When fans look at their individual teams, they generally look in the context of their immediate competitors and main rivals. For example, San Jose Sharks fans will look mostly at what is going on in Southern California with the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. What is happening in Florida with the Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning doesn’t mean much to the folks in California. Likewise, whatever is happening with California hockey is largely irrelevant to the hockey fans in Florida.
Looking at the NHL at this more granular level can keep people from seeing bigger trends. One trend taking shape early in this NHL season is striking. The Eastern Conference is dominating the Western Conference.
Numbers Tell the Story
There are several ways to measure the differential between conferences. In terms of goal differential, nine of the 16 Eastern Conference teams are positive, one is at zero and just six are negative. Only one team has a negative goal differential over minus-four. In the Western Conference, a remarkable 10 of 14 teams hold negative goal differentials, eight of those teams are greater than minus-four. Just four teams have a positive goal differential.
The top two teams in the East do not include last season’s Stanley Cup champion or last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. Both teams, Pittsburgh and Washington respectively, are off to strong starts. However, the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens are off to even stronger starts. The Canadiens’ Carey Price, healthy again, is the league’s best goalie. His teammate Shea Weber, tops the league in plus/minus and New York Rangers players occupy spots 2-5. Meanwhile Sidney Crosby is tied for the goal-scoring lead with eight goals despite just six games played.
However, the difference is not just at the top and not just with the elite players. Even the lower level teams in the Eastern Conference are better compared to their Western Conference counterparts. Only three of the 16 Eastern Conference teams are averaging less than a point per game (19%), while seven of the 14 teams in the Western Conference are below a point per game (50%). If the playoffs in the Western Conference started today, a team projecting to have 75 points for an 82-game season would qualify for the postseason. Using the same projections, the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference would have 97 points.
In terms of wins and losses (with OTL’s counting as losses), the Eastern Conference is 14 games above .500, the Western Conference is 14 games below. This is a large difference given the modest number of interconference games (under 80) played thus far this season.
In fact, only two western teams have won more than they’ve lost against their Eastern opponents. Los Angeles has won two of three. Chicago has won three of four.
Anaheim might be the poster child for the difference in results. In five games against eastern opponents, the Ducks have managed just one win. Against western teams, the Ducks have won five of seven. Edmonton sports a 9-3-1 record, tied for best in the West. The four defeats have all come against eastern teams. They are unbeaten in five games against western opponents.
Is This Meaningful?
Should this play out over the course of the season, a real benefit accrues to the weaker teams in the Western Conference. Eight western teams make the playoffs out of 14 (57%) as compared to eight of 16 (50%) in the East. So not only is there a higher percentage of Western Conference teams which qualify, but the bar this year looks like it will be set a good bit lower for western teams. If the trend continues, some western teams will make the playoffs with very modest records. It also means only the western teams who really struggle will find themselves out of contention come the trade deadline. Given the upcoming expansion draft for the new Las Vegas team, a Western Conference where almost every team is in the playoff hunt should make for a very entertaining trade deadline.
Two western teams (the Stars and Avalanche) both have one more loss than win. They are nominally tied for the last playoff spot in the West. In terms of the league overall, they are tied for the 21st best record; only eight teams have a worse record.
There are likely beneficiaries to this imbalance, and it might be very significant. Western teams with early season struggles and injury issues may benefit considerably.
One such team is the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings are without injured starting goalie Jonathan Quick. It appears Quick will remain sidelined at least a few months. Yet, the team may well stay in playoff contention with the far less decorated Peter Budaj in the net (1 career playoff start, no wins). Should Quick (81 playoff starts, 46 wins, 2 Stanley Cups, 1 Conn Smythe) return later in the year as expected, the Kings will have one the league’s best big game goalies to lead them. If the Kings were in the Eastern Conference, they would be a far greater risk of missing the playoffs. Of course, any team with a core of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick is a team capable of making a deep playoff run.
As we have seen in recent years, teams can come from any seeded position to make the Cup Final and win the Stanley Cup. Only one of the last eight Cup winners was a top seed and half of the eight winners were fourth seeds or lower. The Kings were an eighth seed in one of their Cup winning seasons. Last season’s Cup finalists had the second highest point total in the East (Pittsburgh) and the sixth highest point total in the West (San Jose).
The Eastern domination over the Western teams is not likely to remain as extreme as it has been to start the season. Nonetheless, it bears watching. If the trend continues, there will be some less than deserving western teams playing into late April and perhaps beyond, while a few more deserving eastern teams will have an early summer vacation. And it is entirely possible for a less than deserving team, based on their regular season record, to make a major splash in the playoffs.