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.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.