Which NHL Teams Are on the Playoff Bubble This Season?
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Have you allowed yourself to think about the playoff race yet? We’re hovering around the halfway point of the 2022-23 season, and this is where I start to wonder which 16 teams we will realistically see come April.
The picture is getting clearer when it comes to locks, with teams like the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights leading the way to punching their postseason tickets. But this year feels particularly bonkers when it comes to the middle of the pack.
The Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild are all in the 40-50 point range in the West.
The Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders are in the same predicament in the East, with the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning a tier above, all separated by only one point.
There are so many possibilities between now and the end of the regular season in April. Let’s take a look at where the emerging bubble playoff teams are at and what they’ll need to do to make it in.
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Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images
Fans of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes may roll their eyes, but other than that it feels like most people are rooting for the Sabres to snap their 11-year, league-leading playoff drought. This Sabres season has been so categorically Buffalonian—it started out equal parts strong and fun, with electric wins and a star emerging in Tage Thompson.
Then out of nowhere came eight straight regulation losses. No NHL team since 2000 has qualified for the playoffs after dropping eight consecutive games in a row. Could these Sabres be the first of the century?
Their response to that eight-game skid inspires hope, starting with the 7-2 win over Montreal as the immediate follow-up. They’ve been consistent ever since, never dropping more than two in a row. They’re fourth in the Atlantic at 20-17-2, and Tage Thompson keeps Tage Thompsoning.
If the season ended today, the Sabres would be right outside of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot. But that could easily change with how tight the middle of the pack is, and with how positive Buffalo’s trajectory has been since the Very Bad No Good Eight-Game Losing Streak.
This team has endured all the ups and downs typical of the Buffalo sports experience, but you get the feeling the culture has actually changed this time. They want it, the great people of Buffalo want it, and that city deserves it for more reasons than we can possibly count.
Also, often lost in all the Jack Eichel talk is the fact that this is Jeff Skinner’s 13th NHL season and he still hasn’t made the playoffs. The timing of his trade from Carolina was unlucky, and I’d love to see him make the playoffs.
*Sigh.* I am once again rocking with the Buffalo Sabres. Please don’t make me regret it.
Desperation: 9.5/10. Imagine they went through the ups and downs of this season just to miss the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year?
Should you join the bandwagon?: 10/10. No notes.
Playoff chances*: 7/10. I want to believe and, against my better judgment, I do believe. But let’s not be ridiculous.
*Disclaimer: the “playoff chances” section is based on vibes. These calculations don’t mean anything in relation to each other, it’s simply a 1-10 rating on how much I just feel like the team will qualify for the playoffs.
New York Islanders
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AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Many criticized the Islanders for making absolutely no changes to the team ahead of the 2022-23 season, but their early-season prowess was a reminder that making a change for the sake of making a change isn’t always the way to go.
They’ve cooled off since the hot start, but they’re still very much in the Eastern Conference playoff race at 22-17-3. I like their odds to not only return to the playoffs but make a decent run if they just power through this current losing streak. That’s a big if, though, considering the airtight Metropolitan Division playoff race.
Ilya Sorokin has been one of the best goalies in the league all season, however, and a consistent goalie tends to make the difference when you’re on the playoff bubble.
Perhaps they’ll even use the upcoming trade deadline to make their big move. It’s going to come down to the wire either way with this ever-mysterious hockey club.
Desperation: 6/10. Does anyone know what this team is even trying to be? They set the bar low after missing the playoffs last season, so I’m content with squeaking in this year.
Should you join the bandwagon?: 7/10. Islanders fans are surprisingly welcoming if you’re on their side. Come bearing an XL chip on your shoulder.
Playoff chances: 6/10. They’ve got a solid chance to steal a wild-card spot in the East, but so do about four other teams competing for that same spot.
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AP Photo/David Zalubowski
The defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche are currently 20-16-3 and wouldn’t qualify for a playoff spot if the season ended today.
How did we get here?
Injuries have taken a toll on the Avs from the beginning of the season, with captain Gabriel Landeskog and weapon Valeri Nichushkin out for months, key players Bowen Byram and Josh Manson currently joining them on IR, and superstar Nathan Mackinnon missing 11 games before his recent return. As much as we don’t want to rely on the injury excuse, the lineup has been full of AHL players throughout the season. I’ll give it to them.
There’s not much the front office could’ve done considering the hard cap, but watching the recent five-game losing streak, I wondered more than once what this team would look like if Nazem Kadri and André Burakovsky were still in Colorado.
I’m pretty confident the Avalanche will get it together once a few regulars return—especially with Mikko Rantanen’s recent heater. But I thought at this point in the season we’d be talking about their two-peat odds, not their odds to return to the playoffs at all.
Nothing is promised, folks.
Desperation: 5/10. They just won the Cup, but they also don’t want to waste the window.
Bandwagon vibes: 4/10. Bandwagoning the defending champs is weak. Counterpoint: Cale Makar.
Playoff chances: 9.5/10. There’s no way they miss, right? Right?
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Speaking of the mid-Olympics, the Wild are back on the playoff fringe once again. I feel like they might actually win a playoff round this year, though, between Kirill Kaprizov coming into his prime at 49 points in 40 games, the resurgence of Mats Zuccarello (he’s over a point per game!), and the goalie tandem staying afloat.
The Wild have been getting better as the season progresses, and the consistent build is pretty encouraging.
Maybe they’ll really go for it and add a center at the deadline. They’re in a playoff position at the moment and don’t seem intent on giving it up.
Desperation: 6/10. It’s about time they make it out of the first round, but we aren’t expecting a Cup.
Bandwagon vibes: 7/10. Marc-Andre Fleury is a friendly face, and Minnesotans are extremely nice. But you’re going to have to hear about their high school hockey days.
Playoff chances: 7.5/10. I don’t know about advancing to the second round, but I bet they maintain a playoff spot.
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AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
When will the Predators simply be good or be bad? Why must we do this every year. Here we are again, asking ourselves if a middling Nashville team will qualify for the playoffs or not, and here we are again having no idea.
They’re outside the playoffs as it stands, but they’re in the middle of the middle of the pack (of course) out West, one point above Colorado and one point below St. Louis. I don’t see the Avalanche staying out of the playoff spots for too long.
Please, Predators, either go on a run or don’t.
Desperation: ?/10. They’ve been in the same position forever and nothing has changed.
Bandwagon vibes: 4.5/10. Bridgestone Arena is a hoot and there are some fun players on the team, but the current directionlessness isn’t so fun.
Playoff chances: 5/10. No notes.
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AP Photo/John Minchillo
It felt like justice for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and hockey fans like you and me when the Oilers were actually good—almost the best in the NHL at times—last season. We all sat there and cherished watching the best player in the world and his very good friend tear it up on a team that deserved them for once. They remained a blast to watch throughout the playoffs.
Sadly, McDavid and Draisaitl are still leading the league at Nos. 1 and 2 in points this season, but the rest of the team has returned to mediocre to dysfunctional, depending on the evening.
This has resulted in a 21-18-3 record and the Western Conference’s No. 2 Wild Card spot. If Edmonton can flip the switch it found last year at some point this month and not look back, I’m not worried.
Something tells me this might happen around Evander Kane’s return, which could be as early as before the All-Star break. Something tells me it better happen then, or I am worried.
What does it mean for McDavid’s future if they do slip out of a playoff spot?
Desperation: 9/10. Connor McDavid is in his prime, and the Edmonton front office should be feeling pressure to support their star.
Bandwagon vibes: 3.5/10. You get to watch a generational star every night, but at what cost?
Playoff chances: 8/10. Kane’s return should be a big boost.
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AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
If the Islanders are a crash course in standing pat, will the Flames be a cautionary tale of making too many changes? The team has struggled to find a rhythm all season after the multiple blockbuster comings and goings of the offseason. Goalie Jacob Markström is having an off year and needs to find his confidence.
All isn’t lost—the Flames are currently holding the No. 1 wild-card spot out West. But they’re 19-14-9 and just two points above the Oilers in a perpetually tight race. It helps that both teams are struggling, but one could take off at any moment, and you don’t want to be caught in this situation with Connor McDavid.
Desperation: 8/10. Management put all its eggs in the Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau baskets, so the pressure is on to find success with this core and soon.
Bandwagon vibes: 7/10. The Battle of Alberta is a plus. “Yahoo.”
Playoff chances: 6.5/10. Their trajectory worries me.
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Don’t look now, but after an expectedly rough inaugural season, the Kraken are really fun and really good in year two. They’re 24-12-4 and third in the Pacific. What’s really struck me is their ability to go on winning streaks and build on momentum.
Well, a Calder frontrunner in Matty Beniers doesn’t hurt. The rest of the youth movement is progressing accordingly, the depth is stepping up and the puck is finding the back of the net a lot.
Desperation: 1/10. What a pleasant surprise!
Bandwagon vibes: 7.5/10. You can follow Beniers’ entire career from the start and be a part of a two-year-old team’s lore.
Playoff chances: 8/10. I really like the high-octane game the Kraken have been bringing, and it’s fun to watch younger players find their confidence.
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Two teams that basically defined hockey in the mid 2000s, the Penguins and the Capitals, are now in similar bubble positions in 2023. The Penguins have played some excellent hockey this season, but they’ve also suffered more than a few embarrassing collapses. They might be the most hot-and-cold team in the league, and that’s not a game you want to play in the Eastern Conference.
The team is lacking defense and consistency, and the core is a step slower this season. But I’d take Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel (is it time to consider him part of the core?) and Kris Letang over most opponents any day, and twice in the Stanley Cup playoffs. You won’t catch me counting them out of at least one more playoff run.
Desperation: 6/10. I really feel like this group has done everything it’s needed to do. But if we know Crosby, we know he’s going to compete until the moment he hangs up the skates, and he expects the same commitment out of any team he’s on.
Bandwagon vibes: 3/10. Why now?
Playoff chances: 6.5/10. It feels like either Pittsburgh or Washington takes up one spot this year.
Detroit Red Wings
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Detroit was off to a great start that came as a surprise to many, but it’s been rocky ever since. Now, at 17-15-7 and No. 6 in the Atlantic, they have to decide if they’re going to buckle down and go for the playoffs or buckle down and go for Connor Bedard (OK, a bit dramatic.)
It was super encouraging to see early-season success from Detroit, especially while Moritz Seider was just warming up. But they’re still a few years ahead of schedule on the Yzerplan, and it’s hardly the end of the world if they miss the playoffs this year.
That said, the two teams ahead of the Wings in the Atlantic are the equally unstable Panthers and Sabres. If each facet of the Red Wings team finally clicks at the same time, they could sneak in early.
Desperation: 2/10. Sticking to the plan.
Bandwagon vibes: 6/10. Detroit is an underrated city and you’ve got a young core with years ahead of it. But how long are you willing to wait?
Playoff chances: 4/10. There are just too many good teams in the East.
St. Louis Blues
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The Blues are another rollercoaster of a team that’s tough to trust, but you’ve seen enough from them to know they’re capable of elite play. They’ve been on fire recently, and it’s been enough to propel them to fourth in the Central at 21-18-3.
Oh, and 13 of their next 18 games are at home. This might be the time to keep your eye on St. Louis, folks. I do worry about the goaltending situation, though, and Jordan Binnington is always a wild card in general.
Desperation: 3/10. 2019 might feel like decades ago, but the Blues’ Cup year is recent enough.
Bandwagon vibes: 5/10. St. Louis-born SZA wore a Blues shirt on her latest album cover. You’ve got Tony X and Jon Hamm in the fandom. Great company, confusing hockey team, and you may have missed the boat with their last Cup.
Playoff chances: 5/10. It feels like they have an equal chance to make it or miss it this year.
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AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
Maybe the defending Presidents’ Trophy champions are just trying something different in the regular season since peaking early last year and losing in the first round of the playoffs, but they are not having a regular-season encore. Things just don’t seem to be finding a groove, but it’s tough to pinpoint exactly where the trouble starts.
Sure, they suffered some key injuries. But they just can’t seem to outscore their bad defense this time around, and it’s amounted to a 19-19-4 record and lack of a playoff spot. They could turn it around, but it might take moving on from new coach Paul Maurice. And if that doesn’t work, I’m out of ideas other than going back in time and not giving Sergei Bobrovsky a $10 million cap hit.
Desperation: 7/10. You gotta question some of GM Bill Zito’s moves on the coaching staff and with contracts if the Panthers don’t make the playoffs this year.
Bandwagon vibes: 5/10. You could buy the best Reverse Retro jersey of the year and you get to watch Matthew Tkachuk play. But why would you bandwagon an underperforming team?
Playoff chances: 5.5/10. There’s a chance.
New York Rangers
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Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy and a 23-12-7 record to show for it. This team is a thrill to watch, but it is way too talented to be making the errors we’re seeing every day. They’re third in the Metro, but the next-men-up Capitals are one point away from them in the standings, and others are right behind them.
The Rangers are more than capable of cleaning this up, but they should probably do it soon if they want to keep fate in their own hands.
Desperation: 4/10. The core is ahead of schedule, but still, they made a deep run last year.
Bandwagon vibes: 2/10. A young, fun team with a lot of skill. But who is bandwagoning a New York team? They don’t need us!
Playoff chances: 6.5/10. Another team I can’t see missing the playoffs this year, but I had more confidence in that ahead of the season. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance, but we need more.
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No one had more injury trouble than the Capitals at the beginning of this season, and they struggled pretty severely as a result. But everything started clicking in November and December, and now several key players are returning or at least close to doing so.
Washington is currently in possession of a playoff spot at 23-14-6, but again, the race is tight in the East. Heck, as long as the unexpectedly great tandem of Darcy Kuemper and up-and-comer Charlie Lindgren keeps working in net, the Capitals should hang on to their playoff spot.
Desperation: 7/10. The Capitals have a recent Cup and perpetually make the playoffs, but the core is getting older, and you feel like this might be one of their last opportunities to make a run together.
Bandwagon vibes: 6/10. It’s very fun to watch Alex Ovechkin’s record-breaking quest, but you missed a few chapters with this core if you’re just now tuning in. You might want to opt for a younger team.
Playoff chances: 6.5/10. The competition is steep, and the Capitals have shown us some flaws throughout the season.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.