There’s an old saying in sports that goes something like “you can only play what’s in front of you.” The idea is that a team has no control over the level of competition on their schedule. Their job is to simply go out and handle that competition night in and night out.
The Golden Knights have been doing just that. 30 games into the season, Vegas leads their division and stands in 2nd place in the entire NHL in points percentage. They have an impressive +33 goal differential, winning streaks of four, five, and six games, and haven’t lost more than two games in a row all year.
It’s all great and would be easy to proclaim the Golden Knights among the clear-cut Stanley Cup favorites this season, but here’s the problem.
This year, due to the unbalanced shortened schedule, it does matter who you are playing.
Because each team is strictly playing teams inside of their division, strength of schedule absolutely matters when discussing the overall ranking of teams.
The West is the only division in the NHL to contain three teams (SJS, LAK, ANA) that missed the 24-team playoff last season. The East has two (BUF, NJD), while the North (OTT) and Central (DET) each have one.
All seven of those teams currently sit on the outside of the playoff picture and one of the seven represents a team in dead last in each of the four respective divisions. Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit, New Jersey, Anaheim, and San Jose are all unquestionably terrible NHL teams. Maybe you can make the case the Kings have taken a small step in the right direction, but even that could be considered a stretch.
Thus, playing in the West offers a massive advantage to the five teams that did reach the playoffs last season. On each of their schedules, they play 24 games, or 43% of the schedule, against non-playoff teams. Compare that to teams in the East who get just 16 or those in the North and Central that get eight or nine.
In determining the best team in each division, the schedule is balanced and thus fair, but when trying to figure out how teams across divisions stack up, records and stats from the West must be taken with a grain of salt, similarly to how we do with college sports. When collegiate sports are judged in determining bowl games or the NCAA tournament, conference, and competition, matter. An undefeated team in a conference with weak competition is often considered much worse than a team with many losses in a challenging conference. This year, the West Division is the NHL’s equivalent of college football’s Big East or basketball’s Mountain West.
I went through all 31 teams to show how many points each have racked up against the seven non-playoff teams from last year, plus how many games are left on the schedule to score even more easy points in the back half of the season.