“QUIET ICE IS A PHRASE USED TO CHARACTERIZE A SLIVER OF PLAYING SURFACE GOAL-SCORERS LOVE TO FIND BECAUSE IT’S UNGUARDED BY OPPOSING PLAYERS AND CAN BE USED TO RIP OFF A GOOD, QUICK SHOT. IT IS NOT, AS SOME HAD UNDERSTANDABLY ASSUMED, A REFERENCE TO ANY PLACE WHERE SEAN AVERY ISN’T.” (SOURCE, THE HOCKEY NEWS)
From the Quiet Ice . . .
It’s time to put this goofy debate to rest — this idea that the East and West are somehow equally challenging conferences. Or even more bizarre, that the East is actually more challenging? Come now.
To be fair, this debate is partly confused by the fact that folks are talking about different things. People who argue that the East is superior are usually talking about skill and about getting through divisions that are tightly contested. The truer metric and the only one that really matters to capturing the cup is how hard it is to get to the finals and what condition you’re in to play once you get there. The rest is just talk.
Craig Custance captures in his book the great Ken Hitchcock’s affirmation that the Western Conference has historically been a physical “war of attrition,” but this did not end back in his Dallas days.
Whenever this question of conference superiority comes up, a bunch of clowns chime in about the East because they only watch the East. It’s not their fault that they’re in bed during the Western Conference games, or that these games are not televised in the East, but it is their fault that they start yammering about a conference they never watch outside of the post-season.
These fans are not NHL fans; they are Eastern Conference fans, and this is a very different thing. They have never watched a full 60 of Ducks and Sharks going at each other; they have never watched the Kings and Flames pummel each other at high speed for three unrelenting periods. The kind of hockey they watch is absolutely different, which many of us in the West know because we get to watch both. Besides, we’ve heard enough coaches allude to it in on-camera to know it’s true. And if the coaches know it, I think I’m going to take their assessment over JoeHockeyDork23.
What exactly is the difference? Two key factors: one, the north-south speed, which extends into forechecking and following through on hits; two, the emphasis on hitting and physical play in general, prioritized over finesse and seam-passing. If you want a prime example, look at pretty much any game Vegas played last year. What you’ll notice is that every player skated hard off the puck, which created their swarming effect and caused opponents to make mistakes that Vegas was fortunate enough to capitalize on. But skating was central. The emphasis on skating also allowed them to be on top of players to deliver hits before their opponents could prepare. The Oilers played this way for a brief time during the 2016-17 season, most notably in their series to knock out the Sharks.
The other major factor making the Western Conference a more difficult path to the cup is also widely known and often cited by players and coaches: the travel. This is one that Eastern Conference fans almost always dismiss or discount — because they don’t generally experience the effects themselves. Players have admitted signing contracts in the East based primarily on the lack of travel strain. Why is that?
Ryan Campbell at the Daily Face Off writes, “a team like the San Jose Sharks travels twice as many miles as the New York Rangers.” Twice the travel. That’s twice as much time away from the family and kids also.
He goes on to point out that when the regular season concluded in 2017, the East had seven of the top sixteen teams, but eight of the top ten came from the West. Campbell noted also that six of the bottom seven were in the East. He further broke down the conference win-loss records: “the West had a record of 246-150-52 against the East, good for 60.7% of possible points. The East was 202-188-58, for 51.5% of possible points.”
In fairness, Campbell does point out that the conferences were “even at the top, which is what really matters,” and also conceded that the West inflated its numbers a bit by “beating up on the basement dwellers . . . like the Sabres, Panthers, Islanders and Hurricanes.” But by that logic, didn’t the East similarly beat up on teams like the Coyotes, Canucks, Stars and Avalanche?
Campbell is going out of his way to be fair-minded, but in the end, his argument for Western dominance is this: “The top eight teams in the East played better vs. the West relative to the rest of the conference, but overall the West still had a much stronger record. They won twelve more games, and outscored the East by almost 0.2 goals per game.”
If you want a more weighty authority, in January 2018, James Mirtle at The Athletic published a study with team and conference comparison stats on height, weight, draft position and more. He made the point at the end that size does not necessarily, or even often, lead to winning these days, but that is not what we’re discussing here. We are talking about which path is most difficult, and size is a huge (pardon the pun) factor when we’re talking about getting through the post-season rounds, to say nothing of the grueling season leading up to the big dance.
Here’s what Mirtle’s numbers show: the top seven teams in height are from the Western Conference; six out of the nine shortest teams are from the East. But weight is what really takes a toll in that hard-hitting Western style of play, and 10 of the top 15 heaviest teams are from the West, with St. Louis and Dallas significantly out front. Which means, if you noticed the corollary, 10 of the 15 lightest teams are from the East.
Now, I obviously had a bias entering into this piece, but I did go digging for everything I could find, and I was open to the possibility that I was wrong. After all, I’ve been wrong once or twice before. Some of the data I found was not worth using in any way I could see; for example, I looked into hits and PIM comparisons — the data is out there — but honestly, I could use those numbers creatively on either side, and they don’t paint a clear enough picture for this argument.
In the end, for me it comes down to a very simple question: which conference would you rather go through to get to the cup final?
Let’s take eight possible playoff teams from each conference. In the East: New Jersey, Florida, Buffalo, Tampa, Toronto, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Boston. I don’t care if you want to substitute Columbus or anyone else in there; it doesn’t matter because the group of eight I have here is considered plenty physical in the East, with the likes of Philly, Washington and Boston. It’s pointless to argue that this isn’t a representative playoff group. In the West: St. Louis, San Jose, Anaheim, Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville, Dallas, and Vegas.
This has nothing to do with how skilled Toronto is or how great the top line of Boston is; it has everything to do with surviving the grind to get to the cup final. And I’m not saying the Eastern teams couldn’t beat you with skill, but would the Sabres, Devils, Pens or even the Lightning beat you up physically in the way that St. Louis, Winnipeg, Calgary or Vegas would?
So, the question again: is a team that goes through this Eastern group in better or worse shape to play in the finals than a team that goes through this Western group?
If you watch hockey — from both conferences — the answer is obvious.
Read/Listen to More Hockey Here