For the better part of two decades since the NHL instituted a salary cap, enjoying turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes were synonymous with feeling pretty good about making the playoffs.
Dating to 2005-06, with lockout- and pandemic-related seasons excepted, 76% of teams in a playoff spot by the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday wound up qualifying. It became such a popular narrative it began to seep into coaches’ offices and locker rooms based on the odds alone.
Maybe not this year. Thanks to the season starting later than normal, many contenders still trying to find a groove amid various injuries and expansion to 32 teams also makes it inherently harder to make the playoffs.
The Christmas break may be a better for barometer for who’s playing for the Stanley Cup beginning in April.
”This is the year where I don’t know if it’s going to correlate – I think there might be a little bit of a wrench in that,” longtime player and coach Rick Tocchet said. ”This is a little goofy season. I don’t think you can have that barometer. I think you have to wait a little bit longer.”
Already in the week since Thanksgiving, the top eight teams in the Western Conference have changed out, with Calgary and St. Louis for Edmonton and Minnesota. While New Jersey is starting to look like the real deal, Detroit remains a bit surprisingly in a playoff spot in the East – with Washington, Florida and others on the outside looking in.
Capitals coach Peter Laviolette acknowledged the history of teams riding a good Thanksgiving spot into the playoffs. But, he points out, ”I know teams have made it to the playoffs and played for Cups from behind the line.”
He did it with Philadelphia in 2009-10, inheriting the 22nd-place team in the league in December and taking it to the final. But the reality is that’s more the exception than the rule.
”There’s something to it,” Washington center Lars Eller said. ”You don’t want to be chasing. You want to be in a good position early. You have a bad stretch like we had (recently), you can’t have two or three of those a season (or) you’re not going to make the playoffs.”
Make the playoffs first is the focus of defending champion Colorado, which like Washington and Philadelphia has been ravaged by injuries early in the season.
Coach Jared Bednar’s theory is to stay in the mix and keep pushing until reinforcements arrive, and he knows other teams are going through similar struggles and transitions; there were 10 new coaches on the bench as the season began. That’s why he thinks the first 15 or so games of the season is not enough to start making judgments.
”Some teams have a lot of new players, new coaches all around the league,” Bednar said. ”It takes some time to get dialed in exactly the way you want to go, so I think this year with all the movement through the league now last couple years – lots of coaches moving – I think it can take time for teams to find their footing.”
Tocchet, now a Turner Sports analyst, also points to the number of comebacks as a reason for uncertainty. There were 22 multi-goal, third-period comeback wins in the first quarter of the season, according to NHL Stats, the most at that point in league history.
”Nobody’s ever out of it anymore,” Tocchet said.
Lengthy winning and losing streaks also play into the fluctuation of standings. The Devils won 13 in a row and Vegas nine, while St. Louis has a seven-game winning streak and an eight-game losing skid already.
”Teams move up in the standings, teams move down,” veteran Avalanche forward Andrew Cogliano said. ”It’s just the parity of the league. It speaks to how good the teams are now. Any team can beat any team any night, and I think that’s why it’s such a hard league.”
And why it makes it so hard to tell which teams will make the playoffs next spring.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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