When the NHL started playing regular-season games overseas, a segment of league pundits, players, etc., viewed the trip as something of a “season-killer,’’ a travel and jet-lag burden that would require weeks of recovery. That notion has pretty much been tossed out over the past three seasons, given that the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have won the last three Stanley Cups after starting their respective seasons in Europe.
Did the “season-killer’’ tag ever hold water, though? Teams have been playing overseas exhibition games (in September and October) since 1980, when the Washington Capitals and Minnesota North Stars played a round-robin tournament in Sweden. The first regular-season games took place in 1997, when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Vancouver Canucks played in Japan.
From 1997-2010, 19 teams played regular-season games overseas (the Ducks, Sharks and Penguins went twice). So among those 22 teams, only 9 times did a team improve its point total from the previous season. Thirteen times, a team had a worse record, when starting its season overseas, than the previous season. For instance, in 2009-10, the Blackhawks improved their point total from 104 to 112 and won the Cup. The same season, the Panthers started overseas and went from 93 points to 77.
Of course, there might be exactly zero science behind this, but it’s been a topic of discussion for years and I’d never seen the actual numbers. One last thought… Could it be that West Coast teams suffer more? The Kings, Ducks, Sharks, Canucks and Coyotes have combined to start seven seasons overseas. Only the Kings, in 2007-08, posted a point improvement after starting the season overseas, and it was a modest improvement, from 68 points to 71. The other six teams all dipped in points. A coincidence? Too many other factors? Or a product of tougher West Coast travel?