The Meaning of a Competitive Division

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Come playoff time, a lot of questions surround the teams that make the playoffs due to being in divisions with mediocre teams. An example this past year would include the Washington Capitals having the delicacy to be in arguably the worst division in the league and being able to secure a 3rd seed with only 27 wins. After being thwarted by the Rangers in the first round, one could only be curious as to how the competition (or lack thereof) has something to say about a teams run into the playoffs. Had the Capitals been placed in the Northeast division, they would’ve just made it to the playoffs by a hair. To figure out exactly how tight a division is as far as consisting of good teams, the average win percentage for each division in the regular season for the past 8 years (starting from the aftermath of the lockout canceled season) was calculated. Then, the average difference of each teams winning percentage according to their division was found to satisfy the question: "Which divisions are the most and least competitive, and what does this tell us about a team going into the postseason?" This would mean that the divisions with the lowest average win % differences are more competitive than ones with higher average win % differences. To sum it up, here are some interesting stats to break down the numbers:



As you can see, the Central division has earned their way into being clearly the least competitive division in the past number of seasons. The Northwest however, has deemed themselves as the most competitive, as they topped the charts for the 8 and 4 year windows as having the least average win percentage differences between their teams. The only divisions that have actually moved around a bit would be the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southeast divisions, while the Northeast has stuck tight behind the Northwest as one of the most competitive areas of the league. The most competitive division of the past 8 years was the Northwest division of 2007-2008 with .020 average difference in win percentage (for now we can call it Competitive Difference Percentage or CD%), while the least competitive goes to the Central division of 2005-2006 with a .153 CD%. There is a reasonable amount of evidence that goes to prove the idea a Darwinian evolution in the NHL. The Central’s only two births that year: the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators of ’06 were both knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, falling 4-2 and 4-1 in their series’. The only year in which two divisions have broken above the barrier of .100 CD% was 2006-2007, in which 5 of the 8 Western Conference teams descended from divisions that had done so (Central: .104 CD% and Pacific: .121 CD%). Now that we have a feel for where our divisions stand out as far as competition, we can ask exactly how being in a more competitive division affects the teams looking for postseason success. Do teams hailing from a closely battled division race undergo the NHL’s version of natural selection and find their way deeper into the playoffs? Was poor performance by the Southeastern division to blame for Washington’s undeserved and unusually high playoff seed? In the case of natural selection: It was found that an average .594 teams coming from a competitive division (higher than the league average) have made it to the conference finals each year. With this said, statistically, teams coming from tougher divisions are in fact put to the test and therefore able to bare the rigors of the postseason. But what does this mean about the Stanley Cup Finals of 2013, where Chicago and Boston faced off only to prove that the one coming from the least competition was the one to rule over the opposite side of the spectrum? The answer is that it wasn’t the Central division’s lack of talent that gave the Blackhawks a playoff spot. Chicago had already proved to be a contending team for the cup after their historic 24-0-6 streak in the beginning of the season. 62.5 % of Chicago’s games were played against non-divisional conference teams, as they managed to go undefeated in regulation for 80% of those games. Undoubtedly, Chicago is a team that would have dominated its division no matter which one it was placed in. For the Bruins, this acts as another piece of evidence supporting the NHL’s natural selection process. Being two wins away is enough to tell us there’s something different about the tug-of-war in the Northeast, noticeably enough to have nearly produced two-time champion in the last 3 years. In the case of the Capitals: Washington just so happens to be in a situation where it doesn’t exactly matter how close their competition is, since their division as a whole had done so terrible in the past number of years. The 2012-2013 season actually marked an all time low for the Southeast division when they finished with an average win % of .429, the worst of any division in a single season for the past 8 years. The Southeast has also been able to somehow have the worst average win % of any division for 6 of the past 8 years. The division with the worst win % at the end of the season had tended to show poor playoff performances, even if it doesn’t include the Southeastern division:


On the other side of the scope, teams coming from high winning percentage divisions seem to have more success in the playoffs:


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