Monday, November 14, 2011

Circle November 15 on your NHL calendar

On Tuesday evening, November 15, the New York Islanders will become the 30th and last NHL team to have played 15 games so far. And although the NHL’s long season seems to have barely begun,mid-November and the 15 game mark (the average team will have played 17 games**) has proved to be a surprisingly accurate predictor* of which teams will make the playoffs and which teams will not.
In the six post-lockout seasons, at the 15 game mark:
  •     78% (77 of 96) of the teams in the top 8 in each conference have made the playoffs. Every Stanley Cup winner has been in the top 8 at this point.  
  • 85 % of the teams in the top 4 have made the playoffs. Five of six Stanley Cup winners have been in the top 4 (the Bruins were 6th in the Eastern Conference last season at 15 games).
  •     Just 17% (8 of 48) of the teams in the bottom 4 have made the playoffs even though the average difference between 8th place and 12th has only been three points at the 15 game mark.   
Although they are generated by an infinitely more complex system (millions of simulated games), the odds posted at parallel and confirm the historical data :heading into play on Nov. 15, they show the Blackhawks (1st in the Western Conference) with an 85% playoff chance and the Avs (12th) with a 23.7% chance.

    The NHL will have completed  a mere 21% of the 2011-12 season as of November 15 and to me  it’s somewhat amazing that, if this season follows the historical pattern, the parameters of the final standings have already been outlined for us if not etched in stone.
    One of the reasons is certainly that the league’s vaunted competitive balance is actually an illusion. Over the past six seasons, five teams have dominated play in 5 of the 6 divisions, winning 22 of the 30 possible divisional titles. Compare that with the notoriously unbalanced NBA where the top 5 teams have won 17 of 30 possible division titles during the same time period.
    The picture becomes somewhat clearer when you add the perennial also rans (Columbus, St. Louis, Toronto, Florida, the Islanders, and Atlanta/WPG) who as a group managed to make only four playoff appearances in the last six years.
    The “loser point” instituted to promote competitive balance may also play a part here since it tends to keep losing streaks from turning into pointless streaks. But the jury is still out on that one:in a previous study, I found that the “loser point” slightly favored pursuing teams during the last quarter of the season.

* For this post, I used the standings as they regularly are published, ie, total points with ties broken by # of wins, then winning pct. With teams having played an unequal # of games, it might seem that using team standings pts per game would be  more appropriate but the differences are actually slight, plus/minus 2 to 3 %.
**Using 10 game intervals, the next highest pct. 84%  occurs at the 55 game mark, approx. Feb 15.

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