• The Sick Man Of The NHL

    by  • November 22, 2013 • Hockey • 10 Comments

    On a night where the Oilers brought their record against the East Coast Hockey Conference to a sterling 6-9-1, I thought it might be cool to check in on some ECHC facts so far this year. Eastern teams are collectively playing at a 73.6 point pace against the West. Western teams are collectively playing at a 111 point pace against the East. Here’s the real kicker though: it sort of looks like it’s real. I grabbed the 5v5 data courtesy of Extra Skater.

    The West has a little bit of a PDO edge when the game is close but it’s not massive. What catches my eye is the West’s share of the shots with the score close (within one in the first two periods or tied in the third): 55.3%. That’s a phenomenal number: 11-9 over and over and over when the game is close. An edge like that in the shots is so large that it’s impossible for the percentages to overcome it.

    Also of note: while I don’t have PP TOI, the West has scored 40 5v4 goals on 418 5v4 shots. The East has scored 38 5v4 goals on 320 5v4 shots. If anything, we’d expect the West to have scored more goals at 5v4 than they actually have and the East may well have been a bit fortunate here.

    A note on the records: the West have won about 62% of their games played so far. That strikes me as being in the ballpark of what’s right, given their goalscoring. You shouldn’t expect a team (or conference) that scores 56.3% of the goals to win 56.3% of the games – it’s going to be higher. Think of it this way: if the West won every game 3-2, they’d have 60% of the goals but 100% of the wins. There’s a kind of multiplier effect, where as you move X percentage points away from 50%, you win X + Y percentage points more games. It probably breaks down at some point – I doubt a team going from 90% of the goals to 92% of the goals would win 2% more games – but the band in which NHL teams operate is small enough that this is real.

    Dominance like this leads to a question of why. While it’s ultimately unknowable, I tend to think that this sort of thing happens when you get a group of really good teams on one side, pushing the others to either compete harder or accept perpetual irrelevance. There’s no real difference in terms of spending between the East and the West – each conference has about a $62MM cap hit. There do seem to me to be fewer teams in the West that just have no idea what they’re doing or who are pursuing crazy strategies. Even the financially limited teams – Nashville, Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose, St. Louis come to mind – have really good management who are doing smart things. If you’re competing with those people, you have to be better. Those pressures don’t necessarily exist in the East, particularly not prior to this year.

    It’s a guess though. There’s probably some randomness in all of this, Western teams just happening to be very good at the same time. It’s sure going to be unfortunate for the teams that just miss the playoffs in the West though – they’re very probably going to be amongst the best 16 teams in the league but wrong place, wrong time.

    One other note of interest. As I write this, the Devils sit in eighth place in the East, on pace for 85.7 points. Los Angeles are eighth in the West, on pace for 114.1 points. The NHL has played a higher percentage of the inter-conference games (32.8%) than it has games on the schedule (27.2%). Both conferences will have more conference heavy schedules as the season moves along. The cutline in the East will rise and it will fall in the West, unless the East finds ways for both teams involved in an inter-conference game to lose. That seems unlikely but, given their performance so far, not impossible. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the eighth place team in the West ends up with 100+ points while the eight seed in the East is below 90.

    One other odd note: Eastern Conference hockey is a lot of fun to watch. There are some Western teams with soul but there are a lot of good teams as well that are dreadful to watch: Los Angeles and St. Louis come to mind.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com

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    10 Responses to The Sick Man Of The NHL

    1. Aaron
      November 22, 2013 at

      A couple other possibilities for the gap.

      Eastern cities tend to be larger, meaning Eastern teams have more revenue, this could play in a couple ways.

      First they might be under less pressure to succeed because their larger fan base keeps them profitable with a weaker team.

      Or the extra revenue might make them looser with their checkbooks (and players might demand more from a rich owner) which ends up backfiring when they come up against the cap. Philly, NJ, and NYI come to mind when thinking about massive bad contracts.
      In the buyout list the four massive ones are Eastern teams. (It’s a bit skewed since the rich teams are more likely to throw away money with a buyout)
      http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/feature/?id=99026
      11 buyouts in the East, 7 in the West.
      The sum of the Eastern buyouts $108,116,665, Western buyouts $16,833,332

      Of course in this season the buyouts only cause ~$5 million more pain in the East than the West so it’s not the cause of the gap. But they do suggest Eastern teams are more willing to throw money around unwisely.

    2. November 22, 2013 at

      Purely anecdotal and self serving but it seems that the majority of the complaints against the analytics crowd are coming from Eastern conference teams.

    3. Pat McLean
      November 22, 2013 at

      A historical note that may support one of your points. In the eighties the Norris division was garbage. All five teams, for the most part, were horrible. Chicago had some nice things up front and Doug Wilson but had horrible goaltending and so on. But of course four clubs made the playoffs every year, even if they had twenty or so wins, so there was little reason to improve.

      When Mike Keenan came to Chicago things turned around quickly and the Hawks became a real team, one of the best on the league. IMO it was no coincidence that Detroit and Toronto followed suit quickly (Detroit had a few nice things of course anyhow) and iirc the Blues also became respectable with Hull and Oates leading the way.

      The Hawks’ rise didn’t have everything to do with it but I would guess it did have some impact.

    4. Garnet
      November 22, 2013 at

      Pat’s got a good point. Theoretically, you’d expect this competitive imbalance to sort itself out by the individual interests of decision makers: (a) GMs in Eastern clubs seeing a clearer path to the Finals than anyone in the West has if they improve just a little bit, and (b) players moving to the Eastern Conference to take advantage of weaker competition. It’s too early for either effect to happen, probably, but I wonder how many GMs feel much pressure to build a serious contender anyhow. If your lousy team makes the playoffs anyhow in the east, you’re probably not getting fired in most cities, right?

    5. Ryan V
      November 22, 2013 at

      Interesting to note that there were no inter-conference games last season, but in 2011-12, the conferences had a relatively even regulation W/L record (99-93 for the W, by my count). If memory serves, part of that was a puck-luck illusion, but still, I believe that was a lot closer than any other season in recent history.

      For whatever it’s worth, the NBA has a similar disparity between conferences. The West has won 67% of inter-conference games so far this year, and won 58% in each of the previous two seasons, which is as far back as I can find standings on nba.com.

    6. Aaron
      November 22, 2013 at

      Just looked at the standings. The top 8 teams in the league are all from the west, and they’re separated by only 2 points (Chicago with 34 and the other 7 with 33 or 32).

      That’s just a ridiculous level of parity at this point of the season.

    7. Jesse
      November 22, 2013 at

      I wonder how the playoffs would look if the NHL had a crossover system like the CFL?

    8. D
      November 23, 2013 at

      Meh. I’ll watch more games in the East if I ever get an appetite for sloppy hockey. At least the Bruins are all right.

    9. Stevezie
      November 25, 2013 at

      Last year seven of the top ten scorers were from the East, and they certainly have more star-power. At what point is it fair to wonder if Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Tavares, Stamkos, St Louis or even Eric Staal are all a little overrated?
      Maybe it’s never fair, but it seems their qual-comp ratings are permanantly skewed because they play in the East. I wonder what Thornton, Hall, Towes or the Sedins would do with more games against the Metro division? Would Crosby be able to dominate like he has with more games against the Blues and the Kings?
      I tried to find Crosby’s stats vs Western confernece teams but have no idea how to go about that.

    10. RDS
      November 26, 2013 at

      This isn’t based on anything but a hunch, but it seems to me that there is a tendency for Eastern teams to try to play a more physical, grinding style — old-school hockey or some such. And, of course, there are teams (Boston) that have been successful with this style, so there’s a “keeping up with the Joneses” effect. So perhaps Eastern teams are more inclined to overpay for hits and facepunching, meaning that there’s less cap room available for actual hockey players.

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