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.

Pre-game reading: Clayton Keller tops a good list to top

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie explains how the bye week is going to work next season, and why it’s going to be changed.

— Who are the best prospects who have yet to graduate to their NHL teams? TSN’s Craig Button has put together his list of the top 50, and it’s headed by Coyotes draft pick Clayton Keller. Writes Button: “Keller’s sleight of hand is matched by a creative mind that allows him to be dangerous every time he’s on the ice. The Arizona Coyotes prospect is an electrifying player who is highly productive.” (TSN)

— In which Mike Babcock admits he’s “said lots of dumb things and handled situations fairly poorly at times.” The Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach also shares his philosophy on the job, and talks about how to handle the pressures of being a bench boss. (Sportsnet)

— What is the market for Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar? At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that strong. The 22-year-old former 17th overall draft pick has no goals and just one assist in 32 games for the Senators this season. Hence, all the trade rumors. But as noted by TSN’s Travis Yost, Nino Niederreiter went through a similar year with the Islanders, and he’s turned out pretty well since being dealt to the Wild. (TSN)

— Why the Vancouver Canucks need to be sellers at the trade deadline, by Postmedia’s Jason Botchford, who writes: “For another season, the retool has been exposed a fraud, and there aren’t any options left this week. The Canucks have to rebuild their player base, and the next step in doing it has to be trading veterans for assets — preferably draft picks.” (National Post)

— What’s it like to be a general manager on deadline day? Here’s how Flames GM Brad Treliving puts it: “The trade deadline is like five lanes merging into one. … With each hour that goes by there’s an excitement level building, but you have to block all of that out and be methodical in your approach and then have a sense of when it’s the right time to strike.”  (Yahoo Sports)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: Khudobin makes second start in as many months

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 6:  Anton Khudobin #35 of the Boston Bruins stretches in the warm-up prior to playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 6, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Bruins defeated the Maple Leafs 5-2 to take a 2-1 series lead. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Back on Dec. 23, Anton Khudobin stopped 20 of 23 shots in Boston’s 3-2 OT loss to his former team, the Hurricanes.

Since then, he’s had exactly one start.

That came back on Feb. 11 — a 4-3 win over the Canucks — and tonight, Khudobin get another look as the B’s play the second of a California back-to-back in L.A.

Tuukka Rask played and lost last night in Anaheim, allowing four goals on 25 shots, so it’s little surprise Boston’s making a switch. Rask has been one of the NHL’s busiest netminders this season — starting 48 games, tied for fourth-most in the league — and there have been concerns about potential fatigue.

The problem, of course, is that neither Khudobin or AHLer Zane MacIntyre have earned much trust. Former head coach Claude Julien didn’t have faith either could provide consistency, and Bruce Cassidy appears to be of the same mind. Cassidy has started Rask in four of five games since taking over from Julien behind the bench.

On this note, we should mention GM Don Sweeney did say the B’s could add a goalie at the deadline.

For the Kings, Peter Budaj is in goal.

Elsewhere…

Carey Price, who’s played well in his last two games (58 stops on 62 shots, a .936 save percentage), gets the call as Montreal hosts the Isles. Thomas Greiss is in net for the visitors.

— The streaking Henrik Lundqvist gets a big test tonight, as the Rangers take on the high-flying Leafs in Toronto. Frederik Andersen will be in goal for the Buds, after allowing four goals on 20 shots in a OT win over Winnipeg on Tuesday.

— It’s Brian Elliott versus Ben Bishop as the Flames take on the Bolts in Tampa.

Pekka Rinne appears ready to start in Nashville, after allowing four goals on 13 shots (and getting pulled) in Tuesday’s loss to Calgary. No word yet on an Avs starter, but Calvin Pickard has started four straight.

Mike Smith is playing well lately, have won four of five while posting a .936 save percentage, so he’ll draw back in tonight in Chicago. The ‘Hawks are countering with Corey Crawford, who has won five of his last six.

Wideman open to being traded by Flames

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 7: Dennis Wideman #6 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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The odd man out after Monday’s acquisition of Michael Stone from Arizona, Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman says he’s open to being traded, in spite of his no-movement clause.

“If that’s something that (the Flames) want to do, then they can call and I definitely would be open to it,” Wideman said, per the Calgary Herald. “I think, as a player, you don’t want to be anywhere that you’re not wanted. So if they want to move you and someone wants to take you, then it’s nice to go somewhere like that if that’s the case.”

Read more: Flames see a ‘style fit’ with Stone

Wideman, 33, is in the final year of his contract. But with a $5.25 million cap hit, he may be tough to move, even if the Flames retain salary.

Wideman was a healthy scratch in Calgary’s 6-5 OT victory Tuesday at Nashville. In 52 games this season, he has three goals and 13 assists.

Related: Treliving won’t say if Wideman’s been asked to waive NMC

B’s not planning to trade Carlo, but adding goalie is on radar

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25:  Boston Bruins General manager Don Sweeney speaks to the media during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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The Bruins have seven wins in their last 10, are surging under new head coach Bruce Cassidy and could be buyers as they head into the March 1 trade deadline.

One guy that unlikely to be involved any potential deal? Talented young blueliner Brandon Carlo.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney told the Boston Globe the B’s “want to be a team that believes it has internal fixes, that you are growing those players.” To that end, he’s not planning to move Carlo, who has developed nicely and played a significant role this season.

Sweeney added this organizational approach means Carlo isn’t “worried [about] going somewhere.”

Carlo, who only turned 20 in November, has reportedly been one of the pieces teams have tried to pry out of Boston (the other being Charlie McAvoy, the 14th overall pick at last year’s draft that’s currently starring for Boston University).

At 6-foot-5 and 203 pounds, Carlo has terrific size and has shouldered a heavy workload, averaging over 21 minutes through 60 games this year.

There have been rumblings of a Carlo-for-Gabriel Landeskog swap with Colorado, though reports suggest Sweeney balked at the asking price.

What Sweeney could address, though, is the club’s unstable backup goalie position. The organization appears to have little trust in either Anton Khudobin or Zane McIntyre, a big reason why Tuukka Rask has started 48 games this season, tied for fourth-most in the NHL.

“Yep, we could,” Sweeney told the Globe, when asked about adding a backup. “It’s tough to find at this time, but they exist. But it’s just a matter of teams are like, ‘Well, what are you giving up for it?’ That’s a big part of it.”

There are a few candidates that might fit the bill. Anders Nilsson is a pending UFA and having a solid campaign in Buffalo, with a .922 save percentage in 20 appearances. What’s more, he carries a relatively low cap hit ($1 million). The Sabres, though only four points out of a playoff spot, would need to jump five teams to get there and could be sellers soon.