Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Vezina Trophy: Strength of Opposition

Strength of opposition is a justification that has been used to credit both Luongo and Brodeur. Luongo backers claim that the Western Conference is superior, and that the Northwest Division is the best in the league. Brodeur fans argue that the Eastern Conference is more high scoring, with 14 of the top 20 goalscorers in the league, so it is therefore a tougher place for a goalie to play. Which side is right?

On this issue, the Luongo side is right. I have already dealt in detail with the differences between the Eastern and Western Conferences this year, and the higher scoring per game is a result of a more open game, rather than more talent. At the top end, the teams are just as good at scoring - 6 of the top 10 teams in the league in scoring are from the Western Conference.

That the Western Conference is stronger overall is very clear. The Western Conference teams had a winning record against Eastern Conference teams, and the Stanley Cup Finals were a mismatch in favour of the Western side. The New Jersey Devils were 2-6-2 against Western opponents, while the Canucks went 8-1-1 against the East.

Let's look at overall strength of opponent. I found these statistics on the Canucks.com forum, but even though the source may be biased I have verified that the numbers are correct.

Avg point total, Northwest Div: 94.2
Avg point total, Atlantic Div: 90.8

Avg point total, West Conf playoff teams: 106.5
Avg point total, East Conf playoff teams: 100.8

Sabermetrician Jeff Sagarin from USA Today keeps a detailed ranking of all the divisions, based on game results. According to his calculations, the Northwest Division is the toughest in the NHL. The Atlantic ranks 5th out of the 6 divisions.

Another consideration is that the last time the New Jersey Devils traveled outside of the Eastern time zone was November 27 (Source: ESPN). The Devils never had to battle jet lag, and would have been as rested as their opponents. Playing in Vancouver is a very different story, where a tougher travel schedule makes it more difficult to play well. Better teams and tougher travel, therefore, made Luongo's opposition this year tougher than Brodeur's.