The NHL Preseason Offers Very Little Predictive Power

By Carrington Walsh

October 12th, 2016 marks the beginning of the newest NHL season and, by extension, the end of the preseason. Preseason games rarely fill up arenas, unless they are an exhibition game in Vegas or Marquette, Michigan. But, still, for avid fans, it gives them a taste of what’s to come in a few weeks and a chance to see recently graduated Harvard wingers score their first career NHL goal.

But while the preseason matters for several reasons—shaking off rust and building team chemistry, to name a few—it does not necessarily mean that there is a link between preseason and regular season success. In other sports, especially in the NFL, there has been shown to be no value in preseason success as a predictor of regular season success. Does that hold for the NHL?

To investigate this further, I decided to see if there was a correlation between a team’s goal differential (GD) in the preseason and regular season. Using data from both the pre- and regular seasons from 2006-07 to 2015-16 (excluding 2012-13 because of the lockout), I ran a regression against the two variables. The regression produced the following results:

At first glance, there is a significant positive relationship between GD in the preseason and regular season. However, once one looks deeper, it can be seen that the connection is very weak; only 1.8% of the variance of regular season point differential can be explained by the preseason point differential. And, on average, the effect is very small. For example, Detroit’s incredible preseason in 2015 (+16 GD) would only expect to increase the team’s regular season GD by 13 above the league average.

In essence, the preseason predicts next to nothing of what the regular season will look like. Why? Of course, we can never know for certain but there are several factors that change from preseason to regular season. The primary change is the players. The roster for NHL preseason games typically features players from the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate as the team decides which players to keep on the NHL roster and which to defer to the AHL. Additionally, many of the star players may not play all eight preseason games, and when they do play a game, they may only play for 20 or 30 minutes, rather than the full 60 minutes they will eventually play during the regular season.

Another large change from preseason to regular season is the requirements. During the preseason of the 2015-2016 season, every preseason game was required to end with a 5-minute 3-on-3 sudden death round. This year, while there is no requirement to play some 3-on-3, some teams will opt to play a 3-on-3 and a 4-on-4 round. As this requirement changes from preseason to regular season, the outcome and goal differential is bound to change as well.

Although fans may think preseason games are a great chance to see their team before ticket prices skyrocket during the regular season, there’s good reason to wait until the regular season to see meaningful hockey.

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