Monday, December 18, 2006

Parity in the Northwest: or, why the NHL's schedule requires revision.

At the end of tonight's NHL games, a vast 2 points separated the Northwest Division's first and last teams. Edmonton led the division with 36 points from 32 games, closely followed by Calgary and Vancouver with 35 each (from 30 and 33 games, respectively). Colorado and Minnesota were tied for last, having picked up 34 points from 32 and 33 games respectively. The rest of the NHL features vastly greater disparities within divisions. The largest gap is in the Pacific Division, where NHL-leading Anaheim's 56 points are 31 more than divisional bottom-feeder Phoenix. In the Central Division, a 27-point gap exists between Nashville and St. Louis, the NHL's lowest-ranking team. The East features slightly smaller divides, with a 20-point separation in the Atlantic between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, a 18-point gulf between Buffalo and Boston in the Northeast, and a 14-point rift between Atlanta and Florida in the Southeast.

This dramatic difference in divisional skill has significant implications for the playoff hunt. Under the post-lockout NHL schedule, teams play each other team in their division 8 times. For the Northwest teams, that works out to 32 games each against teams of similar skill (as indicated by the almost-identical point totals these teams all have at this point of the year). Say that theoretically, each team wins half their games against divisional opposition (collecting 2 points per game), and earns one point from a shootout or overtime loss in half of the remaining games. That works out to a total of 42 points from 32 games. With the NHL's 84-game schedule, this leaves 52 games for each team. Last season in the Western Conference, 95 points were required to make the playoffs. Thus, a team in the Northwest would have to average just over a point per game in their remaining games to reach the playoffs.

In contrast, consider the Central Division's Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators. Both get to play 8 games against each of three teams that were well below a .500 record last season: the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Black Hawks, and St. Louis Blues. All are faring almost as poorly this season, although Chicago has improved of late (but is currently still on 33 points, less than the bottom teams in the Northwest). Let's say that the Red Wings or Predators win six of their games against each of their bottom-feeding divisional opponents, lose one in overtime or a shootout, and lose one outright. This would give them each 39 points from these 24 games. Let's furthermore say that in the eight Detroit-Nashville games, each team wins two outright, and the remaining four are decided by overtime or a shootout, with each team winning two of these contests as well. Thus, Detroit and Nashville would have 49 points from their 32 divisional games, as opposed to the 42 calculated for a Northwest team. This may not sound like a huge gap, but consider that last year's margin between the 8th and 9th teams (in and out of the playoffs respectively) was only 2 points in the Eastern Conference, and only 3 points in the Western Conference. If Vancouver, last year's 9th place team, had earned an extra 7 points, they would have been tied with San Jose for 5th place.

This divisional edge is only one of the features of the new broken schedule. It is ridiculous to have a certain team visit your city only once every three years, particularly in an age of exciting new stars such as Crosby, Ovechkin, the Staals, Phaneuf, Malkin and so many more. This is a league trying to market itself around its star players, as was patently obvious from the TV ads they ran this fall. It doesn't help declining attendance in markets like Phoenix or St. Louis if their fans only have the chance to see exciting young stars once every three years. Furthermore, particularly with the back-to-back divisional games favoured by this current schedule, it tends to dilute excitement around watching the game, either in person or on TV. As an example of this, consider tonight's Canucks-Wild game, offered on Canucks Pay-Per-View. Who would want to pay 12 dollars to see this game, shortly after watching the identical matchup for free on Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday? There certainly is a fair bit of resistance to any change, as exemplified by the lack of progress made on the schedule at the recent NHL Board of Governors meeting: however, teams need to stop thinking in terms of what's best for their franchise short-term, and start considering what will be best for the league as a whole in the long run.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Delocalized wingers

This may possibly be the most geeky sports column I have ever written or ever will write, but bear with me. Delocalized electrons are electrons in a molecule that are not directly tied to one specific bond, but rather shared over larger sections of the molecule (for a more complete definition, see the Wikipedia article here.) The classic example of this is benzene, a 6-carbon ring structure usually depicted with 6 single bonds and 3 double bonds: due to delocalization, the actual bonds are actually between double and single character, and spread evenly out over the molecule. This makes benzene incredibly stable.

What relevance to sports does this have, you may ask? Well, it perfectly describes the innovative style of football (soccer for those of you who insist on North American terminology:P) that Manchester United have been playing thus far this season. On paper, their regular lineup appears as the standard 4-4-2 formation (four defenders, four midfielders (two in the middle, two on the wings), and two strikers). However, the key difference this season is how they have been utilizing their wingers.

Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the best wingers in the game, and have been effective in previous campaigns with the standard winger tactics of deep runs down the sides. This year, they have taken things to a new level, via a delocalization process. Giggs usually plays the left flank, and Ronaldo the right, but this year, they both frequently move into the middle or even to the other's side of the pitch. In fact, frequently when watching United this year, Ronaldo and Giggs will combine on one side to form an attacking run, flooding one side of the defence much like the Canadian football or basketball tactic used against a zone system. This creates no end of confusion for opposing defences, and is one of the reasons that United are at the top of the Premiership table. A perfect example of this was United's second goal in the Middlesbrough match. The play developed off an attack down the left flank, but then Ronaldo darted in to the middle from his position on the right, received a cross in the box, came over to the left side of the goal and played a short pass back to Giggs, who delivered a perfect cross that Darren Fletcher headed into the net.

The other reason that this system works is the play of the wingbacks, or outside defenders. The typical problem that faces teams attempting a system like this is that when the wingers move to the same side, the width of the field is decreased, providing less attacking options. However, this is not the case for United. Wingbacks Gary Neville and Gabriel Heinze frequently step up into attack, often even at the same time, and fulfill the winger's role. This also helps when either Giggs or Ronaldo moves towards the middle, drawing the wide defenders with them: Neville or Heinze will then create an overlapping run down the open flank, which has frequently led to excellent scoring chances. Having the wingbacks press forward so aggressively means that attacks on both flanks can be maintained, even with the wingers moving into the middle or to the other side. This system is certainly unconventional, but it works very effectively. As benzene shows with its exceptional stability, sometimes delocalization can be the best tactic!