Do not try to predict the NHL playoffs.
Trying to predict something that is inherently unpredictable makes as much sense as taking your financial advice from the Wu Tang Clan. And, make no mistake, the NHL playoffs are unpredictable. Hockey is already a low-scoring game, with victory often decided by only a goal (or two if the winning team scores an empty netter after the other team pulls its goalie). Any fan can already tell you how puck luck can influence a game–a good bounce here or a skate caught in a rut can be the margin of victory. Luck may even out over an 82-game season–though it sometimes doesn’t–but the playoffs, with two evenly matched teams in a best-of-7 series, are rife with uncertainty.
If you are foolish enough to forge ahead, then you better understand and accept the fact that your best-case scenario is barely better than flipping a coin. That is the first rule of predicting the NHL playoffs–check your ego. Here are 10 more rules you need to know.
1. Ignore the storylines. The human mind looks to make causal connections to make explain random events. This is an error in our thinking. That’s why Alex Ovechkin, for all his wonderous goal scoring exploits, continues to be labeled a selfish choker, because we can’t accept his team’s propensity for coming up short in the playoffs without a narrative to explain it. If the Washington Capitals do break through and win it all this year, credit will go to Barry Trotz for “teaching them how to win”–nevermind that Trotz has never coached a team past the 2nd round–and Justin Williams for being a clutch performer and “playing the right way,” not the superstar captain with 160 more goals than anyone since he entered the league. Don’t fall for the trap. Evaluate teams on their merits, and throw out any storylines based on facts not in evidence that may bias your opinion.
2. Puck possession is queen. Usually, the king is used to represent the top dog, but I tend to think of the king as the representation of the player (it’s good to be the king). The queen is the most powerful piece at your disposal. Likewise, puck possession stats are the best, most reliable predictor of future performance that we currently have. Though not foolproof–picking by score-adjusted Corsi last year would have led you wrong in 8 of the 15 series–over time, these measures have done as well as any single metric when it comes to picking winners. The only team to win the Stanley Cup with a score-adjusted Corsi under 50% were the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, a team I’ll come back to. Use it as your starting point in all evaluations. Contiuing with the chess analogy, PDO is like your rooks, goal differential and shots against are your bishops and knights, and any other stat you can think of–wins and losses, special teams–are pawns, little pieces that are eliminated early, but not totally useless. Treat all of these as tools that you can use, and they may serve you well.
3. The last 20 games matter more than the first 20. On November 22, a quarter of the way through the season, the Montreal Canadiens held the best record in the entire league, and the Anaheim Ducks were 4 points out of a playoff spot and struggling offensively. Montreal ended up missing the playoffs; Anaheim finished first in the Pacific Division. There’s a lesson in there about sample sizes, but the point I’m trying to make is that at least one old cliche holds true: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Those ’09 Penguins were a top-10 possession team in their last 20 games, and really from the moment that they fired Michel Therrien as coach and promoted Dan Bylsma. Hmm, that story sounds familiar…
4. Don’t get seduced by the “hot” team. The Philadelphia Flyers were in an even deeper hole than the Ducks on November 22, sitting 6 points out of the playoffs and looking up at no less than 5 other teams between them and a wildcard spot. On April 10th, the Flyers beat the Penguins to secure themselves a playoff berth. You may want to believe that the Flyers’ momentum will carry them to a deep playoff run. That would make for a great story. Thing is, they drew the Capitals in the first round, who posted the league’s best record and graded out well by the advanced stats. I probably sound like I’m contradicting my last rule. The point is that late-season surges can come to a sudden end, and there’s no good way to tell ahead of time. In summary, pay attention to late-season performance, but don’t overweight it.
5. Favor teams who have been there before. Yes, you should still ignore any stories about certain teams knowing how to win. That’s not what I’m saying here. The Stanley Cup winners in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015 reached at least the conference final the year prior. In 2010, the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks came up 1 win and 2 wins short, respectively, of the conference final (and the Bruins had 4 chances to get that win). In 2011, the Bruins defeated the Canucks to win the Cup. Past success is the best indicator of future success. Also note that the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes are the only team in the past 20 years to win the Cup after missing the playoffs the season prior (I’m referring to the 2004 season; there were no playoffs in 2005). This is a red flag for Florida, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Jose, and Los Angeles.
6. Check the injury list. This is not as easy as it sounds because NHL teams are notoriously vague about injuries this time of year. Still, a key injury to a star player, or a rash of injuries to depth contributors, can swing a series. Two teams with significant injury concerns this year are Pittsburgh–unsure of the return dates of Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta, and with the looming spectre of concussion issues for Marc-Andre Fleury–and Tampa Bay–missing Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos for unknown amounts of time.
7. Pay attention to the matchups. The 2009-10 Capitals were the most dominant team of the Ovechkin era, but they had a surprising amount of trouble with the Canadiens during the season (3 games decided by 1 goal, 1 win required a shootout). In the playoffs, the Canadiens were able to pull a shocking upset of the top-seeded Capitals, engineered by an all-time out-of-nowhere-great goaltending performance by Jaroslav Halak. Which reminds me…
8. Goalie is the most important position. All else being equal, and sometimes not even, goalies are the difference makers. Almost any surprise playoff run you can think of was anchored by an otherworldly turn by the man in the mask. In addition to Halak, recent examples include Dwayne Roloson for the Lightning in 2011, and Mike Smith for the Coyotes in 2012. Incidentally, it’s rare to find a team without a proven netminder in the Stanley Cup final. The only example that comes to mind is 2010, when Chicago’s Antti Niemi squared off against Philly’s Michael Leighton. Otherwise, contenders have an established #1 goalie.
9. Read the experts’ opinions. You might think of them as overpaid, underinformed blowhards, and in some cases you may be right. That doesn’t mean you can discount the thoughts of someone who has watched countless hours of game footage for the sole purpose of having an opinion on the matter. Feel free to be choosy, focusing on commentators who couch their picks in solid analysis. You can even read the expert picks just to gauge popular opinion so that you can go against the grain. But know what the pros are thinking.
10. Favor youth over experience. This seems counterintuitive, I’ll admit. In fact, it’s supposed to be. I wanted to have a rule that went against conventional wisdom. Everyone knows it takes a veteran team to win when it counts, right? Well, if you’d picked last year’s playoffs based solely on which team had the lower average age (according to Hockey-Reference.com), you would have gotten 8 of 15 series winners correct. Sometimes it’s a good idea to challenge your intuition (that being said, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this idea researched far more thoroughly somewhere else, but I cannot for the life of me remember where).
I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more rules, but I’ll stop here. 10 is a nice, round number, and I don’t want you overthinking this. If you do overthink it, refer back to the very first sentence.
This is really a list for me–to get my thought process down on paper before I try to make sense of this mess. I, of course, am infallible in my predictions. So, before you get into this any further, I want you to take a good look at yourself in the mirror, then look at me and ask, “Am I really that good?” If you don’t have that kind of irrational confidence in your chances, please see the first sentence.
Or just pick all the higher seeds. That strategy still works sometimes.