The National Hockey League, like most sports leagues, is cyclical.
Case in point: for many seasons this millennium, the league’s most skilled and capable teams resided in the Western Conference. We remember the dynasties – Detroit under Mike Babcock, Chicago under Joel Quenneville, and Los Angeles under Darryl Sutter all won multiple titles and made life extraordinarily difficult for other Western Conference contenders.
Times have changed. Over the past few seasons, the talent shift towards the Eastern Conference has been palpable, and it has led to what I consider a significant talent imbalance.
That’s not to say the Western Conference is devoid of skill. The league’s most dangerous team resides in Colorado, and Dallas and Vegas have already established themselves as credible Stanley Cup contenders this season.
But the rest of the conference leaves a lot to be desired. Juxtaposed against an Eastern Conference where it seems as though there are few soft parts of the schedule, it’s something we will have to persistently consider when evaluating the true talent level of each of these teams. Remember: 61 percent of a team’s schedule stems from conference play.
One way to gauge the health of a group of teams – be it at the division or conference level – is to evaluate how they do when they aren’t playing each other. The below tables show how the divisions have fared against each other by way of three measures: net shot differential, net expected goal differentials, and net goal differentials.
There are a few interesting takeaways from the data here:
– By total goal differential, the Atlantic (+11) and Metro (+26) are 37 goals better than the Western Conference across 127 head-to-head games so far. That means the average game between the two conferences sees the East winning by 0.3 goals.
– Metro Division teams have destroyed the Pacific Division teams in their respective head-to-head matches. In 32 games, Metro teams are 303 shots (+9.4 per-game) and 22 goals (0.7 per-game) better than the Pacific in these spots; Notably, the Carolina Hurricanes took 11 out of a possible 12 points against Pacific foes to start the year based on a +8 goal differential.
– With Carolina’s dominance, New Jersey’s surge in the standings, and the division’s numbers against the West, you might be inclined to think the power of the NHL resides in the Metro. I think that remains to be seen. For as good as the Metro looks, they have been beaten soundly within the conference by their Atlantic Division peers – Atlantic teams are 23 goals better than the Metro in 46 games (+0.5 goals per game), although the underlying numbers are extremely close between the two.
– The Central Division looks rancid, in large part because the talent (Colorado and Dallas) are struggling to offset five minnows (St. Louis, Nashville, Minnesota, Chicago, and Arizona are 58 goals underwater as a group, and those goal numbers appear flattering in light of the grim shot and scoring chance disadvantages they carry on a nightly basis). If nothing else, the flurry of slow-starting teams in this division has opened the door for the Winnipeg Jets (+8 goals year-to-date), who may be talented enough to secure a top-three spot in the division.
The top of the Western Conference still seems robust, but weakness in the middle, with another cut of teams (hello Chicago, Arizona, and Anaheim) already eyeing the draft lottery, spells an easier road for contenders west of the Mississippi.
Certainly in relation to that of their Eastern Conference peers, who look like they are preparing for a knife fight through game 82.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Hockey Reference, Evolving Hockey