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Coaches Room

Standings at Thanksgiving may not be playoff indicator this season

MacLean says parity, abundance of young talent could shuffle races for postseason

by Paul MacLean / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Jim Corsi, David Marcoux, Paul MacLean and Joe Mullen will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, looks at the recent mantra that the NHL standings at U.S. Thanksgiving usually provide a window as to which teams will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In MacLean's mind, that might not be the case this season because of League-wide parity and the expanding pool of quality young talent throughout the 31 teams.

At this point in the season, here's the big thing I've noticed.

It's been said for a while now that where you are in the playoff race at Thanksgiving is where you are going to end up at the end of the seasons. But there are so many teams that are so close, it's really starting to look like that might not be the case this season.

 

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If so, that would be a huge change from the norm.

The reason I say that: There are a number of teams near the bottom that I didn't expect to be there. Maybe that's a sign this will be one of these rare go-against-the-flow seasons when everything is so wide open, there still could be a lot of movement in the standings by the time all is said and done.

That's something I've been looking at lately. When you examine the pecking order in the NHL right now, it looks like a free-for-all. In a lot of cases, you're not sure which teams will be around for the playoffs come April. That's how wide open it is.

Usually by this time of the season, you have four or five teams that are lagging behind in the standings and already seem to be long shots to qualify for the postseason. Right now, though, other than maybe the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, everyone seems to be in the mix.

History has shown that more often than not, the standings at Thanksgiving are a harbinger of what's to come. Normally they're pretty accurate as to how things will play out.

 

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But it's different this season because the parity in the League is front and center on display.

Admittedly, the salary cap has evened out the playing surface since the NHL implemented it in 2005. In the 12 years since then, front offices have gotten a better grasp on how to use the cap in the most efficient, productive manner.

At the same time, I consider there to be another very big factor in all of this: the increase in the number of quality young players being developed.

Think about the League and its series of expansions -- six teams to 12 teams to 16 teams to 21 teams. Back in the 1980s when there were 21 teams, there were so many good players. In the next two or three decades, the League grew by another 10 teams. And while that was going on, player development changed significantly as well. Players started working out 12 months a year, and at younger ages. It's gotten to the point today that some kids are NHL-ready in their teens.

As a result, there are so many quality players around, all 31 teams have so many of them. And it's hard to hide them. A team like the Vegas Golden Knights, maybe they don't have a No. 1 center or No. 1 defenseman, but they're not a team of No. 6 or No. 7 defensemen either. When you look at a team's 20-man roster, the Knights have a lineup full of No. 7 to No. 10 guys on that roster. That's why they're so competitive. They have so many solid players; every night is a fine line between winning and losing.

Video: Can Golden Knights remain hot, make playoffs?

I think that's symbolic of the League this season.

There are other factors as well, including fatigue from travel and fatigue from the schedule. Managing expectations from the media has an effect on players as well.

But through it all, I still think it the most significant influence is the number of quality players in the League.

The structure within teams plays a big role in that, especially on the coaching side. Players are given every opportunity to get better. Teams now have strength coaches, development coaches, mental coaches; everything a player needs to improve is right there.

As for scouting, no one falls through the cracks anymore. You aren't going to find any diamonds in the rough like Pavel Datsyuk, a guy many teams weren't as aware of as they should have been.

I think the next reservoir of player talent rests in China. I think that's why the topic of hockey in China has gained so much traction -- look at the immense population there.

There's even a guy from Australia in the League now; forward Nathan Walker of the Washington Capitals.

Video: MTL@WSH: First NHL Aussie Walker scores in debut

The bottom line: If you are a good enough player, they will find you, no matter where you are.

Keeping all that in mind, which are some of the teams that were out of a playoff spot at U.S. Thanksgiving that I think can make a push in the next four months or so?

The Anaheim Ducks are the first team that comes to mind. I know they're down in the pack right now, but it reminds me of a few years ago when they got Ryan Getzlaf back from injury and went on to win the Pacific Division. This time around, they're going to get back Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, their top two centers. Those are two horses that could easily push Anaheim up in the standings in the second half.

I expect the Edmonton Oilers to do similar things in the Western Conference.

In the East, if Carey Price can get his game together, Montreal definitely is a team to watch. So are the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. Those teams have good young talent. It's just a matter of them figuring it out.

With a few exceptions, the race for the pIayoffs is going to be wide open -- no matter what the standings showed at Thanksgiving.

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