Friday, January 20, 2012

Analysis of Hypothetical Team Records under Realignment

Since the schedule changes for many teams under the NHL realignment, let's take a look at the teams who  improve and might struggle with the new reorganization of teams. Now, it should be mentioned that this is just an approximation of scores, but let's face it the only way to be accurate is for it to actually happen. For the most part, teams stay fairly close in terms of points under both systems with few exceptions. However, those few points in the realignment scheme sometimes tip teams just above or below their 2010-2011 status under the current structure.

Teams That Improve

Perhaps most obviously is the Washington Capitals. In 2011, the team finished at the top of the Eastern Conference with 107 points and had a record of 48-23-11. Under realignment, the team would have won the President's Trophy with 113 points and a record of 52-21-9. I think the Capitals partly benefitted from not playing the Lightning and instead playing the Devils and the Islanders under realignment. For those unfamiliar, under the current NHL structure, the Capitals play in the Southeast Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, and Florida Panthers. In this division, the main competition is the Lightning as they are a playoff team. The Capitals win the majority of the match-ups against the other teams in the division. Under realignment, the Capitals are in Conference D with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, and Carolina Hurricanes. Let's look at the new teams the Capitals now face. Although the Penguins and Flyers are also top teams in the league under any structure, the Capitals provide fierce competition and can still pull wins. The Islanders and Devils have their strengths but also major weaknesses, and they lose the majority of the match-ups against the Capitals. Since they have six meetings a year under realignment, there are some easy wins for Washington. But what also contributes to the fact that the Capitals top the entire league is that Vancouver is in a more intensely competitive Conference A. However, I've already discussed this in my blog "2010-2011 Standings under Realignment," and I won't rehash it here. So yada, yada, yada... Realignment suddenly looks pretty good to the Capitals, but that's assuming that the 2011-2012 season hasn't already started and they're not dominating the East as they had the previous season and Ovi isn't seriously underachieving and possibly contributing to the departure of Boudreau. Yeah, let's pretend that hasn't happened yet, so Washington likes this scenario.

Nashville also likes the realignment. They don't change much in terms of points and wins. Under the current NHL structure, they finished last season with 99 points and a record of 44-27-11. If realignment had taken place, the Predators would have had 101 points and gone 44-25-13. The difference is that under the current structure, they placed second in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference (with the 99 points), but with realignment, they would have been at the top of Conference B. Did I mention how competitive the current Western Conference is? What realignment allows is for Nashville (as well as other teams) to separate from the fifteen Western teams and truly stand out in a smaller, albeit still highly competitive, conference. It should be also noted that Nashville narrowly beats out Detroit in points, which alters a lot of the way most people view the West and seemingly dominating Red Wings. Most people, at least before the first round of the playoffs, felt that Nashville is a soft team. Yes, they aren't a highly offensive team that the stats and experts love, but they do have an elite goaltender and monster defense which keeps them just under the radar. When the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks (always toted as an elite team by the experts... some people value things like Stanley Cups apparently) to advance to the semifinals for the first time in their playoff history, people took notice.

Buffalo is also a team that improves in the standings under realignment. In the current NHL structure, the Sabres finished third in the Northeast Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference with 96 points and a record of 49-23-10. Under realignment, Buffalo would have been the top team in Conference C with 108 points and a record of 49-23-10. One of the differences is that Boston who finished first in the Northeast does not match-up well against the Western Conference teams. Whether it's the travel, unfamiliarity with the teams, or whatever, Boston slides ever so sightly in realignment which give Buffalo the opportunity to push forward.

The New York Rangers benefit to a certain extent. Whether in realignment or the current NHL structure, the Blueshirts have roughly the same points. The difference is under realignment, the Rangers are in Conference D that has a distinct top four and bottom three. The team takes the fourth and final playoff spot, and the Islander are just under them and trailing by eleven points. Rather than having a nail-biting finish to the season that was predicated on the success/failure of another team, the Rangers would have had the satisfaction of securing a postseason. While this isn't the same as rising above the pack, it at least eases some stress levels... and probably saves the team from an extremely irate Torts. Yikes!

The Dallas Stars also are a happy bunch in realignment. Under the current NHL structure, Dallas finished last season fifth in the Pacific Division and ninth (just one spot out of the playoffs) in the Western Conference with 95 points and a record of 42-29-11. In the realignment Conference B, the Stars place fourth with 94 points and 42-30-10. The difference is that they make the playoffs! Being taken out of the Pacific is a definite advantage for the Stars. Yes, they tie in points with St. Louis, but their number of wins just boosts them enough to make the cutoff. Would Marc Crawford have been fired with a postseason? Maybe, maybe he would have survived one more year. However, as a Kings fan, I can't say that he's a frontrunner in my book. They're better off with Gulutzan.

I'm begrudgingly adding a short section on the Sharks. (I'm a Kings fan, remember!) Vancouver seemed to dominate the league and topped even the Capitals by ten points for first place. As of last year, San Jose placed second in the Western Conference with 105 points and 48-25-9. If realignment had taken place, the Sharks would have held the same record as the Canucks (51-23-8), but they would have edged them out because they had scored four more goals in my calculations than the Canucks. The Sharks would have been in first place in Conference A.

Teams That Fall Short

I won't rehash, so I'll keep it short. Vancouver.

Boston is another team that isn't quite as strong under realignment. One thing I noticed last season is that the Bruins struggled against the West Coast teams. I'm not sure why, but it was interesting. They placed third in the Eastern Conference as they were the Northeast Division leader with 103 points and a 46-25-11 record. According to my realignment figures, the Bruins would have placed second in Conference C and had 96 points at 42-28-12. Yes, it's a difference of seven points, but they're only a couple wins short. I think the difference is the schedule. Conference C is made up of the Northeast Division and Florida, so the Bruins are playing the same teams as before with the difference being an increase in playing the Western Conference.

Carolina does not fare well in realignment. Last season, the Hurricanes fell just one win short of edging out the Rangers to make the playoffs. They placed ninth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Southeast Division with 91 points at 40-31-11. They still don't make it to the playoffs in the realignment scheme, but this time they're farther off the mark. The Hurricanes only accumulated 80 points with a record of 35-37-10 and was sixth in Conference D, which I remind you only has seven teams. The Rangers who clinch the last playoff spot have 92 points and 43 wins, so the Hurricanes are nowhere in the ballpark. What changes for Carolina is that they face much stronger teams in Conference D than they had in the Southeast Division. The Southeast includes the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning both top teams in either scheme. The Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers are also in the division, but they were both struggling teams last season. Carolina lead the Jets by 11 points and the Panthers by 19 points. Playing these teams gave Carolina an advantage since they could win a majority of games against those clubs. In Conference D, the Hurricanes now face Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Rangers, the Islanders, and New Jersey. Carolina no longer faces any of the Southeast teams, except Washington which is a top 2 team in either structure. Pittsburgh, even without Crosby, is a very strong team, and Philadelphia dominated the East until they seemed to run out of steam and let Washington take the reins. The Rangers are another team that struggled but managed to scrap into the playoffs in both structures. The Islanders and New Jersey are teams that aren't as strong, but since Carolina cannot compete with the top four, they are relegated to the bottom three.

As Bettman admitted, there are teams who are going to like realignment and those who feel they are giving up too much and won't like it. I'm sure teams had their own projections, I haven't found any and hope that this might shed some more light as to which teams might like and not like the new realignment as they look at how the standings affect their club.

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