It's still important to be realistic about playoff chances

The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/det" data-ylk="slk:Red Wings">Red Wings</a> have been playing some good hockey lately, but they’re still a bad hockey team. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The Red Wings have been playing some good hockey lately, but they’re still a bad hockey team. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The thing with making the playoffs is that it’s simultaneously hard and easy to do.

More than half the teams in the league make it, and even over an 82-game schedule, at least one or two bad teams luck their way into it every year.

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But it’s hard to make the playoffs if you’re bad. If you’re not making the playoffs, you’re probably a pretty bad team as a baseline, but more specifically teams that end up missing are usually just kinda spinning their tires if they’re not actively tanking as part of a rebuild, or “rebuilding on the fly.”

Which is why it’s so confusing to see people talk up teams that everyone knew were highly unlikely to make the postseason. So far this year, and just off the top of my head, I’ve seen “Can they make it? It’s not too early to talk about!” headlines coming out of Vancouver, Ottawa, and Detroit. All teams that any reasonable person would have said they had, what, less than a 5 percent chance to make the playoffs? You can probably throw the actively rebuilding Rangers and not-sure-what-they’re-doing Islanders in that mix as well.

And yet, these clubs were able to do what many teams in this league can do — put together a run of like 6-2-2 in 10 games or something like that — and engender all this optimism about what’s going to happen in March and April. Which is, of course, silly.

Even as teams start off surprisingly — Vancouver at one point led the Pacific, the Rangers won nine out of 11, the Sabres were the best team in hockey for a day or two there, and so on — you have to keep in mind that the probabilities of making the playoff don’t change as much as you think even if you rip off a 10-game winning streak.

Even as that streak was going on, I cautioned that while Buffalo looked great for the moment and would now have to really blow it to miss the playoffs, it’s important to realize how much their playoff chances really changed; by the Athletic’s reckoning, they have nearly tripled since the start of the season, but even still they’re only looking like the eight-seed in the East, and that’s if they don’t keep losing like this, and after an improbable 10-game winning streak, right?

Likewise, Detroit, which has started to really feel itself lately despite all evidence suggesting that this is a bad team doomed to fall apart. Let’s put it this way: They’re getting way better goaltending than they had any reason to expect from Jimmy Howard, and they’re still only sixth in their own division as I type this. The odds that they make the postseason have barely changed over the course of the season, but that doesn’t stop locals from talking about playoff possibilities, because they’re 10-5-2 in their last 17 games.

For the most part, teams are who you thought they were. The only thing Howard has reasonably done to benefit the Red Wings is boost his trade value (he’s on an expiring contract) and you can and should probably say the same thing about Gus Nyquist, whom they should be looking to move right this second. Winning more games than you thought you would is all well and good until it costs you a top-three pick, y’know?

Not that I think talk of making the playoffs is going to lead the Wings or Islanders or Rangers to deviate too much from their plans to rebuild their rosters through the draft, especially because the Ls are likely to return to their schedule soon enough.

The reason I mentioned it might be wise for the Red Wings to trade Nyquist sooner than later is that he’s 29, on an expiring contract, and very quietly scoring at the best pace of his career (27 points in 31 games, a pace for 71ish points); that’s not likely to last, so why sit on a move until he no longer has an on-ice shooting percentage of 11.5?

Same goes for heating-up Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello on Broadway. Same goes for Jordan Eberle in Brooklyn. Same goes for Chris Tanev in Vancouver. These guys aren’t going to be part of your long-term solutions, so you might as well get what you can for them now, even if vague playoff hopes are percolating among local rubes or media hucksters whose jobs necessitate chumming these particular waters on occasion.

The job for the general manager is to maximize value for any trade they make, and all of them should be planning to make at least a handful.

Even if they’re “only” four points out of a playoff spot right now. Hell, especially because of that.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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