We’ve been hearing quite a bit of chatter about the NHL’s new policy of having teams have a “bye week” in the midst of their seasons, meaning they get a gift-wrapped and mandated five days off at some point in the schedule.
That “at some point” part of the equation seems to be the reason that many observers–Hockey Insider weighed in on the matter, as did NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk–have been grousing about what the layoff itself, as well as its inequitable distribution, has done to the principles of fair play. The bye is not popular with coaches, it turns out, and it seems to be putting teams at a disadvantage once they finally emerge from their enforced idleness.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that people are jumping to conclusions. ‘Seems,’ after all, is not always what it seems.
What’s been getting a lot of play in the volleys of complaints about the bye week is the now oft cited statistic that “teams are only 3-12-4 this season coming off of their bye.” (That was as of the morning of the 19th; the numbers may have changed after last night’s games.)
That record definitely shows a trend; it’s a significant bit of data. And the coaches’ complaints about the effects of compressing the schedule–those five days away means more games, and less practice time, during the rest of the calendar–are valid gripes that can’t be easily refuted. But is taking a long break during the season really putting teams at a competitive disadvantage?
My gut feeling was, originally, to answer that question with a ‘yes,’ particularly with the support of the above-mentioned statistic. But then I got to thinking. (Thinking, by the way, really helps in situations like this. Or, for that matter, in any situation.) Teams lose individual games; even the best teams drop one once in a while. If you really think there’s a trend where the layoff is doing real damage to a team’s play, you would expect that to play out over a longer stretch following the layoff. Let’s say, for five games after the layoff. (Since they take five days off, that seems like a good number of post-break games to measure.)
So what do we see in teams’ performances after the five games off? It’s tough to get a league-wide picture, because not every team has had its complement of bye days yet, but I was able to scoop up some records from hockey-reference.com for teams coming off their bye weeks:
Maple Leafs 3-2
Note that the first two teams, the Devils and Flames, had (as of yesterday) not played a full five after their breaks, but I included their records in the list in order to flesh out the sample size.
What do you see there? I see a set of fairly typical records for any given five-game stretches within an NHL season. There’s no real trend suggesting that teams coming off the bye week are experiencing any major hangover effects. Yes, they may lose that first game back due to rust, and perhaps that can be considered a “scheduled loss” much like we’ve seen in the NBA for decades. (Generally, in the Association it’s the second game of a tough back-to-back; the most notorious of those being a back-to-back with the second game in Denver.) But there’s little evidence to support the idea that there’s any lasting damage.
Indeed, we see above that the Flyers and Maple Leafs–not exactly world-beating teams at this point–got three wins out of their next five. The Penguins and the Rangers–who are certifiably good teams–slightly under-performed in those stretches, but maybe they would have done so anyway, in any other five-game stretch. The other teams played middling hockey coming out of their bye weeks, except for the Coyotes, who actually are one of those few teams that won the first game back after their break…and then proceeded to drop four in a row. But they’re the Coyotes, a lousy team that one would expect to have multiple four-game losing streaks throughout the season.
A real test for the principle that the bye week is hurting teams over the long haul should be the Blackhawks. They were streaking going into their break, then lost that first game back (against Edmonton). But if they’re experiencing any sort of a hangover, it was not evident during yesterday’s nationally televised game against Buffalo; Chicago pounded the Sabres, who never had a chance against the much better Blackhawks.
If Chicago wilts in their upcoming games against the Wild (no easy task there), the Coyotes, and the Blues, then we might reconsider the point about the negative impact of the bye week over the long haul. But given Chicago’s solid play overall, I expect they’ll probably take two out of those three, at least.
Given all that evidence, it looks from here like the whole potential storm about the troubles with the bye week may well be a tempest in a teapot–or in a toque, if you prefer. The policy may need a tweak, but it hardly seems like a thing worth complaining about.