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Contenders or pretenders? What to make of six newcomers in the playoff race

Six teams that were outside the post-season race last season have found their way into playoff positions at the quarter-mark of the 2018-19 campaign. But which of these six teams are we to take seriously as playoff contenders and which teams appear ripe for a fall?

As a general rule, it’s around American Thanksgiving, and no sooner, that the playoff picture begins to come into focus. A quarter of the campaign is in the books around this time, and that’s usually a large enough sample so as to be telling about where teams stand in their hunt for a post-season berth and a shot at the Stanley Cup.

For evidence of how seriously some organizations take this quarter-season mark, look no further than the news late Monday and early Tuesday. In St. Louis, the struggling Blues had seen enough from coach Mike Yeo and, in an effort to turn around their fortunes, axed the coach in favor of interim Craig Berube. In Edmonton, the same fate befell Todd MacLellan, whose Oilers were on the wrong side of the wild card. He was replaced by experienced coach Ken Hitchcock, who came out of retirement to step behind the bench. And the firings of Yeo and MacLellan were the third and fourth, respectively, of the season, coming after the Los Angeles said farewell to John Stevens and the Chicago Blackhawks parted ways with longtime coach Joel Quenneville.

But if those four teams, all of whom had expectations of sitting in a playoff position by this point in the season, are unhappy with the results, there are six franchises — those that didn’t make the post-season last year but are holding down a playoff berth on the even of Thanksgiving — who are on the opposite side of the spectrum, over the moon about early results that have them well ahead of where most suspected they’d be. The funny thing is, though, that there’s a difference within the grouping of six, with some squads appearing to be the real deal, others looking like paper tigers and the remaining falling somewhere in between.

Here’s a look at each of the six newcomers to the playoff picture:

Buffalo Sabres
A six-game winning streak, one that could be stretched to seven if the Sabres win Thursday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, has Buffalo fighting for top spot in an Atlantic Division that’s headed up by the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s not exactly where many would have expected the Sabres to be sitting this deep into the campaign. So, how did the Sabres get here?

As colleague Matt Larkin pointed out, Buffalo is controlling play better than they have in recent years, have been getting serviceable goaltending out of Carter Hutton and off-season acquisition Jeff Skinner has been an unstoppable force. He’s on pace for a 50-goal season, though ever a 40-goal campaign would see the winger set new career-best marks. Then there’s the Jack Eichel factor, which can’t be overlooked. The Sabres captain has really taken the reins in his new role and his performance has been inspired this season.

There’s still need for more improved advanced numbers — it’s hard to consistently win when you’re getting out-possessed most nights — but Buffalo is trending in the right direction, and enough so that they look like a legitimate playoff contender this season.

Montreal Canadiens
Another Atlantic Division club that has battled its way into the playoff picture is the Canadiens, and they’ve done as in the exact ways one would expect of a Claude Julien-coached team. Montreal’s bench boss has had a penchant for coaching strong possession hockey, and while he’s had an up-and-down performance when it comes to shooting percentages with his clubs, this season’s Canadiens are most certainly on the high side of things. Through 21 games, Montreal boasts the league’s fifth-best 5-on-5 shooting percentage. Paired with the Canadiens’ top-10 possession and scoring chance rates, it’s been a recipe for success.

The shortcoming in Montreal, though, has been goaltending, which is somewhat mind-boggling given Carey Price’s track record. That the Canadiens have been able to outrun their shortcomings in the crease, though, is a positive sign, and one would expect that Price will iron out the kinks in his game at some point in the not-too-distant future. He’s still a high-quality keeper who can get the job done, and one would expect him to do exactly that.

There’s reason to have faith in the way Montreal is playing, and they only stand to get that much better when Shea Weber returns.

Calgary Flames
The Flames were seen as a Pacific Division contender from the outset, with significant depth up front and on the blueline. And with the addition of coach Bill Peters, Calgary has delivered and lived up to its promise, sitting a single point back of top spot in the division with the group’s best goal differential and a team that is doing all the right things to win with consistency. In many ways, this is a prototypical Peters team, one that has carried over many of the same principles from the bench boss’ days with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flames are a dominant possession team that can simply wear down an opposition’s defense, and they’ve done that consistently this season.

The major concern in Calgary, though, and one that must be haunting Peters, is goaltending. At 5-on-5, the Flames rank 21st in the NHL with a .916 save percentage. And Calgary’s goaltending numbers have been dragged down significantly by Mike Smith, who has started the majority of the Flames’ outings this season but boasts an ugly .876 SP and whopping 3.48 goals-against average. At some point, if the Flames want to go from playoff contenders to Stanley Cup threats, the crease will need addressing.

Dallas Stars
The Stars continue to be one of the league’s most puzzling teams. Chock full of talent, Dallas is perennially pegged to be a team ready to rise into contention at a moment’s notice only to fall somewhere into the middle of the pack by the end of the campaign. This again appears to be one of those years, with the primary difference being that Dallas has managed to basically outrun poor underlying numbers on the strength of its top-end talent and goaltender Ben Bishop. Consider that the Stars rank fourth-last in Corsi percentage (46.1), seventh-last in shots percentage (47.2) and sixth-last in scoring chances percentage (47.1). Yet, Dallas boasts the 15th-best shooting percentage (8.1) and seventh-best SP (.928) at five-a-side.

Talent alone can drag a team into the playoffs, that much is true, but one has to wonder where the Stars, who have lost five of their past eight games, end up in the Western Conference hierarchy if they can’t start consistently winning games in convincing fashion. Losing John Klingberg for upwards of a month isn’t going to help matters, though, nor is the fact Bishop is on the shelf for at least a week with a lower-body injury.

Consider the Stars a team somewhere in the middle of true playoff contention and another year on the outside looking in.

New York Rangers
Just as everyone predicted, the rebuilding Rangers, who introduced a new coach after saying goodbye to a list of talent that includes Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash and more over the past year-plus, are in the hunt for top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Definitely what we all expected. Yep.

The reality, though, is that the Rangers almost fall into that Colorado Avalanche or New Jersey Devil-esque category, if you’re looking for a comparison. That’s to say that New York is in a playoff position in spite of what the on-ice performance might suggest. Only five teams have worse possession numbers than the Rangers at 5-on-5 and stellar goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist has really been the great equalizer for the Blueshirts, who have won eight of their past 10 games en route to second place in the Metropolitan.

There’s enough there — from the poor possession to the dearth of high-end talent — that would suggest this is a team that could collapse at any moment. It would be encouraging if the Rangers can hang on, especially as it might inspire further confidence in the next generation, but New York would appear to be among the teams most likely to slip out of a playoff position by season’s end.

Vancouver Canucks
How do you not get swept up in the way things have gone in Vancouver? Elias Pettersson was supposed to be good, but he’s blown all expectations out of the water with 12 goals and 19 points in 17 games. That puts Pettersson on pace to smash rookie records for the Canucks, and his play alone has the league buzzing about Vancouver. Add to it the steady play of Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen’s emergence as a goal-scoring threat and Loui Eriksson’s apparent offensive rejuvenation and the Canucks have hope.

And while the goal isn’t to extinguish that entirely, one can’t help be somewhat concerned about how exactly Vancouver is arriving at these results. They rank fifth-last in Corsi percentage (46.4), fifth-last in shots percentage (46.6) and second-last in scoring chance percentage (43) at 5-on-5, which points to a team escaping many outings by the skin of their collective teeth.

The biggest cause for concern in Vancouver should be what happens when the scoring struggles, which it is likely bound to at some point. The Canucks haven’t gotten good enough goaltending to consistently win games. Between Jacob Markstrom, Anders Nilsson and Richard Bachman, Vancouver has a .896 SP and 3.31 GAA. Measured against goaltenders who have played at least 10 games, the combined goaltending numbers would rank in the bottom five in both categories.


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