It’s been a cold, agonizing quarter-century for hockey fans in the Great White North. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens raised a 24th banner to the rafters of Le Forum. And last spring was particularly dreary — for the first time since 1970, a grand total of zero Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs.
But as the playoffs begin anew this week, things are different: Five of the seven Canadian franchises are back in the postseason after last year’s hiatus, tied with 2015 for the most north-of-the-border playoff entrants in the NHL’s post-lockout era.
So, Canada will probably end its 23-year Cup-less streak in 2017, right? Well, maybe. The NHL playoffs are kind of a crapshoot, subject as they are to the whims of a rubber disc spinning on a sheet of frozen water. So the more cracks Canadian teams can take at the Cup, the better their country’s odds of winning. (Naively doing the math, five entries out of 16 playoff squads works out to a 31 percent chance.) The playoffs aren’t totally a crapshoot, though — better teams still have a greater chance of winning. And that ends up hurting Canada’s chances quite a bit.
Following up on research by FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver, I used Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS)1 in a regression to estimate each team’s pre-playoff Stanley Cup chances going back to 1988.2 This type of basic model can’t account for each team’s specific postseason path, but it can give us a sense of how strong each team was relative to its overall competition in the league — and how that typically translates to its chances of winning the Cup.
For instance, back in the halcyon days of 1988, each of the league’s top three teams in SRS — the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens — hailed from Canada, giving the country a whopping 61 percent combined chance of winning the Cup that season. (And yep, Edmonton wound up taking the prize.) The late ’80s were a golden era for Canada’s Cup chances; Canadian teams haven’t combined for even half those odds in a single postseason since 2006.
This year, the five Canadian playoff squads’ probabilities add up to a mere 17 percent — only a little over half what we expected earlier when we naively assumed that every playoff team had an equal shot at Lord Stanley’s Mug.
Why such a difference? None of Canada’s teams rank among the NHL’s elite. According to SRS, the best Canadian team — Connor McDavid’s Oilers — ranks a distant sixth in the league, with a rating that translates to a mere 5 percent chance of winning the Cup.
Of course, 17 percent is slightly better than Canada’s overall post-lockout average (16 percent), and none of these five teams play each other in the first round, so they won’t be cannibalizing each other for at least one stage of the playoffs. Who knows, maybe McDavid or Erik Karlsson will take over, or maybe one of the five netminders backstopping Canada’s hopes will catch fire and help his team buck the odds.
But for now, Canadian hopes of ending the Stanley Cup drought are once again resting on a handful of decent-but-not-great clubs. As usual, the nation’s expectations might outweigh these teams’ capabilities. But whatever happens, it certainly beats last year — the first step toward winning the postseason crapshoot, after all, is buying into the table.