Expert NHL Handicapping: Making Sense Of These Crazy Playoffs
The NHL Playoffs have just been bizarre this year. All four division leaders were out in the first round, which means that all four wild card teams advanced. Three of those wild card teams are in decent shape to win another series. One of the division winners, Tampa Bay, had a regular season that was historically great, and they were very solid Stanley Cup favorites, but they were the first team sent packing in the playoffs. Six of the nine teams that had 100 points in the regular season lost in their opening series, and two more are trailing now. It's just bizarre.
And if you don't pay attention to the NHL until the playoffs, it would seem incomprehensible. I can't pretend I saw it all coming by any means - I had Tampa beating Calgary for the Cup, and neither squad made it past Game 5 of their opener. But when you sit back and evaluate things, you can see reasons why this has happened and reasons why bettors need to just take a breath and roll with it. Here are six of those reasons:
Youth and speed: The league has changed their rules a lot in recent years to make play more wide open and to favor skill and speed over the strength and grit that dominated not too long ago. It has been so striking that guys who are still reasonably young have seen the game entirely pass them by - Milan Lucic signed a massive deal with Edmonton and looks like a dinosaur even though he is only 30. As a result of the changes, teams that are faster are often better, and freakish young guys have the room to let their skills shine right away. Suddenly their immature bodies and lack of savvy in crowds don't matter anymore because they don't have to overcome contact to do what they do.
So, even a few years ago, teams like Colorado, Carolina, Columbus or Dallas would have been too young and raw to do any damage. They would have needed to learn how to win. But now they just outskate and outskill opponents, and they are where they are.
The most notable difference is on defense. It used to be that it took several years for a guy - even the best prospects - to become fully functional NHL defensemen. But now Miro Heiskanen has been Dallas' best defenseman even though he's a 19-year-old rookie, and Cale Makar has been Colorado's most impressive defenseman - and he made his NHL debut only in Game 3 against Calgary this year.
When speed matters and youth can shine, teams can build so much faster, and things like the stunning rise of the Islanders or the playoff savvy of the Blue Jackets can happen.
League has worked to build parity: The NHL cannot be happy about the total ratings disaster they are barreling towards in the later rounds of this playoff. Their top markets aside from Boston are out, and many of the cellar dwellers in terms of revenue remain. But make no mistake - the league made the bed they are now lying in. Their salary cap is tight, and there are no ways around it - no exceptions or loopholes. There are a bunch of ways NBA teams can creatively manage their cap, so the haves still have a huge edge over the have-nots. And baseball's salary controls are a total farce. But, like the NFL, the NHL stays true to their cap. And as a result, parity is much more of a reality.
The gap between teams isn't that big in reality: When you look at the regular-season standings, you realize that the gap between teams isn't that big. Colorado beat Calgary in the first round when the Flames were the best team in the West, and Colorado was the last team into the postseason. Yet Colorado has had a better record since the all-star break, and the only real difference that accounted for the 17 points between them in the standings was that Colorado suffered a midseason slump that Calgary avoided. The gap between the best teams and the worst in the NHL aren't nearly as stark as in the NBA.
Luck is a big part of things: Tampa Bay had a historically-great regular season. It would take much longer than we have here to put it into context. Yet they were swept in four games by Columbus. The biggest part of that is just luck. Columbus found their game and got the bounces at just the right time, and at the same time everything went sideways for Tampa at exactly the worst time. Study after study over the years has shown that luck has a bigger factor in the NHL than any others. One big reason for that is the constant rolling of players. In the NBA playoffs your best players can play the whole game if needed, so any edge you have is maximized. Your star forwards in the NHL only play a third of the game, so luck in terms of who is on when, when line changes happen, and how the puck bounces can have so much more of an impact.
Few players can make big impact: The right players getting hot at the right time can define a playoff series and really carry a team. A hot goalie is the biggest and most obvious example - as the Islanders showed in their first-round sweep of the Penguins. A top line that is exactly dialed in can destroy opponents, too - Calgary was totally helpless against Colorado's incredible top unit. Like the NBA, one guy or a small group of guys can carry their team to great heights. But unlike the NBA, it is very possible for more than just the few elite teams to have a guy like that on their roster.
Outcomes can just be strange: The teams that won the first-round series were largely not the favorites. But it's not like they were overwhelming underdogs. The series weren't quite like flipping coins, but they were like flipping coins more weighted on one side. If you flip eight coins once you wouldn't be surprised to see seven heads come up. You know it's not going to happen over the long term, but over the short term it isn't that surprising. Next year we could see all of the favorites sweep. Things happen in the playoffs, man.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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