Updated: December 21, 2009, 11:20 PM ET

Right now, West trumps East in NHL

Burnside By Scott Burnside

1. East versus West

OK, so just how bad is the Eastern Conference? Well, at one point last week, the last-place team in the Western Conference would have been on the bubble to make the playoffs in the East. As of Monday morning, the 11th-place Minnesota Wild and their 37 points would have been sitting comfortably in eighth in the East. Six of the eight bottom teams in the NHL in terms of point production hail from the East: the Carolina Hurricanes, the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Islanders, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens.

Philadelphia, the Islanders and Tampa have combined for a 5-20-5 record in their past 10 games and remain no more than five points out of a playoff berth as of Monday morning. In terms of putrid play, only the West's Columbus Blue Jackets, who have just two wins in their past 16 outings, approach the woeful level of play by the East's sad-sack legion.

In the past 10 games, eight of 15 Eastern Conference teams failed to win more games than they lost. In that same stretch in the West, however, just three teams lost more than they won.

Head-to-head, the West holds a slight margin of victory, but if you take away the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals, which are a combined 11-2-1 against their Western cousins, the other 13 teams in the East are a desultory 47-60-15 when playing across the conferences.

What does it mean? Well, it means at least three, maybe four, junk teams in the East will make the playoffs essentially by default and, in theory, provide cannon fodder for the elite teams such as the New Jersey Devils, the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

By contrast, the dogfight for the final three or four playoff spots in the West will ensure there are no free passes for the teams at the top. Before the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday night, dropping the Wings out of the playoff bubble on win-loss record, the two would have paired off in a rematch of last season's Western Conference finals … in the first round. Cakewalk? Hardly.

The problem for West teams is that, although the conference is clearly dominant in terms of depth of talent, the playoff road is going to be demonstrably tougher, which suggests we could be looking at a back-to-back Cup champ from the lesser conference.

2. Here's the experience Team USA needs

Time continues to tick down toward the announcement of Olympic rosters, some of which will begin this week. If the buzz around those decisions is any indication of what awaits players in Vancouver in February, this truly will be a tournament for the ages.

With each passing day, it appears one of the biggest issues facing Team USA GM Brian Burke and his gaggle of advisers is who will constitute the leadership core of the team. We often mistake leadership with age, and although experience is important to team success, the two aren't synonymous. Which is why we maintain our position that veteran Dallas Stars center and likely Hall of Famer Mike Modano has no place on the U.S. team.

The argument that Modano, who was invited to the U.S. orientation camp in August, will somehow stabilize what is expected to be a very young dressing room simply doesn't hold water. Modano was stripped of his captaincy in Dallas when it became apparent Brenden Morrow was the de facto captain of that team. Then, there was Modano's temper tantrum after the 2006 Torino Games, when he complained that USA Hockey didn't treat the U.S. players with enough deference, this after "leading" the Americans to an embarrassing eighth-place finish with two goals and zero assists.

The fact Modano was hurt early in the season and has just five goals and 13 points in 22 games has done little to suggest he deserves a spot among the 20 skaters who will wear the red, white and blue in Vancouver. Instead, we offer two suggestions if Burke is looking for a player around whom the younger Americans can rally (neither was invited to the orientation camp).

The first is Bill Guerin, who remains a vital part of a Pittsburgh squad that is well-positioned to repeat as Stanley Cup champion. Guerin has nine goals and 22 points and is plus-7 after being a key part of the Pens' Cup run this past spring. The other player who should be considered for Team USA is Mike Knuble, who has been hampered by injury this season, but has six goals and 17 points in 24 games for the Capitals and is likewise a plus-7.

There was one reason GM George McPhee went out and got Knuble, and that is because he believed his team needed a key veteran presence in the dressing room and on the ice to help Washington take that next step toward a championship. It's worth noting that, as of Sunday, the Pens and Caps were within a point of each other at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Stars, by comparison, were tied with Detroit for the last playoff berth in the West.

If Burke is looking for a key veteran piece for his 2010 team, he could do a lot worse than turning to Guerin or Knuble. A lot worse.

3. The outdoor argument, revisited

We have been pretty vocal about protecting the sanctity of the Winter Classic, and that has meant not cluttering up the NHL landscape with other outdoor games despite the incessant whining from Canadian fans about being shut out of the process. (I repeat: boo-hoo, Canada.)

Still, even though it now looks as if the NHL is committed to having a second outdoor tilt next season, we've softened our stance provided the league doesn't try and shoehorn it into the Jan. 1 schedule. New Year's Day is Winter Classic day, and the league has worked too hard to create a stage that is synonymous with the event to stuff another one onto the docket, even if it is in Calgary.

If the league is determined to placate Canadian markets with an outdoor game of their own, the game has to be on "Hockey Day in Canada." It is the only time that makes sense. It is far enough away from the Winter Classic (Jan. 30, 2010, in the Olympic year, but usually later in February) so as not to detract from the Jan. 1 buzz and is a perfect showcase for the CBC on what is traditionally one of its finest days of hockey broadcasting.

One warning: Given the near disaster that was the Heritage Classic outdoor game in Edmonton before the lockout, the game must be played during the day to reduce the potential for frostbite and the brutal subzero conditions that marred that clash between the Edmonton Oilers and the Canadiens. Here's hoping the NHL Players' Association can get its act together to step in and ensure the players' interests are served, and not just ratings and merchandise sales.

4. Bourque rebounding in Calgary

If there's one Calgary Flames player who would be familiar with donning the blades for an outdoor shindig, it would be unheralded Rene Bourque, who hails from the little town of Lac La Biche, Alberta.

The small lakeside town of about 3,000 inhabitants is about 140 miles northeast of Edmonton. And if you've headed north of Edmonton for any distance, you know that means serious winters.

A week ago, we suggested that one of the failings of the Flames, big picture, might be their lack of depth down the middle. But Bourque, a winger, might be one of the reasons the Flames should still be considered Cup contenders, given the offensive depth he has brought since arriving in Calgary from Chicago for "future considerations" on July 1, 2008.

Bourque acknowledged that a series of injuries in Chicago robbed the coaching staff there of confidence in him and frustrated his own ambitions.

"Definitely, at times, I thought I had the worst luck," Bourque said. "I needed a change, and it was nice to get to Calgary and get a fresh start. Since then, I haven't looked back."

Since arriving in Calgary, though, Bourque has played top-six minutes and has been a veritable point machine (21 goals in 58 games in 2008-09). This season, Bourque was sidelined for six games with injury, but he is still a point-a-game guy with 28 points in 29 games playing mostly with Daymond Langkow, with whom he has developed some considerable chemistry over the past two seasons.

Bourque, who just turned 28, admitted it has been a struggle to not get down when injury strikes, but he said he never worried about his ability to succeed if given the chance -- and good health.

"It was something I knew I'd be able to do," said Bourque, who spent four years at the University of Wisconsin but was undrafted. "I was a bit of a late bloomer."

Last season, Bourque scored all but one goal at even strength. But he is receiving more time and responsibility on the power play after the departures of Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi.

5. Let's not change history

We know it's just at the kick-it-around stage, but is there anything more ludicrous than the discussion about renaming the NHL's major trophies to make a stronger connection with a new generation of fans and to honor newer legends such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr?

Uh, it's called history, folks, and the link to the league's storied past is a crucial drawing card for fans young and old.

You want to make some significant changes to your awards situation? Then the first thing the NHL should do is distance itself from the sham award that is the Mark Messier Leadership Award. That it is listed in the NHL's official record and guide book, along with the Scotiabank/NHL Fan Fav Award, is embarrassing enough. But what is the NHL doing aligning itself with an award that is essentially unilaterally awarded by a person who is an executive with an NHL team?

We're sure Messier's intentions are pure, but, in the award's first year, Messier anointed Chris Chelios as the inaugural winner, then followed that by picking Mats Sundin, whose leadership skills saw the Leafs fail to make the playoffs for the third straight season after the lockout. It is a joke, just like those suggestions that the league needs to rename its trophies to become more relevant.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.


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