Published: Oct. 29, 2020

Fans vs Computer: Who was Closer to Predicting the NHL Champion

There are few things sports fans enjoy more than trying to predict championship teams. Since we can’t actually play sports, we feel like we accomplished something if we can accurately predict what team will come out on top. Of course, like so many other parts of modern societies, there are computers that think they can do a better job than people when it comes to predicting a champion.

Recently, PageRank put this to the test for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After all, since fans have to wait until next season to get cheap NHL tickets so they can get back to seeing games in person, they had nothing else to do but watch and predict who would lift the Stanley Cup in 2020 after the season resumed. PageRank took data from the NHL regular season before the league took a hiatus to find the “most authoritative team in the NHL.” They looked not just at wins but at quality wins to come up with a prediction of the best team in the NHL. But how did those results compare with the predictions made by fans and pundits? Let’s take a look.

PageRank Rankings

PageRank’s results put the Colorado Avalanche at the top of the NHL based on their computer models of the “most authoritative team.” They were followed by the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Edmonton Oilers, and Pittsburgh Penguins, who rounded out the top-5. For the record, none of those teams even made it to the Conference Finals during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In that sense, PageRank’s experiment was an utter failure. 

In fairness, the Bruins and Capitals both won their division during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Avalanche and Oilers were close runners-up in their division. Also, the Penguins had a strong and arguably the best player in the sport in Sydney Crosby, ultimately getting the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. However, that’s all that can be said about the validity of PageRank’s results. Only two teams out of PageRank’s top-5, Colorado and Boston, made it to the conference semifinals, meaning their predictions were wildly inaccurate.

What Actually Happened

In case you weren’t watching, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Dallas Stars in six games. Obviously, PageRank may have overlooked the fact that Tampa Bay has been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference for the past decade. They led the league in points during the 2018-19 season and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks. In fact, this year was the fifth time this decade that Tampa Bay made it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. They’ve been building toward a championship for many years. Plus, the Lightning didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone this season. They finished second in the Atlantic Division behind Boston and were the no. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Somehow, the Lightning was only ranked no. 8 on PageRank’s list of the best NHL teams. Dallas, the Western Conference champions, were three spots behind at no. 11. Another team of note was the New York Islanders, who emerged as the no. 6 seed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. PageRank had them as the 18th best team in the NHL before the season resumed. Finally, the Avalanche, who were in the no. 1 spot, according to Page Rank, ended up losing to the Stars in a seven-game series in the conference semifinals, only winning one playoff series and not coming close to winning the Stanley Cup.

What Did the Experts Say?

Of course, just because the computer was way off with regard to the best team in the NHL doesn’t necessarily mean that fans and pundits were any better in their predictions. After all, the NHL was on hiatus from the middle of March until early August. There were also no fans in attendance, taking away some of the edge that higher seeds usually get. Those factors made it more difficult than most years to predict what teams would excel in the playoffs.

After tallying the pre-playoff predictions of 36 fans, pundits, or “so-called experts,” 10 or the 36, which rounds out to about 28%, correctly picked the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the 2020 Stanley Cup. Of the 10 who picked Tampa Bay, Bruce Marshall of Vegas Insider is the only one who accurately picked that the Lightning would defeat the Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals. 

What Did We Learn?

Well, it’s difficult to draw too many hard conclusions from this experiment. However, it’s safe to say that fans still deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making predictions. Granted, most of us are going to be wrong in the end. But there’s still a few of us out there who get it right. As for PageRank, it was undoubtedly an interesting experiment to find the “most authoritative team in the NHL.” But in a year that’s proven to be crazy and unpredictable, it’s best to ignore what the computer says and go with the educated guess of a smart, well-informed fan.

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