29 March 2010
Looking at this year's current standings, there's no question of which Conference has been more dominant. Top to bottom, the Western Conference has had the better all around year, both in point production and success against the East.
Every year there are 270 games between one Western team and one Eastern team. As of today, only five are left to be played in the final two weeks of the season, and the records are staggering. After 265 games against the East, Western Conference teams have compiled a record of 152-85-28; nearly a winning record of 60%. The East against the West holds a record of 113-117-35. Western teams have earned a total of 1,291 points overall while Eastern teams have earned just 1,229. When you're dealing with that many points, 62 isn't a big difference, the more telling number is the West has 39 more wins head to head against the East.
13 out of 15 teams in the Western Conference have a winning record against Eastern teams compared to just six teams in the East above .500 against the West.
Let's look at the standings to cross-examine the numbers.
Phoenix is currently fourth in the West with 100 points, that'd be good enough for second in the East. Colorado has 89 points and is in eighth in the West, the final playoff spot for the conference, that same 89 points would make them fifth in the East. Columbus, one of the worst teams in the West in 14th with 75 points, that would put them up to 11th in the East. If the playoffs started today, Ottawa would be fifth in the East with their 87 points, but if they were a Western Conference team with those numbers, they wouldn't make the playoffs.
There are plenty of numbers from this season alone to support the notion of the West being superior to the East this year. Recent years show similar signs as well. Overall the 15 teams in the West are better as a whole than the 15 teams from the East. But if you want to measure success in Stanley Cups, then the two conferences are even since the lookout, with each conference having two champions (Hurricanes in 06, Penguins in 09 for the East, Ducks in 07, Red Wings in 08 for the West).
But Stanley Cups don't justify the fact that mediocre teams will make the playoffs this year in the East, while good teams miss the playoffs (and miss them with more points than those teams that made the top eight in the East) in the West.
For the last several years, the AHL has operated with their 29 teams broken into two conferences and four divisions, which doesn't break down equally numerically. Three divisions have held seven teams and one division eight. In the AHL, the top four records in each division make the playoffs, with one exception; in the division with eight teams, if the team that finishes fifth in the division has a higher point total than the team that finishes fourth in the division that is in the same conference as the one with eight teams, then the fifth place team replaces fourth place team of the seven team division and makes the postseason.
The NHL plays a more balanced schedule with even amounts of teams in the divisions and conferences, so the top eight making the playoffs out of the 15 conference teams is fair enough; teams play 64 games of their 82 game schedule against teams within their conference, so get the job done against those teams and you should be in the playoffs no problem. But in a case where one conference is so much more difficult to play against then the other, this is where a new rule should be considered.
A stipulation should be put in place that reads: Should the team finishing in ninth place in either conference has five or more points than the team finishing eighth in the opposite conference, then that team shall be relegated to the opposite conference as the eighth seed and compete in that conference's playoffs.
If the season ended today, Calgary, with 85 points, would replace Boston, who currently has 80 points, in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boston has two games in hand though, so it's likely this rule would come into play this year anyway.
Most fans who are extreme traditionalists would likely hate the rule. What are the odds, but imagine if the rule came into play and created a Stanley Cup Final between Florida and Tampa Bay, or Nashville and Columbus. The League and Gary Bettman would hate to see that. But at the same time, imagine an old Toronto/Montreal Final, a Colorado/Detroit Final, or a New York/New York Islanders versus the Rangers Final. Not that it'd be likely that a team only good enough to be ninth in their own conference would flip sides and run the table in the opposite conference, but it could happen.
Plus, by making the rule five points or more, not just having more points like the AHL rule, it has somewhat of a justification to it. In fact, if you apply the rule to the last 15 NHL seasons, from 93-94 until last year, only two times would the rule have been exercised: In 1996 New Jersey with 86 points would have jumped to the West and replaced Winnepeg who had only 78 points. And in 2002, Edmonton with 92 points would have jumped to the East and replaced Montreal who had 87 points.
The rule could definitely be considered a bit of a stretch, but if one conference continues to dominate year in year out, it wouldn't hurt to consider it. If anything, it's surprising that the Western Conference, whose teams have much more travel distance, is the better conference; you'd think the Eastern Conference with all their teams on the east coast would be better rested. But the West's record is just a testament to the higher overall talent of their teams.
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