When Gary Bettman announced the league was going to revamp the divisions two years ago, most hockey fans held their breath for a rebirth of the Norris, Smythe, Patrick and Adams divisions, a rebirth of old school hockey. The pre-1993 makeup had some of the best regional rivalries, and a more simplified, four-division complexion. But when Bettman introduced the new look of the league this past summer, and the goofy, millennial ‘Metropolitan’ name was created, hockey fans knew that we were headed into a new era of the NHL.
Here is a quick overview of the new divisional look: In the Eastern Conference, there is the Atlantic Division, with eight teams and the Metropolitan Division, also with eight teams. In the Western Conference, there is the Pacific Division, with seven teams and the Central Division, again, with seven teams. The funny part of this is that each conference will still send eight teams to the playoffs, which gives the teams in the West a 7% advantage over the teams in the East to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
So why the advantage for the West? Not that I am complaining as one who Bleeds Blue, but I would be frustrated if I was the owner of one of the bottom dweller clubs in the East, i.e. the Sabers, Islanders or Columbus. There are two extra teams making it that much harder for them to earn a post season birth. And while the 7% advantage seems minimal now, I can nearly guarantee that you’ll be hearing John Davidson, Pat Lafontaine, Garth Snow, or one of the other sub-par managers moaning about the conference discrepancies come late March.
The punchline to the new shake up of the divisions is clear as day when you look at the current standings. Not only do the teams in the West have a statistical edge to make the post season, but the franchises west of Nashville are just playing better hockey. Period. And the numbers are almost embarrassing when you compare the East v. the West.
I mean this with no disrespect to my friends in New York, Jersey, D.C., or my brother in Philly, but the Metropolitan is the Alexander Daigle of hockey divisions-all the hype, all the media coverage, all the expectations, but no substance, no proof. The group of teams that include Pittsburgh, Washington, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Columbus, Carolina and both lower New York teams, were heavily regarded as being the toughest, most competitive grouping of clubs in the league. But over the first two months of the season, it’s the exact opposite. Besides the Penguins, not a single other team in the Glen Metropolit-an division would even be sniffing a playoff spot if they were in the West (Sorry Glen, it was too easy). In fact, the team with most points behind Pitt, is Washington with a meager 30 points, which would put them tied in 11th place with Winnipeg in the West.
Needless to say, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in the game. They are closely followed by their Eastern rivals in the Atlantic Division when you compare their top seven teams against the top seven teams in each of the Western divisions. Below is a quick chart I threw together (slow day at the office) just so you can clearly see how big the disparities are.
|Wins||Points||Goals For||Goals Against||Differential|
So what makes the West so good? And specifically, what makes the Central Division so powerful?
I resort back to one of the oldest hockey cliches- team defense. This is the one thing that stands out when you look at the clubs in the Central. They have built a culture in Chicago, St Louis, Minneapolis & Denver that reeks of defensive minded play. And yes, Keith, Seabrook, Suter, Petro, Shattenkirk, Bouwmeester, Johnson are some of the best shut down d-men in the league, but the coaches of these teams have also convinced their forwards how crucial it is to play defensively sound hockey. And it is no surprise that Toews, Backes, Koivu, Duchene, now Parise are consistently in the running for the Selke trophy, awarded to the forward who plays the best defensive game.
And if you look at the goal differential above, it’s obvious that the Central teams have committed to their systems and understand what it means to back check and play at both ends of ice (take note Rick Nash), but that doesn’t mean that they put the offense on the back burner because they are putting the puck in the net at a more rapid pace than the teams in the East.
Bottom line is the West is playing better; higher scoring, more exciting hockey and that’s exactly what the NHL needs. So I guess they do deserve the advantage in the playoff hunt. Thanks again Bettman, I’ve realized that you’re like a cheese… at first you were soft and repulsive, but after a few years you’ve really sharpened up.