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How The NHL’s New Format Changed The Stanley Cup Race

On Saturday, the NHL joins the ranks of sports returning to action, with 24 teams plotting out one of the strangest paths to the Stanley Cup in hockey history.

Like the NBA, the NHL season will restart in a “bubble,” with early games split between two “hub” sites: Toronto (for the Eastern Conference) and Edmonton (for the West). Also like its basketball-playing cousins, hockey will have a bit of a convoluted format upon its return. Each conference’s top four teams1 will play a round-robin tournament (under regular-season rules) for playoff seeding, while the other eight teams from each conference have a best-of-five series (under playoff rules) to determine who reaches the Round of 16.

[Related: A Home Playoff Game Is A Big Advantage — Unless You Play Hockey]

From there, though, the playoffs will look roughly the same as usual, aside from reseeding after every round and a lack of crowds or home-ice advantage — which isn’t worth much in hockey anyway — for anyone except the Maple Leafs and Oilers.2 So with the playoffs set to begin, I wanted to see how much the Stanley Cup picture has changed since the last time players took the ice, on March 11. Using Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS) for each team — and a set of logistic regressions relating SRS to win probabilities for games under rules for both the regular season and the postseason3 — I programmed 10,000 simulations for the rest of the season and playoffs under two scenarios: if the season had played out as planned back in March and under the current expanded format.4

Before the break, the Stanley Cup favorites (according to SRS) were the Boston Bruins (13 percent), Colorado Avalanche (12 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning (11 percent), St. Louis Blues (9 percent), Philadelphia Flyers (8 percent), Washington Capitals (7 percent) and Vegas Golden Knights (6 percent). Under the new system, those seven are still the front-runners, with essentially the same odds — except Boston dropped to 12 percent and Tampa Bay moved up to 12 percent. So in that sense, the big picture of the playoffs hasn’t changed much.

Cup favorites, then and now

Most likely 2019-20 NHL champions under original* and new playoff systems

Original System New System
Rk Team Prob. Rk Team Prob.
1 Boston Bruins 12.6% 1 Boston Bruins 12.2%
2 Colorado Avalanche 12.0 2 Tampa Bay Lightning 12.1
3 Tampa Bay Lightning 11.2 3 Colorado Avalanche 12.0
4 St. Louis Blues 8.8 4 St. Louis Blues 8.7
5 Philadelphia Flyers 7.8 5 Philadelphia Flyers 8.2
6 Washington Capitals 6.8 6 Washington Capitals 6.9
7 Vegas Golden Knights 5.8 7 Vegas Golden Knights 5.5
8 Pittsburgh Penguins 5.7 8 Dallas Stars 4.3
9 Carolina Hurricanes 5.0 9 Pittsburgh Penguins 3.4
10 Vancouver Canucks 3.6 10 Carolina Hurricanes 3.3
11 Edmonton Oilers 3.6 11 Edmonton Oilers 3.2
12 Dallas Stars 3.4 12 Winnipeg Jets 2.4

*These playoff probabilities use simulations of the original schedule from March 12 onward, with a standard playoff system. (Essentially, these are what the odds would have been without the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Based on 10,000 simulations of both normal and current playoff systems.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

However, some teams have seen their title probabilities nudged up or down by a percentage point or two. The Arizona Coyotes (whose Cup chances rose by 1.3 percentage points) and New York Rangers (up 0.8 points) saw their odds increase because both are reasonably good teams by SRS — each ranks in the league’s top half — that had relatively long playoff odds beforehand, but now can potentially do damage in the expanded bracket. Others, such as the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks, watched their Cup odds go up mainly because they had next to no shot at making the playoffs under the standard system; now, the qualifying series gives each a fighting chance. And the Dallas Stars’ probability went up because they are the fourth seed in the West — meaning they can avoid the qualifying round entirely and skip straight to the Round of 16, despite ranking among the league’s bottom half in SRS.

How did Cup odds shift under the new playoff format?

For playoff-bound NHL teams, biggest change in 2019-20 championship odds since play ceased on March 11

Stanley Cup Odds
Team Normal System Current System Change
Arizona Coyotes 0.7% 2.0% +1.3
Chicago Blackhawks <0.1 1.3 1.3
Tampa Bay Lightning 11.2 12.1 0.9
Dallas Stars 3.4 4.3 0.9
New York Rangers 0.5 1.4 0.8
Montreal Canadiens <0.1 0.7 0.7
Columbus Blue Jackets 0.3 0.9 0.6
Philadelphia Flyers 7.8 8.2 0.4
Minnesota Wild 1.2 1.6 0.4
Nashville Predators 1.3 1.6 0.4
Florida Panthers 1.2 1.3 0.1
Washington Capitals 6.8 6.9 0.1
New York Islanders 1.3 1.4 0.1
Toronto Maple Leafs 2.3 2.3 0.0
Colorado Avalanche 12.0 12.0 0.0
St. Louis Blues 8.8 8.7 0.0
Vegas Golden Knights 5.8 5.5 -0.3
Edmonton Oilers 3.6 3.2 -0.4
Boston Bruins 12.6 12.2 -0.4
Winnipeg Jets 2.8 2.4 -0.5
Calgary Flames 1.8 1.2 -0.6
Vancouver Canucks 3.6 2.0 -1.6
Carolina Hurricanes 5.0 3.3 -1.7
Pittsburgh Penguins 5.7 3.4 -2.3

Based on 10,000 simulations of both normal and current playoff systems.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

That somewhat arbitrary cutoff between the top four seeds and the rest of the conference could prove consequential for several teams. As an example, the Pittsburgh Penguins rank eighth in SRS and possess plenty of star powerwhen healthy — but also finished 3 points behind the rival Flyers for the fourth-best record in the East. That means Pittsburgh must play an extra series — with just a 59 percent chance of winning it — to even make it into the Round of 16, despite having a 98 percent chance to get that far before the pause. Even though the Pens will play the Canadiens, who are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the lowest SRS of any team in the restart field, Pittsburgh is a clear victim of the NHL’s modified playoff system.

Whose playoff odds improved under the new format?

For restart-bound NHL teams, biggest change in odds of making the Round of 16 since play ceased on March 11

Odds to Make Round of 16
Team Normal System Current System Change
Chicago Blackhawks 2.4% 44.8% +42.5
Montreal Canadiens <0.1 41.0 +40.9
Arizona Coyotes 19.4 52.1 +32.7
New York Rangers 17.9 44.4 +26.5
Columbus Blue Jackets 17.6 42.7 +25.1
Florida Panthers 41.5 50.8 +9.3
Minnesota Wild 42.8 48.0 +5.2
Dallas Stars 96.7 +3.3
Vegas Golden Knights 99.4 +0.6
Philadelphia Flyers >99.9 +0.0
Washington Capitals >99.9 +0.0
Boston Bruins >99.9 +0.0
Colorado Avalanche >99.9 +0.0
Tampa Bay Lightning >99.9 +0.0
St. Louis Blues >99.9 +0.0
Nashville Predators 48.1 47.9 -0.2
Winnipeg Jets 63.3 54.7 -8.6
New York Islanders 58.2 49.2 -9.1
Calgary Flames 58.9 45.3 -13.6
Toronto Maple Leafs 76.7 57.3 -19.4
Vancouver Canucks 75.1 52.0 -23.1
Carolina Hurricanes 90.0 55.6 -34.4
Edmonton Oilers 93.9 55.2 -38.7
Pittsburgh Penguins 98.1 59.0 -39.0

Based on 10,000 simulations of both normal and current playoff systems.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The same goes for the Oilers, Hurricanes and a number of other teams that had high postseason odds under the old system, but now — by virtue of missing out on the top four seeds in the conference — will need to win a best-of-five series just to get into the usual playoff bracket. (The good news? All three of those teams — Edmonton, Carolina and Pittsburgh — would see their Cup odds double if they do survive the qualifying round.)

[Related: Apparently The Regular Season Is Irrelevant In The NHL]

This effect could also hurt Canadian teams’ chances of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1993. Although Montreal was among the biggest beneficiaries of the amended format, Canada’s other postseason entries all saw their odds of mounting a deep playoff run drop, some significantly. (This despite Canada hosting the entire restart, with two of its teams — Toronto and Edmonton — having at least some extra familiarity by playing in their home facilities.) Overall, the six Canadian teams in the restart — sorry, Ottawa — are, on average, 10 percentage points less likely to make the Round of 16, 5 percentage points less likely to make the conference semifinals, 3 percentage points less likely to make the conference finals and 1 percentage point less likely to make the Cup Final now than if the season had been allowed to play out normally.5

If you’re not a fan of one of the teams hurt by the change in format, though, these playoffs should be as exciting and compelling as ever. Can the defending-champion Blues keep beating the odds? Can the Bruins avenge last year’s Game 7 defeat? Can the Lightning find redemption after their historic 2019 collapse? Or will one of the nonfavorites crash the party, because it’s hockey? All of those storylines are why, despite months of waiting and a byzantine new playoff format (as per the NHL’s typical style), the battle for the 2020 Cup still promises to be a good one.


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Footnotes

  1. By regular-season points percentage.

  2. Edmonton will be the lone host city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

  3. Using data from the past decade of NHL games.

  4. Toronto and Edmonton were assigned home-ice advantage for games played at their home rinks, but it was reduced by 60 percent (in keeping with our model for soccer).

  5. The average Canadian team’s championship odds are basically steady since none of them was especially likely to win either before the pause or after.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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