Every year there is always at least one or two teams that make the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the previous season. Sometimes it is a bounce back from an unexpected down year, sometimes it is rebuilding team that has finally taken enough steps, and sometimes it just a team that randomly comes out of nowhere to make a shocking run.
Two of the biggest surprise teams making a playoff push this season are the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks, neither of which were expected to be in this position at this point in the season.
In Detroit, the Red Wings open the week sitting in the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are right in the thick of the playoff race. That comes after five straight years of missing the playoffs and not really even being competitive in the race.
Anaheim has been an even bigger success so far and is actually tied for first place in the Pacific Division and actually sitting very comfortably in a playoff position. Prior to this season the Ducks looked like a team with a grim short-term outlook and a questionable long-term outlook after years of not fully committing to a rebuild. They had missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.
Young talent driving playoff push for both teams
The one common denominator for both teams is they both have multiple rookies making significant contributions.
In Detroit, it is forward Lucas Raymond and defenseman Moritz Seider. Raymond, 19, is an early season Calder Trophy front runner having already tallied 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 31 games, while Seider has burst onto the scene and is already the top defenseman in Detroit and logging more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. He is the type of all situations, big-minute, impact defender that every contending team needs. The fact he is already making this sort of impact in his first taste of NHL action at age 20 is a very encouraging sign for the future. The Red Wings needed young cornerstones to build around, and they now have them.
The Ducks have their own standout forward-defender duo in rookies Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale.
Not only is Zegras one of the Ducks’ top players and point producers, he has also been a one-man highlight reel this season and brought a level of excitement the team has not seen in years. Like Seider in Detroit, Drysdale has already taken on a significant role as one of the team’s top defenders.
The Ducks have the inside track
The good news for the Ducks is that they have built themselves a really strong cushion in the Western Conference race, and at least given themselves some margin for error. They are currently seven points clear of the first non-playoff team in the Western Conference and are on a 103 point pace for the season. The first non-playoff team in the West (Dallas, by points percentage) is currently on a 90-point pace. They are obviously not locked into anything, but this is a good position to be in. Assuming it takes 95 points to make the playoffs, they would only need 55 points over their remaining 50 games. That is manageable and very doable.
Along with the emergence of Zegras and Drysdale, they have also been lifted by breakout offensive seasons from Troy Terry and Sonny Milano and a nice little bounce back season from starting goalie John Gibson, who has his best numbers in three years.
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Whether they make it or not the most important development thing for the Ducks this season has been the progress of Zegras, Drysdale, and Terry. The one big thing holding the Ducks back in recent years was not so much the lack of short-term success, but rather the lack of any long-term optimism. Some of the young prospects they had counted on before had not shown much progress or made much of an impact in the NHL, while Gibson seemed to be rapidly declining.
But this season Gibson has shown with the right talent in front of him he can still be a quality goalie and they actually have real cornerstone pieces whose best days are still ahead of them that they know they can build around.
Red Wings have a tougher path, but have help on the way
The problem for the Red Wings is going to be the fact that even though they are currently in a playoff spot now, they only have a three-point cushion over the Boston Bruins while Boston still has five games in hand. Based on points percentage, the Bruins are actually ahead of the Red Wings for the second Wild Card spot. Boston is currently on a 94-point pace while Detroit is on an 88-point pace.
The good news for the Red Wings, though, is that they should have some help on the way in the second half of the season with the hopeful return of forward Jakub Vrana. Vrana was one of the centerpieces of the Anthony Mantha trade at the deadline a year ago was going to be one of their top players this season. But offseason surgery sidelined him for at least the first four months of the season and robbed the Red Wings of what should have been a key contributor. His initial debut with the Red Wings was stellar (eight goals and three assists for 11 total points in 11 games) and he looked like he was ready to thrive with an increased role as a go-to player in an offense.
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Like the Ducks, while making the playoffs would be an unexpected surprise given the preseason expectations, the most important thing for the Red Wings this season is the fact they have not only made significant progress, but have actual long-term building blocks in place with Raymond, Seider, Vrana, and Dylan Larkin. What makes the Red Wings’ situation even more intriguing is they have nearly $38 million in salary cap space to work with this offseason, which could make them major players at both this trade deadline and the offseason to add significant players to their core.
The playoffs may not happen this season, but the progress is obvious and they are starting to get into a position where the playoffs are going to be an expectation in Detroit again.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.