Perhaps you’ve noticed the growing disconnect between regular-season success and winning championships once the playoffs roll around in pro sports.
The ongoing Stanley Cup playoffs are a textbook example. Tampa Bay dominated the regular season with an historic 62 wins and a monstrous 128-point total.
The Lightning then went quietly into the playoff night, having been swept in the first round best-of-7 series by a Columbus team that needed a late push just to slip in as the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.
Only Boston (107) points and San Jose (101) remain alive out of nine teams that began the Cup playoffs with 100 or more points.
The Bruins already have swept their way to the Cup Final, having most recently disposed of Carolina, yet another wild-card team that had won a couple of series.
The NHL and its fans seem to take perverse pride in regular-season champions not having a good track record when it comes to translating that into winning the Stanley Cup.
Since the Presidents’ Trophy began to be awarded to the points leader with the 1985-86 season, only eight times has a Stanley Cup joined that hardware in the team trophy case for the same season.
The most recent NHL double was accomplished by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012-13.
Given that the NHL regular season is an arduous, 82-game slog, teams might want to re-think putting too much effort into maximizing success during their schedule. Just win enough to make the 16-team playoff field and go from there.
Baseball is the epitome of the long regular season, all 162 games of it. Teams already have been playing for nearly two months of 2019 and last week all of them just pushed through the first quarter of the regular season.
Last season the Boston Red Sox added a World Series title to a Major League Baseball-leading 108-win regular season. You might think that would be the common experience in view of baseball’s lengthy regular season and the likelihood that length would determine a legitimate best team.
But the year before, the Los Angeles Dodgers won 104 games in the regular season, and didn’t go on to win the World Series. St. Louis in 2015 and the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 also failed to win the World Series after compiling the highest regular-season win totals in the majors.
The good folks at the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective examined the topic among major sports in a 2013 study and found that, incredibly, baseball had the lowest expectation of turning regular-season success into a championship when seasons dating to 1995 and the expansion of the playoff field were studied.
The NFL was next worst, and then came the NHL. The NBA, which plays 82-game seasons, is the league most likely to have its best regular-season team as measured by wins also capture the championship in the playoffs.
Last year the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints shared the claim of best regular-season record in the NFL at 13-3. Next came the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, each at 12-4.
The Super Bowl winner? New England, which finished 11-5 in the regular season.
The Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the past four NBA titles, are in the championship hunt again this season. They finished the regular season with 57 wins, good for third best in the league behind Milwaukee (60) and Toronto (58). Those two Eastern Conference teams also remain alive in the playoffs.
NASCAR doesn’t want the stick-or-ball sports to have all the fun of surprise champions. Last season, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch each won eight races over the 36-race schedule. Harvick had 23 Top 5 finishes and Busch had 22. So, of course, the season championship went to Joey Logano, he of three wins and 13 top 5 results.
But Logano slipped into the playoffs – the last 10 races on the schedule – and won the final race to claim the title.
By way of contrast, IndyCar still crowns a season points champion, without a playoff mishmash.
Perhaps the purest championship concept is found in the English Premier League – soccer. Each of the 20 teams plays the other 19 teams twice, home and away, so there are no scheduling quirks rewarding teams with easier schedules.
Three points are awarded for a win and one for a tie.
At the end of the season, the team compiling the most points is the champion.
There is no playoff format to muddle the picture and render months of work relatively meaningless.
This makes every regular-season game significant and tends to crown the legitimate best team over the course of the season, not merely one that played its best at the so-called “right” time.
American fans don’t seem to mind the devaluation of the regular season, and owners certainly like the revenue that comes from long regular seasons being augmented by the lengthy postseasons that are necessitated by bloated fields of qualifiers.
As long as that is the case, expect regular seasons to become less and less significant in the big picture. We might even face a future of shortened regular seasons, the better to allow for more playoff teams and games.