NCAA Hockey Possession


I’ve seen some debate over which is the best NCAA hockey conference this year. It’s a fun debate to have, however meaningless. The obvious way to make this determination is to look at inter-conference records. That chart is available here, and based on that metric, the six D-1 conferences are ranked as such:

  1. NCHC, .660 win percentage
  2. ECAC, .583
  3. WCHA, .558
  4. Hockey East, .500
  5. Big Ten, .438
  6. Atlantic Hockey, .256

Based on win percentage, the NCHC is the best conference. Its teams are winning 2 non-conference games for every one it loses. It’s not really close. Meanwhile the Big Ten seems to be doing a lot of choking (good job Wisconsin!).

Measuring who’s winning games is a fair enough way to compare leagues. But it doesn’t really measure the competitiveness of the league (that is, how hard of a conference it is in which to compete). Record comparison in non-conference games relies on goals scored, which has a huge component of luck.

I have a better idea. Let’s compare conferences by possession percentage – that is, by the percentage of the total shots they take vs. the other team. This is an established proxy for how much clock time said team is controlling the puck. Looking at this metric will tell us which teams/conference is most dominant and most controlling of the puck vs. other teams/conferences. And when you control the puck more, you shoot more, and you score more. The leagues with the highest possession numbers against other leagues are going to be the leagues with the most dominant teams in terms of gameplay, and thus the toughest leagues in which to play.

I grabbed a NCAA game data through Nov. 25, 2014. Looking at non-conference games only, I tallied up the number of shots each league has taken against each other league:

Inter-league shots by conference

Team shots vs. AH vs. B1G vs. ECAC vs. HE vs. NCHC vs. WCHA Total Shots
Atlantic Hockey 207 305 252 102 184 1050
Big Ten 360 34 601 325 435 1755
ECAC 448 22 555 231 122 1378
Hockey East 354 562 543 174 202 1835
NCHC 147 425 332 180 360 1444
WCHA 158 400 132 168 357 1215
Total shots vs. 1467 1616 1346 1756 1189 1303 8677

From there, it’s easy to calculate the possession numbers:

Inter-league puck possession

Team shots vs. AH vs. B1G vs. ECAC vs. HE vs. NCHC vs. WCHA Total Shots
Atlantic Hockey 36.51% 40.50% 41.58% 40.96% 53.80% 41.72%
Big Ten 63.49% 60.71% 51.68% 43.33% 52.10% 52.06%
ECAC 59.50% 39.29% 50.55% 41.03% 48.03% 50.59%
Hockey East 58.42% 48.32% 49.45% 49.15% 54.59% 51.10%
NCHC 59.04% 56.67% 58.97% 50.85% 50.21% 54.84%
WCHA 46.20% 47.90% 51.97% 45.41% 49.79% 48.25%
Total shots vs. 58.28% 47.94% 49.41% 48.90% 45.16% 51.75% 50.00%

So, in short, as of Nov. 25, the best possession conferences are:

  1. NCHC, 54.84%
  2. Big Ten, 52.06%
  3. Hockey East, 51.10%
  4. ECAC, 50.59%
  5. WCHA, 48.25%
  6. Atlantic Hockey, 41.72%

So yes, the NCHC is probably the toughest conference this year. They are dominating in possession, especially considering they are above 50% against every league, and they have taken almost a third of their shots against the Big Ten, the second best possession league. This also means the Big Ten isn’t as hapless as its win percentage would suggest. Meanwhile, the WCHA isn’t as good as its record would suggest. Though we have indeed confirmed that Atlantic Hockey is terrible.

Now, I don’t think that this means an NCHC team is favorite to win a national championship, or that the WCHA has no chance. But I do think your average Big Ten team is slightly better than your average ECAC team, for example. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NCHC to get five teams into the tournament while the WCHA gets two at most. And I would expect probably one more Big Ten team than ECAC teams.

I could do this same kind of comparison for shot% and save%, but I think NCAA hockey possession is the most helpful in determining which conference has the toughest teams, and the most equitable and data-rich way to compare conferences on shot-based metrics. Shot and save % will tell you more about individual talent, which really varies team to team, even within leagues.

Also, I would say I think poll voters should start taking these metrics into account, but that would require me to pretend that polls matter.

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