The Correlation Between Shootouts and the Playoffs

With the dawn of playoff hockey later today, there’s a definite shift in the tone of the games. Every game means something more. A single night can change a season for better or worse. And a marathon classic can stretch across overtime periods for hours on end.

That last fact means that the shootout, friend of SportsCenter’s Top 10 List and enemy to purists is gone for another year.  Critics have long shouted out that the shootout is just a skills competition, with no relevance to how the teams actually play. After the Dallas Stars rode the shootout prowess of Jussi Jokinen to a #2 seed in 2005-06, before flaming out in the first round; it’s been said that great shootout teams don’t make great playoff teams. The example of that philosophy this year is the Phoenix Coyotes, league leader in shootout wins with 14. Are they really that good? Can they do any damage in the playoffs against the 5th-seeded Red Wings, who weren’t exactly racking up the bonus shootout points?

Well, I’ve decided to crunch the numbers and see just how much the shootout affects teams. After visiting the incredibly useful NHLShootouts.com, I’ve gathered the numbers of the best shootout seasons of all time that ended in a playoff berth.  What follows is a table of the top 40 team shootout seasons, organized by year, with the teams that missed the playoffs removed.  The columns are the all-time rank of that year’s team’s record, the team, the season, the shootout record, their playoff seed, and their results in the playoffs.

3  Dallas       2005-06  12-13  #2  L COL 1-4
13 New Jersey   2005-06   9-13  #3  W NYR 4-0 L CAR 1-4
20 Carolina     2005-06   8-10  #2  W MON 4-2 W NJ 4-2 W BUF 4-3 W EDM 4-3
34 NY Rangers   2005-06   7-11  #6  L NJ 0-4

4  Tampa Bay    2006-07  10-12  #7  L NJ 2-4
5  Buffalo      2006-07  10-14  #1  W NYI 4-1 W NYR 4-2 L OTT 1-4
6  Pittsburgh   2006-07  10-16  #5  L OTT 1-4
8  Minnesota    2006-07  10-17  #7  L ANA 1-4
9  New Jersey   2006-07  10-18  #2  W TB 4-2 L OTT 1-4
15 Dallas       2006-07   9-13  #6  L VAN 3-4
17 NY Rangers   2006-07   9-14  #6  W ATL 4-0 L BUF 2-4
25 NY Islanders 2006-07   8-13  #8  L NYI 1-4
35 Atlanta      2006-07   7-11  #3  L NYR 0-4

23 New Jersey   2007-08   8-12  #4  L NYR 1-4
29 Anaheim      2007-08   8-15  #4  L DAL 2-4
32 Colorado     2007-08   7-10  #6  W MIN 4-2 L DET 0-4
36 Pittsburgh   2007-08   7-11  #2  W OTT 4-0 W NYR 4-1 W PHI 4-1 LDET 2-4

7  NY Rangers   2008-09  10-16  #7  L WAS 3-4
33 Anaheim      2008-09   7-10  #8  W SJ 4-2 L DET 3-4

2  Phoenix      2009-10  14-20
10 Los Angeles  2009-10  10-18
11 Boston       2009-10  10-19
19 Chicago      2009-10   9-15
21 Pittsburgh   2009-10   8-10
24 Nashville    2009-10   8-12
37 Colorado     2009-10   7-12
38 Montreal     2009-10   7-12
41 San Jose     2009-10   7-13

Using these numbers, I’ve found a lot of interesting little tidbits that could be useful for predicting the outcome of this year’s playoffs.  Since the observations are somewhat random, the relevant conclusions will be bolded at the end of each section.  If you want to just skim to see something that affects your team, or your team’s opponent, feel free to do so.  There’s a lot of data, and I don’t want to bore anyone out there.

The acronym I’ve created for this is GST, simply standing for Great Shootout Team.  I need something to describe these teams, as I don’t want to create a verbal run-around with the English language.  It’s not like I’m Gary Bettman explaining how fantastic empty seats are for league revenues or something.  To the numbers!

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First, here are the combined records for GST’s from each round, over the five year span.  The first set of numbers is the total aggregate record, and the second set allows for the matchups of two GST’s to be taken out.

1st - 8-11
2nd - 3-5
3rd - 2-1
SCF - 1-1

1st - 3-6
2nd - 2-4
3rd - 2-1
SCF - 1-1

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the GST’s have a marked disadvantage.  Only one-third of teams with notably good shootout records win when playing any other team, regardless of playoff seed.

It could be inferred that the first two rounds weed out the teams that have used the shootout as their calling card to merely get into the playoffs, while the remaining teams happen to be good at the shootout just as they are good at everything else in the game.  However, those universally skilled teams are few and far between.  Out of sixteen teams to make the conference finals in four years, only three were among the GST’s.   Only one Stanley Cup champion has come from this group, the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes.

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One interesting case study is the 2007 playoffs.  In the Eastern Conference, seven of eight playoff teams ended the season with excellent records in the shootout.  The remaining team, Ottawa, was the team that won the conference.  Not only did the Senators win the East, but they won every playoff round with ease.  Every round ended with a 4 games to 1 series win.

Three years later, the Western Conference is shaping up the same way.  Six of the eight teams representing the West have notably high shootout records, good enough to qualify as GST’s.  Although the data sampling size is still small, this could mean great things for the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks.  Their position as the only teams not to greatly benefit from shootout wins could mean a surprisingly easy playoff run until they match up down the road.

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Now, you might say that those numbers could be skewed by the inherent outliers of the playoff system – #1 seeds on one end, #8 seeds on the other.  There are just some matchups that will always go a certain way, no matter how you break it down.  So, I’ve taken out all of the 1-8 and 2-7 matchups from the first round.  I figured that the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups were a better metric, since those seeds could have been different if not for the extra points awarded to shootout winners.  Here are the records just for teams in the 3-6 seed range.

13 New Jersey   2005-06    9-13   #3   W NYR 4-0 L CAR 1-4
34 NY Rangers   2005-06    7-11   #6   L NJ 0-4

6  Pittsburgh   2006-07   10-16   #5   L OTT 1-4
15 Dallas       2006-07    9-13   #6   L VAN 3-4
17 NY Rangers   2006-07    9-14   #6   W ATL 4-0 L BUF 2-4
35 Atlanta      2006-07    7-11   #3   L NYR 0-4

23 New Jersey   2007-08    8-12   #4   L NYR 1-4
29 Anaheim      2007-08    8-15   #4   L DAL 2-4
32 Colorado     2007-08    7-10   #6   W MIN 4-2 L DET 0-4

Now, the most striking thing about that table is how virtually all of those teams lost their first round series.  In the five occurrences when a GST in that range played a BST, the GST’s went 1-4.  The only victor, Colorado, was swept in the 2nd round. What does this mean for this year?  Here are the GST’s from this season that are seeded from 3 to 6.

2  Phoenix      2009-10   14-20
10 Los Angeles  2009-10   10-18
11 Boston       2009-10   10-19
21 Pittsburgh   2009-10    8-10

Given the historical weakness of GST teams seeded from 3-6, the Detroit Red Wings, the Vancouver Canucks, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Ottawa Senators all have distinct advantages going into the playoffs.

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There is one more factor that must be touched on, which is how shootouts have affected the entire makeup of the standings.  At this point, you might be saying that I’m not taking into effect how every other team did.  I’m only focusing on the great shootout teams, and ignoring how everyone else did or did not perform.  Again, thanks to NHLStandings.com, here are the standings with shootouts, and the standings if a game tied after OT merely gave one point to each side.  All teams irrelevant to the playoff race have been lopped off the bottom, for aesthetics’ sake.

Eastern Conference
With shootouts                       Without
1  Washington Capitals*  121  5-11   1 Washington Capitals* 116
2  New Jersey Devils*    103  6-11   2 New Jersey Devils*    97
3  Buffalo Sabres*       100  4-10   3 Buffalo Sabres*       96
4  Pittsburgh Penguins   101  8-10   4 Pittsburgh Penguins   93
5  Ottawa Senators        94  5-10   5 Ottawa Senators       89
6  Boston Bruins          91 10-19   6 Philadelphia Flyers   84
7  Philadelphia Flyers    88  4-7    7 New York Rangers      84
8  Montreal Canadiens     88  7-12   8 Montreal Canadiens    81
9  New York Rangers       87  3-7    9 Boston Bruins         81

Western Conference
With shootouts                       Without
1  San Jose Sharks*      113  7-13   1  San Jose Sharks*    106
2  Chicago Blackhawks*   112  9-15   2  Chicago Blackhawks* 103
3  Vancouver Canucks*    103  4-8    3  Vancouver Canucks*   99
4  Phoenix Coyotes       107 14-20   4  Detroit Red Wings    96
5  Detroit Red Wings     102  6-15   5  Phoenix Coyotes      93
6  Los Angeles Kings     101 10-18   6  Nashville Predators  92
7  Nashville Predators   100  6-11   7  Los Angeles Kings    91
8  Colorado Avalanche     95  7-12   8  Colorado Avalanche   88

When looking at these numbers, there’s little difference in the seedings.  However, what small changes there are would create a huge shakeup in the standings.  First, the Red Wings and Coyotes would trade spots, making Detroit the favorite in the series.  Nashville would slip by Los Angeles.  But most notably, the Boston Bruins would be out of the playoffs entirely if not for the shootout.  Instead of finishing sixth, Boston would be ninth and the New York Rangers would be in the seventh seed.  If anyone has the shootout to directly thank, it’s Boston.

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In short, the shootouts really are overvaluing certain teams.  Our hunch has been right all along, teams that are great in the shootout are not that great when the gimmick is taken away. In this playoff run, this principle will help a handful of teams, including the Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators.

Though, the biggest advantage of all will go to the Detroit Red Wings.  Every possible metric goes against Phoenix’s chances of success, given how shootout victories influenced the Coyotes’ season.  Teams that do well in the shootout don’t typically win.  When those teams are seeded between 3 and 6, they do even worse.  And when shootouts were taken out of the standings for this season, the Red Wings leapfrog the Coyotes for 4th overall.

In short, pick the Red Wings.  Some pundits might say that all playoff teams are created equal.  But when you look at the records of the GST’s and the records of every other team, you see that’s not true.  Because the numbers don’t lie, and they spell disaster for Phoenix in the playoffs.

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About the Author: Gordon is currently looking to enter the world of journalism, while spending his free time at either the University of Michigan or the Joe Louis Arena.

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