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Ferguson: Races For Playoff Spots Tighter Then Ever

by John Ferguson / Toronto Maple Leafs
All you need do is look at the standings to understand how close the races are for playoff spots in the NHL.

Going into our game tonight in Pittsburgh, we were among nine teams within four points of each other. Eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.

It’s a similar scenario in the Western Conference where just five points separate the second-place Dallas Stars from the eighth-place Anaheim Ducks.

The standings are squeezed even more than last year, where we missed the playoffs by a point on the last day of the season.

There are a lot of reasons for all the parity.

Some of it comes from the salary cap. The CBA dictates there can’t be more than a 16 million gap between teams. The vast, vast majority of teams are spending over 40 million. That meant a lot of lower-payroll teams added payroll.

The cap came right out of the lockout. There was no time given to grandfather potential contracts so its effect, a redistribution of talent, was immediate.

The improvement across the league in goaltending continued to mean tighter games and less of a gap between teams.

The overtime format, paired with a schedule that meant eight games between division rivals, made things tighter. Look at our game against Tampa. The fact that they scored in the last minute meant they took a point out of the game even though we won. We are all competing with each other for the same points and the result often leaves two teams with at least a point.

My sense is that things will get even tighter. The closeness could affect the February 26 trading deadline. Last year at the deadline there were three clubs, Philadelphia, Washington and Florida you could definitely categorize as sellers. With the trade deadline earlier in the season than in years past, you might see more teams sticking with what they have and keeping players off the market. We will have 18 more games to play after the trade deadline.

Add to that the tendency of clubs to lock more of their young talent up with multi-year contracts, and you have a trading market that may be the most prohibitive in years. There will always be deals, there were about as many trades as ever last season, but it will be interesting to gauge the magnitude and the number of exchanges.

In this kind of neck-and-neck environment, every point takes on a new magnitude. That’s why some of the performances we had from call-ups, Jiri Tlusty and Scott Clemmensen, come to mind, were so important to us.

We also recognize that by leaving so many points on the table over the last two weeks, we have made things harder on ourselves. You can’t overstate it: every win is so important.

We would like to have our position assured and spend the last few weeks of the regular season playing for position. But clearly, playoff positions will be hotly contested. We need to be prepared to battle to the very last day.
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