Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win: sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more.
Halfway through the season, I took a look at how well the league’s basement dwellers would need to perform in order to make the playoffs. I estimated that 93 points would be needed in order to reach 8th place in both conferences. The San Jose Sharks are right on that pace at 8th place in the Western Conference, while the Washington Capitals are only on pace for 88 points at 8th place in the East.
Of the seven teams I featured at the halfway point, two of them have actually taken a decent run at playoff contention, while the only questions remaining for the other five are when will they officially be eliminated from the playoffs and how high will their draft pick be this June.
The Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning have managed to escape from the basement after each had a terrible first half of the season. The Ducks have gone 15-7-3 since I wrote the article and looked like they might legitimately make it until they lost 4 of their last 6 games. At this point, they will need to win pretty much all of their remaining 14 games to have a shot.
The Lightning, on the other hand, have a legitimate chance of being the eighth seed in the East, thanks to one of the worst battles for playoff position in recent memory, as teams seem to be fighting to miss the playoffs. Six different teams could potentially end up in 8th, including the Lightning and the Leafs. Four of those teams could actually end up as the third seed by virtue of winning the Southeast Division. Yet again, the Lightning are one of those teams. They are currently 6 points behind the first place Panthers.
That’s right: the Lightning could go from 25th place in the NHL at the midway point of the season to home ice advantage by the end of the season.
Since I wrote the article, the Lightning have gone 14-7-3, which is almost identical to the Ducks’ record in that time. The teams ahead of the Lightning, however, are performing much worse than the teams ahead of the Ducks, so the Lightning are just 3 points back of the Capitals with the same number of games played.
The final game of the season for the Lightning will be against the Winnipeg Jets. Depending on how the intervening games go, the winner of that game could potentially be the third seed and the loser could be out of the playoffs entirely.
Meanwhile, the teams that are left in the basement have just one thing to look forward to: the draft lottery. The worst 5 teams in the league will a shot at the number one pick in the draft, with the last place team having the best odds. It seemed like the Blue Jackets were destined for 30th earlier this season, but a late charge by the Edmonton Oilers might make it a race. 7 points separate the two teams, but Columbus has won 4 straight and the two teams will meet two more times this season.
Even if the Oilers don’t finish in 30th, they still have a decent odds of winning the first overall pick in the lottery, making them the second team in NHL history to have the first overall pick in three consecutive drafts. The Quebec Nordiques were the first, picking Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, and Eric Lindros in 1989, ’90, and ’91.
The other three teams rounding out the bottom-5 have been hanging out in the basement for a long time, but their shot at the first overall pick in the draft lottery is currently being threatened by a couple of latecomers. The formerly-first-place Minnesota Wild and the beleaguered Toronto Maple Leafs are right on the edge, as are the Anaheim Ducks.
Oddly enough, the Wild and Leafs were the two teams in 8th place in their respective conferences halfway through the season. At the time, they were both on pace for 93 points. Now they’re each on pace for 82 points. The Eastern Conference is all kinds of messed up right now: the Leafs are 2 points away from being in position for a lottery pick, but are just 5 points away from the playoffs.