2012 Playoff Picks: The Method Behind the Madness

WARNING: The following hockey preview contains levels of detail that may offend casual hockey fans. Viewer discretion is advised.

I posted my picks yesterday, along with brief notes about what to expect in each series, but I didn’t go into much detail on why I was picking a certain team. The reality is that there are a million reasons why you could pick any given team at any particular time – you think a goalie will steal the series; a star player will exert his will upon the series; an inexperienced team will collapse, etc. Well this is my blueprint for how I decided on my picks.

First, let me fill you in on my recent track record. Here’s what I picked last year:

In the East, I went 4-for-4, picking:

(1) Was over (8) Nyr

(2) Phi over (7) Buf

(3) Bos over (6) Mtl

(5) Tby over (4) Pit

In the West, 3-for-4:

(1) Van over (8) Chi

(Sjs ) over (7) Lak

(Det) over (6) Phx

Like most people, my mistake was in picking (4) Anaheim over (5) Nashville, though that wasn’t really an upset considering both teams had 99 points. Many fans were still enamored with Anaheim after their late season run, and their somewhat recent cup victory, but in reality, most of 2007 team was long gone.

In 2010, I went 6-for-8, as per below:

East
(1) Washington vs (8) Montreal
Prediction: Washington (MONTREAL WON)
Synopsis: Jaroslav Halak thought he was Patrick Roy. And for 14 games, he was. (Halak also upset Pittsburgh in the 2nd round, with some help from Mike Cammalleri.)

(2) New Jersey vs (7) Philadelphia
Prediction: New Jersey (PHILADELPHIA WON)
Synopsis: In addition to the prediction, I made the comment “if (Brian) Boucher plays 4 good games, Philadelphia will win” followed by “doubtful” in brackets. Boucher completely outplayed future Hall-of-Famer, Martin Brodeur, and Philly won easily.

(3) Buffalo vs (6) Boston
Prediction: Boston (Correct)
(4) Pittsburgh vs (5) Ottawa
Prediction: Pittsburgh (Correct)

West
(1) San Jose vs (8) Colorado
Prediction: San Jose (Correct)
(2) Chicago vs (7) Nashville
Prediction: Chicago (Correct)
(3) Vancouver vs (6) Los Angeles
Prediction: Vancouver (Correct)

(4) Phoenix vs (5) Detroit
Prediction: Detroit (Correct)

—————————————-

What did I learn?

Of the 3 that I picked incorrectly, the biggest difference in each series was goaltending. Halak stood on his head, Boucher outdueled Brodeur, and Rinne was (and is) way better than the unfortunate combo of Ray Emery and Dan Ellis.

Now that isn’t to say that the team with the best goalie always wins, as a team might be otherwise overmatched – a pro pos, an offensively potent Philadelphia squad still managed to overwhelm Buffalo last year in the 1st round, despite using 3 rather poor goaltenders in the series (Bobrovsky, Boucher, and even Leighton), and playing against clutch Buffalo’s franchise goaltender, Ryan Miller. However, when two teams are somewhat evenly matched, a big gap between goalies creates a big uphill climb for the team with sub-par tending.

Looking at things like the “goaltending gap” begs another question: what factors determine who wins a series, and how should they be weighted? Though hockey doesn’t have the statistical complexity of baseball, there are more than enough figures out there to support almost any outcome. For the sake of simplicity, I rely on the following three-factor model:

(1)   Scoring

(2)   Goaltending

(3)   Defensive play

Then I allot a value to each category, using a 3-point scale:

“3” is elite

“2” is adequate

“1” is unacceptable

Notes:

(1)   This rating scale holds teams to a higher standard, i.e an “adequate” defence isn’t average league-wide, but rather average in comparison to potential playoff opponents. Hence the reason why a team could be “unacceptable” in some respect, yet still make the playoffs; being “unacceptable” in some respect will ultimately prevent that team from experiencing sustained playoff success, because eventually they’ll meet a more well-rounded team which can and will exploit their weakness.

(2)   Also, “scoring” doesn’t simply mean forwards, and “defensive play” doesn’t just relate to defensemen. Erik Karlsson generates a ton of offense from the blueline for Ottawa despite being a defenceman, while the Blues and Rangers stifle their opposition by playing excellent “team defense” which starts in the neutral zone with the forwards.

Prioritizing the Factors

Of the three categories, I’d say that scoring is the single most important ingredient. While great goaltending can help compensate for an average defence, and vice versa, neither will generate offence. And no post-lockout team has won the Stanley Cup without being in the top-8 in league scoring. However, a few teams (Detroit ‘08 – Osgood and Chicago ’10 – Niemi), have won the cup without the help of a really good goalie. Each goalie made “timely saves”, but neither was considered above average compared to their goaltending peers league-wide. With respect to defensive play, Carolina managed to win the cup in 2006 with a deep and potent offensive attack and money goaltending, but their defensive play was at best average by playoff standards.

The salary cap has definitely increased parity in the league to the point where no team is elite in every category. In the past, teams like Detroit had a Hall of Famer at every position – Yzerman, Shanahan, and Fedorov up front; Lidstrom and Chelios, and Dominik Hasek in goal (at least in ’02). Similarly, Colorado had forwards like Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Rob Blake on D, and Patrick Roy guarding the crease.

These days, cup-worthy teams are usually very strong in 2 areas, and competent in the other, but rarely is a team dominant in every aspect of play. By this rating scale, cup contenders usually score around 7 or 8. In my opinion – and all of this is heavily opinion-based – here’s how I’d rank this year’s playoff teams:

Eastern Conference      
Team Scoring Defence Goal Total
Pittsburgh

3

2

3

8

Boston

2

2

3

7

New York

2

2

3

7

Philadelphia

3

2

2

7

New Jersey

2

2

2

6

Washington

2

2

2

6

Ottawa

3

1

2

6

Florida

1

3

2

6

         
Western Conference      
Team Scoring Defence Goal Total
Vancouver

3

2

3

8

Nashville

2

3

3

8

Detroit

3

2

2

7

St. Louis

2

3

2

7

Los Angeles

2

2

3

7

San Jose

2

2

2

6

Chicago

3

2

1

6

Phoenix

1

3

2

6

I did rankings using this general concept last year for each playoff team, and awarded the highest ranking to the Boston Bruins. Then – oddly – I decided NOT to pick Boston, because I had this “feeling” about Philadelphia. Now either I’m completely crazy, OR this simplistic ranking system isn’t the be-all, end-all – but rather just one of many tools.

For those that like a more objective approach, you may appreciate the following. I went back and looked at the results of every playoff series from 2010 and 2011, and looked at two variables: a team’s place in the standings, and the results of the season series. That gives you a few different possibilities – you could finish higher in the standings, win the season series, both, or neither. An additional variable is that the season series may have been tied. It gets a little convoluted, so I’ll just give you the most striking points:

  • I looked at 28 series’ in the past two playoff years, not including the finals, since teams from opposing conferences only play about once a year (negating the “season series” effect)
  •  11/28 season series’ ended up tied, so only 17 match-ups had a decisive victor (hence why some stats are out of 17)
  • The higher seed won 17/28 meetings, meaning the lower seed went 11-17
  • The winner of the season series won 12/17, meaning the loser went 5-12 (Regardless of seeding)
  • Teams which finished higher in the standings AND won the season series won 15/17 meetings, meaning a true underdog won only twice

The only teams to upset the trend were Montreal (2010), who finished 13 points below Pittsburgh, lost the season series 3-1, and yet still managed the upset in the 2nd round; and Tampa Bay (2011), who finished 5 points below Washington, and lost the season series 2-4, yet swept the Caps in the 2nd round last year.

If the past two years are representative (I’ll have to tally up 2006-2009 at some point), it seems that upsets don’t occur as frequently as the media might lead you to believe. I think people tend to overvalue the importance of seeding, and undervalue the significance of the season series victor. For instance, in 2010, Boston (ranked 6th) and Philadelphia (7th) both pulled off “upsets” – over Buffalo and New Jersey respectively. But after looking at this data, I’d contend that neither was truly an underdog. Boston beat Buffalo 4-2 in the season series, while Philadelphia owned New Jersey, winning 5/6. The very fact that the winner of the season series won 12/17 match-ups in the past two years tells me that seeding isn’t the most important factor. While a team may be flawed, and not finish really high in the standings, they may match-up well with a certain team, as evidenced by their record in the season series. So next time you’re picking winners and losers, take a closer look at what happened during the regular season, rather than just looking at the standings.

Other Notes:

Speaking of the standings, I’ve taught myself not to place too much importance on ordinal rankings either. Sometimes we look at 2 versus 7 and think the teams are worlds apart because there’s a difference of “5” – but in reality, the team ranked 2nd may only have won 2 more games in regulation/OT during the season, as is the case in the Boston-Washington match-up. (Boston won 40 games in regulation/OT this year; Washington 38).

Similarly, I don’t care about percentages when it comes to the powerplay and penalty kill. Here’s an example to illustrate:

Team A scored on 25% of powerplays – they scored 50 goals on 200 opporunities

Team B scored on 20% of powerplays – they scored 60 goals on 300 opportunities

Whose powerplay helps them more? Well, team A’s is 5% more efficient, which seems preferable, but Team B actually scored more goals on the PP. Now you could say that, given an even number of opportunities in the future, Team A DOES have a better powerplay – but the very fact that Team B got so many more opportunities implies that they probably generate more scoring chances and draw more penalties – a probability that would be completely ignored by simply looking at the percentage rate. Using a real example, Philadelphia’s powerplay was ranked only 6th in the league at 19.8%, but they actually led the NHL in powerplay goals with 66 – 9 more than the next closest team.

And this point is even more relevant when looking at the penalty kill: would it really matter that a team’s pk is around the league average (percentage basis) if they allowed the most powerplay goals? No, because that means they take far more penalties than most other teams, and even if they do kill off a decent percentage of those calls, they’re not only getting scored on more often in a game, but they’re losing time they could be playing at even-strength, or on their own man advantage. Using Philadelphia again, their pk was ranked 17th at 81.8%, but they actually gave up the second most powerplay goals in the league (second only to Columbus, who finished dead last) because they led the league in the number of times they were shorthanded.

Now I do admit that I sometimes just get “a feeling” about certain teams and match-ups, like St. Louis versus San Jose this year. In that case, I think the inexperience of St. Louis could factor in if things don’t go their way, because they may not be prepared to handle the emotional rigors of playoff hockey like a veteran team could. But I suppose even this feeling is really just more data that can be quantified, as a simple spreadsheet of the teams’ age and playoff experience would solve the matter.

As I said to begin, there are miles of data everywhere you look – it’s knowing what information is useful, and what should be cast aside. And ultimately, since hockey is a sport, played for 60 minutes at a time, on a sheet of ice, using a round disc 3 inches in diameter, by beings who let emotion override reason at the flip of a hat – you have to allow for some randomness.

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