During the American Hockey League off season, it was announced that the Eastern and Western Conferences would look slightly different at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season. Indeed, the league was attempting to micro manage each conference by creating three separate divisions there within. This created a a scenario where the post season would see the three divisional leaders nabbing the one through three spots in the playoffs as well as the next five with the best record from each conference. But more than anything, it was an attempt to keep the divisional rivals close geographically (in most cases), and hopefully the games within those divisions potent.
Oklahoma City found itself in good company in the West Division of the Western Conference. Oklahoma City, Texas, Houston, San Antonio, and the odd-man Abbotsford would make up this new division that on paper would be a tough place to play. The two other divisions were in the Midwest (Charlotte, Chicago, Milwaukee, Peoria, Rockford) and the North (Toronto, Rochester, Hamilton, Grand Rapids, Lake Erie). So the goal is simple for each team with a schedule that favors "in division" play - win against your most common opponents, and you'll win your division.
The Barons too have made this an important mantra. Coach Nelson has never shied away from his desire to win, but it's clear that his focus is on winning in the West. However, there does seem to be a trend with this team that is slightly disconcerting. Simply put, outside of the West Division the Barons take one on the chin in the wins department. Call it coincidence, style of game, or simply a lack of knowledge about rarely seen opponents, but anyway you slice it, Oklahoma City struggles in non-divisional play.
Here are some interesting stats to chew on.
Through 37 games the Barons have faced West Division opponents 18 times, Midwest Division 9 and North Division 10. Through roughly half of the season we are seeing a near perfect 50/50 split in divisional play versus non divisional play. For the sake of this post, that's beautiful. So let's dive a little deeper.
The winning percentage within each division is quite interesting. For the sake of this argument, I've simply lodged losses, overtime losses, and shootout losses into one pile simply called losses. Since I'm not necessarily tracking standing points, but rather outright wins versus outright losses, this seemed pertinent. Overall the team has a winning percentage of 62%. This number is quite good over the first three months of play, and is certainly the best in the league. Within the Barons own West Division their win percentage is 72%, an incredible increase when compared to the overall percentage. In the Midwest and North we see a completely different story. The Midwest sees the percentage dip to 56% and again it dips even more in the North at a perfect 50% split.
The goals being scored by the Barons in each division also seem comparable to what we see above with one minor wrinkle. Almost half (48% to be exact), of the goals scored this season have come against West Division opponents, 28% in the Midwest, and 23% in the North. As you can see fewer goals are being scored in the North than the Midwest which is a flip flop compared to the winning percentages.Indeed more goals are being scored outside of the division, but given the nearly 50/50 split in games played in and out, that number is respectable.
Goals allowed is interesting to look at as well. Of the 85 goals allowed by the Barons goaltenders, 46% are in the West, 22% in the Midwest, and 32% in the North. Combined, outside the division totals are at 54%.
There are other simple stats we could look at like penalties suffered, penalties drawn, goaltending percentages, days between games, length of travel, etc, but common sense is telling my eyes (as weary as they are this morning) that winning in the West is great, but losing in the Midwest and North is not.
I partially blame scheduling and technology for some of this. The schedule is built around the concept of keeping teams closer to their in-divisional opponents. Indeed this cuts down on travel, except when your Abbotsford. But for Oklahoma City, the familiarity is evident. How else could you explain a 0-7 smoking that Texas put on Oklahoma City followed by a rematch a week later that had Oklahoma City putting a higher hurting on Texas at 10-0? Simply put, the teams might be too familiar with each other. And then there is the less glamorous side of scheduling. Travelling outside of your division means one of two things. A) a long bus trip, or B) a long non-chartered flight. And this is where I sympathize with the American League's decision to keep teams close to home. Travelling is difficult on the body especially from time zone to time zone. Imagine having to board a plane at 3am, arriving at 11am, playing at 7pm, then doing it again in 24 hours. It's tough on the road in the minors. I also blame technology. For a development league, the lack of video replay or any sound, and of good quality video is rather odious. Coaches have little ability to "scout" opposing teams prior to arrival. This old school way of "scouting" can be difficult when preparing for your next road trip to Toronto or other various northern markets.
And while Coach Nelson continues to push towards winning in the West, the truth is, and even he realizes it, that this team needs to continue to focus on those unfamiliar foes. Ironically, not a single game in the West for the Barons has been ended in a losing effort in extra frames or a shootout. This team, in this system knows how to finish strong. Outside of the West familiarity things go deep into the third and are prone to close calls.
You make be asking, "Who cares Neal?", and graciously I kind of agree. However, as the season grinds on the Barons find themselves with large chunks of non-divisional play. And within the new post season scenarios, the Barons might face Midwest and North opponents quickly. So, yes, win the West, but watch out for all the rest.