Each realigned NHL division can forge own unique identity

Friday August 2nd, 2013

The Capitals and Rangers will now both be a part of the new eight-team Metropolitan division.
Patrick McDermott /Getty Images

When the new NHL season rolls around in just two months, its newest characteristic will be its reorganized divisions. Much has been made of the division names, especially the new Metropolitan Division, which has been roundly ridiculed on Twitter and elsewhere -- not without reason considering how incongruous it is compared to the other three. But those are the names we're stuck with and, anyway, they're only cosmetic. The hockey played in the divisions will be more meaningful than their names. Few seem to remember how the NHL was roundly criticized when it introduced the Smythe, Norris, Patrick and Adams divisions in the 1970s; today, there seems to be affection for naming divisions after people instead of places.

I never had the sense that any of these six divisions that we've just waved goodbye to had any real defining characteristics, other than the fact that some were stronger than others and had better teams. But now that over a third of each team's games will be played inside the new divisions, I can't help but wonder if the return to four divisions will lead to a return of each one having a distinct identity. That was something we saw for about a decade, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, after the NHL absorbed four WHA teams and enjoyed a period of franchise stability.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the four divisions of the "Original 21" era each seemed to have a personality, impressions that were reinforced each spring during the playoffs when the first two rounds were played exclusively within the division. You couldn't say that every team in each grouping played the game according to the division's identity or that those identities didn't bleed into the play in other divisions; that would be a big stretch. But it sure seemed you could rely on each division to have its own standout characteristic.

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The Patrick Division -- home to the Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals -- was considered the most intense, fueled by the fierce rivalries that existed between each of the clubs. There were certainly some bitter rivalries in every division -- that's what helped make this era especially memorable -- but this group seemed to have nothing but bitter rivalries in every matchup.

The Adams Division -- Bruins, Canadiens, Nordiques, Whalers and Sabres -- also contained some very heated rivals, but the thing that seemed to define the Adams for most observers was grinding hockey. Some of that was because the Boston Garden and the Buffalo Aud had smaller-than-regulation ice surfaces and the home teams were built to capitalize on that. Plus, the Canadiens transitioned out of their last great Flying Frenchmen dynasty of the '70s and became a defensively-oriented club.

The Norris Division -- Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Blackhawks, Blues, and North Stars -- was often called the "Black and Blue division" and it was considered the most physical. Some of that was again conditioned by the smaller ice at the Chicago Stadium but these teams seemed to specialize in smashmouth hockey with no small amount of fisticuffs. At least it was thought that was what it took to be successful in the Norris and if your team didn't muscle up, your chances were diminished.

And the Smythe Division -- the Canucks, Kings, Flames, Oilers and Jets -- was known for specializing in wide-open offensive hockey. Driven by the high octane Oilers, the other teams had to try to keep up with Edmonton's record-shattering production, and were only marginally successful. It was also thought that these Western clubs spent more time traveling and had fewer practice hours to devote to devising sound defenses.

With further expansion and realignment, these defining traits more or less broke down. They weren't absolutes to begin with, just tendencies. But it was the first time since the Great Expansion of 1967 that divisional characteristics had been so pronounced. Back then, of course, six new clubs composed largely of castoffs and minor leaguers formed the Western Division while the established teams (which are commonly referred to as the Original Six, although only the Canadiens and Toronto -- not yet called called the Maple Leafs -- were truly original NHL franchises dating back to the formation of the league in 1917) remained as the Eastern Division. What defined the differences? As you might expect, the Eastern clubs were just plain better; in fact, they were twice as good: In head-to-head competition, as I recall, the Original Six won two of every three games, at least in the first season. Still, the strongest team in the West, the Blues, went to the Stanley Cup final three consecutive seasons and didn't win a single game against their Original Six foes.

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That great divide lasted only three years, as the league began to address the imbalance by placing two new expansion teams -- Buffalo and Vancouver -- in the East (Vancouver in the East....what a concept!) and shifting Chicago to the West. Two years later, in 1972, another pair of expansion teams joined -- the Islanders and Atlanta Flames --with one deposited in each of the Divisions. In two years, the Flyers became the first of the expansion clubs to win the Cup, a sign that the imbalance had largely vanished.

Then the NHL moved to the four-division, two-conference format in 1974 and that's when the division names shifted from geographic labels to personal honorifics. But apart from paying tribute to some of the league's great builders, the divisions themselves were constructed somewhat haphazardly. Although there were a few concessions to geography, the Norris Division looked as if the league had assembled it by picking team names out of a hat -- the Canadiens, Red Wings, Capitals, Kings and Penguins. The only identity coming from that division consisted of Detroit, Washington, Pittsburgh and L.A. regularly getting the tar beaten out of them by Montreal. (You can see a good graphic representation of these 1974 divisions in this Sixteen Wins blog post, which traces the history of NHL alignments.)

It wasn't until the second post-WHA realignment of 1981 that we were finally given some geographical sanity to the NHL map, and that helped give rise to those divisional identities.

So the question is, will the new Pacific, Central, Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions each have their own identity, based on some characteristic of the way they play the game?

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The Metro Division easily recalls the Patrick Division: it has the same teams, plus the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes, so the rivalries -- which have hardly faded -- could render this a highly intense combination.

The Atlantic has four of the Original Six in it, and perhaps that alone can shape some sort of personality.

The Central has some extremes in it, from the great all-around game of the Blackhawks, to the Blues' hard-hitting style to the Predators' defensive expertise to the rebuilding Avalanche and Stars, and the hopeful Wild and Jets. Tough to say how this division might shape up when it comes to defining a characteristic style, if it does at all.

It's tempting to say that Darryl Sutter's Kings, Dave Tippet's Coyotes and John Tortorella's Canucks could lead the Pacific into becoming a grinding aggregation, but the Oilers certainly don't fit that mold, which might be to their credit -- or detriment. It's way too soon to know.

And it's way too soon to know if we'll see a return to divisional identities at all. The new playoff format, which will see at least a partial return to early round play within the divisions, could translate into shaping each group's complexion and give it more meaning apart from the name the league has given it.

The divisional personalities that emerged in the 1980s helped erase the criticism some had of the league using proper names to designate its groupings. If they emerge again, perhaps that's how we'll all get past fretting over the title of "Metropolitan Division."

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