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: Sep 19, 2006
Posted on: August 31, 2011 9:55 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Alright...Using a similar format to the chart in the article (I'll include all finishes though), for the 4 year period(02-03 thru 06-07) prior to the sampling used here's what we got:

Numbers are ordered Avg Finish, Playoff Appearances, Conf Rank with 03-04 first

Senators: 2.75, 4. 1st-5th-1st-4th
Devils: 3.25, 4. 2nd-6th-3rd-2nd
Lightning: 4.75, 4. 3rd-1st-8th-7th
Sabres: 6.5, 2. 12th-9th-4th-1st

Maple Leafs: 6.75, 2. 5th-4th-9th-9th
Flyers: 6.75, 3. 4th-3rd-5th-15th

Rangers: 8.5, 2. 9th-13th-6th-6th
Thrashers: 8.5, 1. 11th-10th-10th-3rd
Canadiens: 8.5, 2. 10th-7th-7th-10th

Bruins: 8.75, 2. 7th-2nd-13th-13th
Islanders: 9, 3. 8th-8th-12th-8th
Hurricanes: 9.75, 1. 15th-11th-2nd-11th

Capitals: 12, 1. 6th-14th-14th-14th
Panthers: 12, 0. 13th-12th-11th-12th
Penguins: 12.25, 1. 14th-15th-15th-5th

First of all, obviously, the previously discussed despair of the Penguins and Capitals. Who were in the same neighborhood as the Panthers. 2 teams improved, 1 didnt. The Islanders made the playoffs THREE times in four years, but finished 11th in the "ranking" because they were never higher than 8th, below a team like Atlanta that only made the playoffs once (thanks to a 3 seed). Such a small sampling of years will cause the average to fluctuate wildly like that. Same applies to the low ranking for the Flyers because of one bad year. Their one putrid year dragged the average below any finish they had in the other 3. But thats a mathematical argument I wont get too deep into. Suffice to say, its a very dubious number to use. But since thats what was used here, so be it.

3 of the bottom 7 the author used were top 8 in this 4 year period (Ottawa, Tampa, Toronto), and a 4th (Atlanta) was tied for 8th. 2 of them were Top 3. The numbers arent that different, but the teams are, which is the point Im making. The Leafs and Senators took a downturn, coinciding with improvement from Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington. Thats called sports. It happens. Team get good then they get bad. Teams get bad then they get good. And some times just are bad.

What should have been used is point totals. You may have finished 10th, but its possible to have missed the playoffs by only a point or two. Look at the 09-10 season. The Islanders finished 13th, but were only 9 points out of the playoffs. The 9th seeded Rangers were only 7 points out of 5th. The year before, Buffalo was 10th, but only 8 points behind the 4 seed.

The OT loss point awarding has made the playoff races much much tighter. Just because you missed the playoffs doesnt mean no spots are opening up. Thats changing all the 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.

Good article otherwise, though.

Since: Sep 19, 2006
Posted on: August 31, 2011 9:19 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

I just found it mighty curious that such a small sample size was used to try to prove a point that doesnt really exist. Everybody knows theres an ebb and flow and things are cyclical. But I was curious, and I was intending on grabbing the 4 years window prior to the one he chose, but stopped after the season before his arbitrary cut-off (2006-07). Wonder why he didn't go a nice round 5 years? Could it be it doesnt prove his "point"? Atlanta was the 3 seed. Ottawa was the 4. Tampa was the 7. Islanders were the 8. Wheres "perrenial power" Washington? Or Montreal? The Flyers? This was also the first year of the Penguins return (in 2005-06 the Pens finished dead last in the East). The Bruins were 13th in both seasons. Oh what the heck, I'm bored at work, I'll do it anyway. Give me a few.

Since: Sep 6, 2006
Posted on: August 31, 2011 8:42 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

....that was the best and most compelling argument quote you, it is "Much ado about nothing!" 

Since: Sep 19, 2006
Posted on: August 31, 2011 7:52 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

This is silly. First of all, law of averages says some teams are going to be in year after year. More than half of the conference makes the playoffs to begin with. So, even assuming ALL things being equal (talent, luck, injuries etc) you're guaranteed from the start to have a repeat playoff participant, even if you went by random draw. Not to mention the godawful ownership/management of some teams. Of the 7 lowest teams (call the top 8 the playoff clubs if you like) 2 have won the Cup (Hurricanes, Lightning) and another went to the Finals (Seantors) in recent memory. Just a handful of years ago both Washington and Pittsburgh werent just bad, they were brutally bad. Amazing what a few good draft picks can do.

And as for looking like the NBA, its even more laughable. From 1991-2011 for the Big 4 sports:


17 different teams in the NHL finals; 10 different champions


16 different teams in the World Series; nine different champions


16 different teams in the Super Bowl; nine different champions


11 different teams in the NBA finals; six different champions.

Now, I know this limits it to the "Finals" and not "playoffs" but still. The Stanley Cup Finals have been more diverse over the last 20 years than any other sport in North America, even surpassing the much lauded NFL parity. From 87-98 the NHL had 8 different Champions and 16 different finalists. 75-86 had 4 Champs and 10 finalists. Granted, expansion can account for SOME of that, but the entire makeup of the league (cap, free agency, expansion) clearly is providing more variety in who succeeds and who doesnt. And lets face it, if you cant evaluate talent, and you sign bad players to killer contracts, and cant get a good coach, youre not going to make the playoffs, period, I dont care how the league is constructed. So the Panthers havent made the playoffs in a decade. Is that the fault of the NHL or the Panthers? Every league has its poorly run franchises. Lions, Browns, Bengals, Clippers, Pirates, Panthers, Islanders...

Much ado about nothing.

Since: Feb 12, 2008
Posted on: August 30, 2011 5:33 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

I gotta think if Crosby cannot get healthy or stay healthy and is a former shell of what he used to be that will have an impact on the Pens for some time.   Also, I wonder what the impact to the Flyers will be with the loss of Carter, Richards, and a few others.  Although it appears they have upgraded at the goalie position so maybe it's a wash.

Since: Sep 6, 2006
Posted on: August 30, 2011 3:47 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

I would understand his concern if it were at all true.  But this is NOT the NBA, where it seems that in my lifetime only the Lakers, Bulls, Pistons and Celtics have won it, with a rare exception of them allowing the Sixers and Magic and Mavericks (1 time each I believe).  And this is not the AL East / AL Wildcard, which are shared by the Red Sox and Yankees perennially (except for one year when I think the Yankees were probably asleep for half the season, or maybe they forfeited a bunch of games because of using an ineligible player and the NCAA made them abandon some wins, or something crazy like that).  He frets about teams like the Flyers (my team, yes, I admit it), whose average finish the past 4 seasons is 5th?  In the past 4 seasons they have finished in the top 4 teams once.  So they started off 3 of those playoff seasons on the road.  That is not dominant.  And if we go back 1 more year, out of the playoffs. 

And this is not MLB where the guy with the biggest payroll wins most years....the Flyers and Rangers before the strike year always were the top 2 salaried teams, and they NEVER won the Cup (3 cups between them in my lifetime, dating back to 1970 as the beginning of time in my book).  And now, with a hard cap, even if this writer was correct, who do we blame?  Probably the ORGAN-I-ZATIONS.  You look at that list, the Flyers, the Devils, (and I will throw in the Red Wings in the other conference) have been run by true professionals for the past 2 DECADES, which is why they are always dangerous.  Then you look at the Islanders, the Maple Leafs, and (until recently) the Lightning, the front office was changing often (Leafs had some stability during the Quinn era, but looking back to the Darrell Sittler years in the 1970s, the leadership was inept or cheap, all the way thru today).  Those are the reasons, if there really is an issue, that the same teams are seemingly always on top.  And once Malkin and/or Crosby are no longer able to play the Penguins fall back to the bottom of the scrap heap, just like they were for every other non-Mario Lemieux year in their history. 

Basically, this blog is a piece of fiction.

Since: Mar 9, 2008
Posted on: August 30, 2011 12:57 pm
This comment has been removed.

Post Deleted by Administrator

Since: Dec 11, 2008
Posted on: August 30, 2011 12:55 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

But the Caps were awful when Ovechkin signed for 13 years.  They missed the playoffs the prior two years and started that season 6-14-1 before firing Hanlon and hiring Boudreau.  Attendence was way down and there was no buzz at all in the city.  Tampa Bay today is much more appealing than Washington then. 

It's also deceptive to give them an average finish of 1.75.  Four years ago they got the #3 seed by eaking out the Southeast ahead of Carolina, but their 94 points tied the #8 seed Bruins.

Granted, they've done great the past 3 seasons (regular season-wise) but things change all the time.  Write this article a few years ago and you'd be talking of contracting the Caps.

Since: Sep 3, 2009
Posted on: August 30, 2011 12:32 pm

TB Lightning as good as the rest of those'

Everyone loves the Flyers for some reason, Tampa Bay is better then them for sure and maybe even better then the Pens and Caps.
Last year was no fluke and with Rolly the whole season they should only get better.
While Boston was the better team last year let's not forget they were 1 goal away from going home in the Montreal series and 1 goal away in the Tampa Bay series.
I too believe they would have beaten Vancouver as well and maybe beaten them in 5 or 6 games.
They just did not match up as well against Boston and I told my son Mike that even before the series started.
I'm not from Tampa but I know Hockey and Tampa will be an elite team this year and exciting to watch.

Since: Oct 11, 2006
Posted on: August 30, 2011 12:02 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Sleeping on the Lightning huh? They were a goal away from the Finals & I believe they would have beaten Vancouver.
Year # 2 under Yzerman & Guy Bouche will be even better. They swept the Capitals & gave Boston all they could handle.

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