Last season it was decided that the NHL would restructure its divisions. The six groupings of five teams we’ve come to know for over a decade is no more. Now, the NHL has four divisions again. Two in the Eastern Conference and two in the Western Conference. The new division format may not affect most teams, however, there are three franchises that lose in this restructuring. Three franchises have been flourishing in a weaker division from 1999-2013.
The Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning no longer benefit from competing in the weaker Southeast division that has allowed them to share twelve of a possible fourteen division titles.
Since 1999 the Caps, Bolts and Canes have all benefited from playing in the weakest division in the National Hockey League. The old Southeast, nicknamed the Southleast, often produced one, or in prosperous times, two of eight playoff contenders in the East. Never, at any point have three Southeast teams advanced to the playoffs in the same year. Whereas, sending three or more to the playoffs was a regular occurrence for the conference’s other two divisions – the Northeast and Atlantic.
Since the Southeast Division was conceived, its teams have battled each other for playoff spots a total of fourteen times. In those fourteen seasons, the Southeast Division champ has finished 3rd in the East a total of eight times, and 1st only thrice. The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, 2010 Washington Capitals, and 2011 Washington Capitals being the only Conference Champs from the Southeast era. The Southeast has been so bad at times that in six of fourteen seasons as a division only one franchise has made the playoffs.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning won Stanley Cups in 06′ and 04′ respectively. The results have been good at times, but the road travelled was always slightly easier, not to take anything away from the great players and coaches who won those Cups. They definitely deserved to win.
The Washington Capitals have captured several division titles in the Ovechkin era (2005-present) In fact, they’ve topped the Southeast in 5 of the last 6 season. The Caps days of winning division titles could stop now. No more easy opponents for 1/3 of the season means the Caps will need to be more consistent over 82 games than they have shown in the last two seasons.
The way it used to work, before realignment, was a pretty good setup for the best team in the Southeast. Win the division and guarantee yourself 3rd spot or higher in the East, ensuring home ice advantage over 5 of 7 possible opponents throughout the first three playoff rounds. Those days are gone. The way it works now, the Capitals, Hurricanes and Lightning will all still benefit by winning their division, except it’s going to be tougher to accomplish.
The Capitals and Hurricanes join a division with the up and coming New York Islanders, tough to play against New York Rangers, perennial contender Pittsburgh Penguins, and two franchises that always compete – the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. They will also be joined by the unpredictable Columbus Blue Jackets. The competition is tougher now, meaning a shot at winning the division is not going to be as easy as it used to be for either former Southeast rivals.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will no longer fight with the Caps and Canes for division titles. Now they are up against the power-house Boston Bruins, annual threat Detroit Red Wings, hockey giants – the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, plus, the young and energetic Ottawa Senators. The Lightning remain division mates with their fellow Florida neighbours the Florida Panthers, and one of the richest teams in prospect depth – the Buffalo Sabres. The new competition creates a much tougher scenario for the Lightning to win the division, let alone make the playoffs.
The Caps and Lightning have secret weapons in the form of the league’s two best snipers. Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos score more goals than anyone else in the league and in such a complex game like hockey, where several factors contribute to a win or loss, sometimes it’s as simple as, these two guys can get the goal that breaks open the game. In that sense, the Caps and Lightning will always be considered a threat to make the playoffs for as long as Ovechkin and Stamkos are in their prime. However, there is much more to it than simply having the best goalscorer on your team. The Tampa Bay Lightning have missed the playoffs two straight seasons in spite of the heroic goal scoring efforts of Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
Last season, the Capitals relied heavily on a massive late season winning streak against their weak division opponents to make the playoffs at the last minute. A repeat of such a streak is unlikely now, with the former Atlantic Division teams on the schedule more often.
The Lightning proved last season that they struggle to prevent their opponents from scoring. That lack of defensive competence will be their ruin against the defensively sound and offensively potent former Northeasters and Detroit Red Wings they now share a division with. Unless the Bolts significantly improve their five-on-five defensive game they are in for another long season on the outside looking in.
As for the Canes, they have the makings of a good core if they can all stay healthy. They may quietly be the best suited for this division change. The Staal brothers can go toe-to-toe with anyone on the Flyers, Penguins, Islanders, Devils or Caps. Cam Ward has proven many times that he can single handedly win games when he’s healthy and in the zone. If some young players step up the Hurricanes might fly under the radar and be a pleasant surprise this season.
Nine of the teams in the Eastern Conference made the playoffs last season if you include the Detroit Red Wings, and only one of them came from the Southeast. It is going to be a challenging adjustment for all the former Southeast teams.