Why the team with the most points isn't always the best

In the 2008 playoffs, the Dallas Stars limped into a 5th seed in the Western Conference with a 3-5-2 finish and 97 points. As the third best team in a strong Pacific Division (8th overall), the Stars had drawn the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks as their first round opponents.


The Ducks finished only 5 points ahead of the Stars that season, but they also won their last 3 games of the season and posted an 8-2-0 record in their last 10. Moreover, Anaheim had home ice advantage and were 28-9-4 in their own barn, which was 2nd best in the league and only one point behind the President’s Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings.


All signs seemed to point to an early exit for Dallas. Yet somehow the Stars managed to surprise the Ducks and take the series 4 games to 2.


Up next were the San Jose Sharks, who had won the Pacific and owned the second best record in the league. Once again the Stars won.


It wasn’t until they faced off against the Wings that Dallas’s “lucky run” came to an end.


But were the Stars actually lucky?


By one measure, Dallas was the best team in the Pacific that year. Yes, they finished third (and significantly behind San Jose) in their division, but their goal differential (total goals for minus goals against), was third best in the NHL (+35) and second in the West only to the Red Wings.


Goal differential alone doesn’t tell us how strong a team is. The reason for this is that some teams have tougher schedules than others.


Thanks to the folks at hockey-reference.com, we now have a number that addresses this problem. It even has a name: simple rating system (SRS).


SRS is – as far as I can tell – an underappreciated metric because the glossary on hockey-reference.com is a little thin on details as to how it’s calculated, and the math is a little complicated.


But in simple terms it works like this…


Each team is assigned a ranking based on its goal differential per game as well as the strength of its schedule, which takes into account the fact that teams that play weak opponents will have better goal differentials than ones that play tough ones.

So for example Tampa Bay, which is third in the league in goal differential this season (+46 on 71 games) is assigned an initial ranking of 0.65 (46 divided by 71). But because they play in a weak Atlantic Division that includes juggernauts in the Connor McDavid / Jack Eichel sweepstakes like the Leafs and Sabres, their SRS is adjusted downward to 0.58.


Full results for this season are in the table below.


Now remember those 2008 Stars? As it turns out, they were 2nd in SRS that season (0.54), behind Detroit (0.93) but ahead of both San Jose (0.47) and Anaheim (0.30).


Before you conclude this is an aberration and Dallas had some ethereal quality that pundits usually lean on after the fact (“heart”, “grit”, “experience”, “mojo”…), we actually looked back at all 105 playoff matchups since 2008.


What we found is that if you used the difference in each team’s SRS to predict each series, you would have gotten 70 (66.7%) of those matchups correct; whereas, if you looked at point differential, you would have gotten only 61 matchups (58.1%) correct.


That suggests that when deciding whether or not a team is a favourite, pundits should be looking at which one has a higher SRS rather than which has more points.


Making predictions isn’t easy business, and when doing it, you have to be honest about your odds just by guessing at random.


So, for example, when I ask my preschooler (whose main interest in hockey stems from knowing she gets to extend her bedtime) whether the Penguins, Blackhawks, Red Wings or Rangers will win the cup this year, as long as she doesn’t answer “Blackhawk Red Wings” (which occasionally happens) I’m giving her a 25% chance of looking like Nostradamus out of the gate.


Mainstream pundits have an easier job: just by flipping a coin they’ll be right half the time, and the other half nobody will remember what their predictions were anyway.


As we approach this year’s playoffs we’re already working on doing better than the 66.7% that SRS gives us.


More on that in the weeks to come.


Team Games Played SRS Points
1 Rangers 68 0.66 95
2 Blues 69 0.61 93
3 Blackhawks 68 0.61 88
4 Lightning 71 0.58 93
5 Predators 71 0.43 93
6 Capitals 71 0.41 86
7 Penguins 69 0.37 88
8 Canadiens 70 0.36 93
9 Islanders 71 0.32 90
10 Flames 69 0.31 81
11 Wild 69 0.3 83
12 Red Wings 68 0.2 87
13 Ducks 71 0.18 95
14 Kings 69 0.17 81
15 Senators 68 0.16 77
16 Bruins 69 0.12 82
17 Canucks 68 0.12 82
18 Jets 69 0.09 80
19 Sharks 69 0.01 76
20 Avalanche 69 -0.03 75
21 Stars 70 -0.1 74
22 Flyers 71 -0.23 73
23 Devils 69 -0.29 69
24 Panthers 69 -0.36 76
25 Hurricanes 68 -0.37 60
26 Maple Leafs 71 -0.51 60
27 Blue Jackets 69 -0.52 64
28 Oilers 70 -1.04 50
29 Coyotes 70 -1.17 50
30 Sabres 69 -1.38 45
*All data is from www.hockey-reference.com and is current as of March 17, 2015

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