Eastern Conference logo, circa 2006
|League||National Hockey League|
|Founded||1974 (as the Prince of Wales Conference)|
|No. of teams||16|
|Most recent Eastern Conference champion(s)||Pittsburgh Penguins|
Previously known as the Prince of Wales Conference (or Wales Conference for short), it was created in 1974 when the NHL realigned its teams into two conferences and four divisions. Because the new conferences and divisions had little to do with North American geography, geographical references were removed. The conference was instead named for the Prince of Wales Trophy.. The current champions are the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning in 2016–17.
The Prince of Wales Trophy dates back to 1925, when it was donated to the League by the then-current Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII. It was originally given to the NHL's champion. (Until 1926, the Stanley Cup was presented to the winner of a post-season playoff between the NHL and Western Hockey League champions.) Since 1926–27, the Stanley Cup has gone to the NHL's playoff champion. During the years when the NHL had no divisions, (i.e., 1925–26; 1938 to 1967), the Prince of Wales Trophy was presented to the League's regular season champion (analogous to today's Presidents' Trophy). From 1928 to 1937, the Trophy went to the American Division regular season champion; from 1967 to 1974, it was presented to the East Division regular season champion; and from 1974 to 1981, it was presented to the Wales Conference regular season champion.
The conferences and divisions were re-aligned for the 1981–82 to better reflect the geographical locations of the teams, but the existing names were retained with the Wales Conference becoming the conference primarily for the NHL's eastern teams. The names of conferences and divisions were changed for the 1993–94 season to reflect their geographic locations. Then-new NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made the change to help non-hockey fans better understand the game, as the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) all use geographic-based names for their conferences and divisions. However, the trophy awarded to the conference champion, the Prince of Wales Trophy, retains some connection to the heritage of the League. In 2005, following the 2004–05 NHL lockout, Bettman changed the Eastern Conference logo (along with the Western Conference and NHL logos) to its current format.
The Wales Conference originally consisted of the Adams Division and the Norris Division. The 1981 realignment moved the Norris Division to the Clarence Campbell Conference and added that Conference's Patrick Division instead. When the names of conferences and divisions were changed in 1993, the Eastern Conference's divisions became the Atlantic and Northeast. Realignment in 1998 added a third division, the Southeast. Another realignment in 2013 reorganized the Eastern Conference into two, eight-team divisions: the Atlantic Division name retained, but was reassigned to what had been the Northeast Division, while the old Atlantic Division was renamed the Metropolitan Division; the Southeast Division was dissolved. With this 2013 realignment, all 16 teams in the Eastern Time Zone are situated within the Eastern Conference.
Champions and playoffs
The NHL's playoff system has changed over the years. Prior to 1982, the NHL had a unique playoff system relative to the NFL, NBA and MLB. Playoff teams were seeded regardless of conference affiliation. As a result, two teams from the same conference could meet in the Stanley Cup Finals, as happened in 1977, 1978 and 1980. Under this system, the Wales Conference champion, and therefore the winner of the Prince of Wales Trophy, was the team that finished with the best regular season record in the conference.
Ever since the introduction of the Conference Finals in 1982, the Prince of Wales Trophy has been presented to the Wales/Eastern Conference playoff champions.
In the playoff system introduced in 1982, the top four teams in each division made the playoffs. The first-round winners met in the Division Finals, and the division final winners met in the conference finals. In this format, the division standings tended to be somewhat static, though not quite as static as in the Campbell Conference. In the Adams Division, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens never missed the playoffs in this format, while the Buffalo Sabres only missed twice. In the Patrick Division, the Washington Capitals only missed the playoffs once, the New York Islanders three times and the Philadelphia Flyers four. In both cases, this usually left the other two teams to contend for the final playoff spot. This format also raised the possibility of the strongest teams in the regular season being forced to meet in the early playoff rounds.
Since 1994, the top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs, with the division winners being guaranteed the top seeds (top two from 1994 to 1999 and since 2014, top three from 1999 to 2013) and home ice in the first round regardless of record.
A new playoff format was introduced as part of the 2013 realignment. Under the new post-season system that was first used during the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs, with two open wild cards spots in each conference for a total of eight playoff teams from each conference.