American Thanksgiving Cutoff for the Playoffs

The common theme out there is that by American Thanksgiving, the teams currently in a playoff spot will most likely make it in April. Is this theory credible?

People in the media are always looking for some sort of measuring stick throughout the season for NHL teams. Some look at the first 20 or 30 games, the All-Star break, or the Christmas Break. But one that is often used as well is American Thanksgiving. The thought is that by Thanksgiving, pretty much all of the teams in playoff spots will make the playoffs come April.

Is it true though?

I went and looked at the standings for the previous five seasons and wanted to see if the pundits were correct. For each year, I took the standings after the Thursday games on Thanksgiving weekend.


(Teams in bold ended up in the playoffs, teams italicized made it in after being out on Thanksgiving)

East on Nov 27 (based on total points): Montreal, New York (R), Washington, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York (I), Detroit

East end of season: Washington, Pittsburgh, Florida, New York (R), New York (I), Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Detroit

West on Nov 27: Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Minnesota, Vancouver

West end of season: Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Nashville, Minnesota

% of teams in from Thanksgiving standings: 75% (12/16)


East on Nov 28: Montreal, Tampa Bay, New York (I), Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Ottawa

East end of season: New York (R), Montreal, Tampa Bay, Washington, New York (I), Detroit, Ottawa, Pittsburgh

West on Nov 28: Anaheim, Nashville, Vancouver, St. Louis, Calgary, Los Angeles, Chicago, Winnipeg

West end of season: Anaheim, St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago, Vancouver, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Calgary

% of teams in from Thanksgiving: 81.25% (13/16)


East on Nov 29: Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, New York (R), Washington

East end of season: Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal, New York (R), Philadelphia, Columbus, Detroit

West on Nov 29: Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles, Colorado, Minnesota, Phoenix

West end of season: Anaheim, Colorado, St. Louis, San Jose, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Dallas

% of teams in from Thanksgiving: 81.25% (13/16)

2011-12 (2012-13 skipped because of the lockout):

East on Nov 25: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Florida, Boston, Toronto, Washington, Buffalo, New York (R)

East end of season: New York (R), Boston, Florida, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Washington, Ottawa

West Nov 25: Minnesota, San Jose, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Detroit, Phoenix, St. Louis

West end of season: Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, Los Angeles

% of teams in from Thanksgiving: 75% (12/16)


East on Nov 26: Washington, Philadelphia, Montreal, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York (R), Atlanta

East end of season: Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Buffalo, New York (R)

West on Nov 26: Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Colorado, San Jose

West end of season: Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Anaheim, Nashville, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago

% of teams in from Thanksgiving: 75% (12/16)

If you don’t like reading all of that boring information (because it’s a lot), here are some easy numbers to read: In the past five seasons (excluding the lockout season), out of the 80 teams that have made the playoffs, 62 of them have been in a playoff spot on American Thanksgiving.

So on average, 77.5% of the teams that are currently in a playoff spot right now will make the playoffs.

That bodes well for the Senators right now, since they hold a playoff spot. History is on Ottawa’s side, and even though it is still early, they have picked up some big points. It sounds odd, but we are already at a moment where every point matters and we should be scoreboard watching the rest of the conference.

77.5% is actually lower than what I initially thought the number would be, but it is still good odds. Essentially the top teams will rarely fall out and it is usually a few 4-8 seeds that might swap in and out.

For example, of the 18 teams that were not in a playoff spot by Thanksgiving but eventually made it in, five of them made it into a wild card (7 or 8) spot, and only three made it into the top three of the conference. Then there are ten other teams that struggled in the beginning and then later made it in as a 4-6 seed, but it is hard to do.

By no means have the Senators locked up a playoff position, nor are they out of the race if they fall into 10th by next week. In fact, in 2011-12 they were one of the teams that snuck into the playoffs after being out of it in November, plus it’s impossible to forget how far out the team was in 2014-15 later in the year as well. Furthermore, just last season they were second in the division but ultimately fell out. So the Senators are a clear example that this theory is not absolute.

At the same time, I think that this point in the season is a good measuring stick, and the fact that they hold a playoff spot bodes well for the future.

By no means does this Thanksgiving cutoff have any real meaning. I mean, if this was a Canadian Hockey League, we would not even be talking about American Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the results because it is talked about so often as a point in the season where teams have already shown what they can do and who they are.

I wouldn’t say that Ottawa’s chances to make the playoffs sit as high as 77.5%, but history is on their side. Let’s hope they don’t add to the 22.5%.

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