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2015 NHL Playoffs: Three Important Questions Answered - Week 1

You’re busy watching the games. Your remote’s recall button is getting far more exercise than you are as you flip from game to game. You can’t help but ask yourself plenty of questions: How often do division winners advance? Is scoring down in the playoffs as much as it was during the regular season? Will a Canadian team ever win the Stanley Cup again? You ask these questions, but who has time to do the research? And that’s where I come in.

Every week during the 2015 NHL playoffs, I will probe burning questions pertaining to the current goings-on in the NHL playoffs with analysis and graphs. I promise to identify trends, demonstrate prevalence and equip you with enough ammunition to hold your own as fun playoff facts start flying around the water cooler.


Entering the 2014-15 season, this iteration of the Winnipeg Jets franchise (including their time in Atlanta) had only reached the NHL’s second season once before – a quick four game sweep in 2007 at the hands of the New York Rangers. Up until the Thrashers only playoff appearances, the fans in Georgia had endured six consecutive playoff absences. And following, the franchise were absentees for seven consecutive years. Should we have been surprised then of the Jets early exit this week to the Anaheim Ducks?

To understand better, I analyzed how many series each playoff team won since the 2005-06 season and separated the results by how many years they had been absent from the playoffs. The chart below shows the average number of series won for each level of absenteeism. For example, seven teams entered playoff competition with a two-season absence and these franchises won a combined seven playoff series. Consequently, their bar rests directly on an average of one playoff series won per appearance.


Every year, 16 teams enter the postseason and 15 series are claimed. Therefore, the annual league average series wins is always 0.9375. This means that any category sitting above this mark is doing better than any old team entering the playoffs. It is not surprising to see that returning playoff teams, like the perpetual participants from Detroit, exceed the league average. But does this prove that franchises missing out for two consecutive seasons are hungrier than those falling back for only a single campaign?

Aside from the Jets, the 2014-15 Calgary Flames are the only current playoff participant with greater than a two-season absence.  The Flames haven’t made the second season since 2009 – a five-season absence. Due to a lack of data, I grouped teams like Calgary into a bucket with absences ranging from three to five years. The historical data shows that similar franchises have advanced one round for every two attempts. 

And then, we can assess the Winnipeg Jets. Since 2005-06, seven teams have entered the playoffs with absences of six seasons or more. This year’s Jets would make the number eight. The longest drought during this period belonged to the 2012 Florida Panthers who took the New Jersey Devils to seven games in the Eastern Quarterfinals after a decade of futility. In each case, the long suffering fans were disappointed with conference quarterfinal exits. Perhaps the four-game sweep was unexpected, but the fact Winnipeg didn’t advance past the first round should not have come as a surprise.


It almost feels like something went terribly askew in the Ducks/Jets series. How could it possibly have only lasted the minimum four games? For the same reasons, I just knew that Ottawa would pull it out versus Montreal in Game 4. Over the past five playoffs, we have seen two 3-0 leads evaporate and result in series defeats and we’ve seen an 8-seed win the Stanley Cup. League parity abounds, but can the tightening of first round playoff series be confirmed by analyzing recent playoff data?

The chart below divides data from the conference quarterfinals into the three most recent five-season segments. Of course, don’t forget there were no playoffs in 2005. The lighter color represents a shorter series (i.e., four games long) and transitions into the darkest shades for the seven-game maximum.


This analysis shows that the prevalence of the four-game series in the conference quarterfinals is dwindling. 10-15 seasons ago, it wouldn’t be unheard of to expect one out of every five matchups to end swiftly. However, between 2010-14, there were only three sweeps in the first round of the NHL playoffs out of 40 series. If we include this season, the figure still hovers at about 8%.

Over each five-season segment, the predominance of five and six-game conference quarterfinal series remain fairly consistent. The likelihood that the series goes five versus that of six may differ slightly in each segment, but, since 1999, between 55%-60% of series will either fall between five and six games.

The largest fluctuation and trend sits with the maximum seven-game series. There has been as many seven-game series in the conference quarterfinals over the past six playoffs as there were in the ten playoffs prior to that. In addition, there have been at least two-seven game conference quarterfinal series each season dating back to the 2008 playoffs. Therefore, you should expect a couple, if not a handful, of this year’s opening round matchups to last the duration.


The unsatisfactory end to the New York Rangers 2014 Cup run stung the Blueshirts so hard that they wreaked havoc on the entire NHL this season culminating in their first Presidents’ Trophy since they captured Lord Stanley’s mug in 1994. This form of on-ice vengeance has become quite the trend lately. Three of the past four Stanley Cup bridesmaids – last season’s Rangers along with the 2013 Bruins and 2011 Canucks – all hung a Presidents’ Trophy banner the following season. But the better question is could they win the Cup?

The chart below examines the subsequent season’s playoff path of the 19 Stanley Cup runners-up between the 1994 Vancouver Canucks and the 2013 Boston Bruins. Each bar below represents how far each team survived on their path of retribution. For example, only one franchise – the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings – reached at most three rounds the following a season where at best they could be coined Stanley Cup finalists.


Over this time period, the most prevalent result for the prior season’s Cup loser is an exit in the Conference Quarterfinal (7 of 19 or 37%). However, slightly above one-quarter of teams do survive at most one round. At least the 2015 New York Rangers have that to look forward to. They are already well ahead of the 26% of teams who didn’t subsequently qualify for the playoffs at all. At least, over this period, no team has had the devastation of reaching the Cup and losing in consecutive years. For instance, the expansion St. Louis Blues reached the Cup Final in their first three seasons and they haven’t been back in 45 years.

The Rangers can always hang their hat on the fact that one franchise completed this feat. And they don’t need to look far. For the only team, since 1994, to lose in the Stanley Cup Final and return successfully (in 2009) to the game’s biggest stage is none other than their 2015 Eastern Quarterfinal opponents – the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Check back with me next week as we start getting prepared for the conference semifinals. In the meantime, let me know what burning questions you have and I will try my best to include them in upcoming analyses.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.


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