackhawks into “lock “ status. Chicago will only be seven points ahead of the conference’s eighth seed, but the Blackhawks have a deep and talented lineup and they’d make the playoffs if they played only .500 hockey over their final 18 games.
Central Teams Hold Wildcard Spots
Winnipeg Jets – 76 points (4th – Central)
The Jets are pursuing their first postseason appearance since returning to Manitoba. This team is in the middle of the pack in every statistical category and they’ve actually been playing some of their best hockey of the season. Head coach Paul Maurice has brought NHL experience to this organization and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has added some pieces to make this team deeper. Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak aren’t ground breaking additions, but they give Maurice experience and a few more line-up options.
Winnipeg can take encouragement from a strong group of defensemen led by a top four that features Tobias Enstrom, Tyler Myers, Mark Stuart and Jacob Trouba. The Jets also have the benefit of Michael Hutchinson between the pipes. The 25-year old has gradually developed from a solid rotation option alongside Ondrej Pavelec to being the starting option. Hutchinson has a competitiveness and fight in his game that is beginning to also be the identity of Maurice’s team.
The Jets have the toughest remaining schedule in the NHL (based on winning percentage) and they don’t have a huge amount playoff experience among their core players.
Predicted Finish: 5th Central – outside of Wildcard spots
Minnesota Wild – 75 points (5th – Central)
A period of progress that started two summers ago when they signed top free agent duo Ryan Suter and Zach Parise appeared to have stalled earlier this season. A 7-2 hammering at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan 13 dropped the Wild to a record below .500 (18-19-5). Head coach Mike Yeo’s job was looking less secure and the Wild were in serious danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether. Since reaching near rock bottom, Minnesota has rocketed back up the standings starting on Jan 15 with a 7-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. They’ve posted a 16-3-2 record since that big loss to the Penguins.
Few teams can ice a fourth line featuring Kyle Brodziak, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, and while some of the team’s stars haven’t managed production worthy of their contracts, they’ve got a lot of high quality scoring depth. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s strong form has been a significant factor as the trio of Dubnyk, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom all struggled in the early months of the season.
Predicted Finish: 4th Central – first Wildcard spot
Pacific Division Equation
The complicating factor in the NHL’s playoff qualification set up is that both division and conference standings impact who gets a postseason berth. Anaheim and two other teams from the division will reach the postseason, and two other teams could theoretically qualify as Wildcards.
Vancouver Canucks – 75 points (2nd – Pacific)
The Canucks ended up standing pat as the NHL trade deadline. This team is at an interesting point where they have an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and their rivals, but it might be just as easy to drop down the standings and out of a playoff place altogether. The Canucks have a ton of injuries right now with Ryan Miller, Alexander Edler, Alex Burrows, Christopher Tanev and Kevin Bieksa all currently sidelined. However, they play eight of their next 12 games on home ice and, based on winning percentage of opposition, have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western conference.
GM Jim Benning and head coach Willie Desjardins have constructed a different kind of team compared to the one that missed out on the playoffs altogether in 2013-14 and even the team that managed to win just one game in the two previous playoffs combined. These Canucks play with a little extra grit and are finding ways to overachieve.
Predicted Finish: 2nd Pacific
Calgary Flames – 72 points (3rd – Pacific)
It has been five seasons since the Flames last made the postseason and Bob Hartley’s group still has a lot of work to do before they break that streak. It starts by continuing to compete on their current seven-game Eastern road-swing (2-2 so far) and it will involve surviving without captain and important defenseman Mark Giordano. As Calgary’s former core gradually departed Alberta during a period where the franchise was in decline, Giordano remained and his role has grown. He has emerged as the leader and a genuine #1 blue liner during a difficult period for the Flames. He is second on the team in scoring and has played a lot of the team’s critical minutes over the past two seasons.
It’s not going to be easy to replace Giordano. T.J. Brodie assumes more responsibility, while Hartley will be hoping that he can get experienced stay-at-home defenseman Ladislav Smid back into the lineup sooner rather than later. The forward group will also have to pick up some of the slack. Youngsters Johnny Gadreau, Sean Monahan, Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne and Josh Joories will have to face that pressure and raise their games in the last two months.
Predicted Finish: 5th Pacific – outside of Wildcard spots
Los Angeles Kings – 72 points (4th in Pacific)
Are the LA Kings coming or are they slumping? It appeared that the Kings had finally worked things out after an erratic first four months when they reeled off eight straight wins in February. However, they then lost three straight before snapping that skid with a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night.
The defending champions are a difficult team to figure out. They have experience, talent, depth and goaltending, but all season long they’ve struggled to establish themselves. They won’t be overly concerned about playoff seeding after twice winning the Stanley Cup as a lower seed. However, maybe they should be a little more worried about getting into the playoffs at all.
Head coach Darryl Sutter will know that there are two players in particular who can help get this team moving in the right direction – Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Kopitar has just 13 goals and 48 points through 60 games – the worst scoring pace of his career. After managing just two assist in the previous five games, he had an explosion of sorts on Tuesday with a three-point night against the Oilers. Meanwhile, Doughty is the spark plug that connects LA’s stingy defense to its occasionally anemic offense; the importance of his play is increase by the absence of Slava Voynov, though the addition of Andrej Sekera will help.
Predicted Finish: 4th Pacific – second Wildcard spot
San Jose Sharks – 72 points (5th in Pacific)
After an era of consistently reaching the postseason, but never making it to the Stanley Cup finals, Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson suggested that he was ready to overhaul his team last offseason. Those plans were rapidly aborted for a somewhat “tamer” set of adjustments. He may yet regret not following through on his initial promise if San Jose doesn’t find a way to at least sneak into the playoffs.
The next week will be an important one for the Sharks. They play Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Chicago at home (all tough games) before embarking on a seven-game road trip that takes them into April. Todd McLellan’s team have oddly been a little better away from the Shark Tank this team posting a 17-11-3 record and they’ll need to keep that level of play up to continue their push towards the postseason.
The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are still potentially in contention, so we don’t want to rule them out. Both have young rosters, slightly porous defenses and would need to win a huge proportion of their games, or require the complete collapse of multiple teams. Neither of those scenarios feel particularly likely and the Avalanche and Stars are not serious contenders in the Western conference playoff picture.