Sunday, May 15, 2016
The Western Conference has pretty well dominated the NHL now for almost two decades. Thirteen Cups in nineteen years, seven of the last ten, if it weren't for New Jersey the gap would be even more ridiculous, never mind the blown Gelinas call, Roloson's knee, Chris Osgood and myriad Detroit injuries and Tim Thomas having a season for the ages (and Dan Hamhuis getting hurt).
It's not just that the West wins every year it's that every spring you could pick six or seven or even eight or more western clubs that could beat anyone in the east while the eastern talent pool runs one or two or three teams deep. When those teams go down, as they often do, then the Western final essentially becomes the Cup final.
Now the gap has begun to close, thanks to Gary's cap. LA and the Hawks have been pulled back to the mushy middle and will continue to lose players this summer. The window for success has become one or two years, then the kids on entry level deals need to get paid and teams need to pay the price. For a team to continue to have success they need to, well they need to do a lot of things right. They need to bring in a steady stream of young (cheap) guys who can play. They need to be ruthless with vets coming into UFA, regardless of tenure or past contributions. They need to find useful vets on value contracts. And on top of that they need to have luck of all sorts - injuries, the right draw come playoff time, simple bounces.
It's not an easy path to navigate. You look at Tampa who just last year probably gave the Chicago/LA combo the toughest test in the final either team has had. With a break here or there and a healthy Tyler Johnson and Ben Bishop they may have carried the day. They fell short but it seemed that this could be their year. A slow start and then Stralman and Stamkos knocked out of the lineup (and now Bishop besides) and it seemed that their chances were doomed. And now Stamkos possibly out the door.
The window closes quickly.
Back to the original point, why is it that the West has been so good for so long? Well my theory is this, I call it the Norris theory. (Actually I don't call it anything but let's call it something.))
Back in the 80s the NHL has 21 teams. 16 of these made the playoffs and the setup was similar to today. You had four teams in each division make it, they played off against each other and then whoever came out faced the other division winner in the conference final.
So out West you had the Smythe and there you had the Oilers, one of the best, if not the best, teams ever. You had the Flames, who were probably the second best team in the league over a five or six year span. And you had the Jets who were very good for a year or two but who never could get past either Alberta team. So every year you had two teams with 90 or more points and while the third and fourth place teams were up the track they also had to play Edmonton and Calgary 16 times.
And you had the Norris - Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota, Toronto. In the early 80s Detroit was finishing up a stretch of nearly twenty years of being terrible (yes Oiler fans it could get worse). Toronto and Chicago had probably the two worst owners in hockey history. And St. Louis and Minnesota were relentlessly mediocre. Only once from 84 to 90 did a division winner top 90 points and this was playing a large number of games against other terrible teams. There were years that Norris teams made the playoffs while barely cracking 50 points!
And four of these clubs made the playoffs evey year.
It's hard to explain how bad these teams were but let me tell a little anecdote to illustrate, if I may. In the spring of 87 we were winding up our first year of university. I lived on campus at St Mike's College at U of T on a floor with eight other dudes, seven if whom were also freshmen. We were a tight lot, they were all terrific guys, we had ourselves some good times. It was in April that one of the guys had a birthday, he would have been turning twenty and so we decided to get out and celebrate. The playoffs had just started and the Blues and Leafs were slugging it out in the first round, the Blues having ripped up the division to win it with 79 points and a -12 GD and the Leafs way down the track with, um, 70 points and a -33 GD. Two quality clubs.
So we went to the Morrissey, the Mo as it was called, a classic Toronto watering hole, long gone now alas, and we ordered pitchers at whatever ridiculously cheap price they were (this was when the Mo was slightly divey, it had a rebirth soon after as a preppy hotspot and prices responded accordingly) and got to drinking. Wanting to bring some sport into the equation we agreed to fire back an extra beer (they had those little draft glasses, you know the ones) everytime there was a shot on net.
Ten minutes into the game no word of a lie and we hadn't had a drink yet. It was typical Norris garbage, sloppy, terrible hockey. Finally, fed up, I announced that we would drink every time someone touched the puck. Five minutes passed with no luck at all ...
I kid. But barely.
The thing was that there was no incentive to improve. I am sure these GMs would say they were trying their best to win but the reality is you could be mediocre or worse and you were guaranteed playoff dates and with a break or two you could easily get to the third round. Remember St Louis had money troubles at the time and again there was Ballard and Wirtz. These guys weren't spending money on players or scouting or anything.
And then Mike Keenan came to Chicago. His first year the Hawks struggled but as the fourth seed they managed to make the Conference final. The next year the club improved by 22 points and again made it to the Conference Final, where they fell to the Oilers, in six games.
And that was the end of the old Norris. It took one team to break from the pack, to see that the division was easy pickings and invest in taking the next step. And then the others followed. In 90/91 Chicago and St Louis both had over 100 points. The Wings won the division the next year with 98 points and began to become the team that dominated the NHL for decades. The Leafs hired Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns and in 92/93 Chicago had 106 points, Detroit had 103 and Toronto had 99.
Keenan started an arms race, for lack of a better term, and that was it for the old sad sack Norris.
And so I believe that in many ways the Western Conference is the same. In the late nineties the big money Eastern teams, the Rangers and Leafs and Flyers, spent their money poorly, they didn't fail for lack of trying but they had no Cup appearances between them after 96 (!). Meanwhile Detroit, Dallas and Colorado developed a ton of young talent, paid it and augmented it with smart free agent buys. Come the introduction of the salary cap the Stars and Avs regressed but the Wings remained the standard and so we saw Anaheim and San Jose, first of all, making their moves and then Vancouver, Chicago, LA, the Blues, the Stars and so on. The West became a war zone, so brutal that even a quality club like Nashville has found it impossible to get past the second round and annually quality clubs found themselves on the outside of the playoffs entirely. Basically unless you are the Oilers and are run by the worst owner and management team in hockey, a group that has spit in the face of their fans for a decade, all the while reaping massive profit and grifting the city of Edmonton for hundreds of millions of dollars, well if you are anyone else then you need to do everything and anything to get better because it iis almost impossible just to make the playoffs, never mind get by Chicago or LA to get a shot at the Cup.
And so here we are.
This year was different I thought. I figured the Ducks and Tampa at the beginning of the year and then coming into April this is what I had to say:
To me there are five real heavyweights this year - Anaheim, LA, St Louis, Washington and Pittsburgh. If Tampa were healthy I would throw them in that mix as well. After that I see Dallas, Chicago and San Jose as good but flawed teams and then everyone else. (I can't take Tampa seriously unless Stralman and Stamkos were able to return.)
So you can see how things have changed, if Tampa were healthy, three of the six teams I rated were eastern teams and that has not happened ... ever? Not as long as I remember anyhow.
That all said, I think it is the West again this year, barring calamity striking the winner of the Blues/Sharks series. After watching Pittsburgh and Washington I cannot take the Pens that seriously, I really can't. Not with that D. Same would have gone for the Caps if they had won. So your Cup winner will be .....
The Sharks. Oh man, I literally just changed my mind there. Which is what I did for Caps and Pens, which did not work out well. It's a coin flip, it really is, but when I think about it .... this is what tips it in San Jose's favour, in my opinion.
They can roll four lines, the Blues can only roll three pretty well, depth matters. I always say it and I can't go back on that now. And they have three good D pairs and quality goaltending. They have it all and the Blues had a tough time getting by a Stars' team missing Seguin and having a D that is nowhere near the quality of the Sharks and that Dallas goaltending.
I may regret this. Well I mean not really, I don't have money on this or anything.
Sharks in 6 or 7. Joe gets his Cup.
Posted by Black Dog at 12:35 PM