Every year on Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., I like to pause and reflect on the standings, pondering which teams are out that will work their way back in and which clubs will drop out of the current playoff spot they're in.
This used to be a more obvious exercise. But Year 11 of the salary-cap era has crunched the talent gap -- and the standings -- more than ever.
"It's insane," one general manager said this week of the tight standings.
The difference in the top 23 or so teams in the NHL right now is so little -- seven teams are within five points of the wild-card spots in the two conferences.
But as I put on my magic hat and peer into the future NHL landscape, here's how I see it playing out:
Predicted eight playoff teams come April: Canadiens, Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Rangers, Capitals, Penguins, Islanders, Red Wings
The skinny: Just one switch, and that's putting the Stanley Cup finalist Lightning back in the mix. They've won three in a row and there's zero chance they don't make the playoffs; there's just too much talent there. I think they've turned the corner, too. Tough choosing a team to take out from the current eight, but I think the Bruins will fall just short, as they did last season. The Penguins and Islanders are vulnerable, too, but I like their chances just a bit more than Boston's. Another team I would have liked to have the courage to say will make it back into the mix is Florida, but the young Panthers are just too inconsistent, and while there's plenty of time to figure things out, I just think that's how it's going to be this season for them, some highs and some lows but not quite enough yet to make it in -- the growing pains of a young team learning how to win.
Predicted eight playoff teams come April: Stars, Blues, Predators, Kings, Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Blackhawks, Wild
Bonus prediction: The Winnipeg Jets, who will finish sixth in the Central Division and miss the playoffs, will have more points than the third-place team in the Pacific, which will make the playoffs. Cue the realignment furor.
The skinny: The Ducks are four points out of a playoff spot, and while they've remained maddeningly inconsistent, I just can't believe with their deep roster they're not going to get back in the playoff picture, especially since they're in the weaker Pacific Division. That led me to take Vancouver out, although the Canucks are full value for where they sit today, one of the more surprising teams of the season as GM Jim Benning has done a marvelous job since arriving at transitioning his team on the fly. But I think in the end, they will fall just short. I truly believe the Jets still have a terrific shot at making the playoffs -- they're a really good team, but which club would I take out from the crazy Central? I don't see the Stars, Blues, Predators, Blackhawks or Wild folding. That Central Division is a murderers' row.