The Upside To Finishing Eighth

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.

  • French Toast Mafia

    JW you know that the Kings are a far far far better team then the Flames. So is Phoenix, New Jersey, Washington, and every other team that made the playoffs instead of Calgary. Comparing LA (a team that played in the toughest division in the league) to Calgary (worst division in the league) and saying that Calgary could have made a cup run because the squeezed into 8th is pretty out to lunch IMO.

    The Edmonton and Calgary teams that made their runs were much different then the current version of the Calgary Flames. LA, a team that has very good stay at home D men, Carter, Richards, Kopitar, Brown, Doughty, and load of good role players and Quick is a team that you can look at and not be surprised if they beat the Canucks and Blues. This years Calgary Flames or an Edmonton team in 1-2 years that has some decent pieces (enough to squeak in) would not be able to go on a similar run based on the make up of their team.

    The good thing is that regular season seems to get rid of these crappy teams like Calgary and Edmonton so we don’t see them get destroyed in the playoffs.

  • French Toast Mafia

    While this is a good statement about possibilities ofthe playoffs, I think the goal is to be a perrenial contender, and not a perrenial 8th/9th seed team…had the Penguins not won the cup, they’d still be in playoffs, with home advantage mind you, for several years. Calgary just making it into the playoffs and losing is still something for them to be proud of, but being 8th year after year, followed by 9th for 3 years…that’s not an ideal team. The question is how do we build a team so it’s one of the top teams in the league, so at the start of every season and playoffs, we’re a favorite to win…

  • Jimmeh

    Considering how close the Pacific Division was this year, I wouldnt consider LA as a traditional 8th seed. They were 2points out of 3rd overall.

    Also, I would consider the Atlantic and Central Divisions much tougher as 4/5 teams in each division made the playoffs.

  • French Toast Mafia

    JW – I don’t think the real issue is just squeaking in and finishing eighth but rather just missing and finishing 9-12th. Obviously anything can happen once a team qualifies anywhere in the top eight, but as Oiler fans we know all too well the downside to ‘just missing’. We have just snuck in a few times and even managed to ride a wave all the way to the finals in ’06, but for every occasion where we managed to sneak in there are seasons where we just missed and the cumulative effect of the near misses is/was a depleted prospect pool devoid of high end talent. I’d much rather have a team built to finish in the top four of the conference rather than the 5-12 spots, hopefully this scorched earth rebuild positions us for the former for many years to come.

  • French Toast Mafia

    Right on:

    “The good thing is that regular season seems to get rid of these crappy teams like Calgary and Edmonton so we don’t see them get destroyed in the playoffs.”

    Willis, some of the eighth place teams you speak of had deplorable results in the first half of the schedule, but picked up momentum in the second half that, first, placed them in the playoffs and, second. carried them strongly through the playoffs, e.g., LA et al.

    The Oilers and Flames were crappy through almost the entire season. There was no improvement in player personnel that warranted better results.

    Other than 2006, subsequent Oilers’ teams didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs and even if they had sneaked in by chance would have been blitzed in the first round in 4 games. And, as you mentioned, even good teams don’t get past the first round. Under the present management and coaches the Oilers may never reach being what LA is today.

  • Spin2WinLenny

    I agree that anything can happen in the playoffs, provided a team can qualify. Especially in the West where 3 points separated 8th from 3rd. Parity in the league has never been higher and it just goes to prove that once your in anything can happen.

  • Oilers21

    Where did this definitive “If Roloson had been healthy we would have won the cup” idea come from? If I remember right Jussi Markkanen stepped up and got a shutout in game 6, and played great in Game 7. Are we talking about Conklin’s gaffe in Game 1 (I think)? After all, Roloson started that game and coughed up a 3-goal lead. Markkanen kind of crapped the bed in Game 2, but he hadn’t played since March or something like that.

  • Oilers21

    Calgary might not be the best example.

    On Gregor’s show, he was telling Spec that in the last 18 years, Calgary has won a playoff series in…. 1 of those years.

    I’m not actually sure if that stat applies to the conversation at hand in any way whatsoever, I just like thinking about it.

  • Cup winners since the lockout:

    2011: boston 3rd seed, 7th overall
    2010: Chicago 2nd seed, 3rd overall
    2009: Pittsburgh 4th seed, 8th overall
    2008: Detroit 1st seed, 1st overall
    2007: Anaheim 2nd seed, 4th overall
    2006: Carolina 2nd seed, 4th overall

    I’d rather be a good team that needs some luck to win than a mediocre team that needs a miracle. The line should be “anything can happen in the playoffs, but probably won’t for your team unless they’re really good, win their division, and finished top 8, preferably top 4”

  • The idea of a rebuild is to be in the hunt year after year, and not just scrambling every year to hit the # 8 spot, and just being in one year and then fall off for the next 3 years or so.
    I think the Oilers are putting to much drama into this so called 5 year rebuild! Current managment is using this as a stall because outside the Lotto Kids and Eberle, there isnt much going on or at least not enough.Philly had 6 rookies in their line up making a good run. You have Coyotes, bankrupt, and a bunch of cast offs making a great run… third year now.Florida and St. Louis had good turn arounds, as well as Ottawa.. Oilers fumbling around with their rebuild plan, I have visions of a Islanders type rebuild here. Teams like L.A., Washington, St. Louis and made coaching changes to improve play, Oilers dont seem to thing there was a coaching issue with the team.