We’re on the cusp of NHL pre-season predictions time, a fact I’m certain indicates that hockey fans around the world are stretching out and warming up their indignation muscles as you read this.
I’m not getting into my guesses for another few weeks. However, if the past 14 NHL seasons are any indication, it’s safe to assume the 2008-09 Stanley Cup champion will not come out of the Northeast Division.
Indeed, since the league realigned its divisions in 1993-94, every division except the Northeast has produced at least one champion. The Central (read: the Detroit Red Wings) and Atlantic Divisions are tied for most Cup winners, with four apiece, while the Pacific, Southeast and Northwest Divisions each have two champs to their credit.
The Montreal Canadiens seem like they’ve got the best shot to end the Northeast’s Cup drought this season. Still, the odds are always against one contender winning over a group of contenders, particularly in a league that has as much parity as the NHL.
Is that to say the Northeast has been a collection of mere pantywaists and lily-livers all these years? Not at all: Two of the past five Presidents’ Trophy winners (Ottawa in ’02-03 and Buffalo in ‘06-07) have been Northeast teams – and those same two teams have been Cup finalists in the past decade.
But for whatever reason (I’m looking at you, Foot of Brett Hull – which, by the way, is my greatest idea ever for the best unused name for a rock band), no Northeast team has had the right combination of great will and good fortune to lead them to hockey’s top accolade.
The focus on divisions brings up an interesting exercise – namely, ranking them. With that in mind, Screen Shots is pleased to present one schlep’s rankings and explanations of the best and worst divisions (yes, of course I mean on paper) in the league today.
1. Pacific. Let’s see, we’re talking about a division that can boast a one-year removed Cup winner in Anaheim, one of last season’s Western Conference finalists in the Dallas Stars and a San Jose Sharks team that will once again cause a majority of hockey writers to go all 12-year-old-girl-at-a-Jonas-Brothers-concert on their readerships.
Oh, and behind those three are the slowly-but-surely cresting Phoenix Coyotes and the long-lost Los Angeles Kings, who are well on their way to being found thanks to a roster that includes blossoming stars such as Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jack Johnson. Nobody’s honestly going to try and argue this collection of teams isn’t the clear-cut class of the league, are they? If so, can I pity them in advance?
2. Atlantic. Another no-brainer here. For starters, the state of Pennsylvania alone has two of the league’s top 10 teams. As well, there’s the Devils, a team whose year-in-year-out success is attestable to Lou Lamoriello – and I’ve finally figured out the GM’s secret: He’s actually the last surviving, uncredited Crystal Skull from the recent Indiana Jones installment. As long as “Lou’s The Boss” is playing in New Jersey, ain’t no way you should be counting them out.
I still haven’t referenced the New York Rangers, who have made some major changes this summer and appear to be a team that’s either going to win pretty or lose ugly. Pulling up the rear are the Islanders, who, though still searching for an identity, are making slow strides toward contention. They’ll likely exceed expectations to a slight degree again this season – and that’s something you definitely can’t say about some of the other division bottom-dwellers.
3. Northwest. Here’s where it gets a wee bit tricky. On the one hand, when I look at the Central, it has at least one virtually unanimous pick as a Cup favorite (I’ll let you guess which team it is). It’s tough to say the same about any franchise in the Northwest.
On the other hand, I think most people would agree the Edmonton Oilers’ off-season makeover, combined with what were, at best, relatively lateral moves made by the other four teams, will result in an already tight division becoming even tighter this year. You can see scenarios in which four of the five teams here (sorry, Vancouver) could be the last playoff team standing among this group, so in terms of team-to-team competitiveness, it’s hard not to go with the Northwest over the Central.
4. Central. I know, I know, the presence of the Red Wings alone makes the Central a division to reckon with. The burgeoning Blackhawks and never-say-die Predators also help in that regard – and the fact that more than half of Detroit’s regular season losses came at the hands of teams in their division is a fact that’s nothing to sneeze at, either.
The Blue Jackets and Blues are playoff dark horses, but even then, both of those franchises have a handful of young talent to build around. In sum, there could be many more Cups bound for the Central Division and not just to Michigan. Just not for a couple more years.
5. Northeast. Forget that two of the worst off-season free agent signings (Michael Ryder in Boston and Jeff Finger in Toronto) speak to the sizeable desperation levels existing in this division. Forget that, aside from the astounding Canadiens, there are medium-to-mountain-sized holes in every other team in the Northeast.
On second thought, remember all that stuff. Also remember how transcendentally awful the Senators looked after last Christmas, how hot-and-cold the Bruins were all season long, the Sabres’ disappointing performance and the Maple Leafs’ all-around mediocrity. Yes, there’s something to believe in for each Northeastern team, but there’s also some faith-shaking factor for all five franchises as well.
6. Southeast. Where to begin with the Southeast? Perhaps the fact three of the worst nine teams in the league last season call this division home? Or that only one team (Washington) last season won more road games than it lost? Or that there hasn’t been a single second-round playoff game won by three of the division’s five teams in more than a decade?
Sure, the Southeast will be more competitive than it was last season, but that’s like saying the person selected as the newest member of Nashville’s ownership group will be a better business partner than William Del Biaggio; in both instances, there wasn’t much place to go but up.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News’ online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays in the summer, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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