How Does A Shortened Season Impact Playoff Aspirations?

This morning, I posted a column that took a brief look at the Ottawa Senators playoff chances in 2013, and came to the somewhat fence-ridden conclusion that yes, it’s possible that they can return to Lord Stanley’s tournament, but it’ll be an uber-competitive sprint to that particular finish line.

Cam Ward, Eric Staal

Cam Ward and Eric Staal (Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

As mentioned in that piece, no fewer than 5 and as many as 10 teams will be battling for 3-4 playoff spots, and any number of factors could come into play to either help or hinder any given team’s quest.

One of the big questions is how a shortened season will impact the playoff race. In a division-heavy / conference-only schedule, every point will have significance, and teams can ill afford to get off to a slow start and drop points that will not be easily made up.

A 48 game per team season means 720 total games will be played, and as a point of reference, I thought it would be interesting to look at that mark last season to see how the playoff positioning changed between then and the end of the year.

Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference picture through the end of January 23, 2012, which worked out to be the 721 game mark of the 2011-12 NHL season (according to DropYourGloves.com). Keep in mind that this is based on point totals only, and the higher ranking has been given to the team with less games played in the event of a tie.

Eastern Conference Standings Through January 23, 2012

Team GP Points
Boston Bruins 46 64
New York Rangers 46 64
Philadelphia Flyers 47 61
Ottawa Senators 51 60
Pittsburgh Penguins 48 58
New Jersey Devils 47 54
Florida Panthers 47 54
Washington Capitals 47 53
Toronto Maple Leafs 48 53
Winnipeg Jets 49 49
Montreal Canadiens 48 45
Carolina Hurricanes 51 45
Tampa Bay Lightning 47 44
New York Islanders 47 44
Buffalo Sabres 48 43

If we compare these ranking to the final NHL standings, we notice that a grand total of zero Eastern Conference teams fell out of the top 8 after the 721 total GP / 48 average GP mark of the 2011-12 NHL season.

Yes, playoff seeding changed and draft lottery probabilities rose as teams moved around within the context of their “in or out” standing, but as a rule, if you were a playoff team as of January 23rd, 2012, you were competing for the Cup in April.

(Out West, only one team was able to move up after this point: the Phoenix Coyotes, at the expense of the Minnesota Wild).

Essentially what this means is that a 48 game schedule will have little impact on who’s in and out when it comes to qualifying for the NHL playoffs. As last year demonstrated, even an abbreviated schedule is enough of a sample size to determine the top 8 teams in each conference. Sure, teams can catch fire or turn stone cold in February and March, adding some late-season drama into the mix. But generally, this only serves to mess with draft status or shift around the playoff seedings.

If this 720 game marker is indeed an accurate measuring stick for playoff probability, then we can basically know which teams will be in 58.5% of the way through the season; and in a 48 game season, that means we will have a good idea by game 28 of the 2013 season. A fast start, therefore, will be key for any team with playoff aspirations, especially in world where single points are awarded for overtime & shootout losses.

Exactly who the 2013 playoff teams will be is very much yet to be determined; just know that their presence there will likely be no fluke, even in a shortened season.

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