Playoffs Are Within Reach For Sabres, Oilers

I know what you are thinking.

You are probably sitting there reading this and laughing out loud.  If you are not laughing, you probably think I am crazy.  You are wondering, how in the world can I think that the playoffs are even a possibility for the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers?  Surely, I must know where in the standings they finished this season.

Yes.  The Sabres finished dead last.  The Oilers finished 3rd from the bottom, but managed to win the draft lottery.  I also know how hard it is for any team to make the playoffs.  Not only is it hard to make the playoffs, but it’s hard to make up a lot of ground in one season.

But hockey is different today.  With the presence of the salary cap, teams have the ability more than ever to make quick turnarounds from one season to another.  Recent numbers suggest this is true.

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Can Tim Murray make the Sabres a playoff contender next season? (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Making The Playoffs After Missing Them

For starters, let’s look at non-playoff teams who make the playoffs the following season.  Starting with those teams that made the 2010 playoffs, we looked at the last 5 playoffs to see how many teams made the playoffs the season after they missed the playoffs.  There is an interesting trend that came up.

Missed 2010-Made 2011: 3

Missed 2011-Made 2012: 4

Missed 2012-Made 2013: 5

Missed 2013-Made 2014: 5

Missed 2014-Made 2015: 7

For the last 5 seasons, the number of non-playoff teams who made the playoffs have steadily increased.  There are many factors that contribute to this.  Whether a team has a great draft class coming in, or a team makes a great trade, or a team signs the right free agents, there are more ways than ever to fix a bad hockey team.

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Recent history suggests that Peter Chiarelli can make the Oilers a playoff team next season. (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)

How Much Can A Team Improve?

Now the question is, how dramatic a change can a team have from one season to the next?  In the last 5 seasons, there are several examples of teams who improved more than 20 points the following season.  Which team had the most dramatic improvement in that time?  It was the Florida Panthers of this season.  They went from 66 points to 91 points, a 25-point jump.  What influenced this?  They had the number 1 overall pick in Aaron Ekblad.  They also signed Roberto Luongo in free agency.  They were fighting for a playoff spot most of the season before just falling short.

Another example of a team making a huge improvement was this season’s New York Islanders.  They went from 79 points to 101 points, a 22-point improvement.  Having John Tavares returning from injury was a major reason for improvement.  Also signing both Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk went a long way in determining the success of the Islanders.  You think Chicago and Boston wouldn’t mind having them back, right?

The numbers listed above do not take into account the lockout season, since there were fewer games played.  But perhaps the biggest jump in the standings belongs to the Colorado Avalanche.  In the lockout season of 2012-2013, they finished 29th in the standings.  They won the lottery and got to draft Nathan McKinnon 1st overall.  A new coach was in place, and some other changes took place.   Where did the Avalanche finish the following season?  They finished 3rd overall, an improvement of 26 spots!

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Nathan MacKinnon was part of the process helping the Avs jump 26 spots in the standings. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Will Sabres/Oilers Make Playoffs?

The recent successes of the Panthers, Islanders, and Avalanche should give the Sabres and Oilers hope for this season.  Both teams will be able to draft players that are generational talents.  Sabres GM Tim Murray is on record as saying they would consider trading their other 1st round pick.  Ryan O’Reilly is the name being rumored.  The Oilers have made significant changes to their front office.  Former Boston GM Peter Chiarelli is now both the GM and President of Hockey Operations.  Both the Sabres and Oilers are making huge strides to improve.  Given the quality of player each team is going to draft, a quick turnaround is possible.

Do I think each will make the playoffs next season?  I do not think the Sabres make it, given the gap they have to make up.  However, I do think the Oilers make it.  The Oilers know what needs address.  Chiarelli will help address those needs.  If the Oilers get a quality goalie and some blue line help, they can easily fight for a wildcard spot.  If both do not make it this season, the following season and beyond will be the start of amazing things.

Each team may have had forgettable seasons in 2014-2015.  But thanks to several factors, including the draft, trades, and free agency, 2015 and beyond promises to bring better days. If the right moves happen, both the Sabres and Oilers can threaten to make the playoffs next season.  You heard it here first.