Thanksgiving playoff position deadline real for NHL coaches

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2022-23 regular season by former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Mark Recchi, Phil Housley and Marc Crawford will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Recchi, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Fame player who has been an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils, discusses the conversations coaches have when US Thanksgiving comes up on the calendar and why it is such an important benchmark in the season.

It’s Thanksgiving week in the United States, which means every coaching staff across the NHL is looking at where their teams are in the standings, and some are starting to stress if their teams are not in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

We always hear that the odds are stacked against you if you’re not in a playoff position on Turkey Day in the US. It’s true and coaches are talking about it.

If you go back to the 2005-06 season, 76.3 percent of the teams that were in a playoff position on US Thanksgiving made the playoffs, according to NHL Stats.

That doesn’t include the 2019-20 season, which was paused in March because of COVID-19 and 12 teams per conference were invited to participate in the postseason. It also doesn’t count the 2012-13 and 2020-21 seasons because neither of those seasons started before US Thanksgiving.

However, in the 14 seasons I am including, 171 of the 224 teams that made the postseason were in playoff position on Thanksgiving.

We talked about this when I was with the Penguins, that although the playoff field isn’t set in stone, we need to be doing everything possible to be in a playoff position by Thanksgiving because history showed us if you are you’ll have a great chance of getting in. I remember diving deep into it because of how important that stat is.

And, when we first started talking about it, I thought it was incredible and I just couldn’t believe it. It was really mind-blowing and eye-opening to see that statistic.

The key in Pittsburgh is we knew we were expected to be a Stanley Cup contender, which is why it was so important, so it was about what do we need to get better to avoid being the maybe one team that doesn’t stay in playoff position after Thanksgiving.

We didn’t have that same level of expectation when I was with the New Jersey Devils, but we still talked about the Thanksgiving barometer last season. It was more about who we could catch and what if we do catch them. Last season was my only one with the Devils at Thanksgiving because my first season there, 2020-21, didn’t start until January.

If we look at the current standings entering a 15-game schedule Wednesday, we see that the Penguins, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals are on the outside looking in. I’m guessing that while the conversation is being had in Pittsburgh, it’s not as much of a concern there. There is a belief in that group and the Penguins are starting to round into form too. They’ve won three in a row. They’re stabilizing and are only one point out of a playoff spot with one more game before Thursday.

But you start worrying now if you’re the Capitals (five points out) and Panthers (two points out). I think it’s different with the Montreal Canadiens (three points out) and Philadelphia Flyers (four points out) because expectations are lower for those teams. The Capitals and Panthers are perennial playoff teams. The Panthers, in particular, made a number of changes, including at coach, and they’re stuck in the traffic jam in the middle of the standings.

They have to be looking around wondering is a team going to drop out? I’m sure they’re eyeing the Detroit Red Wings, which makes sense because they also have lower expectations this season, but they’re still getting the job done. I don’t think it’ll be the New York Rangers that drop out. They’ll be fine. And the Devils are playing terrific hockey and they’ve set themselves up nicely, so I can’t see them dropping even if they slow down slightly. But I don’t think they slow down with how they’re playing anyway.

So, Pittsburgh might be that team that catches Detroit. But then is Washington catching a team too? Is Florida catching a team? It gets you worried if you’re in those coaching rooms.

I think it’s even more stressed in the Western Conference.

The Calgary Flames have been hot and cold, but there is pressure to win there. They made some huge changes and people were saying they won the offseason for whatever that’s worth. But they enter Tuesday in a four-way tie with the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers for the two wild card spots in the West.

The Predators have surprised me. I thought they were going to be much stronger right now, but they’re in that position where they have to be thinking about catching teams instead of being caught. It’s the same with the Minnesota Wild (two points back). There’s definitely some stress there.

I hate to say it, but you also start to wonder about coaching changes at this point and I’m sure that is a concern in some markets. We didn’t feel that in Pittsburgh and in New Jersey it was different because we were rebuilding. But some of these teams, yeah, there has to be some legitimate thought to if we don’t pick it up, what will happen.

Florida won’t make the change. It just hired Paul Maurice. Philadelphia has a new coach in John Tortorella. Darryl Sutter signed an extension in Calgary so I doubt any change is coming there.

But you just never know when your team is expected to be a playoff team and isn’t playing up to playoff standards at this point in the season. The GM has to think about it. He or ownership may think, “We’re not going to make the playoffs if we don’t do something.” Hopefully they try to make a trade first, but you never know.

So, make no mistake, this Thanksgiving statistic, call it a deadline if you will, it is discussed in coaching rooms across the NHL. In the two I have been in we talked about it and how it was important that we were in a position to try to be successful the rest of the way because it matters. It’s real.

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