Welcome to our new feature, Faceoff with Steve and Mike, featuring Steve Lepore and Mike Salerno. Every so often, we'll explore a pressing issue in the league that's got us arguing behind the scenes here at Puck Drunk Love and give you our takes on the matter. And if we can get around our egos, maybe we'll even make a good point or two.
Today's topic is the the Eastern Conference. Is it really as bad as everyone says it is? Anyone can look at the standings and deduce that it's a mess compared to the Western Conference, or that five of the last eight Stanley Cup winners have been from the West. Steve and Mike debate how awful it actually is.
Steve Lepore: Well, the thing is, it's really the Metropolitan Division dragging everyone down. The Flortheast/Atlantic/Whatever is okay, though obviously not reaching to quite the heights that the California teams and Chicago are at. It shows, too, as the Leafs are 3-4-3 in their last 10, and have spent almost that entire stretch in the second Wild Card slot, with no danger of falling out of it. They're still four points ahead of the closest Metro team!
Do the Penguins and Bruins play exciting hockey? Of Course. Washington has its cracker jack power play, the Red Wings will remain glorious as long as Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still there, and hey, look at how the Lightning are still hanging around. That said, the Eastern Conference has a lot of dead hockey.
The Rangers and Devils are somehow boringly inconsistent. Ditto Carolina. The Senators have somehow scored nearly three goals a game and are two games under NHL .500. The Flyers can't buy a goal, and Steve Mason isn't going to be playing that well much longer. Columbus without BOBROVSKY! isn't much of a thing, and then there's the Panthers, Islanders and Sabres.
Mike Salerno: The scary part for a few of these teams, namely the Flyers, Rangers and Devils, is that there's not much in the way of emerging talent knocking on the door either. In fact, according to HockeysFuture.com, they've got three of the four worst prospect pools in the league. Suffice it to say, there's not much help on the way any time soon.
But is the West really that good, or is there just more parity? Thirteen of the 20 teams with the most overtime losses are from the Western Conference. There's long been a stigma that the better, more exciting hockey takes place in the Western Conference. I'm gulity of it myself. What if we've just mistook that for closer games? The Red Wings, the new kids on the Eastern Conference block, are first on that list, by the way.
SL: It very well could be, but you can't deny that there's not a team in the East — not even the Penguins — who play a more entertaining, gorgeous style of hockey than the Blackhawks. I'll accept the argument that the Kings are dull, but between the Hawks, the Sharks, the Ducks… hell, even the Blues have started to become a more potent offensive bunch, there's just more to like in the Western Conference.
MS: Well now you're just asking me to go against the team I love to watch and pretend the Rangers don't exist. That's not fair. Nobody's the Blackhawks, not even the Penguins, you're right. But I don't know if there's enough of a substantial difference at the top of the conferences to say one is definitively better than the other.
As we often see in the Stanley Cup Final, the elite in the East can go toe-to-toe with the elite in the West. I'd put watching the Bruins brand of hockey right up there with the Blackhawks or Penguins, this past weekend notwithstanding.
Where the separation comes is at the bottom, naturally. There are no Buffalo Sabres in the Western Conference. One could argue that the Calgary Flames have consistently been a dumpster fire for the last five years (or more), but even they've shown signs of life this season. We're still waiting for the Oilers to get their heads out of the sand, and who knows. If we're going by the last 10 games, they're 6-3-1. As far as depth is concerned, there's no contest. The Western Conference is better. But is that really what makes a conference better?
SL: It's a good question, and I'd give the Bruins and Penguins, and really any above average to mediocre Eastern team with a goalie capable of getting hot (Habs, Red Wings… hell, even the Rangers or Devils fit here) a shot against the Blackhawks, given their goaltending situation.
Still, how many Eastern teams would you put on paper as beating the Kings? Or the Ducks? Or even the Blues or the Sharks? Any team that advances from either of those two divisions, given the playoff format, frightens the hell out of me. And while it's still more the Metropolitan Division's problem, I can't say that about the Eastern Conference.
MS: I'm glad you asked. Right now, I'd put the top five from either conference against each other, with one editorial swap of Washington for Tampa Bay, since the Caps are second in the Metro and only one point behind the Bolts. It's odd, but Ovechkin returning to dominance takes the entire conference to another level. Forget the generic "can't win the big one" argument, I'd take the Capitals on paper against almost anyone right now.
The current playoff format advertises the West's strength. The first round of the Western Conference playoffs will be a war of attrition, but it just as easily could be counterproductive. Who's going to be left standing? Remember, Tortorella is out there now telling players to block shots with their teeth.
Until next time, sir.