The League of Extraordinary Statisticians: The Conferences

VANCOUVER, CANADA - FEBRUARY 26: Ryan Kesler #17 of the Vancouver Canucks battles with Tomas Kaberle #12 of the Boston Bruins while in the corner during the second period in NHL action on February 26, 2011 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

The League of Extraordinary Statisticians (LOES) is a weekly forum bringing together top analytical minds in the hockey world to answer a variety of questions that straddle the line between stats analysis and something you might hear floating around section 304.  They have agreed to answer these questions in a few paragraphs or less, and with minimal formulae.  Because this is a forum, we'd encourage you to use the comments section to answer the questions yourselves, or to discuss or debate the answers given.

The LOES is not meant to represent the entire of the hockey stats community.  There are a number of people that either were too busy or too difficult to contact for the purposes of the forum.

Let's be honest with ourselves: the East has sucked for a long time.  Like since the 80s, before it was even called "The East."  Maybe you could give them a minor hey-day in the early 1990s, but ever since then the Western Conference has simply fielded a deeper reservoir of talent, sufficient to give rise to questions of "East-Coast bias" in terms of media coverage and nationally-televised games.  While I don't really feel like prancing through that minefield, I will say that the dominance of teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, and Colorado Avalanche during the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s (in addition to the solid-if-not-fruit-bearing performances of the St. Louis Blues in the same period) could only be ignored by the most casual of fans.

With the emergence of the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers, it is almost inevitable that the question turns to whether the East has finally caught up to the West.  Considering the heated nature of the East-West debate, it seemed only natural to put it in the hands of our LOES. 

The question for this week: Has the Eastern Conference finally caught up to the Western Conference in terms of talent?

As of Sunday night, the West Conference has a 128-103 record in games against the East Conference, when we strip away the point for regulation ties to make things more transparent.   So clearly the West Conference in better than the East.  
 
The problem is that the East Conference has an easier schedule.  All East Conference teams are in the Eastern time zone.  The West Conference is sprawled throughout the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Western time zones.  West Conference teams spend more time travelling.  Hence they spend less time practising, resting, rehabbing injuries etc.  Into the long season they are more tired than an East Conference team.  This means that East Conference teams actually do better than they would if travel was equal.  West Conference teams do worse.  This means West Conference players have worse stats then they would in the East.  As a result East Conference players tend to get paid more than West Conference players of equal ability, but lesser stats.  In a salary capped world this makes West Conference talent cheaper and this makes the West Conference better.
 
Also this gives West Conference teams tend to draft earlier in the draft than they should based on their talent.  East Conference teams do better in the standings than their talent level should and they wind up drafting later, which gives them less chance to win in the future.
 
An East Conference team that barely qualifies for playoffs would have missed the playoffs if they played in the West Conference.  This makes the East Conference team more content and less driven to make major changes to improve.  This gives West Conference teams more desire to improve than East Conference ones.
 
Adding all of this together, we have a situation where the West Conference is better and this process sustains itself and even gets worse from year to year.

- Greg Ballentine, The Puck Stops Here at Kukla's Korner

The obvious answer is of course not. The standings understate the gulf between the conferences because most games are within a conference, so the points standings will necessarily be close.
In head-to-head games between the two conferences, the West is 128-103 with a goal differential of +51. In other words, the difference between them is similar to the difference between the Penguins and the Thrashers, or between the Sharks and the Blues.

As for the top end teams, I think Detroit and Vancouver are still as strong or stronger as Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, and the 8th seed in the West (currently Chicago!) would destroy the 8th seed in the East (Carolina).

The reason we think of the East as good is because of individual talent like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. But as I've said in the past, if Pavel Datsyuk played in the East, we'd think of him as highly as we do of Crosby.

- Tom Awad, Hockey Prospectus

It's still not close.  The West has won 128 of 231 inter-conference games this season.  In fact, only Phoenix, Minnesota, Colorado and Nashville have losing records against the East.  While the imbalanced schedule affects the precision of the analysis, a 55% winning percentage over 231 trials is pretty strong evidence that we aren't "tossing fair coins."  While the individual talent of elite players in the East might exceed that of the West, Eastern teams are, on balance, weaker.  Perversely, this suggests an easier road to the Stanley Cup for Philadelphia than it does for Vancouver.

- Alan Ryder, Hockey Analytics

While the gap now isn't nearly as large as it was in the early 2000s, the evidence suggests that the West is still better.

As of Sunday, the West has gone 109-90-32 against the East, if games that ended in a shootout are considered ties.  That's about what one would expect on the basis of the Western teams' goal differential (EN excluded) vis-a-vis their Eastern counterparts (621 for, 573 against).  The West's superiority in terms of goal differential is confined to even strength, with an EV goal advantage of 465-412.  The East has actually done slightly on special teams (161-156).

Things are closer in terms of territorial play at EV, but the West still holds a slight advantage.  While the East has outshot the West at even strength in general, the West has done better with the score tied, going 0.51, 0.507, and 0.501 in terms of Corsi percentage, Fenwick percentage, and shot percentage, respectively.

All of that tells me that the West remains the superior conference.  Whether or not the gap is as large as the W-L-T results suggest depends on whether and to what extent the West has superior goaltending/finishing/shot quality, which is something that I'm not prepared to answer.

- JLikens, Objective NHL

I hate this question, because people feel so strongly one way or the other, and yet the difference is marginal at best.

So much work has been done on this topic (read Objective NHL for a taste) and there isn't really an answer.

In terms of team talent, the East is top-heavy while the West is spread out quite evenly. But individual talent? Crosby, Oveckin, Stamkos and... I don't know who's in the West, since NBC and Vs. don't show anybody other than Pittsburgh and Washington.

- Geoff Detweiler, Broad Street Hockey

JLikens over at ObjectiveNHL just completed an extensive analysis of this very question, and the short answer is "yes".
 
The long answer is "maybe" - depending on whether there's a "significant skill difference between the two conferences with respect to shooting or save percentage."  The West does continue to enjoy an advantage in winning percentage, but only by virtue of higher shooting percentages.  Is that luck, or an actual skill?
 
The long answer also explores why a team that has advanced to the 2nd round only once since 1989 gets included as a West powerhouse, so perhaps it's best to stick with the short answer.

- Rob Vollman, Hockey Prospectus

No, but the talent gap is narrowing. The West is still clearly ahead of the East with a .621 to .515 edge in points percentage in inter-conference games this season. So not surprisingly, if you look at the top 50 players by Goals Versus Threshold, you'll find 29 from the Western Conference versus 21 from the Eastern Conference. But players 25 years old or younger on that list? It's 11 for the East (Stamkos, Crosby, Price, Ovechkin, Letang, Giroux, M. Richards, Grabner, Byfuglien, Lucic, Pavelec) versus 8 from the West (Quick, Toews, Perry, Kopitar, Eriksson, Yandle, Couture, Kane).

- Timo Seppa, Hockey Prospectus

Would somebody like to call up Bettman right now and give him the news?  In all seriousness, and in the light of the Flyers-Bruins Winter Classic over a year ago, there's a sense that Ovechkin and Crosby have been chosen as the marketable players of the league, and major events on the national stage almost need to have one or more of them involved.  You could maybe argue an East-West thing here, but I'd focus on the emphasis on these two particular players, who have the advantage of big U.S. markets.  This year, we've had a season where one of them has been hurt (since the Winter Classic, incidentally) and the other has been good, but not great.  Yet the NHL is still doing quite well...perhaps this is an opportunity to create another "marketable" player or two.  Pavel Datsyuk's impish humor and remarkable talent have been laying in wait for years; Drew Doughty has the looks, skill, and large U.S. market to make Don Draper drool.  The decision to make it all an Ovechkin/Crosby thing was deliberate and possibly damaging; to draw attention to the West by showcasing players even New England fans can appreciate would not be a bad idea.

So, readers, do you think the East is "catching up"?  Or, an additional question to both the panel and the readers: what about the future?  Does it seem like the East maybe hasn't caught up, but the prospects are good that they will in the next decade?  

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