Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Is East more talented than the West?
By Terry Frei Special to ESPN.com
So far this season, something has jumped out with each look at the list of NHL scoring leaders.
A vast majority of the names near the top play in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby are
1-2 on this season's points list.
Some might argue that Joe Thornton's points were harder to come by because of stronger goaltending in the West.
Fifteen of the top 20 are from the East Conference.
It's easier to list those who aren't: Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg, Calgary's Jarome Iginla, San Jose's Joe Thornton, Colorado's Paul Stastny and Chicago's Patrick Kane.
Not surprisingly, the goal-scoring list reflects the same imbalance. It's not an early season anomaly, either. It's the continuation of a pattern.
At the end of the 2006-07 season, with Crosby and Lecavalier finishing first and third, only two of the top 10 came from the West. The two: Thornton and Joe Sakic. Fourteen of the top 20 were from the East.
The last time the majority of the top 10 scorers in the league came from the Western Conference was the 2002-03 season, when Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Milan Hejduk, Todd Bertuzzi, Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy and Mike Modano made the list (of 11, since there was a tie for 10th).
Ah, but the catch was that if you kept going, the East "rallied," ending up with 11 of the top 20.
As with all issues of this sort, it raises questions and makes one search for answers. At first glance, using this season as the example, the possibilities -- involving both cause and effect -- that have popped into reasonable minds include:
• There is more goal-scoring in the East, period.
That's true. But this season, the difference is only marginal. Eastern Conference teams are averaging 2.83 goals per game, Western Conference teams 2.80.
Last season, the per-game average for each team was 3.04 in the East, 2.86 in the West. That doesn't look like much of a difference, but over the course of a season, and for 30 teams, it's significant.
Not surprisingly, the last time the average was higher for Western Conference teams was that aforementioned 2002-03 season, when the score was 2.7-2.6. More goal scoring, more leaders. And the impact of more goals is magnified in the points totals, especially if the league's zealous standards and watchdog system doesn't catch all charitably added assists in some markets.
Yes, some of that can involve coaches continuing to preach, if not the pure trap any longer, at least the close-to-the-vest, "responsible" play, above all else.
Some of the leading proponents of that, Minnesota's Jacques Lemaire and Columbus' Ken Hitchcock (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Nashville's Barry Trotz and maybe Dallas' Dave Tippett) are now in the West; but it's not as if there are night-and-day, conference-wide differences of approach.
• There is better goaltending in the West.
That comes down to definition of terms. How about considering the goalies generally thought to be elite, proven stoppers?
Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo lead the list in the West, and have been on it -- in Luongo's case, in both conferences -- for years. But the Flames have been struggling under Mike Keenan, and Kiprusoff shares the blame. Luongo hasn't been as quite as good as in recent seasons.
Aided, of course, by Hitchcock's system, Pascal Leclaire has been the best in the West so far, at least statistically. In contrast, Marty Turco hasn't had a great season in Dallas, and the housecleaning might continue. In Colorado, Jose Theodore has made slight progress in rehabilitating his image.
In the East, Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers has been the best in the league. Tim Thomas has helped keep the Bruins afloat, Martin Gerber has been revitalized in Ottawa, and Martin Brodeur has gotten off to a terrible start in New Jersey.
Those are only the highlights.
The bottom line: It's pretty much a push.
Because of such factors as bad teams dragging down the rest of the conference, using the results of intraconference games can be a suspect measure of the overall balance of power. But the West has had better records in the intraconference games in the post-lockout seasons. And it's arguable that individual statistics against even slightly tougher competition deserve a little bit of bump.
At this point, you wouldn't even blame the player's side in arbitration to toss this
out: "But he plays in the West!"
• Speaking of which, the much-derided, soon-to-be-abandoned, post-lockout scheduling format must have something to do with it.
True. But there's no way to measure its impact or even prove it.
If NHL players collected frequent-flyer miles for their in-season team travel, at the end of the post-lockout seasons, most Eastern Conference players would have enough to be able to get one free ticket. To Charlotte. At off-peak periods only.
Western Conference players would have enough miles to take their wives and 2.3 kids to Rome.
The schedule and geographic reality mean the physical and mental toll of travel is far higher in the West. The result can depend on whom it affects more -- e.g., the goalies, defensemen or forwards. But the bottom line is that with the limited intraconference games and the tougher travel in the West, the NHL is two different leagues.
• The majority of the superstar forwards, the guys who inevitably end up at the top of the scoring list, are in the East.
This is only a small piece of the puzzle, but the last time a Western Conference forward won the Calder Trophy was in 1999 -- and that was Chris Drury, now entrenched in the East. Four Eastern Conference forwards have won the award since -- Evgeni Malkin (2007), Alexander Ovechkin (2006; edging Crosby), Dany Heatley (2002) and Scott Gomez (2000).
Thornton's move to the West -- nice deal, Bruins -- helped provide more balance, and the emergence of such young players as Stastny and Kane this season also will "help."
There isn't one reason. It all enters into it.
And this much we know: When the league returns to a more balanced schedule, comparing individual stats will be more about apples to apples, oranges to oranges and pucks to pucks.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."