Reverse Analytics: A Conspiracy Theory for the Stanley Cup Playoffs

SUNRISE, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 17: Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Florida Panthers and Mason Marchment #27 of the Dallas Stars fight at FLA Live Arena on November 17, 2022 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 17: Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Florida Panthers and Mason Marchment #27 of the Dallas Stars fight at FLA Live Arena on November 17, 2022 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

As a fan, writer, and hopeful future employee in professional hockey, I have watched an excellent but surprising 2023 National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs. Early exits, suspensions, injuries, special teams, overtime, overtime, and overtime have all caught my eye. However, the largest aspect of 2023 playoff hockey that has stuck out to me is the absence of critical thinking.

Teams are game-planning, but the style of play by the teams that are moving onward questions the status quo when it comes to ‘modern hockey’. In the midst of this mid-playoff crisis, I have compacted some notes on what I believe could be an unsustainable but successful future of championship playoff hockey and I call it ‘Reverse Analytics’.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Breaking brackets

The inspiration for this idea comes from NHL traditions. Before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, thousands of people build brackets as part of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Bracket Challenge. Some train for such an occasion and use their best judgment and trust public statistical information to assist in their decision-making. Others may make gag brackets to laugh with their friends and jokingly hope that the lowest-seed Florida Panthers win the 2023 Stanley Cup. Wouldn’t that be funny?

Stanley Cup Playoffs: From ‘the rest’ to ‘the best’?

The Florida Panthers are heading to the Stanley Cup Final to play the winner of Dallas vs. Vegas to fight for the crown of ‘Best in the NHL’. Are the Florida Panthers the top team for the 2022-2023 season? You could argue that the regular season does not matter if you don’t win in the playoffs (you know who you are).

You could argue that a successful regular season should lead to a strong playoff push and allow for high hopes for such a statistically-strong team. It does not matter, because the Florida Panthers proved in 82 games that they were not the best NHL team in the 2022-2023 season, but have now begun to prove that none of it matters since they can knock out the best regular season team in NHL history (the 2022-2023 Boston Bruins) in five games in the first round.

Furthermore, the last President’s Trophy team to make it past the second round in the same season was the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks who went all the way, but there seems to be a lot of wasted regular-season energy on lackluster playoff results.

The reason this relates to the Dallas Stars and warrants a discussion is that NHL teams go through the motions year after year; 82 games, then playoffs. Teams like the Dallas Stars have a high standard of excellence and invest tens of millions of dollars into their players, veteran coaching staff, and other resources to try to make a championship team to the best of their ability.

I do not enjoy dwelling on our inevitable playoff exit each year when we consistently play into May without hardware, despite seeming competitive and having many bright spots throughout each regular season.

Also, roster changes both get underlooked and overlooked. Fans of competitive NHL teams all over North America can’t decide whether to add at the deadline and dwell on the picks you sacrificed for an early playoff exit or be passive deadline buyers and regret not going all in because of an early playoff exit. I’m sure executives would dwell on the same regrets if not for the option of moving on to the next season and trying again.

However, could we ever choose a Mark Messier finals guarantee or a Ray Bourque finale? I want to take a crack at this code. We have to stop going through the motions. We have to overthink about underthinking, and last year’s game plan must be burned. When I’m telling you that the NHL playoffs have evolved more than ever before, I mean it.

I would have used the Tampa Bay Lightning as an obvious formula for playoff success, if not for this ‘Reverse Analytics’ revolution and the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans beating and intimidating the Lightning out of the first round this year.

Why are we bothering with this hypothetical? Two reasons: Two expansion teams in the top 8 and Return on Investment.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Excellent expansions and ideal investments

The Seattle Kraken finished last in the Pacific Division in their expansion season which disappointed fans who believed they had the answers on Twitter the whole season from a unique expansion strategy. One year later, they trumped the 2022 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche and took Dallas to game seven in round 2.  They went from bottom-dweller to top 8 with additions like Matty Beniers and waiver pickup Eeli Tolvanen.

The other recent expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, is one game away from a second Stanley Cup final in their 5th playoff run in six seasons of existence. What is each team doing differently? They’re starting fresh with no one on the books. They’re paying assets and money to find players. They’re finding ways to exploit and surprise teams in the playoffs. Florida, Vegas, and Seattle have a competitive advantage that 29 other teams can not compete with when it matters.

Secondly, as a business and a sport, NHL teams rely on sports success as part of their Return on Investment. Why are teams settling for an investment that is not resulting in a championship?

Each great team has its own form of leverage that can and needs to be studied to conceptualize how you can counter in order to beat them. It seems simple, but in time constraints like a seven-game series, it can be difficult to deviate from tradition to beat teams that are employing ‘Reverse Analytics’ strategies. I will provide briefs on each team that separates them from the typical high-skill team.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2023 team identities and surprises

The 2023 Florida Panthers play an aggressive and pressure-based style that relies on opponent turnovers and in-tight puck movement with low-risk decision-making. They love board play and focus on the timely coverage differences between a 50/50 on the wall and a net-front chance including throwing the puck into the crease which has ended up working for most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Furthermore, Barkov and Tkachuk are also on different lines, Bobrovsky saves every low shot, and the Panthers disperse their secondary scoring throughout the lineup to have four strong forward lines. This team also plays comfortably in their defensive zone in front of such an in-form Bobrovsky and waits for others to fail instead of being proactive defensively which has worked in the small sample of the playoffs.

The 2023 Vegas Golden Knights thrived on speed and passing that seemed to show principles of innovative and modern hockey, but have seemingly resorted to Jack Eichel and elevating bottom players by spreading the stars throughout their lineup.

Getting Adin Hill in top form before the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been critical to their continued playoff successes but there are unsustainable methods of play including high-risk passing that seems to work because of bad defensive zone coverage by opponents and winning board play in the right moments.

These strategies won’t work 82 out of 82 regular season games, but they don’t need to, they need to work for 16 victories, which has seemed to be good enough for the Golden Knights so far.

The 2023 Carolina Hurricanes were a team that both got ‘lit up’ by the Devils and silenced by the Panthers in the same playoff run. They finally ran out of chips at the table. The Hurricanes were without some key players including Andrei Svechnikov but you can hardly tell when the fourth line is out because the lineup construction is still so balanced. Backchecking coverage and breakouts were less than elite by Carolina by the naked eye.

What bothers me the most about Carolina’s woes is that chance creation is not a response to the intimidation by the Panthers. Specifically, attacking off-the-wall and ‘shooting for quantity’ that Carolina was able to do with all four lines all season long falls short against Florida because of the Panthers’ unpredictability in coverage and physical, scramble-like offense.

Corey Sznajder backs this up in his anecdotes on the Carolina/Florida series by mentioning that “Florida’s in a position where they can play however they want, whereas Carolina couldn’t get to their base-level offense when things got tough”.

It seems so simple yet split-second mishaps by top teams under pressure in a high-speed environment seem to result in the downfall despite not accounting for the entire identity or future success of the Hurricanes. Pucks deep, point shots, shooting for quantity, and clearing the D-zone regardless if it’s a controlled zone exit to alleviate pressure are becoming the new and weird norm for top playoff teams.

This must make teams like Carolina scratch their heads when they can’t develop things like a shot-volume and rush-setup game that should be threats and would definitely lead to success in an 82-game regular season. Teams like Dallas and Carolina can win 45 regular season games with their strategies but still fall short of teams like Florida and Vegas because of competing playstyles and specific issues that come to life in the playoffs.

On the Stars front, there are three primary issues that have plagued their playoff performance, even-strength scoring, team defense management, and the spread of depth on offense.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: The 2023 Dallas Stars Mishaps

Modern hockey would like winning the shot share at 5v5 and capitalizing on calculated powerplay efforts when given the opportunity. The 2023 Dallas Stars have done such a thing, yet lose the even-strength goal share game after game.

No matter how many expected goals Jason Robertson may produce, he has 2 even-strength goals in 17 games and Dallas lost Game Three against Vegas 4-0 despite out-doing them 52-23 at even-strength shot attempts. I believe playoff hockey does not start from shooting, but from passes off of forechecks.

As well, Miro Heiskanen is both capable but forced to play 28 minutes of ice time per game to account for the evident uncomfortable feeling in the coaching staff in trusting the rest of the D core. Nils Lundkvist has not touched playoff ice and is subject to waivers to get sent down to the Texas Stars AHL playoffs so he’s been in the press box every day as a result.

Ryan Suter faces the ultimate Twitter criticism for his playstyle and mistakes, which are not unique to just him but become the poster for Dallas Stars’ defensive woes. Not to mention Esa Lindell and Jani Hakanpaa having less-than-great numbers together, albeit having underwhelming regular season numbers, leading to a negative overall value for the Stars out of their supposedly-reliable D core. Thomas Harley was called up early in the playoffs and has felt right at home in the National Hockey League despite

Finally, Dellandrea, Glendening, Faksa, and Kiviranta usually make up most of the bottom six for Dallas. All of these players provide some sort of positive value in certain situations, like Penalty Kill and Faceoffs, but these playoffs otherwise give Dallas two fourth lines and this puts immense pressure on Robertson-Hintz-Pavelski and players like Johnston and Marchment to find scoring, especially at 5v5 where teams like Vegas and Florida have higher upside in players like William Karlsson as your 3C and Anton Lundell + Sam Reinhart playing in easier minutes on the third line.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conclusion

All in all, ‘Reverse Analytics’ is the under-studied but apparently-successful style a team needs to be an NHL champion. ‘Modern hockey’ was thought to be possession-based, high-skill, and maybe even putting elite players together for maximum output. Now we see the top playoff teams spread their stars throughout their lineups, play dump-and-chase, forecheck as hard as possible, and intimidate opponents with physicality and board play.

This is as traditional and fundamental as hockey gets and it has seemed to surprise all these teams of skill and finesse like Toronto, Carolina, and Boston. Emphasizing this unsustainable strategy because we’ve seen it work in the playoffs is a key to competitive advantage. This hockey gameplay does not work in the regular season, or else teams like Florida would have thrived in 82 games.

The Florida Panthers barely made the playoffs, but are making the most of their opportunity out of consistently operating unlike any finesse-oriented hockey team and embracing old-fashioned hockey that challenges why we innovate in hockey. The Vegas Golden Knights are spreading their stars throughout the lineup and Adin Hill is holding down the fortress.

These are surprises, but these decisions are helping these teams have a chance at the Stanley Cup. The only thing that matters is building a team that will win a Stanley Cup.

One other thing to note: the possibility for imperfect hockey is way higher in the Stanley Cup Finals than in December of the regular season because of fatigue, uncontrollably-small samples, and mental pressure.

The top two teams in 2022-2023 from the National Hockey League will also not be in the finals. The best teams from the season are gone. While parity arguments may be made, the possibility for imperfect hockey is way higher in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals than in previous finals because of the teams involved and the 180 that teams like the Florida Panthers did to spite stats people by actually winning.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, so teams that challenge the status quo in a game that still has a 200 x 80 ft ice surface and the same 5v5 action each game is exciting for the future of hockey, despite feeling like the playstyle is a step back tactically. I call this phenomenon ‘Reverse Analytics’, and that’s the apparent key to a championship team, so let’s listen.