Friday, 12 August 2011

NHL: Is Your Team Scheduled for Success?

The NHL currently has 30 teams. The NHL regular season consists of 82 games. The NHL has 2 Conferences of 15 teams each. Each Conference has 3 Divisions. Each Division has 5 teams. The schedule, however, is not a balanced schedule. In other words each team does not play every other team the same number of games. The League justifies this by referring to saving on travel costs and creating Divisional rivalries. Teams within each Division play each other 6 times. That is 4 teams times 6 games for a total 24 games within your Division (29% of games). The other teams within their Conference play each other 4 times. That is 10 teams times 4 games for a total of 40 games. Teams in the other Conference (15 teams) are played 1 or 2 times for a total of 18 games. So does this unbalanced schedule have an effect on a team’s final result? Let’s take a look at an example from the 2010-2011 season.

During the 2010-2011 NHL season the Vancouver Canucks won the President’s trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season but lost in the Stanley Cup playoff final series to the Boston Bruins. After such a dominant regular season how could the Canucks lose? Let’s take another look at the Canucks’ regular season.

The Canucks, finishing 1st, played 28 games against the Western Conference other top 7 playoff teams. In those 28 games they had 15 wins and 13 losses. In the 4 games against each team they split every home-and-away series 2-wins and 2-losses except against San Jose against whom they had 3-wins and 1-loss. Not a dominant performance by any means. Against the bottom 7 non-playoff teams they had 36 games. They had more games within their Conference against non-playoff teams because the Canucks play in the worst division in the Conference and maybe the League. That means the Canucks were fortunate in playing 6 games each against the Edmonton Oilers (30th place), the Colorado Avalanche (29th place), the Minnesota Wild (21st place) and the Calgary Flames (17th place). In those 36 games they had 28 wins and 8 losses. But how did the Canucks fair against the best and the worst in the East?

The Vancouver Canucks played 18 regular season games against Eastern Conference opponents. Against the top 8 playoff teams the Canucks had 2 wins and 7 losses. Totally dominated by the elite of the East! Against the bottom 7 non-playoff teams the Canucks had 9 wins and 0 losses. Again their success appears to be as bottom feeders.
So across the League the Canucks had 17 wins and 20 losses against the top level playoff competition in a total of 37 games. In the other 45 games, they played against bottom level non-playoff opponents winning 37 games and losing 8 games. Could an argument be made that the Canucks’ President’s Trophy was a result of this unbalanced schedule? And what about other regular season accomplishments? Scoring goals or goals against? Any individual or team awards can be questioned when those accomplishments were while playing against lesser opponents more often than not over the course of the season. With due respect to Edmonton and Colorado what team wouldn’t want 12 games against the 29th and 30th place teams?

It would be an interesting exercise to do the same analysis for all the other teams in the league. Who had the best results based on the level of competition imposed on them by the unbalanced schedule? Was it the ultimate winners, the Bruins? Someone else? The Washington Capitals had the second best regular season record and were the top team in the East. Was their competition more difficult? Would they be more deserving of the President’s Cup?

More importantly, what about the Stanley Cup? How did this unbalanced competition affect home ice advantage during the playoffs? Who might have missed the playoffs based on a more difficult schedule? It is time for you home team analysts to crunch some numbers. Do it for your home team. The problem in the analysis is the regular season results are based on this unbalanced schedule so what is a true test of a team’s results? The most difficult division in the West could be argued to be the Pacific having teams that finished 5th, 9th, 11th, 12th, and 16th. But teams in this division got more games against the worst division, the North West (1st, 17th, 21st, 29th, 30th) than Eastern opponents. Based on the same rationale the best in the East was the Atlantic with 3rd, 4th, 18th, 23rd, and 27th league finishers. So the question in the West is whether San Jose (5th overall and 2nd in the West) was a better team than Vancouver and in the East whether Philadelphia (3rd overall and 2nd in the East) was better than Boston. The NHL does have the most gruelling of playoffs requiring 16 victories over 4 series.

 I think they got it right. Vancouver played San Jose head-to-head (won in 5 games), and Boston had to go through Philadelphia (a 4 game sweep), both to ultimately get to the finals. Boston was the best team during this playoff. Better than Vancouver! The Bruins were dominant in their victories. Congratulations Bruins. But Montreal or Tampa Bay were very close to going to the finals. So is your favourite team scheduled for success in 2011-2012?

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