How important is home-ice advantage in the NHL?
The NHL is expected to return to game action later this summer, and if everything goes as planned, it will look quite different than what we’re used to.
One of the major changes, five months after the 2019-2020 season was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be playing games in two hub cities — reportedly Toronto and Edmonton — with no fans in attendance.
Home teams in the playoffs have enjoyed more success than failure, but there is an obvious caveat this year.
Strategic benefits for the home team
Under normal circumstances, home teams have the added benefit of playing in front of their fans, and sleeping in their own bed following a game.
But more importantly, there are strategic, in-game benefits to playing at home, most importantly the last change during stoppages.
This allows the home team’s coach to dictate certain matchups. He can get his shutdown defensive pairing out against the other team’s top line or to get his team’s best offensive line out against a weaker defensive group.
That is important in the regular season, but much more in the playoffs, especially in a long series.
As we await official word from the NHL, regarding which cities will act as hub locations for the restart, the benefit of playing in front of fans is gone, at least for the remainder of this season. Each hub city will host 12 teams. There likely won’t be much normalcy, compared to past postseason travel and accommodations, because of social distancing and testing requirements.
There will still be a home and away team for each game, which should allow coaches to continue to manipulate matchups throughout a game and series. This perhaps puts added pressure on coaches under different circumstances.
History shows home teams have the edge
Home teams have held a decisive edge both in the regular season and playoffs.
During the 2019-2020 regular season, all 31 NHL clubs combined for a .533 win percentage on home ice, with an average of 3.10 goals scored per game and 2.85 goals against.
Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins were dominant on home ice this season, which helped to boost that win percentage, but the majority of teams had a winning record at their home rink.
The Detroit Red Wings certainly didn’t do their part to boost home-ice numbers. They were 12-23-6 at home, but also had the worst overall record in the NHL.
Between the 2005-2006 season and the sudden end of the 2019-2020 campaign, home teams have a winning percentage of .548. Over the past 15 seasons, the goals-for and goals-against numbers follow a similar pattern to 2019-2020.
In the postseason, home-ice advantage has played a pivotal role. According to Hockey Reference, home teams have a record of 2,398-1774 in the playoffs, for a win percentage of .575.
That includes a .584 winning percentage in Game 7s, although there are recent examples of visiting teams spoiling the party in those series-deciding games.
Home teams have also been able to close out series with efficiency in the playoffs. Again, according to Hockey Reference, home teams have won about 63% of closeout games in the playoffs.
Where do we go from here?
The new format, specifically the five-game qualifying-round series, could spark multiple upsets.
No fans in attendance may take away some of the excitement the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers — assuming those are the two host cities — play with. The lack of fans could also affect the way referees call games, with no angry crowds screaming for penalties.
Home coaches may still be able to play the matchup game, but home-ice advantage won't exist as we know it, which adds another layer of intrigue to the new playoff format.