Each year in the NHL there are several teams that see their playoff dreams mathematically end well before the end of the regular season. That means that they have to play some games to finish the year that have no real meaning. For handicappers those games can be challenging. Most people will assume that those teams will not play particularly well – and that is very often true. Sometimes, though, those teams will play better than people think, and that can create some very nice value. Here are six factors to consider when trying to determine how an eliminated team could perform down the stretch:
What were their expectations coming into the season? – If a team was never expected to be a serious playoff contender in the first place then they aren’t likely to be too affected by not making the playoffs. They never thought that they would, so they have had a long time to get used to the fact that their season would end early. In fact, a team that never meant to make the playoffs could actually be quite enthusiastic despite missing the postseason if they have made significant progress forward as a team and as individual players. If a team was a serious playoff contender, though – either as a potential Stanley Cup contender or just a team that was likely to make the postseason – then being eliminated could be frustrating, and that could lead to some particularly bad play down the stretch. When they have nothing left to play for then their focus and intensity will be compromised both in practice and in games. Playing hockey well is very physically demanding, and players aren’t as likely to pay the price they need to if there is nothing in it for them.
How healthy are they? – Quite often the reason why a team has fallen out of playoff contention is because of injury issues that have forced them to make compromises about the lineup they ice. If those injuries are still a problem down the stretch, or if injury issues have arisen later in the season, then that can really kill the momentum for the team – and they already don’t have a lot of momentum to spare.
Have they closed strong? – There are a couple of ways that a team can miss out on the playoffs. They can struggle early and then close strong but fall short. Or they can close badly and limp to the end of the season. If a team has found their form down the stretch but fallen short then it is still easier to trust them. They are playing with confidence, they have systems that they trust, and the individual players are shining. If they have struggled badly down the stretch, though, then there is no reason to expect them to suddenly improve now that they are out of the playoff picture.
How stable is the coach? – If a coach is likely to be back next year then the team is likely to play reasonably well for him because they are thinking of their future playing for him. In other words, he still has leverage over his players. If the coach’s contract is coming to an end, or if he is very likely to be fired, though, then the players will find it very easy to tune him out, and a bad team could be much worse.
How much change is going to come to the roster? – If a lot of players on a roster – or just a few if they are the key players on the team – know that they aren’t likely to be with the team past this season then they are not at all likely to perform at their best. If they are about to become free agents or are likely trade bait then they will have little incentive to impress the team they are with, and it’s rare that their performance in the last few games will affect their value. The more players in this position the harder it is to trust the team.
Can they play spoiler? – Sometimes teams that have nothing left to play for can still be motivated by making sure another team – especially a rival – has nothing to play for, either. The schedule late in the season typically features a lot of conference and divisional games, so it is quite common for a team to have an opportunity to ruin things for an opponent with a win. It can be easier to trust some teams in a case like that than it is if the games really mean nothing for both teams.