The Habs: a contender or a Stanley Cup Finalist one-and-over*?

Greetings to all,

Now, a first disclaimer: the question in the title will, obviously, be answered on the ice when the 2021-2022 season concludes, though we might get some hints before that happens.

That said, there are plenty of analysts that keep repeating two factors:

- The Habs are lousy in the regular season. They finished 24th and 18th overall in the last two seasons. It's arguable they should not have been in the playoffs each time. Now, they go back to a loaded Atlantic Division with at least 4 other playoff hopefuls ahead of them.

- The Habs lost Danault, Weber and Perry. The first two will have a major impact, and it's unknown how the loss of Perry will affect the team (Tampa got him by giving him two years).

That said, I want to bring the focus on other factors, including the main one: health.

Price will likely miss the start of the season because of knee surgery (knee injuries are so bad for goalies). Paul Byron is out until late December at least, Brandon Gallagher and Tyler Toffoli are "probable" for the start of the season, all because of groin/hip surgeries. Those are tough-to-heal body parts and Byron especially is questionable because he is so dependent on being a speedster and is 32 years old. Jeff Petry still need to heal his broken finger.

That's a lot of important veteran players who need to heal tough injuries. And that does not include all the aches and pains from the last season and the long playoffs that followed. Another important factor (which also affects Tampa): the extremely short summer break.

Training camps are set to open in mid-September, as usual, with the team having its first pre-season game on September 25th. A normal Summer break for Cup Finals participants goes from early June to Mid-September, with a hangover effect. Now, the Habs and Lightning face a Summer break one whole month shorter. David Savard is a peculiar newcomer, since he comes from the other team with such a short break. In fact, Vegas and the NY Islanders also face a shorter summer break, to a lesser extent.

So now, the Habs face and shorter summer than usual and will compete with better rested teams in its division, plus Tampa.

There is also a funny phenomenon that has happened in the last 25 years or so: surprise Cup Finalists rarely, if ever, have success the following year. We can go back a long time for this, such as the last Stanley Cup by a Canadian team.

The following table lists all the Stanley Cup Finalists since 1993. It compiles their conference results from 3 years: the previous year, the Finals year and the following year. I used the total points record for the conference results, irrespective of divisional rankings, so that a results over 8 means missed playoffs (except, of course, for the 2020 Habs). I also listed some top scorer stats. These are very crude, but while defence wins championships, I noticed that top scorers tend to predict future team success.

Conference result Conference result
Cup Finals Winning team Previous Finals year Following Top playoff scorer # in top 10 Losing Team Previous Finals year Following Top playoff scorer # in top 10
1993 Montréal Canadiens 3 4 5 4 1 Los Angeles Kings 4 6 10 1 3
1994 New York Rangers 10 1 8 1 4 Vancouver Canucks 3 7 6 2 3
1995 New Jersey Devils 3 5 9 2 4 Detroit Red Wings 1 1 1 1 4
1996 Colorado Avalanche 1 2 1 1 4 Florida Panthers 9 4 4 10 1
1997 Detroit Red Wings 1 3 3 8 2 Philadelphia Flyers 1 3 3 1 3
1998 Detroit Red Wings 3 2 3 1 7 Washington Capitals 9 4 12 5 2
1999 Dallas Stars 1 1 3 2 4 Buffalo Sabres 6 7 8 9 2
2000 New Jersey Devils 1 2 1 3 3 Dallas Stars 1 3 3 1 2
2001 Colorado Avalanche 4 1 2 1 5 New Jersey Devils 2 1 6 2 5
2002 Detroit Red Wings 2 1 2 2 5 Carolina Hurricanes 8 7 15 8 1
2003 New Jersey Devils 6 2 6 1 4 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 13 7 12 14 0
2004 Tampa Bay Lightning 5 1 8 1 6 Calgary Flames 12 6 4 3 3
2005 Lockout Lockout
2006 Carolina Hurricanes 11 2 11 1 5 Edmonton Oilers 9 8 12 3 3
2007 Anaheim Ducks 6 3 3 5 4 Ottawa Senators 1 3 7 1 3
2008 Detroit Red Wings 1 1 2 1 4 Pittsburgh Penguins 4 2 4 2 4
2009 Pittsburgh Penguins 2 4 3 1 3 Detroit Red Wings 1 2 5 3 6
2010 Chicago Blackhawks 4 2 8 2 3 Philadelphia Flyers 5 7 2 1 4
2011 Boston Bruins 6 4 4 1 5 Vancouver Canucks 4 1 1 2 4
2012 Los Angeles Kings 7 8 3 1 5 New Jersey Devils 11 5 11 3 3
2013 Chicago Blackhawks 5 1 5 2 4 Boston Bruins 4 3 1 1 4
2014 Los Angeles Kings 3 6 9 1 5 New York Rangers 6 5 1 8 2
2015 Chicago Blackhawks 5 4 3 2 3 Tampa Bay Lightning 3 3 6 1 4
2016 Pittsburgh Penguins 8 2 3 4 4 San Jose Sharks 12 6 5 1 4
2017 Pittsburgh Penguins 2 3 5 1 4 Nashville Predators 7 8 1 7 2
2018 Washington Capitals 1 3 3 1 4 Vegas Golden Knights 3 6 4 2
2019 St-Louis Blues 9 5 1 2 4 Boston Bruins 2 2 1 1 5
2020 Tampa Bay Lightning 1 2 5 1 3 Dallas Stars 7 4 9 3 4
2021 Tampa Bay Lightning 2 5 1 5 Montréal Canadiens 12 8 6 1

Some notes:

  1. -1993 was the last year of the divisional rankings deciding the playoff teams irrespective of conference results. Both the Canadiens and Kings finished 3rd in their respective divisions.
  2. -Both the 1995 and 2013 Finals were at the end of lockout-shortened seasons, so the players had a lot of rest before the season.
  3. The 2002 Carolina Hurricanes: in 2001, they got the 8th seed based on win totals. In 2002, they got the 3rd seed while having the 7th best record in the conference.
  4. -The 2004-2005 season was completely cancelled, and thus the table jumps straight from 2004 to 2006.
  5. -The year before the 1996 Colorado Avalanche Cup, the 1995 Québec Nordiques finished 1st in the Eastern Conference.
  6. -The 2018 Golden Knights had no previous season.
  7. -The 2020 season was shortened due to COVID. The Canadiens finished 12th in the regular season, but were the last team qualified for the play-in in the Bubble. For the present, they are considered as if they has missed the playoffs.
  8. -The 2021 season conference results for Tampa and Montréal are based on the playoff bracket. Tampa remained in the East, but the North Division competed for the Clarence-Campbell trophy, making them a Western team. By that standard, they finished 8th in the Western Conference.

To complement some observations from the table, here are some statistics.

Conference result
Winning team Previous Finals year Following Top playoff scorer # in top 10
Average 4.04 2.86 4.41 1.93 4.07
Standard Deviation 2.94 1.78 2.76 1.61 1.18
n 28 28 27 28 28
Standard Error 0.56 0.34 0.53 0.30 0.22
Losing Team Previous Finals year Following Top playoff scorer # in top 10
Average 5.81 4.50 5.78 3.71 3.04
Standard Deviation 3.95 2.32 4.12 3.42 1.35
n 27 28 27 28 28
Standard Error 0.76 0.44 0.79 0.65 0.25
T.Test 0.0629 0.0044 0.1570 0.0155 0.0035
Bonferroni correction 0.3147 0.0218 0.7848 0.0774 0.0174

For those unfamiliar, the Student's t-test checks whether the difference between two groups (Winner vs Loser) is due to chance. That's what the numbers are, a percentage (alpha), with the usual threshold of 5% (0.05): the lower, the better chance of a true difference. The Bonferroni correction then applies a change to account for the multiple testing (here, 5 difference comparisons). For actual statisticians, I know that is a very simplistic definition.

This results table shows that although it seems like there is a difference between the winning and losing team in the previous and following year, it actually is not the case when based on conference rankings. There is a net trend, however, when we combined both years around the Finals season. There is, however, a net advantage for the winning team in the Finals year, as they finished 3rd on average, while the losing team finished right around the middle of conference playoff bracket. Interestingly, that suggests that being a Stanley Cup Finalists is basically a coin-toss among the playoff teams in a conference.

Where there is a significant difference is in the leading scorers. The losing team has less scorers having top-10 rankings, and their top scorer is not nearly as high as the leader for the Cup winner. Defence wins championships, but you need to score too, and your best scorers need to be your best scorers.

Among Cup winners, two teams are exceptions here: the 1993 Habs (with Vincent Damphousse) and the 1997 Red Wings.

Among Cup losers, the exceptions are teams with no real top scorers that did NOT miss the playoffs in the surrounding seasons (1999 Buffalo Hašek Sabres, 2014 New York Kreider Rangers and 2017 Nashville Subban Predators).

Another note: The New Jersey Devils were quite normal in scoring among Cup Finalists. In plenty of occasions, they are never outliers either way.

We therefore know that current season standings can help predict the Cup Finals. But can we still predict how a Cup Finalist does the next season, based on the previous one or two seasons?

Firstly, let's clear out the teams missing the playoffs.

Missing playoffs… Winner Loser
Season Before 3 8
Season After 3 7
Both 1 4

Already, we see a net difference. Half the Cup Finals losers missed the playoffs both before AND after. Only one Cup winning-team did so, the 2006 Hurricanes. What about their leading scorer stats?

Winner Loser
Missing playoffs… Highest ranking scorer # in top 10 Highest ranking scorer # in top 10
Season Before 1.38 5.00 5.63 2.25
Season After 1.57 4.29 5.29 2.29
Both 1.00 5.00 6.25 2.00

Here we see that, even among teams that missed the playoffs in seasons either before or after their Finals year, there is a marked difference in top scorers. Cup winners have, on average, the scoring champ or the runner up, while the Cup loser's leading scorer is not even in the top 5. Although the sample size is small, there is a net difference here between Cup finalists in general and Cup finalists that missed the playoffs in seasons bookending the Cup presence. Could that difference explain the overall difference in top scorers between Winners and Losers? Next is the same table, with an added row for teams did not miss the playoffs either year.

Winner Loser
Missing playoffs… Highest ranking scorer # in top 10 Highest ranking scorer # in top 10
Season Before 1.38 5.00 5.63 2.25
Season After 1.57 4.29 5.29 2.29
Both 1.00 5.00 6.25 2.00
Neither 2.09 3.95 2.69 3.56

We can see that the difference melts mostly away. The whole difference between Cup Winners and Cup Losers in top scorers (rank of the highest and total in top10) is explained by teams that missed the playoffs around their Cup Finals year. The 2006 Hurricanes are an outlier, as they won the Cup with Eric Staal leading all playoff scorers, having 5 players in the leaders, but missing the playoffs in both 2004 and 2007.

What does that mean for the Habs? Their leading scorer was Nick Suzuki, who finished 6th, behind 5 Lightning players and tied with the William Karlsson. He's also alone in the top10 with Tyler Toffoli, who finished tied for 10th. Both were -6. The Habs stats precisely fit the teams that missed the playoffs both before and after their Finals year.

In conclusion, the road ahead for the Habs will be incredibly difficult. They face a very tough Atlantic division with a roster that had a very short summer, losing their captain, multiple players requiring surgery and not a lot of time to recover from all their aches.

That will make them very reliant on players like Kotkaniemi, Romanov, Kulak, who did not play much during the playoffs. The new players, Cedric Paquette, Mike Hoffman, Mathieu Perreault and Chris Wideman will have to be good as well.

I'd also think that this would be the year to rest players during the season. Players like Jeff Petry, Edmundson, Gallagher, etc. Giving them some nights off, just to rest some aches. It happens all the time in baseball, and the NBA Raptors did so successfully with Kahwi Leonard. I just think that would help to keep them fresher, especially for the final push of the season as I think the Habs will have to fight all the way to make the playoffs. They will have to fight hard to avoid looking like the 1998 Washington Capitals, 2003 Mighty Ducks or the 2006 Edmonton Oilers.

If you made it this far, I thank you for the time you took to read this, and I'm sorry if the Excel tables don't show properly (anyone has a better way to insert tables?). I look forward to reading any comments or other observations you have!

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