Down Goes Brown: Is NHL’s competitive balance a good thing?

A year later, the coach's challenge remains a hot topic as inconsistency has seemingly plagued the new format and continues to anger coaches. But as far as GMs are concerned, it's here to stay.

Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown) will be contributing to on a regular basis. Follow him @DownGoesBrown

During his appearance at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, Gary Bettman took the opportunity to trot out one of his favorite talking points: praising the league’s competitive balance. The commissioner pointed to tight playoff races and turnover among post-season teams as factors that make the league’s competitive balance, in his words, “so extraordinary“.

This is hardly new ground for Bettman, or for the NHL. Last summer, he banged the drum during an appearance on Prime Time Sports, and the league’s PR department is constantly finding opportunities to reinforce that message. From standings logjams to frequent overtime and shootouts to playoff upsets, it really does feel like we’re living in the age of NHL parity.

Maybe you could nitpick Bettman’s point; this is still a league in which just two teams account for five of the last six championships, and this year’s playoff race is looking like a potential bust. But let’s put that argument aside and accept Bettman’s premise: that the NHL really has become a league where any team can win on any given night, where the race for playoff spots and seeding will always come down to the final weekend, and where nobody can truly know who the best team is until the final horn sounds.

Let’s ask a bigger question: Is that really a good thing?

The NHL clearly thinks so. They treat the question as a truism; of course the audience wants to see more parity. And there’s no doubt that, for many fans, they’re right. But others may look at today’s NHL product and wonder if the league couldn’t do with a little less competitive balance.

Let’s imagine an extreme hypothetical, and pretend that we’ve started up the National Coin-Flipping League. Every night we flip coins, where heads is a home team win and tails means the matchup goes to the visitors. Some teams would have better records than others, but that wouldn’t tell us anything about who’d win on any given night, let alone who’d ultimately emerge as champion.

Now that’s a league that would have some extraordinary competitive balance. It would also be completely unwatchable, because all you’d be seeing was the result of random chance. It would be sheer luck, nothing more, and nobody would be remotely interested.

That’s an extreme (and ridiculous) scenario. But these days, there are nights when the NHL really does feel like it’s treading dangerously close to flipping coins. Low-scoring games played in a tight, defensive-minded style often turn on seemingly random bounces, and those games can determine a series, which could determine a championship. And yes, “luck” is a dirty word to many hockey fans, who’ll insist that good teams get the breaks because they find a way to make their own. But those who’ve tried to analyze the role of luck in pro sports have found that it’s a far bigger factor in the NHL than elsewhere. A look at the NHL’s standings from one year to another starts seeming almost random – a point that’s reinforced elsewhere at Sloan after Bettman spoke.

So again, is that good? It might be. Nobody wants to watch a movie that gives away the ending halfway through. If the results are random, or close to it, at least nobody can complain that they’re predictable.

But let’s compare the NHL to the NFL, which is often held up as the gold standard for parity-driven sports league. It’s certainly true that the NFL has plenty of turnover among the league’s haves and have-nots from season-to-season (although that’s largely due it’s relatively short schedule). It’s worth noting that within any given season we see far bigger gaps between the NFL’s best and worst than we do in the NHL. Last year, there was a gap of eight or nine wins between first and last place in four of the NFL’s eight divisions. That would be the equivalent of a 40 or 45-win gap over a full NHL season. If the NFL is the target, the NHL has already overshot it.

Or let’s look at MLB, a league that’s often offered as the worst-case scenario, one where a few rich teams buy up all the best players and dominate every year. That may have been true years ago, but these days baseball can boast just as much parity as the NFL, if not more.

And then there’s the NBA, a league that truly does appear to have a competitive balance problem, at least this year. The league is currently being dominated by an historically good Golden State Warriors team, one that’s undefeated at home, smashing offensive records, and firmly in the conversation for best team ever. Is that a problem? Do NBA fans seem turned off by seeing a team like the Warriors run all over the league? If so, those record TV ratings would be a funny way to show it.

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have won 49-straight home games. (Ben Margot/AP)
Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have won 49-straight home games. (Ben Margot/AP)

And yes, the NHL is its own league and shouldn’t have to compare itself to the competition. But that’s exactly what Bettman seems so keen to do, bragging that the NHL has “the best competitive balance in all of sports”. And it’s hard to look at those other leagues and wonder if the NHL hasn’t pushed too far down this particular road.

The reality is that sometimes, less parity means more fun. Dynasties are fun. Dominating performances by unstoppable superstars are fun. And the occasional shocking upsets is fun too, as we’ll be reminded over the next few days as March Madness plays out. But when those upsets happen all the time, the results just start to feel random, and we’re back to flipping coins.

That’s not to say that Bettman is wrong, or that you’re wrong if you’re enjoying what the NHL has become. There’s no right answer here, and your ideal level of competitive balance might not match that of the fan sitting next to you.

But let’s stop assuming that everyone’s on the same page, and that more and more parity must always be a good thing. For many fans, it’s no such thing. And it would probably do the commissioner some good to remember that.

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