NHL's West no longer its best
Once-dominant conference has given way to Eastern cousin
After finishing with the usual game-day questions, Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise was intrigued by one more query.
Could he point to why, after so many years as the NHL's dominant force, the Western Conference seems to have taken a step back the last two seasons?
"I don't know, that's a good question," Parise said. "Probably parity. Games are hard. You look at the standings now in our conference and there's only two teams that are out (Colorado and Arizona).
"It didn't use to be like that."
There was a time not that long ago when finishing the regular season with 87, 88 or 89 points wasn't worth much in the West.
From 2001 to 2015, teams grabbing the conference's final playoff spot wound up sitting anywhere between 90 and 99 points, with 91 points (four times) and 95 points (three times) the most common totals.
The Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs two seasons ago with 95 points, while the Dallas Stars in 2011 and Colorado Avalanche in 2007 suffered the same fate.
Less than 90 points for playoffs?
But for the second year in a row, it looks like less than 90 points might be enough for a club, and quite possibly two, to get into the West's top eight.
"It's surprising, to be honest," Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk said.
Last season it took just 87 points for the Wild to make the playoffs in the West — the lowest since San Jose's 87 in 2000 — while Nashville grabbed 96 to earn the first wild-card spot. Five of the conference's other six playoff teams finished with 100 points or more.
Philadelphia made the post-season with 96 points in the East last year, but Boston missed out with 93.
Boston also failed to get in with 96 points in 2015, but over the previous 12 seasons — excluding the two lockout-shortened campaigns — it took anywhere from 83 to 94 points in the East to make the top-8.
Minnesota, Chicago and San Jose are the only West teams on pace to crack 100 points in 2016-17. St. Louis is tracking towards 89 points as the conference's first wild-card team, while Calgary, which has played two more games, is in the second spot on an 86-point pace.
Los Angeles is a point back in ninth, but having played two fewer games than Calgary, is running at an 88-point clip.
Viewed as the weaker of the two conferences for a number of years, the East has had quite a resurgence. Five clubs are on course to crack the 100-point mark, including Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers in the high-octane Metropolitan Division, along with Montreal.
The Rangers occupy the first wild card in the East and are on pace for 107 points.
'Goes in cycles'
"It goes in cycles," said Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, whose team has lost four in a row to fall out of a playoff spot after holding one down a few weeks ago. "The West has been a powerhouse for a long time. (The East) has got good teams. There's no other way to put it.
"They've got some teams the last couple years that are really built to win the Stanley Cup."
But it's not just the top teams. After the East's top five clubs, the next 11 are separated by just six points in the battle for the three remaining playoff berths. Despite sitting in the basement, Tampa Bay still owns a .500 record and is just five points out.
"Western teams are having a tougher time against the Eastern teams, especially early on in the year," said Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows. "It seemed like every time there was a conference matchup the East team would win."
Burrows pointed to clubs in the West sacrificing prospects and draft picks the last few years to make a run, while others in the East were more likely to hold onto their assets.
"Some of these East teams loaded up on draft picks," he said. "Western teams felt they could go all the way and got some rental players and unloaded some picks."
Less of a gap
Similar to the assessment given by Parise, Canucks defenceman Luca Sbisa said apart from Colorado and Arizona, there's less of a gap between teams in the West.
"It's more even now," he said. "You had a bigger spread between the five bottom teams and the five top teams in the conference. You've got teams like Edmonton that are all of a sudden getting a lot of points and are a top team."
But while the current numbers suggest a point total in the high 80s might be enough to make the playoffs in the West, Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins expects a couple of hot streaks over the final stretch to get the bar back to 90 or higher.
"It looks like it will take 87 or 88 (points), but I think it will take more than that," he said. "There's going to be some teams getting on a bit of a run and knowing where they have to get to."