The Cost of Bye Weeks

The introduction of bye-weeks to the NHL schedule has drawn a lot of criticism from just about everyone, everywhere. The theory is straightforward enough; NHL teams play a lot of games in a short period of time, so adding a week off part way through give players a break, and a chance to recuperate.  In practice though, the season isn’t then a week longer, so teams play more games over a shorter window as the schedule has to be condensed to fit into the existing time constraints.

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Auston Matthews can spend a week chilling and still melt the ice, but lesser humans aren’t going to be as sharp after a week off. Fans don’t like it, nor do coaches and GMs. Even NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman admitted that the bye week idea “didn’t work”, and if Bettman says it, than he’s either more perceptive than we first thought, or one of the GMs is blackmailing him.

Much has been made about teams’ diminished performances when returning from bye weeks, but what does this actually look like? Based on their first game back from their bye, NHL teams went 11/15/4. That’s a .366 win percentage. That seems low. It’s worth considering that Vancouver and San Jose played each-other on their  return from their bye week. Based on how teams perform at the same date in the calendar as their post bye-week game over the prior two seasons, the picture looks like this:

Compared to last season, wins are down. Regulation losses are the same and overtime and shootout (OT/SO) losses are up. If you look at the season before, just 10 teams won their equivalent games, and more lost in OT/SO. Of particular interest is the Atlantic Division, last season the eight teams went 1/7/0. The Metropolitan was unsurprisingly the best over the last two seasons. The Columbus Blue Jackets were clearly not affected as they won their first game back 7-0,

If we convert the above numbers to win percentage, 2014/15 came in lowest at .333 while 2015/16 was highest with .466. As mentioned above, this season was middling with .366.

These numbers show us that the bye-week had a negative effect on teams compared to the same time last year, but not the year before. But that’s just based on one game each, so the sample size isn’t big enough to provide any earth-shattering revelations. What we can also look at is what effect the bye-week had on teams over a number of games. Teams were mostly given five days off, and teams usually play three games a week so I’ve picked this as the number of games to compare against. For this season we’re using the first three games played after each team’s bye-week ended, and the same number of games played on the equivalent days last season. This gives us the best possible comparison although it’s not perfect as a three game run can take longer for some teams than others depending on scheduling conflicts. It also doesn’t take into account the quality of the opposition. This is based on points scored over the three games:

Over three games each 43% of teams finished with more points than in the equivalent games the season prior. 10% of teams (Anaheim, Minnesota & the Islanders) stayed the same. 47% scored fewer points. Mike Babcock has been a vocal critic of the bye-week for many valid reasons, but the Toronto Maple Leafs were the biggest winner. They scored six points after the bye, and zero in the same window the season before. The St. Louis Blues took no points from their first three games back, but took four the same time last year.

What we can’t tell right now is the effect that a condensed schedule will have on players. With more games being played over a shorter period of time, there’s a real concern that we’ll see more players being injured. Once the season is over, we can compare injury stats against those from previous seasons. Although if they look anything like the numbers above then they may be inconclusive.

What do the fans think? Has the bye-week idea gone down well with those who really matter? Is this something you want to see continue?

Well that’s pretty conclusive, but what’s the alternative? Extending the season is one option, even by a week or two at the start to take the pressure off the schedule. This seems to be the easiest option. 82 games is a lot to play over a five months, and factoring in all the travelling involved for road games, it’s understandable why the NHL wanted to break that up a little. If bye-weeks stay, another option is stagger them in line with the divisions, by arranging the schedule so that every team in each division has the same five days off, followed by a divisional game, then neither team has the perceived advantage. Until each division has an even number of teams, this is tricky to schedule, but not impossible.

Some fans like the idea of a bye-week, and the players sure love an extra week off, but until the GMs and coaches can be brought on board, or if big changes are made, expect it to disappear.

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