The NHL standings are very close. The league has rarely seen the kind of parity being displayed so far this season. More than halfway through the season you can count on one hand the number of teams that are already out of playoff contention.
While teams like the Capitals and Kings start to run away with their divisions, there are a number of teams stuck right in the middle, right on the crowded playoff bubble.
As the all-star break approaches, here are our picks for playoff bubble teams that will be in or out of the playoffs come April.
IN: Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks were our pick to win the whole damn thing entering 2015-16, and we had the Washington Capitals representing the East in the final. The Caps have more than held up their end of the bargain so far, but the Ducks have work to do. Don't give up on them yet. They are the NHL's unluckiest team by a wide margin this season, scoring on just 6.4 percent of their shots on goal. No other team is worse than 7.4. The Ducks' last five season-ending shooting percentages: 9.3, 10.2, 9.9, 8.8, 10.1. Their shooters will regress to the mean. Pucks will start going in. Considering they are a top-five team in score adjusted Corsi percentage, and thus generate a lot of shot attempts, they could suddenly catch fire in the second half. John Gibson's sizzling play in net bodes well, too. And the Ducks have 15 games remaining versus divisional opponents, meaning they can control their own destiny. Book 'em for the postseason. (Matt Larkin)
IN: Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens, who have gone from class of the league to a team with more losses than wins in record time, will make the playoffs this season. But it will come at an enormous cost for a good coach and a good man in Michel Therrien, who likely won’t be the man to guide them there. It’s not that Therrien has been the problem as the Canadiens swirled down the sinkhole starting in December, but he clearly doesn’t have the answers at this point. It will also help the Canadiens psyche to get their No. 1 goaltender back, although nobody who has watched this team can honestly say that goaltending has been the biggest problem. Yes, Carey Price may have stolen a game here or there had he been healthy, but unless he can somehow coax more offense out of his teammates, even arguably the best player in the world will not be able to elevate this team to the level of legitimate contender. After their start, only a disaster of biblical proportions would have put the Canadiens out of the playoff picture. And guess what? It’s happened. But the Canadiens are not as good as they were early in the season and aren’t as bad as they are now. They’ll make the playoffs, but instead of being a real Stanley Cup contender, they’re looking more like first-round fodder. (Ken Campbell)
IN: Nashville Predators
Nashville just needs one slight adjustment to be a force in the Western Conference playoff race: Pekka Rinne needs to turn it around. The all-star netminder is giving up nearly half a goal per game more than he did last year and we know the big Finn is capable of more. Perhaps the All-Star Game itself will breathe new life into the veteran (it's always fun to host). Because Rinne can't stay in his funk forever and once he snaps out of it, the Preds still have a solid defense corps and a new No. 1 center in Ryan Johansen who has taken to his surroundings easily with seven points through six games.
And hey; despite Rinne's struggles, the Preds are still in the thick of the Wild Card hunt – so catching up is just a matter of putting together a couple wins. The best time to do so? Right now, as Nashville goes on a road swing through Western Canada that includes the three worst teams in the conference (Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton) and a Canucks squad with big injury problems. (Ryan Kennedy)
OUT: Colorado Avalanche
With all these pre-season Western Conference favorites getting back into the playoff field, someone has to go. And that's likely to be the Avalanche, the NHL's Jekyll and Hyde team. Two years ago they shockingly won the Central division, then sunk back to the basement last year. This season, they're very much part of mushy middle. They are fifth in goals-for, but sixth in goals-against. While breaking even appears to be good enough to make the dance right now, it probably won't be good enough with the likes of the Ducks and Predators chasing them. The Avs are also high on the "puck luck" metrics, and dead last in Corsi-for percentage. Showing that, just like two years ago, their success is something of an illusion. (Ian Denomme)
OUT: Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes are one of the most exciting teams in the league, but that’s because for every scoring chance Arizona produces it gives the opposition one to match. It makes for fun, back-and-forth hockey, but it doesn’t add up to wins. The Coyotes have great young talent in rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, and blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a sneaky candidate for the Norris Trophy. The youthful skill is complimented by savvy veterans Shane Doan, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek, but the Coyotes’ lack of depth is what will hurt most down the stretch. That’s not unexpected for a team that’s rebuilding with eyes on being competitive three or four years down the road.
Rookie goaltender Louis Domingue has been great for Arizona in Mike Smith’s absence, but not even his stellar play can outrun the Coyotes’ poor possession. Arizona is 26th in the league in shot attempts for percentage. Pair that with having to fend off a Ducks team that’s starting to find its way with a defensive brand of hockey and it’s hard to see the Coyotes being playoff-bound. (Jared Clinton)