Devil's Advocate: The Sabres' Season Is Not Done Yet

Since Lucic hit Miller on November 12th, the Sabres have won just over a quarter of their games while going 9-19-5. The likelihood they make the playoffs is 1.1% according to Hockey-Reference and 0.3% according to Sports Club Stats; roulette appears to be a more attractive option than following the Sabres for the rest of the season. These websites use sophisticated models and many reasonable assumptions; however, the Sabres' playoff hopes improve dramatically by removing the assumption that they will continue to play as poorly as they have been.

Before discussing the results of a simpler analysis where the Sabres' probability of winning any given game is varied, I want to mention two assumptions. First, to make the playoffs, a team needs to win 41 games. The analysis is much simpler by considering wins instead of points. This season, 22% of all games have gone to overtime, which means that a team would expect to go to overtime 18 times. If a team won exactly half of their games that ended in regulation and half that ended in overtime, they would finish with a record of 41-32-9 and 91 points. The 41 win assumption is fairly consistent with needing 91 points to make the playoffs. Second, the Sabres have an equal chance of winning any given game; there is no adjustment for strength of schedule. There are enough games left that this should be a reasonable assumption.

By assuming that the Sabres are actually a good team that should have a winning percentage of 60%, instead of a 19-24-5 team with a winning percentage just under 40%, the playoffs become a reasonable goal. To reach 41 wins, the Sabres need to win 22 of their remaining 34 games, a winning percentage of 64.71%. Playing that well over the last 34 games seems impossible now, but on November 11th, the Sabres beat Ottawa 5-1, and were 10-5-0, a winning percentage of 66.67%. What if those Sabres came back? They would have to dig themselves out of a hole, but how big a hole is it? By using binomial probability and the above assumptions of 1) 41 wins makes the playoffs and 2) constant win probability for every game, I created the following table that lists the chances of making the playoffs for win probabilities between 35% and 70%.

Win Probability Playoff Likelihood
35% 0.04%
40% 0.31%
45% 1.64%
50% 6.07%
55% 16.74%
60% 35.42%
65% 59.19%
70% 80.71%

Although reaching what looked like rock bottom and then losing 5 games in a row doesn't give much reason to be optimistic, the Sabres still have time to make a run if they become a good team again. They should be a good team. They made the playoffs last year and bringing in Leino, Ehrhoff, and Regehr is an upgrade on paper over Connolly, Butler, and Montador. Additionally, the core players are still young and should be improving, or at least not declining. There's no denying that Roy, Stafford, Boyes, and Leino are all performing well below expectations. However, they could all finish the season playing at or above expectations. If things keep going the way they are, the Sabres have a legitimate shot at the number 1 pick next year. If they can resume playing like they did at the beginning of the season, they have a decent chance at making the playoffs. Anything can happen once they're in; the '99 Cup Final team was a 7 seed. There's still a lot of hockey left to play.