The Washington Capitals were the most recent team to clinch a Stanley Cup Playoffs berth. Last night they reigned in their 7th South East Division title securing the third seed with a 26-18-2 record with a win over division rivals and playoff hopefully the Winnipeg Jets.
There are any number of detractors ballyhooing the Caps turnaround from a 2-8-1 team to start the season into the beast they have become to end it (with a 9-1-0 streak going into the final two games). The argument goes the Caps are feasting upon the dregs of the league’s worst division. The howls about how bad the South East is always existed.
A little back history, in case you forgot. The South East was formed for the 1998-1999 season in the league wide realignment when the established and successful Washington Capitals franchise moved from the competitive Patrick Division / Atlantic Division. The Caps were coming off of a 14 year playoff run from 1982-1996, good for T-11th all-time post-season streaks and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in the 97-98 season. They were joined by former Adams Division / North East Division dregs (they only recorded three winning seasons upon joining the NHL from the WHA in 1979) the Hartford Whalers when the team moved to Raleigh to become the Hurricanes. Also included in the South East were 1992’s Atlantic Division expansion franchise the Tampa Bay Lightening and the 1993 Atlantic Division expansion franchise Florida Panthers. The foursome was later joined by expansion franchise Atlanta Thrashers in 2000. Apart from the Caps there wasn’t a whole lot of history to speak of in the realignment.
This season isn’t over so all the data isn’t complete, but as of today:
Pacific: 272 Points, 54.4 average, 3 teams qualify
Northeast: 271 Points, 54.2 average, 3 teams qualify, 1 fringe team
Central: 271 Points, 54.2 average, 2 teams qualify, 2 fringe teams
Atlantic: 267 Points, 53.4 average, 2 teams qualify, 1 fringe team
Northwest: 232 Points, 46.4 average, 1 team qualifies, 1 fringe team
Southeast: 218 Points, 43.6 average, 1 team qualifies, 1 fringe team
Yes, by this snap shot, the South East is indeed the weakest division in the league and probably has no hope of getting out of the cellar but this doesn’t provide the full view of how the South East actually played the season. Unlike most of the other divisions where the leader(s) were established early, on the South East saw significant changes in its rankings.
Ten games into the season Tampa Bay held down the top spot while the Caps were in last on 10 February. By March 5th at about the 20 game mark Carolina was the lead and Florida had sunk to last. Winnipeg would gain the top spot at the game 30 mark about March 25 while Tampa was fighting for last. And by game 40 the Caps had claimed the top spot which they retained to make the playoffs. Compare that to Chicago, Vancouver and Anaheim essentially holding it after game 10, Boston and Montreal essentially trading it back and forth and Pittsburgh who was only slightly trailing NJ at the game 10 mark holding it essentially since claiming it. The volatility of teams within the Southeast didn’t make it a cake walk for any team playing in it because no team remained good (or very bad) for more than a ten game stretch for any part of the season. Basically, you never knew what you were going to get when you went down south. You still don’t and even after realignment probably won’t.
So which division do YOU think is the best in the league during the realignment years?
I think you’ll be surprised, it probably isn’t the one your thinking of. Particularly if you subscribe to some of the standard metrics people use to try and bury the Southeast…
The argument based on points or teams sent to the playoffs is pretty standard. The logic goes that earned points reflect the relative strength of teams and the combined points reflect the relative strengths of the divisions. I don’t put as much validity in the raw points totals only because for some years some divisions were only four teams, so the Average Points Per Team helps balance the inequity in possible points earned for those years. Points although used to determine standings and ultimately the path into the playoffs, also reflect regulation losses as net-positives. Although situations like the New Jersey Devils collecting an inordinate number of loser points while maintaining a lower ROW to make the playoffs doesn’t happen often it is a reason to be skeptical of the points metric as a definition of division strength.
Realignment years Points (1998-2012)
Average Division Points of Raw Total Points each season; Average Points Per Team; Times Ranked 1st / Last in Average Points Per Team
Pacific: 456 Points, 91.3 Average, 3x 1st / 0 Last
Northeast: 451.7 Points, 90.3 Average, 4x 1st / 0 Last
Atlantic: 446 Points, 89.2 Average, 1x 1st / 0 Last
Central: 432 Points, 89.2 Average, 2x 1st / 1x Last
Northwest: 431.8 Points, 89.07 Average, 2x 1st, 3x Last
Southeast: 400 Points, 81.2 Average, 10x Last
Each division placed first in average points per team at least once, except the Southeast, while only the Northeast, Atlantic and Pacific managed to stay completely out of the cellar. The Northeast pulls off the highest average four times while the Southeast sunk to the cellar 10 times (2009 was actually a basement tie).
What becomes interesting though is the league fundamentally changed post-lockout and there’s definitely not the same kind of discrepancy between the Southeast and the other divisions when that is taken into account. The Southeast got remarkably better, though never dominated, then again, no one dominated the way certain divisions had did before the lockout. Graphically mapping each division actually shows this quite well, but I’m not embedding all those graphs (because I’m being lazy). Parity does come to the NHL in the post-lockout as well as in the maturation of the expansion teams making up the Southeast’s lineup:
Pre-locked out season Points (1998-1999 through 2003-2004)
Northeast: 442.5 Points, 88.5 Average, 01,02,04 1st
Pacific: 442 Points, 88.3 Average, 99 1st
Northwest: 411.2 Points, 87.65 Average, 03 1st
Atlantic: 429 Points, 85.9 Average
Central: 400 Points, 85.6 Average, 00 1st
Southeast: 361 Points, 74.6 Average, all six years in last
Post-locked out season Points (2005-2006 through 2011-2012)
Pacific: 471 Points, 94.26 Average, 10,11 1st,
Central: 464 Points, 92.8 Average, 09 1st / 06 Last
Atlantic: 463 Points, 92.6 Average, 08,12 1st
Northeast: 460.9 Points, 92.2 Average, 06 1st
Northwest: 452.4 Points, 90.49 Average, 07 1st / 09,10,11 Last
Southeast: 439 Points, 87.7 Average, 07,08,09,12 Last
The Northeast sunk considerably post-lockout while the Central benefits as the most notable changes within the structure, the Northwest also slips down making a fairly convincing argument they are headed toward replacing the Southeast at the bottom.
Averages are fine, but let’s also consider the span of the points spread in which divisions pulled down the top and the worst points each season. This view challenges the relative strengths in some of the divisions by shedding additional light on things.
Realignment Presidents Trophy
Central: 5 (Pre: Stl 00, Det 02, 04; Post: Det 06, 08)
Northwest: 3 (Pre: Col 01; Post: Van 11, 12)
Northeast: 2 (Pre: Ott 03; Buf 07)
Pacific: 2 (Pre: Dal 99; SJ 09)
Southeast: 1 (Post: Wash 10)
Regular Season Conference Leaders:
Realignment Basement case
Southeast: 5 (Pre: TB 99, Atl 00,02, Car 03; Post: TB T-08)
Atlantic: 4 (Pre: NYI 01, Pit 04)
Central: 2 (Post: Stl 06, Col 12)
Northwest: 2 (Post: Edm 10, 11)
Pacific: 1 (Post: SJ T-08)
While the Atlantic runs in the middle of the pack in points, it never turned in league leading points team while finishing in the basement four times. Granted, the basement team produced a Stanley Cup champion (Pittsburgh) down the road, the same can be said of two of the teams generated by the Southeast for the Cup and that division has produced a league leading caliber team (Washington’s President’s Trophy). And, while the Southeast struggled pre-lockout they only produced one absolute bottom dweller (in a tie) post lockout while the Western Conference turned out the majority of the rest.
Points however only tell a small portion of the story of a division’s success, particularly in producing playoff bound teams. By this measure, the deck shuffles slightly making the otherwise mediocre Atlantic Division look much better:
Realignment years Playoff Bound Teams
Atlantic: 43 Teams, 4x w/ 4 teams
Northeast: 40 teams, 4x w/ 4 teams
Pacific: 40 teams: 3x w/ 4 teams
Central: 34 teams: 2x w/ 4 teams
Northwest: 30 teams: 2x w/ 1 team
Southeast: 21 teams: 5x w/ 1 team
Again though, you can see the improvements the Southeast made and the parity the lockout caused and how the shift in power occurred between the divisions in raw numbers:
Pre-locked out seasons Playoff Bound Teams
Northeast: 21 teams: 99,02,04 w/ 4 teams
Pacific: 19 teams: 99,00 w/ 4 teams
Atlantic 18 teams
Northwest: 15 teams
Central: 14 teams
Southeast: 9 teams 99,02,04 w/ 1 team
Post-locked out seasons Playoff Bound Teams
Atlantic: 25 teams: 07,08,09,12 w/4 teams
Pacific: 21 teams: 11 w/4 teams
Central: 20 teams: 09,12 w/4 teams
Northeast: 19 teams: 10 w/4 teams
Northwest: 15 teams: 11,12 w/1 team
Southeast: 12 teams: 08,10 w/1 team
What is interesting about this is how it maps to the earlier points discussion. The Atlantic division which tracked pretty much middle-of-the-road in points generation has a propensity to dominate post-lockout in generating playoff bound teams, replacing the Northeast owning that honor pre-lockout. The Southeast looks only slightly better post- over pre- and still brings up the rear but the slide of the Northwest and Northeast is definitely re-enforced.
Another view of this though could be not in making the playoffs but what divisions do with their playoffs teams. This is where it gets much more interesting especially since the Playoffs are a “second season.” I’m forgoing the deep dive of series wins because the calculations will take me too long to do for today, and jumping right to the most important two goals for any team, making the finals round and winning the final itself.
My guess is the raw number of series wins would benefit the Atlantic Division because of the number of teams they sent, however Winning Percentage through each probably drops them because of the large number of teams fielded and first round exists versus finals appearances that were produced.
In raw numbers the Southeast is holding it’s weight against the other conferences, scoring 2 Stanley Cups, one on each side of the lockout, which is better than some other considerable more powerful regular seasons divisions have fared in the post-season.
Stanley Cup Appearances
Stanley Cup Wins:
Mapping some winning percentage views though takes the discussion to a different place. Granted, these are pretty small sample sizes. However, because it does sway the view of the Southeast to not being as basement dwelling as supposed here it is:
Cup Round Winning Percentage
Southeast: 2 of 3: .666
Pacific: 3 of 5: .600
Central: 3 of 5: .600
Northeast: 1 of 2: .500
Northwest: 1 of 2: .500
Atlantic: 3 of 7: .428
Expanding the view of the entire post-season also changes the view. The Southeast does more with less, meaning although the division as a whole might not produce at the same level as the league the division leaders are capable of extraordinary things once into the play-offs. This is because despite playing some games against what appear as weaker rivals they still needed to be good enough to gain points playing against a dominate Northeast pre- and Atlantic post-lockout in order to make the playoffs in the first place.
Playoff-to-Cup Round Winning Percentage:
Southeast: 21 / 3 / 2: .142 Conf Champ / .095 Cup Winner
Central: 34 / 5 / 3: .147 Conf Champ / .088 Cup Winner
Pacific: 40 / 5 / 3: .125 Conf Champ / .075 Cup winner
Atlantic: 43 / 7 / 3: .167 Conf Champ / .069 Cup Winner
Northwest: 30 / 2 / 1 .066 Conf Champ / .033 Cup Winner
Northeast: 40 / 2 / 1: .050 Conf Champ / .025 Cup Winner
What I take from all of this is the toughest division is the Pacific across the board and although during the regular season the Southeast appears to be a league-wide weak link the individual teams themselves are more than adequately successful in the playoffs.
The caveat here being, this doesn’t include the 2013 numbers so the analysis on the whole could still change. If, for example the Caps and Jets both make the playoffs and subsequently either of them produces through to the Cup round the Southeast’s situation looks even better, while if say Vancouver or Minnesota were to do the same it significantly changes the situation for the Northwest.
One final set of thoughts on Division perception. Just because a division performs on the whole a certain way, it doesn’t mean that all teams within the division are created equally.
For example: Every team in the Southeast Division has won the division at least one time during the realignment. Yet the following teams have never lead their division at the end of the season at all:
Central: Columbus, Nashville
Pacific: Los Angles
Normally, I would bring up longest current running post-season droughts here too but since Toronto, the Islanders and possibly Winnipeg could erase theirs it isn’t as interesting of a conversation piece in the current alignment’s final season.
I would also remind you that some of the top talent in the league hails from the Southeast including:
a league dominating eight Richards (only the Northwest & Pacific are close with three);
five Lady Byng (tied with the Central for the lead);
three Hart (tied with the Atlantic and Northwest divisions for the lead);
three Calders (tied with the Central for the lead);
four Pearson/Lindsey (tied with the Northwest & one behind the Atlantic);
two Art Ross (behind only four Northwest & six Atlantic);
two Adams (one behind the Northeast);
one Venzia (behind the Northeast’s six and Atlantic’s five)…
…and not a single Norris, then again ten of them belong to the Central with seven of those going to the legendary Nick Lidstrom so the disparity makes complete sense.
This is, of course, leaving off all of this year’s yet to be granted awards. But for such a weak division, those are some impressive individual accomplishments that maybe only the Central comes close to matching.
So about that feat that the Washington Capitals pulled off this year and the six previous times they claimed the Southeast division? Only Detroit has posted more Division titles in that time (10) leaving the Caps tied with New Jersey and Vancouver for second place. Personally, I find that those four teams have some interesting things in common. I’ve argued often that the modern dynasty in hockey lies between the Wings and Devs and previously, I wrote about the interesting parallels between Vancouver and Washington and their conferences. But, more on that in another post… I’m sure.