(photo via nhl.com)
All-Star weekend has come and gone and as the unofficial halfway point of the NHL season, what better time than now to make some early predictions for how the 2017 playoffs could/should look.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lack of Canadian content in last year’s postseason. All seven Canadian teams missed out, leading to the lowest rated NHL playoffs in a long, long time.
This season, thanks to a healthy Carey Price, two highly touted draft picks doing damage in their rookie seasons, and a couple pleasant surprises in the Western Conference, all seven Canadian teams are within a point of a playoff spot.
Here’s how the playoff picture would look if the postseason started tomorrow:
Washington Capitals (1st in Metropolitan) vs Philadelphia Flyers (2nd Wildcard)
Montreal Canadiens (1st in Atlantic) vs New York Rangers (1st Wildcard)
Columbus Blue Jackets (2nd in Metropolitan) vs Pittsburgh Penguins (3rd in Metropolitan)
Ottawa Senators (2nd in Atlantic) vs Boston Bruins (3rd in Atlantic)
On the fringe: Toronto Maple Leafs (1 point back of 2nd Wildcard spot)
Florida Panthers (4 points back of 2nd Wildcard spot)
Minnesota Wild (1st in Central) vs Calgary Flames (2nd Wildcard)
San Jose Sharks (1st in Pacific) vs St. Louis Blues (1st Wildcard)
Chicago Blackhawks (2nd in Central) vs Nashville Predators (3rd in Central)
Edmonton Oilers (2nd in Pacific) vs Anaheim Ducks (3rd in Pacific)
On the fringe: Los Angeles Kings (1 point back of 2nd Wildcard spot)
Vancouver Canucks (1 point back of 2nd Wildcard spot)
Let’s first address the surprises here. The Vancouver Canucks, who many picked to round out the basement of the NHL standings at the end of the year, are knocking on the door of a wildcard spot in the west. That won’t last, but at least it’s something cute to fantasize about for Canucks fans. The problem there is for a team with absolutely no identity to speak of right now—rebuild, retool, playoff push—floating around the fringe of a lottery selection likely isn’t ideal for their future. My guess is most Canucks fans would rather spend the second half of the season watching the team sink into the top-five draft choice they were projected for and move along with the next chapter.
The Canadiens are back near the top of the Eastern Conference, and the big surprise is that they’ve been doing it without Carey Price at the top of his game. You could’ve made a case for Price as last season’s Hart Trophy winner, simply due to the demise of the team after his season-ending injury. The addition of Shea Weber on the back end, and perhaps, more importantly, the departure of the controversial fan favorite P.K. Subban, has made a world of difference in Michel Therrien’s defensive scheme and Alex Galchenyuk has finally broken through as the top line center they drafted 3rd overall in 2012.
The Columbus Blue Jackets may be the most surprising team of the 2016-17 season, and we may as well give John Tortorella the Jack Adams trophy right now—don’t bother making him wait until June. They’re a team without any serious star power that has turned heads all season long—particularly with their lengthy winning streak that spanned over a month. What they do have is a great leadership core, a youthful and talented defensive unit (how about this Werenski kid…), and a hell of a goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. Not only are they a sure thing to make the playoffs, but if this team gets on another white-hot streak, don’t be surprised to see them in the Eastern Conference Final.
So what changes can we expect to see by the time the postseason rolls around in late April? Who’s out and who’s in, you may ask?
In the Eastern Conference, I really believe everybody that’s going to get in is already in. It’ll just be a matter of shuffling around within the specific divisions to determine matchups. I think the Toronto Maple Leafs have the best fighting chance at sneaking into a wildcard spot for two reasons: Mike Babcock is their coach and I don’t trust the Bruins in the Atlantic.
But ultimately this is a Leafs team with minimal experience amongst their talented but plentiful rookies, a starting goaltender whose workload may prove to be too much down the stretch, and a defensive unit that I still have a lot of questions about. The Bruins should hold down that 3rd spot in the Atlantic and I really don’t see Philadelphia relinquishing that 2nd wildcard spot with their top-end talent up front.
I shouldn’t neglect to mention that Tampa Bay really should be a team that makes the postseason, even without Steven Stamkos (who may yet return towards the very end of the year from his knee injury). But the reality of the situation is this isn’t the cup –contending team from a couple years ago. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson aren’t producing like they did, Stamkos can’t stay healthy, and Nikita Kucherov can’t do it himself.
Out west things are a little bit different. The usual juggernauts will be there (I’m looking at you San Jose, Chicago, and Anaheim). Along with them should be the Western Conference’s version of the Blue Jackets—the Minnesota Wild, and I think the Oiler are really showing they have what it takes to earn their first postseason birth since ’06.
In Nashville, it seems like Filip Forsberg has finally come back to life and should lead a pretty well-rounded team back into the postseason this year. This becomes more of a sure thing if Roman Josi’s upper-body injury isn’t too long term and Pekka Rinne doesn’t show too many signs of age down the stretch.
So that leaves the two wildcard spots up for grabs. Those currently occupied by St. Louis and Calgary. Two teams whose goaltending situations likely induce anxiety attacks and insomnia in their fans. The Blues have the team to get the job done and book their ticket to the postseason. Calgary…Calgary just does not. Their goaltending has been nothing short of a dumpster fire for the better part of the season, Johnny Hockey is underperforming, and they just don’t seem to be on the same page at times under the guidance of Glen Gulutzen.
The saving grace for Calgary is that their competition for that wildcard spot is mired with problems of their own. The Kings are only a point out right now but they can’t put the puck in the net. At least they can look forward to Jonathan Quick coming back so they can keep it out of their own. They’re no sure thing, though.
Then we look at the Dallas Stars. Also only a few points out of that last wildcard spot—also dealing with two goaltenders who can’t get the job done with enough consistency to guide them there. Look for them to add either Ben Bishop, who’s been rumored to be a prime trade target for the Stars since last season or perhaps Marc-Andre Fleury who has no doubt handed the torch over to Matt Murray in Pittsburgh but could still provide quality puck-stopping in the right environment.
The Flames may look to add at the deadline as well. They’d love to get some secondary scoring and if the price is right for one of these available goalies that would be an absolute no-brainer.
Call it a three horse race out west for what I assume will be the final wildcard spot. All three teams have a fighting chance, but my vote goes to the L.A. Kings with 18 of their final 33 games being played at home and their starting goaltender set to return in a few weeks.
Yeah, it’s way too early to call, but remember where you heard it first when April turns to May and the NHL playoffs get underway.