To Predict Or Not? NHL Outlook As Clear As Fog?

Marc Elliott

CHIPPEWA FLOWAGE… In early September I began to mentally go through an NHL Pre-season outlook column complete with predictions for the regular season and so on. Then I started to go through some previous columns from years past to get a glimpse at how some of those pre-season prognostications came out and discovered that they were a veritable trip to the craps table. But not to cast aspersion solely upon myself and my forecasting abilities or lack thereof, I took a look at some of these same types of columns from the “expert” analysts in the business only to find that their forecasts weren’t much better then mine. They probably engage the same sort of technique as I would in doing this, and in a way it’s not a great deal different from running an amateur hockey tryout and separating talent. It’s always very easy to figure out who is the best and who is the worst, it’s all of the in-between that takes up a lot of mental energy. You know the old theory; it’s always the last two or three cuts that are the hardest to make.

So, armed with some pre-season yearbooks, mainly the Sports Forecaster and one from the Hockey News along with a couple of laptops I started digging through rosters, teams, coaching changes, divisional situations and so on. In the meantime there were some other compelling stories to write about in the sports world so I kept putting this on the backburner. But in addition, the more I read and researched, the clearer it became to me that this year just might be one of those years where there is NO clear cut favorite to grab the Stanley Cup sometime in mid-June. And now, three weeks into the regular season a “pre-season” forecasting column would be a moot point. The season is here. However, I would like to share some great data I am seeing along with some early season observations. 

As some of you might know the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Minnesota Wild beat writer Mike Russo left that publication for The Athletic, a fledgling subscriber based online e-newspaper. When this was announced they ran a subscriber special offer and for about the cost of 7 fast food lunches you could signup for a year. So far I am impressed with their content and as Russo himself stated early in the season he can focus more on actual team and player based stories then on having to face the deadlines that come along with writing gamers. One of their strength’s lies in having a single source where you can get daily in-depth coverage of your own team as well as those in other cities. Most dailies are limited in scope as to the space they can dedicate to content like that. They hope to have a dedicated writer for all 31 NHL clubs as soon as possible. They are at about half as of this writing. And so far one of their daily items that I have enjoyed the most is an article titled “By the Numbers: 2017-18 NHL season Projections and Probabilities”. This gets updated on a daily basis based upon the competitions from the day before and how individual clubs performed. 

This feature ranks each club top to bottom as to their expected win percentage, their possible win percentage change by week, projected wins, losses, OT losses and points. Then they are ranked by their probability of making the playoffs, to win their division, make the SC Final and win the Cup. Obviously, all of these factors correlate. This is one of the first things I check out each day when I do my NHL reading. This has been interesting to say the least and based on my own personal observations, I can’t say I totally agree with this chart. Last week for instance the chart had 4 Eastern Conference teams in the top 5 along with CHI. I have seen the Hawks play 4 times so far and I don’t see them as a top 5 club right now. 

The top 5 this AM are TAMPA, PITT, CHI, CBJ and TOR. Again, I can’t see CHI in this group. The chart gives the Bolts a 93% chance of making the playoffs, and a 9% chance of winning the Cup. They have PITT at 86% & 8%, CHI at 90% & 8%, CBJ at 80% & 7% and then TOR at 81% & 6%. By comparison the chart has the Wild currently in the 17th position and their numbers project a 41-30-11 finish. (rounded) for their probabilities stats they have a projected 55% chance of making the playoff, 7% to win the division, 6% to make the SC Final and 3% to win the Cup. I understand this. The Wild could be, as usual, in a dogfight just to get into the playoffs and be gassed by the time they start if they did. CALG projects at just 2/10ths more seasonal points then do the Wild, but sport a 7% advantage in playoff probability. Saturday eve the Wild looked much the better team then did the Flames in a 4-2 win. But it’s only October right? 

Somewhere in this charts mathematic formula it doesn’t appear to account for teams that are off to hot starts and perhaps solid seasons. For instance NJ leads the Metro division right now yet are in 24th position on this chart with a 20% chance of making the playoff. I will be interested to see how these positions bear out. The Vegas Golden Knights are in a similar way here ranking 25th on the chart yet have a 6-1 record thus far good for 2nd in the Pacific. Some other head scratchers have BOS in the 9th spot on a 3-3-1 record, yet I’ve seen them twice and they are unimpressive with a -2 goal differential. The Sharks are in the 12 spot on a 4-4 record yet I can’t see them in the playoff. The JETS are an inconsistent club in my book, but you look at their talent and think that if they can put it all together they could be a top ten team. They hold the 13th spot on here but are 4-3 with a -4 goal differential. The chart gives them a 66% playoff chance. This is all pretty interesting and makes me wonder if there will be a new job available on your NHL team soon; Team Mathematician and oddsmaker! PEACE