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?
Out west, you have
How about the Dallas Stars? Future Hall-of-Famer
Meanwhile, the east is characterized by scorers and scoring, not by defense or defensemen.
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.