Does the NHL’s preseason really matter? Surprisingly yes

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins

Thousands of Pittsburgh Penguins fans piled into the CONSOL Energy Center to see the Pens face the Detroit Red Wings in Pittsburgh’s first glimpse of hockey since May. Nothing was at stake besides pride and rosters spots. The crowd hoped this preseason opener would be the first step in washing the bitter taste from last season’s disastrous finish, when the New York Rangers overcame a three-game deficit to eliminate the Penguins from the postseason. Prospects hoped to show the front office they belong in the franchise’s plans. Veterans hoped to get into a groove they could carry into the regular season.

Despite the excitement for this exhibition, Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk scored a pair of goals to hand the Pens a 2-1 loss. Pittsburgh suffered the same fate against Columbus the following night, losing 2-0.

Not much credit is given to a strong preseason record, and little concern is formed from a poor one. Considering three of Pittsburgh’s top offensive weapons — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Chris Kunitz — missed those games with injuries, it makes sense. What does the preseason say of a team’s chances for success in the regular season, though?

Those same Rangers that eliminated the Penguins from the playoffs in May went 1-5 in the preseason, but managed to finish the year with a 58.5 winning percentage en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance in 20 years. That 41.8 percent turnaround is the exception, though. The NHL has played preseason games in eight of the last 10 years, with 2004 and 2012 being lost to lockouts. In those eight seasons, 40 percent of teams have seen little improvement in their record from preseason to regular season, with a difference in their winning percentages between 10 and -10 percent.

Twenty-two of the 240 teams (30 franchises times eight seasons) have improved by 25 percent or more — or the equivalent of going from a 2-5-1 preseason to a 94-point, seventh-place in the conference regular season (2007-08 Calgary Flames). Four of those teams have appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals: ’13 Rangers, ’10 Vancouver Canucks, ’09 Chicago Blackhawks, and ’08 Penguins.

A team is just as likely to regress. Seven teams, including the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, ended the preseason with a winning percentage of 90 or greater. All seven saw their winning percentage, not surprisingly, drop more than 25 percent during the year. The 2007-08 Tampa Bay Lighting are the only one in that group to finish the regular season below 50 percent, though.

Some franchises are more consistent when the games start to matter. The Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues have seen minimal change, between 10 and -10 percent, in winning percentage in each of the last three seasons with a preseason (2010, 2011, and 2013).

But the Boston Bruins, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Edmonton Oilers are less lucky. Boston and Buffalo have suffered 10 percent or worse drops in their record in five seasons; Edmonton in six. The Arizona Coyotes and the Red Wings haven’t seen any significant drops in winning percentage since the 2004 lockout.

On the other end of the scale, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals haven’t seen any significant improvement. The Philadelphia Flyers and the Winnipeg Jets — Atlanta Thrashers, R.I.P. — have bettered by 10 or more in five of eight years.

Will it matter for Pittsburgh, who’s had three significant improvements, three significant regressions, and two seasons with little change? It’s not impossible to recover from a bad preseason. (Their two Stanley Cup appearances with Crosby as the captain came after a 28.9 increase and a 29.6 decrease between preseason and regular season, respectively.) But if they want a better end to 2015 than 2014 brought, history says they’ll need to finish the exhibition season stronger than they started it.

Look through every team’s preseason to regular win percentage changes.

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