In some ways it’s too early to talk about the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  It’s mid-January and there’s still a lot of season left.  On the other hand, we’re just over a month away from the trade deadline, so this is the time where general managers and coaches are analyzing their teams and starting to make important decisions on whether to be buyers or sellers at the deadline.

Obviously the playoff picture will change between now and the end of the season, but probably not too drastically.  The positions will change much more than the sixteen teams that will qualify for the postseason.  Some teams that frequently play for the Cup will be on the outside looking in this year.

Eastern Conference

Teams that were in last year, but are now sitting on the outside:

New Jersey Devils
Buffalo Sabres
Ottawa Senators

The most notable name on that list is the New Jersey Devils.  After making the playoffs consistently for the past 13 years, the Devils are currently mired in their worst season in recent memory.  Their 24 points are by far the lowest in the league and it doesn’t look like they’ll turn it around anytime soon.  Will they continue to sell off players and contracts like they did with Jamie Langenbrunner?

The Sabres and Senators aren’t faring much better.  The Sabres are currently 10 points out of a playoff spot and the Senators are 13 behind.  Both teams have suffered through injuries and poor performances and it doesn’t look like either team will be able to pull it together in time for a playoff run.

Teams that are in playoff position right now, after missing out last year:

Tampa Bay Lightning
New York Rangers
Atlanta Thrashers

The story here is the emergence of a competitive Southeast Division.  After being the Washington Capitals’ playground for the past few years, the division has improved greatly this season.  Both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers are currently gunning for playoff spots, with the Lightning currently leading the division.  Atlanta is currently only three points ahead of ninth place Carolina (another Southeast Division contender) but it would be nice to see the Thrashers make the postseason, if only because we’d get to experience some delicious Ilya Kovalchuk Schadenfreude.

The Rangers just missed the playoffs last year, but it looks like they’ll be making a run for them this season.

Western Conference:

Teams that were in last year, but are now sitting on the outside:

San Jose Sharks
Los Angeles Kings

Much like the Devils in the East, the Sharks have been a perennial playoff team for years now.  While they’re not in nearly as terrible of a situation as the Devils, they’re not exactly setting the world on fire either.  The Sharks have made the playoffs for the last six years and they’ve only missed them five times in their existence.  They’re currently three points out of a playoff spot, so it’s a chance that they could make it in, but it doesn’t seem likely right now.

The Kings are in a similar situation.  They have the same number of points as the Sharks, but they’ve played two fewer games.  The Western Conference is so tight that it’s difficult to see where things will end up.  There are only six points separating fourth place from 12th.

Teams that are in playoff position right now, after missing out last year:

Dallas Stars
Anaheim Ducks

The Dallas Stars got off to a great start this season and they’ve surprised many by turning into one of the top teams in the league right now.   Their 57 points put them in third place in the West and sixth in the entire NHL, so a postseason appearance seems pretty definite for them right now.  They have a lot of cap space, but will they continue to make trades and try for a big run?

The Ducks aren’t playing quite as well as Dallas, but after losing their first three games of the season and struggling through most of October, they’ve turned it on since November and find themselves in fifth place in the conference.

Of course, a hot streak could send a struggling team into contention and a bad slump could cost an organization a playoff berth, but it’s around this time when the league starts to divide itself into the contenders and the others.  As the deadline approaches it’s always interesting to see which teams feel they’re a few pieces away from a strong run and which teams decide to start looking towards the future.

How will the playoff picture look on April 10th when the season ends?  How about at the deadline?