The All-Star break provides a perfect opportunity to look ahead to the Stanley Cup playoff picture, shown from highest to lowest Eastern Conference seed. The Washington Capitals managed to have two games postponed due to a blizzard and still have a good sample size after playing their 47th game of the 2015-16 NHL season Wednesday, Jan. 27.
The defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks have played 53. That means every team has played over 57 but less than 65 percent of their 2015-16 NHL season schedule.
Early anomalies work themselves out, the development of young talent around the league is apparent and even the injury picture is coming into focus this far into any season. Teams are forming their identities, we know who is playing for the present or future and which coaches are in rhythm with their players.
All of this is especially true in the Eastern Conference. The Tampa Bay Lightning struck the Toronto Maple Leafs in Wednesday’s other game out east for their ninth win in 11 games to compensate for an 8-9-3 start to the 2015-16 NHL season. Andrew Hammond is not saving the Ottawa Senators like last spring, Carey Price’s injury has devastated the Montreal Canadiens and it has taken a while for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get on the same page after off-season and midseason changes.
Certainly more remains to be seen in those areas and the biggest variable of all comes after the All-Star break—the trade deadline. However, asking prices have tended to be high enough that major pieces rarely get moved unless it is trading forward for blue-line talent or the like. By the same token, deals can pretty much be assumed this early for teams lacking depth.
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In the Eastern Conference, the Stanley Cup-playoff picture is almost totally in focus. Most of the eight teams with the best point percentages (the only true measure of success when there is a variance of up to six games played on the 2015-16 NHL season to date) were predictable in the preseason, with only one team expected there absent thanks to a devastating injury.
The main question is whether Montreal can hang around long enough to get its stud goalie back in time to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs. If it does reach the postseason, what team gets knocked out?
One team that may not have been expected in the postseason picture but will not be knocked off is the Florida Panthers. While not predicting they hold off Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division crown, they are likely to earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings seem destined for the final guaranteed berth with no worse than a third-place finish.
Could the Boston Bruins be vulnerable? They were retooling to a younger, more cap-friendly roster and were expected to be able to consider reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs at all an accomplishment but they are also three games up on their rivals with just over 30 games left on the 2015-16 NHL season.
Chances are that gap will be a little bigger and the games remaining considerably narrower by the time the Canadiens get Carey Price back. They can neither find a suitable replacement to compete at the same level in their system nor on the market and do not have enough to overcome his loss.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Division winner is already known. Washington could play .500 hockey (something that 80 percent of the league does thanks to three-point games) the rest of the 2015-16 NHL season and finish with 109 points. Even then, the New York Islanders or Rangers (the second- and third-place teams) would have to play .750 hockey to take the crown away.
Both New York teams seem virtual locks to reach the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are just a game back and charging hard as they start to meet preseason expectations. Their elite forwards are bound to produce closer to their typical levels than where they have been and they should be able to narrowly claim home-ice advantage in the Metropolitan Division semifinals.
That means all eight teams currently projecting to earn Eastern Conference playoff berths are likely to do just that. The main thing to determine is which additional Metropolitan team is relegated to a wild card and which one it gets.
The Rangers are an aging team that might decline as the 2015-16 NHL season wears on, but they are also a better defensive team than they have shown and have won enough big games to get the job done they need to. The Islanders are the kind of team that can rely on enough talent in all three units to weather a long season but also relies on four players for almost half their scores (61 of 127 to only four with more than 10 goals).
Just half a game back and with more room to maneuver leading up to the trade deadline, the Islanders should get the third-place finish. The Rangers should finish ahead of the Bruins for the top wild card, leaving both to play their counterpart’s division winner in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That rounds out the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference will not be as easy to project, but that just makes it more interesting.