When the NHL made its most recent realignment, last season, it reemphasized the importance of divisional play by also restructuring its playoff format. The wild card element throws a bit of a wrench into it from year-to-year, but for the most part, teams have to play their first two playoff rounds against division rivals – and that means a weaker division has the potential to make the road to the Stanley Cup easier for the team that can emerge from it.
I’d argue that’s one of the reasons the New York Rangers qualified for the Cup Final this past spring. They faced a flawed Flyers team in the first round and a Penguins squad in the second that had serious issues of its own before they beat the injury-depleted Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final. You have to give the Blueshirts credit for their resilience, but they had a much easier go of it than, say, Los Angeles or Chicago.
So which division is shaping up to be the NHL’s weakest in 2014-15? It’s not in the Western Conference, that’s for sure. Six of the Central Division’s seven teams (every one but Winnipeg) have a bona fide shot at making the playoffs, and the California Trinity Of Doom, combined with the desperation to make the playoffs in Vancouver and Edmonton, makes the Pacific Division daunting as well.
So, the “honor” of the league’s worst division has to go to either the Metropolitan or the Atlantic. And although the Atlantic has seen more separation between the haves and have-nots of its teams this off-season, I’d still make the case the Metro is the weaker of the two.
In its defense, the Metro has more potential playoff teams: the Carolina Hurricanes appear to be locks for the draft lottery, but every other franchise has at least a decent shot of qualifying for the post-season. But with the exceptions of the division-champion Penguins and Blueshirts, the rest of the Metro isn’t overly intimidating. That doesn’t mean the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Capitals, Islanders and Devils can’t play well for long stretches and challenge for a playoff berth or win a round, but it’s a stretch of advanced yoga proportions to imagine them making it to the Eastern Final, let alone winning it all.
The Atlantic, on the other hand, has three teams – the reigning division-champion Bruins, Canadiens and Lightning – that are capable of enjoying deep playoff runs. Yes, the Atlantic has more bottom-feeders (i.e. the Sabres and Sens), but Detroit is no pushover and despite the Leafs’ gigantic collapse in 2013-14, they still finished the season with more wins than the Devils, Canes and Islanders and the same amount of wins as Washington. And once the first round of the playoffs begin, would you rather face a team whose goal is tended by one of Tuukka Rask, Carey Price or Ben Bishop, or one that employs Marc-Andre Fleury or Steve Mason as its last line of defense?
Of course, by the time the playoffs begin, the composition of many of these organizations and the two Eastern divisions could be significantly different. But as it stands, the Metro Division is the NHL’s weakest. And for the teams that comprise it, that’s not a bad thing at all.