One of the biggest stories of the season so far has been the Metro Division. The top five teams are rolling over the rest of the league, and at one point all five were riding long win streaks and pulling away from just about everyone else. There’s really not much question over which division is the league’s best right now.
But which division was the league’s best … ever?
We don’t mean for one year. We’re asking which NHL division was the best of all-time, over the entire course of its existence. And (maybe just as much fun), which were the worst?
Let’s find out. We’ll need a list of distinct NHL divisions, which turns out to be easier said than done. The NHL is constantly tinkering with its format, adding a team here or shifting one over there. If we consider every slight variation to be a brand new division, we’re going to be here forever.
We also can't rely on their naming conventions since we've seen divisions change radically while keeping the same names – the classic 80s Norris didn't look anything like the initial 1975 version. Then we'd run into what to do with the Atlantic, a name the NHL essentially shifted over to a whole new division a few years ago to make room for the Metro.
Luckily, the NHL's formatting tends to break down reasonably well into a few, fairly clear eras ranging from a few years long to over a decade of stability. Those break down like this:
- 1968 – 70 (The aftermath of the first expansion)
- 1971 – 74 (Continued expansion)
- 1975 – 81 (The four-division era begins)
- 1982 – 1993 (Classis Norris, Smythe, Patrick and Adams era)
- 1994 – 1998 (Divisions renamed + southern spread)
- 1999 – 2013 (Six-division era)
- 2014 – present (The current format)
That gives us 26 distinct divisions to work with, which is kind of a lot. But hey, nobody does any real work this week, so let's take a crack at it.
There were no divisions in the Original Six years, so our quest to find the best division starts with the 1967-68 season. As it turns out, that’s where we’ll find the worst one ever.
#26. West Division (1968 – 1970)
Key teams: Blues, Kings, Penguins, Flyers, North Stars, Seals
Cups won: Zero.
The story: The NHL decided to double the size of the league by adding six new teams in 1967, which was mostly good. Then they put all six of those teams into the same division, which was entirely bad, and for three straight years, the West got absolutely destroyed by the established teams in the East.
But because of the idiotic format, the West got to serve up a Stanley Cup finalist each year. The result: three straight sweeps, at which point the NHL finally came to its senses and figured out a better way.
#25. Smythe Division (1975 – 1981)
Key teams: Blackhawks, North Stars, Canucks, Blues, Scouts/Rockies
Other teams: The North Stars headed to the Adams in 1978, while the Oilers and Jets arrive from the WHA in 1979.
Cups won: Zero.
The story: It feels weird to even call this division the Smythe; the Oilers don't show up until the end, and the Flames are in the Patrick (and Atlanta). It's probably just as well, because this division was awful.
How bad? It didn't produce a single team that managed more than 87 points until 1981, when the Blues put up 107. To put that differently, this division had more teams that finished with fewer than 40 points (the 75-76 Scouts and 80-81 Jets) than had more than 90.
But here's the most amazing fact about the early Smythe: Over six seasons, not only did they never make an appearance in the final, they somehow never even sent a team to the semi-final. That doesn't seem like it should be possible in a four-division league, but they were that bad.
#24. Southeast Division (1999 – 2013)
Key teams: Capitals, Hurricanes, Lightning, Thrashers, Panthers
Other teams: The Jets remained in the division after relocating from Atlanta. Look, geography has never been a strong point in this league.
Cups won: Two.
The story: God bless the Southeast. As the years wore on, the division became the league's punchline for mediocrity, if not worse. And sure, part of that was the hockey world's built-in bias against new markets – the Southeast was basically the Capitals and four relative newbies, so it was easy enough to dismiss the division as the NHL's island of misfit toys.
But the reputation wasn't completely unearned. In fourteen seasons together, the Southeast sent the bare minimum one team to the playoffs a half dozen times. And they always seemed to have at least one train wreck; a Southeast team finished dead last overall in six different seasons.
Still, they did win those two Cups, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists. That's not enough to make up for all the messes that clogged the division for the rest of its 14-season existence, but it's enough to keep them clear of last spot.