Friday, 8 March 2013

The Northwest Advantage

The Vancouver Canucks currently stand 3rd in the Western conference and given the on ice performance the team has showcased so far this year, most fans and analysts would likely forecast the Canucks to finish in 3rd. Yet this says little of the true nature of the Vancouver Canucks, and what they may or may not be capable of achieving. Luckily for Vancouver, the team is able to benefit from their spot within the Northwest division. By being in arguably the worst division in the NHL they are often able to steal points in the 24 games they play against division rivals per season (18 this season), and due to the current structure of the standings, they may be able to leap frog teams with more points and finish with a higher rank. Some may take comfort in this, some may worry, and some may be disillusioned. However fans may feel, they deserve to see the truth.

Since the 2008-2009 season the Canucks have performed better against their Northwest division opponents than the rest of the NHL. The difference in terms of winning percentage between inter-divisional and non-divisional games has favored divisional by about 10-13% in most years, but has jumped to a 31% difference in this 2013 season. A clearer picture can be illustrated by averaging inter-divisional winning percentages since 2008, which yields .750, and comparing this to the average winning percentage outside of the division, .597. This means that during the 29% of games that face teams in the Northwest, the Canucks have on average a 15% better chance to earn points than if they were playing a team outside of their division. By the end of the regular season, this can translate into substantial points and even cause a shift in the standings.

(Note: for the sake of the argument, the following analysis assumes the standings are ranked strictly by points – otherwise Vancouver would finish third every year because the rest of the Northwest teams still trails by a substantial margin).

To illustrate just how powerful this effect is, take the 2008-2009 season, for example. By applying the Canucks winning percentage against teams outside of their division to the entire 82 game season, the Canucks would have racked up 95 points as opposed to their actual realized 100, and would have finished 6th instead of 3rd. The following year the Canucks would have lost 5 points again and fallen from 3rd to 8th. This year, by applying Vancouver’s meager .500 winning percentage against non-divisional teams to all games played so far this season, they would drop like a brick from 3rd to 12th.  Luckily for Canuck fans, Vancouver is propped up to a cozy playoff position thanks to a weak division and the structure of the standings.

Although these numbers are hypothetical, they hold meaningful implications for the Canucks past, present and future. By benefitting from these extra points scavenged from a weak division and being that the winner of the Northwest is granted a fate not worse than 3rd, the Canucks fans and community may have a false sense of confidence when they reflect on their team. Admittedly, every fan knows those Northwest division banners hanging in the otherwise bare rafters of Rogers Arena mean nothing, yet there is still some pride associated with this 4-year steak. Fans understand that regular season standings are just a necessary precursor to the big show, but the Presidents Trophy still felt nice in 2011. Yet if the NHL’ s regular season standings were intuitively formatted (as they last were in 1998) and the divisions were realigned, the silent comfort and confidence associated with these achievements would melt away. More practically, for those scratching their heads on how the Canucks have placed 3rd or better for the past 4 seasons and have yet to parade in downtown Vancouver, consider that they ceased to play division rivals in the playoffs. If their winning percentage in the playoffs drops to that of non-divisional games (which since 2009 it has, with a total W% of 0.550), they become a middle of the pack playoff team, and in the past their fate often converges with one. In fact the year that the Canucks had the best non-divisional winning percentage was the same year that they went to the Stanley Cup finals.

So what does this mean for the future? First of all, the Canucks shouldn’t bank on a below average division to rack up regular season points, especially since this doesn’t transfer into the playoffs when those teams will likely disappear (or at least fall from 29% of their total games played). With realignment a distinct possibility the Canucks may face tougher teams for 24 games a season. With this in mind, a stronger emphasis on the prospects and drafting may be required as Vancouver could otherwise see a significant (and surprising to most) fall from the top of the standings. And being that maybe the Canucks have not been as good as we thought, the franchise could be justified in making a coaching change. After all, how many years does a coach with a .597 winning percentage deserve to last with the talents of the Sedins, Kesler, enviable goaltending, and zero cups?

One way or another, in order for Vancouver to succeed now and in the future they must perform better against non-divisional teams. They undoubtedly have a strong team, but it may not be as solid as we think. Looking carefully at the numbers suggests that changes in the near future will have to be made if Vancouver wants to see their first Stanley Cup. With expectations as high as they are in this city, those changes will likely occur if the Canucks linger on this mediocre path for much longer, especially if it becomes realized that even these results are inflated. Continuing to prey on the weak will not keep this team afloat come April, and those who might take solace in another third place finish may be left with a bad taste in their mouths when the playoffs roll into town this year. 

**As mentioned in the article, the “Forecasted Placing” is calculated using the winning percentage against non-divisional teams and applying this to all 82 games. The standings are reformatted to be ranked strictly by point, in order to illustrate the reality of competition.
** all stats are taken as from March 6th 

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