Joe Thornton was about to reach the one-year anniversary of his trade from Boston to San Jose early last season when he was asked if there was a difference between one conference over the other.
Thornton didn't hesitate, offering his opinion that the West had it over the East. Thornton paused when asked to elaborate. He couldn't put a finger on it, he just felt the advantage belonged to teams in the Western Conference.
Another year has passed, and coincidentally, there was Thornton on Friday night – the two-year anniversary of the Nov. 30, 2005 blockbuster that sent Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to the Bruins – scoring two goals and assisting on the game-winner for the Sharks.
It doesn't seem like a lot has changed. On Nov. 23, the league began a stretch that features at least one East vs. West matchup on 15 of 17 nights through early December, and on 26 of 32 calendar dates until the Christmas break.
Heading into Monday's action, West teams held a 20-13 edge over the East (two wins after regulation), which almost matches the tally in terms of home ice (West teams have hosted 19 of the 33).
This after the 15 Western Conference teams rolled to a cumulative 82-48-20 record over the East last season, and a similar yet slightly less impressive 79-52-19 advantage in 2005-06 coming out of the lockout.
It looks like more than a trend to us, but you won't catch too many people saying it on either side of the fence.
"It's tough to make that assessment at this point of the season," said John Ferguson, general manager of the East's Toronto Maple Leafs. "The sample size is really so small in terms of games it's tough to be predictive. I think with the schedule next year it will make it more predictive."
"To who is better, one conference or the other? We've got pretty good parity, so I'd not feel comfortable venturing a guess," said David Poile, GM of the West's Nashville Predators.
Poile added because interconference play will nearly double next season (increase from 10 games to 18 played East vs. West for each team) that GMs will look more closely at scouting and preparing for interconference play.
Let's examine three factors that might be reasons for the West's edge on the East:
BIG PLAYER MOVES:
When Thornton moved East to West, it seemed to trigger an immediate reaction from competing teams, especially contenders in the Pacific Division, to bulk up in the middle of the ice and on defense.
Dallas took a chance on now-retired center Eric Lindros and added defenseman Mattias Norstrom at the trade deadline. Phoenix picked up defenseman Ed Jovanovski and power forward Owen Nolan, two bigger, physical players who had recently been on East rosters.
Anaheim landed Scott Niedermayer, who was signed via free agency from New Jersey as part of a larger movement to add more grit to the Ducks' lineup.
Take a look at some additional names that have shifted from East to West in recent seasons: Roberto Luongo, Dominik Hasek, Nikolai Khabibulin, Brian Rolston, Michael Peca, Sergei Samsonov, Martin Havlat, Sheldon Souray, Brian Rafalski, J.P. Dumont, Radek Bonk, Craig Rivet, Mike Grier, Brad Boyes, Jeff Halpern, Mike Ribeiro, Kristian Huselius, Adrian Aucoin, Mark Parrish, Brad Isbister, Raffi Torres and Jose Theodore.
Now compare that to "name" veterans who spent a portion of their careers in the West before moving to the East: Brendan Shanahan, Daniel Briere, Jamie Langenbrunner, Slava Kozlov, Cory Stillman, Olli Jokinen, Tomas Vokoun, Michael Nylander, Kimmo Timonen, Mike Comrie, Derian Hatcher, Jason Smith, Marc Denis, Vesa Toskala, Victor Kozlov, Joe Corvo, Jochen Hecht, Darryl Sydor, Martin Gerber, Manny Fernandez, Ray Whitney, Joffrey Lupul, Jaroslav Spacek, Ruslan Salei and Bryan Allen.
Maybe it doesn't prove anything more than there has been a lot of movement, but players who gain unrestricted free-agent status are just as apt to pick a western destination despite the challenge of greater travel over spending far more nights in their own beds in the east.
Poile, who spent 15 years as GM in Washington and now is in his 10th in the same role with Nashville, sees players moving freely from one side to the other and for one simple reason.
"I think (players) go to where they think they have a chance to win," Poile said. "There's so much more information now available on how teams play, cities, everything."
COACHING: This is an area where the West would appear to have an advantage in terms of experience and success and just maybe it's the biggest reason for a competitive edge over the East.
Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Lemaire, Ron Wilson, Mike Babcock, Mike Keenan, Andy Murray, Craig MacTavish, Barry Trotz – that's a pretty strong group, and it doesn't mention Randy Carlyle, a Stanley Cup winner after two seasons, Alain Vigneault, Dave Tippett, Marc Crawford and two great players who have gone behind the bench in Wayne Gretzky and Denis Savard in the West.
The East is dotted with relative inexperience at the NHL level – Brent Sutter, John Stevens, Guy Carbonneau and Bruce Boudreau are coaching their first teams. Tom Renney and Michel Therrien are coaching their second team and Claude Julien his third. The three combined have been fired four times previously.
Two others – Ted Nolan and John Paddock – are back after a long stretch away as NHL head coaches. And two others – Jacques Martin and Don Waddell – are trying to balance both the job of GM and head coach.
Name the top coaches in the East – Lindy Ruff, Peter Laviolette, John Tortorella and Paul Maurice come to mind – and ask yourself if any of them crack the top echelon in the West.
This area might be as much a reflection of commitment to systems and what's happening in front of the goalie, which trace back to coaching, but the last line of defense seems deeper and more established out West.
Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov and Khabibulin form an impressive top end. And Luongo's situation is not unlike Thornton's. Luongo moved from the East (Florida) during the prime of his career and he's probably been the best goalie between both last and this season anywhere.
"Every piece changes the balance," Ferguson said.
Only Los Angeles and Edmonton are in a state of flux between the pipes. The Kings have recent draft pick Jonathan Bernier developing where the Oilers probably need to upgrade.
The East has a couple of proven veterans, led by Martin Brodeur, who will eventually go down as the game's greatest goaltender. Olaf Kolzig and Vokoun fit into the established category but then it gets interesting.
Five other teams have turned to former backups to be their starters – Philadelphia (Martin Biron), Montreal (Cristobal Huet), Boston (Tim Thomas), Toronto (Vesa Toskala) and Ottawa (Gerber). Huet and Toskala were plucked from Western teams.
If the pendulum were to swing back in the East's favor, it probably hinges on the development of what appears to be a bumper crop of potentially outstanding young goalies.