The Canucks need a strong Northwest Division

Technically, the Colorado Avalanche are still in playoff contention, but their chances are slimmer than a Slim Jim. They currently sit in 10th place, 2 points out of the playoffs, with only two games remaining on their schedule. All four teams ahead of them that they could conceivably catch have three games left. It doesn’t help that all three games the San Jose Sharks have remaining are against other teams battling for those same playoff spots, guaranteeing that the Avalanche will have even more ground to make up.

If the Avalanche fail to make the playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks will be the only team from the Northwest Division in the postseason for the second straight year. The competitive imbalance in the Northwest isn’t good for the team or the fans.

The gap between first and second in the Northwest Division is larger than in any other division in the league. In fact, it’s not even close. The Canucks have 19 more points than the Avalanche and may end the season with an even larger lead. The second largest gap is in the Central Division between the Blues and the Red Wings, but it’s just 7 points. The gap in the Northwest is nearly three times as big.

That is one of the main reasons the Canucks have had so little to play for down the stretch. While other teams are battling for the division lead in order to ensure home ice advantage in the playoffs, the Canucks have had no competition for first place in the Northwest. They were seemingly fated to finish second in the Western Conference until their recent 6-game winning streak reeled in the Blues.

While I have avoided panic over the Canucks’ lacklustre play of late, mainly because I recognize how little import these games have had for the team, but I am legitimately concerned over whether the team will be able to gear up for the playoffs or if they have lapsed into bad habits that will take time to break.

The last three Stanley Cup winners have come from strong divisions that each had two other representatives in the postseason. You have to go back to 2003-04 to find the last Cup winner that was the only team to make the playoffs from its’ division. That year, the Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the woeful Southeast, finishing with 28 more points than the second place Atlanta Thrashers.

Because the Canucks play more games against Northwest Division opponents, those teams should ideally be challenges for the Canucks. According to the Proverbs, As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Instead, the Canucks’ Northwest Division opponents have been dull and unimposing for the last couple years. The Canucks have a combined 17-4-1 record against the Northwest this season, far better than their record against the rest of the league. The team is not well-served by having their most frequent opponents provide so little a challenge.

It’s also disappointing for the fans, many of whom grew up on bitter rivalries with the Calgary Flames and (a little more recently) Colorado Avalanche. The Oilers have a long history of success and it used to be a big deal when the Canucks would play them. As for the Minnesota Wild…they certainly consider the Canucks to be a rival, even if the feeling is not necessarily mutual.

After the Canucks earned an overtime victory over the Flames on Saturday, one of our Bulies commented that he “hates the Flames” and that the victory was “as satisfying as a playoff win.” I can’t agree. It felt perfunctory. There was no drama to it. The Flames were essentially out of the playoffs already, so the only thing at stake was first in the Western Conference for the Canucks. Games against the Flames used to mean something! They were battles for playoff position or for division supremacy. Now a game against the Flames is just another regular season game.

A revitalized Northwest Division would be good for both the Canucks and the fans. Fortunately, it may be on its way. The Avalanche have made some steps forward and are looking like they will be a playoff team next season if they don’t pull of a minor miracle this week. If the Oilers can put together a decent defence corps, they could compete for a playoff spot within the next couple seasons, as long as their management gets its act together.

The team to watch out for, however, is the Minnesota Wild. While they massively overachieved to start the season, they have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, with several high-end players ready to make the jump to the big leagues next season. Combine that with Chuck Fletcher’s savvy moves at the trade deadline to bolster the Wild’s defence, and you have a team that could surprise a lot of people next season.

I look forward to it. Maybe next year at this time we’ll have a heated race for first in the Northwest Division, instead of a half-hearted race for the Presidents’ Trophy.

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18 comments

  1. Chris the Curmudgeon
    April 2, 2012

    Minnesota and Calgary were both decimated by injuries this year. Even healthy, neither team was a match for the Canucks, but they probably would’ve been better had they been able to keep more players in the lineup. Injuries aren’t an excuse, but they are something of an explanation.

    But in truth, the Northwest is actually a pretty average division, cumulatively. If it wasn’t for the Canucks cannibalizing it, those teams would be better thought of. Case in point, if Colorado had gone even .500 this year against Vancouver, they’d be sitting in 7th place right now, and they are .500 or better against every other division in hockey.

    I for one would rather see the Canucks continue to maul their closest rivals every year than a more competitive division where our boys are falling to the still-hated Flames or Avs with regularity.

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    • Britt
      April 2, 2012

      While no one wants to see the Canucks lose to the Avs, or even worse the Flames, an improved divison would help ease some of the mid-season boredom at least. Over the next few years I could see the Northwest becoming one of the more competitive divisions if the Oilers, Avs and Wild live up to their potential at all; what the Flames amount to is anyone’s guess.

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  2. Daniel W.
    April 2, 2012

    Don’t forget that Chang is coming! With the realignment and the Kings and Sharks in our Division this may not be a big issue in a year or two!

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    • Harrison Mooney
      April 2, 2012

      OH NO! NOT CHANG!

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  3. bergberg
    April 2, 2012

    Maybe it’s just because I live with a St Louis Blues fan, but I am thoroughly enjoying this push for the President’s Cup. Every game has meaning for me. We may not have competition in our division, but we certainly have competition in the league.

    I’m also not sure why you are concerned about whether the team will be able to gear up for the playoffs? I mean, I understood concern a few weeks ago, but the Canucks are on a 6 game winning streak. WINNING!

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  4. Matt
    April 2, 2012

    Is this a chicken & egg scenario though? Consider that both Calgary and Colorado could make the playoffs (Colorado handily, Calgary by a hair) if they’d had more success against a single team this year: The Canucks. In other words, are the Canucks being made to look good because they play so many games against weak opponents, or are good teams being made to look weak because they play so many games against the Canucks?

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    • Lindsay
      April 2, 2012

      Good point! We know how we do against teams in other divisions, but how do the other NW Div teams do against teams in other divisions? Does anyone know off-hand? It would be interesting to know.

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  5. PeeSeeGee
    April 2, 2012

    I agree that the Canucks do need a stronger division to be competitive but, to be fair, the only reason there isn’t a larger gap in the Pacific is that there was no team that was good all season to run away with it. Same can be said for the South-East.

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  6. JDM
    April 2, 2012

    Dear Passittobulis,

    I’m not sure if you remember me – we haven’t seen each other for several months. Given the perfunctory manner in which I was swept under the carpet, I guess I can understand the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.

    Now, I assume you’ve forgotten about me because you’ve just expended significant effort writing a story about the future of the Northwest Division. I’m sorry to tell you this, but… there’s not likely to BE a Northwest Division for very long. I’ll be back next year, in the same form or something reasonably similar.

    The fact of the matter is, your Canucks won’t be playing all your games against these lacklustre teams anymore – maybe some of them will be in the newly-rearranged grouping with the Canucks. Maybe – in fact, much more likely – it’ll be the Pacific teams. Travel is a very important aspect to this whole thing and the fewer time zones teams have to cross each season, the happier everyone’s going to be. Which is why there’s such an appetite for change – the Detroits of the world just aren’t going to put up with the status quo for much longer.

    But that’s all details. Whatever happens, it’s almost certain to be significant enough as to render this article completely moot.

    Yours cordially,

    The NHL Realignment Plan

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  7. Brian Beitz
    April 2, 2012

    My biggest concern with playing so many teams out of the playoff race is that teams who have a built-up rivalry and nothing to play for, sometimes turn to payback hockey. Last year, Hank took that brutal crosscheck in the last game of the season against an eliminated Flames team and his back bothered him all post-season…

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  8. Bob
    April 2, 2012

    Not our fault that Calgary and Minnesota are so poorly managed and that Edmonton enjoys hosting draft parties

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  9. Brandon
    April 2, 2012

    Er correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it official that the North West isn’t going to exist next year?? Once we get teams like LA & SJ in our division things should ramp up.

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    • Brandon
      April 2, 2012

      Ugh I guess i had this open for a while before I read it, there was only one comment when I commented.

      Now I feel stupid, ignore this post.

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    • biznow
      April 2, 2012

      Didn’t the players union reject the realignment plan?

      I think it was a good article, the lack of competition in the NW, after the intensity of the stanley cup finals last year, made for a rather underwhelming season in terms of drama.

      I had to google perfunctory.

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  10. akidd
    April 2, 2012

    couldn’t agree more. iron does sharpen iron. it was my theory about why the eastern conference had been lagging behind the west. and why teams like nashville just got better and better.

    sure it’s nice not to be completely exhausted after the 402 game regular season but that central division is going to be sharp. honed. hopefully they beat the snot out of each other.

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  11. Josh D.
    April 2, 2012

    RIP Macho Man. :(

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  12. RicardoB
    April 2, 2012

    Regarding last Stanley Cup winner to be from an uncompetitive conference, keep in mind that there are by definition more teams from competitive conferences in the playoffs each year than otherwise so obviously you’re going to have more of those teams win the Cup.

    last 10 seasons:

    uncompetitive division (1 team) teams to make reach SC final/teams from uncompetitive divisions to make playoffs: 3/5

    competitive division teams (4 teams) to make SC final/teams from competitive divisions to make playoffs: 3/36

    So in the last decade, 5 times have a division sent 1 representative to the playoffs and 3 times have they made it to the finals. In contrast, 9 times in the past decade have a division sent 4 representative to the playoffs and only 3 times did a representative make it to the final. Even ignoring the improvement of odds of a rep making it farther by having more teams from 1 division in the playoffs, the evidence suggests that uncompetitive divisions tend to have 1 very strong team while competitive divisions tend to have 4 good but not great teams.

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