Monday, 12 December 2011

NHL Realignment, Part 1: The new map

The new map
Check out Part 2 for the real statistical meat where we calculate playoff bleed between conferences. In this post we'll go through the theoretical odds and some other preliminary stuff.

So, the mighty BOG has voted on the next format for the NHL, and it looks like we'll be seeing the much discussed 4 conference layout for the 2012-13 NHL season. It's an exciting new twist to the game, and one that I think fans will enjoy. But already some fans have pointed out that it looks unfair that some teams (the old west) have to compete for 4 playoff spots in 8 team conferences, while others (the old east) only have 7 team conferences.

So with that in mind, I thought we should explore what the new conferences actually mean in terms of playoff chances for the various teams. Below you can see a graphic representation of the new conferences, as seen on the Tom Fulery NHL Realignment Project. The long list of proposed realignments posted over there is well worth a look. While the names of the new conferences hasn't been confirmed yet, for the next few posts, we will be referring to the conferences with names indicated below.

Image by Tom Fulery

The theory
So with two conferences having 7 teams and the other two conferences having 8 teams it seems obvious that it'll be easier to reach the playoffs from a 7 team conference. In theory, that is correct. With the old divisional system, any teams odds of reaching the playoffs were 8/15, or 53.3%. In the new conference system, teams in the Western and Central conferences will have to contend with a 50-50 chance (4/8) of a playoff spot, while teams in the Eastern and Atlantic conferences will enjoy a 57.1% chance (4/7) of reaching the playoffs. 

All teams in the old west (you too Winnipeg) take a 3.3% cut to their playoff hopes. What this means is that the 8 teams in the Western conference combine to "bleed" 0.27 playoff spots each year (0.033*8). Or put a different way, the Western conference "bleeds" 1 playoff spot every 3.75 years (1/0.27). The same goes for the new Central conference.

This "bleed" results in the Eastern and Atlantic conferences "gaining" 1 playoff spot each every 3.75 years. That's the theory anyway.

However, it's important to remember that this bleed is only relative to the old division system, and the new game matrix is quite different. With the new game matrix this bleed might be lessened or it could get worse. Essentially, strong conferences will bleed playoff spots to weaker conferences now that everyone sends 4 teams.... relative to the divisional system. I'd also like to remind everyone that this bleed was present in the old divisional system too, in the form of a weak 8th team from the East or West taking the spot of a 9th or even 10th placed team from the other conference. Looking back the last 10 seasons this bleed has been from the old west to the old east at a rate of 0.4 spots per year.

Also, I've heard the concern that: "Omg, this means we could see the 27th best team in the league make the playoffs!" While that is true, I wanna point out that with the old divisional system, you could in theory see the 26th best team in the league make the playoffs... so stop complaining.

In the next post, Part 2, we'll have a look at the actual playoff chances for each team in the league, and the actual bleed of playoff spots between conferences.

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