In any sport, league conferences are rarely created equal, and the NHL is no exception. Since 2010, the West has branded itself as the modern, faster-paced incarnation of hockey. The Chicago Blackhawks (Stanley Cups in 2010, '13, '15) and Los Angeles Kings (2012, '14) have done the loudest talking for the entire conference, but overall the West has widely been considered to be superior to the East, even by casual fans. The statistics back that perception.
From 1999-00 through 2014-15, Western teams came out of the regular season with a winning record against Eastern clubs, highlighted by a dominant 246-150-52 mark in 2013-14. The West has produced five of the last seven champions, with the Hawks and Kings being the two closest things to dynasties since the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders of the ‘80s. Before last season, no Cup champion from the West had been taken to seven games in a Cup final since the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. Similarly, no winner from the East had won in less than seven since the Devils in 2000. The Western champs dominated while the Eastern champs squeaked by.
In short, the West has bossed the East around for nearly 16 seasons. The last 12 months, however, told a different story. During 2015-16, Western teams went 221-181-46 against the East, a losing record when you combine regulation and overtime losses, and the East had its first champion since the Boston Bruins in 2011, with the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Cup in six games. It was a pair of firsts for the East since 2000. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks, Kings and Anaheim Ducks—the last three current Western teams to win the Cup (Detroit, which won in 2008 moved to the East in 2013), and heavyweight favorites going into the playoffs—were all eliminated in the first round.
The role reversal continued when the Penguins and San Jose Sharks met in the final. Though the two teams played a few close games, the talent difference was clear in the end. The Sharks’ veteran core couldn’t keep up with the Penguins’ young guns; Pittsburgh was faster, more athletic and more exciting. San Jose looked like the New York Rangers during the 2014 final, or the Bruins in 2013: slow and overmatched.
Not only did the Penguins challenge the claim of Western superiority, they made the Sharks look like the old guy—a job that has been typically reserved for the Western representative. And if that didn’t signal a changing of the guard, the off-season surely did, as pretty much every perennial Western power is poised to regress.
The salary cap-squeezed Blackhawks once again had to let go of several valuable pieces, allowing Andrew Ladd walk to the Islanders via free agency while trading fan favorite Andrew Shaw to Montreal and promising youngster Teuvo Teravainen to Carolina. After forfeiting backup goalie Martin Jones, a prospect and a draft pick to acquire one-year rental Milan Lucic from Boston in 2015, the Kings let the rugged winger leave for Edmonton with only a first-round playoff exit to show for it. The Ducks, who won 29 of their last 40 regular season games, were bounced in a Game 7 for the fourth time in five years and fired coach Bruce Boudreau in favor of Randy Carlyle, whose most recent stint, in Toronto, featured one of the worst late-season collapses in NHL history. The St. Louis Blues, who last season fielded their best team in years, saw their championship window all but close with the losses of veterans David Backes to Boston and Brian Elliott and Troy Brouwer to Calgary. The Sharks may now be the favorites to win the West in 2017, which says less about the team itself and more about the conference as a whole.
And as the West got worse, the East got better. The Penguins and the Washington Capitals, who won the Presidents' Trophy, will field almost the exact same teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning re-signed sniper Steven Stamkos, and looked pretty damn good without him last postseason while he was sidelined by a blood clot for all but one game. The Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers re-signed ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, extended excellent young defenseman Aaron Ekblad and landed backliners Jason Demers and Keith Yandle in free agency. The Montreal Canadiens will have Carey Price, the best goalie on the planet, healthy again although their oft-criticized style of play is pretty symbolic of what made the East inferior over the past few years.
Entering the 2016-17 season, most of the Cup favorites reside in the East. Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington and Florida should all be serious contenders, while no one team in the West jumps out as an obvious title threat. Of course, the Blackhawks and Kings still have significant parts of the cores that won them five combined championships, and they may outperform expectations. Las Vegas oddsmakers certainly still believe in the Hawks, as they are the current betting favorite to win the Cup at 6-1.
Similarly, there are Western teams waiting to pounce if the traditional powers take a step back. The Nashville Predators landed a major offensive upgrade in defenseman P.K. Subban, and have plenty of speed and skill throughout their roster. If the Dallas Stars can solve their suspect goaltending situation, the Jamie Benn/Tyler Seguin-led offense will make them very formidable. Even the rebuilt Oilers, with Connor McDavid and the newly relocated Lucic leading the way, have a chance to make a splash. (Although defense-challenged Edmonton lost a big scoring threat by trading All-Star Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for blueliner Adam Larsson.)
Still, the power shift between the conferences has been swift and remarkable. The West is no longer the juggernaut it used to be. The East is packed with young, skillful talent: Even bottom feeders like the Maple Leafs and Sabres have firepower. The Western teams are aging out: Chicago and Los Angeles ice two of the 10 oldest rosters in the NHL (Chicago's is the league's oldest), while Tampa Bay and Washington are among the 10 youngest. All things considered, the East is primed for its best season in years, its second straight winning record against the West, and its second consecutive Stanley Cup champion.
It remains to be seen how long the Eastern teams can stay at the top of the league, and how long it will take for the West to reclaim the throne. Knowing the caliber of organizations like Chicago and Los Angeles, it may happen sooner rather than later. But for now, the East is king–for the first time this century.