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: Oct 11, 2006
Posted on: August 30, 2011 12:01 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.

Since: Jul 1, 2010
Posted on: August 30, 2011 9:26 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

It's nothing like the disparity before the cap.   Besides, I don't think the cap is the problem as much as the floor has.   I think the talent 1-23 on any roster is better than it has been.   PHX has marginal talent by most standards yet they were a good team and average in scoring, Nashville is another example of a team with limited resources being able to compete.   The problem isn't with the talent in the leagu or the cap imo, the problem is the disparity in front offices.   Teams that have outstanding personnel like Poile, or that spend massive amounts on front office personnel, scouts, etc like Det, Chi, or Montreal are going to have an advantage over the teams that are struggling every year.    Unless there is a cap and a floor on what you can spend on staff for hockey operations, we'll see some teams struggle for years on end. 

I think the system has been working better than it was intended on the league wide level.   Every team in the West has been to the post season since the lockout, and teams like Edmonton that may not have survived without a cap, are healthy and thriving despite an atrocious run of losing and extended "rebuilding".  
  We saw what happened to TB, a few high picks, a new owner who invests on the team and they are no longer out of contention.   I'm sure we could see the same in FLA, NYI, or Carolina, as all 3 have talent on the team and in the system, all they need is a good boost for a couple years to be a serious team.   5 million in staff and infrastructure for scouting, business, and development, and 10 mil worth of talent on the ice makes any of the teams more respectable, and almost every owner in the league has the resources to do that.   Yes 15 million is quite a bit of money, but that's an owner's decision if they want to be competitive, and that's much cheaper than it used to be. It's not like the deck is completely stacked against smaller markets like it was 7 or 8 years ago.

I think the only real disparity is how owners spend on the front office, the ones that spend more or spend better have the advantage, I don't think it's a cap issue.

Since: Jul 29, 2009
Posted on: August 30, 2011 9:21 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

It's all about the commitment from ownership! Everyone deals with the cap. The cap DOES NOT include what you spend on your GM, COACH, SCOUTING, and FACILITY. This is how you build the team. You make a mistake like Spezza or Souray and it handcuffs you for years. Look at Burke and Wilson in Toronto, it will take untill the end of their contracts to straighten out the mess, not get resigned, and the new people will inherit a good team on it's way up. Chirelli in Boston, first move Sign 6foot 9 defenceman and work from there. Pittsburg and Chicago and soon to be Edmonton. be bad so long that you get the leagues new superstars and for the love of God sign them long term. It's all about the ability to evaluate Talent and Heart!

Since: Sep 11, 2006
Posted on: August 30, 2011 7:01 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Personally - I think the problem is that there just is not enough talent that makes a huge difference for a team for all the teams we have.  30 teams is too many.  While clearly we do not want to go back to the original 6, I think they should let a half dozen teams fold.  Of course - the argument would always be which teams to let fold as they all have their fan base. 

I am totally against any of the original 6 folding.  But then who? Do you fold teams that have multple teams in the same state? Perhaps.  Perhaps the historically worse teams?  Perhaps the newest teams (although some of them have been sucessful).

Here would be my extremely arbitrary list of potential teams to fold - 3 from each conference:
NY Islanders (multi team state, struggling franchise)
Florida Panthers (multi team state, struggling franchise, newer team)
Carolina Hurricanes (newer team)
Columbus Blue Jackets (newer team, not successful)
Phoenix Coyotes (newer team)
Nashville Predators (newer team)
With the exception of NY - the others are newer teams - newer basically just meaning in the last 20ish years or so.  This is arbitrary and its not like I have strong feelings about these teams one way or the other.  I have stronger feelings about keeping other teams, even if they have struggled for a while (Toronto).  Plus - I think other than NY - the other 5 are teams from warm states.  Hockey is a cold state sport.

Bottom line really is that I just think 30 teams are too many for the league to ever really be successful.  They should find a way to roll back to 24 teams and see how that works.  The above teams I names for more for conversation than seriousness.

I am also not a fan of the salary cap but I do think it has helped spread some of the talent around the league.  But if we had fewer teams then I think we could dump the salary cap or at least significantly raise it.

Since: May 4, 2008
Posted on: August 30, 2011 5:51 am

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Give Pegula a year or two. My guess is that the Sabres will be a perennial division leader too. The man is passionate about hockey and is determined to bring a few cups to Buffalo.

Since: Jun 23, 2011
Posted on: August 29, 2011 11:03 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Go Sabres.

Since: Aug 21, 2006
Posted on: August 29, 2011 10:25 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Keep dreaming. You are always going to have teams breaking through. There will always be playoff teams that miss and teams that come out of nowhere. The Senators, for example, have gone from Eastern champ to seventh to missed playoffs to fifth to near the bottom. When you have that kind of bouncing back and forth, nothing is guaranteed.

Since: Jun 25, 2009
Posted on: August 29, 2011 10:24 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Just goes to show that salary caps do not work like they are supposed to work.....

The problem is that not every GM is good.....and the cap will never fix that.....

The salary cap by itself isn't going to solve a teams problems, but unfortunately a lot of fans on these boards assumed that would be the case.  As a Wings fan I heard when the salary cap kicked in that with a hard cap and no Steve Yzerman the Wings were doomed. What people forgot was the Wings still had some important people on their side like Kenny Holland, Jimmy Develano as well as a great owner in Mike Ilitch.   So the Wings keep on competing, with a hard cap and without Yzerman or Bowman or many others from back then.

Management is everything..... with good gm's you win, with bad gm's you lose.

Since: Aug 22, 2007
Posted on: August 29, 2011 9:56 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

What talent has the NHL lost to the KHL?????  Your entire post is ignorant to the facts of hockey.  All teams have to play within a salary cap therefore star players, unlike most sports CANNOT "flock" to one team.  Rather, just like football, teams have to take advantage of "their time", and if they miss that window, they run into cap issues....please review the Chicago Blackhawks.  Had the Hawks not won the Cup things could be looking very ugly for that team considering the set back they had last year and a lot of it had to do with the cap.  A cap allows for a league to be non biased to certain teams and allows for the entire league to compete.  Perhaps you might care to just keep watching your baseball where only 3 to 4 teams have a chance to win the Series each year.  I on the other hand will take to the liking of "mediocre" players because someone that actually understands and knows a thing about the NHL realizes it appears mediocre because the talent is spread EVENLY.  Furthermore, back tracking to the KHL statement.  I mean seriously?  Lost talent?  WHO have they lost?  ANy player that goes to the KHL is a washed up player or a nobody that is looking for more ice time.  The KHL might be able to lure a player here and there but the bottom line is, is that the USA is where people want to be, want to live.  People don't try to sneak into Russia for a chance at a better life....recession or not....and until that changes the NHL will always be the dominant league...and that will never change

Since: Jan 5, 2009
Posted on: August 29, 2011 8:49 pm

Eastern Conference spots seem set for some time

Hockey's problem is not the salary cap, but the huge disparity in talent across the board.  There are too few difference makers in hockey, and way too many mediocre hockey players.  If you get a team like Vancouver, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, etc who can get 2-3 elite players on their team, all of the above average talent flocks to those teams, while the rest of the teams are left to play the trap.

How in the heck is the NHL losing talent to the KHL and other European markets???  That is where the problem is.  They need to find ways of getting all of that A/B level talent back to North America, and send all of these half-witted goons that are flooding the NHL back to their ice-fishing ponds...

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