09 April 2015

A tiebreaker that really annoys me...

So we're getting down to the end of the regular season. And there's a topic I want to bring up that is only relevant between now and Saturday when the regular season comes to an end, regular season tiebreakers.

First I'll spell out exactly what's on NHL.com's standings page.

  1. The fewer number of games played (i.e., superior points percentage). 
  2. The greater number of games won, excluding games won in the Shootout. This figure is reflected in the ROW column. 
  3. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing. 
  4. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season. NOTE: In standings a victory in a shootout counts as one goal for, while a shootout loss counts as one goal against. 

Now the first "tiebreaker" is not really a tiebreaker because it's only only relevant to how NHL.com sorts the table while the season's in progress if teams have played a different number of games. It can be ignored once all teams have completed their schedules.

The second tiebreaker, regulation and overtime wins, was a change before 2013-14, from the tiebreaker being total number of wins, including shootouts. I find this to be a positive change because it devalues the shootout, though not as much as if the NHL were to adopt the 3 point system the IIHF and KHL use, but I'll save that rant for another day.

You guessed it, it's the third tiebreaker that I'm talking about today. It starts off simple enough. "The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs," I think this is a reasonable tiebreaker when teams are even on points and ROW.

But then they make this odd allowance for series with odd numbers of games. "If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included," is a poorly worded confusing exception. It is not clear if this sentence refers to being tied on Points and ROW, or if it refers to being tied on the games between the teams.

There is a better way to word this in either case.  If the "odd" head-to-head games are discounted right away they could word it like this:

(my changes in bold)

"The greater number of points earned in included games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied on season points and ROW, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included."

 If the "odd" head-to-head games are discounted right away they could word it like this:

The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied on points in the games between each other, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included.

Take Anaheim and St. Louis for the top seed in the West for example.  If Anaheim wins their last game against Arizona in a shootout, and St. Louis wins their last two in regulation or overtime (yes Wild fans, I know Minnesota's going to beat St. Louis on Saturday, but just hear me out) they would finish tied at 109 points and 42 ROW. So Head-to-head comes into play.  Here are the results between them this year:

@ANA, Su, 19 Oct - ANA 3-0
@STL, Th, 30 Oct - STL 2-0
@ANA, Fr, 2 Jan - ANA 4-3

So it's the first game in Anaheim that's in question.  If the first interpretation is correct then that game gets thrown out right away, then they are tied head to head (2 points each) and goal differential becomes the determining factor, in which St. Louis has an advantage at +44 to +9.  (I know St. Louis has had goaltending issues, but I think the hold on with two games to spare.)  If the second interpretation is correct, then Anaheim wins the tiebreaker 4 points to 2 because that first game is only thrown out if the head to head is tied overall.

For what it's worth, of first few Google results for "NHL head to head tiebreaker explained" bring up this post from The Puck Report and this HF Boards thread from 2012 before ROW was even a thing seem the most relevant.  (Google also brings up results for NFL and FIFA tiebreakers.  Oh Google!) The common understanding in these posts is that the first interpretation is correct.  I imagine that TSN link in the HF Boards thread would probably spell that out if it weren't now broken.  But not a lot of digital ink has been spilled on clarifying this.

But if the first interpretation is correct, the intent is not to give advantage to a team that gets an extra home game because of schedule rotation.   Well if you're like me, you've spotted the flaw.  Would St. Louis get punished if they had won the first game at Anaheim?  You bet they would.  (Also, if St. Louis had beat Anaheim in regulation in that first game, both teams would have 41 ROW, inviting more possibilities of a tie on points and ROW at season's end.)

Before realignment in the three division per conference format, every team played an even number of games against each opponent in the conference.  Six games against division foes, and four games against the other teams in the rest of the conference.  So this wording only came into play for the President's trophy because teams across conferences only played one or two games against one another.

This exposes another bug in this tiebreaker.  There will be "odd" games in almost every series between any two teams of the same conference with the post realignment schedule.

(read x*x as number of opponents times number of games against each)

Western Conference Schedule:
Div (29): 5*5, 1*4 (x)
Rest of Conf (21): 7*3 (x)
Other Conf (32): 16*2

(x)- Because there are an odd number of teams in the Western Conference divisions, one team in each division gives up a division game to play an extra game against each other.

Eastern Conference Schedule:
Div (30): 2*5, 5*4
Rest of Conf (24): 8*3
Other Conf (28): 14*2

So if it were up to me, simplyfing the tiebreaker to "The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs" without any caveat for home games is better.  This year the home team wins 54% of NHL and averages 1.2 points per home game.  It's not a huge advantage, this advantage rotates, and having the allowance for home games could punish a team that gets a road result.

Simpler is better, or at the very least, clearer wording is better.

***

Check out the State of the State of Hockey podcast!  Playoff preview edition comes out Tuesday, 14 April.  In which regular season tiebreakers probably won't even be a topic :).  It works better with digital ink anyway.

No comments: