Darren Eliot
Wednesday August 27th, 2008

While preparing for the upcoming season, reviewing team rosters, and looking at the relative strengths and weaknesses of each as compared to the competition, I was struck by the age-old debate of what matters more: star power or rivalries? It will be a pertinent point this season as the NHL scales back divisional games from eight to six, with every team playing each other at least once.

Whether you think that is enough or not -- personally, I believe teams from the Eastern Conference should play the Western Conference both home and away -- this season's alteration is a concession to star power. Fans will have a chance to see the stars from the other conference more regularly, and that will lend a bit more variety to the regular season. Playing a foe six times as opposed to eight will not detract from the divisional rivalries. It might actually enhance the value of those late season, stretch-drive confrontations with the division's top spot and guaranteed playoff entry at stake.

But in looking at the two conferences, certain trends have become distinct over the last five years as the league moved to a heavier inter-divisional format. In general, the East boasts more young, dynamic offensive players, while the West is more about size, defense and proven veterans. Of course, there are exceptions to those stereotypes, but take this simple test:

When you think of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals what is each team's identity? Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin -- both young, gifted offensive players-- spring immediately to mind.

Out west, you have Marion Gaborik in Minnesota and the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings boast both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Still, as mesmerizing as those players are, when you think of the Wild, you're more likely to conjure up defensive discipline. When considering the Wings, you might rightfully rejoice in the brilliance of defenseman Nik Lidstrom, who is still going strong at 38 years old. Certainly if you consider the Ducks, defensemen Chris Pronger, who will turn 34 in October, and Scott Niedermayer, 35, define them even though they have fine young players in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

How about the Dallas Stars? Future Hall-of-Famer Mike Modano, absolutely, but even more so may be the Stars' defensive style that has been keyed for so long by the backend production led by Sergei Zubov. Calgary Flames? Jarome Iginla, yes. But blueliner Dion Phaneuf also personifies Calgary's brand of abrasive hockey with hitting being the central tenet. And with Brian Campbell signing in Chicago and Dan Boyle moving from Tampa to San Jose, the west now has two of the game's more offensive-minded defensemen defining their respective team's approach.

Meanwhile, the east is characterized by scorers and scoring, not by defense or defensemen. Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis in Tampa. Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza in Ottawa. Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta. Tomas Vanek in Buffalo. You get the idea. These players define the conference, with little mention of a truly dominant rearguard in the mix. Tomas Kaberle in Toronto? Sergei Gonchar in Pittsburgh? Zdeno Chara in Boston? All are fine players, but the impression they leave on the observer isn't as singular and indelible -- Chara's contributions for the Bruins come closest to being "western-like" in scope -- as their counterparts out west. Not from a style of play standpoint, anyway.

So, while the young hotshots will grace the ice in Western Conference rinks more often this season, I offer up some comparative numbers from last season. Seven teams in the east scored more than 240 goals, but only the Wings and Stars eclipsed that total out west. In contrast, eight Western teams surrendered fewer than 220 goals, but only three in the east matched the feat: the Atlantic Division's Penguins, Devils and Rangers.

In games between east and west last season, the west had 83 victories, with the east winning 67. Only the Blackhawks at 4-5-1 had a losing record versus Eastern opponents, while six teams from the east failed to break even against Western competition. That's a major variable to weigh when you're projecting this season's team totals because each squad's east vs. west games are increasing from 10 to 18.

Beyond that, all of these indicators reinforce a long held truth that applies in every sport: Defense matters. A lot.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.