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TRAIKOS: Which NHL teams currently on outside looking in have best chance of making playoffs

Toronto Sun logo Toronto Sun 2022-11-28 Michael Traikos
Ottawa Senators left wing Austin Watson checks New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes during third period NHL action at the Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. © Provided by Toronto Sun Ottawa Senators left wing Austin Watson checks New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes during third period NHL action at the Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.
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There are six teams that were in the Stanley Cup playoffs last year — Florida, Washington and the New York Rangers in the East, and Calgary, Minnesota and Nashville in the West   — who wouldn’t be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Luckily for them, the season doesn’t end after the first two months.

But it does raise a couple of questions: which teams currently on the outside looking in will be in the dance when the season ends? And more importantly, who will they unseat?

I can’t see the Panthers, who are two points back of the final wild card spot, missing out. Not after finishing with the best record in the NHL last year. The same goes for the Rangers, who are one point out of the playoffs after reaching the East final a year ago.

In the West, the Wild just need some consistent goaltending to get back in the playoff picture. Meanwhile, the Flames should be a playoff team once Jonathan Huberdeau finds chemistry with his new team.

As for who they replace, well this is where it gets tough.

For me, the most vulnerable are Detroit and Pittsburgh in the East, and Winnipeg, Seattle and St. Louis in the West. Two — maybe three — of those teams are going to fall out of contention.  

That being said, don’t be surprised if, after three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final, the Tampa Bay Lightning run out of gas and take a step back this year.

BEWARE THE BRUISING ISLANDERS

Having won 18 of their past 20 games, the New Jersey Devils are not just the hottest team in hockey. They are also one of the most fun teams to watch in the NHL.

The Devils beat you with speed and skill and an offence that runs four lines deep. They have the third-best offence in the league, with three players ranked among the top-20 in points and eight having already scored five or more goals.  

At the other end of the spectrum are the New York Islanders.

Unlike the Devils, the Islanders don’t beat you with skill. Rather, they beat you by … um, beating you into submission. One of their players just set the NHL record for all-time bodychecks. Another is ranked in the top-5. As a team, they lead the NHL in that somewhat outdated category.

“We’re a physical team,” head coach Lane Lambert said after a 51-hit win against the Maple Leafs last week. “In order for us to have success, we have to play a certain way. Playing physical is one of those ingredients.”

Another ingredient is game-saving goaltending, with Ilya Sorokin emerging as an early candidate for the Vezina Trophy.

Add it up and the Devils might win the Metropolitan Division. But the Islanders, who went to the conference final in 2020 and 2021 before missing the playoffs last year, are the team that no one wants to face when the season is on the line.

DRAFT WINNERS AND LOSERS

Is two-and-a-half seasons enough time to declare Alexis Lafreniere a bust?

With just three goals and 10 points in 22 games this season, the New York Rangers winger is certainly looking like one of the worst No. 1 picks in recent memory.

As for the biggest steal, that title so far goes to the Ottawa Senators.

Not only did they get Tim Stutzle with the No. 3 pick, who has eight goals and 22 points in 21 games this season, but two spots later they grabbed defenceman Jake Sanderson, who already has 11 points in 21 games as a rookie this year. Consider it a do-over for selecting Alexandre Daigle over Chris Pronger in 1993.

Stutzle ranks first amongst his draft class in goals (42), assists (67) and points (109). Lafreniere is second in goals (34) and is ranked third behind Detroit’s Lucas Raymond in points (71). The only category where Lafreniere is currently leading is in games-played (157), which makes his lack of production even more suspect.

Meanwhile, Kaapo Kakko, who was the Rangers’ No. 2 overall pick in 2019, is also struggling with just four goals and eight points in 22 games. It could point to an even bigger failure in the organization, which hasn’t drafted and developed its own star player since 2014’s Igor Shesterkin.

CHYCHRUN COULD BE BUFFALO BOUND

Jakob Chychrun, who missed the first seven weeks of the season after undergoing wrist surgery, returned to the lineup last week. And with one goal and three points in four games, so have the trade rumours involving the talented Arizona Coyotes defenceman.

It is believed that Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa are among the many teams interested in Chychrun’s services. But according to Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, the Buffalo Sabres could be a “dark horse” in acquiring the 24-year-old.

I’d go one step further and suggest they are the favourite.

After all, a deal with the Sabres makes sense for a number of reasons. They have the cap space to get a deal done, with only the Coyotes having more financial flexibility. And they have the prospects to get a deal done, with Buffalo having made five first-round picks in the past two years.  

More importantly, with the Sabres stuck at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, they might have the biggest need.  

TRAIK IT OR LEAVE IT

… I don’t know what’s more impressive: that Jason Robertson leads the NHL with 18 goals and is one back of Connor McDavid with 35 points in 22 games? Or that the Stars acquired him in the same draft as defenceman Miro Heiskanen and goalie Jake Oettinger? That’s quite the haul … Another team that did well in 2017 were the Edmonton Oilers, who acquired forward Kailer Yamamoto in the first round and goalie Stuart Skinner in the third round … One year later, the Seattle Kraken are finally looking like an expansion team. As in, they’re holding down a playoff spot, just like the Golden Knights … Toronto’s Nick Robertson has played in 11 games and has been a healthy scratch for 10 games. And yet, he still has more points than Zach Aston-Reece (21 games) and Denis Malgin (17 games), who are ahead of him on the depth chart … I don’t know what the real reason was for the Canucks firing Rachel Doerrie days after promoting her to the coaching staff. But it can’t be because she posted a story about her promotion on Instagram. Either way, for a team that is finally starting to turn things around, the drama surrounding her dismissal — she filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on Nov. 22 alleging that assistant GM Emilie Castonguay discriminated against her — is the last thing they need right now.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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