What if the Detroit Red Wings Were in the Eastern Conference (1995-2004)?
Between 1995 and 2004, the rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche was one of the fiercest in professional sports and when the two teams met in the playoffs, it was arguably more exciting than the year’s Stanley Cup finals match and the winner of that series usually went on to win the Stanley Cup.
However, Detroit is one of the few teams in the Western Conference located in Eastern Time Zone (usually it was the lone WC/ETZ team that qualified for the playoffs). What if the Red Wings were in the Eastern Conference, leading to the possibility of a Red Wings/Avalanche Stanley Cup Final? How often would the two of them have met? Would the Eastern Conference “Cinderella Teams” ( ’96 Florida, ’98 Washington, ’99 Buffalo, ’02 Carolina) have advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals? Would New Jersey still have won three Stanley Cups with Detroit in the same conference or would a more competitive Eastern Conference result in fewer Red Wing Stanley Cups? Would other teams have emerged out of the west like Dallas or St Louis (or western dark horse)?
I don't think it would have made a difference to be honest. Detroit still wins their three Cups - at least - in the East. While it may seem like Detroit would have it tougher in the East I don't think they would have. In the West they had Colorado, Dallas and to a lesser extent St. Louis. It was never easy to get out of that conference. In the East it was more or less just Jersey and Philly for a while. Lindros was hurt every other playoff anyway. Eventually Toronto became a threat to win and then Ottawa. I don't think it would have been any harder to get out of that conference. In many ways Colorado was superior to any other East team. I do think it may have cut down on the lousy teams making the final though from the East.
In 1996, you have to think we have a Detroit/Colorado final with Colorado prevailing.
The East was full of upsets for the next few years - I've seen speculation that it was largely because the East had bubble teams like Buffalo and Pittsburgh that had individual players who could take over a playoff round by themselves. Does Detroit get upset in 1997 or 1998 if they play in the East? It's possible, but I wouldn't count on it. Most likely scenario? Detroit beats Colorado for the Cup in 1997 and Dallas for the Cup in 1998.
Does Detroit make it to the finals in 1999 if they don't have to go through the Avalanche? It's possible; the Avs had Detroit's number for a few years there. And anything is possible against Dallas.
I don't see Detroit beating NJ in 2000 - NJ was a machine that year and Detroit lost rather easily to Colorado
It's possible Detroit could beat NJ in 2001 since NJ was inconsistent in the playoffs, but considering Detroit lost in the first round to the Kings... meh
Detroit/Colorado rematch in the finals in 2002? This time Detroit prevails.
Well, Detroit doesn't lose in the first round to the Ducks if they are in the West in 2003, but if they couldn't score against the Ducks, I don't know that they could score against NJ.
Detroit just didn't see to have "it" anymore by 2004, so I doubt they get much farther than they actually did.
So yeah, I see Detroit making 4 straight Cup finals from 1996-1999 plus the final in 2002, but I don't know if they win any more Cups.
I don't know if they would have won more than they did or less, I guess anything is possible. My opinion is the travel benefit would have helped in some of those years.
Another interesting thought though in that uncapped time period, is believe it or not Ilitch has long maintained where Detroit is really hurt is in their deals for radio and television. They lose a large chunk of prime advertising dollars because of time slots. They say it takes millions off the bottom line and hurts their contract valuations with Pass and then Fox Sports. So there likely would have been even more cash floating around as hard as that is for some to imagine.