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How Does The Olympic Hockey Break Affect The Remainder Of The NHL Season?


“We were on a break!” ~Ross Geller

Some of us take a break from work to recharge our batteries. Some of us take a break to rest, head on a vacation or escape from the daily grind. Yet some of us use that break to try something new. Or better ourselves. Or reach for dreams that would normally be unachievable.

Since 1998, the NHL has taken a break every fourth February. Certain players reconnect with their families. Others kick back on a warm beach. And some chase their dreams by representing their country in the Olympics.

So much analysis is done on who is selected for the Olympics or which country will win the gold medal that the impact the tournament has on the remainder of the NHL season is overlooked. Does taking three-weeks off midseason affect the path teams were on before the Olympic break? That many more players are playing that many more games. Are we likely to see more upsets in the playoffs? And does the number of Olympians from each NHL team affect their team’s performance come the Stanley Cup playoffs?

REGULAR SEASON VARIABILITY

They say momentum is a powerful component of sports. Teams reeling will anxiously await the sound of the horn signaling the end of a period. Boxers dread the bell when their opponent is on the ropes. But what happens to NHL teams when they come back from an Olympic break? Do they pick up where they left off? Or does returning to the ice signal the start of a new season where results are less correlated with records to date?

The best way to analyze these questions is through variability. I looked at the changes in every NHL team’s winning percentage between the Olympic break and the end of the NHL regular season since the 1998 Nagano Olympics. In order to compare Olympic and non-Olympic years, I determined a fictional break point in a non-Olympic NHL season. Since 1998, NHL teams stop for their Olympic break after 59 games on average; therefore, this is where I would evaluate winning percentage from. Further, note that I have excluded the lockout shortened 2012-13 season in my analysis.

The chart below examines the standard deviation of the change in winning percentage between the Olympic break and the end of the NHL regular season. Standard deviation represents how far a result is from the average. For this analysis, a high standard deviation indicates that NHL teams would have more variability after their 59th game. In other words, early season performance is less indicative of late season performance.

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I would have thought that a lengthy midseason break would have resulted in more variability; however, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Based on the chart above, Olympic seasons (in red) have far less variability compared to all other years. The average standard deviation of an Olympic year is 0.30 compared to 0.34 for a non-Olympic year. In fact, three of the four least variable seasons happen during Olympic years (1998 Nagano, 2002 Salt Lake City and 2010 Vancouver). Even the 2006 Torino games were below median.

Another way to look at the variability is through a standard normal distribution. The graph below charts how the change in an NHL team’s winning percentage between the Olympic break and the end of the season typically differs from average. The high point of the curve represents the average change in winning percentage which, in both Olympic and non-Olympic years, is minutely higher than zero.

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The red line representing Olympic years is higher and more narrow which indicates that more results are closer to the average and thus there is less variability. The blue line representing all other years is not as tall and has longer tails which indicates that results were more likely to be further from the mean.

This statistical analysis shows that final 2013-14 regular season results are less likely to deviate from the standings at the Olympic break. This is welcome news for teams like the Minnesota Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs that currently find themselves in one of the Wild Card positions, but not so much for the Carolina Hurricanes or Vancouver Canucks who find themselves on the outside looking in.

POSTSEASON VARIABILITY

Staying on the same theme of variability, does the Olympic break help or hinder an NHL’s team chance of making a late season push for the playoffs? Since the 1997-98 season (excluding 2012-13), NHL teams have an average winning percentage of .540 at the Olympic break (or 59-game mark for non-Olympic years). The average winning percentage is above .500 due to the one-point awarded for ties or overtime losses during that period of time.

The chart below shows the probability of NHL teams making the second season from below the .540 mark at the Olympic break.

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In this instance, you can see that there is more variability in Olympic years. Sub-par teams in Olympic seasons have had better success reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs than teams with sub-.540 winning percentages after 59 games in all other years. So maybe a team like Washington and their .534 winning percentage at the 2014 Olympic break still has a chance. But what about teams at .540 or above? Are they more likely to miss the playoffs?

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When examining above average teams, Olympic years do not prove to be more variable than all other years.  No tumble was worse than when the Canucks stumbled to a 9-11-3 record following the 2006 Torino games and failed to make the playoffs. Who should be concerned this year? Teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning would be happy to know that no NHL team has ever failed to make the playoffs in an Olympic year with better than a .602 winning percentage at the Olympic break.

What about once the playoffs begin? Has there been a discernible difference in variability from expected results? To measure this, I evaluated how far the 5-8 seeds (i.e., the underdogs) make it into the playoffs.

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Not only have I shown that below average teams have better shots of making the playoffs in Olympic years, but the chart above also indicates that there are more first-round upsets and series won by the underdog in Olympic years than in all other years. In fact, after the 2006 Torino Olympics, every underdog in the Western Conference won their first round series with the 8-seed Edmonton Oilers eventually representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. In the ten non-Olympic years since the 1998 Nagano games (excluding 2012-13), only the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings raised a Stanley Cup banner as a first round underdog and only four other teams even made it to the Cup final as a 5-8 seed.

HOW MANY PLAYERS SHOULD YOU SEND TO THE OLYMPICS?

The question of whether the NHL should interrupt their season to send players to the Olympics is up for others to debate. But, is there a point where sending too many players will negatively affect a team’s performance? An argument can be made. Would you rather have your players enjoy some family time? Or the beach? Or both? Or would you rather they stay fresh and focused participating against the best of the best on the world’s stage?

The chart below displays proof that Olympians arrive back to the NHL fatigued following the Olympics. NHL teams with fewer than seven Olympians see average increases in winning percentage between the Olympic break and the end of the regular season. This result grades downward as NHL teams increase the number of Olympians representing their country. For example, the average winning percentage between the Olympic break and the end of the regular season is four times higher if a team sends fewer than three Olympians compared to teams that send between three and four.

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The success of teams with less than three Olympians is sufficient for regular season action; however, the story changes when it comes time for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Do teams with fewer Olympians have more success in the playoffs too? The graph below shows the average number of playoff series won by NHL teams based on the number of Olympians.

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At the bottom end, only one team (the 2001-02 Montreal Canadiens) have won a playoff series with less than three Olympians at the time of the break. In fact, Montreal wasn’t represented in Salt Lake City at all. The Canadiens are one of only three teams since 1998 to not have a single Olympic participant (others include the 2001-02 Blue Jackets and the 2005-06 Blackhawks).

Surprisingly, there is little difference between the playoff success of NHL teams with three to four Olympians to those with seven or more. Teams that fall in both of these categories have historically won nearly three of every four playoff series in Olympic years since 1998.

The following table further summarizes the NHL data from Olympic years based on the number of players each NHL team sends to the Olympics. For example, there are 18 teams since 1998 that have sent between 0-2 players. As you would expect, teams with fewer Olympians have a lower winning percentage than teams who send more guys. But what about ultimate success in the playoffs?

Breakdown of NHL Team Statistics by Number of Olympians
Olympic Years Since 1998

Number of Olympians
per NHL Team

 Number of
NHL Teams

Average
Season-End Winning %

Playoff Rounds Won

Stanley Cup Finals Appearances

Stanley Cup
Champions

0-2

18

0.457

1

0

0

3-4

38

0.512

26

5

2

5-6

38

0.564

17

2

1

7+

22

0.600

16

1

1


Teams that have sent seven or more players to the Olympics tend to be Cup favorites loaded with superstars, but only the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup, let alone make it to the Finals. The historical data actually shows that you are more likely to reach the Stanley Cup Finals if you send 3-4 players to the Olympics. This is a sure sign that fatigue creeps in when even elite players are faced with the emotion of the Olympics and the grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

WHAT ABOUT THE REMAINDER OF THE 2013-14 SEASON?

Can anything be learned from the historical data? In order to analyze expectations for the remainder of the 2013-14 season, it is worthwhile to recap where NHL teams sat going into the Olympic break. The table below summarizes the points, winning percentage and number of Olympians for each NHL team at the break.

2013-14 NHL Teams by Winning Percentage at Olympic Break

Team

Points at Olympic Break

 Winning % at
Olympic Break

Number of Olympians

St. Louis Blues

84

0.737

9

Anaheim Ducks

87

0.725

7

Pittsburgh Penguins

83

0.716

7

Chicago Blackhawks

84

0.700

10

Boston Bruins

78

0.684

5

Colorado Avalanche

79

0.681

4

San Jose Sharks

80

0.678

4

Tampa Bay Lightning

71

0.612

5

Montreal Canadiens

70

0.593

7

Minnesota Wild

69

0.585

4

Toronto Maple Leafs

70

0.583

3

Los Angeles Kings

68

0.576

6

New York Rangers

67

0.568

7

Philadelphia Flyers

66

0.559

5

Dallas Stars

64

0.552

3

Detroit Red Wings

64

0.552

9

Phoenix Coyotes

64

0.552

5

Columbus Blue Jackets

63

0.543

4

Carolina Hurricanes

61

0.535

4

Ottawa Senators

63

0.534

2

Washington Capitals

63

0.534

5

Vancouver Canucks

63

0.525

7

New Jersey Devils

61

0.517

4

Winnipeg Jets

62

0.517

4

Nashville Predators

60

0.508

3

Calgary Flames

51

0.440

2

Florida Panthers

51

0.440

2

New York Islanders

52

0.433

3

Edmonton Oilers

47

0.392

3

Buffalo Sabres

38

0.333

4


Based on my analysis, Olympic years prove to have very little variability in results between the Olympic break and the end of the regular season. That being said, slightly over 20% of teams below .540 will improve enough to make the playoffs and just over 10% of teams at or above .540 will falter to the point they are golfing in April. In addition, the likelihood of variability increases positively when teams have fewer than three Olympians or negatively when teams have seven or more. Consequently, a team like the Ottawa Senators is more likely to make the playoffs (but not necessarily win the Cup) and teams like the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings are likely to drop from contention.

Other common factors in Olympic years include a higher likelihood of 5-8 seeds advancing and teams with three to four Olympians having more success than teams with five to six. These are all ways to skinny the list above when eventually landing on your Stanley Cup favorite. Could this prove to be detrimental to Boston or Tampa Bay? Or will this be the year that Columbus or Dallas make a springtime run at the Cup?

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

 



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