Friday, May 09, 2014

Just how unique are these Stanley Cup Playoffs, anyway?

As I was completing my second round picks of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I realized that the four teams that played in the Conference Finals last year - Chicago, LA, Boston, and Pittsburgh - were not only all still playing, but that they were playing in series in which they were each favoured, meaning that there is a not-negligible possibility that this year's NHL Conference Finals could feature the same four teams as last year. Right now, each of the four are in a position to win their series (Boston is only tied with Montreal right now, but they do have two of the last three games at home.) This realization made me wonder whether that had ever happened before in the NHL, or if it had even been close to happening. It sent me down a fun journey through NHL history to find the answer, and some of the answers actually really surprised me.

First of all, I had to define the parameters of my investigation. I figured that there would have been a greater likelihood of this occurrence in the years of the Original Six (1941-1967), when there were only six teams, so I ruled that out. The period from 1967-1980 featured several expansions to new markets, but the NHL actually used a preliminary round reseeding structure until 1981. In this model, all of the best 16 teams were ranked and seeded regardless of conference or division, so it did not seem like it would work for the purposes of this analysis, since there were too many variables for which to account and the instances of repetition would be as much a product of chance as of design.

In 1982, the NHL made the change to a divisional model for the playoffs in which the first two rounds were played within each of four divisions. The divisions were divided into two conferences, so the winners of the same divisions would play each year to determine the conference winner and Stanley Cup Finalist. This model created a far greater likelihood of teams meeting repeatedly, and it is essentially the same system that the NHL uses today, although they have made some minor adjustments along the way. 

Using 1982 as the beginning benchmark, this analysis includes the three distinct periods since that 1982 season: divisional playoffs from 1982-1993; the conference seeding model from 1993 to 2013; and this year's reinstitution of the divisional playoff model. Thanks to the omission of the playoffs in 2005, there are either 30 or 31 points of data to analyze (depending on whether it can include this year or not), with each year's playoffs represented by one point of data. This amount seemed appropriate to establish some trends for the modern league and to determine an answer to the question. 

(Note: the years listed below refer in which the playoffs were held, rather than the year that the league ran; therefore, "85", for example, refers to the 1985 Stanley Cup playoffs that concluded the 1984-85 season. In addition, the term "years" may be used in place of "seasons" or even "playoffs", and it should be remembered that 2004 and 2006 count as succeeding years because of the 2005 lockout.)

Initial findings

It should come as no surprise that in the 30 playoffs from 1983 to 2013 that there was no two subsequent playoffs in which all four Conference Finalists repeated in the Conference Finals the following year. But what surprised me was that there was only once (1992) in which even three of the four Conference Finalists made it back; that year might have had all four, except that Chicago had been upset by Minnesota in the first round the previous year. It did not surprise me that it was so difficult to see the same teams playing year-to-year, as there are myriad variables that can affect a team's success, including key injuries throughout the season and playoffs or even something as simple as a bad bounce of the puck in overtime.

The two most common occurrences were that either one team would make it back (12 times) or that two would return (10 times). That should not be very surprising, as many teams that tend to have success in the playoffs are able to repeat and sustain it for at least a few seasons. What really surprised me, however, was how often there had been a complete turnover of teams in the Conference Finals: seven times, including three years in a row: 2003-2006. In fact, it was almost twice as likely that there would be one or no repeats than that two or more would repeat (19 to 11). Here is the breakdown according to how many teams repeated in each playoff:

0/4: 86, 89, 93, 03, 04, 06, 12 (7 times)
1/4: 85, 87, 90, 94, 95, 96, 98, 02, 08, 10, 11, 13 (12 times)
2/4: 83, 84, 88, 91, 97, 99, 00, 01, 07, 09 (10 times)
3/4: 92 (once)

As you can see, there are some cycles apparent, but the overall pattern is that there is significant turnover every year. These numbers, of course, do not demonstrate any specific data about teams, so let's look at some of the teams that have had runs of success over the years.

Runs and rematches

Though there is a lot of turnover between each year, there is remarkable consistency between consecutive years. Here is a breakdown of the most outstanding runs of excellence to the Conference Finals.

Four straight appearances: Detroit (95-98); Colorado (99-02)

Three straight appearances: New York Islanders (82-84); Edmonton (83-85); Boston (88-90); Edmonton (90-92); Dallas (98-00); Detroit (07-09)

Two straight
 appearances: Chicago (82-83); Detroit (87-88); Chicago (89-90); Pittsburgh (91-92); Toronto (93-94); New Jersey (94-95); Colorado (96-97); Buffalo (98-99); Dallas (99-00); NJ (00-01); Anaheim (06-07); Buffalo (06-07); Pittsburgh (08-09); Chicago (09-10); San Jose (10-11); LA (12-13).

Two appearances in three years (not already included): Philadelphia (95, 97), Philadelphia (08,10); Boston (11, 13)

Sustained runs of excellence (above 60% for at least four years): Chicago (3/4, 82-85); Montreal (4/6, 84-89); Philadelphia (3/5, 85-89); Boston (4/5, 88-92); Chicago (3/4, 89-92); New Jersey (3/4, 99-03); and Anaheim (3/4, 03-07). (Oddly enough, both of Chicago's possible four-year runs were interrupted by surprise upsets by Minnesota in the third year.) The two best sustained runs, both of which are nearly unbelievable both in their longevity and consistency: Edmonton (8/10, 83-92) and Colorado (6/7, 96-02).

Of the one hundred and twenty possible instances in which a team could return to the Conference Finals the next year that it occurred 35 times, or just over one-quarter of the time. There were another 11 instances in which a team returned after a one-year absence, and yet another 6 instances in which a team returned after a two-year absence. The lesson, of course, seems to be that most teams have short sustained rules of excellence with a maximum window of four years, and that if they don't make it back the next year, their chances go down significantly in making it back at all.

It should be mentioned that all of the teams that made at least three appearances in a row won a Stanley Cup except for Boston (88-90), who had the misfortune of facing Mark Messier's Oilers twice. Of the other 19 times in which a team made two consecutive appearances (or two in three years), ten won a Cup (including five in the first year), another four made it to the Finals at least once, and the remaining five (including most notably Toronto and San Jose) never made an appearance beyond the Conference Finals.

What this shows is that the teams that make it far once are able to make it again, and that there are many instances in which teams learned their lessons in one playoff and applied them later on, whether they won a Cup initially or not. And the results bear out: ten of the teams that won the Cup for the first time had been to a Conference Final within three years in advance of their victory.

With all of those runs of excellence, it might seem like there would be a lot of rematches, despite what the initial numbers showed. Of the sixty possible rematches between Conference Finalists, there have only been four instances in which teams have met in consecutive years; the number increases to seven if rematches within a three-year span are considered. Here are those rematches:

Edmonton-Chicago (West 83, 85); Edmonton-Detroit (West 87, 88); Montreal-Philadelphia (East 87, 89); Edmonton-Chicago (West 90, 92); Boston-Pittsburgh (East 91, 92); Detroit-Colorado (West 96, 97); Colorado-Dallas (West 99,00).

All this makes this year's possibility of a double-rematch even that much more statistically isolated. But there's one last level of 

Surviving the first round

So far, we have looked only at the Conference Finals, but what happens if we extend the evaluation of success back one round to see how teams perform the year following their appearances. What is perhaps not surprising is that it is very difficult for teams that make the Conference Finals to even make it to the second round the following year. 2013 is only the second time in the 30 years surveyed in which all four Conference Finalists even made it to the second round the following year; the first was 1984. Here are the results from the years of 1982-2013.

0/4: 02, 03, 11
1/4: 85, 88, 92, 93, 97, 04, 07
2/4: 82, 83, 89, 96, 01, 06, 08, 10, 12
3/4: 86, 87, 90, 91, 94, 95, 98, 99, 09
4/4: 84, 13

As you can see, it is much more likely that teams make at least the second round when having appeared in the Conference Finals the previous year. What did surprise me is that there were three instances in which none of the previous year's Conference Finalists even made it to the second round and seven instances in which only one team made it to the second round, making for a one-in-three chance that not even two of the previous years' Conference Finalists make it out of the first round. (I suppose there might be more investigation to determine how many teams even made it to the playoffs in the year after their Conference Finals appearance, but that would take a bit more work on my part.) And again, it demonstrates just how unlikely this year's particular scenario actually is.


It should come as no surprise that all of the findings indicate that it is incredibly difficult for teams to sustain any kind of success as measured by length of playoff runs. The Stanley Cup is often called the hardest trophy to win, and it seems to be rightfully so, given the facts presented here. The NHL is a highly competitive league, and there is some truth to the fact that any team that makes the playoffs can win it in any given year, like the 2012 LA Kings, who entered as the 8th-ranked seed in the West and had arguably the most dominant run in modern history to the Cup that year.

But what continually surprised me, despite the general toll that playoff success seemed to take on teams - was how remarkably consistent the drop off was, with a couple of exceptions. Most teams do seem to have, at most, a five year window to win, and if they don't do it within that window, it will not likely happen. Teams that make it further more consistently seem to have a shorter window now than they did in the past, which perhaps explains why San Jose has been good but not great for so long: they have never had to deal with the fatigue that comes from those last 7 (or 8 or 9) games and that trip to the Finals. 

That's what makes this year's crop that much more remarkable. Pittsburgh made their first trip in 2008, and Chicago in 2009, marking seven and six years of sustained excellence, respectively. (Boston and LA are on four and three years since their first appearances, in that order.) All four of these teams have lots of very young players, so perhaps that has given them the extra resilience necessary to make such extensive runs. Still, their absences over the past few years do also indicate just how hard it is to make it back even to the Conference Finals from year to year. 

If all four teams make it through this round, this playoff will be one-of-a-kind, and I can't even imagine the probability math required to figure out just exactly what the odds are of it actually happening. But at least now, with this investigation in hand, we have somewhat of an idea of the possible magnitude of this year's playoffs in the scope of hockey history - at least in the last thirty years - so let's appreciate the accomplishments of each of these teams as we watch what happens in the next two-and-a-half rounds of excellent playoff hockey.

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