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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Which 16 NHL Teams Would Make the Playoffs with a Balanced Schedule?

The last inter-conference game of the NHL regular season was played yesterday - the next time that teams from the East and the West meet will be in the Stanley Cup Finals. Teams from the Eastern Conference only won 115 of the 270 inter-conference games this season, a success rate of 42.6%.

The West being stronger than the East and yet getting the same number of playoff spots is a sore point for some Western hockey fans. For example, the Flames now only have a 5.5%-chance of making the playoffs according to Sports Club Stats even though their record would guarantee them a spot in the East. Some have therefore proposed to simply allocate playoff spots to the top 16 teams, regardless of conference.

However, the actual situation is worse: Western teams also suffer from facing stronger Western teams for 64 games, and weaker Eastern ones for only 18 games. How many points is that worth?

Well, to a first approximation, to make the schedule fair, each team should play 23 fewer games against teams in its own conference, and 23 more against ones in the other conference. In those 23 games, Eastern teams would have a success rate of 42.6% instead of 50%. On average, they would therefore win about 1.7 fewer games.

Each win is not quite worth 2 points, since the losing team gets 1 point for making it to OT. That has happened in 23.6% of games played this season. Thus, a win is worth 2-0.236 = 1.764 points.

Bottom line: One should subtract 3.005 points from each team's total in the East, and add 3.005 for Western teams.

Of course, ideally one would also adjust for the strength of divisional opponents (against whom each team plays 6 times instead of 4 against non-division rivals in the same conference), and the strength of the 3 teams from the other conference a team plays against twice instead of once. However, those adjustments are bound to be much smaller, so to a first approximation, adding 3 points to Western teams and subtracting 3 from Eastern teams is appropriate. Equivalently, we could simply add 6 to Western totals.

(The appropriate adjustment for now is not 6, but about 5.5 since the season isn't over yet.)

Looking at the current standings, counting each game left beyond 3 as 1.1 points (i.e. teams with 4 games left get +1.1, while the Predators get -1.1 for having just 2 remaining), and adding 5.5 to Western teams, my homemade NHL ranking is:

1. Washington 115.1
2. San Jose 112.5
3. Chicago 111.6
4. Phoenix 107.5
5. Vancouver 105.5
6. Nashville 102.4
7. Los Angeles 101.6
8. Detroit 101.5
9. New Jersey 98.1
10. Pittsburgh 98.1
11. Colorado 97.6
12. Buffalo 97.1
13. Calgary 94.5
14. Anaheim 91.6
15. St. Louis 91.6
16. Ottawa 91

17. Dallas 89.5
18. Minnesota 86.5
19. Montreal 86
20. Boston 85.1
21. Philadelphia 84
22. NY Rangers 83.1
23. Columbus 82.5
24. Atlanta 81
25. NY Islanders 77.1
26. Carolina 76
27. Florida 75.1
28. Tampa Bay 75.1
29. Toronto 72
30. Edmonton 62.6

Instead of being already guaranteed to win the President's Trophy, Washington would be in a tough fight with San Jose and Chicago for the top spot, especially if you additionally adjust for divisional strength. Fully 7 of the 8 best teams in the league are in the West, and the East has 10 of the 12 worst teams! The Devils, Penguins and Sabres suddenly look a lot less likely to hoist the Cup in June: they are only about as good as the Avalanche, ranked 8th in the West. Overall, 11 Western teams and 5 Eastern teams deserve to make the playoffs.

In terms of Canadian teams, instead of having Ottawa in, Montreal almost in and Calgary almost out, we'd have Calgary almost in, Ottawa on the bubble (but looking good) and Montreal almost out.

I will update the homemade standings at the end of the regular season, next week.


Bernard said...

Interesting, the only thing I would look at is how each team did against the other conference. I think if you apply that, you will find some further interesting results.

Vancouver, LA, Minnesota and Calgary did better than the others versus the East. Meanwhile Phoenix and Detroit did worse against the East than against the West.

Election Watcher said...

Thanks for your suggestion! I thought about simply scaling up the 18 games each team played against the other conference. The tradeoff is, of course, between:

a) introducing a bias because teams that do well against their own conference may not do well against the other one (my method);

b) putting too much weight on a small number of games, as 18 is probably not enough to be representative of a team's strength against the other conference.

I feel that a) is a smaller problem, but that's just a feeling... I suppose blending the two methods might produce even better results. Perhaps first scale up the 18 games to 34 (which is approximately 18*sqrt(64/18)), and then use my method to move from 64-34 to 49-49.

Maybe I'll do this for the update at the end of the season :)