Now that the calendar has turned to February and an early spring has been predicted by that rodent up North, the NHL season really begins to move into high gear as teams look to solidify a playoff spot and/or home ice advantage. And a quick look at the standings (and a common assumption) would suggest that the race to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup is going to be pretty intense, and that there is still quite a bit left to be determined in regards to playoff qualification.
With that in mind, the crack research team here at Score Nation (made up of me, myself and the Internet) thought it would be interesting to see how often teams on the outside looking in after all games played on February 1st actually end up jumping up into a playoff spot. In order to figure that out, I took a look back over the past 6 seasons (post-lockout, with the advent of the extra point for a loss) and compared the standings after Feb 1 to the final conference standings.
Here’s what I found, starting with the Eastern Conference:
- In ’05-’06, the Maple Leafs held down the 8th spot through Feb 1st, 3 points up on the Canadiens. At the end of the season, Montreal had jumped up into 7th, and Toronto had fallen out of the playoff by 2 points, finishing in 9th.
- The Rangers & Islanders were both 4 points out of 8th through Feb 1st of the ’06-’07 season, but were able to jump up and finish in 6th & 8th respectively, 3 & 1 points up on the 9th place Maple Leafs.
- In ’07-’08, only one team made the jump into the playoffs. as the Capitals (3 points back through Feb 1st) finished with 2 more points than the Hurricanes, good for a Southwest Division title and the 3rd seed in the playoffs.
- ’08-’09: Again, only one team climbed up that year, as the Penguins went from 10th (2 points back) up to 4th at the expense of the Buffalo Sabres, who would move down from 7th to 10th.
- In ’09-’10, the Bruins & Canadiens sat in 9th & 11th through Feb 1st, 1 & 2 points back of 8th place Florida. Boston would finish in 6th and Montreal ended up in 8th, 4 & 1 point(s) up on 9th place NYR.
- And in ’10-’11, the Thrashers were in 8th place after a strong start to the season, but would eventually fall back into 12th by the end of the year, allowing the Sabres to make up a 6 point difference and eventually finish in 7th place.
And here’s how the Western Conference has shaken down over the past 6 seasons:
- In ’05-’06, the 9th place Anaheim found themselves 4 points out of the playoffs through Feb 1st. Not only would the Ducks climb up to finish in 6th, but the Sharks (7 points out) would also move 11th to 5th.
- In ’06′-07, every team that was in a playoff position through Feb 1st would remain in the top 8 at the end of the year.
- The Canucks held a spot through Feb 1st during the ’07-’08 season, sitting in 8th, 1 up on the Predators. At the end of the year, Vancouver had dropped to 11th and the Nashville finished in 8th, 3 up on 9th place Edmonton.
- In ’08-’09, teams in 6th-10th all had the same amount of points, 1 more than 11th place Vancouver. The Canucks would end up winning their division by a wide margin and finish in 3rd, but it was the Blues that were the story that year. They were dead last in the Conference through Feb 1st, 11 points back of 8th. They would, however, gain 50 out of a possible 68 points to finish the year, and jumped all the way up into 6th, 3 points ahead of the 9th place Wild.
- Only one team made the leap in ’09-’10, as the Red Wings (in 9th place, tied in points with the 8th place Flames) finished in 5th, 12 points clear of 9th in the Conference.
- Same goes for ’10-’11. The Kings were in 10th place through Feb 1st, 2 points back of 7th (Chicago) & 8th (San Jose). Thanks to a second half fade by the Stars (who had an 8 point playoff cushion), LA finished in 7th, 3 points up on Dallas.
So, what does this all mean? I’m no math major, but here’s what stands out. Over the past 6 seasons, a total of 96 playoff spots were available. By comparing the standings after all games played on February 1st to the final Conference standings at the end of each season, it is discovered that only 15 teams (or 2.5 per year) were able to move from 9th or below and into a playoff spot, with 10 out of those 15 teams able to accomplish that feat by being within 4 points of 8th. That means that teams currently on the outside looking in have a 15.62% chance of playing past April 7th this year.
However, those odds obviously decrease the further behind a team might find itself: 5 teams made up a 6+ point differential (5.2%), 2 overcame a 7+ point deficit (2.1%), and only 1 one team (the ’08-’09 Blues) was able to come back from more than 10 points out (1.04%).
As this post is being typed up (yup, after all games played on February 1st), Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Toronto & New Jersey are holding down spots 5-8 in the East, with Florida in 3rd but really only one point up on the 9th place Capitals. Washington definitely has the ability to jump ahead (and I would go as far as to say they will indeed be there in the end), with the Sens, Leafs, Devils & Panthers all with the potential to fall back. Winnipeg is still alive at 5 points back, with time quickly running out on Tampa Bay & Buffalo (both 9 points out), and hope pretty much gone for the Canadiens & Islanders (10 points back). Things here actually seem pretty tame, with 5-6 teams essentially ‘battling’ for 4 playoff spots.
Out West, the 6th place Blackhawks are 11 points clear of 9th, and Los Angeles is currently in 7th with a 5 point cushion. Minnesota holds down the 8th seed, but Dallas, Colorado, Calgary & Phoenix are all very much within striking distance at no more than 3 points back. The Ducks (10 points back) still have a shot, but are probably unable to make up for their terrible start. The most interesting race this year, then, appears to be for 8th in the West, with up to 5 teams vying for one playoff spot.
In conclusion, as much as one might want to wax poetic about parity in the NHL and the excitement of the playoff races, there’s an 85% chance that things will be as they appear right now in terms of playoff teams, with all that’s left to be determined being playoff seeding & matchups. Having said that, there remains a decent chance that a team will come back from a few points down, and maybe, just maybe a team like the Lightning or Ducks can pull off a St. Louis and make up the double digit deficit. (The trade deadline could go a long way in in terms of showing which teams are committed to making that leap into playoff contention, as teams decide whether they are indeed buyers / sellers).
After looking at the numbers, the pattern is clear but the reality is that nothing is set in stone until the final buzzer sounds on April 7th.
Some late season drama would be fantastic, serving as a great intro into what will no doubt be another memorable stretch of playoff hockey.