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.

Randy Carlyle left Jonathan Bernier in for 8 goals, but he had a very good reason

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 01:  Goaltender Jonathan Bernier #1 of the Anaheim Ducks during the preseason NHL game against Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on October 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Ducks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Earlier this season, the Montreal Canadiens dropped a 10-0 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Habs head coach Michel Therrien left Al Montoya in for all 10 goals against.

His refusal to pull Montoya made waves around the hockey world. The topic sparked a debate about unwritten rules in hockey.

On Sunday, it seemed as though the Ducks would reignite that debate, as they left Jonathan Bernier in the game for all eight goals in an 8-3 loss to the Calgary Flames.

But in his post-game press conference, Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle explained why he decided against putting John Gibson in the net.

Here’s an excerpt from the OC Register:

The situation might have called for Carlyle to pull (Bernier) but Gibson, who played Saturday in Edmonton, was suffering from stomach flu and diarrhea. Had Gibson been in condition to play, Carlyle said he would have pulled Bernier after the fourth Calgary goal.

“We kind of left him hanging high and dry,” Carlyle said. “We wouldn’t normally have never done that to him. In these situations, you can’t put people that are sick into the net. You’ve got to think big picture. Big picture is this game we couldn’t change (the score).”

Well, that sounds like a pretty good reason not to put the backup goalie in.

If you haven’t seen all eight goals the Ducks gave up tonight, here they are:

The Ducks have two days off before they host the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday. Gibson should be fine by then.

PHT Morning Skate: Are the Oilers handling Jesse Puljujarvi correctly?

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–The Oilers decided to keep Jesse Puljujarvi on their roster this season, but is that the right decision? He’s been a healthy scratch in three straight games, and even though he’s burned the first year of his entry-level contract, there’s still reasons to send him down to the AHL or Europe. (Edmonton Journal)

–The NHL season is almost two months old, but there are still some players that aren’t producing as much as we expected. The Hockey News looks at five players that aren’t living up to expectations right now. (The Hockey News)

–When we think of this year’s top rookies, we think of guys like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Mitch Marner, but Carolina’s Sebastian Aho tends to fly under the radar. “He’s got a lot of skill, and he’s pretty smart and shifty. It’s not easy to come into this league and play well, and I think he’s done a pretty good job. Coming in and being able to handle the NHL at that age is impressive,” ‘Canes defenseman Justin Faulk said of Aho. (Sports Illustrated)

–Canadiens forwards Michael McCarron and Artturi Lehkonen go head-to-head in a “cookie race”. The first player to get a cookie from their forehead to their mouth (without using their hands) wins. (Top)

–You probably don’t think of Alabama-Huntsville as a hockey factory, but they’ve produced an NHLer and their program is improving. “Not too many people can believe the route that I took, but I wouldn’t change it. I hope that anything that I’ve been doing at this level is helping out that program,” said Oilers goalie Cam Talbot. (New York Times)

–On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1991 Stanley Cup victory. It was a big deal. Unfortunately, Jaromir Jagr couldn’t attend the event, but he had a pretty good reason. (NHL)

McDavid was ‘shocked’ to be removed from the ice and put into concussion protocol

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2016 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Oilers 5-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Connor McDavid went through the NHL’s concussion protocol during Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Wild after a spotter in the arena had the Oilers captain removed from the game.

That, according to McDavid, was a surprising development because, he said, he felt fine.

McDavid was tripped during the second period. As he fell to the ice, McDavid smacked his face on the ice and was in discomfort as he got up. Shortly after, he was removed from the game and put through protocol. He did return for the third period, but the Oilers lost in overtime.

“Yeah, I was pretty shocked, to be honest,” said McDavid.

“I hit my mouth on the ice. You reach up and grab your mouth when you get hit in the mouth. I think that’s a pretty normal thing. Obviously the spotter knew how I was feeling.

“Sh***y time of the game, too, I guess. It’s a little bit of a partial five-on-three and a power play late in the second period where if you capitalize, it could change the game.”

True. Because the Oilers did get a brief five-on-three in that second period, with the game tied at a goal apiece.

But the potential threat of a concussion to any player, not just its young star and top point producer, is something the league must take seriously, especially given the complex nature of such injuries.

“I don’t write the rules,” said coach Todd McLellan.

“We abide by them. It’s compounded when you have a five-on-three and you lose arguably one of the best players in the world. For me, I understand and I get and I support the attention that’s being paid to head injuries. It’s … sometimes it’s the inconsistency that’s a little bit frustrating. Ryan Kesler went down the other day and he went down pretty hard. No one wants to see that, even with an opponent, but there wasn’t a call from anywhere. But it’s there for a reason and we have to live with it.”

Patrick Kane: Others have to ‘step up’ with Toews out of Blackhawks lineup

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 15:  Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks on against the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game Six of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center  on June 15, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This hasn’t been a great weekend for the Chicago Blackhawks.

They lost on Saturday and lost again on Sunday, as the Winnipeg Jets came into Chicago and, thanks to a late goal from Andrew Copp, left with a 2-1 victory. The Blackhawks didn’t have Jonathan Toews in the lineup, as their captain remains out with an injury.

The news wasn’t particularly promising Sunday. Toews, who has four goals and 12 points in 21 games this season, is being kept off the ice for the next few days, because his injury isn’t improving.

“When you’re missing a guy right away for a couple of games, it may not really show up and guys are excited to get that chance. The longer you go, missing a great player, there’s going to be a hole,” Patrick Kane told CSN Chicago.

“Nothing we can control. It’s something guys like myself and other guys have to step up and try to [help], whether it’s taking on more ownership and leadership, playing the right way and do whatever you can to help this team win.”

The Blackhawks have been kept to two or fewer goals in four of their last five games. They haven’t scored a power play goal in the last five games, going 0-for-13 in that stretch.

In addition to missing Toews, the Blackhawks are also without goalie Corey Crawford for two to three weeks.

This is a difficult stretch they’re going through.

“Well, you certainly miss his presence in all aspects of your team game, his leadership as well, as good as anybody that’s played,” coach Joel Quenneville said of Toews. “You use all those important minutes.”