It's often frustrating to rank NHL teams that have played a different number of games during the season. One has to look at how many points a team has. But little attention is paid to how many games a team has played, that must also be a factor, right? Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have an easy method to deal with this, the games behind (GB) column, which factors in both wins and losses when ranking teams. It has long been assumed that NHL standings, because they deal in points instead of wins and losses, cannot do the same thing. Today, I show that it is possible to do this in a (hopefully) easy to understand manner.
First, to make sure everyone's on the same page, let's establish how games behind works in other league's standings tables.
In leagues that only count wins and losses (such as MLB or the NBA) in a given division/conference/whathaveyou any team can be measured against the first place team by averaging the difference between the teams records. For example, two teams in a division might have a standings table that looks like this (team names have been changed):
New York has won two more games than Boston, and Boston has lost three more than New York, average that together and you get 2 1/2 games behind. Fans of baseball and basketball understand this intuitively. It's helpful in situations like the one below:
Boston has won two more games than New York, but they have also lost three more games. We see New York has a higher winning percentage and we would calculate Boston as being 1/2 a game behind, despite having won two more games.
Even in the NFL, where they still have (gasp!) tie games, fans know a team that is 10-4 is two games behind a team that's 12-2. The NFL has a definition of ties that is quite helpful, counting a tie as 1/2 in the win column, and 1/2 in the loss column. The last tied game in the NFL was in 2008, some of you might remember Quarterback Donovan McNabb had something to say about his Eagles' 13-13 result against the Bengals. The Eagles would finish the season 9-6-1 and take the 6th seed in the NFC, finishing slightly ahead of three teams at 9-7 (because 9.5 > 9, and 6.5 < 7).
Back to hockey
The NHL counts points instead of wins, so it's been long assumed the NHL can't have a column similar to games behind. I say the time has come. The standings table should no longer rank teams on points alone, instead let's create a "Points Behind" column for the NHL Standings. Here's how it's done...
(how it's done, after the jump)
The NHL's points system works like this, it's two points for a win, one point for an overtime/shootout loss, zero points for a regulation loss (I have many negative opinions this system, but it is not important for establishing the Points Behind column, we can save that argument for later). For the sake of our table, lets think of the number of points a team has as "Points Won" (PW). Now in other leagues if you know how many games a team has played, and how many games a team has won, you can figure out how many games a team has lost by subtracting the number of wins from the number of games. So in NHL terms, if we know how many points a team has earned and subtract that from how many points were possible (number of games played * 2), we can calculate that difference. Let's call that column Points Lost (PL).
Using PW and PL, we see better how each game results affect a team's record. A team that earns a win, results in a two points added a team's PW column. An overtime loss would result in one point added in both the PW and PL column. (Like in the NFL, this affects both columns equally, one point won, one point missed.) A loss results in a two points added in the PL column (for the two possible points missed).
Now that we've defined PW and PL, each team now has a two-column "points record" which we can use to calculate Points Behind.
Now let's hop into Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine, and go back seven whole days to the morning of January 2, 2012. It is the morning before the Winter Classic, and the standings in the NHL's Pacific Division look like this:
The above table is sorted on points alone, like every hockey standings table in the world (until now). Los Angeles has the most points, Dallas is one behind, and San Jose and Phoenix are tied for 3rd, both just two short points behind. Now let's look at how this table would look like if sorted on points behind.
Wow, how different is this one? San Jose is now in first, Los Angeles was leading before, now they're shown in 3rd place. Phoenix is now in 4th all by themselves. What happened?
You may not have noticed, but in the first table, San Jose has played five fewer games than Los Angeles and three fewer games than Dallas. No value was truly given to the five extra games San Jose had left in the first table. Which table do you think is more indicative of how strong a teams position is at a given moment? Which table is more likely to predict the order of finish?
Let's come back from our time-travels and consider the standings today. Here is what the Pacific Division looks like this morning, sorted on points only, like you would find on NHL.com today:
Considering the ranking of teams, which of the January 2nd tables does this look more like? It looks more like the one sorted on Points Behind right? San Jose is on top with 50 points. Dallas and Los Angeles are tied for 2nd at 47, Phoenix still all by themselves in 4th. This seems to indicate that the points behind table is a better predictor of how teams would finish if they stay on their pace.
San Jose now only has four games in hand instead of five on Los Angeles. Yet making up that one game alone has made the table look more like what the points behind table showed last week. Now let's peek at what today's table would look like sorted on points behind.
The teams are in the same order, but San Jose has an even bigger lead than assumed when their games in hand are figured in, which manifests itself as a lower number in the PL column. Furthermore, it's now obvious that even though Dallas and Los Angeles have the same number of points, Dallas is cleanly ahead by virtue of playing two fewer games. Again, this is shown by a smaller number in the PL column, which results in a smaller PB figure than Los Angeles'.
Factoring the fewer games San Jose has played, they are actually ahead by 5, 7, and 9 points over Dallas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, respectively in terms of points behind. Not a lead of 3, 3, and 5 as would be assumed in "mainstream" tables subtracting points earned alone.
I have a website on xtreemhost.com, a free hosting provider, where I have the NHL Points Behind Standings Tables available for view anytime:
If you look at the division standings right now, each division is currently identical in both sorts as far as the rank order of teams. If you click over to the conference tables you'll see some interesting changes in the listing order at both playoff bubbles. This page will show the differences in rankings throughout the season.
I will try to maintain the tables throughout the season, which is a matter of entering scores as they happen. (I also have created a "ScoreWiki" where any visitor can enter or change scores that I, as the admin, haven't yet entered or verified.)
If you favor a different standings system than the current NHL one, frankly I don't blame you. I'll probably post on this another time, but in the interim, I'll mention I also created a page where points behind can be applied to three other systems I see frequently argued for in the blogosphere, all side-by-side with the current system.
I know this post has become long, but believe it or not, I've written an even more detailed explanation as a help page if you're interested. I actually have even more to say about this topic, but I'll wrap it up here.
I hope these pages provide a better way to look at NHL standings as the playoff race heats up, and I intend to have this up and running from day one next season. (Stay positive folks.) I have a couple other improvements in mind. (Tiebreaker support being on the top of the list.) Leave your comments or suggestions below, email email@example.com, or tweet me @sotsohockey.
(The rest of this post is technical information for bloggers that want to include the widget on their site).
Do you want to have the NHL Points Behind widget for your own blog?
The XML file is http://sotsohockey.xtreemhost.com/sotsostand/widget.xml.
In Blogger (which I use), to add this gadget, click the design tab, then click add a gadget, and then select create your own, and enter and enter the address of the XML file (you can enter whatever height you like, 1040px seems to be just enough to prevent the vertical scroll bar).
I'm not sure how to add this on other blogging platforms as well, but hopefully it can be done from the xml file.
Please feel free to add this to your blog or website. I have built in my own attribution and ad support. If you use it, please drop me an email with a link to your site and I'll be sure to check it out. I would also like to start a list of links to sites using the widget if you want to be included on that as well.