I don’t want to say there’s a slight power imbalance in the NHL this season, but it might be time to contract the entire Western Conference for its abject inferiority.
OK, that’s not entirely fair. Let’s relocate the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche to the superior conference, and then contract the rest. We can stash them in that gerrymandered division that already defines “Atlantic” as the region that impossibly connects South Florida, Western New York, Ontario, Quebec and Detroit. No one will notice.
About that power imbalance: Through Tuesday night’s games, 10 of the top 15 teams in the NHL were from the Eastern Conference, including eight of the top 10. Six teams in the Metropolitan Division — the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers — had higher points percentages in the standings than did the Pacific Division-leading Vancouver Canucks.
If the NHL suddenly shifted to the 1-through-16 seeding format favored by some pundits, the West would be represented by six teams, and only two of them would have home ice in the first round.
Seven of the top 10 teams in goals-per-game average are in the East. Seven of the top 10 teams in goals-against average are in the East. Seven of the top 10 teams in regulation wins are in the East. And so on.
Seriously, I haven’t seen something this blatantly tilted toward the Eastern Conference since every NHL Awards voting.
What starts as astonishment about the power imbalance this season soon becomes melancholy. There are going to be some really, really good hockey teams that are left out of the postseason because the East is a meat grinder that doesn’t, say, have a team with a negative-12 goal differential holding down the third seed in its division at the moment. (Hi, Calgary.) But that’s what you get sometimes in a conference or divisional playoff format: Someone inevitably just misses jamming in their skate in the door to wedge it open and stroll into the postseason. (Hi, Florida.)
Listen, we’re all about fairness here. We’re open-minded. What if — and this is a Texas-sized if — the disparity between the two conferences isn’t as severe as one might imagine?
Those with Western Conference bias will suggest that although the East dominates the top 15, it also dominates the bottom four. That’s where one finds the Red Wings (.280 points percentage, an almost inconceivable futility), the Devils (.427) and the Senators (.438), who have a combined record of 28-52-11 against the East this season. The East is like the house in “Parasite” — gorgeous above the ground and an absolute horror show in the basement. The worst that could be said about the West is that it’s a mushy bowl of average topped by two well-above-average teams.
Overall, the East had a winning percentage of .568 through Tuesday’s games; the West was at .548. Head-to-head, the winner is … the West? ‘Tis true: The West has a record of 147-126-37 against the East, buoyed by inter-conference domination by the Oilers (14-6-2) and Avalanche (12-4-3).
(Please note that the Penguins, Hurricanes and Capitals are a combined 46-9-8 against the West. Wow.)
There’s no doubt the East (3.08 goals per game) has the better offense than the West (2.93), but it’s basically a push defensively, with the East at 3.02 goals against per game and the West at 3.00. The West has a slight advantage in save percentage (90.5 to the East’s 90.3), while the East (9.8 percent) has the advantage in shooting percentage over the West (9.4 percent, and thanks for nothing Vegas Golden Knights). They have identical power play (20 percent) and penalty kill (80 percent) marks.
The abridged version: The stats are closer than you think.
That said, it’s the East’s moment. The scales have been slowly tipping since the beginning of last season, and the decline of the California teams in the Pacific has helped hasten it.
But this is the way of the NHL. In 2009-10, seven of the top 10 teams were from the West. In 1999-2000, six of the top 10 were from the East. Power ebbs and power flows. In the end, it’s the team that’s best built for the second season, not the regular season, that really matters. And it’s entirely possible that, for the second straight season, the best will emerge from the West after the East has devoured itself.
From Oilers Nation:
You guys don’t get out much pic.twitter.com/bQW9Ptv6vr
— Chevy 🌋 (@ThatTommyCkid) January 18, 2020
There’s a lot to appreciate with this Edmonton Jersey Foul. Any nameplate that references the clown prince of goaltending, Ilya Bryzgalov, gets a stick-tap from us. But there’s also the cheeky irony of rallying for the return of a goalie who went 5-8-3 with a .908 save percentage as a 33-year-old in 2013-14. It’s a Foul, but we’re not going to get bent out of a shape about it. It’s just hockey, you know? Why you heff to be mad?
Three things about that NHL player poll
1. Our friends at The Athletic did their latest NHL player poll, and the results were mostly what you’d expect from these things. Connor McDavid is really good. Carey Price is the goalie you want to start Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, because excelling for Team Canada apparently gets you a lifetime pass as a clutch goalie, despite the presence of Jordan Binnington in this league. Brad Marchand is the dirtiest player, and we greatly enjoyed the anonymous Pacific Division player who called him “a rat but not a dirty player.” Ladies and gentlemen, your next head of NHL player safety!
2. It’s time to retire Aleksander Barkov from the “most underrated player” lists. He is officially “rated” now. It happens to every “underrated” player at some point; last decade, it was Loui Eriksson who was underrated until he became rated, and then was overrated before becoming underrated again thanks to his regrettable contract. You want a truly underrated player on the Florida Panthers? Jonathan Huberdeau has the seventh-most points in the NHL since the start of last season. Now that’s an underrated player.
3. The least-surprising result is that 86 percent of the 392 players said they don’t pay attention to advanced stats. I’ve spoken to a lot of players over the years, on and off the record, about analytics. Some were curious. Most absolutely don’t care about basic or advanced stats. I’ve always assumed part of this was a general lack of intellectual curiosity, and part of this was a willful ignorance about measurements that could expose flaws in their games. That latter point always confused me, to be honest, because advanced stats can also pump the tires of player who might otherwise be perceived as underperforming through traditional stats.
But mostly, the players see advanced stats as something that doesn’t explain “why” but rather reinforces “what.” As one of them said: “I know when I’ve been getting shelled on a shift or a whole game. We know that — I don’t need someone to tell me that. I’ve been doing this for a long time. … You just know if things are going well or not.”
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Emily Kaplan and I will be podcasting after the All-Star Game this weekend. Listen here for last week’s episode, and make sure to review and subscribe.
Winners and Losers of the Week
Winner: Columbus Blue Jackets
Just a torrid run for the Jackets. They’ve won eight of their last nine games, giving up one or fewer goals in four of them. Against Winnipeg on Wednesday, they got the offense cranked up with four goals. That included two more from Oliver Bjorkstrand, who scored his second straight winner.
The Flyers mascot, or whoever was inside that orange fur ball at the time, is being investigated by Philadelphia police for allegedly punching a 13-year-boy “as hard as he could” during a season-ticket holders event last November. The Flyers claim they’ve investigated the matter and “found nothing to support this claim.” Now, the hockey world waits to see if we’ve been “Milkshake Gritty’d.” Meanwhile, my theory that Gritty has been 70-year-old Bobby Clarke this entire time is looking rather strong.
Winner: Canadian journalists
I’ve never seen a group of people happier to be visiting a hockey town they constantly criticize as being unworthy of an NHL franchise then when the league held the draft in Sunrise, Florida. Now the Panthers get to host the 2021 All-Star Game. Grab the sunscreen, friends from the nord.
Loser: All “Star” Game
No Artemi Panarin, Alex Ovechkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Auston Matthews, Tuukka Rask, Dougie Hamilton, Logan Couture or Jake Guentzel. Sidney Crosby missed too much time to qualify. Evgeni Malkin, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Steven Stamkos all didn’t make the cut. Yes, it’s great that new blood will get the spotlight in St. Louis, including both Tkachuks playing where their dad used to play. But that’s a lot of star wattage missing from an “all-star” game.
Winner: Joel Quenneville
🎥 Chicago gives Joel Quenneville a video tribute set to “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who; the crowd then erupts with a STANDING O! 🌋👏👏👏👏#FlaPanthers #OneTerritory #NHL pic.twitter.com/aZAFMb4ul2
— FOX Sports Florida & Sun (@FOXSportsFL) January 22, 2020
The old coach got a stirring tribute and responded with a little emotion in his first trip back to Chicago as head coach of the Panthers.
Loser: Going to commercial
While the tribute ran in its entirety on the Panthers’ TV broadcast, NBC Sports Chicago was forced to apologize for missing the start of it because they were still in commercial. “We were coming out of a break when the tribute was taking place … and stayed with it live,” an NBC Sports Chicago spokesman told the Chicago Tribune. “We apologize for missing the earlier portion of the tribute and we immediately posted the tribute live in its entirety online and on the app.”
Kudos to the ECHL for not only having women’s hockey stars taking part in their All-Star skills competitions, but having players like Annie Pankowski (shown here) play in its actual All-Star Game. Pretty cool.
Annie Pankowski (@anniepank) scores in the @ECHL All-Star Game! pic.twitter.com/6XxFi3LQA4
— Taylor Haase (@TaylorHaasePGH) January 23, 2020
Loser: Mostly everyone in the Brandon Manning mess
Bakersfield Condors defenseman Brandon Manning was suspended five games by the AHL for “use of a racial slur towards an opponent.” Boko Imama of the Ontario Reign, the target of the slur, said that “no matter how intense or heated a game gets, there’s no room for this in our game.” This is true. But unless the punishment is greater than five games, and when the Condors make no reference to race or racist language in their official statement on the matter, there’s apparently still too much room for it in the game.
Kendall Coyne Schofield. David Pastrnak. Goofy Dunkin’ Donuts cold brew commercial. Tiny sweaters.
Alex Gulstene, the top goalie on the Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team last season, retires due to concussions. “There were several factors that went into my decision to step away from hockey, but the importance of my personal health, including both my mental health and physical health, was the main deciding factor.”
Here’s that Matthew Tkachuk “friendship tour” billboard in Edmonton.
Ilya Kovalchuk spitting wisdom on the shootout: “Personally, I like the shootout, and I think they should change the shootout rule; the first three should be different guys, but then the same guy can go again. That would create that battle of, say, Patrick Kane against Connor McDavid. They could go one after the other and that would be great for the fans.”
Is it time for Joe Thornton to have his Ray Bourque moment?
Akim Aliu, 30, signed with HC Litvinov in the Czech Extraliga. “His conversations with the NHL are continuing on a weekly basis, he says, and soon he will launch a charity to assist underprivileged kids in affording hockey equipment, registration fees, and rink time. It’ll be called the Dreamer Foundation, borrowed after the Nigerian-Ukrainian-Canadian’s longtime nickname.”
Pete DeBoer is already having an impact on the Golden Knights’ penalty kill.
Not hockey, but written by a brilliant hockey writer: Katie Baker’s long read on Mark Cuban.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
A really deep dive into goaltending. Michael Parkatti “helped create a new model to assess goaltending talent based on simulating each goalie’s career-to-date expected goals 10,000 times and seeing how unlikely their actual results were after each career game.”
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Emily Kaplan is going to have a ton of KHL content coming your way after her trip to Russia. This very interesting player poll is just a taste.