The Capitals are More Dominant Than the Warriors

Posted: 03/01/2016 by levcohen in Hockey
Tags: ,

It’s well-documented that the Golden State Warriors are really, really good. You don’t need me to tell you this. Their super exciting, nationally televised win in Oklahoma City was certainly a testament to Stephen Curry and the brilliance of the now-53-5 team. And their path to 73 wins is certainly one to follow, especially considering the fact that this might be the most watchable team ever. So yeah, the Warriors deserve all of the many accolades they’ve been given. No argument there. You know who should be getting even more attention, though? The Washington Capitals. Now, if you’re even a moderate hockey fan you probably know that the Caps have been great this year. But if you aren’t, you probably haven’t heard about Washington, and even if you are, you probably don’t know just how great they’ve been. Here’s why the Capitals should be just as big of a story as the Warriors, who have basically become a cultural phenomenon.

First, let’s look at this in the traditional way. The Capitals are 45-12-4, good for 94 points, 11 more than any other team. They’ve lost two of their last three games and have won only three games by more than a goal this month, so I guess you can say they’re on a bit of a cold streak. This is a team, though, that has been consistently great all season. They haven’t lost more than four games in any month this season, in regulation or otherwise. The Caps don’t have a standout skater stats-wise like Patrick Kane (I should probably do a post on Mr. Kane himself); Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the team with “just” 64 points, fifth in the NHL, while superstar Alexander Ovechkin leads the league with 40 goals but has only 18 assists. But while Ovi and Kuznetsov are undeniably great, this team is led more by its overall depth than by its studs. A full nine Capitals have at least 30 points while six have scored at least 17 goals. Their top three lines are incredible, as is their defense. And goalie Braden Holtby is 39-7-3, putting him on pace to shatter the single-season record for goalie wins (48 by Martin Brodeur). Right about now, you’re probably thinking, “well, duh.” The Capitals have a good team because they have a lot of good players. Sure, their goal differential (+60) looks pretty good, especially since it’s more than twice as good as any other team’s. But how can you compare a team that’s already lost 16 games to the incredible Warriors, who have lost just five despite playing two more games?

Well, here’s where the differences between the NHL and the NBA come in. The leagues, of course, have totally different ways of counting up wins and losses. In the NBA, victories and defeats count as just that in the standings. But in the NHL, a team is awarded two points for every win and zero for a regulation loss. Importantly, while the NHL no longer has ties, hockey does gives a point to an overtime or shootout loser. Why does that matter? Well, it bunches teams up more. Because of the point system and the OT/SO loss point, teams are much more crowded around the mean. Throw that factor in along with the fact that there is generally much more parity in the NHL anyway thanks to the differences in the sports (the NBA is far more star-dependent since any given player can play for the vast majority of a game, while in the NHL even the best players struggle to play even half of a game), and you can see that comparing Golden State’s five defeats to Washington’s 16 is comparing apples to oranges. If only there were a way to compare each team’s dominance to their own leagues before comparing them to each other… Enter standard deviation, a mathematical way to compare a number to a mean and see just how exceptional that number is. You don’t need to know exactly what a standard deviation is to see the point I’m trying to make; just know that it’s the best way to compare an outlier to the masses in a number set.

I calculated standard deviations for the NBA by winning percentage and point differential and for the NHL by points per game and goal differential per game, and here are the results:

Warriors Capitals
Winning % / PPG .914 1.54
Standard Deviations From Mean – Winning % / PPG 2.39 2.58
Point/Goal Differential +11.3 +.95
Standard Dev From mean – Point/Goal Differential 2.13 2.55

Just to give you a sense of how dominant all of these standard deviation numbers are, a Std Dev of 2.4 is in the 99.18th percentile, while a Std Dev of 2.6 is in the 99.53rd percentile. These teams are both awesome. But, dare I say it, the Capitals are clearly more awesome. And you don’t even need this fancy math to see it. The Warriors don’t even have the best point differential in the NBA; that honor belongs to the Spurs, who are at +12.6. Meanwhile, the Capitals’ +.95 goal differential per game destroys the rest of the league, with #2 Chicago toiling (relatively) at +.41.

Now, there’s still the argument that the Warriors are on track to break a major record while the Capitals aren’t. I can’t contend with that, because the Caps clearly won’t break the points record. The 1976-77 Canadiens scored 132 points in just 80 games, a mark that seems out of reach even though Washington has two extra games to get there. To be fair, though, that Canadiens team was known as a “Super Team” and is widely regarded as easily the best team in NHL history. And guess what? Because the talent gap was so much wider those days, Montreal’s standard deviation was “just” 2.2, significantly lower than Washington’s this year. So while the Capitals won’t break the points record, their place in history when compared to other teams this season will be secure. Ok, looking back on that sentence, it’s a bit of a hard sell. I get it. But the Capitals should really get a lot more credit for the sensational season they are having, especially when you consider how much more difficult it is to have a standout season in hockey than it is in basketball.

… Sure enough, as I prepare to hit publish, the Caps are down 2-1 at home against the Penguins. Them’s the breaks.

  1. charlie says:

    Very interesting article. Just eyeballing the standings in the NBA and NHL, it makes sense. There are a handful of teams in the NBA with really bad and really good records. The Spurs are on pace to win about 68 games and the Sixers might lose that many. In hockey, very high or low winning percentages are bit lower, right? Even more so in baseball. The Mariners matched the single season win total record in 2001 with 116 wins, which was about 2.7 standard deviation units above the mean. Their winning percentage was .716.

    That Montreal team must have been incredible. You should do a post on the inability of Canadian teams to win the Stanley Cup in recent years. It looks to me like no Canadian team is going to make the playoffs this year.

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