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Changing dynamics in the Eastern Conference (and proof that it is very different from the West)

Dec 7, 2010, 9:00 AM EDT

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A few days ago, we discussed some very telling numbers that justified widely-held beliefs that the Western Conference remains superior to the Eastern Conference as a whole.

Ultimately, these discussions get a little tedious after a while, though. Hand wringing over playing in a tougher conference or division solves little (although, seriously, the NFC West is pretty pathetic). Instead, it’s wiser to simply make the best of the situation and opportunities you see in front of you.

Such talk also clouds what might be a more interesting development out East: a clear hierarchy is developing in the NHL’s weaker conference. Let me break the 15 teams into four “classes” to illuminate the point for you.

Upper class (the puffy-chested)

Pittsburgh Penguins (40 points.), Washington Capitals (39 pts.), Philadelphia Flyers (38 pts.) and Montreal Canadiens (36 pts.)

There is little doubt that the Western Conference features a higher level of overall competition, with even its low-end teams such as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers showing enough gumption to put up a good fight every now and then. That being said, it’s still quite illuminating that after the Detroit Red Wings (37 pts. in four less games played than the Penguins and Capitals), the highest ranking team in the West is the Dallas Stars (36 pts.).

While I’m still a bit unsure about the Habs’ status as a truly elite team, there is a tangible divide between the four Eastern teams who would own at least one round of home ice advantage if the playoffs began today and the rest of the pack. The Penguins, Capitals and Flyers all boast deep lineups that could reasonably give any Western contender serious pause.

Perhaps Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are feasting on a middle-of-the-pack Rangers team and two awful ones in Long Island and New Jersey, but those two squads look like they’ll actually make the Capitals fight for the top seed after Washington cruised last season.

Upper middle class (the risers)

Tampa Bay Lightning (33 pts.), Atlanta Thrashers (33 pts.), NY Rangers (33 pts.) and Boston Bruins (31 pts.)

The next strain of teams aren’t at the powerhouse level, but aside from the Rangers, seem poised to become dangerous teams in the future as well as the present. Tampa Bay and Atlanta seem ahead of their time in some ways because they’re stocked with young talent and bold-thinking front offices; Boston is holding strong despite troublesome injuries, a relatively small amount of games played and can look to a light at the end of the future for various reasons, including the potential of Tyler Seguin.

Last season, the Flyers battled the Rangers on the last day of the season for the eighth spot in what looked like a bottom-poor East. This time around, there seems to be a profound difference between the top eight and the bottom seven. At least at this point in the season.

Lower middle class (stuck)

Ottawa Senators (26 pts.), Carolina Hurricanes (25 pts.), Buffalo Sabres (25 pts.), Toronto Maple Leafs (24 pts.) and Florida Panthers (22 pts.)

Again, this cluster of team seems like they share a similar outlook: glum, if not grim. How is it possible not to look at the Senators, Hurricanes and Sabres without a sense of waste? All three teams could very well put together winning streaks, but aren’t likely to be saved by some miracle trade. Each team has been in the playoffs with frequency but cannot seem to make it a consistent, comfortable process.

The Leafs and Panthers face slightly darker fates, even if their similar paths (inconsistent front office leadership, haven’t made the playoffs since at least the pre-lockout seasons, precious few marquee scorers) are viewed with comically disproportionate interest in their respective markets.

Lower class (the impoverished)

New Jersey Devils (18 pts.) and New York Islanders (15 pts.)

Which team is in a uglier situation?

The Devils play in a new building in Newark of all places, have been one of the league’s model franchises since the mid-90s and now find themselves with a teeming swamp of a disappointing season.

The Isles are desperate for a new building, have rarely sniffed relevance since the days of Mike Bossy and even suffer self-inflicted blows when dealing with the few media people interested in covering their games.

In the end, they are the poorest of the poor both in the East and in the entire league.

***

So, after looking over the near-capitalistic East, the West seems like it would please Karl Marx by comparison.

  • The top-ranked Penguins (40 pts) best the bottom-ranked Islanders (15 pts) by a staggering 25 points in the East. Conversely, in the West, the Red Wings (37) only hold a 13-point advantage over 15th-place Calgary (24).
  • There really is no reason to call the teams ranked ninth or lower in the East “bubble teams” right now since they trail Boston by at least five points. Meanwhile, in the West, the 7-10 teams (Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators) are all locked up at 30 points and can only be separated by tie-breakers. The 11th and 12th ranked teams (Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks) are breathing down everyone’s neck at 29. In other words, there aren’t many off-nights in the West because just about every one is a threat. (Mike Chen takes on the “mega logjam” in the West at From the Rink.)

Ultimately, I think it would be interesting if the two conferences maintain these quasi-political parallels. Do you enjoy sports more when brutal parity wears down great teams until they are merely good or would you rather watch a few predators exploit weaker prey? If these trends hold true, the West provides the former while the East currently projects the latter.

And the best part is that if these trends continue, next summer could bear the sweetest fruit: an answer regarding which situation produces the fittest contender in the Stanley Cup finals.

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