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Over the Boards

Over the Boards: Western Conference dominance

Wednesday, 11.13.2013 / 3:00 AM / Over the Boards

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Over the Boards: Western Conference dominance
Dan Rosen looks at various theories as to why the Western Conference teams have had such a pronounced advantage over the Eastern teams this season in this edition of "Over the Boards."

The Western Conference teams have had the advantage over the Eastern Conference teams since the start of the 2005-06 season, but it's been even more pronounced this season, leading to various theories as to why that may be.

There's the element of speed, which many coaches, especially in the Western Conference, believe gradually has gotten better in the West over the years. There's the depth up front, especially among the top-two scoring lines on each team, which coaches talk about that being in favor of the West.

ROSEN'S MAILBAG

How does the injury to Steven Stamkos affect the Lightning's season outlook? -- @DustinKlavon07

The only answer here is it greatly affects the Lightning's season outlook. They've given themselves a chance by getting off to a strong start, including a surprising 6-0-0 record against Western Conference opponents, but it's obviously impossible for the Lightning to replace Stamkos' production. He has 199 goals in 311 games since the start of the 2009-10 season. Unless they found a way to get Alex Ovechkin from the Washington Capitals, they're not replacing that production. The Lightning have to hope Stamkos recovers on the short end of the three-to-six month window that has been reported, but the good news is they've banked some points and have a bit of a cushion now to sort it all out.

Is it looking more and more everyday like Rick Nash may be done for the year? -- @theskrypclub

No, it actually looks more and more like he's getting closer to returning. Nash has resumed skating, which is as good a sign as any you can get right now after basically zero news for a few weeks.

Do you see any chance that there will be another NHL Premiere in Europe, perhaps in 2014? -- @Michael_Horath

There could be NHL Premiere Games in Europe soon, but not in 2014. Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that on Monday, saying the NHL and NHLPA have agreed that it's too late to plan Premiere Games for next season. However, the NHL and NHLPA are hoping to come to an agreement on a future international schedule soon and Premiere Games in Europe could be a part of that.

Who will be the best replacement for Steven Stamkos on Team Canada? -- @rick37rypien

If Stamkos can't go to Sochi, and it would be surprising now if he can, I think it opens the door for Matt Duchene to not only make the team, but perhaps play on a line with Sidney Crosby. Stamkos might have been ticketed to play with Crosby, but Duchene's speed should serve as a nice complement to Crosby. Duchene is also strong in the faceoff circle. On the larger, international ice, where a possession game is so important, it helps to have two strong faceoff guys on the ice at the same time in case one of them gets kicked out of the circle.

Does Claude Giroux make Team Canada? -- @Chris_Stearns_4

If the team was picked today I'd say no, he does not. Even without Stamkos, Canada has so much depth, particularly at center, and Giroux simply hasn't done enough this season to warrant being on that team. However, things could turn for him over the next month and a half and he can play his way on. They're not naming the roster until just before or after Christmas, so Giroux has time.

"We played Detroit and their top line killed us, but there was no secondary scoring," Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff told NHL.com. "Buffalo has had a real tough time scoring and we played against them. Montreal at the same time was having the same type of problems. I would point to that."

If you have a question you want answered in Over the Boards, send it in a tweet to @drosennhl. The Mailbag will be a weekly feature here.

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock doesn't disagree with any of it, but when asked for a reason why the depth and speed appears to be greater in the Western Conference, maybe greater than ever before, he said it's a result of the measuring stick the Western Conference teams have now that has nothing to do with the Eastern teams.

The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012. The Chicago Blackhawks won it in 2013. They're both still championship contenders and that, according to Hitchcock, is helping to drive the West's dominance against the East because the West teams simply are trying to survive against their own.

Heading into the season, the West's overall record against the East since 2005-06 was 818-524-189, equating to 59.6 point percentage. The West teams are approximately 10 percent better than that this season, as heading into games Tuesday they had a 73-29-11 record against the Eastern teams, equating to a 69.5 point percentage.

"When you have the same conference win the Cup two years in a row your whole focus is on, 'How do we beat those guys?'" Hitchcock told NHL.com. "Just keeping pace is a major struggle. Everybody's focus is having to keep up in the West, never mind beating the East. That stuff goes in cycles, but I've always found the cycle always follows who wins the Cup."

Five of the past eight Cup champions have come out of the Western Conference, but even the three Eastern teams that won the Cup had to do so in a Game 7. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins had to win on the road. Pittsburgh won its Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings by one goal.

"Competition-wise, we really feel it here in Phoenix," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told NHL.com. "We're in a division with L.A., Anaheim, San Jose and Vancouver and those four have been really good teams the last three or four years. For us to find any way to compete, we're going to have to compete with those teams. We have to be at our best just to give ourselves a chance in our division."

Hitchcock argues that the Eastern teams aren't facing that level of competition right now. It's likely hurting them when they play the Western teams.

Twelve of the 16 teams in the East were .500 or worse against the Western teams heading into Tuesday. None of the eight teams in the Metropolitan Division had winning records against the West. The Tampa Bay Lightning (6-0-0), Boston Bruins (2-1-1), Toronto Maple Leafs (6-3-0) and Detroit Red Wings (4-3-2) were the only Eastern teams with winning records against the West.

"You get a real feel for what the [the Kings and Blackhawks] do well because you're trying to copy some of the stuff they do and you want to know what they're doing," Hitchcock said. "You're really dug in and evaluating it. When you watch those teams play that many times you go, 'Man, this is what it's going to take personnel-wise and what it's going to take play-wise.' It hardens you. It really hardens you.

"They give you a measuring stick and you're just trying to keep up to that stick."

Babcock hungry for a healthy 'D'

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock thinks his team has been too slow recently. He expects it to change soon, perhaps as early as Friday against the Washington Capitals, when Babcock is hoping to get Jonathan Ericsson and Brendan Smith back in the lineup.

"When we have Ericsson and Smith in the lineup on the back end we're fine because we can play [Danny] DeKeyser in the second pair," Babcock told NHL.com. "When we don't have them we have to play DeKeyser in the first pair, and we don't have enough depth on our team on the back end and we don't move the puck. When you don't move the puck you don't score. We're not deep enough on that position to have injuries."

Ericsson has missed 10 straight games and Smith has missed four in a row. If they return Friday, barring other injuries, Babcock should be able to put together the defense pairs he wants: Ericsson with Niklas Kronwall, DeKeyser with Kyle Quincey and Smith with Jakub Kindl.

"Whoever plays with DeKeyser plays great and whoever plays with Kronwall plays great," Babcock said. "There's a reason for that. They're great. Other guys need help. That's just the facts. I don't think we're that far away. To tell you the truth, I really don't. I think we're going to be quicker. We're a slow team right now with the way we move the puck on our back end, but once we have our back end locked … I think we'll be way quicker than we play right now."

Blues' schedule heating up, Hitchcock in full evaluation mode

After playing a League-low 10 games in October, the Blues have 15 games this month and for Hitchcock and Co., it's a blessing because he thinks the stop-and-start schedule last month prevented them from playing at their best.

"I know this comes out the wrong way, but our biggest challenge has been being able to keep everybody's interest because we've played so few games," Hitchcock said. "Now we've got no choice. Now we're really into the meat of our schedule. We're really into it, but we had all these stops and starts so it's been a real challenge keeping our competitive level up there, and it's shown in some games when we haven't been able to maintain a high pace like some teams that have played a lot of games."

Hitchcock said he has seen that high pace return and it's paying dividends in the Blues' checking game.

"A big part of checking is managing the puck," he said. "When we check well and we manage the puck well, and we do it consistently, we're able to roll four lines and play at a high level."

That was evident this past Saturday when they beat the Penguins 2-1.

QUOTEBOOK



Coyotes general manager Don Maloney talking about the development of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson:


"He's just slowly filling out physically. That's the biggest thing. He plays 25 minutes a game against all the best on the other team, so he's a top matchup guy as well as one of the top scorers on the blue line. He's just getting better and better and better. He's just filling out, becoming a man physically, and with that comes a confidence. I think we're going to see great things from him. When you don't see him as much as we see him you don't appreciate him, but he's a terrific young talent."

Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff offering his thoughts going into his team's game Wednesday against the struggling Edmonton Oilers:

"I've watched their last couple and I would argue that they're playing better than they had in the past. For me that's a scary one. It's almost like a trap game. They look like they're going better to me."

"We had no choice but to play at a high level," Hitchcock said. "It was a very well-played game with a lot of stuff that coaches will be able to evaluate. We were able to get really good evaluation on where we're at. It was our most competitive game for 60 minutes. We've had some really emotional games against Chicago but we were able to maintain a pretty high level right from the start against the Penguins."

Powering up in Phoenix

Judging from how it's been in the past, Phoenix's power play deserves to be called surprisingly good this season. However, when you really analyze it, it shouldn't be all that surprising that the Coyotes have a strong power play because of the weapons they have on it and how they're performing.

The Coyotes' power play was tied for 10th in the NHL at 20.3 percent entering the game Tuesday against the Blues. Phoenix has not finished better than 23rd on the power play in the past five seasons.

"Quite frankly it's a little bit foreign territory for us because we are scoring and normally we just have to beg and scrape and crawl for goals," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told NHL.com.

Despite the fact that Mike Ribeiro entered the game Tuesday with only three points on the power play, Maloney said he has brought a swagger to the special teams' unit that is giving it confidence.

"There's a feeling when he's out there we have a chance to score versus hoping and praying we get some shots on net," Maloney said.

Defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle have been providing some extra offensive pop from the back end. Entering Tuesday, Yandle was tied with P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens for most power-play points among all NHL defensemen (nine). Ekman-Larsson had seven.

"Ekman-Larsson and Yandle have been really good and the addition of Ribeiro has really helped," Tippett told NHL.com. "He's made some critical plays at critical times that have really given us an opportunity. You get three guys like that out there and your opportunities to make things happen start to improve."

Shane Doan was tied for second in the League with five power-play goals entering Tuesday. Radim Vrbata had six points on the power play and Martin Hanzal had four.

Pominville's impact

Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher was asked a question about the play of young, top-six forwards such as Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Fletcher turned it into an answer about Jason Pominville because he thinks Pominville, the former captain of the Buffalo Sabres, deserves credit for giving Granlund in particular the confidence to know that he belongs in the NHL.

"Granlund has a lot of confidence and he's made some great plays, but every time he makes a great play Pominville puts it in the net," Fletcher said.

Pominville leads the Wild and was tied for fourth in the NHL entering Tuesday with 11 goals. Granlund has 10 assists, including four of his past five on Pominville goals. Niederreiter has 10 points.

"It's a long season with ups and downs," Fletcher said, "but having a veteran like Pominville, who has been a captain in this League and has the talent to play with those two kids and really help them, to finish the plays they make and get them the puck in certain situations, and to be able to go to dinner with them on the road and show them what the League is like, it's been invaluable for our team."

This and that

* Ruff says the big topic with the Stars now is defending, and he likes what he's seen in recent games, even in the 5-2 loss to the Blackhawks this past weekend. Chicago scored twice in the final two minutes to make it a three-goal margin.

"The thing that bothered me most is when you looked at it, it was 5-2, but when it comes to chance and play, we had the puck more than they did and our speed, they took six penalties against us," Ruff said. "We have to put a little finish on. We made mistakes and they finished, and when they made their mistakes we didn't finish."

The Stars play Edmonton on Wednesday.

Nail Yakupov
Right Wing - EDM
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 4
SOG: 31 | +/-: -14
* Babcock isn't sure when center Stephen Weiss (groin) will be able to return to the Red Wings' lineup, but even when he does the coach won't be expecting much right away.

"I also think it's going to take him another month after that," Babcock said.

Weiss has three points in 17 games this season as he has struggled to adjust to being with the Red Wings after spending his first 10 full NHL seasons with the Florida Panthers.

"He's a ways away from being a Red Wing," Babcock said. "I knew it was going to be tough sledding, but I didn't think it was going to be this tough."

* Igor Larionov, the agent for Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov, said he is traveling to Edmonton on Thursday to see some games and talk with general manager Craig MacTavish about his client. Larionov said he doesn't know Oilers coach Dallas Eakins, but hopes to be able to sit  with him to talk about Yakupov, who has four points and is a minus-14 this season.

"Obviously there are a lot of questions and I want to have some answers," Larionov said.

---

Quote of the Day

Not only is it a great idea, but if you don't [start using analytics] you're going to fall behind. You have to be on the cutting edge. It was [Arizona Coyotes assistant general manager] Darcy Regier who said, 'If you didn't invent it, you have to be the second- or third-best copier, because if you're fourth or fifth you've got no chance.'

— Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on his interest in advanced statistical analysis