The toughest division

champion

Earlier this week, in the course of discussing a different topic, the conversation drifted to the relative mediocrity of the Northwest Division. It wasn’t so long ago that the Northwest was being touted as the best in the National Hockey League, and if that claim was debatable then, it would be preposterous now.

It all depends on how frame the argument, of course, but it seemed a stretch to call the Calgary-Colorado-Edmonton-Minnesota-Vancouver grouping the league’s best even a couple of years ago when the theory was in vogue. Some proponents were careful to use the phrase “most competitive from top to bottom,” which is much more accurate. Two seasons ago, for instance, the first-to-worst spread in the Northwest was a mere 10 points and no team in that division finished more than three points out of the Western Conference’s top eight.

The other divisions, on the other hand, feature much more disparity between the rich and the poor. The Northwest was decidedly middle class as evidenced by the fact that no winner of the division has won the Cup since 2001 (only the Northeast Division has gone longer without a championship) and that the Northwest winner has been slotted in the No. 3 playoff seed (i.e. the lowest of all division champs) for the past six seasons.

In 2008-09, several former weak sisters in other divisions muscled up and the Northwest’s reputation was further diminished. Just check out the winning percentages of each division against the rest of the West — Central vs. Pacific/Northwest (.550); Pacific vs. Central/Northwest (.485); Northwest vs. Central/Pacific (.465).

The Flames were the only Northwest team to post a true winning record against either of the other two divisions (they were 11-9 against both the Pacific and the Central) while the first-place Canucks managed to play .500 inter-division/intra-conference hockey (20-20).

So, with that sparkling record against the conference’s other two divisions, with four teams in the playoffs (and the fifth only three points out) and with two representatives in the Conference final, can there be any doubt the Central is the best/toughest division in the West?

In a recent comment, Wanye Gretz presents the case for the Atlantic Division, which is the East’s version of the Central in regards to having placed four teams in the 2009 playoffs. As WG notes, the most notable shortcoming of the Atlantic is the absolute awfulness of the last-place Islanders, who are a far, far worse team than the Nashville Predators, who ere the Central Division cellar-dwellers.

On the other hand, an Atlantic team beat a Central team for the Stanley Cup and Northwest clubs had a 17-13 advantage in head-to-head play during the regular season (only the Flyers had a losing record against the Central while only the Red Wings had a winning record against the Atlantic).

All that said, while recognizing that the Atlantic had the edge in some key categories this past season, the vote here is that based on present rosters, the Central is presently the best division in the NHL. What say you?