There has not been much intrigue in the Eastern Conference Playoff race for a couple of months now as the eight playoff spots have pretty much been secured since the around the halfway point of the 2021-22 NHL season, and maybe even earlier.
No team currently on the outside of a playoff spot is closer than 11 points away from a playoff spot, and with every team having between 20-22 games remaining that is a pretty significant gap to try and make up in a quarter of a season. The only real intrigue is what the First Round matchups will look like and which teams will have home ice advantage.
Having said all of that, the eight playoff teams do seem to be separated into two different tiers.
At the top you have the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning as the clear favorites, while the Panthers are clearly ready and willing to add to their already strong roster at the NHL trade deadline.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, and Boston Bruins are on the second tier.
All of these teams are good and no matter what the first round matchups look like nobody is going to have an easy time here. Any outcome should not really be seen as a surprise, but those three teams at the top are still going to enter the playoffs as heavy favorites. What can the other five teams do to before Monday’s NHL trade deadline an effort to close that gap? Or is there anything they have to do?
Let’s examine each team and the one thing they need to do to beat one of the top-three Stanley Cup contenders.
Boston Bruins (scoring depth, maybe another defenseman)
Even without a move the Bruins are looking like a nightmare matchup for one of the two division winners in the First Round. As long as Jeremy Swayman can maintain his strong play they do not have many weaknesses. Patrice Bergeron is playing at an absurd level, they are starting to find some depth scoring with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith picking up their production, and you have to think a move of some sort is coming here, whether it be for a second-line center or a big addition on defense.
They have been connected to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun and putting him on the same blue line as Charlie McAvoy would be a game-changer. They may be a wild card team right now, but with the way they defend and the way their top-four core players (Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pasatrnak, McAvoy) are playing right now they are going to be a hellacious matchup.
New York Rangers (forward depth)
The Rangers are going to be a scary matchup because of one man: Igor Shesterkin. He is not only the runaway favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie, he should absolutely be in the MVP discussion for the way he has helped carry the Rangers this season. Their record with him as their starter versus without him is absurd, and it is not difficult to see how much they rely on him.
New York is the team here that could benefit from the NHL trade deadline the most. They have a dominant goalie (Shesterkin), an elite defenseman (Adam Fox), and a couple of top-line offensive players that can change a game (Artemi Panarrin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Krieder). What they are lacking is quality depth throughout their bottom six. The good news is New York has more salary cap space than any other contender to work with, a strong collection of young talent to deal from, and the flexibility to be players for pretty much anybody that is available. They already made one strong addition to get Frank Vatrano from the Florida Panthers for a fourth-round draft pick and they could still be aggressive in the coming days.
You want to take advantage of the seasons Shesterkin, Panarin, and Fox are having so this is definitely the time to strike with a big move or two if you can make it happen. As presently constructed they might be the most flawed of the eight playoff teams given their lack of depth, but they have the power to change that.
Pittsburgh Penguins (top-six winger)
The Penguins have shown that their window for Stanley Cup contention is still wide open. They have exceeded most expectations this season and been one of the best teams in the league. They are strong defensively, still have elite forwards (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel) and have received mostly excellent goaltending from Tristan Jarry.
Their needs are simple. They need Jarry to continue to play like he has for most of this season and avoid the type of postseason experience he had a year ago against the New York Islanders, they need to stay healthy (and get healthy; the return of Jason Zucker would be helpful), and they probably need to add another top-six winger to play next to Malkin given the struggles of Kasperi Kapanen. General manager Ron Hextall has repeatedly said he does not feel pressure to do anything, and he seems reluctant to give up much for a rental. He seemingly wants a player with term still on their deal, which would be especially helpful given the possible free agency departure of Bryan Rust after this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs (goaltending)
No team is facing more pressure to win than this team. This core has gone five straight seasons and five straight postseason appearances without a series win, and a sixth will no doubt lead to major changes. They have to win. No questions asked. The roster is strong overall, and their defensive player is better than it often times gets credit for being. They also have managed to build some solid forward depth around their big-money core of forwards.
The one thing that can undo all of that? Goaltending. Given the way it is going right now, that position has to be some major nightmare fuel for Maple Leafs fans.
If there is one thing for this team to fix, that is it. Maybe Jack Campbell comes back and plays like he did in the first half of the season. Maybe.
That is no guarantee, and they really do not have a Plan B right now at the position. They look to be avoiding their long-time playoff nemesis Boston in the First Round, but are instead looking at either Florida, Tampa Bay, or Carolina. Not exactly ideal, and they are not going to beat either one with the goaltending they have.
They need a goalie. Badly. That is the position. That should be the only focus over the next couple of days. Goalie. Goalie. Goalie. Goalie. Trade for a goalie.
[Related: 2021-22 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]
Washington Capitals (goaltending, stay healthy)
You could make the argument that they could use some additional forward depth, but that part of the roster looks a lot better if Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are healthy (they have each missed more than 20 games this season).
Goaltending is the big wild card here. Ilya Samsonov has not developed like they hoped he would, and while Vitek Vanecek has played well this season, is he somebody that is going to take you through this Eastern Conference playoff field? If you can get an upgrade, you have to explore it. Marc-Andre Fleury is the obvious answer here, but does he want to move again (and to Washington?) and do the Capitals want to make that investment in a position they may not truly *need* in order to win.