For many, Thanksgiving is one of their favorite holidays on the calendar and favorite days of the year.
For NHL teams, its a critically important day.
In recent years, Thanksgiving has become the measuring stick for teams when it comes to evaluating where they are in the playoff mix. That makes sense, as most teams are roughly 17-18 games or so into the season and have a rough idea of who and what they are to this point.
At this time last year, the New Jersey Devils didn’t have much to sweat as to whether or not they were going to be a playoff team, thanks in part to the 13-game winning streak that came to an end in controversial fashion on Thanksgiving Eve. All of those points that the Devils accumulated and banked in November meant that their postseason ticket was effectively punched and they didn’t have to worry about it over the final 60-something games of the regular season. In other words, they made their lives and their season a lot easier thanks to the work they did early on.
Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said for this season. Injuries to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier have capped the Devils upside to this point, and shoddy goaltending and poor defensive play have been the real reason why the Devils have been losing games. Those losses have already left several points on the table. As a result, the Devils sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division (as of this writing), three points out of a playoff spot with a game in hand.
All of that brings us back to Thanksgiving and why this has become an important date on the NHL calendar. Teams that are in a playoff spot by this time of the year typically wind up making the playoffs. Teams that aren’t typically do not make the playoffs.
Last season, only the Detroit Red Wings held a playoff spot on Thanksgiving, but failed to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Six of the eight playoff teams in the West held onto their spots as well. The three playoff teams that were on the outside looking in on Thanksgiving were a point or two behind if they weren’t tied, as the Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers, and eventual Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers wound up making it.
This isn’t an isolated event either. The numbers are what they are in the salary cap era.
NHL teams in playoff position on Thanksgiving Night have ended up making the playoffs 77% of the time in the salary cap era.— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) November 21, 2021
Notably that’s 77% of the time for both the four-division (74/96) and six-division (86/112) formats.
*excluding shortened seasons
**going by Pts% not Pts
That tweet might be from two seasons ago, but not much has changed with 13 out of 16 (81.25%) Thanksgiving playoff teams making it last season and 6 of 8 Eastern Conference teams maintaining their grip on a spot the season before (a little misleading as an eventual playoff team in the Boston Bruins was in on points percentage thanks in part to nearly five games in hand on everybody else).
All of this is theoretically bad news for the Devils, who currently are on the outside looking in. But there is reason for optimism.
For starters, the Devils do have a game in hand against most of their Metropolitan Division rivals. Most teams, fans, and pundits make the mistake of saying a team is ‘only’ a couple points out of a playoff spot when analyzing why their team can make it and while they are factually correct, it discounts how tough it is to make up points in this league. You really don’t want to be more than a game or so out of a playoff spot to have a realistic chance, and the Devils are within reach despite their flaws. Having that game in hand and that opportunity to collect two points that some other team doesn’t have because they’ve played more games does matter.
The cleanest and easiest route for the Devils to make the playoffs would be to simply finish within the Top 3 of the Metropolitan Division, and considering two of the teams in front of them are the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, those would be the teams I’d be looking to target in terms of overtaking them for a spot. The New York Rangers have banked enough points where they’re probably a comfortable playoff team, and the Carolina Hurricanes have the talent and track record where they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt that there is better hockey ahead in Raleigh.
Both the Capitals and Flyers deserve credit for keeping their teams in the mix to this point. If you’re just a hockey fan in general without a rooting interest, they’ve been a pleasant surprise. But neither team is close to what, say, the Devils were last year with 32 points already in the bank. Neither one has the advanced stats under the hood to validate what we saw on the ice like we did with last year’s Devils team either.
The Capitals have been the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference this season. They’re 27th in the league with an xGF% of 46.70%. How are ithey in the position they’re in? They’re there in part because backup netminder Charlie Lindgren is playing out of his mind with 8.9 goals saved above expected. They currently have a negative goal differential of -1 despite Lindgren’s brilliance. Perhaps the Capitals are due for some positive regression when it comes to their power play, which is currently 32nd in the NHL, but they also have the 2nd oldest team in the league behind only Pittsburgh. Every team deals with injuries, and older teams are more likely to deal with injuries on top of player decline. Nic Backstrom wasn’t particularly effective before he was deemed unlikely to return this season, and while Max Pacioretty could give their offense a lift, its a big ask for a 35-year-old player who is attempting to return from a second torn Achilles injury. The Devils might not have been able to figure out the Capitals yet this season with a pair of early season losses, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the league won’t and they’ll get exposed as the season progresses.
The more concerning challenge might be the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that many expected to be one of the worst in the NHL this season if not THE worst. The Flyers are 9th in xGF at 52.94%, and while Carter Hart is barely on the positive side of goals saved above expected at 0.6, his .919 save percentage is more than respectable. John Tortorella has a history of squeezing every last point he can out of talent-deficient rosters, but Philly has been better than you’d think with Travis Konecny, Cam Atkinson and Sean Couturier healthy and younger players like Owen Tippett, Bobby Brink, and Cam York making contributions. They also have some impressive wins on their resume, having beaten Vegas, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Carolina. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the Flyers are for real, and they’re probably a four-game losing streak away from trying to sell high on players like Konecny, Atkinson, and Sean Walker. Philly said all of the right things over the summer about being in a long-term rebuild, so we’ll see if all of that goes out the window if they think they can maintain this. For now though, the points are in the bank and the Devils are chasing them, as opposed to things being the other way around.
The opportunity is certainly there for the Devils to go on a run and overtake one of these teams to reclaim a playoff spot. Jack Hughes has already returned to the Devils lineup and it would appear that Nico Hischier is on the verge of doing so as well. Jack Hughes was playing at a Hart Trophy level pre-injury. Hischier should help stabilize the Devils defensive play. The team’s xGF% hasn’t dropped off much from last season and they’re still a Top 5 team in that regard. It goes without saying that the team getting their top two centers back makes a big difference.
The questions for me with this team going forward are the same ones I’ve had for quite some time now. Can the goaltender.....either goaltender.....any goaltender.....make the occasional save so the Devils don’t have to score five goals a game in order to win? And can the Devils tighten things up defensively where they’re making things easier on the guys in net? Can the Devils get full sixty minute efforts, be smart with puck management and decision making, and not beat themselves as they’ve been prone to doing during this stretch? Right now, that is the biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s, and it will ultimately be the determining factor as to whether or not this team makes the playoffs.
I do believe the Devils have another level to gain. We’re not that far removed from maybe their most complete effort of the season last week against Pittsburgh, another team the Devils are technically chasing even though the Devils have a slight edge in points percentage. But those types of performances have been few and far between sixteen games into the campaign. More often than not, the Devils have shown us they’re a soft team that can not only be pushed around, but makes too many mistakes with the puck and can’t get a save. You are what you are at some point, and if the Devils continue to show they’re not a playoff caliber team with duds like last Saturday against the Rangers, maybe its time we believe them.