It's been a rough season, to put it mildly. Many fans have already written off the season as lost and turned their attention to the NHL draft this summer, where the New York Islanders are currently in good position to get a top-10 or even top-5 selection.
In my year-in-review article, I wrote that a playoff push was "possible, but unlikely" and talked a bit about what a top 16 pick would mean. But today, I want to revisit that claim, and actually make the claim that the playoffs are still within reach.
First, we should talk about the standings. The Islanders currently sit in last place in the Metropolitan Division, 7 points behind Columbus, Philadelphia, and New Jersey, who are all tied with 33. But that's a bit misleading - the Islanders have played 28 games, which is 6 fewer games than Columbus, 7 fewer than Philly, and 8 fewer than the Devils.
Brief side note: Ottawa - who also had major COVID issues - has played 29 games, and no other team in the NHL has played fewer than 33. Yes, that's correct, the Islanders have at least 5 games in hand on every single NHL team except Ottawa, and closer to 7 or 8 on most teams. Fantastic job as always by the NHL scheduling team.
However, catching Columbus or Philly or NJ doesn't do anything. For a playoff spot, the Isles need to finish in a wild card position. Currently, the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot is held by Boston, who have 42 points in 33 games, for a .636 points percentage (P%). So the Islanders are 16 points out of the wild card with 5 games in hand. Not great.
But how bad is that, really? In 2018-19, the last full 82-game NHL season (until, hopefully, this current one), the final Eastern wild card was Columbus, with 98 points (a P% of .598). In fact, here is how many points the final wild card team had in the past 5 years, in both conferences:
1. 2018-19: East 98, West 90
2. 2017-18: East 97, West 95
3. 2016-17: East 95, West 94
4. 2015-16: East 96, West 87
5. 2014-15: East 98, West 99
(In 2019-20, the team that was in the final wild-card spot at the time of the shutdown was on pace for 95 points in the East and 92.5 points in the West. I'm ignoring 2020-21 because there were no wild cards, just the top 4 in the division, and no inter-divisional play.)
Going back a bit further, the wild card as we know it first existed in 2013, following the 2012 lockout, and since then, the team which finished in the second wild-card spot has never had 100 points. So, while Boston is currently on pace to finish with 104 points and be the second wild-card, we can be reasonably confident that somebody - maybe Boston, maybe someone else in a playoff spot - will weaken enough so that the final wild-card spot has less than 100 points.
So let's say, for the sake of this hypothetical, that if the Islanders score 99 points (which will require some wins against teams in playoff positions, decreasing those teams' point totals), they will probably make the playoffs. If they score, say, 95, then the playoffs are possible. How difficult would that be?
Since they currently have 26 points, they need 73 more to hit 99, or 69 more to hit 95. And they have 54 games to do it. In other words, they need to play with a .676 points percentage to hit 99 points, or .639 to hit 95. Don't get me wrong, that's a good points percentage, but I think it's within the realm of possibility, for three reasons:
First of all, that's a good, but not ridiculous, points percentage. Currently, there are 7 teams in the NHL at or above .676, and 11 teams at or above .639. So the Islanders need to play like a top 7, or maybe top 11, team. Most fans would have said they were a top 5 team last season, even in the regular season, so that's definitely at least possible.
Second, their upcoming schedule is very, very easy. Of their next 11 games (after that, the "Olympic break" will take place, where - presumably - they'll be making up some games, but we don't know against whom yet), 7 of them are against opponents who are below .500 (New Jersey, Philadelphia x3, Arizona, Seattle, and Ottawa). This is a make-or-break stretch of games - if they don't gain some significant points, we can all but give up on a playoff spot, but if they do well - say, winning 6 out of 7 against the sub-.500 teams, and 2 out of 4 against the .500+ teams - then they're much closer to the wild card.
And thirdly, and most importantly: they're much better than their record. If you don't believe that, then there's no reason to expect that playing at .676 for the rest of the season is even remotely possible, but I do. They haven't had a consistent lineup since the road trip (in which, by the way, they gained 12 points in 13 games, all on the road, which is more or less exactly in line with their road record in recent years). Since opening UBS, they've dealt with injuries to their top-pairing RD (who still isn't back!) and their second-line center, and more COVID than anyone could have imagined. A total of 19 Isles have been, or are currently, in COVID protocol. We haven't seen the full-strength Islanders in a long time, and never at UBS Arena. But I think, when they return to full strength, they'll be much, much better than the .464 team they currently are.
Finally, just a disclaimer: I am not arguing that a playoff berth is likely. I'm just arguing that it's more likely than most fans might think.