Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

There has always been a debate among NHL observes about which division(s) in hockey are the strongest and which are the weakest. I myself have personally espoused the view that much of the eastern conference's recent success in Stanley Cup Finals (past year excluded) is that the eastern based teams tend to have an easier road to the final and are therefore more rested and are more likely to win. But the last couple of years I have heard many sportscasters (and fans alike) claim that 'the NW division may be the best division in hockey.' I would like to take a look at the current veracity of this claim.

Let's start with the best team in this division. Who is it?

That's the point, there's certainly no obvious answer. Right now we'll start with Minnesota simply because they're in first place right now.

How well has the Wild done over the past 5 years? Jacques Lemaire has unquestionably done a great job with the team he has - but historically speaking, that's the best that could be said about the Wild. One post season loss in the Western Conference Quarter Finals is as close as they've ever got. Last year they lost in 5 games to the Mighty Ducks in the Division Quarters, and the two years in between they didn't even make the playoffs.

The Wild have consistently been a good but not great team (as if memory serves me had a similar start to their season last year) and they have a lot of good but not great players. Gaborik traditionally spends long portions of the season hurt and the Wild spend a large portion of the season scoring 2 goals or less. Being consistently difficult to play against does not mean the Wild are a top tier team. Not enough has changed this season to convince me the Wild are a top tier team, yet they are still arguably the best in the division.

The Canucks are arguably next (or at least equal) to the Wild. Roberto Luongo consistently gives the Canucks a chance to win. The Sedin twins have already come what Brian Burke imagined when he drafted them and their defensive group is steady if not impressive. Fill that out with a very good coach (or at least a smart one) in Alain Vigneault and the Canucks are a pretty good team. Their offense is shallow but they have enough guys to play tough minutes it's not a deal breaker - until you play teams who don't have that problem - Carolina, Anaheim, Detroit, etc. Again, I don't think many people would argue with me and say Vancouver is a top team. In my opinion, Vancouver and Minnesota suffer from the same flaw - good but not great.

This brings us to Colorado - great offensive team; Sakic, Hejduk, Statsney, Smyth, Wolksi, Svatos, Brunette etc. Their defensive group is alright - Hannan, Leopold, Liles, - again, it's a good group although not overwhelmingly great. But their goaltending is questionable at best. Jose Theodore has been Mr. Implosion since the lockout, and Peter Budaj is simply inexperienced. They've got a 3.00GAA this season (including tonight's come from behinder versus the Flames) and besides tonight are either blowing away the weaker teams (5-1 over Columbus) or getting smoked out themselves (4-1 loss vs the Blues and 4-0 loss vs the Predators). The Avs may suprise a few people, but their team seems very young and inconsistent, again, not what I would call a top tier team.

The Flames are a whole enigma unto themselves. Great offensive group (although weaker 3rd and 4th lines) and geat goaltending. A terribly inconsistent defensive group and terribly inconsistent efforts. Witness tonight's game vs. the Avalanche. The Flames blow a 4-0 lead and lose in the shootout. The follow up 3 straight opening losses with a win over Dallas and then blow out the Predators. Who knows what is going on with this team.

As for the Oilers...well they just aren't a good team anymore. They're gonna make other teams work for it most nights, but lets face it, there isn't any particular reason to rank them above the Chicagos, Columbus' etc anymore.

I would say the top of our division, the Canucks or Wild are comparable to say, Dallas, who has both Anaheim and San Jose in their division who are arguably better. I sure as hell wouldn't want to play in the Atlantic conference. You have Brent Sutter and Martin Brodeur in NJ, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh, Jagr, Gomez, Drury and Lundqvist in NY, Briere Gagne and co. in Philadelphia and finally, the Islanders...well ok they're no good but at worst they're comparable to Edmonton and at best comparable to the best in the NW.

Let's face facts, fans of NW division teams telling themselves it's ok they're team is doing poorly because they play in the toughest (or at least a tough) division no longer cuts it. The NW division is not what it used to be.


Scarlett said...

I disagree a bit. The NW is still a very tough division especially when you consider that 3 of the teams have major goalies (Luongo, Backstrom, Kipper) that can be tough to play against: would an eastern team like to play them 8 times a year? Throw in the wild card Avs, and for a team like the Oilers, this is a very tough division compared to others. This division may not have the firepower of the Atlantic, but it has better goaltending.

voxel said...

What's with the man-crush on the Atlantic? Other than Philly they aren't exactly tearing it up - mostly struggling and being normally inconsistent.

therealdeal said...

Scarlett, traditionally speaking, any goalie that has played for the Wild has looked 'major.' I'll concede Luongo and Kipper but Broduer and Lundqvist are certainly equally as good.

How many wins did Fleury have last year? 40! And I believe he's only going to get better, his development has been at least similar to Luongo.

And Voxel, my hard on is for the reasons I explicated in my post. The NW just isn't what it used to be.

Steal Thunder said...

The East is soft...

It'll be interesting to see how it fares against the West in the interconference games this season...