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Since time out of mind in the NHL (you know, dating back like two lockouts ago), the Western Conference has been appreciably stronger than the East. The teams that aren't clustered up and down the east coast of the continent long held sway in terms of overall quality, even if they had a general paucity of truly superstar players.
While Sid Crosby and Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos were lighting up the league in most of the last several years, five of the last seven Stanley Cup winners came out of the West, as did seven of the last nine Presidents' Trophy winners. When looked at as a whole, the West consistently was producing No. 6, 7, and 8 seeds that would have been division winners in the East.
But now, it's time to ask if those days have come to an end. Yes, with the shift of the Red Wings to the Eastern Conference, the West lost one of its giants, but more importantly it seems that the teams in the East which are truly good have finally and definitively passed their Western counterparts. While it's not necessarily fair to base such a seismic shift on results from last season, which featured no interconference games, there was an even split among top-10 teams in the league between the East and West.
Five apiece may not sound like a large amount, and indeed that's the same number as the two previous seasons, but with the Red Wings moving East and potentially pounding on the weaker siblings in its new division (getting Toronto, Florida and Tampa five times a year each all but guarantees the Wings another playoff appearance).
Moreover, though, the Canucks seem to be pretty much done as a true power in this league, as they were for the last several years, the Ducks look like they are going to regress hard, and adding the Jets to the Western picture helps no one but the actual good teams in their division — of which there are two — pad out their stats a little bit.
Interestingly, because of the imbalance in the number of teams in each conference, it seems very likely that people will be complaining about the number of crap teams from Conference III getting into the playoffs over those from the East that actually deserved to participate in the postseason. The odds that the third-place team behind the Blackhawks and Blues — maybe the Predators, maybe the Wild — have fewer points than the fourth-place team in either the PatrickPlus or Flortheast (or both, I suppose) seems extraordinarily high.
Based on what we saw last season, there's little reason to believe that Chicago won't be the best team in the league once again. They are superbly built and lost relatively little in terms of actual strong contributors this summer. They might miss Dave Bolland, they might miss Viktor Stalberg, but they won't miss either so much that they're not an early Cup favorite once again.
After that, though, you have to think that the real seat of power is in the PatrickPlus.
Pittsburgh is there, the Rangers look poised to stop playing disappointingly now that they have a new coach Henrik Lundqvist and some of their skillsier forwards does not actively hate, the Islanders seem to be on an upward trajectory even if their current goaltending situation remains at least a little unnerving, and you can't imagine that the Flyers do as poorly this time around as they did last season.
Columbus is a bit of a wild card, obviously, and I'm not sure they can replicate something like last season with their only major addition this offseason having been an injured Nathan Horton.
New Jersey could be truly awful, and I'm not sure how much I trust Washington to do well outside the Southeast, or Alex Ovechkin to replicate anything close to an MVP performance. I suspect the answer is "very little."
The Flortheast is pretty credible too, though. Boston can't really hope for much more mileage than they got last year, but that still gets them pretty far. The Senators have improved, the Red Wings have come in, the Canadiens are likely going to finish pretty high despite their best efforts to sign nothing but garbage this summer. The less said about Toronto, Buffalo and the Florida teams, the better obviously, but nonetheless that's four out of eight teams I'd rate as being at least good, and in some cases potentially great.
The West not so much. Chicago and Los Angeles are the only one's I'd consider strong enough on paper to be anything like a Cup favorite, with St. Louis and San Jose a ways back of them. After that, how good anyone is, in an entire 14-team conference, is very much open for interpretation. The Canucks' ability to succeed under a new coach, who's going to ask the Sedins to block shots, seems up in the air.
The remaining questions are far more pressing. Can Edmonton take a big enough step forward? Can Minnesota overcome a shaky goaltending situation and lack of forward depth? Can Nashville get anyone to score goals? Was last-year Mike Smith the Mike Smith we always thought he was going to be? Can Dallas or Colorado improve in any appreciable way? I'm not sure there's any good answer to those questions. Not any that those teams would really like to hear, at any rate.
It will be very interesting to see how the conference imbalance affects things going forward; it's going to be much easier to make the playoffs in the West than the East, and that's not going to change any time soon (barring an expansion team or two being added to the mix, just for fun).
Teams in the East also tend to be the ones that make a lot of money, and by and large they look like they're going to have a decent amount more cap space in the coming years when the ceiling reaches heights that begin to resemble those in some of Europe's grander cathedrals.
All of which doesn't exactly foreshadow good things for the future of the Western Conference and its collective Stanley Cup aspirations, but just like when they had to offload all their good players after the 2010 Final, the Blackhawks do seem to love a challenge.
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