NHL Handicapping: Conference Disparity
by Trevor Whenham - 11/26/2013
Through more than a quarter of the NHL season, we have seen a disparity between the strength of the two conferences. Simply put, the East isn’t very good when you compare it to the West. The eighth-place team in the West — Phoenix — would be sitting in second in the East, just two points behind conference-leading Boston. The Bruins, meanwhile, would be in a three-way tie for fifth in the West, and Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, which are currently tied for second in the East, would be outside of the playoffs in the West. The Rangers have sole possession of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, but they would be eight points out of a playoff position in the West (they have only 24 points, so eight points is quite significant).
The disparity between the conferences creates some handicapping issues. Here’s a look at four factors to consider while handicapping the NHL going forward:
Inter-conference mismatch: The West not only has more points than the East, but the top teams in the West have been feasting on the squads in the East. Anaheim has already played 17 of their 26 games against Eastern opponents, and they are 9-5-3 in those games. While the win percentage there is a solid .643, that is the worst record by a fair margin among the top nine teams in the West. Those top nine squads — the most likely playoff contenders — have a stunning 70-20-13 mark against the East so far, which is a win percentage of .778. That’s the definition of dominance. By contrast, the top 10 teams in the East (New Jersey and Carolina are tied for ninth) include just four teams with a winning record against the West, and the only reason they are just barely above .500 against the West (43-42-15) is because Tampa Bay is a strong 7-3-1. So far, at least, the competition between the conferences hasn’t been particularly competitive.
The playoffs start early: Things in the West are so tight and so competitive right now that the playoff race has essentially begun already. A couple of wins can move teams from the bottom of the playoff standings to near the top, while a couple of losses can bear a huge cost. Because the conference is so strong, the home-ice advantage is going to be very important in the playoffs, so every game matters now — more than they normally would in November. When you add that forced intensity to the generally tougher style of play in the West and the added strain of travel the Western teams face, and you could easily see some Western teams start to show signs of being worn down later in the season.
West is going to get more attention in the media: The bigger media markets in the league are largely in the East — Toronto, Montreal, New York, Detroit, Boston. That means when all things are equal, the East tends to get more attention from the media than the West does — and that is exasperated by the fact that West Coast teams play their games so late at night in the Eastern time zone. The more dominant and competitive the West is, though, the more media attention they will get. Media attention has a direct impact on the public perception of teams and therefore on how the public bets — and where the value is. In other words, the more the public thinks that the West is stronger, the more they are going to bet on the West in head-to-head competition. If the trend of Western strength continues, then there could be increasing value on the Eastern squads as the public flocks to the West.
Schedule is more balanced this year: The schedule went through a major overhaul this year. Now, each team plays every team in the other conference twice — once at home and once on the road. Previously there was much less inter-conference play. That means a couple of things. First, with more inter-conference play, the top teams in the West could have a bigger advantage than they normally might because they have more opportunities to play weaker Eastern squads. Second, because Eastern teams now have to play at every Western arena every year, the distinct advantage Eastern teams have in travel isn’t quite as significant as it used to be. It’s still a big factor, but not as much of one. Eastern teams that face long Western road trips could be put in uncomfortable circumstances they aren’t familiar with — and that could create a further disadvantage.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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