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Entry: The East is Weak: Western Philosophy and an Open Window of Opportunity

Within the world of hockey exists the phenomenon of the "Stanley Cup Window." This window is the time frame in which a team has their best opportunity to challenge for the sports' legendary prize. There is a multitude of factors that can play a part in said window being open or closed for a hockey club, ranging from their make-up, to the expendable assets they have to bargain with, to the amount of space they have to work with under the salary cap. Strong teams with bargain contracts and the ability to add more firepower in a buyer's market are often the ones who would consider their Cup window to be very much open.

But what about the quality of competition a team has to face? Surely that too should be considered one of the primary factors that dictates whether a team is a contender or a dark-horse. After all, it's a long season and the road to the Stanley Cup Finals are grueling at best. With that being the case, it just makes sense that the team with an easier road (however slightly) would hold the advantage of having a window that is less of a porthole and more of an oriel.

In the NHL today most – if not all – would argue that, of the two conferences, the west is vastly superior. It wouldn't be a long-shot to say that there are more teams in the West that could realistically be a Cup winner (and therefore more with an open window) than in the East. This is the case for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Eastern Conference hasn't held a winning record over the West in head-to-head match-ups since the 20th century. Dating back to at least the 1999-2000 season, the West has reigned supreme in that regard (though there were some close calls, notably in 2003-04).

We've shown, then, that the West has been best for a long time now, and they certainly aren't showing any signs of slowing down. Only one team from the Western Conference had a record below .500 against Eastern teams last season; that being the Dallas Stars. Compare that to the six teams from the East with a record below .500 against the West, and you begin to see just how the head-to-head records have been so lopsided over the past decade and some odd years.

Additionally, it looks like the West has only gotten stronger again this season – at least based on players moving from one conference to the other. According to an NHL.com article by Corey Masiak, "the four best players to change conferences, and seven of the best 10 or 11, traveled west." While teams in the East have added some great players – Patric Hornqvist and Mike Cammalleri among them – it's a regular old arms race in the West, where Stanley Cup hopefuls are preparing to go to war.

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Source: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=733394

Why the disparity between conferences, though? Most believe it's because of the way organizations out West are building their teams, trying to mimic the success of the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, whose styles of play have proven results. Referring to the Blackhawks and Kings, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has said that "they give you a measuring stick and you're just trying to keep up to that." You could also ask Sharks blue-liner Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who has said that in order to get out of the Western Conference "you’ve got to beat one of those two teams. So teams out west are building themselves to beat those two."

With all of this being said, it's clear that the Western Conference – for now – is home to the league's elite. That does not mean, however, that it's better to be in the West than in the East. Actually, it means quite the opposite. Coyotes coach Dave Tippett has remarked that his team will "have to be at [their] best just to give [themselves] a chance in [their] division." Ken Hitchcock goes a step (or two) further, claiming that it "is going to be an absolute minefield to get through, just to get into the playoffs."

So what exactly is it that teams like Chicago and Los Angeles have been doing right? Obviously something, the two teams have combined to win the Stanley Cup in four of the last five seasons (including the last three consecutively). Sportsnet's Chris Johnston asks us to consider the makeup of the Western Conference powers. He points to the fact that "the majority of (their core) players were drafted and developed by their current organization and all of them have spent two or three seasons, at minimum, playing together." He goes on to add that it's "no wonder their teams are better organized as a five-man unit than what’s typically seen in the East."

There's more to it than simple chemistry between teammates, though. A lot of it has to do with the philosophies of these teams. Going back to Johnston's article, he mentions the transition of Maple Leafs' goaltender Jonathan Bernier from the West to the East, and how Bernier noted that "even the best of the best in the East rarely play a style that is designed to grind out a 2-1 victory." Bernier would go on to make note of the difference it makes when a player is committed to playing defensively and realizes the importance of playing a 200-foot game, as many of the Western Conference stars do. This opposed to the mostly offense-first styles of Eastern superstars such as Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby.

Worth noting, as well, is the importance of puck possession. If we look to the analytics movement and use Fenwick For % as a fairly reliable measure, we see that the four best possession teams in the league last season at even strength were all from the Western Conference. Surprise, surprise: the top two were Los Angeles and Chicago.

With a greater quantity of contending teams, one would logically conclude that the window is open for more teams in the West than in the East. Strong teams like St. Louis and San Jose weren't even able to get out of the first round in the West last season, a testament to how tough it truly is to play out there. While we've established that there is probably more teams in the West with an open window, it must be considered just how open they are. A team that plays in the Eastern Conference that has built their lineup around the LA/Chicago model would, in theory, currently have a huge advantage over teams in the West. The question is now: "how does all of this relate to the Montreal Canadiens?" It's simple.

Whether we realize it or not, the Canadiens' window of opportunity has opened. This is a team that has gone to the Eastern Conference Finals twice in the last four seasons, and while they have yet to take the next big step, it's clear that the team is on the upswing. It's not through luck that the moves the team has made in recent years have led to the window swinging open, either. General Manager Marc Bergevin has been making calculated moves ever since he took office. After all, this is a guy who learned from the best of the best in terms of team builders as the Assistant General Manager of the Chicago Blackhawks.

When Bergevin was hired it was made clear that building a contending team would be a process. It's not something that can be rushed into; throwing together parts that don't fit isn't going to win you a championship, not in this league. The Habs had to be patient (and still need to be), because the best teams in the league are building their cores through the draft and waiting for those draft picks to realize their potential. This, in actuality, is a perfect strategy for the Habs – they've drafted more players who've played in 200+ NHL games since 2003 than any other team in the league. They also currently have eleven players drafted-and-developed by the team on the active roster with more players such as Jacob de la Rose considered likely to add to that total in due time.

The importance of chemistry on a team, as brought up earlier, can not be understated, and while it is said that familiarity breeds contempt between rivals, it seems as though it breeds success within organizations. This, too, bodes well for the Canadiens – they have ten players on the current roster who have been with the team since at least 2010-11. That's four or more full years of playing together and counting. Consider as well that the youth – namely Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher – are becoming more and more integrated in the team's core and what you have is a franchise building a contender from the inside.

Of course, drafting players good enough to stick and having them play together for a long time isn't going to turn a team into a contender alone. They have to be the right type of players – and for some time, the Habs players weren't. Bergevin seems to be taking steps to right that, however, putting more of an emphasis on the types of players that the Western powers have built around. Players who can dictate possession and the flow of the game, players who are capable at both ends of the ice, and players who are big (or at least tough) enough to win the hard-fought puck battles.

In terms of size, the Habs are slowly but surely getting bigger. In the lockout shortened 2013 season – Bergevin's first with the club – the Canadiens were the third smallest team in the league based on weight, and the shortest based on height. This season's team is above the league average in weight and just shy of the average for height. While not everyone is overly concerned with size – myself included – it's worth noting that the biggest team in the league is the LA Kings. Of course, one of the smaller teams in the league is Chicago, so maybe it's less about size and more about whether size is a deterrent to the individual player. Does height prevent Brendan Gallagher from turning the heat up in a goalie's kitchen? That would be a resounding no.

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More important than the size of a player is the way in which they approach the game, and that's one of the things that Bergevin has begun to address. Looking at his recent moves, we can see an emphasis on acquiring strong possession players who would fit the mold of a Blackhawks/Kings style of play. In moving Daniel Briere for P.A. Parenteau, the Habs moved a player with a negative Fenwick % relative to the rest of the team for one with a positive number. Similarly, in trading Josh Gorges for picks and replacing him through free agency with Tom Gilbert, the Habs once again acquired a player with a better Fenwick Rel %, despite Gorges playing most of the season with possession driver PK Subban as his defensive partner. As reliable as Gorges was in terms of shot blocking, this move addressed a huge hole in the lineup – the ability (or lack thereof) to get the puck out of the defensive zone.

The last two things I mentioned at the start of this column as indicators of a team's window being open or closed had to do with the salary cap. Firstly, players on friendly contracts. Excluding John Tavares, it doesn't get much friendlier than Max Pacioretty and his $4.5 million dollar cap hit, which worked out to a little over $115,000 per goal. Players like Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and Nathan Beaulieu are still taking up only small fractions of the cap on entry level deals (until next season, at least), and it's leaving the Habs in a healthy spot. With over $3.5 million in cap space today, the Canadiens find themselves in the top half of the league in this category while fellow Eastern Conference hopefuls Pittsburgh, Boston, and Tampa Bay make up three of the seven teams with the least amount of cap space available.

For every point raised about why the Western Conference is so much stronger than the East, we can see that the Habs are moving in the right direction, trying to measure up with those Cup winners. The philosophy that Marc Bergevin and his staff have for building this team is the same, to the letter, that the Chicago Blackhawks, LA Kings, and the rest of the organizations shaping their lineups around that mold have. The biggest advantage the Canadiens hold, though, has nothing to do with the West at all. It's true that anything can happen on any given night in the National Hockey League, but the team with the easier schedule will presumably be fresher come playoff time. While Dave Tippett's Coyotes are fighting tooth and nail just to stay alive in their division, the Habs get to play against the Sabres, Panthers, the injury-riddled Red Wings, and the Spezza-less Senators. Plus, we know we can count on some points against the Leafs during their annual collapse. The Habs, of course, play in the Eastern Conference... and in case I didn't make it clear enough: the East is weak, and it's opened a whole world of opportunities.

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