• Conference Strength

    by  • February 8, 2009 • Uncategorized • 13 Comments

    I did a post about two years ago looking at this and was prompted by a comment that Lowetide in his Oilers/Blues GDT to take another look. His comment was as follows:

    Long before he became a legend as a college coach, Berenson was the only really good hockey player in the Western Division. The 6 expansion teams had a few good goalies, some tough dmen with crooked noses, and more than their share of 6′s and 7′s up front who checked like hell and manned their wings.

    He wasn’t kidding. The Western Division was, in the years immediately following expansion, horrible. It’s fair to say that there were twelve teams in the NHL at that time, maybe seven of which were NHL teams. As I assume most people know, the NHL put the Original Six in the Eastern Division for the first three years and the Second Six in the Western Division. Here’s what the Eastern Division did against the Western Division in that time:

    1967-68 – 86-40-18 0.660
    1968-69 – 129-51-36 0.681
    1969-70 – 133-41-42 0.713 (!)

    As you can see, they hiked the number of interdivisional games after the initial season. I’m not quite sure why, given that the East was so much stronger. It’s somewhat surprising to me that the Western Division, if anything, got worse over that period of time. One would expect that things would trend towards .500 over time but they just weren’t doing any better. The NHL expanded again in 1970 and did some minor re-alignment; the Hawks went to the Western Division and Vancouver suffered their first indignity at the hands of the NHL, getting placed in the Eastern Division, despite being the third last team that should have been put into the Eastern Division (you can argue that, with two other Canadian teams in the East and two Cali teams in the West, it probably made more sense to put Vancouver there than the Kings or Seals but I don’t know what excuse the North Stars, Penguins, Flyers, Blues and Black Hawks came up with).

    What I’m interested in the systemic advantage offered to the old teams over the new ones. I think that we can probably all agree that that sort of systemic advantage is at the absolute extreme of what we’d find in the NHL: six franchises with decades of history, six franchises starting with nothing. What I’m going to do is just pretend that the NHL a) hadn’t added more teams and b) hadn’t realigned and trace the advantage, just to see where it finally collapses. Here’s the record of the Original Six against the Second Six moving forward from that time:

    1970-71 – 123-58-35 0.650
    1971-72 – 136-47-33 0.706
    1972-73 – 102-51-29 0.640
    1973-74 – 108-41-34 0.683
    1974-75 – 75-66-30 0.526
    1975-76 – 89-60-22 0.585
    1976-77 – 76-67-28 0.526
    1977-78 – 102-45-24 0.667
    1978-79 – 74-57-24 0.555
    1979-80 – 49-48-23 0.504
    1980-81 – 42-55-23 .446

    So, in the thirteenth season following expansion, the old order was died: they finally had a season in which they collectively had a losing season against the new teams. It seems logical to me that this should be the absolutely gold standard in terms of dominance by one “conference” over another. Free agency didn’t exist at that time and the established teams enjoyed basically a generation of infrastructure over the new teams. Dragging myself back to my original point though, I wanted to look at the dominance enjoyed by the Western Conference over the Eastern Conference, which is starting to take on similar proportions in terms of time. Here’s the West’s record from 1999-00 to the present, treating games tied after 60 minutes as ties:

    1999-00 – 150-106-80 .565
    2000-01 – 142-117-81 .537
    2001-02 – 155-118-57 .556
    2002-03 – 135-109-86 .539
    2003-04 – 96-102-72 .489
    2005-06 – 62-52-36 .533
    2006-07 – 63-48-39 .550
    2007-08 – 67-53-30 .547
    2008-09 – 86-64-35 .559

    I find this extended period of dominance a lot more impressive than that of the Original Six over the Second Six for a number of reasons. Mostly, it’s due to the fact that player movement is so much easier now but also, three of the four expansion teams to have joined the NHL since 1997-98 have joined the Western Conference. My sense has really been that the East has had many more young stars join its ranks since the lockout but it really doesn’t seem to be doing much in terms of helping them win hockey games against the West.

    Looking at it globally, since 1999-00, the West has a .541 winning percentage against the East. I’m hardpressed to come up with any rational reasons for why but I tend to think that this has to be the longest sustained run of dominance for one conference over another since the Second Six were added. Once you start to appreciate this, some of the comments that have been made about the wisdom of plucking Erik Cole out of the SE Division become somewhat apparent. There’s a great study there for someone who’s interested.

    If you just look at the Oilers, and remembering that we’re treating anything that goes to OT as a tie, they’re 60-55-38 against the East since 1999-00. That’s more respectable than it seems as an average; assume that they split the OT games and you come up with an average record of 42-30-10 against the East, over the course of NINE years. I doubt that there are many teams IN the East who’ve averaged that.

    In the end, this isn’t worth that much – you need to win the conference that you’re in – but the disparity in conference strength is real and has been pronounced for the past nine years. Given the conference heavy NHL play of the past few years, it might well make more sense to think of the conferences as being separate leagues, AL and NL style, rather than a joint interconnected league. It probably also makes sense for Western teams to be aware when buying players from the other conference that there’s a significant step up from the Eastern Conference to the Western Coference and, if you’re buying a guy with big counting numbers in the Eastern Conference, to be cognizant of the fact that he’s probably not going to have as significant impact on the game in the Western Conference as he did in the East.


    13 Responses to Conference Strength

    1. Joe
      February 8, 2009 at

      Any particular reason you started from 1999-2000? I would think this dominance would extend even further, with the Cup champs for the three years previous being Western (COL x1, DET x2), a record setting season by DET in 1995-6, etc. etc. I’d be curious to know how this works if you started from 1995-1996 instead.

    2. February 8, 2009 at

      Nice post.

      2003-04 is interesting, it being so blatantly anomalous. While I’m not sure what to attribute that to, I suspect that some of it has to do with Tampa Bay being good in that year but average to bad in all of the following and preceding years.

      And to answer Joe’s question, the East was actually the better conference from 1993 – 1999. Before that, the Wales conference was better than the Campbell conference, especially during the 80s. However, the gap had narrowed considerably by the end of the 90s, with the West actually having the better record in 1997-98.

    3. Matt N
      February 9, 2009 at

      The obvious difference between the two divisions is travel. Perhaps the Western teams are better (by necessity) at taking long road swings through the East, while the Eastern teams suck at road trips because they are not used to it. No numbers to back this up. Just saying.

    4. February 9, 2009 at

      My pet theory is that Western teams spend so much more time together as a team, due to the travel (hanging out on planes, at airports, at hotels), that it facilitates an increased bonding that makes them a better team. What are the two most significant identifying features of Western teams vis-a-vis Easter teams? 1) They travel much more. 2) They’re much better. It seems unlikely that these two things wouldn’t be related to each other. The gap is too wide and sustained for it to be random, I think. I don’t think the players themselves are any better out West. They’re less goals out West, to be sure, but I think performance more or less carries over when players switch conferences (Thornton, Hossa, Boyle, Havlat, Tanguay, Richards). Four of Washington’s five home losses have come against Western teams. Who knows what’s going on.

    5. February 9, 2009 at

      There’s a difference between east-west travel and west-east that doesn’t necessarily cancel out. The conferences could, theoretically, be even on neutral ice and have fairly unbalanced real-world records.

    6. February 9, 2009 at

      Great stuff Ty.

      The whole issue regarding players moving between conferences is what interests me. I wonder if one oculd pick twenty players at random who have moved and see what their results are if their numbers would bear this out.

    7. lowetide
      February 9, 2009 at

      The original 6 teams were diabolical.


    8. February 9, 2009 at

      Interesting stuff, Tyler. I did something similar to your study many years ago, the results of which were published in the Globe & Mail back around 1985 or so. Like you, I was puzzled as to how the Second Six got worse in their second season and still Worse in their third. But I carried the study on to include four groups — the Third Six (expansions of 1970-74) and the WHA Four (from the 1979 merger).

      Interestingly, the WHA group had the best winning percentage of any of the four groups as early as 1981-82, just their third season in the NHL. Those teams had been raped of their depth (e.g. Kent Nilsson, Mike Rogers, Dave Langevin, many others) in a kind of reverse expansion draft, and they got absolute dregs in the expansion “draft”/mass contract dump that ensued. Furthermore they had to draft at the bottom of the first round.

      They did, however, get to keep a core player or two (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Howe, Buddy Cloutier), and of course one of those was a generational talent.

      The other huge advantage they had over earlier expansion franchises was that they had exisitng organizations, coaches, scouting staffs, etc. And the advanatge they had over all NHL teams was innovative and aggressive player recruitment. Their access to underage juniors cut off, the WHA clubs turned to the previously-untapped Canadian college ranks (Winnipeg), Finland (Edmonton), and beyond the Iron Curtain (Quebec). It’s a matter of record that they got results real fast.

      Some day I should go back and complete that study, see when it was that the WHA alumni lost their edge both in the standings and by extension, off the ice. At a guess, I’d say sometime around August 9, 1988.

    9. February 9, 2009 at

      LT: That’s a wonderful post, worthy of many more than 4 responses! Make it 5, with thanks for posting the link. Sam Pollock was a cut-throat son of a bitch. He also was the greatest general manager in NHL history, with no apologies for A —> B.

    10. February 9, 2009 at

      Well, it was mostly Sam Pollock that was diabolical. With the C-form system gone, most of that 70s dynasty was assembled by being a sneaky bastard.

      Oh, those were the days.

    11. Cosmo
      November 22, 2013 at

      why does this dominance not hold true through the playoffs? 8 cups in the East and 6 in the West since ’99.

      • Andrew
        November 22, 2013 at

        One seven game playoff series is a tiny sample size.

    12. Greg Donnelly
      November 22, 2013 at

      Interesting that Columbus and Detroit are both struggling now that they are an Eastern Conf. team. I thought Detroit would be much stronger given that they are, in essence, a Western team in this context. Supernatural effects maybe.

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