Was Los Angeles Kings' Incredible 2012 Title Run an Outlier or Part of a Trend?

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Was Los Angeles Kings' Incredible 2012 Title Run an Outlier or Part of a Trend?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the NHL, the only thing that matters is getting into the playoffs, because once a team reaches the 16-team tournament, anything can happen.

This was illustrated in last year's playoffs, when the Los Angeles Kings became the first eighth-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup in NHL history.

The Kings defeated the top three seeds in the Western Conference to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they defeated the New Jersey Devils in six games. The Devils were the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and upset the top-seeded New York Rangers in the Conference Finals.

Regardless of which team won the 2012 Stanley Cup, someone was going to become the lowest seed to ever lift the best trophy in all of sports.

Was the Kings' run to a championship as an eighth seed part of a trend in the NHL, or an outlier? To find the answer, let's look at a round-by-round breakdown of how recent teams seeded fifth through eighth have fared in the playoffs during the salary cap era (2005-present).

Year 5-8 Seeds in Conf. Semis 5-8 Seeds in Conf. Finals 5-8 Seeds in SC Final
2012 4 2 2
2011 2 1 0
2010 4 2 1
2009 2 1 0
2008 4 2 0
2007 2 0 0
2006 4 2 1
Total 22 10 4

Do you expect more lower seeds to make deep playoff runs in the future?

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Only two eighth seeds have ever reached the Cup Final (2006 Edmonton Oilers and 2012 Kings), so in that sense, what the Kings accomplished last season as the lowest seed was an outlier. But when you look at the amount of underdogs (teams seeded fifth through eighth) that have won playoff rounds in the cap era, it's definitely possible that we could be seeing a growing trend in the NHL.

As you can see from the chart above, 22 teams seeded fifth or below have reached the second round in both conferences in the cap era.

In the chart below, you can see that there were 20 teams in the seven years prior to the creation of the salary cap seeded fifth through eighth that won a round in the playoffs:

Year 5-8 Seeds in Conf. Semis 5-8 Seeds in Conf. Finals 5-8 Seeds in SC Final
2004 2 1 1
2003 2 2 1
2002 2 0 0
2001 4 1 0
2000 2 0 0
1999 4 1 1
1998 4 1 0
Total 20 6 3

In regard to teams winning one playoff round, the numbers in the seven years before and after the salary cap's creation are pretty much the same. The difference is the amount of lower-seeded teams that have advanced to the Conference Finals and Cup Finals. In the cap era, 14 teams have won two playoff rounds, compared to nine teams in the seven years before the cap system was used.

It's not a huge difference, but with the increasing amount of parity in today's game, a new trend of teams seeded fifth or lower going on deep playoff runs could be starting to take shape. In the last three years, three teams seeded sixth or lower have reached the Cup Finals. These lower seeds aren't just small-market teams that don't spend to the salary cap ceiling.

Several of them are large-market teams who underachieved in the regular season for a variety of reasons (injuries, players not performing to their normal standard, etc.) that made the playoffs due to their strong performance toward the end of the regular season, which gave them the confidence needed for a deep playoff run.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was able to implement a salary cap system in 2005.

The salary cap has evened the playing field quite a bit since the 2004-05 lockout. The days of small-market, low-budget teams not being able to contend in the playoffs are over. Since teams can no longer acquire all the talent they can afford, the talent is more spread out across the league. The middle-tier teams have a stronger chance for postseason success because of the cap.

Every team has multiple weaknesses that can be exploited in a seven-game playoff series, and we have seen this quite a few times recently, with three of the last four Presidents' Trophy winners being eliminated in the first round. General managers don't have enough cap space to address every single weakness on their rosters, which gives lower seeds a chance to pull off upsets in the postseason.

There have been seven different Stanley Cup champions and 12 different Conference champions in the last seven seasons. The Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins are the only teams that have won more than one conference title in the cap era.

This year's edition of the New York Rangers (the sixth seed in East) could be the next lower seed to make a championship run. Just like the Kings last season, the Blueshirts underachieved for most of the season, but after making some trade deadline moves and getting injured players back in the lineup, they started to hit their stride heading into the playoffs.

Is parity good for the NHL?

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With the salary cap closing the gap in talent between the league's 30 teams, we should expect more lower-seeded clubs like the 2012 Kings to reach the Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Final.

There have been more lower-seeded teams winning playoff rounds since the creation of the salary cap, and it wouldn't be surprising if this number continues to grow as long as the cap system is in place. With the cap ceiling going down from about $70 million to $64.3 million next season, there could be even more parity in the near future.

In the salary cap era, the league is now wide open. A large majority of the 30 teams have a chance to win the Stanley Cup every season, and that's part of what makes the NHL so exciting.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL lead writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.

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