In recent seasons, the significance of the American Thanksgiving weekend to the NHL standings has grown substantially. Originally popularized by Elliotte Friedman, who began with looking into this statistic a few years ago, it has become one of the more talked about topics at the quarter-mark of each season. And for good reason, as since 2005-06, 76 percent of teams in a playoff spot on American Thanksgiving have made the playoffs at season’s end. So, generally speaking, you can expect around 12 of the 16 teams who currently sit in a playoff spot to remain in one after 82 games.
This has turned the weekend into something of more significance to hockey fans beyond shoving one’s face with turkey and mashed potatoes (or for us Canadians, enjoying hockey all day on a Friday). It has become one of the first true date-benchmarks with which to comfortably look at standings and team performance.
We like to give teams the benefit of the doubt and a chance to turn a slow start around, but if they don’t manage to do so by this point in the season, “it’s early” is no longer a good enough argument to preach patience as things will turn around. Of course, we always have exceptions. On average, 4 teams will jump up into a playoff spot who aren’t in one now. And who can forget there is even a chance for what the St. Louis Blues did last season. But, cases like St. Louis are the exception, not the norm.
Obviously, it’s not a good idea to bank on a strategy of miracle turnaround, even though it is a good story, so the best gameplan is to find a way to have a hot start. This way, even if the team slows down by the end of the year, they will have earned enough points early on to give them a bit of a cushion.
For example, in the 2018-19 season, the Chicago Blackhawks posted a record of 15-20-6 in their first 41 games, good for 36 points. Not a great start and this would put them comfortably out of a playoff spot. In their remaining 41 games, they posted a much more impressive record of 21-14-6 for 48 points. This pace is closer to a playoff spot (and they would have made it with the weaker Western Conference last season). In part due to the slow start, they were unable to catch up and finished out of the playoffs.
It technically wouldn’t matter if the better performing part of the season came at the beginning or end, they’d end up with the same amount of points either way. But it’s always a bit easier to maintain a lead/position than it is to come back from behind.
With that, let’s take a look at which teams are currently sitting in a playoff spot going into the American Thanksgiving weekend.
Things are mostly playing out as expected in the Metropolitan Division. We knew Washington was going to start the season strong and they have not let us down. The Islanders have shown us they are legit, as has Carolina. As always, we cannot underestimate the Penguins because they just keep coming. And, the Flyers, despite some goaltending issues (huge surprise there) have been strong.
But the Atlantic is another story. Tampa Bay is currently sitting out of a playoff spot, they are behind Florida, Montreal, and tied with Buffalo. It is worth noting that Tampa Bay has played four less games than the team they are chasing for the third divisional spot but are only two points out.
Nevertheless, seeing Florida in a divisional spot this season is a huge surprise. What is interesting about the Panthers is how they started the season fairly slow and were going through some growing pains with a new coach, but have taken advantage of a weaker division to come back early to sit in second in the Atlantic. The dominance of the Metro is continuing once again, as Carolina and Philadelphia occupy the wildcard spots with a four point lead.
The standings in the West are tight. Despite slow starts, Dallas and San Jose have clawed back early on to get back into or compete in the playoff race. Although the Central Division positions are fairly believeable (huge props to Winnipeg for starting off the season as they have despite a decimated defense), the Pacific is another story. Edmonton is leading the division off of the best start they’ve had since 2000-01, Arizona is breathing down their necks, and Vancouver is in third. Not many people even had any of those teams in a playoff spot, nevermind occupying all three divisional spots. But, that is not to say they’re dominating. Vegas and Calgary are both tied in points with more games played than Vancouver, San Jose was one point back (until they won their game Friday and overtook Vancouver), and Anaheim is only two points back. Things are still very much in the air at this point.
This does bring an interesting perspective to this article though, as we see a standings situation where a whole bunch of teams are so close that as little as one additional loser point will make a major swing in the standings. How many of these teams sitting on the outside right now will steal a couple extra points somewhere and grab a playoff spot? Or, will the games in hand that a team like Vancouver has over Vegas and Calgary be the difference to keep the Canucks in the playoffs?