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 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 1926–1927, the Stanley Cup has gone to the NHL's playoff champion. During the years when the NHL had no divisions, (i.e., 1927 and 1938 to 1967), the Prince of Wales Trophy was presented to the league's regular-season champion (analogous to today's President's Trophy). From 1928 to 1937 the trophy went to the American Division champion, and from 1967 to 1974 it was presented to the East Division champion.
The conferences and divisions were re-aligned in 1981 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 in 1993 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, National Football League, and Major League Baseball 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 lockout, Gary Bettman changed the Eastern Conference logo (along with the Western Conference and NHL logos) to its current form.
The Wales Conference originally consisted of the Adams Division and the Patrick Division. 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.
With another realignment prior to the 2013–14 NHL season, the Eastern Conference currently comprises 16 teams in two divisions. The Atlantic Division name was retained, while a new Metropolitan Division was formed. This divisional realignment will be revisited and possibly altered following the 2015–16 season.
Champions and playoffs
The NHL's playoff system has changed over the years. Prior to 1982, the NHL had a unique playoff system compared to the NFL, NBA. and MLB. Playoff teams were seeded regardless of conference. 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 fight it out 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, top three since 1999) and home ice in the first round regardless of record.
A new playoff format will be introduced as part of the 2013 realignment. Under the new postseason system that will first be used during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the top three teams in each division will make the playoffs, with 2 wild-cards in each conference (for a total of 8 playoff teams from each conference).