Click here to view the current Hockey East Men’s & Women’s KRACH Rankings
The 2020-2021 Hockey East season has been a case study in Being Flexible And Adapting To Change. Schedules are changing on an almost daily basis and the league has been very open (and admirably so) about how teams are having to adjust on the fly to make sure the season can even happen. With COVID-19 throwing the world’s institutions for a loop everywhere you look, it presents a perfect opportunity for Hockey East to be an innovative leader in the sport and become the first league in college hockey to make real use of the KRACH ranking system.
Last week, Hockey East announced that all games played between conference opponents for the Hockey East Men’s and Women’s divisions would count toward the final standings — even games previously marked as non-conference “flex games.” This is good and makes a lot of sense, particularly given the scheduling imbalances that have only grown since the start of the season.
It was also pretty goofy that some (many) games played between schools were stuck in a weird state of limbo between not-counting-in-the-standings-yet and might-count-in-the-standings-if-the-teams-didn’t-get-to-play-again. Take the Boston College women, for example — the Eagles were swept at the hands of Providence in an impromptu home-and-home series at the end of November, but would have had the chance to wipe those games out of the standings completely if they still met up with the Friars as scheduled in the second half. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But counting all games against all league opponents poses a new set of challenges. For starters, it’s almost a guarantee at this point that some teams will have played more (and in some cases, several more) games than others when all is said and done. The UMass men, for example, have played eight games already to the Boston University men’s zero. That disparity is just not going to fully close, so total league points are going to be essentially meaningless.
Hockey East kicked the can down the road in their press release, not even attempting to address how the standings would be sorted out in the end. But in their defense, it’s a tough question to answer, and the traditional solution to this problem — winning percentage — is definitely not the most fair. A team could load their schedule up with bottom feeders (intentionally or not) and blitz their way through a cakewalk of a regular season while another team might struggle with a relative gauntlet. Normally it’s not really a huge issue, because even if the schedules are unbalanced they aren’t that unbalanced (see: MLB & NFL divisional opponents being largely the same). But the 2020-2021 Hockey East season has the potential to have some unprecedented disparities.
And so, that brings us back to KRACH. Most college hockey fans are at least casually familiar with the rankings — essentially it takes all teams’ results and determines how many wins they “should” have had given what how strong their opponents were. For example, if the ratings say a team was 90% likely to win a game, then it assigns them 0.9 “should be” wins for that game. Each teams’ ratings are then fed back into the calculator over and over until the number of wins that everyone “should” have gotten is exactly the same as how many wins everyone actually got across all their games. That’s a really basic explanation, but if you want to dig into the mathematical nitty-gritty, USCHO and CHN have explanations posted online.
KRACH is seriously mathematically robust. There’s nothing arbitrary about how ratings are assigned. Take the RPI portion of the Pairwise, for example. RPI tries to deal with unbalanced schedules by assigning arbitrary weights to opponents winning percentages — just numbers basically pulled out of a hat and used because that’s what we always use. But KRACH isn’t arbitrary at all. Schedule strength in KRACH is exactly based on each team’s rating, which is based on every other team’s rating.
The best part about KRACH, though, is that it’s almost tailor-made to deal with unbalanced schedules, both in strength of opponents and in number of opponents. If one team can only play 10 games and one team can play 20, the ratings assigned to each team are still on the same scale and can be directly used to compare each team against the other.
The league’s new 3-on-3 overtime and shootout rules can easily be incorporated into KRACH as well. When ties were a factor in the standings, each team was credited with 1 point each out of the 2 available — essentially awarding each team 1⁄2 a win and 1⁄2 a loss. This year, a team winning in overtime or a shootout collects 2 of the 3 available league points, with the loser taking 1 of the 3. Perfect — the OT/SO winner now gets 2⁄3 of a win and 1⁄3 of a loss, and vice versa. Nice and clean.
This is a big opportunity for the league to be a trailblazer. Fans across the country have been screaming for the Pairwise to be replaced with KRACH — an objectively better and fairer system — for years. The NCAA is not going to move away from the Pairwise anytime soon, but Hockey East has the authority to do whatever it wants to determine its seeding in this one-off season of unbalanced schedules. It has a chance to actually be innovative and make a statement by choosing a fair and mathematically sound ranking system, one that fans have wanted to see nationally for a long time. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there’s never been a better time for KRACH to finally get its moment in the sun.