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

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.

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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.

Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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Talk about making a great first impression.

Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Here’s some footage of his performance:

If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.