This year’s Stanley Cup final features one team that, when the regular season ended, few expected would be there: the Philadelphia Flyers. Ranked seventh in the East (and 19th overall) in the regular season, the Flyers’ road to the finals involved taking out two favored teams before meeting Montreal in the conference finals, who had also taken out two favored teams to make it as far as they did. It shouldn’t really be surprising to see such teams make it deep into the playoffs, given the short-series nature of the postseason. But maybe there’s more to it than that.
If we define a “surprise finalist” as a team that reaches the Cup final after finishing ninth or lower in the regular season (putting them in the lower half of playoff teams), then there have been 11 surprise finalists in the 31 seasons since 16-team playoffs began in 1980. Interestingly, the 1981 North Stars were the only surprise finalist between 1980 and 1990. But in the 20 seasons since then, there has been a surprise finalist every two years on average. Presumably this greater rate of surprise finalists results from the increased parity in the league since the expansion rush began.
The complete list of surprise finalists include the 1981 North Stars (9th in the regular season), 1991 North Stars (16th), 1993 Kings (11th), 1994 Canucks (14th), 1995 Devils (10th), 1999 Sabres (9th), 2002 Hurricanes (16th), 2003 Ducks (11th), 2004 Flames (12th), 2006 Oilers (14th), and 2010 Flyers (19th). The first thing you might notice about this list is that although there have been 10 surprise finalists before the current season, only one of them has ever actually won the Stanley Cup: the 1995 Devils. This is not terribly surprising, since each of these teams was an underdog in their finals appearances; there has never been a Stanley Cup final contested between two surprise finalists.
What’s the point of all this? That Philadelphia is an underdog against Chicago this year? That much should already be obvious, and being down 2-1 in games so far only compounds that. No, the point here is not the 2010 finals, but what might happen next year. The question is, do surprise finalists reach the finals based on luck, or is there something more?
There is always an undercurrent with a Cinderella team like this, the idea that an impressive playoff performance is more indicative of the team’s true quality than their mediocre regular season might suggest. They may have been a middling team during the year, but they really figured it out in the postseason, found their stride and showed their true ability. That is, the team is up and coming.
But is there any validity to this idea that a good playoff performance like this shows that a team is really better than their regular-season record would suggest? If there is any validity to this, we would expect this improved performance to carry over to the following season. If the team really found its legs in the playoffs, their newfound ability should continue into the near future. Otherwise, the deep playoff run would simply be the result of luck.
(Note that this is not the same as the idea that certain teams are “built for the playoffs”, where they will always be better in the playoffs than in the regular season. The fact that only 10% of surprise finalists actually win the Cup rebuts that idea here.)
As a quick-and dirty measure of team quality, we’ll use the ratio of goals scored to goals against. For example, in the table below, the 1981 North Stars have a ratio of 1.11, which is calculated by dividing their 291 goals for by their 263 goals allowed. For each surprise finalist, this ratio is presented for both their Cup final year (N) and the following year (N+1). If surprise finalists are really better teams in the playoffs than in the regular season, we should expect to see a trend of improvement in year N+1.
Surprise Finalist Ratio (N) Ratio (N+1) Change
1981 North Stars 1.11 1.20 +0.09
1991 North Stars 0.96 0.88 -0.08
1993 Kings 0.99 0.91 -0.08
1994 Canucks 1.01 1.03 +0.02
1995 Devils 1.12 1.06 -0.06
1999 Sabres 1.18 1.04 -0.14
2002 Hurricanes 1.00 0.71 -0.29
2003 Ducks 1.05 0.86 -0.19
2004 Flames 1.14 1.09 -0.05
2006 Oilers 1.02 0.79 -0.23
2010 Flyers 1.05 TBD TBD
AVERAGE 1.06 0.96 -0.10
So much for that idea. Eight of the ten teams (excluding the 2010 Flyers) were worse in year N+1 than they were in N, and the two that did improve did so by very small amounts. Several surprise finalists fell off a cliff the following season, going from a decent record to a bad one: the Canes, Ducks and Oilers. In a remarkable coincidence, two of these three teams won the Stanley Cup four years after their appearance as a surprise finalist. The Oilers had no such luck. This past season was the fourth after their surprise finalist year, and they posted a ratio of 0.75 to finish last in their division.
I don’t really want to suggest that you should expect a surprise finalist to get worse rather than better the following year, despite the above figures. We’re dealing with a very small number of observations. But there may be something to this, at least psychologically. If you’re the GM of a team that makes it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, you’re liable to believe that you have a very strong team, regardless of your regular-season standing. You might overlook your team’s weaknesses, believing that you don’t have any significant holes to fill. After all, you were just a few wins away from hockey’s ultimate prize. So instead of spending the summer trying to improve your team, you might be content to stand pat. This could lead to a poor performance the following year, when the cracks begin to show.
But more likely than not, the drop-offs we see here are results of normal variation in performance. All three of the teams that dropped off dramatically got significantly better in year N+2 (Hurricanes 0.82 ratio, Ducks 1.11 and Oilers 0.94). Though there may not be a good reason to believe that the average surprise finalist should be expected to get worse the following season, there is certainly no reason to believe that these teams reached the finals because they were better than their record suggested. They performed more-or-less the same the following year, which indicates that their runs to the Cup final (and in all cases but one, their ultimate losses to a better team) were the result of the short-series playoff format, which will always result in a significant number of upsets.
There is one undeniable cost to a surprise finalist, one that didn’t affect the above teams because it’s a recent change (introduced in 2007), and one that very likely doesn’t affect the team’s fortunes immediately. The loser of the Stanley Cup finals receives the 29th pick in the NHL Entry Draft that year, regardless of regular-season standing. If the Flyers had lost in the first round, they would have had the 16th overall selection, since they were the second-worst-ranked playoff team. Now they will draft 29th or 30th depending on how they fare against Chicago. Of course, if they pick 30th it will be because they have won the Stanley Cup, and since that’s the ultimate goal of playing in the NHL, there will be no tears shed. And the drop-off in talent between picks 16 and 29 isn’t very big. Is it small enough for a 10% shot at the Cup to be worthwhile? Between that small chance and the financial benefits of playing deep into the playoffs, you’d be hard-pressed to argue it isn’t.