The Ottawa Senators fancied themselves Stanley Cup contenders this season. They expected to rank among the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
But against Western Conference teams this season, the Senators have managed one regulation victory in 10 tries. They are the poster children for the East’s collective weakness.
Only four of the 16 teams on that side of the NHL – Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh -- have winning records against Western Conference teams heading through Tuesday's games.
Only one team out West, Edmonton, had a losing record against Eastern Conference teams at that juncture.
With the season nearly one-third complete, the Eastern Conference had a 57-74-22 record against the league's better half. The lack of competitive balance is forcing teams in the Central and Pacific Divisions to maintain outrageous records just to stay in the playoff race.
Consider the case of the Vancouver Canucks. They sat three points out of the last conference playoff slot after suffering just nine regulation losses in their first 26 games.
“You look at the standings and it seems every night the Western Conference is winning games, so you keep sliding if you don’t win,” Canucks center Brad Richardson told the Vancouver Sun. “It’s really a tough year, all the teams in the West look really good, so we have to keep going, forget the past and get it done tonight.”
Consider the case of the Washington Capitals. They earned just 12 regulation victories in their first 23 games, yet sat comfortably in second place of the Metropolitan Division.
“It’s a little odd,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner told the Washington Post. “We didn’t see this happening, but it’s fine with us. We’ll take it. We’ve just got to worry about ourselves and when it comes down to the final push, then we’ll start looking around.”
Here are some of the factors creating this imbalance:
Plenty of Eastern Conference teams franchises spend big on talent. Sadly, some of these teams suffer from almost comical mismanagement.
The Philadelphia Flyers gave Mike Richards huge money and traded him. The Flyers did the same with Jeff Carter. The team threw an epic contract at oddball goaltender Ilya Byzgalov, the bought him out at great cost. General manager Paul Holmgren has made mistake after mistake after mistake while running one the league’s richest franchises.
The Buffalo Sabres followed a similar trail after billionaire Terry Pegula bought the franchise. Hence the recent demise of general manager Darcy Regier. Now Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon is on the clock with his new ownership after throwing giant money at so-so talent.
A New York-based team has no excuse for remaining terrible for the better part of two decades. And yet the Islanders have languished for a host of reasons, starting with clueless ownership, inept management (Mike Milbury! Garth Snow!) and its deteriorating home arena.
The Islanders have one of the Top 5 players in the world, John Taveras, yet they seem destined to fall woefully short of postseason play for the sixth time in seven years. This once-proud franchise is a drag on East Coast hockey. Moving to Brooklyn won’t change anything, unless the entire front office stays behind in Uniondale.
By comparison, all the big market Western Conference teams are flourishing – as they should in a business so dependent on gate revenue and local media revenue.
THE MYTH OF GLEN SATHER
Once upon a time, Glen Sather oversaw an Edmonton Oilers dynasty led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Then he did a terrible job of selling off all of his stars at the behest of asset-stripping owner Peter Pocklington. Sather’s scouting staff did a miserable job of drafting replacements.
Yet Sather somehow carried a “genius” label to New York, where the Rangers gave him a job for life running that wealthy operation. Despite having every advantage known to hockey men, Sather has built teams ranging from mediocre to merely good. Never has ownership held him accountable.
“Ultimately it's got to be my call, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for Glen and still feel very lucky to have him," New York Rangers owner James Dolan recently told the New York Post. “He has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and I don't know if there's anyone else in the NHL that's better than him, but he's got to be close to the top. His understanding of the game, his understanding of what makes a great player, and also he's pulled off some trades I looked at him and said, 'How did you do that?' As long as he'd like to stay, I'd like to have him.”
That mindless vote of confidence was hardly reassuring for Rangers fans who would like to see another Stanley Cup parade in their lifetime.
Most experts figured the Detroit Reds Wings would rock the Eastern Conference after realignment. After all, top forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg remain one of the league’s elite front-line tandems. The Wings looked forward to easier travel and more practice time for its promising group of emerging players.
Joe Louis Arena has long created a hostile environment for opposing teams. Who could have guessed the Red Wings would lose eight consecutive games at home this season?
Owner Mike Ilitch wants to win another Cup while he can still enjoy it. This team appears to be skating away from that challenge as quickly as it can.
THE BAD LUCK CYCLE
Some of this collective conference failure resulted from simple bad luck. Ilya Kovalchuk walked out on the New Jersey Devils, opting to return to Russia while still in his athletic prime. Steven Stamkos, arguably the sport’s top performer, suffered a broken leg just as his Tampa Bay Lightning were breaking out.
Several other high-profile players suffered major injuries this season, including Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, James Neal, Cam Ward and Alexander Semin.
All of these factors add up to largely negative results when East plays West.