If anything, the NHL’s summer realignment should have made the playoff road more difficult in the East. Instead, the opposite seems to have occurred.
The math, assuming all teams are created equal, seems simple. Each conference in the NHL sends eight teams to the playoffs. That means that 57 percent (8-of-14) of Western teams will make the postseason, and only 50 percent (8-of-16) of Eastern teams will do so.
Therefore, for teams hoping to secure a playoff berth, the West was the place to be. Only that is not how it’s working early this season. The chart below shows the projected 82-game point totals for every NHL team, based on their current records:
Obviously, some of the numbers here are the unsustainable result of projecting a hot start over 82 games.
The all-time best NHL team, the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, finished with 132 points; no matter how much of a coaching genius Patrick Roy is he won’t goose the current Avalanche roster to a better finish than that. Likewise, the Buffalo Sabres probably won’t be worse than the expansion Thrashers (39 points) were in 1999-00.
Even so, the trends are remarkable. As it stands, three Western teams (Nashville, Los Angeles and Dallas) would make the playoffs in the East but will finish below the cut line in the West. The Kings and Predators, assuming the same record, are on pace for home-ice advantage in the Metropolitan.
Looking at it the other way, the East’s final projected playoff team—the New York Islanders—would rank 12th in the West.
The reason for the gap is simple: The West has a 66-26-10 record against Eastern teams; Eastern teams are only 36-53-13 against the West.
The talent difference between the two conferences isn’t usually so large, but it is part of a trend that stretches back for years now. Last month, Grantland’s Sean McIndoe looked at what happened when the two conferences played each other; going back more than a decade the West had never failed to post a winning record against the East.
Even if we only consider McIndoe’s numbers for 2005-06 and later (after the shootout was introduced), we find that the West has had a sizable advantage, with a 53 percent win rate. That doesn’t come close to comparing with the staggering 65 percent win rate the West has posted against the East this season.
That suggests one of two things. Either there was a massive offseason talent shift, or the West is winning a higher percentage of games than we can reasonably expect it to the rest of the way.
The former seems extremely unlikely. Three teams switched conferences this summer, with Winnipeg going west and the Red Wings and Blue Jackets moving east. Even if one accepts the Jets as a far better team than Columbus (they aren't), the Detroit factor alone should have made the East a better conference.
The latter possibility, that a good deal of luck is helping to buoy the West’s record, gets some support from looking at the underlying statistics. PDO (the combination of shooting percentage and save percentage) is often regarded as a good indicator of luck because most teams regress to the mean over time; according to ExtraSkater.com seven of the NHL’s top 10 PDO teams are in the West. At the other end of the scale, seven of the NHL’s 10 worst teams by that measure are in the East.
Even if we assume there's a lot of luck involved in the records to date, it's going to be easier to secure a playoff spot in the East than the West.
If we take the current eighth seed in each conference (the Islanders and Wild), split their schedule into games against East and West, and project the games remaining by the average record against each conference posted by the seventh seed in the East and the ninth seed in the West from the past three seasons, we can approximate the postseason cutoff in each conference.
The result? 96 points makes the playoffs in the West; 93 points does the trick in the East.