Monday, June 04, 2012

Do the LA Kings deserve to be playing for the Stanley Cup?

My biggest pet peeve about the NHL is how they count Over-Time Losses (OTL) as points in the standings. No other major North American sport does this - baseball doesn't award points for going to extra-innings, basketball doesn't for over-time. (It might actually make some sense in the NFL, considering how flukey their over-time can be and how much your chances hinge on the coin-toss, even considering the rule changes that they made last year.) I prefer the simplicity and honesty of just counting wins and losses, and have never really understood arguments to the contrary. If the game only ever resolves in a win or a loss, then that's all you should count.

The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. But if extra-inning losses
counted for a half-win, they wouldn't have even made the playoffs. Photo by Elsa/Getty.

(Some sport leagues - I think that the IIHF does this - count extra-time losses as a single point but deduct those points from a regulation win - which is worth three - so the extra-time win is worth two points, which addresses another one of my pet peeves. Namely, that the NHL has some 2 point games and some 3 point games, and so you need to do some serious math to determine whether a team is even .500. [Note: after looking it up, the break-even point was 91 points, this year.] But while I'm not particularly fond of the standardized 3 point game approach, it's definitely an improvement.)

Whether you like the extra point or not, Tyler Dellow points out that the OTL point produces some really annoying effects, most of which you would think the NHL would not be too keen to encourage:
  • This past season, 29 of 30 teams played more defensively (as defined by their share of total shots taken, known as a Fenwick score) when staked to a one or two goal lead to start the 3rd period. And the defensive-shell is a terribly boring strategy to witness.
  • In those games, the 3rd period ended tied more than 50% more often than random distribution would normally predict. This time, we see that both teams play more defensively in the final 10 minutes of a tie-game, which, again, is boring.
  • Bad teams benefit disproportionately from the extra OTL point. So, it increases the chances that a poor team will make the playoffs or win their division over a stronger team.

That said, amazingly, the OTL rarely factors in to the process of determining who makes the playoffs. It often affects where teams are seeded, but somehow the 8 teams with the most wins in the conference nearly always manage to be the 8 teams that make the playoffs. And considering that it would usually only affect the last seed, who is usually eliminated in the first round, again, it's not a big deal. But this year, it factored in a big way.

Sure, this guy has a lot to do with why the L.A. Kings are in the Finals.
But so do the NHL's rules. Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty.

Not only were the L.A. Kings the 8th seed in the standings, but there were two teams with better win-loss records that didn't make the playoffs because L.A. had more Over-Time Losses.

Rank     Team              Div G  WL OTL GF GA PTS
8Los Angeles KingsPA8240271519417995
9Calgary FlamesNW82372916
10Dallas StarsPA8242355
11Colorado AvalancheNW8241356

Both Dallas and Colorado won more games than L.A. So, by my reckoning of "fairness", the team that currently leads the Stanley Cup Finals two games to none - the team that is likely to win the Stanley Cup - shouldn't have even qualified for the playoffs! (There's a caveat, here, though. Dellow's research indicates that teams play for the tie, presumably because of the promise of that guaranteed point. If that guarantee were removed, then many fewer games would have gone to overtime, and it's possible that L.A. would have won some of them in regulation, as a result.)

There's a kooky twist to this story, though, which is that, somehow, the NHL playoff format managed to make a mistake that - by chance, not design - produced a better result. You can see from that tiny selection of the final standings that, based on goal-differential, the Kings probably are a better team than either the Stars or Avalanche - they outscored their opponents by 30 more goals than Dallas or Colorado. As I recall, a Win (in terms of Wins Above Replacement) is equivalent to five goals or so, so that means that L.A. is "actually" six wins better than those teams - a huge margin, especially considering that they posted more wins than L.A. So, the win-loss record might not show that, but it's pretty clear - L.A. was definitely an above-average team and the other two were not.

In fact, if you look at the full standings you can see that the Kings' success is not quite as surprising at might have initially seemed. They had the 6th best goal differential in the West (only a couple of goals behind San Jose) and 11th best in the NHL. (New Jersey, their Cup Final opponents? 9th best.) Not a great team - and it's still a huge surprise that they bumped off both Vancouver and St. Louis, who had much better teams - but not a bad team either.

Ironically, then, the L.A. Kings probably weren't good enough to make the playoffs, but they're certainly good enough to play in them.

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