Around the US Thanksgiving holiday every year, there is a lot of discussion surrounding the prediction of teams will qualify for the upcoming spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman uses a November 1st as a guideline as teams four or more points out of the playoff picture at that date typically don’t make the playoffs. A few years ago, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell wrote that just 10% of all playoff teams are more than two points out of the playoff picture by the US holiday. Last week, Petbugs wrote a great blog using December 1st as a cutoff point to examine a team’s underlying numbers and compare it to the full season data, noting the importance of advanced metrics, namely shot attempt metrics, as a strong indicator of future playoff qualifiers early in the season. Everyone came to their conclusions using a similar, yet different date. What is the optimal date to conclude a team is likely to make the playoffs based on the current standings? There will always be outliers as the future cannot be predicted (injuries, hot/cold streaks, etc.) but answering this million dollar question can help teams know where they stand and prepare for the future accordingly.
I took data from the previous three seasons (2013-2014 to 2015-2016) on a weekly basis (Monday is often described as the start of the week so I took the standings as of Monday morning each week. For a given week, the actual date may be different, but it represents the same number of days into the season). This time period was chosen as the current playoff format has been in place for the past three years. This format in which the top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs along with two wild card teams in each conference emphasizes competition within each division more than the previous conference format. Incorporating seasons before the format change would give us much more data, but since the qualification standards are different, I chose to ignore this data for now. Three seasons of data gives us 90 total data points and 48 playoff qualifiers in which to analyze.
I defined the term “in the playoff picture” meaning a team would qualify for the playoffs had the season concluded at the end of a specific week. In addition, I defined the term “out of the playoff picture” to mean that the team wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs had the season concluded at the end of the specific week.
From the start of the season, over 60% of teams in the playoff picture qualify for the playoffs. Playoff teams start off strong and continue to play well throughout the year. The sixth week of the season (around the middle of November), over 75% of playoff qualifiers are in the playoff picture for the first time. But from this point until the middle of January, there isn’t any real increase in assurance of playoff qualification (graph doesn’t cross 80% until week 15 having the largest one week increase of over 10%). At this time, playoff teams make a strong push to start the second half of the season. This push could also be the effect of non-playoff teams beginning to trade current assets for futures. By the beginning of March, over 90% of playoff spots are occupied by their eventual qualifier and only the final couple spots are swapped in the last weeks of the season.
Splitting the playoff teams by their playoff qualification method, there is a clear split between teams occupying division or wildcard spots. Teams occupying division spots early in the season have a much higher probability of qualifying for the playoffs and follow a much more linear pattern over the course of the season. For the most part, teams that occupy division spots stay in the playoff picture whereas the wildcard spots are traded around on almost a weekly basis.
About 80% of teams sitting in a division qualifying place in week 7 (around US Thanksgiving) eventually make the playoffs, but wildcard qualifiers don’t hit that 80% mark until the beginning of March (week 21 on the graph). This makes sense as teams occupying division qualifying spots earlier in the season may stumble for a stretch, but they have the security of falling into a wildcard spot and maintaining their playoff qualification. Teams occupying wildcard spots don’t have this luxury if their play falters for a larger portion of the season.
Teams already in the playoff picture have a much easier road to the playoffs as they only have to play as well as the teams surrounding them to maintain their place, but teams outside of the playoff picture have to outperform their neighbors on the standings in order to hurdle into a playoff spot. There are more teams fighting for less spots in the wildcard race, which makes the battle that much harder.
Investigating Friedman’s comment, teams more than four points out of the playoff picture (calculated by comparing a non-playoff team’s points to the point total of the team in the final wildcard slot) have a slim chance of qualifying for the playoffs at any point in the season. While the line peaks slightly over 20% in the beginning of January, November 1st seems to be a good cut off point. The other two lines that depict teams that are either one to two points or three to four points out of the playoffs are rather messy and regularly spike up and down, but overall trend downwards as the season goes on. Teams three to four points out of the playoff picture only touch 40% chance of making the playoffs past January once. While they are relatively close to a playoff spot, outplaying surrounding teams and jumping teams in the standings is no easy task.
On the flip side, teams more than four points in the playoff picture (calculated by comparing a playoff team’s point total with the point total of the team in the final wildcard spot), have a very good chance of making the playoffs as early as November. Likewise to the previous graph, the other two lines spike up and down, but this time, the overall trend is upward as the season goes on. At every point in the season, teams in the playoff picture have over a fifty percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. The one exception is week 20 during the 2013-2014 season where the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only team three to four points above the final wildcard team and eventually fell out of the playoff picture. We’ll blame this one on a small sample size.
A common trend amongst teams that qualify for the playoffs is consistency as they stay in the playoff picture for a majority of the season. On average, a playoff qualifying team spent just over 22 weeks in the playoff picture. In fact, 18 of the 48 (37.5%) playoff teams in the past three years have been in the playoff picture for the entire season. Of the seven teams that spent less than half the season in the playoff picture, six of them were either the last wildcard qualifier or were just one point above the final wildcard qualifier making the playoffs by a very slim margin (2015-2016 Anaheim was the lone exception as they caught fire after a slow start to the year).
Of the teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, the 2013-2014 Toronto Maple Leafs (22 weeks), 2014-2015 Boston Bruins (20 weeks), and the 2015-2016 Boston Bruins (22 weeks) spent the most time in the playoff picture only to struggle in the last month of the season.
In conclusion, the middle two weeks of November is a good cutoff point to assume there is a reasonable chance a team currently in the playoff picture will qualify for the playoffs. There is historical proof under this current playoff format that playoff teams stay in the playoff picture for a majority, if not all, of the season. As others have proven, the sample of games through the month of November is large enough to conclude how they’ll perform over the course of the season. We are more certain about teams currently occupying division spots in the playoff picture, are already several points ahead of the wildcard cut off point, and consistently remain in the playoff picture.
For the 2016-2017 season (as of 12/5, click here for a better quality picture of the above standings), we can be reasonably sure that teams such as New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues will qualify for the 2017 postseason as they pass the three previously mentioned qualities of early season playoff teams. We can be fairly certain that a second group of teams will qualify for the playoffs based on the fact that they currently occupy division playoff spots even though they don’t have as many points on the final wildcard spot. This includes the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers, and Anaheim Ducks. The wildcard spots, currently held by the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, and Winnipeg Jets are more of a tossup at this point of the season. They have the ability to move up into the division spots, but can also fall out of the playoff picture much easier. Historically, about 75% or 12 of the 16 playoff qualifiers are currently in the playoff picture. Teams should now begin to adjust their plan based on where they currently sit in the standings.
Despite this conclusion, there are many limitations to this data that should be taken into account before we use it to base future decisions on. First, the league has a dynamic schedule and teams often have played different numbers of games at the cutoff dates for the data. Some teams could be subconsciously favored or ill-favored in this analysis because of their schedule. Because of this, a better analysis may be to base the standings off of points percentages rather than straight points to account for the number of games each team has played. This also doesn’t take into consideration the strength of schedules that a team has faced or will have to face in the future. There is also a relatively small sample size which gets even smaller with binning the data based on division/wildcard or the number of points a team is in or out of the playoffs by. Assuming the league keeps this format, more accurate conclusions will be drawn as time goes on and our sample grows.
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