A switch to points percentage for NHL playoff seeding could cause chaos

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Before the 2020-21 season, the NHL and NHLPA agreed the last day of the regular season would be scheduled for May 8 and the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs scheduled for May 11. The league wants to finish up the postseason before July 23, which marks the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. Meeting that timeline could necessitate a tweak to the method used to determine playoff teams given the possibility not all teams will play the same number of games. Instead of relying on total standings points the league might be forced to use points percentage, similar to how it ran the summer restart in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles last year.

It’s a simple solution, but it could have significant unintended consequences. Research has shown that even over an 82-game season, talent is only marginally more important than luck in determining the final standings. The longer the season, however, the more likely the best teams are going to show their true strength.

Since the Vegas Golden Knights joined the league in 2017-18, research has shown luck and talent converge and carry equal impact on the standings at the 56-game mark. In other words, the shorter the season, the less we can be certain the more skillful teams will rise to the top of the standings, leading to more surprises. If we define a “surprise” as a team that should make the playoffs based on a certain level of talent as determined by goal differential (the higher the goal differential, the better the team) but doesn’t because of luck and randomness, research has shown a 48-game season has 70 percent more surprises than an 82-game season.

Using points percentage, instead of total points, only exacerbates this effect. For instance, the New Jersey Devils, the sixth seed in the East Division on Feb. 19, have registered 14 points in 11 games (.636 points percentage), a rate higher than the fourth-seeded New York Islanders (.594) and fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins (.567). If the league adopts playoff seeding based on points percentage and nothing changes for these two teams, the Devils would make the playoffs and the Islanders and Penguins would not, despite the latter earning a higher raw total of points.

Hot streaks or losing skids would also have more impact for teams playing fewer games. Let’s say Team A has 61 points in 51 games (.598 points percentage) and Team B has 55 points in 46 games (.598). They each go on a five-game winning streak to end the season. Team B would have a better points percentage (.637) than Team A (.634) thanks to five fewer games played.

This is obviously a hypothetical scenario; but based on the standings on Feb. 19, there are more than a few teams which would be impacted from the change to points percentage if this is indeed the path the NHL takes for the postseason.

Chicago likely wouldn’t be happy if there is a format switch. The Blackhawks are 9-5-4 (22 points in 18 games, .611 points percentage) and occupy the No. 2 spot in the division. If the seeding was based on points percentage they would drop to No. 4, just ahead of the Dallas Stars (5-3-4, 14 points in 12 games, .583).

Chicago would then lose home-ice advantage, a tangible edge in a team’s favor. In the NHL, home teams get the benefit of last change, meaning the coach can see which line and defensive pairings are on the ice before deciding which of his own players to use. Blackhawks Coach Jeremy Colliton has used home ice to his advantage to date, with his squad outscoring opponents 19 to15 at even strength. On the road, however, they are outscored 7 to 20.

Toronto appears to be putting a stranglehold on the top spot, and Montreal is looking good for No. 2, but the rest of the division could get jumbled with the Winnipeg Jets pushing the Edmonton Oilers out of the No. 3 spot.

They say all you need is a spot in the NHL playoffs to have a chance at the Stanley Cup, and right now the Minnesota Wild, second-to-last in the West, wouldn’t make the playoffs. However, make the switch to points percentage for the playoff seeding and the Wild moves from No. 7 to No. 4, pushing the current No. 4, the Arizona Coyotes, out of the playoff picture.

You could argue the Wild has been unlucky. Minnesota generates an above-average rate of even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes (25.2, 14th) and allows the sixth-best rate of even-strength scoring chances against (22.0). If that bad luck were to revert to an expected level of goal scoring for that rate of chances, the Wild could become the surprise of the 2021 season.

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