How late is it for a struggling National Hockey League team to right ship and become a playoff contender? We’ve been conditioned by the idea that teams tell us who they are terribly at the start of an NHL season, because that’s mostly true. I’ve cited Elliotte Friedman’s interesting statistic several times in these columns, but again for good measure:
From 2005-06 to 2019-20, only nine of the 59 teams that had four points after the November 1 games returned to enter the playoffs. If you fall behind early, that’s not a great sign for your prospects.
But you’ll notice that, hey … nine out of 59. That’s over 15 percent of playoff teams that start badly finding their way back to a measure of success. That 15% are wonderful stories and part of what the shortened seasons have stolen from us in 2019-20 and 2020-21. We have lost teams that have had the opportunity to overcome substantial trials and tribulations with a dramatic push in the final laps.
Whenever a team has had a series of bad luck in the past two seasons – perhaps a series of simultaneous injuries, or perhaps a group of players held back due to COVID protocols, or perhaps just a few bad rebounds for a certain number of games in a row – – all but grassy their seasons. Some were saved from that 24-team game of 2019-20, but it was a forced solution and one that discounted the value of every mile of the full marathon. Make no mistake about an NHL season, “the grind” and “the dog days” are part of the proof of it all. Accumulating points through the best and worst versions of your list and being allowed to overcome imperfect miles with the big ones brings the profound satisfaction of having earned. It’s nice to have a season back where teams have a chance to re-enter it.
Looking at just the five seasons before these last two shortened, what follows is a handful of teams that managed to make it to the playoffs despite a bad start.
The Flames have been dogs in 2016-17 outside the gates across 15 games, but it’s not like any of these teams showed well at the start. These are seven teams that were under 0,500 hockey, proved that nearly all teams have bad traits, and their slow starts were just a result of timing rather than an indication of their teams.
The same season where Vegas and Carolina started slowly and made their way into the playoffs – aka 2018-19 – the St. Louis Blues came out of Central’s basement in the new year to win the Stanley Cup. They made some changes. tangible, which have had enough time to take root and make a difference. This was not possible in these last two shortened campaigns.
If you look at the NHL standings this season, there appear to be a few teams in this window that are legitimately eligible to make the same climb. This is the squads window I’m talking about here:
I am mainly looking at the 25-28 range there.
In preseason I had the Canucks in the playoffs, I could have easily seen the Stars as a playoff team, and most people had the Avalanche as Presidents’ Trophy favorites. Heck, ever since Yanni Gourde returned, Seattle Kraken has started posting some of the best possession numbers in the NHL – if they start getting some bailouts from Philipp Grubauer or Chris Drier, it wouldn’t be impossible to see them run in a soft split. The Kraken’s inaugural season isn’t over yet.
In my experience in minors and college and junior hockey, I vividly remember the seasons that exist within the season. There is the stage where you have swapped or called a couple of new players and things have taken a different shape. There is the before and after of a change of manager, or a goalkeeper injury, or the sequence of games where everything you shot went in (and the other way around). There are times when you feel you deserve more and times when you cling to your current role for life.
Hockey, more than other sports, relies on champion size to tell us the truth about who is good and who is not, because the luck of the puck is cruel. We are a low-scoring sport and, from a number of studies, luck has the heaviest influence on hockey of the four major North American sports.
There is an investment strategist and sports enthusiast named Michael Mauboussin who wrote a book called “The equation for successAnd in it, he evaluated the role of luck and skill, leading to a graph that looks like this (including EPL football):
We finally have enough games to figure out who deserves the chance to play in the first round of the playoffs, where yes, the champion’s small fortune returns to wreak havoc. But during our trip, the NHL season almost always does a good job of ordering the top half of the league from the bottom. Knowing this, fans can definitely relax a little over bad hockey streaks if they truly believe they have a good enough team to join. For the fans, it’s nice to have the luxury of the great champion back.