NHL's randomness on full display in 2018

May 22, 2018 - 10:59 am
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We already knew there's a lot of luck in hockey. You can both see it in games and measure it in statistics.

Is there so much though that teams can go from terrible to good in one year -- or, in the case of the Vegas Golden Knights, to good from non-existent?

We know the answer is yes.

We've watched Vegas go from desert dust to the Stanley Cup Final. We've also watched the last four teams to finish last in their respective conferences go to the playoffs the next season, not including the Knights, who a year ago were not even a thing. Of the four teams in the Cup semis, three were not even in the playoffs last season.

So how did they do it?

You have a sport that because of goaltending has a great equalizer. We've seen hundreds of games over the years where one team outplayed the other but lost because of the goalie. The most accomplished player in Sabres history, Dominik Hasek, served as perhaps the quintessential personification of this hockey reality.

You also have a league in the NHL that has made competitive balance its calling card. The salary cap does that. The way officials keep games close, even subconsciously, by favoring teams that are behind in games, by avoiding making calls late in games (good teams deserve more calls in their favor) ... it all makes it harder for the teams with the most talent to separate.

Now here's Vegas, flaunting the sport's reality right in our faces. You can literally construct a team of cast-offs and in one year go to the Final -- or even win the Cup. To say that even the previous year's worst teams can win it, well, that seems evident right now.

(One particular area where it might be easier for a brand-new team to win than one at the bottom, like Buffalo, comes to mind: There's no baggage. The Vegas coach can set low expectations, and he has no reason to need a double standard. Even his "star" players aren't so much stars anymore as they are players trying to re-prove themselves after having been dumped by a former club. The Sabres, with their several awful contracts and recent years of drama and losing, have perhaps more baggage than any other NHL team.)

There have been a few repeat champions in the last decade: The Penguins have three Cups in the last decade, as do the Blackhawks. The Kings have two. (The others: Boston and whoever wins this year.) This is a point against parity.

But look at the losing finalists.

If Washington eliminates Tampa Bay, or if Tampa Bay defeats Vegas in the Final, this year will give us the 16th team to lose in the Final in the same number of seasons. That's incredible. Going back to 1992, there have been 25 Stanley Cup Final series -- and, remarkably, 21 different franchises have lost them. (The teams to lose two: Philadelphia, Vancouver, New Jersey and Detroit.)

Amazing as it is, that itself doesn't prove parity. But it contributes. You don't exactly have Warriors-Cavaliers here, do you? Or Lakers-Celtics. There are teams moving way up and way down the NHL standings every year -- despite how stagnant it's been in Buffalo.

Just look at this season compared with the one before it.

Edmonton had 103 points and went to Game 7 of the second round in 2017; in 2018, it finished 25 points worse and finished 17 points behind the playoff spot. Why? Edmonton's power play was 5th in 2016-17, 31st this year. This year their shooting percentage ranked 25th in the league and their save percentage was 27th. Did coaching teach Edmonton to shoot well two seasons ago, and, more curiously/sarcastically, did the players somehow forget this year? Come on. The year before, the Oilers ranked 11th and 10th in those categories. Oilers goalie Cam Talbot's save percentage slipped. But did he play worse?

Stats like these bounce around year-to-year even with teams that dress the same players. Hockey media contrive stories about chemistry and culture when really it's often just bounces and luck. 

The Sabres' power play ranked first in 2016-17, and 20th in 2017-18. Why? The players were the same. Did they forget how to play?

It happens, that's why.

New Jersey improved from 70 points to 97 and a playoff spot this year. Colorado improved from 48 (!) to 95 and the playoffs. Chicago, a three-time Cup winner of late, went from 109 points to 76 with all of its same star players in tow.

And so on, and so forth.

The Sabres have high-end talent -- as least as much of it as do the Golden Knights, and that's without Rasmus Dahlin, the obvious first pick of next month's draft.

Could the Sabres win the Cup next year? I mean, I guess so, but they probably won't. But thinking of all this in broader teams makes you realize that the gap between the league's best and worst teams isn't much of a gap at all.

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