Since the middle of last season (2007-2008) I began thinking that the Atlantic division is the most challenging division in the NHL to make the playoffs. Four teams made the playoffs from the Atlantic that season, and four did the same this past season along with the Penguins representing the Eastern Conference and Atlantic division in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Atlantic Division may not be the top of the hill every season since the lockout in terms of divisional toughness, but it has been the past three seasons in the Eastern Conference.
My reasoning for this is very simple. The Rangers, Devils, Penguins, and Flyers have all been playoff contenders since the '05-'06 season (except the Penguins in that season). The Islanders, because they play such stiff competition for almost a fourth of their schedule, are never a pushover; especially in rivalry games that exist so often in the Atlantic. Sure you have Wings/Hawks in the Central, Bruins/Habs in the Northeast, and Flames/Oilers in the Northwest, but in the Atlantic you could make the argument that each team pretty much hates the other four in their division year in and year out. I guess that is where the East Coast Bias shines through, but I'd like to hear the counter-argument against it because I still believe it's true.
So in order to prove my theory, I crunched some numbers. I went through each season since the lockout and averaged the points of each team, counted the number of playoff teams, and counted the number of teams that had equal to or over 90 points for each division. I also decided to throw a little asterisk in for which Division gave us a Cup Finalist for each year. The jury is still out on this last fact, though, because usually the best team in the season doesn't win the Stanley Cup. Below is the 2005 through 2007 seasons:
The highlighted row represents the Division I thought was the toughest during that season according to the numbers. Also to note is that the asterisk on the chart represents where the Stanley Cup Finalist came from for each Conference. As you can see, Average Points doesn't necessarily win you the toughest division crown in my book, as I value divisions with teams that make the playoffs and those that have equal to or over 90 points with my East Coast Bias. To continue, below is the 2007 through 2009 seasons:
Now you can see why I started thinking the Atlantic was the toughest division in the league. One thing that caught my eye about that last chart was that the Divisions with the most teams making playoffs and with or over 90 points are producing the Stanley Cup Finalists. Granted, it's been the same two teams that past two seasons, but it would be an interesting pattern seeing as how the NHL cut back on divisional games this past season. Simply put, it would mean the best teams in the season are having better success in the playoffs if a pattern presented itself over the next three to five seasons. Only time will tell.
But for those of you who want to define the toughest division just by rock-hard statistics, I bring you the Divisional Average Points by Season chart:
The Northeast division stays pretty consistent and never goes below 2nd in terms of rank by points; which is ironic considering their success as a division in playoffs. The Central was clearly the toughest division this past season, but I don't think it was the toughest all season. The late surges by the Blue Jackets and Blues were amazing, but the Rangers, Flyers, and Penguins jockeyed for position all season long, mind you.
So did my theory hold true? In my mind it mostly did. The Atlantic (and Northwest, with the exception of this season, for the West) has clearly been the toughest division in the East the past three seasons, and arguably four. There might be a little East Coast Bias in my thought process, but most of the numbers don't lie.
So what do you guys think? Happy the Rangers play in one of the toughest divisions in the league? Do you think this helps or hurts the team? Aren't my chart-making skills great yet at the same time a little bit scary? Let's hear it.