Leafs’ fans may now actually have something besides a hope and prayer in getting to the playoffs this season: Statistics.
According to an article in this week’s Toronto Star, as of US Thanksgiving the Leafs have a 77.5 per cent chance to make the playoffs. At the quarter pole – a time when GMs take stock of their teams and future needs – the Maples are 12-8-2 with 26 points. That tops the northeast division and ties them for third in the eastern conference.
Sure it’s early and there’s lots of hockey yet to be played as they say but the numbers make a pretty compelling case.
While there’s just five points separating first in the East (Penguins with 28) and 8th (tie with Buffalo and New Jersey) the mere fact the Maples are on the right side of that ledger matters significantly about who gets into the post-season.
The Star’s sports research team has compiled a statistical database going back to 1993 tracking this trend at the quarter point in the season, or 20 games. I’ll just borrow a couple of numbers which show that the picture even gets a little better for the Leafs.
They found that teams who had 28 points or more had an 89 per cent chance at the playoffs. The Leafs, with 26 after 20 games, means they have an awfully good shot. Teams with 17 or fewer points didn’t make the playoffs 84 per cent of the time.
What’s also noteworthy is how fine the line can be. According to the Star statistical database, 21 pts gets you in; 20 and you’re out. That’s how close it is. This time last year, the Leafs had 19 points and as we all know, they didn’t make it.
In the east, the Islanders and the Hurricanes are statistically out of it so far. Everyone else has 21 points or better which means a) there is exceptional parody in the conference and b) the statistical trend established will be bucked this year as five other teams will miss the playoffs.
The west has more separation with the Ducks, Avs, Flames and Blue Jackets currently below the 21-point threshold.
On average two teams from each conference who were in a playoff spot after 20 games fell short, replaced by two teams who managed to climb back in it by season’s end. Last year in the east, Atlanta dropped out and Buffalo got in. Three teams in the west traded spots. That of course will change this year in the east with 13 teams currently meeting the statistical criteria to make the playoffs at this point.
What all this shows is that there isn’t all that much volatility in the standings: it tends to remain stable despite just playing 25 per cent of the season. It’s incredibly difficult to make up lost ground in the 3-point system. Once you’re on the wrong side of that playoff cut-off, it’s a tough slog to get back in it. That’s why you have to feel encouraged as a Leafs fan with this bit of news.
Of course, things can go horribly wrong as Leaf cynics like to point out. After all, they haven’t been in the playoffs for six years. Confidence is a fragile thing as every sports talk show host in the city can attest to having to listen to the whiny, doomsday callers every time the team loses a couple in a row.
But let’s just say this much: Sitting near the top of the standings at the quarter mark feels a whole lot better than being on the outside looking in. The statistical projections add that extra layer of legitimacy. So fans should take a little comfort in knowing for the first time in ages, the numbers are finally working in their favour.