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Less parity means more best-on-best in the NHL's offensive era

Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid - Getty Images

For years, the National Hockey League carved out a niche as the league of unpredictability.

Tight, low-scoring games were a staple of the sport, providing the exact recipe you are looking for if you want to see frequent upsets. Combined with the standings structure – one where teams can pick up one of two points merely by losing in the overtime frame or shootout – the league’s ecosystem is one of perpetual proximity.

It’s a significant differentiator relative to other North American sports leagues and comes with benefits and drawbacks. Tight, low-scoring, and often random single-game outcomes can keep most teams in a theoretical playoff race for extended periods of the regular season.

Compare that with the National Basketball Association – a league where you may only need a few weeks and a dozen or so games to see talent overwhelm random chance in the standings. The NBA’s regular season, in particular the tail end, can often be painful to watch. But a key draw for that league is the prospect that the most talented and capable teams generally win, which isn’t always the case in the NHL.

Michael Lopez, now senior director of data and analytics for the NFL, did some fascinating work on this back in 2018. He and a team of researchers found the better team (by regular-season standings) in the NBA advances out of a playoff series 80 per cent of the time. For the NHL to realize a similar advance rate for the superior team, it would require a best-of-51 series – a remarkable difference.

Why do I bring this up as we inch into September? We’ve talked here at some length over the past two years about the NHL’s offensive renaissance – there’s more scoring across the league, the average per-game scoring totals are up, and, in turn, the average margin of victory is higher. That’s a great sign if you are looking for just a bit more predictability within the sport; the talent within the league is being given more opportunity to put its skill on display, and it’s made best-on-best hockey come playoff time a compelling watch.

The current environment – where teams score 6.3 goals per game, versus just 5.4 six years ago – will further differentiate the haves and the have-nots. Strong teams are going to solidify their spot earlier in the regular season; weak teams on the playoff fringe will less frequently be in the hunt come March.

Consider the past two seasons versus the first season in the modern era (2007-08), as well as the league’s scoring low point (2015-16). The boxplot shows the average margin of victory for all teams:

The smaller the box, the more compact the data set is. In other words, the 2007-08 season saw very little talent spread between the majority of the league’s teams. Compare that to the 2021-22 season, where the size of the box has dramatically increased – an indicator of sizable separation between the clubs.

Rather than focus on the outliers like the league’s best and worst teams by season, consider the quartiles where the majority of teams sit. If we look at what 25th percentile and 75th percentile meant for a team in 2007-08 versus 2015-16 and 2021-22, the difference is staggering.

The gaps between these two groups – the entrenched playoff teams and the teams bad enough for the draft lottery but nowhere near bad enough to win it – has grown as scoring has increased. Whereas the separation between Buffalo and Columbus in 2007-08 was just 37 goals (0.45 per game), the gap between San Jose and Minnesota last season was nearly triple at 106 goals (1.29 per game).

If this trend sustains itself, it does change the behavioural economics of the league. On a relative basis, it was much easier years ago to take a team limited on talent into a playoff race – these teams would confusingly step up as buyers at the trade deadline because they were only a handful of points out of a playoff race.

That’s less the case now. More scoring means fewer shootouts and less overtime, fewer shootouts and less overtime means fewer incremental points thrown around the standings, and fewer incremental points thrown around the standings means more clarity into a team’s true talent.

The NHL doesn’t want as predictable a league as the NBA, but I do think it endeavours to reward well-performing teams, and reducing the randomness observed within a game can do just that.

This is a league built on parity, and that won’t change – not until the league reviews the win, loss, overtime/shootout loss point structure. But the NHL’s welcoming of an offensive resolution hasn’t just put more skill on display. It’s also added a touch more credibility to the sport, where more talented teams are simply more likely to win games.

That’s a good development for the league over the long term.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference