Who's feasting on who?

Writer's note: this topic was touched on in another blog with JP linking to it a few days ago. I tried to go a bit further with my analysis, so I think it's not redundant.

We've all heard it before. We've all tried to dismiss it as a lame attempt to undermine the Caps' accomplishments this season:

The Caps feast on a weak Southeast Division.

As much as we try to ignore this, it keeps creeping up during conversations, sports radio, blogs, and televised games. On the Pens forecast last Thursday, they were pushing pretty hard with this.

So today I'll try to take a look at the validity of this claim, attempting to remain as impartial as possible.

In the spirit of the Rink, I'll use some number crunching goodness, and hope to come up with some interesting insight.

The basic premise of this criticism is simple: The Southeast stinks, the Caps play more games against them, that's how they rack up the points.

So we'll break it down in 2 parts:

1. Does the Southeast really stink?

2. What kind of advantage do the Caps get by playing in the SE?

A little reminder on the NHL schedule: each team plays 6 times against each team in its own division, 4 times against each team in the other 2 divisions in its conference, and 18 times total against the other conference: 6*4+4*5*2+18=82

1. I've decided to throw out all games against the West to keep a level playing field. Since we're in the middle of the season, I'm mainly looking at points/game to rank teams and divisions.

Here is this stat for all East teams and averaged by division. I've also looked at the worth of each division without its leader, so one can see the level of the competition the top dog in each division has to play against. It helps that each division has a clear-cut leader at this point. This stat is multiplied by 82 to give an "average" point total through an 82-game season.

Atlantic  P/G points in
82-game season
New Jersey Devils 1,47  
Pittsburgh Penguins 1,27  
Philadelphia Flyers 1,12  
New York Rangers 1,02  
New York Islanders 0,96  
average team 1,16 95,4
average team w/o NJ 1,09 89,2
Buffalo Sabres 1,33  
Ottawa Senators 1,18  
Montréal Canadiens 1,12  
Boston Bruins 1,08  
Toronto Maple Leafs 0,88  
average team 1,12 91,6
average team w/o Buffalo 1,07 87,4
Washington Capitals 1,50  
Tampa Bay Lightning 1,05  
Atlanta Thrashers 1,00  
Florida Panthers 1,00  
Carolina Hurricanes 0,87  
average team 1,09 89,1
average team w/o Washington 0,98 80,5

What we see here is a pretty clear picture: ATL>NE>SE

Based on those numbers, it's hard to argue against the fact the Southeast division is pretty weak, especially without Washington in the mix. They're an average 7 points begind NE and 9 behind ATL.

2. So what does this mean for Washington? Do they get fat off of their fellow Southeasterners?

Let's take a look at how each division fares against each other, also looking at the same stats throwing out the division's leader.


  vs ATL  vs NE vs SE Vs Wash-less SE Vs East
Atlantic  P/G P/G P/G P/G P/G
New Jersey Devils 1,43 1,46 1,50 1,50 1,47
Pittsburgh Penguins 1,25 1,29 1,27 1,40 1,27
Philadelphia Flyers 1,27 0,92 1,13 1,33 1,12
New York Rangers 0,57 1,46 1,07 1,08 1,02
New York Islanders 0,73 1,07 1,06 1,08 0,96
average team 1,05 1,24 1,21 1,28 1,16
average team w/o NJ 0,97 1,19 1,12 1,22 1,09
Buffalo Sabres 1,29 1,40 1,27 1,50 1,33
Ottawa Senators 1,06 1,41 1,00 1,00 1,18
Montréal Canadiens 1,15 1,00 1,20 1,25 1,12
Boston Bruins 0,77 1,21 1,30 1,44 1,08
Toronto Maple Leafs 0,73 0,73 1,13 1,18 0,88
average team 1,01 1,16 1,17 1,26 1,12
average team w/o Buffalo 0,94 1,10 1,15 1,21 1,07
Washington Capitals 1,40 1,38 1,71 1,71 1,50
Tampa Bay Lightning 0,92 1,15 1,07 1,18 1,05
Atlanta Thrashers 1,00 1,13 0,86 1,09 1,00
Florida Panthers 1,24 0,83 0,88 1,18 1,00
Carolina Hurricanes 0,80 0,90 0,93 0,91 0,87
average team 1,08 1,10 1,08 1,24 1,09
average team w/o Washington 1,00 1,02 0,93 1,09 0,98

It's undeniable Washington has done very well against the Southeast, posting the best P/G average for a team against its own division. In fact, that is the best record of any one team against any one division.

Some other interesting notes:

  • Washington has done fairly well against the ATL and NE as well.
  • The NE has the highest P/G average within its division, meaning there's been a lot of OT games. Compared to the SE and ATL, that's basically 2 "extra"points per team (24 games played within one's division) at the end of the season.
  • As expected, the ATL>NE>SE inequality is well in evidence here again.

I also compiled each team's record against the Washington-less SE division (included in table above). Still, no team betters Washington's P/G average. Everyone is way behind more than 0.2 P/G behind.


This shows that even though Washington has done well against the SE, it's not only because the SE is weak, but primarily because, well, Washington has played better against the SE than everyone else.


Now we come (finally) to what this means in the standings. I'll be looking only at the East part of the schedule, which amounts to 64 games.

First we'll extrapolate points won through this point in the season to reflect an entire 64-game season. Points were calculated based on the avg P/G of the team against each division, and the team playing 6 against teams its own division, and 4 against the rest of the teams:

Next, we'll toss the divisions out, and look at what these numbers become if every team played 4.57 games against each other (amounts to 64 games total).

  Total predicted East points (64 games) total predicted East points if equal number of games between teams difference
New Jersey Devils 93,5 93,8 0,3
Pittsburgh Penguins 81,2 81,3 0,1
Philadelphia Flyers 71,2 69,8 -1,4
New York Rangers 64,4 68,3 3,9
New York Islanders 60,2 62,1 1,9
Buffalo Sabres 84,8 84,1 -0,7
Ottawa Senators 75,1 73,0 -2,1
Montréal Canadiens 71,1 72,1 1,0
Boston Bruins 70,5 69,5 -1,0
Toronto Maple Leafs 54,8 55,9 1,1
Washington Capitals 96,8 95,0 -1,8
Tampa Bay Lightning 67,3 67,1 -0,2
Atlanta Thrashers 63,2 64,4 1,2
Florida Panthers 62,4 63,3 0,9
Carolina Hurricanes 56,3 55,8 -0,5

What we see is that NJ and Wash have been dominant against the East, 9 and 12 points clear of the pack, led by Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The rest of the SE teams are way behind.

When tossing the divisions out, there isn't much change here. As expected, Washington would earn less points (2) but would still lead NJ by 1 and the rest by 10. Only the Rangers, which have been awful in divisional play, gets a significant boost out of this.

The reason is really pretty simple. The advantage of playing 6 times instead of 4 against 4 weaker teams doesn't translate to a whole lot of points at the end of the sason, because you still have to play 40 games against everybody else.

To further the point, we'll take a look at each team if they were to switch places with Washington in the SE, Washington going over to theirs.

The math used here: the P/G of every team against their division is adjusted to throw in their games with Wash, and their P/G against the SE is adjusted to games against everyone but Wash. Their P/G against the 3rd division is not adjusted.

I calculate Wash's point total using the same method.

I'll use NJ as an example, and you'll just have to take my word for the other teams:

Against ATL: 10-4-0

Against Wash: 3-1-0

Against ATL+Wash:13-5-0 -> 1.44 P/G

Against NE: 9-3-1 -> 1.46 P/G

Against Wash-less SE: 9-3-0 > 1.5 P/G

So their point total would be: 20*1.44+20*1.46+24*1.5= 94.1 points

Wash against ATL: 9-3-3

Wash against NJ: 1-2-1

Wash against NJ-less ATL: 8-1-2 -> 1.64 P/G

Wash against NE: 8-3-2 -> 1.38 P/G

Wash against SE: 12-2

Wash against SE+NJ: 13-4-1 -> 1.5 P/G

So Wash's point total, were they to switch places with NJ: 24*1.64+20*1.38+20*1.5=97

  Vs ATL + Wash Vs NE Vs SE -Wash 64-game East season if switched with Wash in SE diffe-rential Wash's point total if switched with team diffe-rential
New Jersey Devils 1,44 1,46 1,50 94,1 0,6 97,0 0,1
Pittsburgh Penguins 1,18 1,29 1,40 82,8 1,7 94,9 -1,9
Philadelphia Flyers 1,11 0,92 1,33 72,4 1,2 92,7 -4,2
New York Rangers 0,63 1,46 1,08 67,7 3,4 95,3 -1,6
New York Islanders 0,79 1,07 1,08 63,1 2,9 92,7 -4,2
  Vs ATL Vs NE + Wash Vs SE -Wash        
Buffalo Sabres 1,29 1,28 1,50 87,3 2,5 94,5 -2,3
Ottawa Senators 1,06 1,37 1,00 72,6 -2,5 94,5 -2,4
Montréal Canadiens 1,15 1,00 1,25 73,1 2,0 94,5 -2,3
Boston Bruins 0,77 1,13 1,44 72,7 2,2 94,7 -2,2
Toronto Maple Leafs 0,73 0,79 1,18 58,7 3,9 94,9 -1,9

The differences can be more important here. Obviously most teams would gain from switching places with Washington, only Ottawa is happy where they're at (-2.5, only minus team). The average team is +1.8. We can also see that Wash would earn less points (an average of 2.3). That makes an average 4.1 point differential advantage Wash has for playing in the SE over every ATL and NE team. While not insignificant, this is hardly "getting fat". It's possibly the difference between 1 or 2 seed in the East. We'll see at the end of the season.

But, one stat we can keep here and throw out whenever someone uses that SouthLeast argument a bit too much for our liking: if we were to trade places with NJ, mighty leader of the great ATL division, we'd have the exact same number of points than if we stayed in the weak SE.

There's more to dissect here but I think I got all the main points.

As this is my first FanPost, please feel free to comment and critique. I know it's a bit long, but I couldn't find what to leave out. And my HTML skills do stink, thank you.

I hope not to have made any miscalculations, but if you want something double-checked that seems like it could be a mistake, I'll be happy to triple-check.

Finally, thanks to D'ohboy for the good advice on how to get rid of those pesky <!}) etc...

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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