Tackling the NHL standings: A more visual approach

We have arrived at (roughly) the midway point of this shortened 2013 NHL season, and as long as you’re a fan of any team not named the Buffalo Sabres, you probably can at least imagine your team in a playoff series come late April. However one thing that has always been bothersome to me is examining the NHL standings throughout the progression of a given season.

Looking at the standings, or “table” as some may call it, is pretty straightforward in the other main North American sports. There’s wins, losses, and in the very rare instance in football, ties. The most wins gets you the best position in the standings. Not so in hockey. With an odd system that rewards any two teams that simply get a game to overtime and awards what is effectively a “bonus” point to the eventual winner, the NHL standings every year since the inception of the current system look much more convoluted than they should. I’m a visual person, so naturally I set out to make a more visual representation of the jumble of numbers I see when checking standing of my sad, sorry hockey team.

Here are the current NHL standings, through the games of Sunday, March 10th:

NHL standings through March 10th

courtesy of espn.com

While this conventional format allows for easy digestion of all the important numbers a fan may be concerned with, it is very difficult to grasp what many of those numbers may actually mean.

The two charts shown below present the current standings (split into Eastern and Western Conferences)  through the games of Sunday, March 10th in a drastically different presentation than what you regularly see. At the start of the season, I placed each team in these two groupings at the same point on a chart. With each result of the games every team played throughout the season, they would receive an upward tick in the chart (win-2 points), a  horizontal tick (overtime loss-1 point) or a downward tick (regulation loss-0 points) moving rightward across the chart. The spread of possible points moving left to right on the chart thus opens by a margin of 2 points per each of the 48 games the teams will play this season.

2013 Eastern Conference standings

2013 Eastern Conference standings

2013 Western Conference standings

2013 Western Conference standings

A couple things should immediately jump out of this more visual version of the standings. One might be the utterly absurd first half of the season the Chicago Blackhawks have had. Before their eventual two regulation losses, the Blackhawks had earned only three points less than the MAXIMUM possible point total of 48. You get a much better appreciation for the cushion some teams may have versus the clustering of teams elsewhere in the standings, particularly positions 3 through 11 in the Western Conference.

Additionally, due to the fact teams with more games played may often have a higher point total than those who have played fewer, even if only by a difference of a point of two, they will appear ahead in the conventional tabular standings. However, while the Boston Bruins are currently situated “below” the Montreal Canadiens, they could lose the four games they have in hand, so long as they earn a point by each by taking them to overtime, to re-obtain the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Thus the tabular standings often fail to illustrate the favorable positions of teams who may have played fewer games versus those who are more vulnerable having played more and failed to pad their point total.

In both conferences, by drawing a line from the “zero point” on the left, to the 48-game line on the far right, intersecting  the lowest-lying playoff-positioned team on the chart (teams 1 through 8 qualify in each conference), it’s possible to project 53 points as the approximate necessary point total to make the playoffs.

So… Any questions? Curious to know if others find this model more or less helpful that the traditional way the standings are presented.

Bueller…? Bueller…?

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