Can an under .500 NHL team make the Playoffs this season?

The Edmonton Oilers. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
The Edmonton Oilers. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the many things different about this 2020-21 NHL season was the temporary division restructuring.

The NHL was divided into four separate divisions with the top four teams in each division making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The three United States based divisions have eight teams each, while the all-Canadian division has seven. The NHL sold naming rights to each division because they needed the money.

With new and different divisions, could this mean a team with an under NHL .500 winning percentage (more regulation losses than wins) make the postseason? It used to be a common occurrence even throughout the 1990’s. Back during the 1990-1991 season, the Minnesota North Stars made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals with a losing regular season record.

Can a team with more losses than wins make it to the postseason? How would that happen in today’s NHL?

The last time the NHL had an under .500 team make the Playoffs was back during the 1998-1999 season. That was the first season the NHL awarded a point in the standings for an overtime loss. Prior to that, an Overtime loss was treated the same as a regulation loss. Even if a tie and overtime loss counted the same, an overtime win still brought you that second point. Ever since then the NHL hasn’t had an under .500 team make the playoffs, although adding a few teams through expansion to balance divisions might have helped as well.

Looking back at NHL divisional standings at the time, those under .500 teams came from uneven divisions where a majority of teams made the Playoffs. For example, back then there were six-team divisions that sent four teams to the postseason. The three American teams are balanced at eight teams apiece, meaning half of each division will make the Playoffs. As for the all Canadian division, there’s one less team, which means one more team will be in the Playoffs as opposed to not making it.

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Also happening in the Canadian division is that each of the seven teams will not be playing each other an equal number of times. Even if they all add up to 56 games, it could lead to a lob sided result. Still, since that “one point for an overtime, or now shoot out, loss” rule exists, it’s incredibly unlikely. It would be the ultimate Cinderella story for a losing team to make a run at the Playoffs and lift the Stanley Cup. It would be weird, but so is everything about this season. Even if it’s unlikely, it would be historical and exciting to watch.