The 2020-21 NHL season has been as exciting as any, with a condensed 56-game schedule giving us a multitude of games every night. Most teams are 15 to 20 games into the season, and we are already seeing some separation in the standings between the good teams and the bad ones. While the season still has enough games to continue to help determine which clubs are truly good this season, there are some teams that have complete rosters and can win the Stanley Cup but might miss the playoffs. We have already seen some teams start to slide or underachieve, and by the season’s end, those teams can just miss the playoffs with the divisional races shaping up to be as close as they are currently.
For anyone following the Montreal Canadiens, the assumption would be that the sky is falling. In a way, that would be an accurate assessment considering that the team recently fired their head coach Claude Julien. Aside from losing back-to-back games to the last place Ottawa Senators, the Canadiens have drastically dropped from the start of the season, where they appeared to be the best team in the North Division, to currently sitting in 4th place in the division.
It would still be shocking to see the Canadiens miss the playoffs since they might have one of the more complete rosters in the NHL. There is little to no weakness on this team with a deep scoring lineup, a defense that seemed to be strong throughout (with Jeff Petry also being one of the team’s best players offensively), and a goaltending duo that has the capability of leading the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup in Carey Price and Jake Allen. In the North Division, we can see a team like the Calgary Flames surprise us and have a great second half of the season, and likewise, the teams at the top can keep playing great to bump a team like Montreal from the playoffs.
New York Islanders
The Islanders under head coach Barry Trotz have had a similar formula for success and have been a respectable team in the last two seasons, reaching the second round of the 2018-19 Playoffs and the Eastern Conference Final last season. The roster went through slight turnover, with Thomas Greiss, Devon Toews, Johnny Boychuk, and Derrick Brassard all no longer on the roster. However, the Islanders still return a great defensive team, a goaltender in Semyon Varlamov that is on pace for one of his best seasons, and plenty of scorers throughout their lineup, making this team one that can not only make the playoffs but potentially a deep playoff run.
The big reason the Islanders can miss the playoffs is their division, which is arguably the best in the NHL this season. The East Division has more than enough great teams, and we can potentially see teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers miss out since only four teams can make the cut. The Islanders have shown struggles this season, particularly with their third and fourth lines offensively, and if they aren’t careful, they can be on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have been one of the teams that have had many hockey fans questioning what is going on in Columbus. The Pierre-Luc Dubois saga finally ended, with the team trading Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, so the team should look better than their record shows. The Blue Jackets have one of the best head coaches in the game in John Tortorella, a well-built defense, and plenty of talent on the offensive side as well.
The problem is that the Blue Jackets have underachieved this season, currently boasting an 8-7-5 record, fifth-best in the Central Division. In addition, the usually reliable defense has struggled this season, as the team is allowing 3.4 goals per game. With the Blackhawks and Panthers exceeding expectations, plus the Stars having six games in hand and potentially making a late-season push, we can see the Blue Jackets miss the playoffs.
St Louis Blues
The Blues are currently in second place in the West Division, with 22 points, only trailing the Golden Knights, who have 23. However, the Blues have one of the worst win percentages (.550) in the division, winning only 10 of their first 20 games. With the Blues already playing more games than any team in their division and many of their early season losses (including four to the Coyotes) being against opponents they might need to beat in tie-breaking scenarios, they can be a surprising team to miss the playoffs.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Blues won the Stanley Cup, with one of the biggest team-turnarounds the game had seen. They still possess a good, if not great, roster and should be able to compete for the Stanely Cup this season. Jordan Binnington is putting together a strong season in goal. Torey Krug is one of the best two-way players in the game, leading the defense while also contributing 10 assists offensively. And the offense is seeing a mix of veterans like 32-year-old David Perron and young scorers like 22-year-old Jordan Kyrou help give the Blues a potent offense.
What About the Teams That Can Shock Us and Make the Playoffs?
We have already seen some pleasant surprises this season in the Blackhawks, Wild, Panthers, and Kings, all of whom have exceeded many hockey fans’ expectations and have clearly displayed rosters capable of making it to the playoffs. It’s still early in the season, and a lot of movement can still happen, but it will be interesting to see how the playoff picture continues to shape up. Despite the season being only 56 games, we are getting an entertaining season, to say the least.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.