I was driving home from the rink last night after taking my son to hockey practice, and I heard yet another comment with a familiar refrain. I’ve heard it dozens of times already throughout the summer, the preseason, and now into the early stages of the season. It goes something like this:
The NHL is an incredibly balanced league, even with the addition of Vegas, where 52% of the teams in the league qualify for the post-season. And yes, every half-dozen years or so we are treated to a run like Nashville, where a team that squeaks into the playoffs in the waning days of the regular season finds themselves playing for the Cup. Whenever the puck is dropped on a new season, fans have hope that their team will make the playoffs and perhaps make a run that will end with their captain strolling around the ice with Lord Stanley’s chalice.
The Loser Point
With the introduction of the loser point, the league has created artificial parity. The “loser point” was developed to incentivize teams to play harder in overtime instead of settling for a tie and one point. Why we still have one is less clear. Theories abound, ranging from pretending a 35-35-12 team actually finished the season .500, to the illusion of closer playoff races. Maybe fans are more interested in the end of the season if they cling to the belief that their team can make up five points in the standings in April. Ironically, the loser point has made it even harder to make up ground, because it increases the likelihood games later in the year go to overtime.
It also made the end of regulation in tie games now boring, with each team playing for the guaranteed one point rather than risk one to earn two.
It could even be argued that the loser point killed the trade deadline. Regardless of your opinion on it (It sucks), it’s not going away for the foreseeable future.
Nashville finished the regular season with 94 points, tied with the Calgary Flames for 7th in the Western Conference. Since Calgary had two more regulation/overtime wins than the Predators, they earned the 7th seed while Nashville finished 8th and had to face the 1st seed Chicago in round one. Nashville’s 41-29-12 record was a rather pedestrian 41-41 if you look at the standings the right way. Did the Preds finish the season right where they belonged?
Regular season points can be quirky things. Some games are worth two points and others are worth three. A 7-1 blowout win is worth as much in the standings as a 2-1 shootout win, but how else can we judge regular season performance other than simple points?
Goals! We have goals, more specifically goal differential. Those blowout wins, overtime losses, and shootout victories have an odd way of balancing out throughout the season, usually anyway. Luckily goal differential has proved incredibly reliable at predicting the number of points a team will earn over a given season.
I debated exactly which goal differential I’d use: just 5 on 5 play or all-situations? I decided to use all-situations play because although goaltender save percentage can fluctuate from year to year on the penalty kill, and is very noisy in a statistical sense, power-play production and penalty killing (or lack thereof) is attributable to coaches, personnel or scheme. I used the last seven full seasons of data and excluded the lockout shortened season of 2012-2013.
*note I did not filter out empty net goals for or against due to a simple lack of an easy way to do so *
Using the last seven full NHL seasons a win in the NHL (2 points in the standings) is worth about 6.3 goals. A team that finished with a goal differential of 0, should expect to finish with 91.9 points on average. Clearly there are going to be outliers every year, like Montreal finishing with only 78 points and with -7 goal differential in 2012, or the same Canadiens finishing with 110 points two years later despite a goal differential of just +8. Where did the Predators finish last season?
Nashville finished the season with an all-situations goal differential of +18, which should have put them approximately at 98 points in the standings. Last season the Predators went 4-8 in overtime and 2-4 in the skills contest, so there were some lost points there. With such a small sample size it’s unknown how repeatable overtime performances are from year to year, but shootouts although debated (here and here) are still considered mostly random. Had Nashville finished even 3-3 in the shootout, they’d have been the 7 seed and not the 8.
Expected Playoff Seed
Next I plotted all playoff seeds by point total from the same seven full seasons. See below.
The NHL’s playoff seeding system has changed over the years, when the league moved from three divisions per conference to two, which led to a narrower array of expected point totals for the 3 seeds in the new format. This disparity between seeding and regular season performance often time left 6 seed in an upset position and often saw a 4 seed with more regular season points than the 3 seed in the old system. These situations are less common now with only two divisions per conference, but it’s not uncommon to see a wild card team with more points than an automatic qualifier, but that qualifier isn’t awarded the 3 seed as a division champion like it was under the old system.
With luck aside, the Predators should have finished the regular season with 98 points, because their on-ice performance was much better than an average 8 seed. Only 21% of 7 or 8 seeds finished the regular season with 98 or more points. Using goal differential the Predators finished with the 7th highest goal differential among all teams seated in the bottom two. Uncommon for 8 seeds.
Playoff Wins by Regular Season Point Total
Hockey is a pretty random game. Even over the length of a series, the better team can be beaten by a worse team. If we plot regular season points versus playoff wins, we end up with a pretty flat line, showing how difficult and random the NHL playoffs truly are. Using the Predators 94 regular season points and below, on only five occasions did a team with 94 or less regular season points win a round in the playoffs. Three of those five or 11% of the overall total made it to the conference final. The only two teams to make the Stanley Cup final were curiously enough both coached by Peter Laviolette.
Had Nashville finished with 98 points as expected their chances for success would have increased, however slightly. L.A. won the Cup with 95 points in 2012. San Jose and the New York Rangers both made the Cup final with between 98 and 96 points respectively. Nashville’s results this spring fall more in line with what type of team they actually were, rather than a 94 point 8 seed. The expected playoff win total for a 98 point regular season team is 5.11 compared to 4.73 for a 94 point team. Using regular season goal differential rather than points returns an average expected win total of 5.14 for a 98, giving us only a nominal linear improvement, but each result within the margin of error based on sample size.
Playoff Wins by Seed
In the last seven full seasons, 7 and 8 seeds have a 29% win rate against the 1 and 2 seeds in round one. The results could be expanded using something larger than a seven year sample, but the results are likely to stay consistent based on the nature of playoff seeding.
Plotting the number of playoff wins by seed over the last seven seasons returns some interesting results. 8 seeds have a median win total of two and rarely make it out of the first round. When the Kings won the Cup in 2012, they had a regular season goal differential of +18, like Nashville, making them an atypical 8 seed. You can see the volatile nature of 6 seeds, and at least in the last seven full seasons the Cup has never been won by a 1 seed in either conference. Keep that in mind for your Stanley Cup pools this spring.
A Vulnerable #1
Without their inexplicable March the Minnesota Wild would have likely been your 1 seed out of the Western Conference. At the end of Minnesota’s tailspin stood the Chicago Blackhawks steadfast in the catbird seat heading into the playoffs. The cracks in the Chicago machine were evident just below the surface of their 109 point campaign. The Blackhawks +28 all-situations goal differential was the 2nd lowest total among 1 seeds in the last seven years. Last season Chicago’s goal differential was 7th best in the league and 3rd in the west behind Minnesota and Edmonton. Although I didn’t use it as a basis of analysis, if we judged the two teams based on adjusted CF%, the Predators finished the regular season 5th best in the league, while Chicago was 12th. All of these signs pointed to a potential upset in the first round.
Nashville Isn’t Typical
It might sound nice in a sound-bite and since it’s sport, I guess it’s better to be overly optimistic when the season starts, rather than Canadiens or Canucks fans who always hate their team. Nashville’s run to the Cup Final as an 8 seed was out of the ordinary. Only 29% of the bottom two seeds win their first round matchup, and only one in seven has made it past the second round. Nashville’s regular season was reminiscent of the play of a 6 seed and not an 8, and they happened to face one of the weaker 1 seeds in recent memory. Once the Preds got by Chicago in round one, they faced a Blues team who entered the playoffs as a 5 seed, with a lower goal differential than they had. Fans of teams on the playoff fringes can continue to dream, but don’t use Nashville as your example of what can happen when your team squeaks into the playoffs. Nashville wasn’t your typical 8 seed, and if by chance your team does make it they’re likely to only play “those ten extra days and that’s it.”