The East is back!
The Western Conference has been hands-down the domain of better teams for several seasons, aka Big Boy hockey.
It’s why I’ve spent the past several seasons covering mostly Western Conference playoffs; it’s where the better hockey was, where the Stanley Cup champions have come from six of the past eight seasons.
Despite my obvious Western bias, I’m here to tell you what many have already noticed: the Eastern Conference has narrowed the gap this season, big time.
After years of being the bastion of mostly mediocrity, the East has risen this season.
"Well I think you’re 100 percent right," Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com on Monday.
Babcock has a unique vantage point to the conference’s transformation this season because the Red Wings left the tougher Western Conference via realignment two years ago for the East.
And while last season was proof that Detroit, with all its injuries, was happy to be in the East and squeak into the playoffs in the weaker conference, it appears that was a short-lived experience as far as the East being an easier existence. The Wings now find themselves in a conference where there’s little room to breathe, the quality of play and the top teams are very much on the rise.
"OK, so who wants to play them in the first round?" Babcock asked. "I don’t know if there’s any difference between the first-place team in the East and the eighth-place team in the East. I can’t tell you, for sure. Before you’re in the West and I remember thinking how tough the West was; now I’m in the East and I think the East is very, very tough. There are teams that are going to miss the playoffs that are real good teams. The eight teams that are in right now, at this point anyway, are deep, hard to play against, good skill set, the goaltending is unbelievable, so it’s going to be tough."
For years, Alain Vigneault coached a Vancouver team that was among the contenders in the tougher West, his Canucks coming one win short of a Cup championship in 2011.
Now in his second year with the New York Rangers, he also has an informed perspective on the balance of power shifting between the conferences.
"In the past with the West, their centers where so much bigger, they defended better, it was tougher for the opposition on the attack," Vigneault told ESPN.com on Monday. "But it just seems to me in the East this year, maybe we’re playing more to our strengths. Teams are quick, Tampa is quick, Montreal is quick, Detroit is quick, the Islanders are quick. ... I don’t know if it has something to do with it, but I do think the East is better this year. It’s closed the gap at least."
Vigneault, whose Rangers lost in the Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings last June, feels the turnaround actually started last season.
"For me anyway, since the second half of the season last year, the East has been able to be more competitive against the West," said Vigneault, whose Rangers may well be the best bet in the East again this year. "Now, the West still have some great teams, for sure. You talk about strong down the middle, those top Western teams are still built like that."
And I’m not ready yet to argue the East is better, period. There’s a high-end trademark to Western style hockey that is still evident. The Cup champion may very well come from the West again, whether it’s St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, Anaheim, Minnesota or Los Angeles, you have serious quality there.
But what I’m arguing is the East has closed the gap. It’s not as one-sided as it was. Not even close.
Tampa has gone 16-8-3 versus the West this season, Detroit 17-4-3, the Islanders 14-9-1, the Penguins 15-5-3 and the Rangers an amazing 15-3-5.
The East has some bite this year.
"I do agree with that," Capitals head coach Barry Trotz told ESPN.com on Monday, coaching his first season in the East after all those years with Nashville.
"I just think it’s a natural cycle of things," added Trotz. "The West has been strong for a decade, teams get older or what have you. There’s a natural cycle that goes to the East a little bit now."
When you consider the youth in playoff teams -- Tampa, Detroit, Montreal and the New York Islanders in particular -- it suggests sustainability beyond this season too.
As both Trotz and Babcock pointed out, it’s not just the eight teams currently sitting in a playoff spot.
Added Trotz: "You look at some of the other teams that are rising, look at Florida. It’s an off year for Columbus, but they’re a deep team. In the coming years, you’ve got the Floridas and the Ottawas, the Carolinas, Buffalo can turn it around fairly quickly with the assets they have there."
In a cap world, where retaining core rosters is easier said than done, perhaps these cycles of power aren’t as long-lasting, but I think it’s safe to say that the East has risen. And it’s going to stick around for a while.