What used to be Ice Cube vs. Vanilla Ice is now more like 2Pac vs. Biggie as the gap between West and East has closed.
There’s something special about The Hockey News predictions meeting every year. Our readers constantly ask about it. They picture a room full of screaming debaters, and they’re not far off. It’s a lot of fun hammering out the standings team by team. In recent years, however, picking the Stanley Cup has been the least suspenseful part of the day. Chicago. Los Angeles. Chicago. Los Angeles. “Whose turn is it this year? Oh yeah, Chicago.” That was uttered in the summer 2014 meeting before we correctly chose the ‘Hawks. It’s become a foregone conclusion “Western Conference powerhouse team X” wins the Stanley Cup. The Eastern Conference has emerged as the West’s cute tagalong sibling, regularly outclassed on the biggest stage. The West has won the past four championships, five of the past six and seven of the past nine.
Utter Western dominance is the public perception, and there’s no denying the West’s hold on the one accolade that matters most, Lord Stanley’s mug. But more than a handful of peripheral trends suggest the grip is slipping.
In the past five seasons (2010-11 to 2014-15), Western Conference teams are 916-585-205 against the East in regular season play, good for a .597 points percentage. The East is 790-690-226 with a .529 points percentage. Those numbers suggest Western supremacy, but consider that, in 2009-10, the margin was .626 for the West to .494 for the East. The West has trended down to .600, then .540, and back up to .607 before dipping again to .578 in 2014-15. The East head-to-head over the next four seasons: .539, .565, .517, .537. The competitive gap between the two conferences is narrowing slowly but surely. Trend or fluke? And what’s the cause if it’s the former? There’s a reason why Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill paid Antti Niemi big money this summer to come in and back up Kari Lehtonen: travel. Nill worried his team’s schedule was too taxing, and that reflects a problem many Western Conference teams face. Heading west to east produces a harsher jet lag effect than vice versa, flying against the rotation of the Earth. It’s a scientific fact travelling east shortens the 24-hour day, and the body clock struggles to keep up and correct its circadian rhythm, “believing” it should be awake longer, leading to insomnia and sleep deprivation. It’s a problem since most teams travel the day or night before a road game and thus endure a night with poorer quality sleep than normal if they head west to east. “Am I travelling after we played at home to the east, when we lose an hour? That would be a big disadvantage,” said Nashville Predators GM David Poile. “If I’m travelling west in my division, and I don’t lose any time on back-to-back games, that’s way better than travelling east.”
What Poile means is Central teams are unique in that they cross into new time zones in both directions, east and west, when playing against the other three divisions. So while his Preds can be at a disadvantage heading east, they get the body-clock advantage when they travel within their conference to play Pacific Division teams. Lou Lamoriello, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and longtime New Jersey Devils GM before that, sees the recent competitive shift as more the result of the East’s reaction to travel than the West’s. He believes the West did well in the past visiting the East because of smart scheduling, packing many games close together. “I don’t think they travel more,” Lamoriello said. “I think they play more games during the length of time they’re here. And if I were a Western team, I would do that. I’d come out here and I’d say ‘Let’s stay there 10 days. We can go play Philadelphia, New Jersey, the Rangers, the Islanders, Boston, Montreal, Toronto. We’re all within an hour flight. And you’ve got the body clock at the same status.” After realignment in 2013-14, the NHL upped inter-conference games from 18 to 28 for the East, which has 16 teams, and 32 for the West, which has 14 teams. Western teams now visit Eastern Conference opponents 16 times a year instead of nine. It will be fascinating to see how fatigue factors into 3-on-3 play over an entire season. The Vancouver Canucks, for instance, have already
lost seven games in overtime this season, plus one more in a shootout. One reason why Chicago and L.A. are regarded so highly, and why they’ve had great success in recent years, is their dominant puck possession play. The expression “copycat league” exists for a reason. What if the Eastern Conference is altering its schemes to mimic the West’s best? Five seasons ago, seven of the NHL’s top 10 Corsi Close (“close” applies to games within one goal in periods 1 and 2 or tied in period 3) teams hailed from the West. The next year it was six of 10, and it’s been an even East-West split for three straight seasons. “There’s no question people want puck possession,” Lamoriello said, laughing heartily. “The teams that have been winning have had the puck more than the other team, but you’re going to see that no matter who they are, and no matter who’s playing. If you win on a given night, the puck possession is where it should be: on the right side.” And Poile challenges the idea the East has “improved” in puck possession versus the West. He wants to know the analytics when the conferences play head to head, a measure difficult to compile in this young era of advanced stats. Regardless of the result, though, he feels studying the cross-continent rivals must take a backseat to one’s own neighbors. “Whatever you think the Chicago Blackhawks look like, the St. Louis Blues, we want to be closer to that than to some other teams that are not in our conference,” he said. “Those are the teams we have to beat on a more consistent basis.” Whatever we believe about puck possession, it seems the league’s better puck stopping resides in the East right now. Four of the past five Vezina Trophy winners hail from the East, and there’s no East Coast media bias there, as the league’s GMs, not the Professional Hockey Writers Association, decide the Vezina. The East has Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask and Braden Holtby. A cross-section of the NHL’s starting goaltenders reveals the East has poached Ben Bishop, Roberto Luongo, Jaroslav Halak, Cory Schneider and, because of realignment, Sergei Bobrovsky in recent seasons. If you count ‘Bob’ as an East goalie now, that’s five straight Vezinas for the East. Goaltending aside, has the Eastern Conference gained ground on the West because the East simply has more star power now? The conferences have shared the top 10 yearly scorers pretty evenly over the past half decade, but the East has produced three of the past four Art Ross victors. The past four Hart Trophy winners as league MVP come from the East, and before anyone screams East Coast bias again, note that the NHL players have voted an Eastern Conference player MVP with the Ted Lindsay Award in four of five seasons as well. The East owns three of the past four Norris Trophies thanks to Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban’s superstardom. The past four goal-scoring champs: all East, a blend of Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. Of the NHL’s 50 biggest salary cap hits this season, 29, or 58 percent, belong to Eastern Conference players. By no means can we say the East has overtaken the West as the NHL’s top conference yet. But the numbers suggest we’ve at least entered an era of relative parity between the two. The East houses more of the game’s most dynamic players nowadays, particularly in net and at forward, and the increased travel works in its favor. To really earn the West’s respect, though, it’s time to gain ground in the most important stat category: Cups.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the November 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.