Beasts of the ‘Least’: Washington Capitals claim final Southeast Division championship

WASHINGTON – For some, it’ll be the punchline to the longest running joke in the National Hockey League; a division so infamous for its imbalance and futility that it’s earned its own unofficial moniker.

Say it with us, one last time: South-LEAST Division.

The Washington Capitals defeated the Winnipeg Jets, 5-3, on Tuesday to clinch their seventh Southeast Division title. The NHL is realigning into four divisions next season, breaking up the Southeast.

“It’s a lot of Southeast titles, that’s for sure. I didn’t really think about it until now,” said winger Jason Chimera.

No team has more Southeast banners than the Capitals since the division’s creation in the 1998-99 NHL realignment. Which is to say that no team has taken advantage of what's traditionally been the weakest of the League's six divisions on an annual basis.

“I think I will [miss it]. It’s been pretty good to us over the years,” said winger Eric Fehr, who has played his entire 8-season career in the Southeast.

“It’s too bad they had to change it up on us.”

The Southeast was born in 1998 when the NHL split its four divisions into six. The Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals made up the division.

The Thrash were an expansion team. The Canes came from the Northeast Division after relocating from Hartford. The other three teams came over from the Atlantic Division.

For the last 15 years, the Southeast Division has been targeted for contraction more than it’s been a target for praise.

But here’s the thing abut the Southeast Division: For all the derision, all the ridicule, all the knocks on the quality of competition, it’s produced three Eastern Conference winners and two Stanley Cup champions since 2001-02. That’s more than the Northeast has produced; and that’s two more Cup winners than the Northwest has produced in the same span.

Defending the virtues of the Southeast became its own cottage industry, going all the way back to 2004 when ESPN’s John Buccigross predicted that the division was the future of the NHL:

Like the last person to traverse the globe following Wang Chung from city to city, I'm a lonely voice when it comes to contracting teams. I'm against it. I believe NHL hockey is a relatively young sport in the United States. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, as recently as the late 60s, there were only four teams in the United States and very little television coverage. When television coverage was prevalent, it was hardly "Hockey Night in Canada."

… the ultimate litmus test is now under way in the Southeast Division, perhaps the most maligned in terms of pro-contraction components. There are plenty of voices that scream that the NHL should abandon its long-term plans in Tampa Bay, South Florida, Raleigh, Atlanta, and the most mature of the five, Washington, D.C. However, suddenly the division is turning into the future of the NHL.

Here’s the legacy of the Southeast Division:

The Capitals become the final team to capture the division title, which is fitting: No team has dominated the Southeast like Washington.

“It’s a feather in our cap. But we’d like a couple other feathers, if you know what I mean,” said winger Matt Hendricks.

That they defeated the Winnipeg Jets to capture the division is also fitting: It’s the Jets that served as the catalyst for NHL realignment, which will wipe away the Southeast from the standings beginning next season in favor of a four-division format.

“It feels good right now. I guess next year in … what’s it called, the Atlantic?” pondered defenseman John Erskine, unaware that the Capitals’ new quasi-Patrick Division has yet to be named.

“I’ll miss the Florida trip, but there are going to be some good rivalries going on. We’ve got a big rivalry with Pittsburgh and Philly.”

The Capitals and Hurricanes will join the Atlantic Division teams. The Floridian teams will join the Northeast Division teams. The Jets will fly to a new division that combines teams from the Central and the Northwest over in the Western Conference.

“I’m going to miss it a little bit, but it’s going to be nice to have a new challenge next year,” said center Nicklas Backstrom.

The Capitals' victory ended the last banner chase in the Southeast Division, and soon the division itself will also come to an end. No more bemoaning the fact that the No. 9 seed deserves a playoff seed more than the Southeast champion. No more looking down the nose at the attendance figures in box scores. No more quality of competition arguments for postseason awards. No more awkward, forced rivalries between teams on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. (Ed. Note: Apparently I have no idea where this line is.)

No more South-Least Division.

“I don’t know,” said Chimera, “it might be back again one day, the way we’re changing the game.”

We should be so fortunate.