Anyone that has an older or younger sibling should understand the NHL’s hierarchy. Older and younger siblings often get into wrestling matches, which usually end with the older, bigger and stronger sibling on top pinning down the younger, weaker and smaller sibling. This is very much the case in today’s NHL.
In the NHL, the Western Conference is the older brother and the Eastern Conference is the younger brother.
The last four Stanley Cup champions have been Western Conference teams and seven of the last ten Cup winners have come from the West. Looking further back, since 1995, the Stanley Cup has been awarded to a Western Conference team 13 times and to the Eastern Conference just seven times.
The last stint of real dominance by the East came at the beginning of the 2000s. The Eastern Conference won the Cup three years in a row, when the New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup in ’03, ’04, and ’06 (’05 was lost to the lockout) respectively.
This is not just a post-season trend either. Overall, the West has become the elite conference in the NHL. Last season, the West went 237-167-44 when facing off against the East. The Central Division did a lot of the heavy lifting and posted a record of 131-70-23, while the Pacific Division grabbed a modest 106-97-21 record against the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Only the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks posted records below .500 against opponents outside of their conference. Yes, even the Edmonton Oilers managed to wrangle up a 15-14-3 record against the Eastern Conference.
Now looking at the additions the Western Conference has made over the off season, things look to have only gotten more difficult for the East.
The Pacific Division
We’ll start with the Pacific Division, home of the two teams that struggled with the East.
The Coyotes posted a dismal 10-19-3 record against the East last year. Out of all the teams in the West, the Coyotes are probably the most likely to not improve last season’s record. They brought Antoine Vermette, Boyd Gordon, and Zybnek Michalek back to town, which should provide some veteran leadership to guys like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, who are expected to make an impact with the big club this season. An improvement for the rebuild taking place in Arizona, but likely not enough to cover a nine-game hole.
The Sharks finished last season 13-15-4 against the East. Add Joel Ward and Paul Martin to a group of skaters that includes Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns among others, and on paper it looks like the Sharks have a playoff contender. A lot of the Sharks’ success will depend on the play of newly acquired Martin Jones. Can he be the number one goalie San Jose needs? Needless to say the Sharks shouldn’t exactly fall off from their near .500 record they posted last season.
Last season, the Oilers (15-14-3) and Calgary Flames (14-14-4) hovered around the .500 mark against the Eastern Conference. Both the Oilers and Flames are among the most improved teams this offseason and it should translate into better records next season against the NHL’s teams from the East. The Oilers drafted Connor McDavid, signed Andrej Sekera, and traded for Griffin Reinhart and Cam Talbot. Add those additions to changes in the front office that brought in Todd McLellan and it looks as if the Oilers are trending up.
The Flames have added to an already quick rebuild that saw them make the playoffs last season. The Flames traded for Dougie Hamilton at the draft and brought in Michael Frolik via free-agency. The biggest take away from this is they were able to do so without giving up any roster players. The Flames are in win now mode and will likely deal more than just 14 losses to the East next season.
The top three in the Pacific Division, were the Vancouver Canucks (21-10-1), Anaheim Ducks (17-13-2) and Los Angeles Kings (16-12-4). The Ducks, Kings and Canucks all lost key pieces this summer. The Ducks said goodbye to Francois Beauchemin, the Kings lost Justin Williams, Jones and Sekera and the Canucks made some questionable trades. But all three teams have made moves that should fill the holes left by those departures. The Kings brought in gritty forward Milan Lucic and the Ducks grabbed Chris Stewart and Kevin Bieksa. All three teams should be able to stay the course in their play against the East.
The Central Division
The Central Division was a division that turned the Eastern Conference into a punching bag. Last season, every team in the Central Division finished at least five games above .500 against the East, and three teams had at least 20 wins against their conference rivals.
Starting at the bottom, the Minnesota Wild (17-12-3), Colorado Avalanche (17-10-5), and Winnipeg Jets (17-10-5) had the toughest, if you want to call it that, time against the East. The Avalanche took a big hit when they lost Ryan O’Reilly but brought in Beauchemin, Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau to stop the bleeding. While Colorado looked to make up for a loss, the Jets and Wild took similar paths in locking up their current roster. All three should be very much the same next season.
The Dallas Stars (19-11-2) finished in the middle of the pack against the East last season. But with their off
season additions they should be on the rise. Dallas landed winger Patrick Sharp and defenseman Johnny Oduya from the Chicago Blackhawks and added Antti Niemi in net. The Stars have become bit of Chicago south hybrid and should jump into elite status next season.
Now, the heavy hitters of the Central Division. To say the St. Louis Blues (21-8-3), Blackhawks (20-9-3), and Nashville Predators (20-10-2) had the East’s number is a bit of an understatement. The Blackhawks and Blues took some hits this summer. Chicago lost Sharp, Oduya, Brad Richards and Brandon Saad. The Blues lost T.J. Oshie and added Troy Brouwer. Both rosters should have enough talent to be able to pick up the slack left by those departures. The Predators locked up big names like Mike Ribeiro and should be just as good.
Overall, notable names like Hamilton and Lucic from the Boston Bruins, Carl Hagelin from the New York Rangers, Reinhart from the New York Islanders, Martin from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Joel Ward from the Washington Capitals have all moved west. While big names like Beauchemin, Bieksa, Jones, Oduya, and Sharp changed teams but stayed in the conference.
Looking at where the NHL stands now, the Eastern Conference might be in for another rough season when it comes to cross-conference match ups.
Eric received his BA in Journalism from California State University, Northridge. Eric has contributed to RinkRoyalty.com, Buffalowdown.com and California Rubber Magazine.