Blog Entry

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Posted on: August 29, 2011 2:26 pm
Edited on: August 29, 2011 2:59 pm

By Brian Stubits

Sometimes simple and obvious things just hit you. Things you had realized before but for some reason they jump to your attention again. It tends to happen a lot more often during the lazy hockey days of summer.

That's exactly what happened when I began to think about the makeup of hockey markets/organizations, particularly in the Eastern Conference. What popped into my head was the fact that the contenders this season are likely to be the same as they were last season, and for the most part the same they were the season before that. And it's likely they will remain the contenders for the season after next, too.

At that moment I realized the NHL is starting to resemble the NBA in a way. And that's not good. One of the biggest reasons the NBA is in a lockout that seems to have no end in sight (Ken Berger and the Eye on Basketball guys have that covered) is the very issue that only a handful of teams enter every season with a chance to win the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Everybody's favorite stat about the (lack of) parity in the NBA is the simple fact that since 1984, only eight different organizations have won the championship. That's eight teams in 28 seasons.

Now look at the Eastern Conference in hockey. The Capitals have been atop their division for four straight seasons. The Penguins and Flyers are perennial contenders. Same goes for the Bruins while the Rangers, Canadiens and Sabres are regulars in the 5-8 range in the standings.

Of course that leaves teams like the Islanders (four-year playoff drought), Maple Leafs (six-year drought), Jets/Thrashers (one appearance in franchise history), Hurricanes (perennial contender for first runnerup these days) and the Panthers (10-year drought) to fend at the bottom.

So where do these teams fit? When you have a team like the Islanders seeming ready to step up and compete for the playoffs, who are they going to surpass? The Eastern Conference is full of traditional hockey markets in the American northeast and Canada, big markets either in hockey-crazy cities and ones with rich histories. The West has a few of those as well -- namely Vancouver, Detroit and Chicago -- but not as many as the East.

But have a look at the chart below detailing the past four seasons. Five teams have made the playoffs in each of those seasons and four teams have failed to advance beyond the regular season even once.

Last four seasons
Team Average finish (Eastern Conference) Playoff appearances 2011-12 payroll (
Capitals 1.75 4 $65,190,128
Penguins 3.5 4 $62,737,500
Bruins 4.5 4 $56,682,976
Flyers 5 4 $64,124,761
Devils 5 3 $58,429,167
Canadiens 5.75 4 $59,770,510
Rangers 7.25 3 $62,935,334
Sabres 7.5 2 $67,895,357
Hurricanes 8.75 1 $49,775,000
Senators 9 2 $51,845,834
Lightning 11.5 1 $59,326,083
Maple Leafs 12.25 0 $59,115,000
Jets/Thrashers 12.25 0 $48,284,166
Panthers 12.25 0 $49,882,042
Islanders 13.75 0 $45,970,166

You get the feeling that at least five spots are locks in the East this year with two more almost assuredly the same. In the lock category you start with four of the five teams that have been staples: The Capitals, Penguins, Flyers and Bruins. Add in the up-and-coming Lightning for good measure. Hard to imagine any of those five not making it this season. In the next two spots I think you can add the Rangers and Sabres. With new owner Terry Pegula, the Sabres seem destined to become another playoff regular. These are teams that all improved (or in the case of Boston, didn't have to improve, but more or less stay in tact after winning the Stanley Cup) and were already playoff caliber.

By my stellar mathematical abilities, that leaves one spot essentially up for grabs. Among the group fighting for it will be the Canadiens (the other team to make it each of the past four seasons), Devils and, well, the rest of the conference. Outside of the Senators who are building for a few years from now and maybe the Jets, every team in the conference looks to be better now then they were at the end of last season.

And here's the thing: I don't see how it will be easy to unseat these teams at the top of the conference. Sure, you will have the occasional team slipping through like the Lightning. To extend the analogy back to the NBA, that's like the Oklahoma City Thunder building after years of struggle to a competitive level. But they still have to fight through the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs, all of which are almost guaranteed to be in the hunt. It's hard to imagine a time when the Lakers won't be contenders, and when they have been (post-Shaquille O'Neal) they rebuilt in a hurry and won the title shortly thereafter.

That's what I'm seeing for the Eastern Conference, that kind of perennial favorite similarity. It makes sense, obviously. The best free agents will want to go to the best teams in the best hockey cities and the biggest pay checks. That's to be expected. And that's a huge reason why these teams are able to stay above the equator. It doesn't hurt to have the infrastructures they all have at their disposal, too. From fan support to smart organizational minds and moves, they win more often than not. Success begets success. It's no coincidence that these are also the teams most heavily featured on national TV.

Let's look at the Capitals. Owner Ted Leonsis has been mentioned his 10-to-15-year plan ... not a plan that calls for 10-to-15 years to win the Cup (although it's starting to look that way) but instead to keep the Caps a Cup contender for that time. And because Washington D.C. has shown itself to be a strong hockey market and is appealing to free agents, it's easy to see how the Caps can sustain that. You have a young Alexander Ovechkin on your roster? Lock him up! Just throw a 13-year contract in front of one of the sport's best players and he's aboard for the long haul. Try and do the same when you're in Tampa Bay and you have a situation where you are only able to secure Steven Stamkos for five seasons.

The reasons are obvious, much the same as the Yankees in baseball (and now the Red Sox). You can pen each of those teams into the playoffs before the season even starts and you are most likely going to be right. But this isn't supposed to happen in hockey, not with a supposedly game-evening hard salary cap. It's just the inherent advantages are too tough for a lot of teams to compete with. Essentially, the margin for error is razor thin for the lesser markets/organizations.

Toronto is the exception (sorry Leafs fans) to the big-market success model. It is probably the best hockey market in the NHL, has an incredibly devoted fan base and has not been afraid to spend. But even the Leafs are struggling these days to break that glass ceiling and butt their way into the playoffs. They couldn't beat out the Rangers for Brad Richards' services in free agency.

Now this is why they play the game. You can't lock in these teams to the playoffs. After all, who saw that Devils season coming last year? You still have to earn your way into the postseason. But if you are a fan of one of the bottom-feeders in the East, I'd suggest you cool your jets. The East's upper echelon is pretty well full of NHL aristocrats. The competition will be better and the spots will likely be more fiercely fought for, but it will be hard to break through.

In the West you can hear the mid-level teams saying "welcome to our world."

Photo: Getty Images

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Since: Dec 2, 2011
Posted on: December 16, 2011 12:04 am
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Since: Dec 2, 2011
Posted on: December 15, 2011 9:13 pm
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Since: Dec 11, 2006
Posted on: September 16, 2011 1:35 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Terry Pegula and Ted Black have easily turned Buffalo into the top organization the NHL.  It's only getting better.  The upgrades in the offseason to the practice facilities, locker-rooms (largest and best in the NHL), Ice surface (Best in the NHL with 3 new de-humidifiers, cooler tower, and 2 new zamboni's with laser balancing) among smaller amenities like flat screen TV's and cup holders in the restrooms, and hand-delivered season tickets by the players and owner to name a small few are class A.  Sabres had to cap season tickets this year to allow 2000 single seats per game available, which went on sale today.  Feeling is every home game will be sold out before the season starts.  "Party in the Plaza" tents and TV's will be available for every home game where hundreds to thousands can gather (depending on the weather) for those without tickets.  Pegula's deep pockets have made Sabres the highest salaried team in the NHL and the only goal is to win multiple Cups.  Anybody who thinks Buffalo will be a bubble team this year is foolishly mistaken.  The only goal is the Cup, which we will achieve this year - one of many in the coming years.  Get readu for the new dynasty......LET'S GO BUFFALO!

Since: Jan 2, 2007
Posted on: September 2, 2011 10:33 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

I suspect that anyone who is not a Sabres' or a Devils' fan it a little tedious to see this pizzing contest.  However, Schmalzel has elevated this to a particularly high form of mindless boosterism.  When every single point displays flawed logic then it needs to be called out.

reason the Sabres were up there was the Devils horriffic start

Well, how about the Sabres' equally, perhaps worse, horrific start?  After nearly 20% into the season the Devils had 9 points.  That's horrific for sure, but not as bad as the Sabres 8 points on that date, (Nov. 5, 2010).

The reality is that after a putrid 2010 by both teams; the Sabres and the Devils were rather close for 2011, (NJ 59 points; Buffalo 62 points).  The Devils' poor start is not the reason why they finished 15 points behind the Sabres.  The final 10 games of the season are what separated the men from the boys.  The Devils gained 9 of the final possible 20 points; the Sabres gained 17 of the final possible 20 points.  It was the end of the season, when a playoff position was possible for either team that chose to step up, when the Sabres finally distanced themselves from the Devils.

Folding like a wet rag, as the Devils did late in the season, is hardly something that instills confidence in the team's character.  (BTW, the Sabre's star goalie was injured down the stretch so it is Buffalo that overcame injury challenges.)

Kovy Elias and Parise can get the Devils over 90 points easily this year if not farther if their defense improves
It was easy to expect that the wheels were going to fall off NJ upon signing Kovy.  (I did predict it - you can look it up if my pre-season messages are still on CBSSports.)  I will not belabor what is fairly obvious, but two key points make the team's performance last season rather predictable: 1) the team had serious salary cap issues that prevented them from addressing certain needs while at the same time creating a contentious lockerroom situation.  2) Kovy has always had an abysmal negative +/- stat which is a reflection on his apparent complete distain for playing defense.  How can he score that much and still have a negative +/-?

The makeup of the roster virtually assures the Devils of having a poor defense.  If Brodeur were still in his prime then he would be able to mask that deficiency.  I think he's one of the great goalies of all time; but he is far from still being in his prime.

if their defense improves... which it might just with the draft they had
It is excessively optimistic to expect that one rookie is going to have that profound of an immediate impact.  With the team's weaknesses exposed, and with an aging roster, it is more likely that the Devils will achieve fewer than last season's 81 points; not more.  (File this comment away for next off season.)  Meanwhile, there was absolutely no effort to contrast how the Sabres may have improved themselves significantly over last season.  The team lost absolutely no players that were expected to be contributors, and added two veteran blueliners and a highly-regarded forward.

It is very reasonable to expect that the Devils will have a hard time replicating last season's 81 points.  It is even more reasonable to expect that the Sabres will improve on last season's 96 points.

if the devils finish within 10 points of the Sabres you should celebrate
There will not be any Devil's party at the Sabres expense; it is not even going to be close.  The Sabres are more likely to have 30+ points over NJ this season compared to a 10-or-fewer points advantage.

Since: Aug 16, 2006
Posted on: September 2, 2011 10:29 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Kleaners, if the devils finish within 10 points of the Sabres you should celebrate.

They were 15 within last year I'd say getting "within 10" is not an issue for the Devils, reason the Sabres were up there was the Devils horriffic start thanks to Maclean who by no means should have never been coaching... anyone is a better coach then that stiff. Kovy Elias and Parise can get the Devils over 90 points easily this year if not farther if their defense improves... which it might just with the draft they had.

Since: Sep 25, 2008
Posted on: September 2, 2011 6:50 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

It was just a poor mathematical analysis, using far too small a sample and the wrong determing factor in ranking, to prove a conclusion that doesnt hold water.

I'm not disputing your premise, but if you're going to pick apart someone's subjective opinion, you ought to make a point of at least basing your own on valid data. Since 1991, the NBA has had eight different champions, not six. I know this because when I read your post (don't get me wrong, I'm not even slightly an NBA fan), I thought wow, is it that bad? And then I looked it up.


I'll repeat - I am not disagreeing with you on this. But sound mathematical analysis typically starts with accurate data. Wink

Since: Aug 30, 2006
Posted on: September 1, 2011 12:47 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Kleaners, if the devils finish within 10 points of the Sabres you should celebrate.

Since: Aug 21, 2006
Posted on: September 1, 2011 9:24 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Really? The Devils fighting with a handful of other teams for the last playoff spot? Are you crazy? Last year was a fluke of nature. Parise will be back and Kovie will pick up where he left off. I see better things for the Devils this season. Much better than the Rangers or Sabres.

Since: Jan 7, 2010
Posted on: August 31, 2011 6:43 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

THAT was a great post. 

Since: Jun 1, 2007
Posted on: August 31, 2011 10:43 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Nicely done.

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