Bad Year for the New Guys

In this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, six teams made it this year who fell short the season before.  Those six, the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, and Colorado Avalanche, went a combined 0-6 in their first round series.  (As we all know, they did this just to spite my picks of the Sabres, Senators, and Kings.)  In fact 3 of the 4 Western Conference winners won at least one series in 2009, everyone but the San Jose Sharks.  If the Washington Capitals close out the Montreal Canadiens tonight, the same 3 of 4 proportion will be true in the East.  Is this a trend?  Is playoff experience that important in hockey?  In a word, no.

In 2009, only one new team made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. That team, the Carolina Hurricanes, proceeded to defeat the returning New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, before falling to the eventual Cup-winning Penguins in the conference finals. In the West, four new teams made the playoffs, with the Vancouver Canucks winning a single series and the Chicago Blackhawks winning two. The St. Louis Blues fell in the first round to fellow new team Vancouver, while the Columbus Blue Jackets bowed out to Detroit. Overall 60% of the new teams in the playoffs won at least one series in 2009. Only one team in each conference advanced after having won a series the year before, the Red Wings and the Penguins; a mere 25% of teams winning a series had done so the year before.

In 2008, only one new team made the playoffs in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche. They proceeded to knock out the returning Minnesota Wild in the first round, before succumbing to the Red Wings in Round 2. In the East, four new teams made the playoffs, with the Canadiens and Flyers each advancing, and with the Flyers knocking out the Canadiens to make it to the Conference Finals. Only the Rangers in the East and the Sharks and Red Wings in the West had won a series the year before. Overall, 60% of new teams won a series and only 32.5% of the teams that won a series had won one the year before.

This is by no means a comprehensive study, but it does point out basic flaws in the idea that experience is the end-all and be-all of playoff success. This year, new teams lost, but that is really no more than a statistical fluke. Next year, new teams are likely to do just as well as returning teams, just as they have done in the past.

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