Standings Watch: Is the Panthers' start hot enough?

UNIONDALE, NY - OCTOBER 08: (L-R) Brian Campbell #51, Stephen Weiss #9, and Kris Versteeg #32 of the Florida Panthers celebrate Weiss' goal at 16:37 of the first period against of the New York Islanders at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on October 8, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Panthers are off to their best start since 2005-06, but Florida fans are still concerned. Teams can't make the playoffs in the first ten games, but it is possible to miss them, or at least to dig a hole that's near impossible to climb out of. There was a recent Elliotte Friedman piece mentioning that since the lockout, most teams in a playoff position on November 1 are still in a playoff position at the end of the season. This at least suggests that a hot start is, if not necessary, the most common way to the playoffs. The lockout is key because the following season is when the tie was eliminated, meaning that every game going to overtime has resulted in three points being awarded in the standings: two to the winner and one to the loser. The guaranteed winner along with the large number of overtime games has made it more difficult for teams at the bottom to move up the standings, making a good start important.

Breaking it down into chunks of three places each, we can see that the teams in the lead are likely to stay in a spot and the teams at the bottom are less likely to work their way up. But with over 20% of teams in the bottom six spots still moving into a playoff spot by the end of the season, its use as a predictor is limited.

Nov 1 Place Made Playoffs No Playoffs Playoff Percent
1-3 17 1 94%
4-6 13 5 72%
7-9 10 8 56%
10-12 4 14 22%
13-15 4 14 22%

One of the problems with looking at a fixed date during the season is that teams have varying schedules. This year on November 1st, the team at the top of the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have played 13 games, at least two games more than the vast majority of the league. The Washington Capitals, in third place with 14 points, have played 9. The Capitals, four points behind the Penguins, have four games to close that gap. This suggests that maybe place isn't the best indicator of where a team is this early in the season.

A look at each team's 10 game pace, on the other hand, puts the Capitals at the top of the Eastern Conference. With 14 points in 9 games, their 10 game pace is 15.56. The Penguins are in second at 13.85.

Since the lockout, no team in the Eastern Conference has missed the playoffs after compiling 16 points or more in their first 10 games. No team in the conference has hit that this season, but a win for the Capitals on Friday would give them 16.

First 10 Pace Number Percent Made Playoffs No Playoffs Playoff Percent
16+ 7 7.78% 7 0 100%
13-15 18 20.00% 14 4 78%
10-12 40 44.44% 23 17 58%
7-9 17 18.89% 4 13 24%
4-6 8 8.89% 0 8 0%

When the 10 game pace is viewed in 3 point intervals, one can see that the bottom teams don't make the playoffs, ever. Notably, the Boston Bruins are the only team in the Eastern Conference to have fewer than 7 points after 10 games. They are in grave danger of joining the small club of teams who have missed the playoffs the season after winning the Stanley Cup.

But where does this leave the Panthers? Right where they were in 2005. While 78% of teams with 13 to 15 points in their first 10 games have made the playoffs, the 2005-06 Cats were one of the four teams since the lockout who missed the playoffs after starting with a better than .500 record.

The key to making the playoffs is keeping a good pace throughout the season. While teams have earned as many as 20 (10-0-0) and as few as 4 in their first 10 games, most settle between 9 and 13 per ten games over the course of the season. The most important number is the one that's the difference between eighth and ninth places. In the seasons since the lockout, that number is most often 92 or 93, though it has once been 94 and once 88. What's needed to earn 93 points in the standings is an average pace of 11.34 points per 10 games. 

The important number for Florida is 12. They have 12 points in their first 10 games. Since the lockout, no team in the Eastern Conference that has kept a pace of 12 points every 10 games has missed the playoffs. So, while the Panthers still have a lot of opportunity to drop in the standings, if they can keep their season pace close to where they started, they could end the playoff drought this year.

For the rest of the season, we'll look at the season in 10 game chunks, reviewing the last 10 too see how they're keeping the pace and looking ahead to the next 10.

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