NHL Thanksgiving Rule: Which Teams Outside the Playoff Picture are Worth a Bet?
Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron
One of the classic narratives in an NHL season is that you want to be in a playoff position by (America’s) Thanksgiving. Because of the league’s point system, making up a lot of ground is not easy and falling too far back of the playoff picture — even as early as November — is a good way to end a season before it even gets going.
Since the salary cap era began in the 2005-06 season, 77% of the teams that have occupied a playoff spot on Thanksgiving ended up making it to the dance in the spring. Incredibly, that number has held serve in two different playoff formats:
Of course, there have been some famous instances of teams bucking the Turkey Day narrative and making deep runs in the postseason. In fact, fans of teams outside the playoff picture only need go back to Thanksgiving Day 2018 (which, due to the pandemic, was the last time we saw a normal 82-game season) for a glimmer of hope.
On Nov. 21, 2018, the St. Louis Blues sat in last place in the Central Division at 8-10-3 and were seven points out of the final playoff spot. A few weeks later, the Blues were in an even deeper hole. On New Year’s Day, the Blues were 15-18-4 and their 34 points were tied with Ottawa for fewest in the NHL.
St. Louis, which came into that season as a fringe playoff team at 30/1, drifted all the way to 250/1.
About six months later, the Blues were skating around the TD Garden with Lord Stanley over their head, completing one of the most remarkable turnarounds the league has ever seen.
It should also be noted that in the same season, the Buffalo Sabres posted a 14-6-2 record at Thanksgiving only to crumble into obscurity by the time the spring came around. Similarly, the Rangers (12-8-2) and Wild (13-7-2) squandered good first quarters and missed the postseason.
As hard as it is to make up ground in the NHL, it does happen, and this is a league where one streak — great or terrible — can end up defining a season.
That brings us back to the ongoing 2021/22 season. With Thanksgiving in our rear-view mirror and the dog days of winter ahead of us, now is a good time to check back in on the futures market and see if there are any prices out there worth acting on.
Boston Bruins (+1600, DraftKings)
If you go by points, the Boston Bruins are not in a playoff spot right now. But if you go by points percentage, the B’s would hop over Pittsburgh into the second wild-card spot. Regardless, I think Boston is worth discussing for a number of reasons.
Over the past decade, the Bruins have established themselves as one of the league’s elite teams. Built to suppress scoring chances, the Bruins have consistently ranked at or near the top of the league in most defensive metrics.
Standout goaltending from Tuukka Rask was a big part of that equation, but the skaters in front of the Finnish netminder have been just as important. When looking at high-danger scoring chances and expected goals allowed, no team has done a better job of setting its goalies up for success quite like the B’s have.
Boston’s defensive prowess hasn’t changed at all this season. Through 17 games, the Bruins lead the NHL in expected goals against and high-danger chances allowed per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Despite that, the B’s are 25th in goals allowed per 60 at even strength, which immediately causes one to shift focus to the goaltending.
With Rask still working his way back to the team (he’s technically a free agent but has made it pretty clear he will come back to play for Boston this season), the goaltending has struggled.
Rookie Jeremy Swayman and former Sabre Linus Ullmark have taken over for Rask and neither mask-wearer has been all that impressive. Swayman has been the stronger of the two, but his .908 save percentage (SV%) and -2.27 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) are not good enough for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
It’s hard to imagine that Rask, should he come back, won’t provide a huge boost in the blue paint for this team. And even if he doesn’t, the Bruins are in a position where they can add a reliable goaltender at the trade deadline.
If the goaltending doesn’t improve soon, the Bruins are so strong defensively that they will give Swayman and Ullmark every chance to find their form. Almost everything is clicking for this team except for the most important — and volatile — part of the game.
Dallas Stars (+5000, BetMGM)
Similarly to the Bruins, the Stars are built from the back to the front. A team that thrives on playing tight, low-event hockey, Dallas is once again inside the top-10 in goals allowed, xGA and high-danger chances conceded at 5-on-5 to start the season.
The Stars are as good as almost any other team in front of their own net. The same is not true at the other end of the ice, however, as the team has a well-earned reputation for being incredibly poor in front of the opposition’s cage.
Through their first 12 games, the Stars skated a 4-6-2 record despite being above 50% in both expected goals and high-danger chance rate. The goaltending wasn’t the issue either, as Dallas had a .929 SV% at 5-on-5 through their first dozen contests. What sunk the Stars in the early going was an offense that was scoring on just 4.7% of its shots at 5-on-5 and 7.3% of its SOG overall.
This wasn’t the first time Dallas has gone through a stretch like this and it likely won’t be the last, but regression was going to come. When it did, the Stars would start winning games.
Six victories and seven games later, the Stars are starting to find the net with more regularity. The team still ranks second-to-last in 5-on-5 shooting percentage at 6.45%, but they are closer to the league average at all strengths and are still providing the goods defensively.
Dallas’ strong defensive structure also allows some margin for error in goal, which is notable since Rick Bowness has four NHL-caliber goaltenders hanging around the locker room.
At the moment, it seems to be the youngster, Jake Oettinger, who has seized the starting role with Braden Holtby serving as the deputy. Oettinger has been terrific in his five appearances, while Holtby has provided slight above-average results. That leaves the out-of-form Anton Khudobin and still-recovering Ben Bishop on the outside looking in, and each of them could be dealt to a team looking for help in net.
Even with a murky goaltending picture, I believe in the blueline in Dallas and I think the offense should be able to provide enough scoring to make the Stars’ strong work on the back-end hold up on a consistent-enough basis.
The Central Division is competitive, with Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis and Winnipeg all playing like playoff teams through the first quarter, but I like Dallas’ chances to grab at least a Wild Card spot by the time this season is finished. Assuming that Vegas, Edmonton and Calgary finish in the automatic spots in the Pacific, that means that Dallas will, in all likelihood, be in a race with Nashville, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle for the final playoff spot.
As long as Dallas’ defensive structure holds up, I like their chances to come out on top of that group and get into the postseason. If they do that, they’ll be a pretty tough out as we’ve seen plenty of strong defensive underdogs upset the odds in the postseason over the last three seasons.
New York Islanders (+5000, BetMGM)
For the first time in more than 30 years, the New York Islanders came into a season tabbed as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The respect was well-deserved as the team had made back-to-back trips to the Conference Finals and had made it to at least the second round of the postseason in each of Barry Trotz’s first three seasons in charge.
A deep team with a stoic defense and terrific goaltending, there was very little reason to believe the Islanders would flounder coming into 2021/22. Modelers, pundits and fans were all in agreement that a lot would have to go wrong for this team to miss the playoffs.
To say a lot has gone wrong would be an understatement.
After starting the season 5-2-2 and getting the type of results everybody expected, the Islanders have lost eight straight games in regulation, with the first seven coming by at least three goals. It’s an unfathomable streak, headlined by inconsistent play and some incredibly bad luck.
Even as the club limped home with a 5-6-2 record from their unprecedented 13-game road trip to start the season, most folks believed a turnaround was imminent as the team started to play at home. The hockey Gods had other ideas.
First the team lost Ryan Pulock to a lower-body injury for 4-6 weeks. Then, Josh Bailey tested positive for Covid-19. By the time the puck dropped for the first time at UBS Arena, the Islanders were without Adam Pelech, Andy Greene, Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and Pulock. The next night the team would get Beauvillier back, but it be without Brock Nelson and Kieffer Bellows.
By the end of the third game at the Islanders’ new arena, they would be without five of their six defensemen from opening night, their top-line left wing, their number two center and their second-line right wing. Remarkably, the Islanders have scored just three goals over their last four games, seven over their last eight and they haven’t held a lead in five contests.
A lot of the Islanders’ current issues can be chalked up to a lack of talent. They had roughly $31 million of cap space out of the lineup in their last two games. If you subtracted that from their “normal” $82 million cap hit, you’d get $51 million. To put that into context, the Sabres have the lowest cap hit in the NHL at $66 million. It’s no wonder the Isles have struggled mightily over the past week.
In addition to disastrous injury luck, New York’s puck-luck has also been miserable. The Islanders currently sit dead last with a 6.46 shooting percentage and over the last three weeks the Isles have scored on just 3.2% of their shots. According to MoneyPuck, the Islanders have scored -11.92 Goals Below Expected on the season.
While the calamitous luck has been a drag on the Islanders, they weren’t playing particularly well before the outbreak. Under Barry Trotz, the Islanders have turned into a terrific defensive team that keeps teams to the outside and then creates quality chances for themselves off the counterattack. That formula hasn’t worked as well this season as the Isles are allowing more high-danger chances than they are creating.
At the moment, the Islanders are on hiatus as the club sorts through its ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The Isles have already played a wonky schedule to start the season because of their 13-game road trip to start the season and it is likely only going to get weirder with a couple of games postponed. No team in the NHL has played fewer games than Trotz’s charges and the gap in games played is only going to grow over the next week.
At 5-10-2 and 12 points out of the picture, a playoff berth for the Islanders is still unlikely, but there’s a reason why bookmakers aren’t allowing this number to drift too far out of hand. In fact, the range of prices in the futures market on the Islanders currently spans from +2400 (FanDuel) to +8000 (SuperBook), with +5000 being the most common number. There are few teams in the NHL that have the ability to turn around a start like this and the Isles are one of them.
With a favorable schedule coming over the next six weeks (including 37 more home games compared to 28 on the road), some expected regression and a little bit of luck, the Islanders do have an outside shot of going on a run and earning their way back into the race.
Seattle Kraken (+20000, BetMGM)
If you’re truly crazy and looking for a longshot to back right now, why not go all-out and take a shot on the expansion Seattle Kraken, who are off to a 7-13-1 start with a -15 goal differential and currently sit eight points outside of a playoff spot.
As ugly as Seattle’s record is, the underlying metrics are actually not too shabby and point to some positive regression — so long as this team starts getting some saves.
The Kraken had a pretty clear plan in this summer’s Expansion Draft. Ron Francis wanted to stabilize things in his own zone and then worry about scoring later. Francis brought in two standout netminders, Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, in addition to a deep blueline headlined by Mark Giordano, Adam Larsson, Vince Dunn and Jamie Oleksiak.
While the defense has held up its end of the bargain — the Kraken are second overall in high-danger chances allowed and third in xGA at 5-on-5 — the goaltending has wilted. Grubauer, who was brought in from Colorado on a big ticket, has floundered to a -12.7 GSAx in 17 games, which is the worst mark among all goalies this season. Injuries have limited Driedger to just four contests, but he’s also struggled to a -2.3 GSAx.
At some point you’d expect one of these netminders to find his form and help stabilize the Kraken.
Like the Islanders, it is unlikely that Seattle can play at the pace necessary to get into the postseason, but it isn’t impossible. The three spots in the Pacific Division seem to be accounted for with Edmonton, Calgary and Vegas, but as I noted above regarding the Stars, the race for the last Wild Card spot does not feature a murderers’ row of teams.
A bet on Seattle to win the Stanley Cup is a bit crazy, but I think it’s pretty likely that this team slowly starts to inch its way towards the playoff picture and that we’ll likely see this number come down quite a bit over the next few weeks.