If you woke up today from a year-long coma and immediately checked the NHL standings (don’t pretend you wouldn’t), you might notice something… off. While the East seems well on track for the usual mid-90s point total for the final playoff spot (Montreal currently holds the second wild card spot with a respectable 85 points, one up on Columbus), the West is limping along with an embarrassingly low 78 point cutoff. It is increasingly likely that a Western Conference team will make the playoffs with less than 90 points. That hasn’t happened since the 2015-16 season, when Minnesota limped into the playoffs with just 87 points, setting the shootout-era record for lowest point total to make the dance. A few others have been almost as bad. A decade ago, both Montreal and Philly got in with just 88 points. The Islanders got in with a measly 83 in 2002-03, but by the time you go that far back, ties were still a thing.
Bottom line, you just don’t make the playoffs with less than 90 points, and if you do, something must be seriously wrong with your conference. Right? Maybe not.
Dig a little deeper, and it quickly becomes clear that the West may not be the joke some are making it out to be. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could even make a semi-convincing and counter-intuitive case that the deflated point totals are actually a result of better competition. More on that in a moment.
First, let’s get to the obvious. Tampa is an absolute juggernaut this year, and if there’s a case to be made that they aren’t the best team in the league I haven’t heard it. But after that, the conferences alternate spots, with Calgary, Boston, San Jose and Washington rounding out the top 5. Toronto breaks the pattern, sitting a point ahead of Winnipeg. The Islanders, Pittsburgh and Nashville round out the top 10. The East has a slight edge at the top, but the West isn’t exactly slumming it.
Head to head, the difference is also smaller than you might expect. The East has amassed a 235-178-47 record against the west (517 points), while the West has a 225-183-52 record against the east (502 points). There’s clearly nothing there to support the idea that the Eastern teams are beating themselves bloody within their conference and feasting on weaker Western teams when they get the chance. They’ve got a slight edge, to be sure, but it’s hardly dominant. And while you can’t read too much into this, the head to head stats reveal something rather interesting: Against other Eastern teams, the Lightning have just 6 losses, all in regulation (in 46 games). Against the West, they’ve lost 7 times in regulation and 4 more in overtime in only 29 games. Nearly two thirds of their losses have come against the West.
So if the West isn’t being held back by putmmelings from the East, then what IS going on? Yes, you can argue that for various stretches of the season, each of the West’s contenders (save maybe SJ and Calgary) have spent time looking like they had no interest in winning hockey games. The Blues early season struggles are certainly familiar here, but the Predators, Jets and Knights have all had runs of mediocrity, and for a while it looked like nobody below that wanted to make a serious push for the wild card (which fortuitously coincided with the Blues’ blistering run up the standings). But what if the real reason the West looks so mediocre is actually that, top to bottom, it’s a better, stronger, and more closely competitive conference?
On the surface, maybe it sounds absurd. The East is a better conference on paper because it’s actually worse? But maybe it’s not so crazy at all.
Of the 8 teams with a points percentage below .500, 5 of them are in the East. The only team with a sub-.400 percentage (hi Ottawa!) is in the East. Three of the four worst teams (all below a .450) are in the East. Comparing the division leaders in the East with those in the West, you can find a clear advantage in terms of both games played and points gained against the worst of the worst. The top 6 teams in the East have picked up 198 total points in 131 games played against the bottom feeders. By contrast, the best of the West have just 164 points and 111 games played against the bottom 8. Moreover, the East gets the vast majority of their “easy” points against other Eastern teams. 142 of those 198 points came from other Eastern conference teams (aided by having played 95 games against their own garbage and just 36 against the worst of the West). The West, on the other hand, has an almost even split in games played (55 vs Eastern trash, 56 against their own) and have an even 82/82 point split.
Getting into specifics, Tampa unsurprisingly leads the pack in points against the bottom with 40 (in 23 games), followed by the Capitals and Toronto (36 each in 23 and 22 games, respectively), the Islanders (33 in 22), the Knights (32 in 20), and the Jets (31 in 19). Only the Penguins in the East failed to get at least 30 points from the bottom 8 (they mustered only 23 in 19 games). Every division playoff team in the east has played at least 19 games against the bottom 8, and all of them except Pittsburgh have played at least 22. By contrast, only San Jose and Vegas from the West have hit 20 games against the bottom 8. Winnipeg has 19, Nashville 18, and the Blues and Flames just 17. Vegas has claimed 32 points against bottom-8 competition, best in the West but only 6th overall.
Where the narrative that the East is better really falls apart, though, is right where it matters most: the Wild Card race. That’s where the West appears significantly weaker at a glance. All 4 teams in the Wild Card race in the East (Carolina - 87 and Montreal – 85 in; Columbus – 84 and Philadelphia – 80 chasing) would be in if they were in the West (Colorado and Arizona sit at 78 points). But when you look at the points gained against bad teams, the Eastern wild card contenders have a serious advantage. The east conference wild card hopefuls have amassed 116 points in 87 games against the 8 worst teams. The western teams have just 99 points in 76 games. Let each western conference team play 3 extra games against bottom feeders instead of higher quality competition and I bet at least a couple of them would find at least a couple more wins and 4 or 5 more points, and suddenly the west wouldn’t be nearly the embarrassment it appears to be at a glance.
So what does this mean for the Blues?
Not much, actually. The Blues largely got where they are the hard way. Of the top 10 teams in each conference, the Blues have picked up the fewest points against bottom feeders (20) and have tied for the fewest games played against them (17). Pittsburgh and Dallas are next, at 23 points each (Dallas in 18 games and the Penguins in 19). The Blues have largely gained their points against middle-of-the pack or better competition.
On the one hand this could be a bit of a warning sign. Constantly playing down to, and even losing to, inferior competition makes it hard to reach the playoffs. The Blues are 9-6-2 against weak teams. That said, several of those loses came early in the season when they were unable to beat anybody consistently. More importantly, it means they’ve been able to carve out a playoff spot by beating strong teams. And last time I checked, there aren’t any sub .500 teams in the playoffs.