Judging League Strength


There have been a number of different attempts to judge the strength of various pro hockey circuits against each other, and while there is generally an accepted pecking order, I figure its worth another look.  The hockey landscape continues to change, and the past three years has definitely changed the landscape of the professional circuits in Europe.  The failure of the Champions Hockey League might have been the best thing to happen to the Kontinental Hockey League, allowing the league to bill itself as the best place to play high level hockey on the continent.  In 2008, the IIHF released a domestic league ranking that looks kind of wacky (SM-Liiga better than Elitserien?), but is based on interleague play. 

Gabriel Desjardins assembled a list of NHL Equivalencies a couple years ago, which measured how difficult it was to produce offence in each respective league based on players who had made the jump.  If a player went from the Elitserien to the NHL, how much of his offence carried over?  His observations were limited to players who went from a league to the NHL, or vice versa.  I'm currently working on a project that looks at players that jump between the various professional circuits to see what kind of difficulty we can gauge.  But here is a rundown of what Desjardins found circa 2008-09:

NHL Equivalencies
League Difficulty
National Hockey League 1.00
WHA Final Year (1978-79) 0.89
Russian Super League 0.83
Elitserien (Sweden) 0.78
Czech Extraliga 0.74
SM-Liiga (Finland) 0.54
Deutsche Eishockey Liga 0.52
WHA First Year (1972-73) 0.46
American Hockey League 0.44
National League A (Swiss) 0.44
International Hockey League (1990s) 0.43
NCAA Division 1 0.41
Canadian Major Junior 0.29

That's a nice start.  But it doesn't give an accurate depiction of the game today.  Rob Vollman recently did a breakdown of what to expect from Jaromir Jagr in his return to the NHL, saying KHL players bring about 3/4 of their goal totals and all of their assist totals to the NHL.  Overall, this would give the KHL a NHLE rating of 0.87 based on his projections.  According to this, we can surmise that the KHL is indeed reaching the level that the World Hockey Association once had in its peak, and is an improvement on the old RSL it replaced despite the expansion. 

There are other methods out there.  One comes from an unusual source, a French hockey website (as in, from France) called Hockey Archives.  I can't figure out the formula used here, but it appears to be a power ranking that includes league play, playoffs, and international tournaments.  Goal differential seems to be a key stat used.  They've provided us annually with a list of the top 250 clubs in Europe, and if we add up each club's value by league we can get an overall view of the strength of each circuit according to this methodology. 

Hockey Archives League Ranking (Top 10)

League

Points

Teams

Avg

High

Low

Kontinental Hockey League

890.09

23

38.70

59.64

20.36

Elitserien

451.40

12

37.62

50.60

29.84

SM-Liiga

476.69

14

34.05

49.77

23.14

Czech Extraliga

475.30

14

33.95

48.82

20.98

National League A

399.70

12

33.31

53.98

19.60

Deutsche Eishockey Liga

445.36

14

31.81

41.56

25.94

Slovak Extraliga

252.00

10

25.20

40.32

15.28

Hockey Allsvenskan

219.58

14

15.68

23.68

10.18

Erste Bank Eishockey Liga

131.05

10

13.11

17.61

10.42

Serie A

91.78

9

10.20

13.96

7.20

That looks a bit better, to be honest.  The best teams reside in the KHL, but with a 23 team circuit there are some real duds in there.  The Elitserien circuit is a nice counter to the KHL:  their teams would be competitive, but likely not able to take on the powerhouse teams the KHL has been able to assemble.  The Czech Extraliga, meanwhile, is losing ground, and I don't see a way to reverse this trend.  It is now more in the company of Finland and Switzerland's national leagues than the virtual tie with Sweden it used to be.  The best Czech players tend to play in the KHL if they aren't in the NHL, and with the establishment of a Slovakian KHL club, the trend seems to be tilting more and more in the KHL's favour.

Slovakia, meanwhile, has been struggling with their national league since it was split of from the Czechoslovakian league, and it seems inevitable that it will become a second rate European circuit with the KHL gaining a foothold in Poprad.  The Swedish Allsvenskan, meanwhile, clocks in as the 8th strongest league on the continent.  It is by far the strongest 2nd division in Europe, ranking ahead of Austria's EBEL which has been making gains in recent years.  Italy's Serie A is the best of the rest:  all 9 teams made the top 250 list despite a lack of a star team.  Just missing the cut was the Belarusian Extraleague, which put 9 of its 12 teams onto this list.  I suspect the Belarusian circuit has lost ground since 2008-09 when the KHL came to Minsk.  Belarus' league was determined in 2008 by the IIHF to be better than Austria's. 

It's something to consider at least.  I hope to provide more insight onto the issue of league comparables in the coming days and weeks. 

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