Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A shift in the Western Conference

The last handful of years or so, there was one thing you could be sure of in the NHL's Western Conference: While one or two teams might pull ahead of the pack, there would be a whole lot more dogpiled in the middle, fighting it out for anything from home-ice advantage to mid-April tee times.

This season, at least as we approach the 20-game mark, the standings look a little different.

What we've got instead is six teams all playing at a 70-per-cent points percentage clip, clubs that, barring something monumental, are going to easily slide into the playoffs. This group is made up of Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose (all three of whom have 16 games apiece to beat up on Los Angeles and Phoenix), Detroit, Nashville and Minnesota.

Further down the line, the Northwest Division has a dogpile of mediocrity of its own, where four teams are all in the 50-per-cent range and on pace for point totals in the low 80s — a mark that shouldn't get you in the playoffs, but under these circumstances just might.

And, finally, in the basement, we've got five teams who are, for all intents and purposes, awful. Even at this early date, I've got no problem in writing off Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Columbus and Phoenix — all of whom missed the playoffs last season and are almost certainly going to again. (The Coyotes, for example, will need a 42-24-0 record the rest of the way to have a hope, and not even Mrs. Gretzky's taking that bet.)

What are we left with? A 10-team playoff race?

And it's mighty early days yet.

Far be it from the grand resurrections many predicted under the league's new CBA, the garbage teams of a year ago are in File 13 again — at least in the West, where it's been strong defence and goaltending leading the way. The NHL's top seven teams in goals against so far are in the West, with Calgary joining the aforementioned Big 6 as one of the stingy group.

On the flipside, only two Western teams — Anaheim and San Jose — crack the top 12 in terms of goal scoring.

What does that mean? For one thing, if you want the high-flying, high-scoring NHL where anything can happen and anyone will win, tune into the East where even the top teams have seen 60+ goals end up in their net. That's where the playoff-race drama will come — and we're seeing evidence of it already with unlikely teams like Washington and Pittsburgh in postseason positions.

The West?

It's been a low-scoring, predictable, and almost humdrum season so far. Teams that were high-flying in the past — namely Vancouver, Colorado and Edmonton — have packed up the offence and are struggling to adjust.

Minnesota, meanwhile, look like the poster boys for the not-so-wild West, where the bad teams are horrid, the mediocre teams are boring and everyone else is trying to out goalie one another.

And so far, Manny Fernandez is a Hart Trophy candidate.


At 2:47 a.m., November 14, 2006, Blogger Tapeleg said...

That's parity for ya...

At 9:26 a.m., November 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there are 7 top quality teams in the west. The six you mentioned (Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Nashville and Minnesota) and Calgary who after a horrible start (which seems to be normal for the Flames) look to have their season back on track. Those 7 teams should make the playoffs and the 8th team will likely be either Vancouver or Edmonton with Colorado having an outside chance. I think the east will have a more interesting playoff race, especially if teams like Washington, Pittsburgh and the Islanders can continue to play decent hockey and Ottawa and/or Boston and/or Philadelphia can improve to the level of play they should be at.

At 10:28 a.m., November 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree on one point: the status of the Northwest conference. If you look at the two other conferences, 5 clear playoff contenders emerge; there are clear winners and losers. In contrast, the NW is made up of 5 teams which are relatively close to one another, which should prevent any one team from running away with the division. There is no guarantee that Minnesota can keep up their current pace in these conditions; a streak of a few lost games and they are right back in the pack.

Yes, if Manny stays this hot Minnesota will do very well. But unlike the other two divisions, we are dealing with a lot of "ifs."

At 10:28 a.m., November 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That should say "two divisions," i.e., Pacific and Central.

At 10:30 a.m., November 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey James, sorry to hammer your comments board lately, but I wanted to weigh in on one point you made. The Sharks and Ducks do have 16 games each to pound on the Coyotes and Kings, but the Central is far worse now that Chicago's injuries have put them back in their place. Detroit and Nashville have 48 free points on the table, playing 24 games versus the woeful Blues, the B-list gang of NHLers surrounding Rick Nash in Columbus, and now, the Norfolk Admirals.

At 5:18 p.m., November 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll gladly admit that I'm a little biased, but it's too early to write off the Blues. They're only 4 points out of a playoff spot (with two games in hand on the 8th place team) and have played much of the season without three of their best defensemen.

At 5:21 p.m., November 14, 2006, Blogger James Mirtle said...

The Blues are on pace for 66 points right now; certainly, they could make it, but it's looking very unlikely.

At 6:06 p.m., November 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that kind of skews reality just a bit.... all they really have to do is outplay the 8th place team by 5 points over 65 or so games. That's only 1 win every 22 games.

Mind you, I wouldn't put money on them making the playoffs right now, but they have been playing better as of late and they're finally are getting healthy.

At 11:37 p.m., November 14, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

Anyone who was expecting a salary cap to materially affect the standings hasn't paid attention to the effects salary caps have had in other sports that have tried them. Admittedly, almost no one that follows sports has actually paid attention to what happened in the NFL after the imposition of the cap. No matter how you want to define it, there is neither more nor less parity/competitive balance/whatever you want to call it in the NFL now than there was fifteen years ago.

In the NFL, this is because a sixteen game season and large numbers of nearly random injuries swamp whatever effects the cap might have. In other sports, it's because having a smart front office has always been more important than having a rich front officeand the CBA doesn't mandate that the brains be shared equally.

At 2:52 p.m., November 15, 2006, Blogger Dennis-IOF said...

Yah for the slam on Mrs. Gretzky...but a major booooooooooo for failing to point out that Det-Nsh have it even easier than do Dal-Sj-Ana.

As for the NW Division...I'd expect that eventually Cgy and Edm will fight it out for the crown. I think Min's for real and will make the playoffs but Col's got one line and Van is basically Nasdin plus Luongo.


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