Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include theories about the West’s domination of the East; an update on the NHL and NHLPA’s plans for a World Cup; how Seth Jones has come back to earth a bit; the Flyers are back in playoff contention; and which rookie Mike Babcock put in the same class with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
FIRST PERIOD: Why are the standings so lopsided toward the West?
Mike Babcock couldn’t believe it. When a reporter said 28 points ranked eighth in the West but first in the East, the coach walked away and checked the back wall of the dressing room, where the Detroit Red Wings post the standings on an eraserboard.
“Thank god we’re in the East,” Babcock said.
That was Tuesday morning. It was even crazier Thursday morning. Thirty points ranked eighth in the West but no one had 30 points yet in the East. The top eight teams in the NHL standings were all in the West.
The West has piled up points against the East with an incredible 87-38-16 record – and that’s after Detroit, a perennial power, went from the West to the East in realignment. If the playoffs started Thursday night, the Wings would have been the East’s first wild card, though their 25 points would have put them 10th in the West.
No wonder Babcock is happy with the move.
Has the NHL’s parity become a parody? Why is the league so lopsided, and will it last? Some theories:
— Competition has made the West better: Detroit won Cups with skill and puck possession, so some rivals copied that. Anaheim won a Cup with size and grit, so some rivals copied that. Now? “You’ve got to be able to play both ways,” said Ducks GM Bob Murray.
Everyone plays with structure. “In the West, I think you play through three zones. You live to fight another day to get through the blue line in the defensive zone, then you kind of play in that transition area, and then you create off the cycle,” said winger Bobby Ryan, who went from the Ducks to the Ottawa Senators in the offseason. “Here I feel like there’s much more open ice through the middle.”
— The West is deeper: This isn’t about the top teams. Of the eight Cups won in the cap era, five were won by Western teams – but one of them was Detroit. So four were won by teams in the East and four were won by teams in the West in the current alignment.
This is about depth. The West is tougher from top to bottom and has been for a while. Though there were no games between the conferences last season because of the lockout and the shortened schedule, Ralph Krueger, then the coach of the Edmonton Oilers, said: “The West has its own parity.”
— The West sneaks up on the East: Games start later in the West – as late as 10:30 p.m. ET – and even in this era of heavy scouting and video review, teams in the East know less about teams in the West than vice-versa. “There are good games out there,” said Murray with a smile. “It’s too bad the East doesn’t get to see more of them.”
— Realignment and the new schedule matrix have amplified everything: There are more games between the West and the East than there were before. So there are more points in play between the two conferences, and if one is better than the other, it will show up more in the standings.
[Watch: Why the West rules the East in the NHL]
There used to be 15 teams in each conference, and each team would play 18 non-conference games for a total of 270 non-conference games league-wide. Now there are 14 teams in the West and 16 in the East, and each team will play twice against each non-conference opponent for a total of 448 non-conference games league-wide.
That doesn’t explain why the West has a better points percentage against the East this season. It was .579 in 2011-12, the last full season, and it was .673 this season as of Thursday morning. But maybe travel has something to do with it.
Teams didn’t play in every other city before. Now they do. Western teams are more used to crossing time zones, and it might be easier to go West to East than vice-versa. The West was 43-14-7 against the East at home and 44-24-9 against the East on the road as of Thursday morning.
— The schedule is skewed: In the end, 36 percent of the NHL’s schedule will be non-conference. But 43 percent of the league’s schedule had been non-conference as of Thursday morning. The West has been beating up on the East, but teams will start beating up on their conference rivals more often as the season goes on.
SECOND PERIOD: Will the World Cup replace the Olympics?
The NHL is talking with the NHL Players’ Association about a World Cup that would be played before the 2015-16 season. The league and the union are still ironing out several issues – including how games would be split between North America and Europe and where the semifinal and final would be – but NHL chief operating officer John Collins said they hope to have an announcement soon.
“We definitely have a shared vision in terms of what we want to do, which is good,” Collins said. “We’ve got a bunch of meetings in the near term to really flesh out the concept and the different models, so we can reach an agreement with the PA on how to roll it out.”
Will the NHL and the NHLPA commit to staging a World Cup every four years?
“I think we’ll do the first one,” Collins said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
Will the World Cup kill the NHL’s participation in the Olympics after Sochi 2014?
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that,” Collins said.
We’ll see. The players love playing in the Olympics, and the Olympics could be valuable when tied to TV rights fees. But the owners are tired of interrupting their season and sending their stars to someone else’s tournament every four years, and both the owners and players would like to control the revenue from their own international tournament. If the first World Cup is a success, the NHL will have less reason to go to South Korea in 2018.
THIRD PERIOD: Jones takes a step back, but still way ahead of pace
Seth Jones has come back to earth a bit, but that only means he’s where he’s supposed to be and still far ahead of schedule for a 19-year-old defenseman.
After Roman Josi suffered a concussion two games into the season, the Nashville Predators put Jones on the top pair with Shea Weber, even though Jones, a right-handed shot, was a rookie and had to adjust to the left side.
Jones, the fourth overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, excelled. He scored a couple of goals, including a game-winner at Montreal, and logged a lot of minutes against top competition. He played as much as 30:19 on Oct. 31 at Phoenix.
But that was the start of a seven-game road trip, and that was the night Josi returned. The Predators began to struggle, and they ended up putting Jones back with Kevin Klein and Josi back with Weber.
“He had a fantastic start, and then he hit a couple bumps on the road,” said Predators coach Barry Trotz. “We were playing him at 26, 27 minutes a night. You’re playing against guys who have man strength, playing against good teams. The pressure and the intensity of playing against top players is pretty tough for a 19-year-old, physically and mentally, so we backed him off a little bit. But he’s been terrific. … The impact he’s had on our team has been a lot more than I thought it would be for a first-year defenseman.”
OVERTIME: Believe it or not, the Flyers are back in playoff contention
The Philadelphia Flyers are 5-1-2 in their last eight games. They are still in eighth and last place in the Metropolitan Division, but it’s the Metropolitan Division. Despite a bad start, they are only three points out of third place with a game in hand.
The Flyers are skating better under new coach Craig Berube, and since a 7-0 loss to the Washington Capitals on Nov. 1, they have outscored their opponents, 20-13, in eight games. Claude Giroux is finally starting to produce, with two goals and five points in his past five games. Steve Mason has a .932 save percentage this season.
“I knew we had a good team,” said defenseman Kimmo Timonen. “But until we start putting the puck behind the net and we start playing solid team defense first, it’s going to be hard. The way we have been playing the last couple of weeks, it has been really promising.”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— Collins would not say how many outdoor games the NHL would stage next season. He wouldn’t even give a range. All he would say is that the Winter Classic is coming to Washington in 2015 – NHL officials will visit the D.C. area in early December to discuss venues – and he reminded reporters that this Winter Classic would draw a record crowd of more than 100,000 people to Michigan Stadium before the other five outdoor games are played. “If this was all we did,” he said, “this would be the biggest thing we’ve ever done.” The NHL wants to see how all these games go before committing to next season’s schedule.
— The NHL will not play Premiere Games in Europe next season. But the league and the Players’ Association are discussing a champions league concept in which NHL teams – not necessarily including the Cup winner – play European champions. “That may be the way we rethink the Premiere Games,” Collins said.
— Trotz said teams might end up playing their backup goaltenders more often this season because of realignment, the new schedule matrix and the new playoff format. There is more travel for many teams, and non-conference games don’t mean as much as games against division rivals. “I think you’ll see a lot more of the backup goalies playing in some of the non-conference games,” Trotz said. “When you’re fighting for a playoff spot with a Minnesota or St. Louis or something like that, head-to-head meetings might have a bigger impact.”
— Danny DeKeyser was an undrafted free agent. He is 23 and has played only 35 NHL games – 33 in the regular season, two in the playoffs. But how big of a loss is he for the Wings now that he’s out with a shoulder injury? The other day, Babcock mentioned that guys look better when they play with certain teammates – Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and – yep, you guessed it – Danny DeKeyser.
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