By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There’s something happening here. But what it is ain’t exactly clear.
No doubt Stephen Stills is thinking about the National Hockey League playoffs these days when he sings that song, a hit from his Buffalo Springfield days.
Back in the 1990s, the better team – as in the one with the most points in the regular season – won about two-thirds of all playoff matchups. As I recall, the number shrank just a bit – a couple of percentage points – if the teams got to a seventh game.
This offered quite a contrast to what was going on in the National Basketball Association then. The better team, according to the regular season, won about five out of six playoff meetings. The early rounds of the NBA playoffs may not have been exciting, but the best teams had a good chance of reaching the later rounds.
As I have discovered now, you go away for a while, and things change.
Let’s take a look at the playoff results in the NHL for the last 5+ years. They’ve all had the same format in that time. The numbers now include Carolina’s win over Washington in the first round, a series which finished last night with a double-overtime win by the Hurricanes:
2014 – Better team won 6 of 15 series
2015 – Better team won 8 of 15 series
2016 – Better team won 8 of 15 series
2017 – Better team won 8 of 15 series
2018 – Better team won 11 of 15 series
2019 – Better team won 3 of 8 series
Add that up, and you have the “better team” winning 44 of 83 series, or 53.0 percent. And if you throw out 2018, the number is 33-35, or 48.5 percent. (Footnote: The 2013 playoff, which featured the 1-8/2-7/etc. format, was also 8-7 for the better team.)
Let’s think about that for a moment.
For whatever reasons – the balance among the teams, the inherent luck in the sport, or whatever else you might think of – almost every NHL playoff series is practically a coin flip. Practically any team is capable of getting four straight heads or tails and winning the Stanley Cup in a given year.
That should be a valuable piece of information for general managers of teams in particular positions.
If you run a squad that is right on the edge of the playoff race, it might be a good idea to overpay for a player in order to reach the postseason. That’s because you never know what might happen. The Columbus Blue Jackets may be Exhibit A of this theory for quite a while, since they mortgaged the future to reach the playoffs this season, and so far it has worked.
Meanwhile, if you have a team that is in the middle of the playoff pack but doesn’t look like it is good enough to rank with the best, is it worth it to overpay at the deadline and become a little better? According to the numbers, the help might not matter much at playoff time. The exception might be if your team suffered an injury or two along the way and needed to give its roster a boost at a particular position.
In addition, you certainly know that teams already in playoff spots love to say how they have to give it everything down the stretch to finish higher in the standings, because it might lead to extra home games in the postseason. But what if those extra games don’t matter much statistically? Perhaps a little rest for some top players might be a better scheme, although I’m not sure many teams will have the courage to go there.
I’m not sure if it is a great idea in theory to have the best teams exit on a regular basis at a time when the games mean the most. It’s not completely fair to tell Tampa Bay that its superb 82-game regular season means virtually nothing because of four games in April. But that’s the system we have now.
No one can deny, though, that it’s exciting. This year’s playoff has a big pack of teams that would be a great story if they went all the way – the Blue Jackets, Islanders, Hurricanes, Avalanche, Blues and Stars would all be unexpected and thrilling champions.
It’s a thrill ride of system of determining a champion, and that’s why we like to hop on and ride it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)