There was a time when the South-East division was the weakest in the league. Florida and Atlanta were laughing stocks, Tampa Bay had some rough stretches, while Carolina and Washington were the best of a bad lot. Then Washington took a big step forward, and started cleaning up in the standings, finishing 4th in the league in ’08-’09, first overall in ’09-’10 and 2nd overall last season. But despite a series of impressive regular season performances, post-season success proved elusive.
The Vancouver Canucks were thoroughly dominant during the 2010-2011 regular season. They scored the most goals in the league (262) and also allowed the fewest (185) for a staggering +77 goal differential, capturing the President’s Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team. Unlike Washington, they made a strong playoff run, coming one game away from winning the Stanley Cup. But they also came inches away from losing to 8th place Chicago in the first round (Patrick Sharp nearly converted on the powerplay, mere minutes into OT of game 7), and struggled at times against a far less talented Nashville team. The finals loss to Boston can be blamed in large part on injuries, but what happened in the first two rounds?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the 1st place Canucks played in the North-West division, home to the league’s two worst teams: Edmonton, who finished dead last, and Colorado, who finished next-to-last. Generally *at least two teams from every division make the playoffs, but in 2011, Vancouver was the only North-West team to make the post-season. Calgary and Minnesota were respectable teams, but finished 17th and 21st respectively.
*A notable exception was the South-East in 2008, where only Washington made it through. They won the division, yet only had as many points (94) as the 8th place Bruins.
Look at Vancouver’s 2010-2011 record vs. their divisional opponents:
The Canucks preyed on their divisional rivals, compiling an 18-5-1 record. Furthermore, both of their losses to Edmonton were in April, when the Canucks had already locked up 1st overall. (If those had been meaningful games, they might have gone 20-3-1.) Now Vancouver still managed 36 wins in the other 58 games, so there’s no question that objectively, they were a very good team. But I believe that the weakness of their division overstated their dominance. Interestingly, Ryan Kesler’s goal production mirrors the Canucks’ season. Kesler was a bonafide all-star, scoring41 goals last season – tied for 4th in the league. He feasted particularly on his own division, scoring 18 in 24 meetings. That means that he scored 23 goals in the remaining 58 games – good totals, but probably not all-star quality.
So after a complete season preview, a standings estimate by conference, and a look at the league’s best teams in the East and West, I thought it would be nice to forecast the league on a division-by-division basis. Each team plays their divisional opponents 24 times per season (6 against each team; it used to be 8 until the 2008-2009 season), meaning a dominant or putrid record against a particular divisional opponent can easily make the difference between 8th and 9th. Calgary is a good example: last year they lost 5 of 6 games to Vancouver, and missed the playoffs by only 3 points. Two more wins would have done the trick.
There are interesting dynamics to consider when projecting playoff teams through the divisional lens. A juggernaut like Washington will likely run roughshod over their division, piling up wins like crazy over their impoverished opponents. In that type of scenario, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than 2nd place Tampa Bay making the playoffs from the South-East. The North-East is the same, as Vancouver is still far-and-away the best team, and should again dominate Calgary, Edmonton, and Colorado. (Though maybe not Minnesota). By contrast, the North-East division is much tighter – Buffalo and Boston are the class, but Montreal and Toronto are also competitive. The Atlantic has 4 good teams, but it’s rare for more than 3 to make the playoffs from one division. The Pacific is more cut-and-dry, as there appear to be 3 playoff teams and 2 also-rans, while the Central may be the most competitive of all, with all 5 teams being considered playoff worthy depending on the expert you ask. Contrary to popular belief, Jets’ fans don’t have a monopoly on excitement; it should be a good season.
1Vancouver: Still the best in the div, but expect lots of injuries in Van after tough playoff
2Minnesota: Runner-up for most improved in the NHL to Buffalo. Should make playoffs
3Calgary: Stuck in limbo, the Flames are neither a contender nor rebuilding
4Colorado: Paul Stastny’s dad won’t be happy about this season either (see this link)
5Edmonton: A tale of two cities – best young forwards in the league, horrible defence
1Chicago: Will get back some of their 2010 mojo after a restful summer
2Detroit: Never count out the Wings – Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg + lots of depth
3St. Louis: Too much young talent to deny, they’ll make playoffs
4Nashville: Still solid, but finally surpassed by more talented St. Louis
5Columbus: Will take a while for the new faces to gel; they might make a late run
1Los Angeles: One of the best teams in the West, young Kings are a contender
2San Jose: Team of vets may finish behind LA in the season, but look out come playoffs
3Anaheim: #1 line is best in the NHL; healthy Hiller will make Ducks fans happy
4Dallas: Pretty good top-6 forwards despite loss of Richards; not good enough elsewhere
5Phoenix: Defence is still good, but scoring and goaltending will be highly problematic
Western Playoff Teams
North-West: Vancouver, Minnesota
Central: Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis
Pacific: Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim
1Buffalo: Now one of the top-5 teams in the league, they’ll win a ton of games
2Boston: A very good team, but may wear down a bit as the season goes on
3Toronto: A very decent team that needs a boost to get into the post-season (Brodeur/Price injury?)
4Montreal: A very average team with a great goalie, they’ll narrowly miss playoffs
5Ottawa: One of the youngest teams in the league, they’ll struggle early in the year
1Pittsburgh: Malkin will lead a very good team while Sid recovers
2Philadelphia: New faces make them unpredictable. Could finish 1st or 3rd in div
3New York R: Great forwards and goaltending, but Staal’s concussion hurts an already thin defence
4New Jersey: Underrated team with some high-end talent; will battle Tor & Mtl for 8th
5New York I: Talented young forwards will be let down by poor goaltending & defence
1Washington: President’s Trophy winner. But can they go all the way?
2Tampa Bay: Three tremendous forwards really make this otherwise average team
3Carolina: Young team, fun to watch, no playoffs this year
4Winnipeg: Same as Carolina, but with a more compelling back-story
5Florida: Let’s just say things are not going well in Florida
Eastern Playoff Teams:
North-East: Buffalo, Boston
Atlantic: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York R, New Jersey
South-East: Washington, Tampa Bay