Edmonton Oilers’ fans are familiar with the annual tradition of just barely squeaking into the playoffs. Prior to the new tradition of being the worst team in the league, it was an Oilers’ standby for years.
The 2009-10 season was an attempt to build such a team. The 2007-08 and 2008-09 editions of the Oilers both barely missed the playoffs, and in the summer of 2009 Steve Tambellini implemented wholesale change to help the Oilers make up the narrow gap separating them from a playoff spot.
The story is familiar, so we’ll brush over it: the changes backfired, the Oilers suffered a bunch of injuries, and the team finished last in the league. Management decided to blow it all up and live in the cellar for a few years in the hope of following the example of a Pittsburgh or Chicago.
One of the major benefits was touted as being the end to those ‘mad dash for the playoffs’ teams. In the new order, the Oilers would perpetually be near the top of the league, and would be able to contend for the Stanley Cup.
This year, however, we’ve seen definitively (and once again) that any team in a playoff series can win a playoff series. People like me acknowledged early on that the Los Angeles Kings were stronger than a traditional eighth seed, but nobody really expected Phoenix or New Jersey to still be alive in the third round. Washington, still alive in a series against New York, had a miserable season as Dale Hunter reworked the team, and if they make it to the third round that too will defy expert predictions.
While the specifics are surprising, the general trend should not have been.
In 2011, both eventual finalists barely eked out first round series victories over heavy underdogs in Montreal and Chicago. Tampa Bay, the fifth seed in the East, took Boston to seven games in the Conference Finals. In 2010, the seventh and eighth Eastern Conference seeds fought in the Conference Finals; every division winner was knocked out in the first round, while 4th-seed Pittsburgh fell in the Conference Semifinals. Carolina in 2009, Dallas and Philadelphia in 2008; since the lockout only the 2007 playoffs have failed to see a significant underdog advance to at least the third round. In 2006, the Oilers made it to the Finals and played seven games – had Dwayne Roloson not fallen to injury in the Finals, they would have won the Cup. They weren’t alone in their surprise run, either; every single first round favourite lost in the West that year.
Virtually any team can win a seven-game series. Experts (and me) sit down and try to divine the deep truths about teams before they meet in the post-season, but the simple reality is this: a hot goalie, a few lucky bounces, a weird injury, or half a dozen other things can tilt a short series in a shocking direction. Maggie the Macaque was no monkey savant (save, perhaps, for her ability to spin a wheel) but she stayed competitive with some of the most respected analysts in the game when it came to predicting playoff success.
That, in a nutshell, is the upside of eighth. Oilers fans sit back and chuckle heartily as a team like Calgary makes a desperate run at the post-season (‘hah, we used to do that!’) and then fall short, but if it was the Flames instead of the Kings advancing to a Conference Finals against Phoenix that laughter would be non-existent. It’s the reason why prices get so high for rental players at the trade deadline – every team knows that if they’re in the playoffs, they could go deep.
This isn’t an attempt to judge the long-term brilliance of the rebuild, or to espouse the irresponsible mortgaging of the future for the present, but rather a simple acknowledgement of a straight-forward and self-evident fact: if a team is in the playoffs (regardless of seed), it can win it all; if it isn’t than it can’t.
There are far worse places to be than barely inside the playoffs.