Hundreds of coaches have used old adage that a professional season of hockey, baseball, or basketball is "a marathon, not a sprint". But this season the NHL may be a little different. With only 48 games due to the lockout instead of the customary 82, many NHL pundits have called this a season where "every game is going to be like a playoff game". That may be an exaggeration, but the simple math would indicate that each game will have more importance than usual. Predators coach Barry Trotz calls the upcoming year "not quite a sprint, but more like 1600 meters". The teams that can be sharp and effective out of the gate after a VERY brief training camp will have a leg up.
A theory I have discussed with hockey minds such as Stu Grimson and Terry Crisp (who played and coached respectively during the 1994-95 48 game season) is that perhaps because of hockey's randomness factor (or "puck luck" if you prefer) that the shorter season can increase the chances that a lesser team could make the playoffs and have a shot at the Stanley Cup. Weaknesses that would be exposed over 82 games could easier be overcome, or perhaps good teams have less time to overcome some bad luck in the injury department. While all these are plausible theories, I decided to take a look at the last three NHL seasons and see where things stood after the Predators had played 48 games. First let's look at the final standings from last season (pay attention to the West):
To refresh your memory, the Predators ended up with the 4 seed after a dramatic last day battle between Detroit and Chicago. There was a bunch of shuffling in seeds over the last few days if you recall. But what if the season ended after 48 games? Here is the standings board after Nashville had finished their 48th game in late January:
While not everybody had played the same amount of games at that time, the thing I noticed the most was that only ONE team that wasn't in the Top 8 at that stage of the season ended up there after the full 82. Ironically, it was the Phoenix Coyotes, who ended up bouncing the Preds in Round 2 (Sorry to bring that up). Young Colorado would have been the team to sneak into the postseason had the season ended that night. The Avs and the Minnesota Wild (who were 1 point behind them), both faded down the stretch after fast starts and ended up well out of the mix. The Predators had gotten their season in gear by that time after a VERY shaky first 20 games (thank you Pekka) and were well above the line in terms of the Top 8. So while the seeds shuffled around, there was hardly any fluctuation in the teams that were in after 48 and the teams who eventually made the playoffs.
Looking at the 2010-'11 and '09-'10 seasons, the story was essentially the same in the Western Conference. 7 of the 8 teams who were in the playoff positions after roughly 48 games made it to the playoffs. The LA Kings were the exception in 2011, moving from 12th to 7th. In 2010, it was the Red Wings, who went from being one point out of a spot all the way up to 5th with a strong finish. The Preds went from 4th in the West after 48 games to 5th by the end of the '10-'11 season, and from 4th to 7th in '09-'10.
SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
Who really knows? Hockey, like baseball, can have some maddening fluctuation for periods of time. Teams can be woefully outshot and out-chanced but still win with a hot goalie, a good bounce, and a timely big play. Your team may be healthy and play a series of teams who are suffering from a rash of injuries which leads to a winning streak. It usually evens out over 82 games-- even with the parity of the NHL. Will it even out over 48? The random factor will be heightened, but over the last 3 seasons in the West 86% of the teams who made the playoffs were able to separate themselves after roughly 48 games. With a few exceptions, the best teams are the best teams.
The biggest difference might be the degree of separation between the contenders and pretenders, especially with the "3 point games" which go to overtime. Shootouts and OT winners will be golden. Tiebreakers may come into play (remember what ROW's are?). And you can be certain that because of this there will be very few teams that are "out of it" and therefore "sellers" at the trade deadline in early April (keep this in mind as David Poile evaluates his young roster and searches for a veteran defenseman or skilled forward).
It's going to be a wild ride, but the bottom line is this: a playoff trip is going to have to be earned and will be no fluke-- even if it is a 1600 meter race.
PHOTO: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports