Monday, November 12, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: NHL Points, Parity and Positive Thinking

The Toronto Maple Leafs are like that blundering oaf in the workplace who always seems to be on the brink of being sacked. He repeatedly screws up, pisses people off, comes in late and occasionally vomits on the secretary. And just as the collective weight of universal condemnation has him on the verge of being turfed, he does something to get back in everyone's good books.

The Leafs continue to rattle off two or three lousy games in a row followed by a couple of competitive efforts. One of many aspects of Toronto's game that has fans worried is their goals for and against differential. On the plus side, they are filling the net at a rate higher than almost all other teams. But that bright spot is obliterated by the fact that they have also given up the most goals in the league.

If a team is on the negative side regarding the difference in tallies for and against, it's obviously an indication of how they have been playing and will normally be reflected in the standings. Similarly, a team that turns around their fortunes will also see their "for and against" numbers improve.

For example, Vancouver started out poorly last year and then had one of the best second halfs of the season. Their goal differential wasn't impressive to begin and slowly improved as the year went on, with the team going into positive territory in about mid-January.

The Ottawa Senators were another team from last year who saw their position in the standings rise dramatically after turning it on in the second half. Their for and against numbers were on the plus side even as they were languishing in the early stages of the season. As the Sens' explosive offense ramped up and their goal-tending improved, their place in the standings got better and the gap widened between the GF and GA columns.

While both the Senators and the Canucks had favorable goals for and against numbers as the regular season finished, Ottawa had a better positive differential . Both teams finished with 105 point records but the Senators continued further into the playoffs. After the two teams did little tinkering in the off-season regarding their line-ups, Ottawa have also had a far better start to 2007-08.

The Tampa Bay Lightning was the rare team last year who had a winning record and qualified for the playoffs while still scoring fewer goals than they gave up. The Atlanta Thrashers were on the cusp in 2006-07, notching just one more than they allowed and the New Jersey Devils had a relatively narrow margin, scoring 15 more than they gave up.

Such anomalies can be explained by strong defensive teams who were involved in numerous games decided by one goal (New Jersey) or perhaps teams that were receptive to being on the losing end of an occasional blowout. Those three teams have had poor starts in 2007-08.

On the other hand, the Colorado Avalanche were the only team to finish out of the playoffs in 2006-07 with more goals for than against--a decent 20 goal difference. So it's not surprising that together with the Ryan Smyth signing they are off to a strong start this year.

Two teams that made significant changes in the off-season and have seen an unwanted reversal of their goals for and against stats are the Buffalo Sabres and the Nashville Predators. They have both scored relatively few goals compared to the ones they have allowed and have poor records to go along with those totals.

There are always exceptions such as the ones mentioned above. And trades, coaching changes, injuries and other intangibles can lead to a big improvement or a drop-off over the course of a season. It wouldn't be sports and it wouldn't be interesting otherwise.

Still, all other things being equal, looking at current goals for and against is still a fairly good way to predict a team's future goal scoring and their place in the standings. As with all types of prognosticating, the best predictors of future results are trends, patterns and past performance.

And getting back to my original point, that's why things don't bode too well for the Leafs. Add into that mix the fact that two of their top three points leaders at the moment are 36 and 34 years old respectively and the potential for decreased offense as the season wears on is a distinct possibility.

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Yet the glut in the standings still exists in both conferences and it's still not too late to say, "it's still too early to say."

A couple of things are contributing to the supposed post-lockout parity. The salary cap has put smart management at a premium more than ever before. While trying to spend their way to a championship didn't often work for many of the big market clubs in the past, not having that option can't help but even out the level of competition somewhat.

Many of those same big spending teams of the past are still futile but they no longer have as much of an advantage when it come to making deals and offering fat contracts to free agents.

The three point games contribute to the mid-standings clog up as well. When you lose a game and still get a point, the overall rankings start to get a bit artificial. In the 30 team league, it's got to be a sop to owners, 14 of whom get denied those juicy playoff revenues every season. Not like the 21-team league of the 1980s when only five were left out.

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How about a consolation tournament for the also-rans? Great revenue for the owners and a second rate spectacle for the fans in cities whose teams didn't make it.

It would never fly of course. Even if games were played on days when the real playoffs had no scheduled match-ups, the embarrassing possibility exists that the ersatz Stanley might have more interesting pairings and better action.

The players would never go for it either. Playoff games have no cash incentive for players, except for some bonuses that go along with the final few series. With no loot or glory on the line and the potential for injuries, "for the love of the game" somehow wouldn't cut it.

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Insanely optimistic quote of the week from Kelly Hrudey speaking on the Team 1040's Rick Ball show:

"Hockey has the potential to be the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer."

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