NHL Notes: Rugged West dominating East early

NHL Notes: Rugged West dominating East early
November 12, 2013, 3:00 pm
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Seemingly dating all the way to 1967 when the NHL branched out West with a pair of franchises out on the Left Coast, there has always been an accusation of “East Coast bias” in the world of professional hockey. It comes into play when a lopsided number of Eastern Conference players are bestowed with season-ending awards and when the quality of teams in the Western Conference are criminally underrated.

But this season is much less about East Coast bias, and much more about East Coast blight as Western Conference teams have continually kicked the tar out of Eastern Conference clubs five weeks into the regular season.

West teams have amassed a 73-29-11 record against the East this season after the conferences didn’t play against each other last year until the Stanley Cup Final in the lockout-shortened season. There actually are a handful of East teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning (who are 6-0-0 against the West), Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs that have at least held their own against the other conference.

But for every one of those respectable clubs there are multiple train wrecks like Buffalo, Philadelphia, Florida, New Jersey and Carolina that have been routinely spanked out of conference. The Edmonton Oilers have been spanked by plenty of Eastern Conference teams, but their only four wins this season came against Eastern teams.

In two of the last three full NHL seasons, the West has held an advantage overt he East, although it hasn’t been as sizable as the chasm between the two conferences this year.

“I haven’t played that many games in the East yet, but you can see that it’s a little more back-and-forth here,” said Loui Eriksson. “I think the way we want to play is [like the West]: To take advantage of teams by playing good defense, and jumping on those team’s mistakes. We have a good-sized group of guys that play physical with a good mix.”

So why is this lopsided conference phenomenon happening?

Some of it is simple style of play. At one time, the East was known as the slower, grittier conference with physical teams looking to slug it out against the faster, sleeker Western Conference. But those roles have reversed while opening the eyes of a guy like Jarome Iginla, who had been a lifelong Western Conference guy up until his trade to Pittsburgh last spring.

The wide open style of many Eastern teams is exciting hockey that puts fans in the seats. Players like P.K. Subban, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Alex Ovechkin and Erik Karlsson are constantly looking for offense at the risk of defensive miscues. That’s simply the price that needs to be paid to create offense.

Even though teams like the Colorado Avalanche are bringing that wide-open style to the West with great success, there are far more teams like the Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators that want to slow things down while grinding down opponents.

Each of the last two Stanley Cup champs -- the Blackhawks and the Kings -- have played that “hard” style from the West.

“I hadn’t seen a lot of the Eastern teams being out West for all those years,” said Iginla. “I think they’re different. When I came over [to Pittsburgh] at the trade deadline I thought there was a very clear difference in style of play. The teams out West are a lot more physical, even if the Bruins are one of the most physical teams in the East.

“They have some physical teams in the East, but as a whole it feels like the West is more of a grind with bigger bodies. It’s not a huge difference, but there are subtle differences there. There are also slightly different systems and styles, for sure. The Bruins play more like, I would say, the Kings with a physical, straightforward style of hard hockey. But you ask other guys, and they might have a completely different opinion about it.”

It actually makes sense that a team like the Bruins would fare well against that blue-collar brand of hockey, but Claude Julien didn’t believe Boston has seen enough Western Conference teams to make an educated stab at the reasons for the West’s domination. He and his Bruins will have a better idea after a two-week excursion to Western Canada in the middle of December that will see them go through Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton among other hockey hot spots.

“I think we might be able to answer that a little bit more down the road when we get a chance to go out West a little bit,” Julien said. “When we go and play games against them in their buildings, are we going to be able to do to them what they’ve done to us in the Eastern Conference?

“I don’t know that I put too much into it right now, and maybe down the line we’ll say they’re right. Right now we do know that the West is dominating, and hopefully things will even up here.”

It remains to be seen if things will even out over the course of the rest of the regular season, but there’s little doubt that the West's dominance is more than simple coincidence given that things have been so one-sided for more than a month now.
With Joe Thornton always taking the lead role as a Bruins alum whenever the San Jose Sharks return to Boston, the return of Brad Stuart to Boston was more than a little underplayed when San Jose rolled through town a couple of weeks ago.

The 34-year-old Stuart was part of the package sent to Boston in exchange for Thornton, of course, along with Wayne Primeau and Marco Sturm. He had a couple of solid seasons in Boston before being shipped to the Calgary Flames for Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference, and eventually winning a Stanley Cup in Detroit.

Now Stuart is back where it all started for him as a veteran top-four blueliner skating with the Sharks.  

“I really enjoyed playing here," said Stuart, who had his best season with 12 goals and 43 points in that 2005-06 season. "I know it was a couple of tough years for the team, but I had fun. It was a good growing experience where I was given a lot of responsibility on the ice. I got better as a player during my time here. I remember getting traded and being [in Boston] the next morning, and getting pinned up against the wall with 20 cameras in my face. That was a little different going from San Jose to [Boston].”

What was the one memory that Stuart holds from his time in Boston playing for some pretty bad hockey teams?

“Probably that very first game. We flew in that morning, and we were playing Ottawa, who I think were like 20-2-0 at the time,” said Stuart. “We beat them, and I remember Marco [Sturm] scoring a couple of minutes in the game. I had an assist in that first period, and I remember that whole couple of days feeling very surreal. It was a great way to start.”

As everyone remembers, those good times didn’t last for a Bruins hockey that was steered toward the rocks before Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien arrived to engineer the franchise’s turnaround.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli -- whose team could use some forward depth with an unproven Jordan Caron currently serving as their 13th guy -- is certainly monitoring the trade chatter as a handful of NHL teams are already well out of the playoff race in the middle of November.

But a source indicated to CSNNE.com that the Bruins aren’t in talks with Flyers GM Paul Holmgren as the rumors start flying everywhere that Wayne Simmonds is available on the market, and possibly headed to the Edmonton Oilers.

Many Bruins fans would love to see the struggling Simmonds, who has one goal and is a minus-10 in 16 games this season, in Black and Gold given the rough hue to his game. But the 25-year-old has never built on the 28-goal season of two years ago with the Broad Street Bullies, and is signed on for another five years at $3.975 million per season. For a salary-cap strapped team like the Bruins, that is a non-starter unless you’re willing to deal a player of equal cap space back to Philly.

The question comes down to this: Would you rather have Brad Marchand or Simmonds if you’re the Bruins? This humble hockey writer will take Marchand every single time after scoring 67 goals over the last three seasons, even if he’s suffered through a slow first month to start this season.
"You could have taped Roy, Belfour, and Brodeur together and we still wouldn’t have won the game." – Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley after a 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild, making the clear point that goaltending wasn’t the problem.
* Great to hear the Phoenix Coyotes sweater that defenseman Keith Yandle wore during a pregame warm-up, bearing the last name “Richard” in honor of eight-year old Boston Marathon bombing victim Martin Richard, is now framed and hanging in the Richard’s living room wall. Keith and older brother Brian made the trip to the Richard family’s Boston home over the summer after the family had reached out to the Yandle brothers in hopes of keeping the jersey as a memento of their late, hockey-loving son.
* Lou Lamoriello sent goalie Cory Schneider ahead of the rest of the New Jersey Devils team in a back-to-back situation last week while they played a home game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Schneider flew commercial to Minnesota while the Devils were playing, and in advance of the second game of the back-to-back against the Wild. It’s the same idea behind a Major League Baseball team sending a starting pitcher ahead of the team if there’s a rough turnaround ahead for travel, but it’s not something Schneider had ever done before.

“I’ve never done that before,” said Schneider. “Maybe (it’s) Lou’s baseball background, sending the pitcher out early.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t work as the Devils dropped a 4-0 decision and Schneider is off to a disappointing 1-4-3 record this season with a 2.09 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
* The 6-foot-5 Edmonton Oilers goaltender Devan Dubnyk had this to say about playing against Tampa's 6-foot-7 goaltender Ben Bishop last week: "I'm a rarity. Ben's an anomaly.”
* Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has been asked about extending impending UFA Marian Gaborik beyond this season, and his response about a player making $7.5 million was pretty telling.

Gaborik has always been accused of floating through points of the hockey season, and that can’t happen with a team’s big-ticket players.

Needless to say, Kekalainen wants to see more with only 13 players in the NHL collecting a bigger paycheck than Gaborik.

“I think he's done a lot of good things. And I think he could do more. He could be the driving force of the team,” said Kekalainen. “I'd like to see him taking charge, driving the team with his example -- not only with the points but with everything else he does.

“He's at the point in his career where he could take the next step in that area. He's proven he can score points, score goals. I want to believe that even a 30-year old or a 35-year old player can get better, and that's one area that I want to see more from him.”

Sounds like the perfect teammate for the ultra-streaky Nathan Horton as he stands roughly a month away from returning to the Blue Jackets from offseason shoulder surgery.
Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.