Eric Duhatschek explains why the NHL is just so unpredictable:
Generally, what sets the NHL apart from the far more predictable (and parity-free) NBA is the curious effect that team play and chemistry, coaching and camaraderie can have on results.
On personnel alone, Phoenix shouldn’t be this good. Colorado shouldn’t be this good. And one cannot underestimate the effect of goaltending (Ilya Bryzgalov for the Coyotes, Craig Anderson for the Avalanche) on the results thus far.
I’ll give him part marks for the analysis. The goaltending, obviously, is a significant thing. Colorado’s decision to go with a duo of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft last year was a bad idea and landed them 28th in the NHL in save percentage. It also resulted in Francois Giguere getting fired, AS DECISIONS ABOUT GOALTENDING THAT ARE SO OBVIOUSLY STUPID SHOULD. The Avs are currently 10th in save percentage.
I’ve been meaning to take a look at Phoenix’s turnaround – unfortunately, this won’t be it – but Duhatschek is onto something with the goaltending. The Coyotes were more of a middling group goaltending wise last year, finishing in 17th with a .904 save percentage. This year they’re in fourth. They also weren’t a completely terrible team last year, finishing with 79 points and only 4 OT/SO wins, which placed them last in the NHL. The goal differential wasn’t so hot (205 GF and 244 GA). They’re currently on pace to score 204 and allow 183 goals. That’s still a pretty bad offensive club but it’s an excellent defensive one. I guess that, just as partisan politics stops at the water’s edge, team play, chemistry, coaching and camaraderie stop at the edge of the offensive blue line.
There’s another explanation available, which could either complement Duhatschek’s theory about team play, chemistry, coaching and camaraderie or supplant it. Duhatschek is correct that there are far more surprises in the NHL than there are in the NBA. Tom Tango has made some interesting posts on the topic at his site, the always excellent Book Blog. Two points worth driving home. First, the length of a game impacts on the degree to which randomness affects it.
Suppose, for example, that a tennis match lasted only one set. That is, a set is a match. Would Federer win 88% (or whatever it is) of his matches? No, of course not. If he’s winning 88% of his matches because he’s winning 65% (or whatever it is) of his sets, then having a one-set match means he’d only win 65% of the time. Similarly, if you had 7-game or 9-game matches (spread say over two days) then he’d win 95% or 99% of his matches. He’d look unbeatable (except for when he plays Nadal).
Basketball is like that. 48-minutes is simply way too long a game compared to the 9-innings in baseball. A 9-inning game in baseball is like say a 20-minute game in basketball. If that’s all you had with basketball, then you’d probably have a similar uncertainty as with baseball. Baseball and hockey are comparable in terms of how much randomness affects the performance of teams (and presumably players).
Tom’s point about the rules having significant implications on the variance in outcomes seems to be beyond debate to me. The more opportunities you give to the better team, the more likely skill will win out.
In the other post that I’ve linked, he did some math and concluded that, to have the same reliability in terms of knowing the strength of a given team, you’d need a 32 game schedule in the NBA, a 28 game schedule in the NFL, an 82 game schedule in the NHL and a 162 game schedule in MLB. This, I think, gives rise to an alternate theory to “team play, chemistry, coaching and camaraderie” – we (or those of us who care about basketball) know a lot more about an NBA team from the preceding season’s results than we do about an NHL team. Phoenix has played 43 games this year – that’s the equivalent of about 17 NBA games.
Say that you think Phoenix is a .450 hockey team. That’s a pretty bad team in Gary’s NHL, where basically everyone is above average. The Detroit Pistons (.476) and Indiana Pacers (.439) were both about .450 basketball teams last year. The Pistons had a number of 17 game stretches in which they went 11-6. Indiana had 12 17 game stretches in which they were 9-8, .090 better than their ultimate winning percentage.
This isn’t really proof, only some anecdotal examples of the point. Tom made the following comment in one of the threads linked to above:
The NBA further compounds its problems by having so many teams in the playoffs. I don’t follow the NBA, but I would bet 1-8 (1st place team against 8th place team), and 2-7 upsets are rather rare. In the NHL, those are not uncommon.
In order to get more drama in the NBA, you need to cut down the season to 32 games, or cut the game down to something like 12 minutes.
I’m sure that Tom’s right. I read a story many years ago about a guy with a gambling problem who was in debt to bookies. He put a pile of money on the Seattle SuperSonics who were the one seed in a series with the Denver Nuggets, the eighth seed. This series, which took place in 1994, became famous as the first time in which an eighth seed beat a one seed – it’s happened twice since then. It’s worth noting that the series was a best of five series as well, as all NBA first round series were at the time, which increases the chances of an upset – a lesser team is more likely to win if there are fewer trials. The NHL, by comparison, has seen eight number one seeds fall in the first round during that time.
If Duhatschek’s theory that “…what sets the NHL apart from the far more predictable (and parity-free) NBA is the curious effect that team play and chemistry, coaching and camaraderie can have on results” were correct, it seems to me that we shouldn’t see eighth seeds falling to one seeds with such numbing regularity in the NHL compared to the NBA (particularly when first seed NHL teams have enjoyed the advantage of seven game series for most of the period in question). This could be looked at further – I’d bet that, for example, .600 teams playing .500 teams in a seven game NBA playoff series have better records than .600 teams playing .500 teams in the NHL – but I’m inclined to think that “team play and chemistry, coaching and camaraderie” is a euphemism for variance.