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The Puck Stops Here

Travel Point Losses For Western Teams

While looking at the relative divisional strengths this season, I mentioned that the Central Division is helped by travel.  While West Conference teams lead the league in distance travelled in a season, they are the further west teams in the conference.  This allows the Central Division teams to play a lot of games against travel tired teams.  This is something that has been well-established in some work by Tom Benjamin that was done in the 1990s.  Most of it is no longer available on the internet.  Some readers here (particularly Hockey in HD) had not seen this work and were skeptical.

I cannot re-create all of this work in a short period of time.  In order to show how travel does affect the westernmost teams and get a rough estimate of how many points it costs them in a season, I did some work.  There is a lot more evidence that can be presented, but it will probably have to wait until the off-season.

I claim that Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim are the most travel hurt teams in the NHL.  Travel hurts most in the regular season.  During the playoffs (should a team make them), the opponent in a given round must travel the same distance as the westernmost team.  There is no short-term difference in travel.  It is possible that a longer-term difference may exist.  For example a player with recurring injuries might be in better shape had he not spent so much time in the season travelling.  For the sake of this study we will assume that is negligible.

I will show that Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, Los Angles and Anaheim have historically performed worse in the regular season relative to the rest of the league than they have in the playoffs.  They have done so by a statistically significant margin.  The best explanation to explain this difference is that the regular season under-performance is due to travel.

Theses six team’s cumulative records in seasons where they qualified for the playoffs (and treating regulation tie points as losses worth zero points) are 8157 games played.  They have 3689 wins, 3169 losses and 999 ties.  This is a .513 winning percentage.  Since it only includes seasons where the team qualified for the playoffs it is logical to be above .500.  The worst versions of these teams (the ones that missed the playoffs) are not included.

During the playoffs in this period of time, these six teams have a record of 481-490 in 971 games played.  This is a .495 winning percentage.  To be completely average, one would expect a .500 record (as each playoff game has a winner and a loser giving a net .500 record).  This group of teams does not quite measure up.  In almost 1000 games, they fall nine games short of .500.  That is a small enough margin that it might be attributed to luck or possibly the remaining travel issues.  We won’t worry about it for our purposes.

We can compare to the average playoff team during this period.  The earliest of the six westernmost teams joined the NHL in the 1967 expansion the Los Angeles Kings).  So I computed the average winning percentage for a team that makes the playoffs since 1967/68 (again assuming regulation tie points are worth zero).  The average playoff team in this period has a .557 winning percentage.  The westernmost teams fall well below average, despite being very close to average in the playoffs.

The westernmost teams get 92% as many regular season points in playoff seasons than the rest of the league does, while winning 99% as many playoff games as the rest of the league does.  That regular season drop is significant.  It is about 650 games played.  650 out of a little over 8000 games is a significant fraction. 

The most reasonable explanation for this drop (the only one I can see at this point) is travel.  The westernmost teams perform about 7.5% worse in the regular season relative to the league then they do in the playoffs.  The main factor that changes from regular season to playoffs is the drop in relative travel discrepancies. 

In an 82 game season, a 7.5% drop in points is about 6 points.  We can say on average each of these six westernmost teams loses about six points a season due to travel.  In order to obtain a statistically significant number, we averaged many seasons.  These seasons are different in nature.  In some years the schedule is more balanced than others.  In other years there are more western teams than others.  So the six point figure cannot be taken as absolute, but it is a good guess for what is lost due to travel by the westernmost teams.

I considered the regulation tie point to worth zero points in order to compare across eras.  This isn’t true in today’s NHL.  The average playoff-bound team gets a regulation tie point less than 10% of the time (teams that lose a lot get more of these points but they are for the most part not playoff teams).  This will reduce our 6 point drop by around half a point making it an average 5.5 point drop.
Now these 5.5 points are lost by six teams.  This means about 33 points are available to be won by the rest of the league.  This is the benefit drop travel inequities.  Who benefits varies from season to season, due to scheduling etc.  It is harder to track who benefits than it is to track who loses (since they are largely the same teams each season), so I will not do that today.

I will say that the extra points must go to opponents of one of the westernmost teams.  They cannot go to the other westernmost teams who are also losing points (or else they have still not been accounted for).  That leaves nine teams within the conference that might get these points.  Some of them might also have travel issues (the rest of the Northwest and Pacific Division teams that are less isolated from the rest of the league) and there is the Central Division and the East Conference.  These westernmost teams play 18 games each versus East Conference teams this season.  They play 20 games each versus Central Division teams. There is more opportunity for a Central Division team to benefit when compared to a give East Conference division (who average six games against a westernmost team this year).  It stands to reason that the Central Division gets more than their share of the points the westernmost teams lose to travel. 

So if we look again at the divisional point totals:

Central Division 459
Northeast Division 438
Atlantic Division 434
Pacific Division 425
Southeast Division 421
Northwest Division 416

We will attempt to correct for travel issues.  Let’s add 5 points for each of the six westernmost teams to the Northwest and Pacific Divisions.  That is thirty extra points.  We will subtract those thirty extra points from the rest of the league.  Half of it goes to the Central Division and half goes to the East Conference (that scales roughly with games played).  Each East Conference Division loses 5 points and the Central loses 15.

That makes a travel adjusted divisonal point total which looks like this:

Central Division 444
Pacific Division 440
Northeast Division 433
Northwest Division 431
Atlantic Division 429
Southeast Division 416

Of course these numbers are approximate, but I think they are much more accurate than the unadjusted numbers to show relative divisional quality.  The West Conference supremacy (which is clearly shown in the East vs. West record) is much more obvious.  The difference between the best and worst division is reduced - which is likely more in line with reality.  The Central Division still leads the pack, but they are essentially tied by the Pacific Division.  I think that is a reasonable result.

On a team level, if we add 5 points to the six westernmost teams, Anaheim is clearly a playoff team - as opposed to one that is still fighting for a final berth.  Edmonton would probably be a playoff team as well.  These westernmost teams have a significant drop in the standings that can affect them in meaningful ways.

Travel is a significant issue in the NHL.  It affects the westernmost teams more than it does the rest of the league.  Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles are taken as the most hurt teams in this study.  On average these teams have lost 6.5 points per year as a result of their increased travel.  These points have boosted the rest of the league - with the Central Division benefitting the most as their most common opponent.  This is strong evidence that this effect exists.  It is well known in some hockey circles, but rarely mentioned by the mainstream media and often scoffed at by skeptical hockey fans.

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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