By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
With the NHL’s seven Canadian teams forced to form their own division for 2021 due to the ongoing coronavirus-related travel restrictions at the United States-Canada border, 24 American-based franchises found themselves in a state of flux.
But Wednesday brought about a likely solution to that with a clearer view of the makeup of the three (temporary) divisions within the United States, as revealed by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.
According to LeBrun, one division will feature the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals. This would be a slight deviation from the first iteration of such a division (reported by ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski), which featured the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh’s place.
The other division of mostly Eastern Conference clubs would feature Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
And then there’s the third division of Western Conference U.S. clubs, with the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights all in the same division.
If this is indeed the format, the division featuring the Bruins will certainly look to be the toughest out of the four, with its eight teams posting a combined 59.7 percent point percentage in 2019-20. The division features five of the league’s top 11 teams in this stat, too, between the Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, and Islanders, and the eight teams in this proposed division averaged 82.5 points in 2019-20. The Sabres and Devils were the only teams in this division not invited to the restart.
The defending champion Lightning, meanwhile, would luck out in this format, with their division possessing a combined 54.8 percent point percentage in 2019-20. Headlined by the Bolts, who had the third-most points in the NHL at the time of the coronavirus pause, while the next-best ‘Canes had the 11th-most and third-best Jackets had the 13th-most. This division also features five of the league’s 17 worst teams in terms of point percentage in 2019-20. Teams in this division averaged 74.8 points last season, and only the aforementioned three had at least 80 points.
Out West, the Blues and Avalanche will have similar gripes as the Bruins and Caps, with four of the league’s top 10 teams in point percentage slotting into this division, which featured a 55.3 percent point percentage a year ago. The teams in this division averaged 77.8 points in 2019-20, with the NHL’s three California teams, none of whom were invited to the Edmonton bubble as they dwelled together in the West’s basement, dragging down that average.
Then there’s the unavoidable all-Canada division, which is pretty… well… mediocre. The Oilers were the best team of this bunch a year ago, with 83 points in 71 games (12th-best point percentage in hockey), while the Maple Leafs were the second-best, with 81 points in 70 games (the league’s 13th-best point percentage). Overall, their 2019-20 point percentage was 54.2 percent, making this the worst division of the four entering 2021. These teams also averaged 76.3 points last season.
Given the obviously lopsided nature of these divisions, you would almost hope that the league considers ditching its current playoff format in favor of simply awarding postseason spots to the eight best teams in each team’s natural conference. Otherwise those Tampa-headlined and Canadian divisions just feel like divisions that would reward a mediocre team in its No. 3 seed while the other, stronger divisions would have better teams on the outside looking in because of this stupid format that’s never made a lick of sense to anybody with a brain.
But that’s a tricky one considering the current state of the world, really.
The obvious hope is that the border eventually opens and allows the league to get back to normal, and that a vaccine eventually arrives to the league offices. But without a set date for such a change in policy and vaccine delivery — and without another playoff bubble set in stone — it’s hard to sign off on that format right now. This is one of those things that probably needs to be resolved before the season starts, too, because making the format up as you go along would surely straight-up infuriate the side of the fence that would see their chances of postseason play decrease as a result of the hypothetical change.
Consider this just another part of the great unknown left to be solved by the NHL and NHLPA before a January puck drop.
We talked about this in the newest episode of Sidelines at 985TheSportsHub.com. Listen to the full podcast below.