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.

Buffalo Sabres reveal 2018 Winter Classic jersey (Photos)

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Black Friday is two days away, so naturally it’s a great time for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers to reveal their jerseys for the 2018 Winter Classic which will take place on Jan. 1 at Citi Field in Queens.

[2018 Winter Classic: Buffalo Sabres vs. New York Rangers at Citi Field]

While we await what the Rangers will wear, the Sabres are going with a classic look that will have you thinking of the days of Alex Mogilny, Pat LaFontaine and Donald Audette, as well as the 2008 Winter Classic.

That “NY” at the bottom of the logo? That’s a “marker of the interstate matchup,” according to the Sabres. The royal blue harkens back to their original color scheme from the 1970s and the jersey also features three secondary logos. The buffalo features SABRES on it, a pair of crossed swords on the pants and the Buffalo script wordmark on the helmet.

It’s a real sharp look with a solid color scheme and one of the more memorable logos.

What do you think?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Lightning look to keep rolling against Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday night, as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here

After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have envisioned getting off to a better start this season. Through 20 games, only the St. Louis Blues (33 points in 22 games) have picked up more points than the Bolts (32 points in 20 games). As you can see from the numbers, Tampa has games in hand on St. Louis and they only trail by one point.

The Lightning are coming off a 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Saturday, but that was their first regulation defeat since Oct. 28 in Anaheim.

There’s many reasons why they’ve been so good this season, but look no further than the line of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov. That trio has been lights out so far this season, as they’ve combined to score 88 points in 20 games.

Add the stellar play of blue liners Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anton Stralman, as well as Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s dominance between the pipes, and it’s easy to see why they’re playing so well.

After tonight’s game, the Lightning will hit the road to close out the month. They’ll travel to Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Boston over the next week.

Since falling apart in a 7-5 loss to the Devils on Nov. 12, the Blackhawks have won each of their last two games (6-3 over the Rangers, 2-1 against Pittsburgh).

If the playoffs started today, the ‘Hawks wouldn’t be in, but the playoffs don’t start today, so there’s plenty of time for them to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Tonight, they’ll have their hands full with the potent Tampa Bay attack, and they have to play a sound game if they want to come out on top.

“You have to know who’s out there, who can make plays,” goalie Corey Crawford said of the Lightning, per the Chicago Tribune. “Who is more of a drive-to-the-net, gritty player. You have to be patient. Their D-men are in the rush as lot. They’re going to have guys coming through the middle.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s been a tough start to the season for Kyle Palmieri’s feet

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It’s been a tough start to the season for Kyle Palmieri‘s feet.

After missing six games because of a left foot/ankle injury he suffered in practice late last month, the Devils announced that Palmieri is back on the shelf because of a broken right foot.

The latest injury occurred during Monday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, after he blocked a shot. The team says they expect him to miss anywhere between four and six weeks.

The Devils are off to a fantastic start this season (they’re 12-5-3 record has them in first place in the Metropolitan Division), but there’s no doubt that losing Palmieri for an extended period of time will hurt.

The 26-year-old has four goals and five assists in 13 games this season. He’s also coming off 30 and 26-goal seasons over the last two years.

Here’s your daily reminder that hockey players are tough:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for the Habs to trade Shea Weber to the Leafs?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Vladimir Tarasenko got a Gordie Howe hat trick in Tuesday’s 8-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–TSN’s Travis Yost explores the possibility of the Canadiens trading Shea Weber away so that they can get a rebuild started. Yost believes a trade to Toronto isn’t likely, but it should be considered. (TSN.ca)

–Former NHL enforcer Stephen Peat is struggling with a number of issues due to brain trauma he suffered on the ice. Here’s a sad exchange of e-mails between Peat’s father and a writer at the New York Times.

Matt Murray has two Stanley Cup rings, but he’s still working hard to improve his game on the ice. “It’s just about trying to make your job as easy as possible, fundamentals-wise,” Murray explains. “Every time a goal goes in, I know exactly what I should have done better and what I could have done better. There’s an answer to everything. That’s kind of how I like to approach it.” (Pittsburghmagazine.com)

–Now that the Avs have made the Matt Duchene trade, they’ve officially fully embraced a rebuild, as they’re icing the second-youngest roster in the NHL. (BSNDenver.com)

–Even though teams that aren’t in a playoff spot by Thanksgiving face an uphill climb, the Bruins aren’t going to let that stop them from where they want to go. “We gotta stick with the process,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “If you trust the process and play the right way, then we believe we’ll get enough points. It may not be by November 24. Given the amount of adversity we’ve dealt with I don’t think it’s fair to use that benchmark. It matters but the process matters equally.” (Bruinsdaily.com)

–Winning on the road isn’t easy in the NHL, so games at home are that much more important. Unfortunately for the Edmonton Oilers, they haven’t been good at Rogers Place. (Oilersnation.com)

–The Leafs have been relatively good on the ice this season, but what do their advanced stats look like? Pensionplanpuppets.com has a full breakdown of their advanced shooting numbers. (Pensionplanpuppets.com)

–Sabres coach Phil Housley hasn’t had it easy during his first year as an NHL head coach, but he still enjoy working with the players on his roster. “Obviously, when you’re not winning, the pressure builds and you have to try to handle all those things and the stressful parts of the job,” Housley said. “But I love the challenge. I love coming to the rink, I love getting better, whether as a coach or demanding more from players and trying to turn the organization around.” (Pioneer Press)

–The Canucks placed Anton Rodin on waivers with the purpose of buying out his contract. Now, it sounds like he’s about to join HC Davos of the Swiss League. (Swisshockeynews.ch)

–The Australian ambassador to the United States’ name is Joe Hockey. Seriously, that’s not a joke. NHL.com sat down for a Q&A with Mr. Hockey, and surprisingly, he doesn’t know a whole lot about the game. (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.