Why winning the Pacific is kind of a big deal

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Many people have analogized the Pacific Division race to musical chairs – and with good reason. It seems like the top seed changes all the time and without much reason yet with a strange amount of rhythm.

(Excuse me for underrating the art of musical chairs, but winning the Pacific does take more skill, though.)

CSNBayArea.com’s Brad Weimer originally looked at the advantages that would come from gaining a third round spot from a San Jose Sharks’ perspective, but it works for all the four teams with a shot at the crown. Here are some of the numbers that show the difference between finishing in third versus the likely alternative – the seventh or eighth seed.

(Warning: there will be some all caps.)

PERCENTAGE OF TEAMS TO MAKE CONFERENCE FINALS (since 1994)

3rd Seed: 26.4%
7-8 Seeds: 8.8%

With LESS chances (there are only two 3 seeds per year vs. four 7-8 seeded teams) the 3 seeds make the conference finals over THREE TIMES as much as teams seeded 7 or 8.

PERCENTAGE OF TEAMS TO MAKE STANLEY CUP FINALS (since 1994)

3rd Seed: 14.7%
7-8 Seeds: 7.3%

Being a 3 seed DOUBLES your chances of making the Stanley Cup Finals over being seeded 7 or 8.

What about the Sharks ultimate goal, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup as the champions of the NHL?  Well here’s the bottom line folks….

There have been three Stanley Cup Champions from the third seed under this playoff format.  From the last two seeds?  ZERO.  Five teams have made it to the Finals, but all have gone home in defeat (ask Bret Hedican (’94) and Curtis Brown (’99) who both have been on the losing end as an underdog team in the Finals).

Weimer emphasizes the Stanley Cup finals gap, but really, the conference finals gap is bigger, includes a slightly larger sample size and probably emphasizes the difference in advantage more than anything else.

Either way, both conferences have exposed the somewhat-arbitrary nature of handing a top-three seed to a division winner regardless of the putridity of that given division.*

Sports Club Stats illustrates how close the race is both in terms of who is likely to make the playoffs and win the division.

There are plenty of ways to break down the race for that top spot, then, but a woolly sports writer might want to lean on the old “road goes through” line with the Sharks. San Jose’s final five games are all against Pacific contenders. They’ll face the Stars twice, Coyotes once and then finish the season with a home-and-home against the Kings.

It might take until the end of that duo of matches to find out who ends up with the Pacific crown – and perhaps a marked advantage once the playoffs begin.

* – Personally, it seems like it would be fairer to give the worst division winner at least the fourth seed. It’s unfair to ding up a division winner too much if they’re in an especially competitive group – the Vancouver Canucks’ cakewalk in the Northwest provides a useful counterpoint – but the automatic top-three seed seems to encourage convenient mediocrity.