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NHL playoff contenders, pretenders: Identifying the legit postseason threats at season’s halfway point

We have officially reached the halfway point of the 2023-24 NHL season, and the playoff races are only getting more intense every day. There are at least 14 teams teetering on the postseason bubble right now, but which ones will remain in the hunt and which ones will fade away in the coming weeks and months?

With roughly 41 games of data on every NHL team, we have a pretty good idea of who these teams are and whether they’re a real playoff threat. For a few select teams at the top, there is no question that the postseason is nearly a guarantee. For a few unfortunate teams at the bottom, their playoff hopes have already been extinguished.

For this exercise, we will ignore the teams that are virtual locks to reach the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as well as the teams that will almost certainly be watching them from home. By my count, that leaves around 14 teams battling for a few select playoff spots.

Today, we’ll try to figure out which of those squads have a legitimate shot of making a playoff push and which ones will fall by the wayside when March and April roll around. Let’s sort through the playoff contenders in order to weed out the playoff pretenders.

Eastern Conference

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Philadelphia Flyers | 20-14-6 | 46 points

The fact that the Flyers are even in the playoff conversation this season is pretty incredible. That is a huge testament to John Tortorella, the team’s young core, and a rejuvenated Sean Couturier. Now, can Philadelphia keep this up for the second half of the season? For much of the season, the Flyers have been a strong five-on-five team, indicating their success might be sustainable. However, the team’s play has slipped over the last month, and the record reflects that. Given how much Philadelphia has overachieved to this point, I won’t count them out, but the Flyers will have to scratch and claw to work their way into the postseason. Verdict — Contender

New York Islanders | 18-12-10 | 46 points

The NHL might take another look at handing out an extra point for a regulation win in the coming years, but the Islanders will probably push back on that. The Isles have lost four more games than they’ve won, but they remain in the first wild card spot for now because 10 of their 22 defeats have come in extra time. New York has been a below average team, at least as far as the underlying numbers are concerned, but it has really struggled defensively. The Islanders are giving up 2.88 xGA/60 at five-on-five, which ranks 28th. Their offense just isn’t good enough to make up for those issues. Verdict — Pretender

Tampa Bay Lightning | 20-17-5 | 45 points

This is a difficult one because betting against the Lightning feels like a foolish endeavor. That said, the Bolts have not looked nearly as imposing as they have in the past. Nikita Kucherov is still a machine, and Brayden Point is still playing like a No. 1 center, but there have been some notable drop-offs around them. The brightest red flag might be Andrei Vasilevskiy’s issues in his return from back surgery. He hasn’t looked sharp, but that is probably to be expected considering he had back surgery. That’s kind of an important part of the body. Tampa might be underwhelming compared to what we expect out of this team, but they still have the starpower to get above that playoff line by the end of the regular season. Verdict — Contender

New Jersey Devils | 21-15-2 | 44 points

The training room has been awfully full in New Jersey this season, and the Devils haven’t really been able to get out of second gear as a result. Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Dougie Hamilton have all missed time. Timo Meier has also been battling injury, and he hasn’t been terribly effective even when he is on the ice. As the injuries have piled up, the goaltending hasn’t helped bail water out of the boat. Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid have been well below average this year. Even with all that going on, I still believe in this team as a contender because the top six is absolutely loaded with everyone there. Get healthy. Upgrade in goal. The Devils will be fine. Verdict — Contender

Washington Capitals | 19-13-6 | 44 points

A scorching hot start from netminder Charlie Lindgren kept the Capitals afloat for a while, but the team has backslid following his injury. The Caps are controlling a whopping 45.3% of the expected goals at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. Alex Ovechkin is on pace for a career low in goal-scoring. It appears as though Evgeny Kuznetsov has entered the twilight of his career. Even with Lindgren’s return coming soon, this Washington team doesn’t stack up when compared to other teams in this race. Verdict — Pretender

Pittsburgh Penguins | 20-15-4 | 44 points

The Penguins are at risk of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, but there is still plenty of hope for this team. Pittsburgh is 9-3-1 in the last month, and its best players have lived up to that billing this season. Jake Guentzel is lighting it up in a contract year, Sidney Crosby is still an elite player, and Evgeni Malkin continues to bully his opponents. Although the lack of depth might put a ceiling on how much the Penguins can do once they reach the postseason, they have more than enough firepower to secure one of the wild card spots over the next few months. Verdict — Contender

Detroit Red Wings | 20-16-4 | 44 points

Hockeytown was fired up in the early portion of the season, but things have cooled off quite a bit over the last six weeks. The Red Wings are 6-8 in their last 14 games, even with a three-game win streak included in that record. Their play at five-on-five has been even more discouraging in that stretch. The fact that they own a 45.2% expected goals share and a 40.8% high-danger scoring chance share at five-on-five only adds to the evidence that this isn’t a postseason team. There is some skill on the rooster, but it’s not enough to get the Wings over the hump. Verdict — Pretender

Western Conference

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Nashville Predators | 22-18-1 | 45 points

The Predators have been in this position for a handful of years now, but unlike in past years, it hasn’t been driven only by Juuse Saros standing on his head every night. In fact, Saros is in the midst of what might be the worst season of his career. He has allowed 3.67 goals above average and owns an .889 save percentage. In spite of those struggles, the Preds have played fairly well at five-on-five and kept their playoff hopes alive thanks to the efforts of Filip Forsberg and Ryan O’Reilly. If Saros can regain his elite form, Nashville could very well wind up in the playoffs. Verdict — Contender

Edmonton Oilers | 21-15-1 | 43 points

The Oilers are a top five team when it comes to generating expected goals and preventing expected goals. That’s been the case all season, but the results have finally started to match that process under new head coach Kris Knoblauch. Edmonton is 18-6-0 in that time, and Connor McDavid has decided to go nuclear on everyone. He has 12 goals and 32 assists in his last 24 games, and McDavid is climbing the Hart Trophy race rather quickly. Everything is firing on all cylinders for the Oilers right now, and they aren’t just a playoff contender. They are a real Stanley Cup contender as well. Verdict — Contender

Seattle Kraken | 17-14-9 | 43 points

Just a few short weeks ago, the Kraken were 10-14-9, and it looked like their playoff chances were toast. Then, they rattled off seven wins in a row, and here they are. That’s how quickly things can change in the NHL, but now we need to determine whether Seattle can remain in this race for the duration of the regular season. Joey Daccord has found his groove in goal, and he is now second in the NHL with 14.5 goals saved above average, according to Natural Stat Trick. Seattle’s five-on-five metrics have improved, but they still aren’t eye-popping. That means the Kraken need Daccord to keep playing at a Vezina level to reach the playoffs, and I’m not buying that yet. Verdict — Pretender

Arizona Coyotes | 20-17-2 | 42 points

This is a tough one because I love watching this Coyotes team, and I think it would be a lot of fun to see them in the playoffs. There are also reasons to believe they could get there. Connor Ingram has been great between the pipes. Clayton Keller is a star. Matias Maccelli and Lawson Crouse have given Arizona reliable depth scoring. Of course, this team still has its flaws. The blue line still needs some work, and the Yotes still need a little more high-end firepower up front. All of this has been filibustering until I can make a decision, and I am choosing to believe in this team as a real playoff hopeful. Verdict — Contender

St. Louis Blues | 20-18-1 | 41 points

The Blues are the Capitals of the Western Conference. Stretches of great goaltending from Jordan Binnington and Joel Hofer, plus a strong season from Robert Thomas, has given St. Louis a fighting chance in the playoff race. However, the Blues seem like a strong candidate to fade down the stretch. Their five-on-five metrics are miserable, especially on defense, and there isn’t enough pop up front to compensate for that. Verdict — Pretenders

Calgary Flames | 18-18-5 | 41 points

Calgary is stuck in no man’s land at this point, and this .500 record is well-earned. The Flames have been perfectly in the middle of the road on offense and defense, which gives them a chance to remain competitive, but it is hard to see them going on much of a run this year. Complicating matters even further is the fact that Calgary has to make decisions on a few unrestricted free agents, so the roster could be notably worse in the coming months. Verdict — Pretender

Minnesota Wild | 17-18-4 | 38 points

In the immediate aftermath of the coaching change, it looked like the Wild might be surging back into the Central Division’s top three spots. They have run out of steam recently and still have a lot of work to do in order to sneak into a wild card spot. That’s what happens when Jared Spurgeon, Filip Gustavsson, Kirill Kaprizov and Jonas Brodin are all on IR in some capacity. The slow start left Minnesota with little room for error, and that is coming back to bite the team with so many stars on the shelf. Verdict — Pretender

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