Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't Be Fooled by Cinderella Playoff Runs

Battle of California links to ESPN's expert predictions for this upcoming season, and points out that the Dallas Stars were picked by 5 out of 6 writers to win their division, and 2 of them predict them to win the Cup. The Philadelphia Flyers were picked by two writers to win their division, and one of them to win the Eastern Conference.

What do those two teams have in common? They were playoff overachievers, rising from the #5 seed in their conference to make it to the Conference Finals. "It's amazing how much public perception can change with a little playoff success," wrote jamestobrien at BoC, and he is certainly right.

But is there any justification for those picks? Does a Cinderella playoff run mean great things the next season? I decided to look at the issue in more detail, and the answer is, in nearly every case: No, it does not.

In the last 20 years, 23 teams have reached the Conference Finals despite finishing out of the top 4 in their Conference in points. Those 23 teams averaged 87 points in the year they made their playoff run. The next year, the average points for the same teams was just 81.

Twelve of them (over half) did not even qualify for the playoffs the next season. Nine of them had major declines the next season (drops of 10+ points) while only three of them improved by at least 10 points. The teams that improved were Anaheim in 2005-06 (who traded for Chris Pronger and won the 2007 Cup), Boston in 1991-92 (just had an off-year sandwiched between 100 point seasons), and Chicago in 1988-89 (which was the only instance of a team coming together during a playoff run and significantly improving the next year without major additions).

Of the teams that did manage to make the playoffs again, most of them went out in the first round. Only 4 of the teams returned to the Conference Finals the next year ('07 Ducks, '98 Sabres, '91 Oilers, '89 Hawks), only 2 of those teams made it to the Finals (Ducks and Sabres), and only the '07 Ducks won the Stanley Cup.

Unless they added an elite player or had a Hall of Famer in goal, every single lower seed that overachieved in the playoffs did not make it as far the next time around. Most of them didn't even make it back to the playoffs in the first place, and nearly all of those who did qualify simply failed to duplicate the postseason magic.

If we look closer at both Philadelphia and Dallas, I think they are likely to continue the same trend. The Flyers were outshot 2604-2359 last season. They held their heads above water because of a 10.4% shooting percentage, and a .915 save percentage from their goalies. They have some young talent on the team so they could have some internal improvement, but I highly doubt they match either their shooting percentage or save percentage next season, which will result in a decline in the standings.

The Stars had a +37 goal differential, which was the third-best mark in the entire NHL after Detroit and Montreal, which indicates they weren't an ordinary #5 seed. However, Dallas led the NHL in shooting percentage (10.8%), which is why they outscored their opponents despite barely outshooting them (2187-2128) and only getting league-average goaltending (.908). Even with some regression to the mean in terms of scoring the Stars should be competitive in a tough division, but I don't think they will repeat either their 2008 goal differential or 2008 playoff success.


Bill Morran said...

The Flyers made bigger improvements than you'd think. Lets not forget that for much of the year, the Flyers were ahead of their division.

Now, consider Mike Richards missed nine games, Joffrey Lupil missed 32, Scottie Upshall missed 21, Simon Gagne missed 57, Steve Downie was out a total of 50, and should improve with age. The retirements of certain players bring in room for a mobile defenseman like Bryan Berard, as well as young players like Sbisa. Carter and Richards could make strides as well, and I wouldn't be shocked to see Giroux or van Riemsdyk play in the NHL this year.

Dallas didn't really overachieve. They lost their division by a couple points, and it was insanely tight. They would've been top four if it weren't for the division they played in.

Nashville played a better series against Detroit than Pittsburgh did. The East is a very weak conference. Dallas would have won the East with ease.

Not to mention, Dallas made strides. Brad Richards and Sean Avery are fairly big acquisitions, and you could argue Dallas would have won the division with Richards all year. Don't forget, people were claiming the Stars to be Cup favorites before the playoffs too. After they made short work of two favorites, Anaheim and San Jose, it was looking good.

Now, granted, I believe that Ottawa had a weak year, and we'll see them back in the finals next year, in a pretty quick loss to the San Jose Sharks, who I believe upgraded their defense enough to dominate, even if their offense (Cheechoo and Marleau) struggles like it did last year.

Anonymous said...

this has nothing to do with your current topic but id love to see you do a statistical evaluation of the effects of goalie equipment sizes. or at least give some imput on the situation. the nhl has recently stated that in the next 2 years they will give each goalie individually regulations, as opposed to one general limit on pad size. regardless of this, the only thing that i see as obvious is that guys like broderu and hasek dominated using equipment significantly smaller than other goalies like roy, luongo, and more recently lundqvist. obviously there has to be some correlation as a goalie like lundqvist or manny legace wearing league max size pads definitely helps considering both play the butterfly style. on the other hand osgood, or particularly brodeur uses size 33 or 34 pads which has not changed since they came into the league.

Anonymous said...

guess not, since anything that might credit brodeur, or discredit luongo or roy is strictly taboo on this site.

Bill Morran said...

Dude, Brodeur didn't need big pads. He's a fucking fat-ass.

Anonymous said...

what an insightful and intelligent comment bill moron. if youve ever seen him without goalie equipment on he clearly isnt fat. just cuz sean avery thinks everyone who doesnt look like one of those 72 pound clothing models he aspires to be like is fat, doesnt mean that anyone of normal height and weight is fat. get a clue before you comment

Anonymous said...

hey bill moron, simply from reading your analysis on both the flyers and the stars, you shouldnt be allowed to talk. both those teams are in the basement right now and wont make the playoffs. take a seat, chump.

Bill Morran said...

lol, dood... there was an NHL Network piece on Brodeur at the ASG a while back. Brodeur said, and I quote "A lot of guys use big pads. I don't really need them, because I'm already kinda fat".

He looks pretty big here..


Listen, don't take offense. Ed Belfour was one of my favorite players growing up, and his ass as it's own area code.

Now, to the comments about the Stars and the Flyers... the Stars started miserably last year too... and they're still second in their division... guys, they're a combined eleven games in. Is St. Louis going to win the Central?

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