Structure, History and the Measure of Success in the NHL

With the field of Stanley Cup contenders down to three — just one-tenth of the pool that so optimistically began the season last October — my focus turns to those “other” 27 teams, the ones who are  watching the Kings, Rangers and Devils and wondering what might have been.  For 13 of these, there is at least some solace in the fact that they qualified for the post-season, though the degree of relief afforded by that fact likely varies immensely.  The Florida Panthers organization and fans are no doubt disappointed that they did not make it further in the post-season, but are also pleased for a season that few saw coming.  The Coyotes are still stinging from a bitter playoff defeat, but also have a lot to be proud of in a very successful season.  Conversely, those whose fortunes ride with the Canucks, Red Wings, Penguins, Bruins, Capitals and Sharks are likely singing more dirges than hymns of praise these days.  Such is the fickle carousel of professional hockey.

I came at this article with a relatively narrow focus — how do we define “success” at the end of the day, given that there will always be 29 disappointed franchises?   I come to this question legitimately.  When I was 11 years old, I saw the California Seals (which begat the Oakland Seals, which begat the California Golden Seals, which begat the Cleveland Barons) make their NHL debut.  In 1991, I was there in the Cow Palace to see the San Jose Sharks take the ice for the first time. (Trivia note — while the Sharks were allowed to play in the Cow Palace until the San Jose arena was built, that same permission was denied to the Seals, who played there in the WHL, in 1967.)  In 2000, I became a Day 1 season ticket holder for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  So, suffice it to say that I have seen some spectacularly bad hockey at times over the years.  The Seals, white skates and all, never had a .500 season.  The early Sharks played like there was a plate of glass at the blue line, and still hold the NHL record for losses in a season — 71 in 1992-93– and I saw many of them.  The Blue Jackets have managed just a single playoff appearance during their initial 11 seasons.

(Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

So, all of this led me to ponder what perceptions of “success” are when the season is done and the golf clubs are out.  Does it vary from team to team, and year to year?  Should it?  To provide context for the discussion, I decided to look at the 33 franchises that have come into existence since The Great Expansion of 1967. (I have counted physical moves as a new franchise, based upon the fact that a new fan base would be involved. )  I reasoned that looking at the Original Six was foolish, as those clubs always had a 66.7% chance of being in the playoffs, and, if in the playoffs, had a 50% chance of playing for the Cup.  I wanted to see what historical performances were as the league expanded, the demographics changed, and (theoretically), it became more difficult to earn a playoff slot, and accordingly more difficult to win the Cup.  My intended focus was on the fan base and their reactions as the measure of success  However, just as you might get sidetracked on a driving trip by an unusual sight or attraction, my research did not lead me where I expected.  So, the central theme of this piece shifted significantly to an analysis of how structural components of the NHL itself have combined to impact both the reality and the perception of team success.

I looked at playoff appearances, Cup victories, overall records & point totals, and then examined the structural context in which these results were obtained, and looked for trends that emerged.  In the end, this became more of a quantitative analysis, rather than the qualitative discussion I had anticipated.  With that said, let’s set some of the broader parameters to give some context.

In the 44 seasons since The Great Expansion, 11 of the 33 “new” franchises have won the Stanley Cup.  Ten of those 33 have disappeared along the way — the California Golden Seals, Cleveland Barons, Minnesota North Stars, Atlanta Flames, Kansas City Scouts, Colorado Rockies, Winnipeg Jets I, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Atlanta Thrashers — but none of these were Cup winners.  Thus only 1/3 of the franchises added since 1967 have won the Cup, and more than half of the surviving franchises since that time have not.  In terms of playoff appearances, the range is enormous.  St. Louis has been in the post-season in 37 of the 44 years, while Philadelphia has 36 playoff slots in its 44 years of existence.  Kansas City, Cleveland (and technically Winnipeg II) have zero playoff appearances, Columbus, the Rockies and the Thrashers have one each to their credit, the Seals 2 and the Minnesota Wild just 3.  Of course, all of these franchises have 11 years or less in existence.

Certainly, securing a playoff spot is dependent upon a multitude of factors, primarily involving the talent of the players, the soundness of the coaching, and the ability of the organization to attract, develop and retain top talent.  Nonetheless, as I factored in actual team records (in terms of point totals), some trends and anomalies emerged that cannot be ignored.

(mastermaq/Flickr)

Let’s review the basic history.  In 1967, the NHL doubled in size, adding six teams — Philadelphia, California, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and the Minnesota North Stars.  However, rather than weaving these expansion clubs into the fabric of the Original Six, the clubs were placed in their own Western Conference, which, like the power-laden East, merited four playoff slots.  This led to some pretty bizarre results.  In the first season, when the NHL played 74 games, none of the four playoff teams reached .500 mark in points (74).  Only St. Louis reached that mark in the next two seasons.  In 1970-71, Chicago moved to the West, as Buffalo and Vancouver were added to the East (Yes, Vancouver in the East, Philadelphia in the West)  and feasted on the fledgling conference.  The Blackhawks posted 107 points, 20 more than second place St. Louis.  Again, the final two playoff slots went to sub-.500 teams.  In fact, during the 7 years of that league structure (Atlanta joined the West in 1972, as the Islanders joined the East), 16 of the 28 playoff spots were earned by teams who failed to reach .500.   Ironically, the last year of that format, 1973-74, was the year when clubs had the lowest statistical chance of making the playoffs  (50%), as only four slots were available in each of the eight-team conferences.  The odds have not been that poor since.

What ensued was 19 years of a structure that is endeared by many hockey fans, but also led to some of the silliest playoff situations in the history of sport.  1974 saw the debut of the Campbell and Prince of Wales conferences, which included the Patrick, Adams (4 teams each), Norris and Smythe (5 teams) divisions. (The Smythe reverted to 4 teams in 1978-79, after the Cleveland Barons were assimilated by the Minnesota North Stars).   The top three teams in each division qualified for the playoffs, so those clubs fortunate enough to be in the Adams or Patrick Divisions had a 75% chance of reaching the post-season, while the others had to suffer with only a 60% chance.  The most horrific result came in the 1978-1979 season, when the Atlanta Flames became the first of the expansion clubs to miss the playoffs, despite having a .500+ record (90 points).  However, that same season, St. Louis earned a playoff spot with just 18 wins and 48 points.  The situation actually got worse in 1979-80, when Hartford, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec were added to the league.  That brought the NHL to three five-team divisions and one six-team division, and the playoffs expanded to 16 teams, with the top four from each division earning the nod.  Again, for the majority of teams, that meant an 80% chance of a playoff berth.  The worst odds were found in the six-team Norris Division, which had precisely the same odds as the Original Six before expansion!

Pavel Bure

(dahlstroms/Flickr)

Needless to say, some teams feasted on this situation, most notably the Vancouver Canucks.  Vancouver failed to reach the .500 mark in 15 consecutive seasons between 1976-77 and 1990-91, yet made the playoffs in ten of those seasons. Overall, the Canucks have made a post-season appearance with a sub-.500 record 11 times.  St. Louis has performed the same feat 13 times.  Between the time of The Great Expansion and the end of the Campbell/Wales experience, expansion clubs earned 67 playoff spots with records below .500.   It happened 15 more times after the return of the Western/Eastern conference configuration in 1993-94, but has not happened since the end of the 1998-99 season.  (Note that the return of the East/West setup included an unbalance configuration — 12 teams in the West & 14 in the East– with the same number of playoff slots available.  This is precisely the setup the NHLPA objected to in response to realignment last year)  The flip side of that equation — not earning a playoff berth with a .500 or better record — was virtually unknown among expansion teams prior to 1999.  Only the 78-79 Atlanta Flames, the 85-86 Buffalo Sabres and the 95-96 New Jersey Devils shared that fate.  However, since 1999, 43 expansion teams have shared that ignominious distinction.

So, what happened in 1999?   The addition of the “Overtime Loss” phenomenon.  Between 1999 and 2005, the tie remained a viable statistic, as a tie was declared if neither team scored in overtime, with both earning a point.  Only with the advent of the shootout after the lockout did the tie disappear.   While people tend to complain about the OTL point being granted, I take a different view.  That point has always existed — it was called a tie.  What changed was the addition of a point to a team who needed more than sixty minutes to gain a victory.

Perhaps it is a “glass half-full/half-empty” kind of argument, but the impact on the playoff structure and chances is indisputable.  “Point inflation”  and the three-point game put much more pressure on teams early in the season, as it becomes a far more arduous task to make up ground after a slow start.  That, in turn, operates against expansion teams and teams in the re-tooling process, and in favor of teams with established cores.

Playoff percentages for teams more recently added to the NHL show that it is more difficult than ever to earn a playoff spot.  Of the teams added since the end of the Campbell/Wales configuration, only San Jose (14 out of 20) and Nashville (7 out of 13) have appeared in the playoffs over half the time.  Before then, the only teams that did not appear in the playoffs the majority of the time were the defunct Seals, Scouts, Barons, Rockies and Whalers.  Even the Atlanta Flames made the playoffs in five of their eight seasons of existence, suggesting that perhaps post-season success is not the key to hockey in Atlanta.

So, at the end of the day, where does this all lead?  It merely suggests that while talent, organization and drive will (hopefully) always be the driving force behind team success, there are structural components to the game itself that have subtle, but unmistakable impacts upon how the game is played and what “success” can be achieved.

It suggests that perhaps more thought concerning those impacts needs to be undertaken before blithely initiating significant structural change.  In a world that is increasingly focused on immediate gratification, the NHL has perhaps created a historical expectation of post-season reward without necessarily requiring the regular season performance to justify that result.

It’s something to think about as we head toward a new CBA and inevitable realignment discussions.

2 Comments

  1. The North Stars became the Stars and won the Cup in 1999. The Whalers became the Hurricanes and won the Cup in 2006. The Rockies/Scouts became the Devils in 1995, 2000, and 2003. The first Atlanta team became the Calgary Flames and won in 1989. Same franchises. They didn’t put their players back in to the pool and do a new expansion draft. Most of the players stayed on the roster.

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