One of the unique aspects of hockey, for better or worse, is how much random chance is involved compared to most other team sports. Slippery ice, 12 different players on at the same time, and a small piece of rubber the moves quickly and unpredictably make for largely random events throughout a game. With most games decided by one goal, it means that a few arbitrary events can be the difference between winning and losing.
Smart mathematicians have estimated that winning a hockey game is just 62% dependent on ability, with luck accounting for ~38% of the result. With each game being influenced by random chance, it means that luck plays a role in the fate of a team over an entire season. And when it comes to the playoffs, where a four-to-seven game series decides everything? There's no knowing what will happen. By the end of the NBA or NFL season, it's almost always a lock that one of three or four teams is winning it all. This season, anyone outside of Golden State, San Antonio, or Cleveland winning the NBA Title would be outright stunning. In hockey? There are ten teams (by my count at least) who could conceivably win the Stanley Cup.
This randomness isn't necessarily a bad thing. This unpredictability is what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so exciting. San Antonio will be able to coast to the NBA Western Conference Final, most likely, while the Chicago Blackhawks could just as easily get trounced in round one as they could win it all.
Like most things, however, that unpredictability only works in moderation. Nobody likes when sports are super predictable, but there's danger in going too far the other way where the impact of actual ability is muted. Hockey is inherently a game prone to random variables, which is fun and exciting, but at the end of the day the regular season and playoffs should be a measure of how good each team is. The NHL's structure, in many ways, fans the flames of the sport's random nature to the point that the regular season has been rendered into one big arbitrary mess.
The biggest culprit is perhaps the existence of three-point games. The loser point has given lesser teams the ability to squeeze games of all life and play to get into overtime. From there, they can collect their one "earned" point and shoot for another in 3v3 OT or the shootout, which are basically coin flips. The Boston Bruins actually won three more games in regulation than Detroit did, and four more than Philadelphia. Yet Boston is the team golfing. Tampa Bay had three more regulation/OT wins than Florida, yet Florida won the division on the back of seven shootout wins and nine OT loser points. These are major results with serious implications, and they were decided not by ability, but by the semantics of a whimsical and frivolous system.
The newest installation that has thrown a wrench in the machine is the new playoff structure, which prioritizes divisional matchups in the first two rounds of the playoffs. There's decent theory behind forcing these matchups constantly so as to create "history" between two teams, but the consequence is that it strips away so much of the standings' integrity. Here is what the first round of playoff matchups look like based on the NHL's overall standings.
NHL playoffs:— Travis Yost (@travisyost) April 11, 2016
1 v 14
2 v 17
3 v 5
4 v 9
6 v 13
7 v 10
8 v 11
12 v 15
We have an arbitrary playoff structure creating unbalanced matchups. Chicago (5) and St. Louis (3) have to face each other in round one. The winner will then likely have to go on the road to face Dallas (2). Detroit, meanwhile, who backed into the playoffs, only have Tampa Bay (12) and either Florida (7) or the Islanders (10) in between them and the Conference Final. Florida's "reward" for winning their division is playing the Islanders, who finished 10th in the NHL. Tampa, who finished second in the division, face the "tougher" opponent in Detroit, who finished 15th.
Have you ever photocopied a sheet, then put the result into the photocopier and copied that, then repeated the process? Each resulting photocopy loses a bit of its quality. Do it enough times and the page eventually becomes a blurry, incomprehensible vestige of the original document. In a way, this is what the NHL has done with the standings and playoff seeding.
As mentioned earlier, hockey has a decent amount of luck in it to begin with. The NHL has then added so many layers that undermine ability in the name of "parity" and "rivalries" that the regular season standings and resulting playoff matchups cease to represent what was earned in the regular season and instead represent a concoction of a bunch of random variables. Florida has the tougher matchup than Tampa Bay despite finishing higher in the standings, but Florida also only finished above Tampa Bay because of a ridiculous points system. So who deserves what here? What do the standings even prove? An entire 82-game season, and what of substance do St. Louis and Pittsburgh have to show for finishing above San Jose and Florida?
The harsh reality of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that health can be the biggest determiner of fate. Last season might very well have ended very differently for the Rangers if Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh are healthy against Tampa Bay. Or maybe the Lightning win the Cup with a healthy Tyler Johnson and Ben Bishop. Injuries are part of hockey, so to an extent teams have to deal with it, but it's extremely hard to justify the recent injuries to players like McDonagh, Anton Stralman, and Evgeni Malkin when they happen near the playoffs in regular season games that have such little meaning. Three teams received potentially vital blows to their hopes of a deep playoff run, and for what purpose, exactly?
The Islanders recognized this potential danger. A win last night would have pushed the Islanders above the Rangers in the standings and out of the wild card. Instead, they made a mockery of the the league by scratching half of their regular lineup, switching goaltenders 20 minutes into the game just because they could, and skating around at 75 percent speed while avoiding any physical contact; they were credited with six hits the entire game. A single game at the end of the season with significant implications on playoff seeding, and the Islanders treated it the same way they would a preseason game. Yet, who can blame them? Why risk injury and put forth an honest effort when the reward for winning the game is facing Pittsburgh and then Washington instead of Florida in round one and a wounded Tampa Bay team or Detroit in round two?
The system is broken. We have a points system that rewards teams for sitting in its bunker for 60 minutes and then collecting garbage points in overtime and the shootout. Then we let arbitrary gerrymandering -- and not regular season success -- determine matchups from standings that were already unreliable and not truly merit based. It unfairly punishes good teams and forces the elimination of contending teams earlier than deserved. It incentivizes teams to tank for optimal playoff matchups.
You could pick playoff matchups from lottery balls and probably come away with a similar result. This level of parity is way too close to the luck end of the spectrum, and it completely trivializes everything that players and coaches worked for in the 1,230 games that occur between October and early April.