With the trade deadline a little more than a month away and many teams already starting to make roster moves that will impact their competitiveness down the stretch (if they had any to begin with, that is), much of the attention in the league turns to who is and is not in playoff contention.
These “bubble teams” may be within, say, four, six, eight points of a postseason spot with 30-something games to go. That often leads to both fans and team officials feeling as though they are very much in the race for that final position, and want to push all-in to pursue that end. If that includes trading picks and prospects so they can win the final seed in their divisional playoff group, or a wild card, then so be it. That's the price of doing business when the goal is to make the playoffs.
And leaving aside the absurdity of the egalitarian dream that “once you make the playoffs, anything can happen” — while big underdogs do occasionally PDO their way to a Cup final or even a title, the end result of the playoffs far more often than not is one of a handful of elite teams actually walking away with the trophy — one has to wonder whether this is, necessarily, a good idea.
We know from research done a few years ago by Elliotte Friedman that if you're as little as four or five points out of a playoff spot as early in the season as Nov. 1, your season is essentially over; from the point at which the shootout was introduced (that is, the introduction of the three-point game) only three of 32 teams by 2011-12 that were at least four points out of a playoff spot ended up making it. That's a 9.4 percent chance, and it's not very good at all.
The three teams that did it at the time of that study: Calgary in 2006-07, Buffalo in 2010-11, and Boston in 2011-12. Since then, you can also add in last year's Philadelphia — which was was six points back on Nov. 1 and needed a 39-21-10 record to get in — and Dallas — also six points back, and went 35-25-9 — but you have to assume the latter was helped significantly by the new playoff system and divisional alignment that put fewer teams in the West. Those five teams averaged winning percentages of about .624 over the final 70 or so games of the season.
So this week — prompted by an angry email in which I declared one reader's team “out of it” already despite their only being a handful of points back from the last playoff spot in its conference — I found myself wondering:
If you only have a 9.4 percent chance if you're that far back at the end of October, because you have to go .640 for five and a half months, at what point can we officially declare a team's playoff hopes dead at the start of February?
I looked at all the playoff teams in the salary cap era as well as their positions in the standings as of Feb. 1 in those years. I also ignored the lockout-shortened 2013 season because teams in playoff positions wouldn't have had enough time to build safer leads that you'd see going through an 82-game schedule. February seemed a reasonable cut-off for me because that's when things get “serious” and most teams have about 30 games left on the schedule. And in that time, 19 teams that were out of playoff spots when January ended wound up sneaking into the postseason by hook or by crook.
In all, 112 teams have missed the playoffs in those eight seasons, so the fact that 19 forced someone ahead of them out gives you a success rate of about 17 percent. That is, you have a roughly 1 in 6 chance of making the playoffs if you're not in that position on Feb. 1. But that's also a little more than two teams per season, so you're not necessarily looking at the worst odds in the world, and no fewer than two teams in playoff positions have faltered and ended up missing in any given season.
Heading in, I assumed the cutoff for teams getting into the playoffs would be about three points: Those farther back would find it almost insanely difficult to make up the ground if four points was such an insurmountable deficit as early as Nov. 1. Turns out that this was, for the most part, true.
The teams that made the cut are as follows:
Pts. out (Feb. 1)
San Jose Sharks
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
St. Louis Blues
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
Detroit Red Wings
*tied with Calgary at 62, but with one win fewer
It turns out the average deficit overcome during that time was indeed 3.05 points, and as you can see the vast majority of those teams (12 of 19, about 63 percent) were within that range. But that still leaves us seven teams in the last eight seasons that overcame deficits larger than that. Of those, four were back just four points, not appreciably more than the previously assumed cutoff of three. Include those in the “nominally capable of making up the lost ground” group, and 16 of 19 are within two wins. I think, then, that this is a pretty reasonable cutoff.
It's also worth looking at the three teams that were farther back than that: the 2005-06 Sharks (minus-7), the 2008-09 Blues (minus-9), and 2010-11 Sabres (minus-6).
In 2005-06, two teams fell out of the playoff spots they held: Vancouver and Los Angeles, both of which were solidly middle of the pack. San Jose and Anaheim just leapfrogged Colorado and Edmonton to claim their now-division rivals' No. 5 and 6 spots, respectively.
Anaheim was only four points out so it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. But San Jose — having only somewhat recently traded for Joe Thornton and being much deeper than that — needed a run, and they got it: they went 20-8-4 down the stretch (.688), using games in hand and a ton of lucky bounces to get there. In that final 32 games, they shot 11 percent at ES, scored 37 power play goals, and won in overtime five times out of nine.
In 2008-09, the Blues were in dead last in the West on Feb. 1, with just 44 points from 48 games. They went 21-7-6 (.706), because they basically stopped allowing goals. Opponents scored only 17 power play goals in those 34 games after they netted 41 in 48 prior to that date. This was still a pretty big fluke, though: Goaltending in all situations came in at a sixth-in-the-league .917 despite the fact that their possession numbers were 20th in that time (47.5 percent). They also went to overtime nine times, and won three of those.
Finally, there's the 2010-11 Sabres, and I probably don't need to tell you at this point that they just got mega-lucky to clear the six-point hole they faced on Feb. 1, 2011.
Their record after that point was 20-8-5 (.682). They were very slightly outpossessed in those final 33 games (49.9 percent) and the team shot 9 percent at evens while Ryan Miller and Co. went .926 — fifth and 13th in the league, respectively. And hey wouldn't you know it, they started shooting the lights out on the power play (15.9 percent, third in the NHL) and no one could score on them shorthanded (.911, fourth). No surprise here, either, that Buffalo went to OT or the shootout 11 times and won six of them.
So that, I guess, is the formula. There were three teams out of 68 — 4.4 percent, a little better than 1 in 23 — to make the playoffs after being more than four points out on Feb 1, and they all had four things in common:
1. Games in hand.
2. Insane special teams success in terms of either killing penalties, making the other team pay for them, or both.
3. One of the biggest PDOs in the league.
4. The ability to get to overtime in close to 1 in every 3 games.
That's it. And hey, that's how bad teams make the playoffs all the time (except for No. 4, which is just crazy).
So basically, the point is, if you're not in a playoff position on Feb. 1, the odds are that you won't be when the season ends. And if you're more than four points out, it's nearly impossible. But then again, you might be the '06 Sharks, '09 Blues, or '11 Sabres.
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