Every year, there's one division where you look at its potential playoff teams and say, “Yeesh, they're gonna get demolished.”
For much of recent memory, that division has been the Southeast, perhaps the single worst division in modern North American sports history. But with the Southeast eradicated by realignment two seasons ago, things have been a little wonkier.
There are obviously a lot of different ways to measure the quality of a team or a division, including but not limited to overall record, record against other divisions, on-ice performance, and so on. But the quality of a division usually tells you a decent amount about how well teams are going to do once playoffs roll around; by that point we typically have a pretty good idea of what teams are capable of doing, and it's not often that a team comes out of a weaker division and makes it all the way to, say, the Stanley Cup Final (though the divisional playoff format typically helps them do so these days).
Last year, for example, it's pretty safe to say that the Pacific Division was the worst in hockey. It pushed three teams into the playoffs (Anaheim, Calgary, and Vancouver), but no one would have given any team but Anaheim a realistic shot of advancing very far at all. In addition, those three teams benefited from playing in the same division as the three worst teams in the Western Conference, so to say that they were even as good as their records is obviously a bit much. Factor in Calgary's defiance of mathematical probability for basically the entire season, and you have a recipe for a division that didn't deserve much respect beyond the Ducks (who were, by the way, an excellent team).
But that leads one to wonder whether the Pacific is going to be the worst division in hockey once again, or if its futility has been overtaken. The one thing we can say definitively is that there's basically no way Conference III is anything but the best in the league; it's a bit more wide-open than in years past for a number of reasons, but you drop any one of Chicago, St. Louis, or Dallas in any other division and they're 100 percent guaranteed to finish in that division's Top 2. You might even throw Nashville into that mix if you're feeling particularly adventurous.
(All of this, by the way, acknowledges that there are still some free agents to be added to multiple teams' rosters around the league. However, I'm not sure that at this point any one of them is going to dramatically swing the quality of any one team, let alone an entire division. Who's the best one left? Cody Franson? He's pretty good, but not a franchise-changing player.)
I would also caution that there's basically no way the Metro ends up being as bad as it was last year, and it was pretty damn bad. I don't put a lot of stock into the Rangers' hopes for even coming close to the Presidents' Trophy once again — not a great lineup, but a pretty good one — but Henrik Lundqvist is basically always going to drive success simply because he's out-of-control elite, either the first- or second-best goalie in the league for several years running at this point (Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas have given him a run for that crown). More teams in that division have improved as well, with all of Washington, Pittsburgh, and Columbus bolstering their rosters. The Islanders might improve even over a 101-point season, Philadelphia probably stays static or takes a small step forward. Carolina was a victim of bad luck but still isn't all that good, and obviously New Jersey is going to be garbage.
But there are plenty of 100-point teams in that division. Could be as many as four, which is what the Central did last year, and will probably do again this season.
Which means that, without even really diving into the numbers, we've already whittled the “Worst Division In Hockey” competition down to two combatants, each apparently more eager to be awful than the other.
In both the Oceanic divisions, there is a clear top dog that will likely tower above the others: Tampa in the Atlantic, and Anaheim in the Pacific. After that, there's a lot of guessing to be done as to where everyone else lands.
Let's start with the Atlantic. Who beyond Tampa would you say is a lock to succeed next season?
Montreal needed an all-time great performance from Carey Price to win the division last year, and even if he remains world-class — say .925 down from .933 — that's a huge number of additional goals against. Assuming he faces roughly the same number of shots he always does (approximately 1,900 in a full season), that's an extra 15 or so goals against, which probably costs Montreal about four or five points in the standings. And a .925 season would have still been fourth in the league last season, so there's plenty of room for even that number to decline.
As for the rest of the division, well, Boston has clearly taken a decent-sized step back (but that probably only lands them where they actually finished last season), the Leafs are going into full-on tank mode, Buffalo is still going to be awful, and Florida probably won't improve all that much barring a renaissance season from Jaromir Jagr which, frankly, I wouldn't put it past him. Detroit and Ottawa, meanwhile, are relative unknowns because while the Wings did improve the roster, they also lost a guy who is clearly one of the best coaches alive, and there's no way to guess how that impacts things. Meanwhile, Ottawa was decent last year, but needed a ridiculous run from an AHLer to even get into the playoffs, and have also added nobody in this offseason.
Meanwhile, over in the Pacific, there's mighty Anaheim above all else. And after that, several question marks. Los Angeles should be better, no question about it, just because all the bounces went against them last year and a bizarre confluence of circumstances conspired to keep them out of the playoffs. Let's put it this way: The Kings, a 95-point team last season that failed to make the playoffs, are the clear second-best team in the division.
San Jose? Might be better, might be about the same, still don't look like they have a ton of playoff quality, especially if they're relying upon a goalie who has 34 career appearances to his name, facing only 807 shots at the NHL level (and also was garbage last year).
Calgary? Clearly improved, but from being possibly the luckiest team in recent memory, and so it's difficult to say that those improvements even nudge them into the “legitimate playoff team” conversation. I have a lot of time for “Dougie Hamilton is an elite defenseman” arguments, but even still, look at that forward group and try to say with a straight face that you think it's anywhere near playoff caliber.
Vancouver? A not-great team last year that clearly took a step back. Edmonton? The Oilers' future is brighter than just about any team in the league at this point, and they should improve tremendously even if they just start getting some bounces to go their way, but they were a 62-point team last year, and that's a long, hard road to hoe. Arizona? The worst team in the league by far.
Any given NHL season is usually going to be fairly difficult to predict, but if you even want to break it down by how many teams are likely to be great, good, mediocre and poor, it looks as though the Pacific will once again be the worst in hockey. The Atlantic just has too many teams kind of milling around in the middle to say that there's going to be a major concern that any of them spiral into the bottom-five of the league again, while the Pacific clearly has one team there and the potential for more. The Atlantic won't have any teams that bad, and could very easily luck into another half-decent showing for the season.
All things are possible. Calgary made the playoffs last season, for example. But even with the padding most teams are going to get from playing Arizona five times (let's call that at least seven free points in the standings), it's difficult to see any other result than the same one as last year: Three Pacific teams in the playoffs, and two of them aren't even that good.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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