Here’s a look at the NHL’s final regular standings in the Eastern Conference from 2016-17. As a reminder, eight teams in each conference make the playoffs
Tiebreakers and divisional qualification rules not withstanding, both the Islanders and Lightning finished a point out of the playoffs. That’s a difference between what would likely be at least a 1 in 25 chance at a Stanley Cup and at least two games of home playoff revenue, or an early start to golf season. That point difference was immense.
But there’s a problem with using the standings above – the points aren’t equivalent. Specifically, I’ll argue in this post that the 94 points from the Islanders is, all else equal, likely more impressive than the 95 points for the Leafs, given the caliber of each team’s schedule.
The NHL’s unbalanced schedule.
First, some background. NHL teams play intra-division opponents either four or five times, inter-division/intra-conference opponents three times, and all inter-conference opponents two times.
This is a small but notable difference. The Islanders play in the NHL’s Metro Division, one stacked this year with two really good teams (Pittsburgh, Columbus) and one of the best teams in the last decade (Washington). Moreover, the Islanders faced the unenviable task of being one of two teams this season to face the Capitals five times (NYI added five games against Carolina, too). Meanwhile, the Leafs faced each Metro team only three times apiece, while adding five-game sets against the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens.
Does that make a difference? Surely it does.
Here’s a chart showing the estimated impact of the NHL’s unbalanced, division and conference-loaded schedule. Each team is shown on the x-axis, and the y-axis corresponds to the net benefit (or loss) in standings points, in expectation, comparing the NHL’s unbalanced schedule to one in which opponents are randomly assigned (and allowing for the fact that teams cannot play themselves). The plot is faceted by division.
The differences are small (note the y-axis), but they are notable and follow our intuition. The Islanders’ schedule difficulty likely cost the team about 1.3 points, on average, relative to a league-average schedule. Meanwhile, the Leafs’ schedule was worth somewhere around +0.6 points. That difference, of course, is larger than the gaps that we observed in the standings. If each franchise had played a balanced schedule, ignoring all other information, we’d have expected the Islanders to finish a nose ahead of Toronto.
On a division level, all Metro teams faced a more difficult than average schedule, led by the Devils, who faced the Rangers and Penguins five times apiece. Meanwhile, nearly all Western Conference teams benefitted from being in the same conference as the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, and Arizona Coyotes (and from not being in the same conference as the Capitals). In particular, it was a good year to be in the Pacific – the contrast between that division and the Metro division is startling.
We know already that the NHL’s divisional format for the playoff qualification has put an unfair burden on teams in top divisions. It appears that the scheduling format, to a far lesser degree, only works to make that burden more difficult to overcome.
-Results stem from 100,000 simulated season point totals in which opponents were generated at random, relative to simulated season point totals using this year’s actual schedule. As a result, they may not reflect the true, actual differences in schedule difficulty. I used such a large number of simulations because at smaller numbers, there was a bit too much inconsistency in the resulting charts for my preference. Additionally, the goal (for now) here is just the typical difference in points. Across simulations, it’s not uncommon for teams to jump by as many as 10 points in one direction or the other.
-The Islanders finished as a top-8 team in the conference (what I’ll call making the playoffs) about 4% more often (48%, versus 44%) during iterations when I used random scheduling, compared to the current version. Not a big difference, but roughly what I’d expect.
-In 100,000 simulated seasons with the current schedule, the Avalanche made the playoffs 8 times, and the Capitals missed the playoffs 278 times.
-Code is here.