There are many things that go into a hockey season, but one of the biggest components is travel. Teams are always looking for ways to minimize the amount of time on planes moving from city to city, and the latest NHL realignment is supposed to minimize the travel... unless you're playing in the Northeast-Florida Division. Be that as it may, no longer will Winnipeg have to make long treks across the globe to play a divisional foe, and both Detroit and Columbus actually get to play road games in a time zone when most of their fans are still awake. In short, it seems good.
But is it really that good? What if there was a way to make it better by further reducing the travel by reshuffling the teams? What if you could reduce travel through math?
Ok, I know I've featured math on this blog before which may have bored a few of you, but hear me out on this one because it could significantly change the way in how the NHL looks. I was reading through Wired.com today when a story about NHL travel patterns appeared as a headline. Entitled Algorithmically Realigning Sports Leagues, the article focuses on the recent realignment plan by the NHL and determines that total league travel miles could be further reduced by better realigning the teams so that they play divisional foes who are located closer than current or proposed divisional opponents.
Under the current league alignment, a team of mathematicians at West Point determined that the NHL's current setup delivers 1,185,123 miles of travel. However, the new alignment starting next season would actually add approximately 30,000 miles of travel to the total amount of travel done by the 30 teams! Teams may play closer rivals, but the opposite of what was promised is being delivered!
Of course, one could call into question the algorithm that is being used, but the mathematics behind the algorithm are actually quite sound. I won't go into the details here, but I will link to the science behind how this algorithm was conceived in order to determine the travel trends. Absolutely worth the read if you want to see how math can flush out the best-case scenario from hundreds of possible solutions.
According to the algorithm, the best scenario for the NHL would be six five-team divisions that were as follows:
- NORTHEAST: Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo.
- ATLANTIC: Boston, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia.
- SOUTHEAST: Washington, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Florida.
- CENTRAL: Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas, Tampa Bay.
- PACIFIC: Colorado, Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles.
- NORTHWEST: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Minnesota.
mere 578-mile increase!
Now you might be saying, "Teebz, who cares? Detroit and Columbus are in the east, and Winnipeg is in the west. This works better for everyone!", and you'd nearly be right. In the NHL's realignment, the NHL admitted that not everyone was happy with the proposal, but the majority ruled the vote. Democracy prevailed.
In the mathematician's best-case scenario, though, nine teams would see increased travel, but the league would see every other team traveling significantly less. In fact, the largest increase in travel would come from the teams in the American midwest as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville, and Minnesota all see increases of nearly 10,000 miles of travel. The other four - Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia, an Columbus - see an increase of less than a 1000 miles combined!
If you want to read the full report that also examines the travel of the other three professional leagues, you can click here for it. It's in PDF format, so it should be readable on the majority of browsers.
The key here is that math and science can play a big role in how the NHL operates. If it can help teams save some money by traveling less, that's a good thing. And better-rested players turn in better performances. Personally, I only see this math as a win-win from any perspective.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!