By: Stephan Teodosescu
Owen Phillips did an analysis at his blog The F5 last month looking at what the NBA schedule has to offer. That inspired me to do the same and pick out interesting trends for the upcoming NHL season schedule, which starts on Tuesday. From an old-is-new again broadcast partnership to fans being back in the arenas at full capacity, there’s plenty new to dive into this season. Let’s get started.
Vegas Point Totals
Not much has changed at the top of the NHL standings since last season’s Stanley Cup Final. Oddsmakers have the Colorado Avalanche as the league’s top team followed by the Vegas Golden Knights and the 2020-21 champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The top-5 teams look very similar to how the regular season standings ended last time out. The Avs (over/under 111.5 points, via BetMGM) were consistently among the best squads last year and return almost all of their production thanks to team-friendly deals signed by their superstars. The team they lost to in the playoffs, the Golden Knights, are tied with Tampa Bay with an over/under of 106.5 points, according to Vegas bookmakers.
The Maple Leafs (105.5 points), Bruins (102.5) and Florida Panthers (101.5) are the other teams expected to reach the 100-point plateau by season’s end.
The NHL’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken — built out of the expansion draft from the other 31 franchises’ unprotected players — are expected to finish in the middle of the pack with 90-plus points. FiveThirtyEight’s new NHL power ratings model also has Seattle as a middle of the road team with a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs in its first season. The bar is set high for expansion teams after the Golden Knights famously went to the finals in their inaugural 2017 campaign and have proven to be a top echelon team in each of their first few seasons. Meanwhile, the Arizona Coyotes have been the poster child for organizational dysfunction in recent past, thus bring up the rear in bookmakers’ preseason points total rankings at 68.5.
Below you can also see how different rankings models are predicting the 2021-22 season:
National TV Appearances
ESPN (i.e. Disney) and Turner stuck a deal to be the NHL’s new TV partners starting this season. Programming on the new home(s) of hockey includes 78 regular season games across ESPN, ABC, and TNT properties in the United States. Additional games will be aired on ESPN+ and Hulu as well. TNT will get 50 of those games across the regular season, the majority of which will be on Wednesday evenings with some Saturday and Sunday time slots, including the Winter Classic. You can watch nearly 1,100 of this season’s 1,312 regular-season games (there are now 32 teams in the league times 82 games for each) live if you have an ESPN+ subscription, according to The Athletic, and in total, 153 games will be nationally televised in the US this season. According to the Sound of Hockey blog that’s the most nationally televised games since the 2015-16 season.
The below chart shows which teams will be on TV most this season and how that compares to their preseason win total projections. Note, you won’t see all teams listed in this graphic because they overlap with others.
Sound of Hockey noted the Kraken have 13 nationally televised games this season while Vegas only had three such games scheduled in their first year. It’s also no surprise Canadian teams that aren’t expected to pack a punch this season like Calgary, Ottawa, and Winnipeg don’t have any nationally televised games scheduled here in the U.S.
Teams who are expected to vie for the Cup, as well as large market teams — irrespective of how good they may be this season — are the ones who have the most nationally scheduled games. Twelve teams will be available to audiences throughout the country 13 different times in 2021-22. That includes most of last year’s playoff teams and primetime stalwarts like the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and LA Kings. The Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres are notable for the relatively high amount of games they will expose national audiences to despite having low expectations of success.
The new broadcast deal feels like an inflection point for the NHL in the U.S. After a decade of partnership with NBC it’ll be interesting to see where ESPN and its affiliates can take the game of hockey in its second most popular country. The landscape around how viewers consume live sports has certainly changed — you now have the option to watch on TV, through streaming services, add-on packages, mobile apps and through an emergence of sports-adjacent content like HBO’s Hard Knocks for the NFL or even ESPN’s own Quest for the Cup, etc. Fortunately ESPN has already brought back its iconic hockey theme music to satisfy the existing fanbase, but if I could ask for one more thing for the new coverage it would be for a return to ESPN’s heyday of having Gary Thorne call the network’s NHL games.
What if we look at each team’s strength of schedule using the over/under point totals? Similar to Phillips’ analysis, the chart we show below indicates the ten game rolling average of each team’s opponent points total projections. Higher values on the plot indicate a team’s opponents should be a tougher stretch of matchups for that team as they are expected to win more games over the course of the season.
Don’t be surprised if teams like the Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers start their seasons with less points versus expectation given the difficulty of their schedules. Florida gets 2020-21 playoff teams in the Penguins, Lightning, Islanders and Avalanche right out of the gate. By the same token look for fast starts from Washington, Edmonton and Montreal as the beginning of those teams’ 2021-22 campaigns are against teams not expected to be in the playoff hunt early on. The Canadiens for example play Buffalo, San Jose (twice), Detroit, Anaheim and Los Angeles within their first 10-game stretch.
Note, we smoothed the chart for readability using a 10-game moving average; you can see the non-smoothed version of it here:
Code for the above plots can be found on my GitHub.