by PuckStopsHere on 04/02/09 at 03:09 AM ET
It is quite well known among hockey fans that the West Conference is better than the East Conference. It is easy to look at the inter-conference record and conclude that. The West Conference holds a 159-129 winning record (with 26 of the losses scored as regulation draws).
The next step is to look at the individual divisions. If we add up the total points earned by the five teams in each division we get the following standings:
The conclusion that has followed from that (especially among Central Division fans) is that the Central Division is by far the best division in hockey. All five of its teams could make the playoffs this season (though right now St Louis would miss by one point). This conclusion is not so clear to me.
A very significant reason for this point distribution between the divisions is travel. The NHL increased travel this year by reducing inter-divisional games. This makes travel harder for everyone. The most important factor in terms of travel is not the total distance that a given team travels in a given season, but the number of teams they face a team that is significantly more travelled than they are (or the number of times they are the more travelled team). It is the number of times there is a significant difference in rest between a team and its opponent because of travel. Those that are relatively travel weary will drop in the standings. Those that are relatively travel fresh will rise.
The NHL has a very irregular pattern of teams across North America. Seventeen of thirty teams are found in the Eastern Time Zone. That includes the entire East Conference plus Detroit and Columbus. That places the other thirteen teams across three time zones (Central, Mountain and Pacific). It is those teams in the western time zones that do the most travelling. The furthest west teams travel the longest distances. The Northwest Conference leads the way in miles travelled. It is a huge division. It spans three time zones. It is an over 1400 mile flight between Vancouver and Minneapolis and they are both in the division. No other division is that big.
The teams that do the best in terms of relative travel weariness are the Central Division. Sure they travel more miles in a season than an Atlantic Division team, but they are continually facing travel weary teams. The other teams in their conference come from much more isolated and geographically larger divisions (Northwest and Pacific). These are the teams that lead the league in miles travelled. These teams play many games against their Central Division opponents and give their central opponents many games when they are travel advantaged. Often when a team from the Pacific coast has a long road trip, they tack on a game against a Central Division rival or two (since they are in the area). It is also not too uncommon for a Central Division team to play a road game against a Pacific or Northwest opponent and have the Central team arrive in town first, while their opponent is still on the road. Relative to their opponents, the Central Division does very well in terms of travel. They face opponents much more travelled and much wearier than they are on a regular basis.
We would expect from travel alone to see that the Central Division would appear to have the best record at the expense of the Northwest and Pacific Divisions. That is what we see. Neglecting the Southwest Division, which is the weakest of the bunch, relative travel weariness alone predicts the divisional standings.
When we look at talent levels of teams this makes sense as well. Nashville and St Louis are in the playoff race. Neither of these teams have the talent levels on their rosters of Edmonton, Anaheim, Dallas or Minnesota, yet they have records that are as good as or better than they do. This is due to a travel advantage. Travel significantly distorts the NHL records - especially in the West Conference with the increased travel in the league.
This is a point Tom Benjamin is making in his most recent post. This is a significant factor in explaining the current NHL standings, but not one that most people realize.
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