I’m going to get into the Henrik Sedin for Hart debate at some point here over the next week or so, but one of the things that has me leaning towards him as a candidate is how much harder it is to rack up the points in the Western Conference than the Eastern over the last few years.
Since the NHL lockout, there have been 19 100-point seasons in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. There have been just four in the West. In that same time period, only one of the East’s top-10 scorers failed to reach the 80-point plateau; in the West, it has happened nine different times. The average top-10 scorer in the Eastern Conference, since the lockout, has recorded 96 points. In the West, the average is 87.
Now, there are a couple of different possibilities here. The first is that perhaps the Eastern Conference has been stronger, but that turns out not to be the case; the West dominated the East this year as never before, and they’ve been the dominant team every season since the NHL lockout.
Another possibility might be that the East simply has better high-end scorers; after all, we’re not dealing with the entire league here, we’re dealing with the top-end players in each Conference. That too turns out not to be the case, as Tyler Dellow showed when he looked at the top scorers over a two-year period:
I assembled a list of the Top 50 pts/game forwards for the seasons between 2007-09 (min. 42 GP). It’s actually pretty evenly divided – 25 guys who were primarily EC guys, 24 who were primarily WC and Marian Hossa. The EC guys have a distinct advantage in terms of pts/game over that time period – 1.02 pts/gm to 0.97 pts/gm for the Western Conference guys.
When you dig down and do a bit of an apples to apples comparison though, you see that the WC players hold their own. If you look only at games against the EC, the EC guys score 0.42/0.62/1.04 (G/A/P per game) and the WC guys score 0.38/0.66/1.04. In games against the WC, the EC guys score 0.37/0.55/0.92; the WC guys score 0.36/0.59/0.95. If you were to do an average, so as to even the playing field, you come up with 0.98 pts/gm for the EC guys and 0.99 pts/gm for the Western Conference guys in that period. The offensive stars of the WC produced slightly more offensively than the offensive stars of the EC in that time; it’s just hidden by schedule effects.
If it is easier to score goals in the East, that would inflate the point totals of players in the NHL’s weaker conference and lower the totals of players in the West, thanks to the NHL’s unbalanced schedule. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to correct that. Below are two lists. In the first list, I’ve taken the point totals of the top five players in each conference, and projected them over an 82-game season (i.e. assumed each player would score at the same pace over games they missed due to injury). That’s the only change I’ve made to the first list.
For the second list, I’ve taken each players points per game rate against the Eastern Conference and multiplied it by 41 games, and taken their points per game rate against the Western Conference and multiplied it by 41 games; in effect, recalculating the point totals for if each player had played 41 games against each conference. Note the changes.
Actual Season (Projected Over 82GP)
- Ovechkin: 124 points
- H. Sedin: 112 points
- D. Sedin: 111 points
- Crosby: 110 points
- Backstrom: 101 points
- Stamkos: 95 points
- St. Louis: 94 points
- B. Richards: 93 points
- Thornton: 92 points
- Kane: 88 points
Balanced Schedule (Projected Over 82GP)
- Ovechkin: 115 points
- H. Sedin: 111 points
- D. Sedin: 110 points
- Crosby: 100 points
- B. Richards: 98 points
- Thornton: 94 points
- Kane: 91 points
- St. Louis: 90 points
- Backstrom: 89 points
- Stamkos: 86 points
Those are some pretty dramatic changes, and I don’t think a reasonable argument can be made against the fact that players in the East see their point totals inflated because of the teams they play against over the NHL’s unbalanced schedule. Good players are still good players, but I suspect if the NHL insisted on more even matchups we’d see a lot more respect for players stuck out West.