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Panel's consensus opinion says West is best

Monday, 04.11.2011 / 1:19 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Panel's consensus opinion says West is best
Depth was the biggest factor as a panel of six anonymous GMs and a pair of NHL Network analysts came to the conclusion that the best hockey is taking place in the Western Conference.
The question posed to NHL.com's mostly anonymous eight-person panel was this: Which conference is better and why?

The consensus will not surprise anyone who has followed the NHL this season -- five votes for the Western Conference, zero for the Eastern Conference and three on the fence. But the reasons why our panel of experts leaned in favor of the West and the reasons why three of them were on the fence should pique your interest.

Over the final two weeks of the regular season we polled six general managers, including three from the West and three from the East, as well as two NHL Network analysts -- Calgary-based Craig Button and Toronto-based Kevin Weekes. The results found that the three Western GMs as well as Button and Weekes favored the Western Conference while the three Eastern GMs were on the fence.

Depth was the biggest factor in why the West won this poll.

"You can be 10th today and if you go on a six-game winning streak you might have a chance to open (the playoffs) at home," a veteran Western Conference GM told NHL.com with two weeks left to go in the season. "And it's going to take more points to make the playoffs in the West because we're dragging more points in those games. That could change next year, but for the '10-11 season, if you want my opinion it's the West."

The standings coincide with his argument.

Western Conference teams combined to earn 324 points head-to-head against Eastern Conference teams (142-88-40). The Eastern Conference teams combined to earn 291 points against the West with 14 fewer victories and 19 more regulation losses (128-107-35).

Even the Western Conference teams that didn't make the playoffs combined to go 64-43-19 against the Eastern teams. Minnesota's 6-10-2 record brings that number down while St. Louis, Columbus and Dallas each had 11 wins over Eastern teams.

The bottom seven teams in the Eastern Conference went a combined 53-56-17 against the Western teams. The Hurricanes were the only team to win 10 games against Western teams while Atlanta won just six and Ottawa only five.

"The way you do points, five teams in the East have sub-.500 records against teams from the West while two teams from the West have sub-.500 records against teams from the East," the same Western Conference GM added. "It goes to the depth."

But does it, asks an Eastern Conference GM, who offers this dissenting opinion:

"You can't (just look at the numbers), and I'll give you this reason: Did the Western teams play New Jersey more in the first half or the second half," he said. "I don't want to pick on just one team, but that's the obvious team that was not good in the first half and very good in the second half."

Western teams were 9-3-2 against the Devils in the first half of the season, but went just 1-3 in the second half.

"Let's take that further: Boston does better than Carolina overall, so that would lead you to say that Boston is a better team than Carolina, but Carolina has a better record versus Western teams than Boston," the GM added. "What does that tell you? I don't know.

"There are so many variables when you look at this. Do you look at what the weakest link or links are in each conference? Does one conference have more weaker links than the other? Or, do you look at it from the perspective of the top teams? How do you look at it? I just think there are so many variables that it's hard to pick it out."

For some clarity we went to a Western GM with post-work stoppage ties to the East and an Eastern GM with post-work stoppage ties to the West.

The Eastern GM seemed like he wanted to favor his old conference, but never actually said so, choosing instead to say, "it's all cyclical." The GM who currently works with the Western-based franchise said unequivocally his new conference is better because that's what players tell him.

"I've talked to players who have played in both the East and West, and the comment that is made consistently to me is that in the Western Conference it seems there are so many rivalries, so every game from the beginning of the season takes on this playoff intensity," he said. "I had a player who used to play in the East say that the toughest thing he had to get adjusted to in the West is that every night it's like a playoff game. In the East it's not the same."

This GM pointed to the rivalries, such as the Battle of Alberta, Chicago-Detroit, Detroit-Colorado, Chicago-Vancouver and Anaheim-Los Angeles. He suggested that there aren't as many fierce rivalries in the Eastern Conference.

"It's funny because when I was in the East, the West was something I didn't know as well," he said. "Now I enjoy watching all the games in the Western Conference and it depends on who the teams are that are playing in the East. It's a battle every single night in the West."

Even the Western-bred executive turned Eastern GM couldn't argue with that.

"It's a different style of play (in the West), but it's not any easier to win in the East," he said. "There might be more teams depth-wise in the West and the point production is a little better in the West."

Standings aside, speed was another reason for why some on the panel were in favor of the Western Conference.

"The games are faster and that leads to the outcomes against the East," a Western GM said.

However, there was no debate on which conference is more physical -- the Eastern Conference is by a landslide, but Button says on most nights that doesn't make a difference against the good Western teams that use their speed to play a puck possession game.

"The Red Wings play a north-south game and so do the Vancouver Canucks and Blackhawks," Button told NHL.com. "But teams like Chicago, Detroit, Vancouver -- they don't want to give up the puck.

"The Detroit Red Wings will dump the puck in, but they're not dumping the puck in to physically get you -- they're dumping the puck in thinking that's their best way to get the puck back, whereas teams like the Bruins are dumping the puck in to wear you down. I prefer the precision, thinking with the puck and how to work in a five-man unit rather than getting the blue line, getting the red line and grinding it out."
"I would say yes, the West is better.  I think there is more depth to the teams. You wake up this morning and the eighth place team has 97 points -- and they're the defending champions." -- Craig Button
Weekes said he favors the Western Conference because of the amount of high-end puck-moving defensemen, including guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Duncan Keith, Dan Boyle, Drew Doughty, Keith Yandle, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and others.

"The West has, top to bottom, better defensemen and the transition game in the West is better because of it," Weekes told NHL.com. "It's more a European-style game or the way Team Canada plays in international events."
Weekes said the Flyers' strong defense and transition game is the reason why they made it to the Stanley Cup Final as the No. 8 seed last season.

"But when they got to the Final (and faced Chicago), it was a whole different level," Weekes said. "Maybe the top teams in the East do it well, but if you look at the West, it's one through 12 or 13 that do it well."

Button offered one final argument for why he favors the West, and it has nothing to do with the actual teams.

"Go and look at the leading point scorers in the League," he said. "If you look at the top 20, how many of them come from the West?"

The answer is 14.

"So, I would say yes, the West is better," Button concluded. "I think there is more depth to the teams. You wake up this morning and the eighth place team has 97 points -- and they're the defending champions."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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