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The Playoffs, Part 3: The Devils
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2004
Published April 14, 2004

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Last time, we saw that of the past 10 Stanley Cup winners, four have not been what we were calling first-place teams. Of these four, three have been the New Jersey Devils: in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Wow. This certainly seems like a strong argument that the Devils are a great playoff team, right? Well, let’s look at that idea.

There’s no question that the Devils have had great success in the playoffs in the past decade, winning three Cups and losing another final, to Colorado in 2001. Notably, they are the lowest-ranked team to win the Cup in the period we’re examining (1980 to present), when they won in 1995 after finishing a middling 10th overall in the regular season. They’re the only team ranked lower than 7th to win the Cup.

Am I going to explain this away with the flukiness of the playoff system? Not entirely. What happened in 1995 was that the Devils weren’t really a 10th-place team. Of course, they were literally a 10th-place team. But the ancillary evidence suggests the Devils were better than that.

Just the year before the Devils had finished second overall, behind only the Rangers. That by itself means little, but remember what year we’re talking about here. The 1994/95 season was strike-shortened. The regular season was only 48 games long, 43% shorter than the year before and 41% shorter than the year after. The shorter schedule means there was less chance for the luck to work itself out. The chance of the Devils having a fluky result is much greater in 48 games than in 84 or 82. Of course, that applies to all teams, so why single out the Devils? Because there’s more evidence to come.

What about the next year? In 1995/96 the Devils finished 12th overall, with but 86 points, an even worse placing than the year before. This would seem to confirm the Devils’ standing as a mediocre regular-season team. They were infamous for winning the Cup one year and missing the playoffs entirely the next. But this was not the fault of the Devils; it was merely one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by the unjust playoff system.

Previously I have only discussed the injustice caused by the randomness of the short-series system used in the playoffs. But there can also be injustice in the selection method for deciding which teams are even allowed to play in the playoffs.

The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs; this is the current system, and it was used in 1995/96 as well. While New Jersey ranked 12th overall, they were only ninth in the Eastern Conference, two points behind Tampa Bay. This put them out of the playoffs. Five teams that made the playoffs in the Western Conference had fewer points than the Devils. Five. Out of eight.

Why was this? Look at the Atlantic Division that year, in which the Devils played. The Devils were 12th overall, but only sixth in their own division. Other than the bottom-feeding Islanders, the division was crazy good as a whole:

bulletPhiladelphia 103 points
bulletRangers 96 points
bulletFlorida 92 points
bulletWashington 89 points
bulletNew Jersey 86 points

The Devils would have been fourth in the Northeast, third in the Central and second in the Pacific. In fact they may have been higher, because they played more games against teams in their own division than in other divisions. Since the teams in their division were so tough, the Devils (and other teams in the division) had their point totals depressed, all because of the NHL’s unbalanced schedule.

So the Devils finished second overall in 1994, finished 10th in a short schedule in 1995, and finished 12th playing in what must be a historically great division in 1996. Moving on, they were third overall in 1997, second overall in 1998, second overall in 1999, fourth overall in 2000, second overall in 2001, slipped to 10th in 2002 (but only six points out of second), and were fourth overall in 2003. In the season just finished they were only 10th, but again were only nine points out of first, and six out of second. The results for 1994, and after 1996, strongly suggest that the 1995 and 1996 results should not be taken at face value.

The oft-asserted idea that the Devils have not been a great regular-season team, but really turned it on for the playoffs, is simply ludicrous. While the Devils have never finished first overall, in the ten-year period from 1994 to 2003 they finished second four times, third once and fourth twice. The best winning percentages for 1994 to 2003 inclusive:

bulletDetroit .657
bulletNew Jersey .620
bulletColorado .611
bulletPhiladelphia .598
bulletDallas .597

Over these 10 years New Jersey was the second-best regular-season team in the NHL. Notice how the distribution of Cup wins over that time matches nicely:

bulletDetroit .657
3 Cups
bulletNew Jersey .620
3 Cups
bulletColorado .611
2 Cups
bulletPhiladelphia .598
0 Cups
bulletDallas .597
1 Cup

The other Cup went to the Rangers in 1994, and their recent troubles keep them well out of the top five in winning percentage. If some teams perform better in the playoffs than their regular-season results would suggest, why do they have no Cups to show for it? The Cups are claimed by the best teams in the regular season.

That’s it for this mega-article. In conclusion:

bulletThere seems to be little evidence for the idea that certain teams perform better in the playoffs than in the regular season;
bulletGreat teams in the regular season are great teams in the playoffs;
bulletGetting to the playoffs is not enough for a realistic shot at winning the Cup; you really need to be in the top half of playoff teams, the higher the better.

This last point is what really started me thinking about this subject. I was criticizing the Canadiens’ acquisition of Alexei Kovalev in my fantasy hockey league. My position was that, since the Habs are only just going to get into the playoffs, they would be better off keeping the prospect and the second-rounder, since they had no realistic shot at the Cup. It was a waste of resources, since Kovalev will simply walk after the season, and they can only hope to fluke a Cup win. Hoping for a fluke is not a good way to manage your team. One of the other fantasy GM’s said something like “first-place teams rarely win the Cup”, implying that just getting into the playoffs gives you a shot at the Cup. What I’ve written in this great big article provides very strong evidence that this is simply not true. I hope he (and you) can learn something from this.

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