In late October, 2000, the Chicago Blackhawks fired an assistant coach, which was weird for a couple of reasons. Why an assistant? And why so early in the year?
In explaining his process, then-general manager Mike Smith said, “You usually judge your team by American Thanksgiving. … That gives us about another 10 or 12 games.”
It’s hard to say exactly where something started – especially things that don’t have a formal name – but this utterance is part of the creation myth of the Thanksgiving benchmark.
That is the currently fashionable proposition that U.S. Turkey Day is the moment when the NHL’s foxes have created enough space between themselves and the trailing hounds to determine with some accuracy who’s going to make it out alive.
The odds are pretty sweet; since Smith’s comment, about three-quarters of teams in playoff position on U.S. Thanksgiving have ended up in the postseason.
Initially, this was an interesting bit of trivia. It became a regularly discussed signpost. These days, it’s a hard border.
If you are in, you should remain that way. Statistics say so. If you’re out, it’s not time to panic, but it’s getting close. This is with nearly 60 games to go.
I put the issue of the Thanksgiving benchmark to Jeffrey Rosenthal, a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto. Is this something we should treat as holy writ?
Rosenthal has more important things to think about than whether the Montreal Canadiens are for real and what hanging on to eighth place in the Eastern Conference means when a great fowl slaughter is upon us, but he was willing to consider the idea.
There was a lot of math talk. I got confused and sat on the phone swaying for a bit, getting lightheaded. But the summation was this: “If there is a two-thirds probability of it happening, then that means there is a one-third chance of it not happening.”
This struck me – admittedly, a not-very-smart person who had to redo Grade 11 geometry at night school – as deeply profound.
Then Rosenthal said things such as, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and “that’s why they play the whole season.” All of us are coaches in our hearts.
If this stuff is a science, it’s just as much Newton’s law of inertia as pure stats – an object in motion tends to stay that way. Unless it begins banging against goal posts and people in the neutral zone.
The St. Louis Blues are one such team. At the Thanksgiving marker last year, the Blues were first in the Western Conference.
That’s not just good odds. In casino terms, it’s close to a mortal lock. They ended up finishing ninth, out of the playoffs.
That led in turn to all sorts of motion rippling through the club. A few days ago, it hit coach Mike Yeo in the back and propelled him with great force toward the parking lot while he held a bunch of framed photos in a box.
It’s the other part of the prognostication – woe be to those who fall within those boundaries just as the leaves have fallen, then find themselves on the outside once the buds begin blooming again. A curse be upon them.
Hitting the Thanksgiving marker has become so widely talked about that it creates an expectation. If you fail to make the playoffs now, you haven’t just had a down year. You’ve blown it.
Nobody cares why you’ve blown it. They just know you have. Because of Thanksgiving.
The Nashville Predators are the best team in hockey, but they’re still just two horrendous weeks from being out of the playoff picture. Unlikely? Highly. Possible? Anything’s possible.
What’s gotten interesting about the Thanksgiving threshold is its sudden capacity to throw franchises into chaos. There is nothing worse than seeming like you should win and then failing to do so, which elicits rage. It’s much more awful than seeming bad and being bad, which only prompts frustration. Ask Yeo.
Setting the bar in November – as opposed to February or March – puts people on notice earlier. Now they’ve finished with the “let’s see what we’ve got” phase and begun the “playoff prep” stage.
It doesn’t help the players, who can’t stop themselves from becoming standings-obsessed. It doesn’t help coaches, who know that, from this point on, every small dip will be treated as a catastrophe.
In a perfect world, they’d have the freedom to bump along until the final quarter of the year, at which point they’d ramp it up ahead of the longest, most difficult postseason in team sports.
The people it helps are the league and team owners. Nobody’s going to swallow another playoff expansion, but this is a way to artificially do so.
From Nov. 22 on, the Lightning, Leafs and Bruins aren’t just cruising any more. They’re jockeying for position. The Stars, Canucks and Oilers aren’t just playing out the string. They’re fighting for their lives.
This may be why so many head coaches were fired in the past few days – they’ve been running on the track since October, but the race is now about to start. Time to get serious.
The earlier that happens, the more people care, the more money is made. The Thanksgiving threshold is good for business, if perhaps not for the medium-term viability of NHL players’ bodies and, arguably, teams’ chances in April and beyond.
As you do, I asked Rosenthal if he had any thoughts about particular teams and where they stood. Is he a fan of any one?
“The Leafs, of course,” Rosenthal said. And then added by way of proof: “The last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was five months before I was born, which means the next time they win it will be five months after I die.”
Well, what about making the playoffs this year? They look like a guarantee. What does science tell you?
“You’re asking me to predict?”
“Then yes, sure. Why not?”