Why Is the NHL Northwest Division So Uncompetitive?

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Why Is the NHL Northwest Division So Uncompetitive?
Rich Lam/Getty Images

Why is the Northwest Division of the NHL so uncompetitive in recent years? Is it because the Canucks are just too good, or because the other teams are just so bad?

In 2010-11, the Canucks used the Northwest Division as a springboard to the franchise’s first Presidents Trophy.

The gap between the first-place Canucks and runner-up Flames was 23 points. That was more than the margin between first and second place in the other five divisions combined.

In 2011-12, the Canucks again ran away with the division, leading the second-place Flames by 21 points.

Again, this was more than the total margin between first and second place amongst all the other divisions combined.

The Canucks were the only team to qualify for the playoffs from the Northwest Division in either year. 

In contrast, the Central and Pacific Divisions have alternated between sending three or four teams each per year to the playoffs. In total, the Blues, Predators, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Sharks, Ducks, Coyotes and Kings have all made the playoffs in recent years.

Out of 15 teams in the Western Conference, only six have not made the playoffs in the last two years: the Stars and Blue Jackets in the Pacific and Central Divisions, respectively, and the Flames, Avalanche, Oilers and Wild from the Northwest Division.

In the Eastern Conference, the playoff picture is more competitive as well, with each division sending at least two teams each year to the playoffs, and 11 teams making it at least once in the last two years.

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So why is the Northwest Division becoming a joke?

Partly it is because the Canucks are very good. Say what you want about playoff success, but no one can deny that the Canucks are regular-season powerhouses, winning back-to-back Presidents Trophies. 

The Canucks were good against other Western teams, but they got a boost in the standings by slapping around their divisional “rivals” with 18-4-2 and 18-5-1 records in 2010-11 and 2011-12 respectively. 

The Sedins rack up points against the divisional opponents like crazy, which actually is a bit counterintuitive.

You’d think that after being undressed game after game for years on end that the other teams would have video sessions devoted just on what not to do when playing the Sedins, since normal tactics don’t work against them.

The other side of the coin is that the other four Northwest Division teams are just bad. 

The Edmonton Oilers are the brightest light in the division behind the Canucks, led by a whole power-play unit of first overall picks.

Once the kids get a little bit more experience and size, they should be a powerhouse and most likely will make some noise in the playoffs.But to get Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov and company, the Oilers had to be bad. Really, really bad. Worse-than-Columbus bad.

Derek Leung/Getty Images

Like the Blackhawks being horrible, then drafting Toews, Kane and Keith, or the Penguins being a laughingstock and drafting Crosby and Malkin, the Oilers will turn it around. Or if Oilers fans want a more immediate comparison, the Canucks weren’t exactly a great team when they drafted the Sedins.

The Oilers should have been better sooner than this, but the windfall of picks and prospects from trading Pronger and Smyth were squandered, but that is in the past now. The future is bright in Edmonton.

But they are the only Alberta team with a bright future.

The Calgary Flames are a joke. Not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to get into the lottery draft, multiple editions of the Flame’s management seem content to be the Maple Leafs east.

Rather than rebuild a core of aging veterans, the Flames are content to run with Iginla as long as he sells tickets and merchandise, rather than admit that as he nears 40, he can’t carry the team on his back into the playoffs anymore. Remind anyone of Sundin in Toronto?

And by trading draft picks and prospects for yet even more aging veterans in a vain attempt to finish ninth instead of 10th overall, the Calgary farm system is in bad shape.

The end is finally coming in Calgary, but they should have started the process three or four years ago. Now they will be a doormat for a few years after being forced into a proper rebuild.

Rich Lam/Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild aren’t very good right now either.

Now I want to be clear that I have nothing but respect for Minnesota as a state. They have more people playing organized hockey on a per capita basis than any province in Canada. And I don’t rip them for playing boring, trap hockey for years after expansion; you do what you have to do to be competitive. 

But the management of their team has made some horrible mistakes. By letting Gaborik walk as a free agent, there went the one true offensive threat the Wild had. 

The management tried to rectify it with the extremely hypocritical hundred million dollar deals to Suter and Parise this season, but it’ll take a while to rebuild the roster. 

Basically the Wild added a pair of Olympians to a roster that was full of players who have no business being on a playoff team. They’ll need a few years to rid themselves of the dead weight (Heatley in particular), but they also have a ton of good prospects coming up, unlike the Flames. 

The Wild will be competitive in a year or two, but right now they are just staying afloat.

The Colorado Avalanche are an interesting case. They had started a rebuild-and-youth movement around the same time as the Oilers, then made the playoffs as recently as 2009-2010, but fell off the map in recent years.  

A few puzzling trades and moves led to short-term pain but potential long-term gain, such as trading Craig Anderson to Ottawa, where he currently leads the NHL in most goalie stats, or playing contract hardball with Ryan O’Reilly, the 22-year-old center who led the team in points last season.

Still, led by 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs have some impressive youth and should be back challenging for the division crown that Denver fans consider their birthright in the next few years.

But in the near future, the Northwest Division belongs to the Canucks.

None of the other four teams look able to touch the Canucks, who have an impressive 6-0-1 record in seven divisional contests.

But the Oilers or Wild could conceivably scratch and claw their way into the playoffs this year. And we might even see a day when the Oilers, Wild and Avalanche join the Canucks in the playoffs in the same year.

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