Wild Wild West: Thanksgiving playoff snapshot of the Western Conference

Life in the NHL has a certain rhythm to it. Speculation and projection rule over the summer months, the offseason, and as rosters evolve. With delight or dread fans look on, left only to wonder in rumination as to what the future might hold.

Once the fall descends upon us, the early games are ripe grounds for overreactions. With the games underway a good week or a bad week might completely sway the opinions of a fan base. Five-year plans out the window after five games.

For a poignant example, the New Jersey Devils had been on the rise for years, amassing young talent, until inevitably falling flat in regular season play. Three games into this season the crowd chanted “fire Lindy” to show their loss of faith in the team once more. Yet here we are, weeks later, the Devils roaring, the crowds instead chanting “sorry Lindy”. The moral of the story is that, especially early on, things can sway even more than usual.

Teams will go through ups and downs, yet we must give them enough time to show us what they are. Our offseason assumptions can be challenged now that we have reached a rubicon of sorts, the defining point of time known as American Thanksgiving. By almost all accounts, this roughly quarter way mark of the season is the earliest it is worth checking on the playoff picture.

That said, there is a long way to go yet. There might be twists and turns ahead, but at the very least we are starting to see the silhouette of this coming spring.

The Ugly (R words)

Thanks for coming out, well, as far as this year’s playoffs are concerned.

The Anaheim Ducks have some promising talent in the system, led by a group up front in the NHL. There is a lot of help on the back end further down the road, but hopes of playoff contention are likely two years away at this point.

The Arizona Coyotes are who we thought they were, firmly a rebuilding team. Like the Ducks, the Coyotes boast a lot of futures capital already, all eyes watching how aggressively players will be moved out.

The Chicago Blackhawks were aggressive in trading players this offseason, but the work might not yet be done. They might be farther than any team when it comes to their current roster’s makeup against the roster which might one day return to relevance.

The San Jose Sharks are an interesting case, with more top end talent than the Ducks, Coyotes, and Blackhawks. Erik Karlsson is still an elite defenceman, while Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are still viable options at centre. With a lot of important positions accounted for, the Sharks are in ambivalent waters, as a couple young forwards arriving in a big way might see the Sharks return to being a viable playoff team. There are, at least, some options, with William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, and Daniil Gushkin all representing breakout candidates over the next year or two.

Finally, the Vancouver Canucks should accept their place in this tier. The Canucks seemed to defer on the retool and the rebuild that might be necessary, as the team descends once more into a state of relative dysfunction. From presidents calling out coaches, to poor on-ice performances, to worrisome reports about ownership, the Canucks are in a tough spot, a crucial period awaiting with big changes almost certainly on the horizon.

The Good (Contenders)

A class of three has distinguished themselves quite nicely. These teams have a reputation and expectation of success and have lived up to it consistently.

The Colorado Avalanche are reigning cup champs. Although they have lost some key pieces from last season, the fact that their strong pace so far seems understated speaks volumes. They certainly miss Nazem Kadri’s scoring presence more than anything, but there is time to figure out how to regain their edge.

The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off a disastrous and injury plagued year. With a new coach and a healthy Jack Eichel the Knights might be at their all time best. The goaltending is lacking on name brand talent, but the team’s defensive play is well equipped to support unheralded options with promising career results. Predicted by most to run away with the Pacific Division last season, the expectation of contention is once again justified.

The Dallas Stars have been a strong defensive team, built for the playoffs so to speak, that has been able to sneak into the playoffs the past few seasons. The Stars look rejuvenated, through injury rehabilitation, young players blossoming,and the coaching change, to flashing the promise of a higher offensive upside. Although not quite as sure fire of a contender as the Avalanche or Golden Knights, the Stars deserve recognition as a good team that has lived up to their potential in the early going.

The Bad (The Playoff Race)

Don’t let the name fool you, there is still a lot of promise in this group. However, because of reputation, history, or uneven performance many fans of these teams are left with more questions than answers.

Winnipeg Jets supporters might feel slighted by this tier, after all how different are they than the Stars? Yet, their prior successes are more distant, just enough to warrant some extra caution. A strong start is taking the focus off of the locker room circus, a stirring of dark clouds that seemed to fester under disappointing performances. A new coach has the team looking more composed, more like its former self, even without star winger (and the team’s best skater, perhaps?) Nikolaj Ehlers. There is a significant amount of young talent, starring Cole Perfetti, as well as enough historical success to believe the Jets have the fuel for the spring’s playoff race. Yes, Connor Hellebuyck still needs to save their hides, as he has before.

With a different sentiment than the rest of the teams in this tier, the Seattle Kraken are looking much better in this, their second season. For now the upstart crew is not without issue, but is certainly giving Kraken fans a lot to feel good about. Naturally, without much history we have less information on how to project the Kraken going forward, and the team will have their work cut out for them in keeping pace among teams with more established expectations. Questions surrounding the management of Shane Wright’s development have stolen headlines from the Kraken’s strong results, and their somewhat unexpected and rapid ascension will certainly have others in the playoff bubble concerned. The defensive results have been quite strong, though Calder favourite Matthew Beniers continuing to grow might help add a star level player to a deep lineup.

With the Jets and Kraken finding a way into playoff spots, teams who made the postseason in 2021–22 are scrambling to regain their form. We’ve seen uneven starts from the St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, and Los Angeles Kings, perennially stout defensive teams that are quite likely to maintain their playoff contention.

Each of the four have had unbecoming struggles, sub par performances that led to questioning of their directions. Despite this, all four find themselves in the mix and rounding into form. Unfortunately for the Edmonton Oilers, keeping pace with this group is a tall task.

The Kings and Wild have significant youth movements amidst their lineup. It’s impossible to know just when a prospect will break out, but the possibility for their lineups to see vast improvements is imminent. The Kings are playing great defensively, but goaltending has been an issue. The Wild have a great roster, but leave something to be desired down the middle.

The Flames have one of the deepest, if not best, bluelines in the league. They haven’t ran off with a division lead like last season, but with an influx of new players some cohesion might be forthcoming.

The Blues, of the four, appear to be on a different path, and are not improving at a rate that the Kings or Wild might be in the bigger picture. That is to say, this year’s Blues team isn’t likely to be much improved over last season’s iteration. The Blues still have a strong roster, and play with a defensive focus and intensity that lends itself to consistent results. A long losing skid to start the season has not lasted, as the team’s performance has improved, digging themselves out of an early hole.

Below this group are the Nashville Predators, a group that might be similarly plateaued. They had a strong past season and a half, staving off any predicted demise. It might be too much for the Preds to find their way into the playoffs this season, but out of respect they should be counted on to hang around the cut line for a while yet.

Where do the Edmonton Oilers fit in the playoff picture as of now?

No question the Oilers find themselves in the mud of the playoff race more than they do the class of true contenders. They do stand out from the teams in this range for a few reasons. First and foremost, the talents of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl make almost anything possible. There have seldom, if ever, been a pair with as much game breaking skill in the sport’s history and gives the Oilers the threat of a puncher’s chance.

The other way that they stand out is their poor team defence. Given the historical consistency of McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers playing at a reasonable level in this area is the main predictor of their success. Even now, amidst some rough patches with forward depth or goaltending performances, the biggest issue lies in that the Oilers are playing at a defensive level closer to a bottom dweller than even a pair of MVPs in their primes can support.

Though the Oilers don’t have as much defensive personnel as other playoff teams, defensive results are often more impacted by will than skill. In fact, we’ve seen this group play defence at respectable level before, top 16 league wide at least. Last season when coach Jay Woodcroft took over there were some tactical changes, but more so a new level of attention to detail. The Oilers results in flow of play metrics, like xGF%, ballooned, as the team seemed to embody the defensive energies needed for the playoff race and beyond.

It’s not a surprise that the Oilers became an elite team under these circumstances, a level they could reach once more, but just as unsurprising is their return to looking like their prior selves without that defensive posture. Towards the end of the Dave Tippett era, the Oilers would scrape their way into a playoff spot before losing to teams like the Jets and Blackhawks quite convincingly. That is the team we have seen early this year.

For this reason, tough losses to the New York Islanders, for example, where the Oilers thoroughly outplay their opponents, might be more encouraging than star powered wins, like recent victories against the Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, or Florida Panthers. It is fair that the recent schedule has been difficult, that the Evander Kane injury hurts the goal scoring of the lineup as a whole, and that Campbell could play a lot better.

To an extent, the Oilers should feel confident to beat any team, any night, any round of the playoffs, if their defensive game is up to par. Though seeding is important, being able to regain that form at any point is all the Oilers need to be a dangerous playoff team. Despite the bleak state of the record and roster, there is hope that some tricks are yet up the Oilers’ sleeves.

Most importantly, although the Oilers have had their fair share of struggles it does well to contextualise this performance with those around the league. With several other playoff contenders hovering around the .500 mark, there is still a lot to be earned as the season progresses.

Stacking them up

True Contenders: Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights

Playoff Locks: Dallas Stars

The Peloton: Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Seattle Kraken and Winnipeg Jets

Hanging Around: Nashville Predators

No Man’s Land: Vancouver Canucks and Sam Jose Sharks

Scouting the Stacked 2023 Draft Class: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, and Chicago Blackhawks

Where would you put the Oilers? They will need to beat out at least two of the Flames to Jets group to make the playoffs. It is possible that a couple of these teams fall apart on their own, though nothing much matters unless the Oilers can improve their play.

There is still a lot of projection and extrapolation involved in this exercise, yet we know the Oilers have it in themselves to play their way into a higher tier.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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