Every year, there are divisions that are more difficult than others and less difficult than others. In some seasons, two or three dominant teams can help make a division much more difficult, as was the case in the 2007-08 Pacific Division with the Sharks, Ducks and Stars, while in other years there may be a balance of slightly above average teams throughout a division, such as in the 2005-06 Northwest Division. Though it may be early in the 2009-10 season, the contending and non-playoff team picture is already beginning to take shape, so we can begin to get a clearer picture of which division is the most difficult.
NHL's Most Difficult Division
Based on the strengths and performances of all of the teams in the National Hockey League thus far, which division is the toughest to play in?
Timo Seppa: Atlantic Division - With four playoff teams––including Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh––that have arguably only gotten stronger, the Atlantic Division edges out the Northwest Division and the Pacific Division as the toughest place to play in the NHL (And yeah, the Central Division surprisingly comes in fourth with Detroit ailing).
Pittsburgh has maintained the scorching run they began when Dan Byslma took over their reins late last season. Marc-Andre Fleury is playing with confidence, Tyler Kennedy has developed into an offensive threat and Alex Goligoski is a new weapon on the blueline, though Sergei Gonchar’s latest injury is a setback.
Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal, Ales Kotalik and an infusion of quality youth have transformed the New York Rangers from a poor offensive team (210 GF) to the highest scoring team in the league (currently on a torrid pace for 314 GF). As is widely discussed, Gaborik’s health will dictate their ultimate ceiling.
Philadelphia has added prospects Claude Giroux and James van Reimsdyk to the potent offense led by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, while Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen now provide a legitimate number one defense pairing. Unfortunately, the Flyers’ goaltending may have taken a step backwards with the switch to Ray Emery. Improving the situation between the pipes could make the Flyers a true contender (“Hello, Garth? Got any spares?”)
New Jersey started off slowly under Jacques Lemaire Mark II, but have picked up the pace recently, impressively besting the Penguins 4-1 over the weekend. Look for Lemaire to make a difference, while the return of Patrik Elias will give them an offensive boost.
Even the New York Islanders have been a relatively competitive last place team, taking 5 of their losses after the end of regulation: in 6 of 10 games, they’ve played their opposition at least even through 60 minutes. Their 7 points is no worse than any last place team in the NHL.
Look for the Penguins, Rangers, Flyers and Devils to return to the playoffs, with at least two of those teams advancing deeper into the playoffs.
Robert Vollman: Central Division - The Detroit Red Wings used to count their lucky stars every day that they were in the Central Division. They would laugh their way to the President's Trophy every year as their season's totals were bloated by playing the lackluster Blue Jackets, Blues, Blackhawks and Predators over and over again. In 2009-10, both their laughing and their consecutive streak of easily topping the Central Division comes to an end.
The dominance of the Central Division was foreshadowed last season, when 4 of the 5 teams made the playoffs. The Blackhawks were the league's most improved team, and have now replaced the Wings as the favorite to win the division title. Should the two meet in the playoffs, it will be the dominant remains of the once dynastic Red Wings finding themselves in the unusual position of being the underdog, not the surging Hawks.
It won't get any easier for the Wings as the years progress, for both the Columbus Blue Jackets and the St. Louis Blues have rebuilt their team around youth. The unexpectedly fast development of their younger talent allowed both teams to make the playoffs last year, surprising pundits with the prematurity of their berths. What these two teams lack in big names, they make up for in energy and standout defensive play - fast becoming the hallmark of Central teams. The Red Wings, once all smiles when studying their schedule, have only the trips to Nashville to look forward to now.
Most divisions have stronger goaltending, and a couple of them have more than two teams with explosive offense, but none of them can match the Central Division in youthful energy, talent and skill. It's time to stop skipping this page of the Sports Section, because their time has come, and they are now the teams to watch.
Richard Pollock: Atlantic Division - The toughest division in the NHL is the Atlantic Division. Not only does the Atlantic include the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but it also plays home to the surprising New York Rangers, the always reliable New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers. Sure, the weak link is the lowly New York Islanders but the Islanders, with youngster John Tavares leading the way, are not an easy victory anymore.
Collectively, so far this season, the top four teams in the Atlantic Division have scored 31 more goals than they have allowed. Additionally, the entire division is currently sitting twelve games above the .500 level.
With the likes of Marian Gaborik, Mike Richards, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Zach Parise, the Atlantic Division is not lacking for stars. These types of players can produce in all situations, which is one of the main reasons that four of the Atlantic Division teams find themselves in the top seventeen in the NHL when it comes to five-on-five goals for versus goals against.
So, offense is clearly no issue for the division, yet we have not even broached the subject of goaltending. This division boasts the likes of Henrik Lundqvist (.915 save percentage), Martin Brodeur (.915 save percentage) and Marc-Andre Fleury (.917 save percentage). Additionally, solid netminders like Martin Biron, Dwayne Roloson and Ray Emery fill out the rest of the division.
Combine the talent on the ice with the talent behind the benches and the Atlantic Division is a division to be reckoned with. Three of the division’s five coaches (Jacques Lemaire, John Tortorella and Dan Bylsma) have all won the Stanley Cup. So, there is no lack of knowledge behind the bench to augment the teams’ on-ice talent.
At the end of the day, it looks like there is a very realistic chance that four of the Atlantic Division teams will qualify for the playoffs this season. Aside from maybe the Central Division, I just don’t see any other division in the NHL being as deep as the Atlantic.
Andrew Rothstein: Pacific Division - The best division in hockey has the current Points leader (Anze Kopitar) and two of the top three offenses (Kings, Sharks) in the league.
Anze Kopitar should be a household name if he isn't yet, and the addition of Ryan Smyth, despite the hefty contract, has looked good so far. With youngsters Dustin Brown and Alexander Frolov making a significant impact, it's going to prove really difficult to stop this team on offense. We'll see if this offense is for real or not in another month, but if it is for real, look out.
The Sharks added Dany Heatley to improve the team's offense and to shake things up after a disappointing postseason and, so far, everything has worked out for the best. Between Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, who is not showing any signs of declining this year, San Jose has the weapons to dominate opponents. Now that the Sharks have all of the right skating pieces in place to win a Stanley Cup, everything will fall on the goaltending shoulders of Evgeni Nabokov. This could be Nabokov's last year in San Jose if they don't go deep into the playoffs.
Surprise! Marty Turco has actually been relatively good this year with a .917 save percentage, and 4 Quality Starts in 8 Games Started for a .500 Quality Start percentage. This shouldn't be too surprising actually, as goaltending performance varies wildly from year to year with the exception of a few elite-level goaltenders. VUKOTA accounted for this and predicted for his GVT to increase by 10.5, which is almost the exact pace he's on through the first month of play. Last season, we discussed that the Stars defense wasn't nearly as bad as many made it out to be and that Turco was the main reason why Dallas fell apart. Well, a year later the Stars already look greatly improved because of Turco's better play. Dallas also has youngsters James Neal and Loui Eriksson, as well as veterans Brad Richards, Brenden Marrow and Mike Ribeiro. This is a team that can defeat the best on any given night.
The current last place team in the Pacific Division is the Anaheim Ducks, who have the talent to win the division, though they clearly underestimated the loss of Chris Pronger on the defensive side of the puck. Still, if they can make a trade to add defensive depth, they could become the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, who needed to add wing depth before taking off in the Eastern Conference.
The Phoenix Coyotes, who have a very limited payroll, have Shane Doan leading the way as the face of the franchise. So far, they have played outstanding defense, though it remains to be seen if they can keep this up.
Overall, you have a very intriguing division with many stars, be it young or old, and four teams that have the ability to win the Stanley Cup. That makes the Pacific Division the most difficult division in hockey.
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.