Ranking the Bubble Teams Most Likely to Reach the 2016 NHL Playoffs
March is approaching quickly, and most NHL teams have about 20 games remaining to determine their playoff fates. The playoff bubble is tightening and the bubble teams have just a few days before the Feb. 29 trade deadline to make any adjustments they deem necessary to compete—if they even choose to go in that direction.
For the purposes of this slideshow, the bubble teams include some wild-card slots and the teams closest to challenging them in the standings. They all have their strengths and flaws. Some are trending up and challenging, and others are dropping further away from the playoff pace.
Poor goaltending and team defense or a lack of scoring punch is keeping some of these squads from more prosperous spots in the standings. Key injuries may hold them back, or sudden sell-offs at the deadline could contribute to their fates.
Here is a look at 10 NHL playoff bubble teams, ranked in order of least to most likely to finish among the top eight in their respective conferences.
10. Arizona Coyotes
Status: 60 games played, 27-27-6 record, 10th in Western Conference.
Analysis: The Arizona Coyotes should be applauded for their ability to remain competitive this long despite the fact they are in a transition toward youth (code for rebuilding). Thanks to rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, the team has had little trouble scoring this season. Goaltending and team defense has been more problematic, however, with the Coyotes dead last in goals allowed per game (3.07).
Prediction: There is a lot of talk, such as from TSN's Darren Dreger, that the Coyotes pulling Mikkel Boedker's contract offer from the table and are now leaning toward trading the impending free agent. It's likely Arizona will start selling off some pieces and focus on the future rather than risk failure. No one would go to see them in the playoffs anyway.
9. Montreal Canadiens
Status: 61 games played, 29-27-5 record, 63 points, 13th in Eastern Conference.
Analysis: The downward spiral may have started when reigning league MVP Carey Price went down in late November, but goaltending has not been the Montreal Canadiens' biggest problem this season. Their offense ranks in the bottom third, and the power play is completely stagnant, with their power-play percentage just 16.0.
Prediction: The team recorded six wins in 25 games from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1. That's going to be tough to recover from. Impossible, really, without a quick return to form from Price. He might have to score goals too.
8. Philadelphia Flyers
Status: 59 games played, 26-22-11 record, 63 points, 12th in Western Conference.
Analysis: The Philadelphia Flyers have had plenty of problems this season. Backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth has clearly outplayed starter Steve Mason, but the team hasn't done much to support either of them while allowing the eighth-most shots against per game (30.3). Worse, the team is struggling to score, ranking 21st in the NHL (2.59). With captain Claude Giroux injured, that may only decline.
Prediction: A five-point deficit in the standings doesn't seem like too much with almost a quarter of the season remaining, but things are trending the wrong way for the Flyers, and it's unlikely they will make up the ground necessary to claim a wild-card spot.
7. Ottawa Senators
Status: 61 games played, 29-26-6 record, 64 points, 11th in Eastern Conference.
Analysis: The Ottawa Senators are one of the top-scoring teams in the league, ranking eighth in average goals per game (2.79). Unfortunately, they are the fifth-worst team defensively—allowing three goals against per contest. It was strong goaltending from Andrew Hammond last season that propelled the Sens into the playoffs, and it seems veteran Craig Anderson is finding his groove. He has four straight victories and has allowed just six goals in those games.
Prediction: The Sens do have a recent history of getting hot at the right time and could leapfrog both the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils, but it will be difficult to supplant one of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning for one of the final spots. Then again, a shrewd move or two from a GM in Bryan Murray who believes his team can compete, per the Ottawa Sun, would go a long way toward helping it happen.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
Status: 61 games played, 28-23-10 record, 66 points, 10th in Eastern Conference.
Analysis: The Carolina Hurricanes have played well beyond expectations this season with a strong possession game that has helped them defensively. The team is conceding the fewest shots against per game this season (26.6). Because of their chemistry and identity in lieu of star power, they've put themselves in an interesting position with captain Eric Staal an impending free agent.
Prediction: It's the younger Canes players, including Eric's brother Jordan, leading the charge toward the playoffs, which leaves them needing to decide whether they want to keep the veteran for a potential playoff run or make a deal that helps in both the short and long term. They will likely fall short regardless of whatever moves they make but could make things close in the standings.
5. New Jersey Devils
Status: 61 games played, 30-24-7 record, 67 points, ninth in the Eastern Conference standings.
Analysis: The New Jersey Devils are proof of what an elite goaltender can do for a club devoid of top-end talent at other positions. The team has scored the fewest goals per game on average (2.23) by a large margin, but Cory Schneider has given them a chance to win almost every night.
Prediction: The Devils might hold onto veterans in the hopes Schneider can help carry them into the playoffs and perhaps steal a round. But they should focus on a rebuild and get what they can for impending UFAs such as Lee Stempniak—who is on pace for a career season of 55 points—to help themselves in the future. They don't have the talent to last even if they somehow squeak into the postseason.
4. Minnesota Wild
Status: 60 games played, 27-23-10 record, 64 points, ninth in Western Conference.
Analysis: The Minnesota Wild have been inconsistent all season, struggling to score timely goals and come up with characteristic defensive efforts. The magic goaltender Devan Dubnyk brought in January last year has mellowed, and in mid-February head coach Mike Yeo finally got fired. Despite all this, the team is in the hunt for a wild-card spot as the biggest challenge the Colorado Avalanche face. The team won four straight games under new head coach John Torchetti before losing to the New York Islanders on Tuesday.
Prediction: This team should be much better than it has been this season, and all it will take to get back into the playoffs is a strong final quarter. They had a much longer stretch of superior play last season to qualify, and it could easily happen again. Their start under the new bench boss is a good sign.
3. Colorado Avalanche
Status: 63 games played, 32-37-4, 68 points, eighth in Western Conference.
Analysis: The Colorado Avalanche have had solid production from the top two lines but not much support from the bottom six. They've also allowed way too many shots against defensively—second-most in the league (31.7)—to allow their goaltenders to be any less than average on a given night without disastrous results. But the talent level is there to score enough goals down the stretch to win some higher-scoring games.
Prediction: The addition of Shawn Matthias from the Toronto Maple Leafs helps the team's depth considerably and was a nice value move that also helped get the players into a buyer mindset before the trade deadline. As long as they get some more consistent goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, they should remain competitive.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Status: 59 games played, 30-21-8 record, 68 points, eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Analysis: Between Sidney Crosby's awful early-season slump, Evgeni Malkin's injuries and Phil Kessel's puzzling inability to capitalize on playing alongside one of these superstars at all times, the Pittsburgh Penguins are fighting for a wild-card spot instead of the Metropolitan Division title. And with a real lack of depth at forward behind the big guns, the team is reliant on being healthy to succeed.
Prediction: Malkin is expected to return on Saturday, reported ESPN, and Crosby has had a much better second half of the season. Even Kessel is warming up in the goal-scoring department. The team's shooting percentage (7.89) is the third-lowest in the league, according to SportingCharts, and with a little more puck luck, these snipers should be able to propel them into a wild-card berth and hold off the challengers.
1. Detroit Red Wings
Status: 61 games played, 30-20-11 record, 71 points, seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Analysis: The Detroit Red Wings have struggled to score lately and have lost four of their past five games as a result. The team has seven goals in those five contests and look to be headed in the wrong direction as March approaches, dropping into a wild-card spot after Wednesday's games. Part of the problem is a struggling power play, which could end up costing them a playoff berth.
Prediction: Despite the concerns, the team's 25-season playoff streak should be safe. There has been a lot of pressure on the Wings' more youthful forwards this season but veteran leaders Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg should be able to produce enough offense to win close games down the stretch if they get strong enough goaltending from Petr Mrazek, who has been stellar in his first year as the starter.
All stats via NHL.com unless otherwise noted.