What are the effects of a short season? An NHL preview to a preview
On the morning of Sunday, January 6th, I came to an unsettling revelation – I think I’m a Canadian.
With an affinity for a good beer and pop culture knowledge that trails that of most Americans by at least 20 years, perhaps this should not have been surprising.
But in the thick of the NBA schedule and with a slate of NFL playoff games looming, I came to this realization as my mind was transfixed on a suddenly impending NHL season.
Since that morning, my thoughts have rarely drifted, and I could not be more ready for hockey season. Over the next couple of days, I’ll post some thoughts on the NHL and the Flyers as we all prepare for this sprint of a season.
Before getting too deep in the league, though, I want to focus on something that came to mind in one of my first conversations after the lockout ended. One of my buddies expressed his excitement because he felt the Flyers would have a better opportunity to contend for a Cup in a short, potentially hectic season.
It’s pretty hard to argue with that thought process. As we have seen from the last few seasons, sometimes it takes more than 82 games to distinguish the best teams. Last season, the Devils and Kings were seventh seeds after 48 games and the Coyotes, the eventual Pacific Division champs who made a run to the West Finals, were a distant 12th in the conference.
Going back even further, the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Flyers were out of the playoff picture after 48 in 2010 and the Penguins were sitting in 10th in 2009 before going on to win it all.
Couple that with this (for real, pay walls suck. Take my word for it – when this was posted for free, there wasn’t much of a difference between the fifth-best team and the 25th, and teams were projected to finish with very similar records), and it’s pretty easy to wonder how the shortened season will affect the best teams and if it will victimize any potential contenders.
Because of the uncertainty going into the short season, I thought it’d be a good idea to look back on the 1995 season, which was 48 games played between January 20 and May 2 (this year’s 48 games will be played between January 19 and April 27).
The 1995 Season
Considering the Devils topped the Red Wings in the Cup Finals that year, two teams that combined to win six of nine Cups between 1995 and 2003, it feels safe to say that the short season did not influence the Cup Finals. Those were two great teams that would have been around whether the season was 48 games or 480 games.
The Red Wings dominated the West and finished with the best record, while the Quebec Nordiques, a year prior to moving to Colorado and winning the Cup, were the top seed in the East.
Perhaps most surprising was the league’s lack of parity, even in a shortened season.
In the East, the Florida Panthers finished a point out of the playoff picture 46 points with, but was only within striking distance of the eighth-seeded Rangers, who had 47 (but upset the Nordiques in the first round). The seventh-seeded Sabres had 51 points and easily made the playoffs.
The West was similar. With 41 points, the Los Angeles Kings trailed the seventh- and eighth-seeded San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars by a point for the final playoff spot. The Canucks cruised to the sixth seed with 48 points.
The league is different now. At least 25 teams in the league could make a legitimate argument for making the playoffs this year and the past few seasons have been tighter after 82 games than 95 was in 48.
Last season, four teams were within five points for the final three playoff spots in the East and in 2010 the West’s fourth and 10th seeds were separated by five points. Simply, more teams have been involved in the playoff mix in recent years.
If anything, we can see that there won’t be parity just because there are fewer games. If parity exists, it’s because of the effects of the salary cap and increased talent distribution throughout the league, which has already created a more balanced league over the past few seasons.
What about the individuals, though? What types of numbers should fans expect and were there any flukes that stood out?
In his third season and with the Legion of Doom, Eric Lindros won the Hart Trophy and tied Jaromir Jagr for the league lead with 70 points.
Peter Bondra led the league with 34 goals and five players topped 30. The only name that feels slightly out of place is Alexei Zhamnov, who had 65 points. While a very good player, he never quite reached that level again. Also, Mikael Renberg was eighth in the league with 57 points after playing wing next to Eric Lindros. But the rest of this list is bonkers.
One of the storylines heading into this condensed schedule is the workload goalies will have to handle. Well, in 1995, eight goalies played at least 40 games, an incredible number considering there were 26 teams. Forty games played in a 48-game season translates to about 68 games over 82 games.
Last season, seven goalkeepers played at least 68 games, about consistent to what the total has been since the last lockout in 2005 and not too different to the amount of goalies to take that workload since 1990.
Basically, I’m saying the condensed schedule did not have much of an effect on how coaches handled their goalies.
Looking back on the 1995 season was pretty interesting. Aside from seeing the barrage of great names from my childhood, the season did not play out much different than those of the 82-game variety.
While the league is different and talent is more evenly distributed now, I would expect this season to go much like how recent years have gone. This will be about as definitive as any season and we don’t have to worry too much about randomness in a smaller schedule.
The biggest difference will be a good one, and it’s that we’ll be bombarded with hockey from now until July.