Monday, January 21, 2008

The Uneven NHL Divisions

The NHL schedule does three things that significantly distort the successes of the teams. First by offering a point to teams that lose - but remain tied through regulation, they give teams more points than they deserve and distort the meaning of .500 (can a team that loses more than they win truly be called a .500 team?). Second, by offering a point for winning the skills competition that is a shootout, they allow teams that have shootout success but are not good hockey teams (most notably Edmonton who has a league leading 11 shootout victories) look better than they actually are. Third, they play an unbalanced schedule where teams in weaker divisions will play more games against other teams in their weak division. Thus winning more games then they would have in a balanced schedule look better than they are.

There is significant unbalance between divisions and conferences in the NHL today. The West Conference as a whole has a record of 55-36 (with 7 losses counted as regulation ties) when playing the East Conference. Of the 15 West Conference teams, all having won more games then they have lost against the east except Chicago, Minnesota (only 3 games played), San Jose (only 3 games played) and Calgary (who sport a 4-1-3 record). Conversely in the East Conference, the only teams who have won more than they have lost against the west are New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Boston. It is quite clear that the west is better than the east from their head-to-head record. Interestingly, the east is the higher scoring conference and thus has more of the top scorers. This is because the west is a far better defensive conference. In general, lower scoring leagues tend to be better leagues than higher scoring ones (the NHL is always lower scoring than the AHL, which is lower scoring than the ECHL). The west is better and its lower scoring game results are a symptom of that. Thus, East Conference teams look better than they are because they play more games against themselves and the West Conference teams look worse than they are because they play more games against themselves. This helps create an illusion of parity.

Not all divisions are created equally either. The Southeast Division in the East Conference is by far the worst division in hockey. This is quite easily seen merely by looking at the East Conference standings. Carolina has the 9th best record in the east, Atlanta the 10th, Washington the 11th, Florida the 13th and Tampa Bay the 15th. None of them would qualify for playoffs if the season ended right now, except that the division champ is guaranteed one of the top three seeds in the east. Because the Southeast Division plays so many games against itself (and somebody must win those games), just how bad the Southeast Division is gets distorted. It is even worse than the raw standings would show. James Mirtle published a study today showing just how historically poor the Southeast Division has been. This year is worse than the last few. This year, the Southeast Division has a record of 61-91 (with 15 losses counted as regulation ties) outside there division. Not one team has a winning record outside the division. When the schedule is made a bit more balanced next year, unless the Southeast Division significantly improves, they will look even worse in the league standings.

One method to show this (that possibly overrates the conference/divisional inequities) is David Johnson's power rankings. His most recent rankings show that 13 of the 14r best teams in the NHL are West Conference teams. Only Ottawa (who he ranks sixth) make the top fourteen from the East Conference. The only two West Conference teams that are not rates in the top fourteen are Edmonton (23rd) and Los Angeles (24th). The entire Southeast Division fills five of the six worst spots. Only Toronto (29th) is doing is badly from outside the southeast.

The NHL standings distort reality because of points given for regulation ties, shootout victories and most importantly divisional and conference inequities hidden by the unbalanced schedule. As the schedule becomes a bit more balanced next season, these inequities might be magnified. The best teams in the NHL standings are not necessarily the best teams in the league. There are too many distortions in the standings to ensure that.

1) We couldn't agree more that its been a mistake for the NHL(or society in general) to reward failure(losing)
2) A loss is a loss in our opinion. We hate that last column in the standings, the OT loss.
3) As for divisional strength inconsistencies causing a slant of the standings its quite clear to be true, especially as it pertains to the SE. However the only remedies are unlikely:
4) A return to a completely 'balanced schedule where each team plays the same schedule or the elimination of divisions in favour of 2 conferences.
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