Searching For An Eastern Bias

24 Jun
Malkin at the NHL Awards Ceremony in 2012 (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Malkin at the NHL Awards Ceremony in 2012 (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Eastern Bias

It has often been suggested that there is an “Eastern Bias” to the NHL Awards and to all things NHL in general. I was thinking about this widely held belief after the NHL Awards were unveiled (with little to no fanfare) and I decided rather unwisely to try and investigate the claim. Is the NHL Awards voting biased to such a degree that the West is getting the short end of the stick? What followed from my curiosity was much more work than I initially thought.

This post is rather long, if you want the short story then scroll right to the bottom and read the summary.

NHL awards are voted on primarily by the Professional Hockey Writers Association or the PHWA as I will refer to them from this point forward. However, some awards are voted on by the league’s General Managers and others are voted on by the National Hockey League Broadcasters Association. It’s truly a hodge podge of voters and rules for voting. That said, the PHWA is responsible for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, Byng, and Masterton Trophies and thus if there are problems with the NHL awards voting they will be largely responsible for correcting them.

The concern about Eastern Bias is very real. The fact is that the voting for the Awards is comprised of a split between Western writers, Eastern writers, and National writers. Although that sounds like it should be a fair split, the reality is that the National writers are based out of the East in centers like Toronto or New York. If the big National publications were based out of Vancouver and LA we would be concerned about a Western Bias. The claim is simple; Eastern based writers do not watch Western based games because the Time Zone difference makes it difficult. Why watch the San Jose/Phoenix game that won’t finish until 12:30AM in Toronto? For the Western scribes it’s much easier to catch the most of the Montreal game before the Oiler game starts. It’s the logistics that make Western based NHL fans leery of trusting an Eastern based writer’s opinions about who the best Rookie was for 2013.

I figured there are two obvious ways for an Eastern Bias to rear its ugly head into NHL Awards voting. First, the total number of points for Eastern players would be disproportionately high. The Eastern writers would vote for who they know best, the Western writers would vote in kind, but the “National” writers would be unfairly biased towards the East. If this is the case then the points totals for Eastern players should be higher than the expected amount. Secondly, beyond point totals there should also be more Eastern players nominated for awards than the expected amount. In this case all players, even cast off vote getters with only a single point are counted the same as someone with over a thousand. The same thought process applies, an Eastern Bias will show disproportionately more Eastern players than Western ones.

East vs West

I quickly realized that the issue of the “Eastern Bias” isn’t necessarily an East vs West kind of problem. It’s an issue of time zones. The NHL plays in a massive geographical area. It’s easy to forget that, but there are four time zones to traverse if one goes from Coast to Coast. It’s necessary to think of the teams not in terms of East and West because that is much too simple. There are four groups and it is not a fair distribution at all. There are 16 teams that play in the Eastern Time Zone, 6 teams in the Central Time Zone, 4 teams in the Mountain Time Zone (more on that in a moment) and 4 teams in the Pacific Time Zone. The NHL’s uneven distribution sees two teams who are situated in the Eastern Time Zone (Columbus and Detroit) play in the West and Winnipeg (a team in the Central Time Zone) play in the East.

I labored a bit when I was gathering the data as to what I would do with Phoenix. That is to say that Phoenix plays in the Mountain Time Zone, however they do not observe Daylight Saving Time. There are only a scant 4ish months that their clocks actually match up with the rest of the Mountain Time Zone. After the 2nd Sunday of March up until the 1st Sunday of November the time in Phoenix is the same as the time in the Pacific Time Zone. For the bulk of the Hockey season the Coyotes play in Mountain Time but at the beginning and end of every season and every post-season they are effectively a Pacific team. They also play in the Pacific Division which means many of their games, especially in the shortened 2013, are played in the Pacific Time Zone anyway. I considered trying to split the points awarded to them based on a percentage of time that they were in Mountain Time compared to Pacific Time, but ultimately I was swayed by Bruce McCurdy of the Cult of Hockey to keep it simple and just classify them as a Mountain team and move on.

Bruce McCurdy

As I started to put together the data for the NHL voting a conversation over twitter with James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail made me realize just how pointless looking at one year really was. I decided to go back 5 years. Even five years isn’t really enough. I would like to go back further, preferably 10 in order to feel comfortable about what I’m really seeing, but as it stands I only have 5 years’ worth of the voting tallied. Getting all of the voting results past 2009 has proven to be difficult. I was unable to find the Lady Byng data for 2009 and decided not to go further back than that point. Reaching any concrete conclusions based on only 5 years of voting patterns would be ill advised but some patterns might reveal themselves nonetheless.

Expectations

 

expectations

 

The above picture is a representation of the “Expected” breakdown of points by Time Zone for 2013. This is based on an “Everything Being Equal” principle that really doesn’t apply strictly to single seasons. The reality is that there may be a truly outstanding performance by an Eastern player and the resultant voting would look extremely skewed compared to this expectation. The best way to use this expectation would be to look at multiple years of voting for all the Awards in general or perhaps for specific awards. To show how skewed things can look when the expectations are compared to a single award for a single year, the following chart is the voting breakdown for the Hart Trophy in 2012.

Hart 2012

 

Bear in mind that this was the year that Evgeni Malkin put up 109 points in 75 games and Steven Stamkos scored 60 goals. In fact the highest scoring Western based player was 9th in the NHL that year. Individual years and awards can be swayed by great individual performances, after all that’s what these Awards are supposed to be about. When something looks off about a voting breakdown I would try to ask myself, “Who would I have voted for that year?” More often than not I would have voted in a way that aligns with the seemingly skewed vote. Sometimes though I’m still left to wonder how voters reached their wacky conclusions (Landeskog over Nugent-Hopkins?).

The NHL is not equal. There is no way to make sure that each conference, division, or team has a balanced distribution of outstanding talent. The reality is that some teams are truly bad for a long time. The Penguins of the early to mid 2000’s were the laughing stock of the NHL. The Oilers since their 2006 Cup run have been bad, and during the Tambellini era they went through a stretch that saw them go 30, 30, 29 in league standings. The past several years have not been kind to the 4 teams in the Mountain time zone. Edmonton was questionably icing an NHL caliber club, Calgary has been inconsequential, Colorado has been going through a significant downturn, and Phoenix is a dead man walking.

The truth is that without the high profile rookies in the Mountain time zone (Yakupov, Schultz, Hall, RNH, Landeskog) the Mountain time zone would barely register at all in major awards voting. To some extent, this is understandable. Bad teams are generally comprised of bad players. Not every division can be the South East, loaded with talented hockey players and really crappy NHL teams. That said, one still has to wonder how in the world the PHWA could conclude that the top 3 most proficient rookies in the NHL for 2013 were Huberdeau, Gallagher, and Saad. It’s actually impossible to make an argument for Jonathan Huberdeau to win the award in which Nail Yakupov wouldn’t be the better choice, and the snubbing that Brodin got was shameful. But that is neither here nor there.

Nominees

As I wrote at the top there are two main ways in which I expected to see an “Eastern Bias” in the Awards data. I am going to start with the total number of nominees from each time zone. As a reminder, I counted ever single nominee equally. It didn’t matter whether or not the nominee had a single vote or a thousand. All that mattered was that someone had voted for them and where they played.

The following is the table with the nomination totals and two charts: The expected breakdown of nominees, and the actual breakdown of nominees from 2011-2013. For this set of data I only went back 3 years.

Nominees

What we see in the tables and charts above is exactly what we should be seeing. Yes, the Pacific time zone is over represented and the Mountain time zone is under-so but the reality is that over that time the Pacific has been better than the Mountain teams. Furthermore, if we were expecting an Eastern Bias then the Pacific teams should be the last teams that get over represented. Keeping in mind the context of the past 3 years and the fact that the sample size is so small I would suggest that the totals represented above are just fine and in no way proof of an Easter Bias.

Points

Just because we can say that an Eastern Bias does not show up in the number of nominees is not to say that no such bias exists, only that by the measure of nominations by time zone, the East is not over-represented at all. Perhaps then the East is not getting more players voted for than they should, but they are still getting more points in those votes than they should.

The following tables are the voting totals from 2009 to 2013 for the NHL Awards. If anyone would like a copy of the whole spreadsheet or want to see the raw data then let me know by contacting me on twitter (@Archaeologuy). Heck if anyone wants to do the leg work for 2008 and earlier that would be great too.

 

points1

Points2

points3

points4

Even a cursory look at the numbers shows that the Mountain time zone has been largely ignored come voting time and the East time zone is killing it. Every year is a little different with only 2011 standing out as being extremely different. The only way to move past the year to year fluctuations in awards voting is to take the totals for all the years and compare it to the expected outcome. If the Eastern Bias exists then it is a persistent condition and the result over time will show itself. These charts will help us determine whether or not an Eastern Bias exists when we use the totals from 2009-2013 and compare them to the expected results over that time.

totals

I assure you that when my curiosity started me down this road, this was not the outcome I expected. Yes, the Mountain time zone took half the total points one should expect but as previously discussed those teams have been objectively bad during that time period. The East, however, is over-represented during that time period by roughly 4%. Is that enough to claim an Eastern Bias? For there to be a clear cut Easten Bias I would expect more than 4% above the norm over 5 years of data.

Still unsure if what I was seeing was real, I decided to look at the totals for only the “Premier” NHL Awards. The Lady Byng and the Selke, GM of the Year, and the Jack Adams were thrown out of the equation. Perhaps the “Eastern Bias” of the PHWA showed up in the big trophies. Here is the chart for just those trophies.

premier

The division of points for these awards appears to be ever so slightly more tipped towards the East by a single percent. Other than that, the Central and Pacific time zones are extremely close to where they should be and the Mountain time zone is actually doing better than with the complete set of awards. By this measure, though, we are now up to 5% over the expected breakdown of points over 5 years.

Despite the 5 year total looking reasonable albeit still tilted to the East, I still had reservations about putting to bed notion of an Eastern Bias. Call me skeptical but I was still unconvinced. 2011 saw a large number of voters cast their ballots for players in the Pacific time zone. That was the year of Perry’s Hart win and the Pacific division was the Belle of the Ball, as they say. 2011 stands out as the oddball year out of the last 5 seasons. If we look at the totals for the last 5 years minus the extremely weird 2011 season then this is what we get.

no 2011

What we see is indeed that the voting was heavily weighted towards the East in 4 of the last 5 seasons. The East is now over the expected number of votes by 8%! The Central is about spot on, Mountain is still half of the expectations, and the Pacific has fallen by almost a third after only taking out a single year. But what does that mean? In 4 of the last 5 seasons the NHL awards voting has been very heavily weighted to the East. That said, I only have data for the last 5 years and that is a very small sample size. Despite the small sample size the visible trend seems suggest that this is a situation that the PHWA needs to look into. The only concrete conclusion here should be that we need more evidence. (For anyone interested in looking this up I suggest going to the Puck Daddy blog at Yahoo sports. Their series of “How X won the X award” articles publishes the list of votes. Start there then scour the internet for the rest.)

More Evidence Needed

The issue of there being a lack of evidence for us to determine the existence of an Eastern Bias isn’t necessarily an issue of nobody publishing all the results for every year. The data as it is presented to us now lacks a key piece of information. The PHWA keeps the voting anonymous. We have no way of knowing who voted for whom unless the writers publish their votes themselves. Some are very open about who they vote for, some are tight lipped. I imagine whoever voted Nazem Kadri for the Selke (it happened!) in 2013 will keep quiet about their insane vote.

Without full disclosure of the votes we are left to assume a great many things. For all we know the National voters of the PHWA are not the problem at all. The extra votes for Eastern players may simply be a legitimate reflection of outstanding talent in the NHL. Truthfully, we are only guessing that the extra 8% of expected Eastern time zone votes in 4 of the past 5 seasons is the fault of the Eastern based National voters.

In fact, we know very little about the make-up of the voters. The PHWA claims that of it tries to spread the votes out as much as possible, but since it does not name its voters and publish their choices we are left with only their word that the process is balanced and fair. Here are a set of tweets from the PHWA about the matter.

PHWA

As one can see from the tweets there are 285 members of the PHWA but not all members are given ballots. At this time I have not discovered how one becomes a voting member of the PHWA. It could be a time requirement, or, since we are in fact talking about a group of writers, the requirement to become a voting member may be tied to how many articles one has written. Truth be told, for all I know you may have to answer a skill testing question like the old McDonalds prizes (Sorry kid, you forgot to account for the brackets and now you don’t get a free cheeseburger).

Although the above tweet lists 178 members cast votes in the 2013 award process, the actual voting results clearly tally 179 votes. I used the same method for every year to determine how many PHWA voters there were. I simply tallied all the 1st place votes for the Hart trophy in every year (Thank you James Mirtle, the answer was right in front of my face). The number of voters looks like this:

number of voters

What we can see is that the voting pool for the PHWA is dynamic. Since 2009 the number of voters has gone down and skyrocketed back up. In fact there are 50+ more voters in 2013 than there were in 2011. Where are these 50 extra voters located? Are they evenly divided between all East and West? If so are they evenly divided between the 30 NHL markets? Is the lack of representation from the Mountain time zone in the voting a representation of the voters or of the individual performances of the players? We cannot be certain until we agree the process is fair.

There are simply too many questions remaining because we are not privy to the answers.

For a group of journalists the PHWA is rather cool to the concept of providing information and accountability about the process of Awards voting. One would think accountability and providing information would be vital to the journalistic profession. Certainly there will be backlash (and rightfully so) when the public can read the names of the writers who made crazy voting decisions. Perhaps it’s this that the PHWA is trying to avoid. Nobody wants to out their peers as “Homers” or, worse, complete idiots. Certainly the PHWA does not want to “shame” its membership into voting a certain way.

Making The Process Better

In order for the public to accept the awards as valid we must first trust the PHWA and the process. Neither can happen unless more information is disclosed. The PHWA must embrace an era of openness about the process, and it does not have to be painful.

The PHWA has to clear about what criteria must be met for a member to earn a vote. Why is it that in 2011 only 126 could vote but a scant 2 years later it’s 179? There must be some criteria which makes these people qualified to cast a vote. We should know it.

The PHWA must name the voters. Without knowing who these members are and from where they are located we cannot rule out territorial bias. It is simply unacceptable, especially given the fact that one region is persistently over-represented, that we do not know the origins of individual votes. Only by publishing the actual votes will this process regain trust.

The PHWA must ensure an even distribution of voters in the 30 NHL cities and “National” writers must be monitored very closely. It is not enough to have an even distribution between East and West. The NHL is not evenly distributed between the East and West and those terms are too vague. Technically speaking the PHWA could have 50 voters on the East coast and 50 voters in Detroit and be evenly distributed between the East and West conferences.

The only way to be sure the PHWA is evenly distributing the votes between qualified members is to name them. That is it. There is no way around it.

Here is my suggestion, and it accomplishes everything that needs to happen for the public to be confident in the NHL awards process.

1) Modernize the method of voting. Currently the voting is done by email and from there someone tallies the votes. The voting is often done in advance of the end of the regular season, presumably because it takes some time to tally the votes (maybe out of laziness). This is 2013, there is no reason why the NHL cannot have a more up to date means of voting. Changing the process to an online form that can provide instant results will allow the voters to finish the season before making their vote and the PHWA will know the results immediately

2) After the 1st round of voting narrow the list to the top 10 and vote a 2nd time. The 1st vote works exactly the same as in the current system. Any name a scribe wants to enter can be entered. Vote Kadri for Selke to your heart’s content. After that vote the modern voting system should able to calculate the top 10 for each category before the first old-school voter could begin his/her hand-wringing. At that time a 2nd vote will take place with only the top 10 as possible candidates.

3) Publish the results for both votes but only include the names of the voters for the 2nd vote. The public gets their openness, the PHWA is saved the embarrassment of outing their own as fools, and no more votes are wasted on fringe players who are near and dear to the heart of some local beat-writer.

Summary

The NHL awards voting has been heavily skewed towards the Eastern time zone in 4 of the last 5 years. Though 5 years of data is not enough to confirm without a shadow of a doubt that an Eastern Bias exists, it is strongly implied. Given this reality the PHWA, who is responsible for the majority of the NHL awards, must make changes to become more forthright about the process, and ultimately should begin by publishing the names of the voters. There are too many questions about the legitimacy of the voters based solely on their make-up and it can be rather easily avoided in the modern era.

There is a strong indication in the point totals of the NHL awards voting that there exists an Eastern Bias. This may be complete rubbish and all the votes are legitimate representations of the outstanding performances of players who happen to be based in the Eastern time zone. That scenario seems unlikely from the perspective of this skeptic but the only way to prove wrong is to publish the complete set of information about the voters. Their names, who they voted for, and most importantly where they are based out of.

The NHL awards are a running joke, a sideshow that this year didn’t even warrant a ceremony. We don’t know who the voters are, we don’t know if they are evenly distributed, we don’t know enough to believe that they are even qualified to vote on the subject. This all has to change if we are ever going to trust in the validity of these awards.

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