As our friends south of the border enjoy their holiday long weekend, many in the hockey world will be looking at American Thanksgiving in a different context. As the theory goes, teams in a playoff spot around this time have a very strong chance of making the playoffs while teams on the outside are statistically unlikely to climb their way back in.
So just how accurate is this theory? And what does it mean for the Calgary Flames?
First brought forward by Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland a number of years ago, the American Thanksgiving Theory basically asserts how important a fast start to the season is and how detrimental a slow one can be. The Flames are not a playoff team right now and, as you can see below, are near the bottom of the Western Conference when it comes to how they’d project over 82 games.
Now, projecting points over one quarter of an NHL season is a fool’s errand because there is so much that can happen in the final three quarters of the season. However, above paints a fairly bleak picture of the path Calgary is on right now. As the theory would indicate, the Flames have themselves an uphill climb if they want to be a playoff team in the spring. Let’s delve into how much empirical backing there is to this theory, though.
Since the NHL instituted the shootout and the loser point to start the 2005-06 season, roughly 23% of teams on the outside looking in at American Thanksgiving end up making the playoffs. But what I find far more interesting is what we’ve seen in recent history.
The league changed playoff format and divisional alignment to start the 2013-14 season, so I think looking at the last three years is a good way to go about things. Below is a look at the teams who were in the playoffs come American Thanksgiving in each of the last three seasons and whether or not they ended up there come the end of the season.
As you can see, this has turned into a fairly accurate predictor, specifically in the Western Conference. So, let’s start crunching some numbers here. Over the last three years, teams in playoff spots at American Thanksgiving have qualified for the postseason 79.2% of the time. On the flip side, non-playoff teams have climbed back in 20.8% of the time. Those numbers are league-wide though; the figures in the west are a little more daunting.
If you’re a Western Conference team over the last three years, being in a playoff spot in late November saw you qualify for real 87.5% of the time. Conversely, that means teams have only got themselves back into the mix 12.5% of the time in the last three seasons.
So how does this apply to the Flames? Well, knowing how tough it’s been to knock off one of the top eight teams over the last three years, they’re not in a great spot through 22 games. For instance, last year saw Anaheim make their way in, but they needed a torrid run in the second half to do it while Minnesota had to go down the same road in 2014-15.
Calgary has been on both sides of the equation in recent years. They protected a spot for much of the 2014-15 season and ended up being a playoff team in the end. A year later, though, they were on the outside looking in come late November and even a record-setting month of December couldn’t get them all the way back in.
The American Thanksgiving Theory has never been presented as scientific fact. After all, it’s hard to take this cutoff date as gospel when the holiday falls on a different date every year. However, there’s no doubting recent history would suggest the Flames have a very difficult task ahead of them to get back in the playoffs. It’s also not impossible, though, as teams like the Wild and Ducks have shown over the last couple of years.
Current Flames forward Troy Brouwer had a memorable quote a few years ago when he was still with Washington. “It’s too early to talk about the playoffs,” he said. “It’s November.” For us outside of the locker room, though, this tends to be a very popular time to talk about the playoffs.
I think Calgary is a slightly better team than their record would suggest. They’ve shown progression in certain areas, specifically on the possession side, while also holding down one of the lowest PDOs in the league. As such, I could see a decent uptick in positive results for the Flames in the final 60 games of the season. The problem is, they’ve dug themselves a hole through the first quarter of the season. With so many other competitive teams in the Western Conference, digging out of that hole for good looks like a daunting task.
(I’m not sure why I decided to go with the Snoopy theme, but I’m quite happy with it.)