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2011-2012 Playoff bubble teams

August 23, 2011

The venerable The Hockey News magazine has been in the process of unveiling its annual rankings online. As always, these rankings unleash great venom, great vitriol. Aggrieved parties are those often sitting outside the number eight ranking. Today, their online edition reached 9. This implicitly tells you who the remaining eight are, and indeed, the only eight (or 16) who matter. Because, as recent examples in the playoffs have proven, where you are seeded matters not. How you play in the playoffs is what counts.

The status quo reigns supreme. The Hockey News (whose staff and editorial boards debate this ad nauseum) has maintained the Eastern Conference’s eight from this past playoffs, and it’s tough to really argue with them on that. In the Western Conference, the picture is roughly the same, save for the Coyotes, who have been slotted at 14. This leaves the Blues as the only team who didn’t appear in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs and whom the THN predict will make the cut this year.

Now, I don’t even receive THN magazine itself, so I actually don’t know how the 8-1 teams places in either conference. But it’s actually not relevant, not object of this post. I am looking at playoff bubble clubs. Some of the greatest drama in the waning days of the season the last few years has revolved around those teams on the precipice of the playoffs, or even those out of the playoffs who have a hand in determining business (think: Minnesota Wild defeating the Stars). The Rangers and the Hurricanes were neck-t0-neck in the end there this past spring. It’s where the excitement is at: the bubble.

In the East, I think the Hurricanes will be on the bubble once more, riding between 7th and 9th. But so too will the Rangers. I fear a few injuries here and there could inhibit their playoff aspirations, even despite coach John Tortorella’s magic. I hate the Maple Leafs with a burning passion, but I have sneaking suspicion they could challenge. They haven’t made any significant additions this off-season outside of John Michael Liles and Tim Connolly, but I think they could piece together enough wins to pull into eighth. When the Leafs are on, the Leafs are on. It will be close, but I could see their existing players reaching a stable point of success and maturity, and I could see Brian Burke wheeling at the deadline. My outside chance is the Islanders. They were crippled with injury this year. If you look at their forward group, between Grabner, Moulson, Okposo, Tavares, Bailey, Comeau, et al. and even El Nino, they have an extremely talented and deep group. Defense and goaltending is more questionable, but like the Leafs, the Islanders showed a few sparks here and there last season. Who could these clubs displace from the top eight? My bet is on the Habs, actually. I think if slump or injury struck, they’d be in for trouble. They also won’t be able to steam-roll some teams in the East the way they could last season.

In the West, the picture is much cloudier. There are many more teams that are definitively “out of the running” but just as many hovering between 6th and 12th it seems. Much like last year, the final 8-1 will coalesce at the final game of the season. I really like the improvements the Blue Jackets and Wild have made (and secretly perhaps I desire their success) and I think they could push for 7th or 8th. These are teams that have the pieces, and have simply struggled for too long. Their new additions give pep and energy, and while people may claim “oh it’s only Wisniewski and Carter, that can’t change a team” the fact is the adjustments made by Columbus equal more than the sum of the parts. It’s not just these two players: it’s the dynamic they’ll be shifting, the options they’ll be giving the coach and the burden they’ll be unloading from lesser players. The same goes for Minnesota, really. It’s not just Setogouchi and Heatley: it’s the style of play, the options. I think the Blues will be sliding around there too, but I’d pencil them in for a playoff berth. Who could get knocked? I think the Predators and Ducks are the most likely candidates. Much of the Ducks’ success will rest on the health of Jonas Hiller, and the Predators could face dilemmas with their big three in Suter, Weber and Rinne in terms of resigning them, and these dilemmas could prompt trades and an about face by Nashville.

That’s what I’ve got: the Hurricanes, Rangers, Leafs, Habs and the Islanders in bubble-land, and in the West, the Wild, Blue Jackets, Blues, Predators and Ducks.

Some are in more precarious circumstances than others. Namely, teams that have made the playoffs in recent years among that group might be bound for a view from the outside looking in. Injuries happen, trades happen, and so much could change. But I think 2012 could see some new teams in the playoffs, and for that, I am really excited.

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