The Stanley Cup playoffs begin today, with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lighting entering as heavy betting favorites. And for good reason: Their regular season resume is impeccable. They earned 128 points by winning 62 games, placing them in a tie with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular-season wins in league history.
En route to all those wins, the Bolts led the NHL in goals scored, powerplay goals scored, shooting percentage and penalty kill percentage1 and finished third in save percentage. Nikita Kucherov became the first player in more than a decade to register 120 or more points, and Steven Stamkos had the most productive season of his already immensely productive career.
Tampa is a balanced juggernaut, and every other team should be very afraid of it.
With all that said, it must be noted that regular-season dominance hardly guarantees postseason glory in the NHL. Of the 13 teams that have won the Presidents’ Trophy since the lockout of 2004-05, just two have gone on to lift the Stanley Cup. And of the 10 regular-season winners to earn 120 or more regular-season points in league history, just four have gone on to win professional hockey’s ultimate prize.2
Still, NHL favorites3 haven’t had it all that bad since the lockout, especially when compared with the other three major North American men’s leagues. Only NBA favorites have had better championship odds going into the playoffs over the past 13 years.
Hockey favorites don’t have it too bad
For each of the four major North American men’s leagues, playoff field size and average pre-playoff title probability* for favorites, 2006-2018
|League||Playoff Teams per Year||Favorite’s Average Championship Probability|
|National Basketball Association||16||36.1%|
|National Hockey League||16||23.5|
|Major League Baseball||8/10||21.4|
|National Football League||12||18.7|
While it might not be as inevitable as, say, the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA title in 2018 (or 2017 or 2015), Tampa’s regular-season dominance suggests that it’s poised to continue this trend. The Bolts scored 103 more goals than they conceded during the regular season; the next best mark was set by the Calgary Flames, who posted a +62 goal differential. The gulf between best and second-best is immense, and it underscores Tampa’s historic regular-season greatness. And indeed, Tampa may be the NHL’s best team since the lockout.
Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,4 reiterates just how special this Bolts group is. From 2005-06 to 2017-18, just three teams finished the regular season with an SRS better than 1, and no team eclipsed 1.2. The most recent team to do so — the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks — won the Stanley Cup. Tampa finished the 2018-19 regular season with an SRS of 1.21. All signs are pointing to late-spring celebrations on the Gulf Coast.
Tampa’s only real concern at the moment is the health of Victor Hedman, the reigning Norris Trophy winner for the top defenseman. The Swede missed Tampa’s final three games with an “upper-body injury.” Hedman has a history of concussions, and “upper-body injury” is often NHL front-office code for concussion. The slick-skating defenseman is Tampa’s fourth-highest scorer, its power-play quarterback and the leader of a rearguard partially responsible for that gaudy goal differential. The Bolts can probably survive a first-round tilt against a slightly better-than-average Blue Jackets team without Hedman, but things might not be as easy against subsequent teams.
If there’s a cautionary tale for this iteration of the Bolts, it’s that Red Wings team from 1995-96: Detroit earned the second-most regular-season points in NHL history and boasted two of the league’s best offensive players (Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman) and the league’s reigning Norris Trophy winner (Paul Coffey) and yet failed to advance beyond the Western Conference finals. In the NHL, history is written between April and June, not October and April. Tampa is on top of the hockey world at the moment. But that world could change significantly in a matter of weeks.