Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Scoring In The Southeast Division

In the NHL today, there is an inequality in the talent level in the various divisions. This is partially masked by the unbalanced schedule where teams play a lot of games in their division and since somebody must win those games, even the worst divisions will get wins. Similarly, since somebody must lose those games (or at least suffer a regulation tie), the best divisions will have extra losses. No division is worse than the Southeast Division. The best team in the Southeast Division, the Carolina Hurricanes has 60 points. This would place them ninth in the East Conference. Thus, no team in the Southeast Division would qualify for playoffs were it not for the rule that the division winners get the top three seeds. This guarantees the Southeast Division champion, no matter how bad they are, a playoff berth and third seed in the east.

The extra inter-division games have other effects statistically. Because the Southeast Division is weak, more goals are scored in the inter-Southeast Division games. This is a common phenomenon. Weaker leagues tend to be higher scoring leagues. The AHL is regularly higher scoring than the NHL and the ECHL is regularly higher scoring still. In inter-division games, Southeast Division teams have 292 goals scored, the Northeast is next with 276, Pacific 271, Northwest 265, Atlantic 258 and finally the Central with 251 (note this only includes real goals and not the one granted for winning a shootout). Although that probably is not a perfect way to rank divisions from worst to best, it is plausible. Ranking divisions by total points attainted by their five teams (from worst to best) Southeast 287, Northeast 317, Northwest 319, Atlantic 320, Central 326, Pacific 327. The only change in order is the Pacific Division which moves up from fourth to first (sliding three divisions back one position). If I had to guess why this is, I would blame the Los Angeles Kings. They are the last place team in the NHL and have more goals against than any other team in the league. Hence Pacific Division teams tend to score a lot of goals in games against LA, which increases the overall goal totals, despite the fact the other four teams are doing quite well and hold the division up in the standings.

The fact the Southeast Division is the highest scoring distorts the way we look at the players from this division. When players are ranked in terms of points scored within their division only, the three top scorers in the league all come from the Southeast Division. They are Vincent LeCavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers and Martin St Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning respectively. The fifth highest inter-division scorer is another Southeast Division player Vaclav Prospal of the Tampa Bay Lightning (for the record the fourth place player is Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins). Surprisingly, the NHL's top scorer Alexander Ovechkin is in 18th place (for whatever reason, Washington is the lowest scoring southeast team in inter-division play - maybe its because they never shoot on Olaf Kolzig - their goaltender - who has the worst saves percentage in the league among goalies who qualify for the saves percentage race). Thus, Southeast Division players tend to have higher scoring records than they would if they played in other divisions. This tends to have us overvaluing southeast players.

The overvaluing of southeast offensive players has multiple effects. David Johnson hits on one. He says that southeast players may be overvalued in trades since their offensive totals are inflated. This is likely true and may be a factor in the recent Cory Stillman trade. Stillman has scored 22 of his pre-trade points in his 18 Southeast Division games. He has only scored 25 points in his 37 games against other divisions. Did Ottawa get as good an offensive player as they think they did or were they expecting him to score at the rate he did in Tampa playing regularly against the Southeast Division? Since the entire Southeast Division is doing poorly, look for them to be sellers at the trade deadline and look for teams to overpay for players because of inflated offensive numbers.

This also leads us to overvalue Southeast Division players in the overall scoring race and potentially consider them as better candidates for individual awards than they should be. Here are the top ten scorers in the NHL neglecting inter-divisional games.

Top 10 Scorers in the NHL Neglecting Inter-Division Games
>PlayerTeamGamesGoals AssistsPointsPosition in Overall Race
Henrik ZetterbergDet372729566th
Pavel DatsyukDet421639558th
Alexander OvechkinWas373420541st
Daniel AlfredssonOtt332029493rd
Jason SpezzaOtt351534495th
Jarome IginlaCal362521467th
Evgeni MalkinPit352123444th
Sidney CrosbyPit3015284314th
Mats SundinTor3917244120th
Nicklas LidstromDet423384123rd

This scoring race would be quite a bit different. There are not nearly as many Southeast Division players in it. Alexander Ovechkin remains, but he drops from top scorer in the league to 3rd. Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St Louis drop out of the top ten entirely. Up are Detroit's star players. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk rank first and second and Nicklas Lidstrom comes in tenth. Their scoring is kept down because of the number of games they play in the tough Central Division. Ottawa keeps Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza among the top scorers. Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby (who would not be a top ten scorer based on overall points). Calgary has Jarome Iginla. Mats Sundin makes a top ten appearance and he would not if inter-division games were included. Does this mean Sundin is an even better scorer than teams might expect if they trade for him?

Of course, this scoring race without inter-division games is not any final say on how well a player is doing. It makes an attempt to correct for quality of opposition (in a simple but effective way), but throws out a large number of games in the process. I think it does show that Detroit's star players are even better MVP picks than most believe (for the record I pick Nicklas Lidstrom as MVP) and it shows that many Southeast Division players are overrated by their inflated stats from their weak division (although Alexander Ovechkin is still a legitimate candidate).

The difference in quality between the NHL divisions has several subtle effects on how we should interpret statistics. The Southeast Division, being the weakest division, is the highest scoring one and this tends to make us overrate their offensive players. This will likely lead to teams paying too much for these players in trades and possibly undeserving trophy nominees (Vincent LeCavalier and Ilya Kovalchuk are too potential trophy nominees who have stats inflated significantly by their weak inter-division games).

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