Heading into a shortened 48-game regular season, you hear the murmurs. Is a 48-game season legit? Will it produce a worthy champion? Good questions.
As we explore them, let's look back to the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils to provide an informative example. With only 20 points in their first 33 games under rookie coach John MacLean, New Jersey seemed far out of contention by Christmas, yet they staged a furious rally under Jacques Lemaire over the remainder of the campaign. Their 61 points in the final 48 games would have earned them an Atlantic Division crown -- if that's the sample of games that were played -- but over 82 games, their 81 points were only good for 11th in the East. There is no doubt that other teams breathed a sigh of relief when New Jersey fell short because the Devils were strong enough to have emerged as Eastern Conference champions if they had made the postseason.
Another example of the type of team that can benefit from a short season is one that must deal with injuries to key players -- for example, the current Pittsburgh Penguins, projected as the top team by Hockey Prospectus' VUKOTA rankings. Considering the continued uncertainty over Sidney Crosby's long-term health, it's not hard to imagine scenarios where Crosby would be available for the 70 games of a 48-game regular season and Cup run, but the not 100 or so games required in a normal season. Maybe the best team wins in 2013 only because of the shortened season. You can thank the lockout, Pittsburgh!
While all of this provides some context, let's look at the biggest question for fans -- what impact will the 48-game season have on my team's playoff chances. How likely is it for a strong team to miss the postseason by starting slowly, and how likely is it for a weaker team to sneak in?
Probably the simplest and most tangible way is to look at recent history from 2005-06 to 2011-12. While we could look at the middle 48 games and the final 48 games of those seasons, the closest analogue to the current shortened season is looking at the first 48 games. By doing so, we are similarly looking at teams coming together after an offseason, needing to jell but mostly healed from injuries, and all starting from zero points before teams start redistributing talent near the trade deadline. In any case, the results come out nearly the same overall, whichever set of 48 games you select. The charts to the right show the impact of a 48-game schedule as opposed to a full 82-game slate. The charts at the bottom of the article show the individual teams that would have made or missed the playoffs between 2005-06 and 2011-12.
If they only played the first 48 games in 2005-06 through
Teams out (seed)
Teams in (seed)
NY Rangers (6) NY Islanders (8)
Montreal (10) Carolina (11)
NY Islanders (13)
Pittsburgh (4)** Carolina (6)*
Florida (9) Buffalo (10)
NY Rangers (9)
Teams out (seed)
Teams in (seed)
San Jose (5) Anaheim (6)*
Vancouver (9) Los Angeles (10)
Columbus (6) St. Louis (7) Anaheim (8)
Edmonton (11) Dallas (12) Phoenix (13)
San Jose (2) Los Angeles (7)
Dallas (9) Colorado (14)
*Reached conference finals
**Won Stanley Cup
While predictably it's mostly a bunch of No. 6 through No. 8 seeds that would have missed out, the Stanley Cup-winning Penguins of 2008-09 are a huge exception. Pittsburgh came on like gangbusters at the end of that season, both after hiring Dan Bylsma as coach and the near-concurrent return of top defenseman and power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar. In effect, they were an immensely dangerous No. 4 seed that was playing like a No. 1 seed. The flip side is that they performed like a non-playoff team for the first half of the season. As a consequence, if the 2008-09 season had been cut off after the first 48 games, it would have featured a postseason completely without the Penguins. So while relatively unlikely, it's possible that a Stanley Cup caliber team could end up on the outside looking in come May.
What about the lesser teams that could have made it into the playoffs? While last season's hot start by the Minnesota Wild immediately comes to mind, the 2010-11 Avalanche are the most extreme example. They had 54 points in their first 48 games but incredibly finished with only 14 more, at 68 points. Making the playoffs would have been a double-edged sword, though. Would the short-term fortune have been worth losing out on drafting rookie of the year Gabriel Landeskog? Probably not. Similarly, a rebuilding team could sneak into the 2013 postseason and lose out on a key piece to its foundation. (And conversely, a playoff miss by a fully-formed Cup contender could add a lottery pick to its assets.) So be careful what you wish for.
The truth is though, even if a 48-game regular season makes standings a little crazier than usual, things are still going to be unpredictable in the playoffs.
While there will almost certainly be a few different teams in the postseason because of the short schedule, and in slightly different seedings, the playoffs are where the real roll of the dice comes in. Dominant regular-season teams are far from a lock to win a championship, with no more than a 20-25 percent chance of making it through four statistically short seven-game series. After all, the 121-point Washington Capitals of 2009-10 and the 117-point San Jose Sharks of 2008-09, consecutive President's Trophy winners, both were unceremoniously bounced by eighth seeds in the opening round. Now that's a crapshoot.
Chances of an 82-game playoff team not making it in 48 games
Actual percentage, 2005-06 to 2011-12
Chances of an
82-game non-playoff team making it in 48 games