History tells us that most of the Stanley Cup-playoff field was decided before the action around the league Monday, Nov. 30. Pro Hockey Talk did an article on American Thanksgiving about the day’s significance in determining the 16 teams that would compete to win hockey’s Holy Grail.
Thanksgiving can come anytime between the 22nd and 28th of November and any given season can start anytime after Oct. 1 and before Oct. 14, with the potential for compressed seasons because of the Olympics. That is too much variable in a scientific evaluation…but then the NHL considers a team with four more games played and one more point—a .125 point percentage in a league that has been over .560 each of the two seasons in the current alignment—higher in the standings.
Thus, rather than use standings at Thanksgiving to examine how likely teams are to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs would be using point percentage a fixed number of games in. The 2015-16 NHL season goes into December with 358 games played, so that is the starting point.
The closest day to that on the 2014-15 NHL season was Dec. 1, when 355 games had been played. The Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and most especially the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only three teams projected to earn a Stanley Cup-playoff berth that did not.
In the 2013-14 NHL season, the closest point came Nov. 25 when 354 games had been played. The Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals and then-Phoenix Coyotes were the only teams that did not reach the Stanley Cup playoffs that were projected to on that Monday before Thanksgiving.
That is a small sample size, but the fact that 13 of 16 teams in each of the last two seasons in position for the Stanley Cup playoffs at about the point we currently reside in the 2015-16 NHL season made it is at least corroboration of the Thanksgiving Day benchmark.
As of right now, the Pacific Division is very weak and would only field its top three: Los Angeles, the San Jose Sharks and now-Arizona Coyotes. The Central Division would field the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. The Metropolitan Division would field Washington, Pittsburgh Penguins and both New York teams. The Atlantic would place the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and Boston.
Unless one of those teams suffers an inordinate impact from injuries during the 2015-16 NHL season, only two will fall. The Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning were both picked by many to win the Stanley Cup for a reason and have too much talent not to get there.
The teams they knock out are clear. In both their divisions, there is a team that is ahead of schedule in its rebuild and easily within reach as just the third-best team in its division so far this 2015-16 NHL season.
The Coyotes are the most obvious choice to miss. They were widely thought to be in competition for the top pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft and are way ahead of schedule in terms of being competitive. They are percentage points ahead of the Red Wings for the worst record among current Stanley Cup-playoff teams and probably the least equipped to make any moves designed to put them over the top for a run this spring.
The other team that will miss will be the Bruins. While a talented and accomplished nucleus still remains, too much of the supporting cast was stripped away and too much young talent is being relied upon to think the returning Stanley Cup-finalist Lightning will not play three games better in nearly 60 that remain on the 2015-16 NHL season.
The next step one might be tempted to take would be projecting how those teams will finish and even perform when they reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, but an accurate assessment of that takes a bit longer to develop than who is in or out. The All-Star break at the end of January is more useful for that because it is past the midpoint of the 2015-16 NHL season.