Every day we’re seeing another team’s playoff hopes and dreams being crushed. Desperate eyes turn towards the young players coming up through the system, and the arm-chair general manager’s most popular line of advice becomes ‘We’d be better off tanking the last 8 games and getting a top pick’.
I’ve always wondered – would a team actually be better off? Does getting a top draft pick put a dead-last placed team in a more competitive position than a team that just barely missed the playoffs? Sure it’s nice to have young stars, but the Oilers, Islanders, and Blue Jackets have demonstrated that a first overall pick isn’t a sure ticket to the promised land.
With a recent Breaking Bad marathon reestablishing my faith in the scientific method, I set out to collect/tamper with data in any way necessary to discover something of interest on the topic. I looked at NHL standings since the 2005 lockout, and analyzed the future performance of the teams that ranked 9th through 15th in their conference. Below is one visualization of something I found (read this graph as – If my Vancouver Canucks finish in 10th place in the conference this year, they have a 35% chance of making the playoffs next year, and a 57% chance of making it at least once in the next 3 years).
Keeping in mind that there have only been 7 years of data since the last lockout so the sample size isn’t great, a couple of things I found interesting in this are:
- If you are a fan of a team that finishes 9th in the conference, there is a 72% chance you do as bad or worse next year, and a 56% chance you do as bad or worse for each of the next 3 years. Ouch.
- There seems to be something weird about teams finishing in 12th place. Their performance is way worse than the average. I suppose if you’re a 12th place team you’re in a bit of a no mans land, where you aren’t very close to making the playoffs but you’re also not in a position to get a great draft pick.
Grouping the data a little better allows us to increase the sample size and try to make better observations. Below I’ve grouped teams that place 9th through 11th and teams that placed 13th through 15th (which leaves out the weird middle 12th placer’s).
This I find interesting. Whether a team finished 9,10, or 11th versus 13,14, or 15th doesn’t seem to impact their likelihood of making playoffs the following year. However, teams that finish towards the bottom of the pack have a much higher probability of making the playoffs in one of the next three years than the teams that were just edged out of the playoffs.
The most obvious explanation for these results would be that the bottom-dwellers get better draft picks, and over the next 3 years these draft picks have enough impact that they significantly improve the team. This seems an easy enough explanation to buy, but correlation does not in itself prove causation. Teams finishing at the bottom are also more likely to fire coaches and managers, make sweeping personnel changes before the trade deadline, and use the last few games to develop their AHL talent. That said, anecdotally in recent years it would seem that the top picks have had a pretty significant impact.
While pulling these numbers I noticed a few instances that stood out where teams really turned things around quick. The Pittsburgh Penguins (2006), Philadelphia Flyers (2007), Washington Capitals (2007), and LA Kings (2008) were all either 14th or 15th in their conference, then managed to make the playoffs each of the next 3 years. In each case the turnaround was lead by young, recently drafted superstars: Sidney Crosby (#1 overall in 2005) and Evgeni Malkin (#2 overall in 2004) in Pittsburgh, Mike Richards (#24 overall in 2003) and Jeff Carter (#11 in 2003) in Philadelphia, Alex Ovechkin (#1 overall in 2004) in Washington, and Drew Doughty (#2 in 2008) and Jonathan Quick (#72 in 2005) in LA. But what you’ll notice about these names is that, 1) it’s not necessarily just the top overall picks that inspire the turnaround, and 2) with the exception of Malkin (who had Crosby there first), each of these guys played on the bottom-dwelling team for at least one year before the team made the playoffs.
So what does this mean, should my team tank the last few games? I don’t actually think this is a valid question, as no self-respecting sports team would intentionally tank a season. But the numbers do seem to suggest that teams that finish dead last have a much nicer prognosis in coming years than the ones that just get edged out of playoffs. And expect it to take more than one awful season before the turnaround happens.
All this to say, (someday) you’d better watch out for the Oilers! To find cool stats like these ones on your own, check out our awesome new player profiles, or interact with over 1,000 NHL players and prospects via the POUND on the Shnarped hockey app for iOS and Android..