It’s a frequently stated truism in hockey circles that you shouldn’t judge a team until after 10 games in order to avoid making snap judgements based on too little information. It’s generally considered that 10 games is a large enough sample size to get a feeling for how good or bad a team is and their record will generally reflect this. Elliote Friedman talked about this in a recent “30 Thoughts” column, quoting an unnamed GM as saying “With the three-point games, teams can’t win the Stanley Cup in the first 10 games of the season, but they sure can lose it that quickly.”
With most of the teams in the NHL now having completed at least 10 games, the judgements are raining down like the apocalypse is nigh. With the Maple Leafs in first place in the Northeast Division and Phil Kessel on a scoring tear, Toronto fans are breathing a sigh of relief that the good times have continued past 10 games. Boston fans, on the other hand, are hiding in the shadow of their Stanley Cup after the Bruins’ 3-7-0 start and last place position in the Eastern Conference.
But how much can we actually read into the standings at this point in the season? What does a team’s record tell us after just 10 games? Can a team really lose a Stanley Cup in the first 10 games of the season?
I took a preliminary look at answering these questions by looking at last season. One season is, admittedly, a small sample size for this kind of undertaking, but I just want to draw some preliminary ideas out and see what they can tell us. I’m not interested yet in a deeper analysis, just a quick look at some interesting points.
After 10 games in 2010-11:
6 of the 16 teams were in the top-8 in their conference that subsequently missed the playoffs: the Maple Leafs and Thrashers in the East and Blues, Stars, Flames, and Blue Jackets in the West.
- The St. Louis Blues had the best record in the NHL, as they jumped out to a 7-1-2 record in their first 10 games. They were mediocre throughout the rest of the season, partly due to injuries, going 31-32-9 and missing the playoffs. Even a near .500 record through the rest of the season wasn’t enough to take advantage of their great start.
- The worst record of a team that made the playoffs was held by the Buffalo Sabres, who started the season 3-6-1. The worst record in the NHL was held by the New Jersey Devils, who started 2-7-1 and, despite a strong second half of the season, never recovered.
- The Boston Bruins started the season with the exact opposite of their current record, going 7-3-0 through their first 10 games.
- The Avalanche and Sharks both started the season 4-5-1. The Sharks finished with 105 points. The Avalanche finished with 68.
So what do these observations tell us about the 2011-12 season? There are four lessons to be learned:
- Judging a team after 10 games isn’t even close to foolproof. The majority of teams have very similar records and haven’t yet developed much in the way of separation. Teams with terrible records can recover and teams with great records can fall. Meanwhile, the teams with middling records can go either direction, such as was the case with the Avalanche and Sharks last season. The 10-game waiting period does little more than temper a fanbase’s reactions after fewer than 10 games, but it does not tell us as much as people might think. With that said…
- Don’t get complacent: the collapse of the Blues should be a warning sign to any team that finds itself unexpectedly at the top of their division, such as the Maple Leafs, Stars, or Oilers. That isn’t to say that these three teams will miss the playoffs, but the Blues had the best record in the NHL after 10 games last season and missed the playoffs by 10 points, despite a near-.500 record through the rest of the season. The team and fans can’t afford to rest on their laurels or assume that a hot start will carry through the rest of the season.
- Don’t lose hope: the rise of the Sabres should be a beacon of hope for any team that finds itself unexpectedly at the bottom of their division or, for that matter, conference. The Bruins’ 3-7-0 start is only slightly worse than that of the Sabres last season. With a win on Thursday against the Jets, the Islanders could have a respectable 4-4-2 record through their first 10 games, on their way to a playoff berth for the first time since 2006, though they might want to start Al Montoya a little more often. Heck, in the Western Conference almost anything goes, given the upheaval in the standings that occurred last season. All I’m saying is that you can’t give up: anything is possible.
- Except for the Blue Jackets. Those guys are boned.