Playoff Primer Part 2/2 (Regular Season Success)

Happy NHL Playoffs Eve!

If you haven’t checked out part 1 of the primer, you’re missing out on an exploration of NHL home ice advantage in the regular season v. playoffs. In part 2, I’m going to be exploring the relationship between regular season success and playoff success across the NHL, NBA and NFL. In other words, how much “parity” do we see between the playoffs and regular season? In this case, what I mean by “parity” is the relationship between regular season and playoff success. I capture this phenomenon by looking at the average regular season winning% of playoff teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL (data courtesy of hockey, baseball and football reference):

Average Regular Season Winning% of Playoff Teams

What does this mean? Since the NFL only has 12 total playoff teams compared to the 16 of the NBA and NHL, it is to be expected that the average NFL playoff team is well above average. However, when we compare the NHL and NBA over the past 18 years, the average NBA playoff team tended to be better than the average NHL playoff team – until 2012. This trend shifted quite drastically in 2012, with the average NHL playoff team outperforming the average NBA playoff team in the regular season.

What if we limit our scope from all playoff teams to the regular season winning% of conference finalists (the final-4):

Regular Season Winning% of Final-4

While the NFL still reigns supreme with the highest average regular season winning% of their Conference Championship participants, they did fall below average twice in the past 18 years (2008 and 2010). Just to refresh your memory, the 2008 NFL NFC Championship featured the 9-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles and 9-7 Arizona Cardinals. That year, the final-4 boasted a combined 65% winning percentage, lowest in the league’s past 18 years, but still more than the average NHL Conference Finals team. Speaking of which, the NHL was below average (and at the bottom of the list) every season except 2012. This featured the (somewhat) anti-climatic Conference Finals that included two #1 seeds (Pittsburgh and Chicago), the 4th best team in the league (Boston) and Los Angeles. In other words, the NHL appears to have the most unpredictable outcomes in the playoffs of these three leagues. But wait there’s more…It’s time for the main event: The difference between regular season winning% of the average final-4 team relative to the average playoff team.

Difference Between Regular Season Winning% of Final-4 and Average Playoff Team

The impact of this chart is to identify the “parity” within each of the leagues by calculating the difference in regular season winning% of final-4 teams to their respective leagues’ average winning% of all playoff teams. There’s a few conclusions that we can draw from this chart: (1) The NBA is the most predictable sport in this regard. This should come as no surprise to anyone that follows basketball – the best teams seem to almost always advance to the conference finals, with 2 notable exceptions: 2006 and 2009. In 2006, while Detroit and Cleveland occupied the top-2 seeds in the East, there was a major shocker out west with the 8th seeded Warriors upsetting the Mavs in the first round. Something similar happened in 2009, with the top-seeded Cavs upset in the second round by Boston and the 2nd-seeded Mav’s getting dunked on (pun intended) by the Spurs in the first round. While a couple of 1/2/3 seeds being upset isn’t really that exciting for the NHL or NFL, for the NBA it’s the only evidence of relative unpredictability that we have. (2) The NHL has the most unpredictability in the playoffs of any sport. It is rare (like 2012) that successful regular season teams advance to the conference championship. On four different occasions (2009, 2011, 2013 and 2016), the average final-4 team was actually worse than the average NHL playoff team. The only other league to accomplish this feat was the NFL, who holds the record for most chaotic playoff of the past 18 years in 2008. (3) Speaking of the NFL, there’s a lot more variation than other sports, , which is a product of a single-elimination playoff format.

In sum: The NHL and NBA are more predictable (for very different reasons). The regular season is less predictive of a deep playoff run in the NHL and more so for the NBA. Whereas, the NFL is just a total crap shoot year-to-year. With 24 teams in the NHL Playoffs this year, we should actually expect some chaos based on what we’ve seen in previous seasons.

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