It has been a long-standing theme in the two major sports whose conferences are split by geography (NHL and NBA), that the Eastern Conference plays little brother to the Western Conference. While the disparity is much more apparent in the NBA, where the bottom five to eight teams dwell in the East and only two Eastern teams (Miami and Indiana) would be taken seriously in the Western playoff picture, it is still an issue in the NHL.
It’s a complex issue that has many more factors than just talent and coaching. For example, it is much more difficult to travel West than East, a phenomenon that has been well documented in the NFL. A PST team playing a 7 PM game on EST feels like they are playing at 4 PM – not a huge issue. Going the other way, a 7 PM start in Los Angeles feel like 10 PM, with an end time pushing 1 AM. For professional athletes, who are very regimented and schedule-oriented people, this is difficult. On the other hand, a team like the San Jose Sharks travel twice as many miles as the New York Rangers. The counter-argument to that is that Western Conference teams generally play fewer back-to-back games. An Eastern Conference team swinging through California or Western Canada usually play three games in four nights.
As such, the purpose of this article is not to figure out why the West is so much stronger than the East, just to analyze the results. One would hope that moving the perennial powerhouse Red Wings, along with a decent Blue Jackets squad, to the East would help close the gap, and it likely did as both of these teams made the playoffs in the East, while the Jets finished seven points out of the playoffs in the West.
First I looked at the interconference record of every team in the NHL and sorted them by PTS%, as due to the uneven number of teams, Western teams play 32 interconference games vs. 28 for the East. Raw points or records don’t work. While the East does have seven of the top sixteen teams, eight of the top ten come from the West. Six of the bottom seven are also in the East, with the lone standout being the playoff-bound Stars, who buoyed their record by absolutely feasting on the Pacific division with a 14-3-4 record.
Overall, the West had a record of 246-150-52 against the East, good for 60.7% of possible points. The East was 202-188-58, for 51.5% of possible points. One might argue that yes the West is better overall, but they are even at the top which is what really matters, and the Western conference teams inflated their records by beating up on the basement dwellers in the East, like the Sabres, Panthers, Islanders and Hurricanes.
That is a valid point, and the East is certainly very weak at the bottom. So let’s have a look at how the playoff teams performed against only the playoff teams in the other conference. Obviously this is only sixteen games per team, so we run into some sample size issues. There is a lot of noise, and the timing of major injuries can play a huge factor in these records. Maybe the Red Wings just so happened to play the eight playoff teams on the road when they were icing a team that looked more like the Grand Rapids Griffins, so these need to be taken with a grain of salt.
There is certainly some validity to this argument, as our 60.7% – 51.5% PTS% gap shrinks to 59.0% – 52.3%. The top eight teams in the East played better vs. the West relative to the rest of the conference, but overall the West still had a much stronger record. The won twelve more games, and outscored the East by almost 0.2 goals per game.
Let’s hypothetically square-off the seeds in an Interconference Seven Game Series Battle Royale where 1(Anaheim) plays 1(Boston), 2(Colorado) plays 2(Pittsburgh) etc… I am guessing that if Vegas were to set a line on these series, Boston is the only team from the East that would definitely be a favourite. Pittsburgh would likely be, and depending on the health of the Red Wings I could also see them being favoured over Dallas. Obviously this is not based on anything other than my own opinion (and the simple statistics discussed thus far), but it’s fun to talk about, and I would be curious for your guys thoughts in the comments.
The crux of all of this is the unbalanced schedule. I am an idealist, and in my perfect world, there would be no divisions or conferences, and every team would play a balanced schedule, with the top sixteen teams making the playoffs. Logistically this would never make sense as travel would be a nightmare and regional rivalries sell tickets, but it’s nice to dream. I don’t like when the 9th seeded team in the West has more points than the 8th seed in the East, all while playing a more difficult schedule, yet spends the last two weeks of April on the golf course. Alas, that’s life.
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