Tonight’s schedule features three games between Central Division opponents. Those games will go a long way to determining who gets the West’s final wild-card spot, who wins the division, and maybe even who wins the Presidents’ Trophy.
But even if none of that were true, you’d still want to be watching those games because this year’s Central Division is freaking good. How good? Consider the following:
• The division already features three 100-plus-point teams in Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago, while the Jets and Wild could both join them.
• The Wild have been the best team in hockey since mid-January, yet still won’t finish any higher than fourth in the division and may drop to fifth.
• As of today, the division boasts four of the league’s top eight teams based on goal differential.
• There’s a good chance the Central will claim both Western wild-card spots and send five teams to the playoffs.
• Even the division’s two “bad” teams, the Avalanche and the Stars, aren’t disasters; both could still hit 90 points. The last-place Avs are currently 15 points better than the league’s next-best last-place team, the Hurricanes, and Colorado would rank ahead of four Metro teams.
• Perhaps most impressive of all, the division boasts four teams in the league’s top 10 overall. That’s a relatively rare feat; it’s happened only once since the turn of the century.
So sure, the Central is unquestionably the league’s best division this year, but what about all time? Could the 2014-15 Central belong in the discussion with some of history’s best collections of teams?
Today, let’s look back through the history books at some of the greatest divisions the NHL has ever seen. We’ll limit this to the last 40 years, which would take us to 1974-75 and the start of the four-division era. This is subjective and we’re not trying to create a definitive list, but here are some of the top groups the league has seen since then.
The 1978-79 Patrick
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images
By 1978, the NHL was a 17-team league, featuring three divisions with four teams and one with five. Only six teams in the entire league hit the 90-point mark that year, and four of them came from the Patrick.
The division’s best team was the New York Islanders, who finished first overall with 116 points. This was the stacked Islanders squad — built around guys like Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, and Brian Trottier — that was on the verge of becoming the league’s next great dynasty. They were trailed by the Flyers, who finished with the league’s fourth-best record at 95 points, and the Rangers, who ranked fifth overall at 91.
However, the division’s most interesting team was probably the Atlanta Flames. They posted 41 wins and a plus-47 goal differential, both of which were good for fourth-best in the entire league. Their 41-31-8 record gave them 90 points, good for sixth-best in the NHL but just fourth in the Patrick. That established a record that will almost certainly stand forever as the most points by a last-place team. It also earned them a spot in the best-of-three preliminary round, where they lost to the Maple Leafs in two straight.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Rangers emerged from the division, knocking off the Flyers in the quarterfinals and then upsetting the heavily favored Islanders in the semis before losing to the Canadiens in five games in the final. The Islanders came back strong the next year, and went on to win the next four Stanley Cups.
As for the Flames, they lasted only one more season in Atlanta before moving to Calgary in 1980. Speaking of Calgary …