easternjuggernauts

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.

***

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.

Coyotes have work to do, with RFAs Murphy, Stone still unsigned

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: John Chayka of the Arizona Coyotes attends the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes added a defenseman with a right shot to their roster, signing Luke Schenn on Saturday. And there could be more moves to the back end on the way for Arizona.

They still have work left with respect to two restricted free agents. Defensemen Connor Murphy, 23, and Michael Stone, 26, are still looking for new contracts.

Stone, another right-shot blue liner, had a career-best 36 points in 75 games last season for the Coyotes and has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Aug. 4.

His previous contract was a three-year deal with an average annual value of $1.15 million. But he’s also coming off surgery to repair the ACL and MCL in his left knee, according to azcentral.com. In April, it was expected he could be out at least six months.

“I know he’s running well and moving pretty well,” said Coyotes GM John Chayka, as per azcentral.com. “ … He’s a big part of our blue line, so we’re hoping to get him back as soon as we can.”

However, when it comes to a new deal for Murphy, it appears there is some distance between the two sides.

From Arizona Sports 98.7:

While Chayka said the tenor of talks with Murphy has been good, Murphy’s agent, Brian Bartlett, said on July 18 that he was uncertain when a deal might be struck, and he reiterated on Saturday that nothing has changed in those negotiations.

“I hope we are close,” he wrote via text message last week. “Still have a gap to bridge, but confident we will get it done eventually. Could wrap up with one phone call but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a little longer to get on the same page.”

Murphy is a Coyotes first-round pick from 2011. His entry-level contract, with its AAV of more than $1,075 million, is expired.

He appeared in 78 games for the Coyotes last season, increasing his point total from seven in 73 games in 2014-15, to 17 points in the 2015-16 campaign.

Blues’ Allen says he still needs to prove he’s a ‘legit’ No. 1 goalie

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) is scored on by the Edmonton Oilers during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The goaltending roles in St. Louis have been clearly defined this summer. Jake Allen is the No. 1 netminder and Carter Hutton, a free agent acquisition, is the No. 2.

For the past two seasons, especially, Allen and Brian Elliott were both counted on to shoulder the goaltending duties, but the platoon scenario was ended when Elliott was traded to Calgary last month.

Allen recently commented on what was a positive working relationship between himself and Elliott, but seemed relieved that the leash may not be as short as it may have been in the past if he has an off night.

“It was tough to make mistakes when Brian was around because one game — you had a bad game — he was right back in the net and vice versa with him and me,” said the 25-year-old Allen, as per a video on the Blues’ website.

“I think you get a little bit more leeway, I guess, now. But not a whole lot. Carter’s a great goalie and I’ve heard a lot of great things about him.

“I feel that I had to etch myself into the league consistently. Now that I’ve done that, I still have another place to go and prove I’m a legit No. 1 guy.”

Allen just wrapped up only his second full NHL season.

The highest number of starts he’s made in a single season at the NHL level is 44 — in the 2015-16 season.

Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong said in June that Allen lost the crease, with Elliott taking it over with his strong play down the stretch and in the playoffs. He also made it clear Allen would have to battle to get it back in September. That changes to some degree now that Elliott is no longer in St. Louis.

Hutton, 30, was the back-up in Nashville, but made a career-high 34 starts in the 2013-14 season, posting a .910 save percentage.

Eberle: ‘We haven’t made the playoffs … and something needed to change’

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 06:  Jordan Eberie #14 and Taylor Hall #4 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates after Eberie scores a goal 10 seconds into the game against the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion at San Jose on March 6, 2012 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade between the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators continues to make waves. That will probably be the case right up until the start of the season and beyond.

On that same late-June day, however, the Edmonton Oilers shocked the hockey world by sending Taylor Hall, who four times in his young career has hit the 20-goal plateau, to New Jersey for right-shot defenseman Adam Larsson, who isn’t likely to be mistaken for a dynamic offensive blue liner.

It, too, is a deal that’s considered a major victory for one team — in this case, the Devils.

In trading Hall, the Oilers gave up a dynamic forward, although they certainly had a plethora of skilled forwards, and their need to make upgrades to their blue line, made it necessary to part with a player up front.

Hall and Jordan Eberle — now his former Oilers teammate — broke into the league with Edmonton in the same year, back in 2010-11. But despite an increase in talent up front, with four first-overall picks in a six-year span, Edmonton really hasn’t been close to competing for a playoff spot in years.

Eberle, with 425 games with the Oilers through some difficult times, at first said in an interview with the Andrew Walker Show that he couldn’t comment on the deal, but eventually admitted something had to give when it came to Edmonton’s quest to land a d-man, which led GM Peter Chiarelli to make the deal.

“Obviously I think he recognized there was an area on our team we needed to improve and maybe we had a surplus of forwards and it was something he needed to do,” Eberle told The Andrew Walker Show.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, we haven’t made the playoffs … and something needed to change, whether it was Taylor or whoever.

“I think Taylor will do very well in New Jersey and I think we significantly increased our blue line. I think that’s definitely going to help us in a tough Western Conference.”

Related:

Oilers GM justifies Hall trade, even if Larsson isn’t a ‘sexy defenseman’ 

Why are the Oilers still bad? Look at their drafting

The ECHL would have an ‘open mind’ if Las Vegas NHL team wanted Wranglers name

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 22:  (l-r) Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak and Bill Foley celebrate the admittance of a new NHL franchise during the Board Of Governors Press Conference prior to the 2016 NHL Awards at Encore Las Vegas on June 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The search for a general manager has been over for a while, the successful candidate in place. However, the Las Vegas NHL franchise is still looking to name its team. That search is still ongoing.

With its first season in the league set for 2017-18, the Las Vegas franchise has run into some trade mark issues with potential names, much to the dismay of owner Bill Foley.

One possibility could be the ‘Wranglers’ — the name of the former Las Vegas ECHL franchise, which officially folded in January of 2015.

However, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the ECHL still owns the rights to the name ‘Wranglers.’ The report also stated that the team does have a temporary logo — the NHL shield with ‘Las Vegas’ written underneath. Again. Only temporary.

“I have not been approached by either Mr. Foley or by the NHL,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“We own all the names of all the teams that have played or are playing (in the ECHL). Frankly, I would be surprised to hear from them now. But if they called to say they were interested in reviving the Wranglers name in Las Vegas, we would have an open mind about it. We always liked the name and the logo and the way they built up the brand in the community.”

Meanwhile, the people of Las Vegas have had their say on team names.

According to a bracket posted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the name ‘Outlaws’ emerged as the favorite among the people after the polls, which the newspaper admits are completely unscientific.

The Las Vegas Visitors didn’t make it out of the first round…

Related:

McPhee wants Las Vegas team to compete right away; history says it won’t be easy

Report: Las Vegas NHL team asked permission to speak with Capitals assistant GM