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For most of the Alex Ovechkin era, the Washington Capitals played in what was known as the Southeast Division, which was eliminated prior to the 2013-14 season with a number of division re-alignments. For much of its history, the division as a whole was thought to be comparatively weak when held to other divisions around the league. Several seasons later, however, the teams that constituted the Southeast are no longer among the league’s weakest clubs.
The Southeast Division was formed before the 1998-99 season and initially consisted of the Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers. The Capitals, Panthers, and Lightning were formerly members of the Atlantic Division, while the Hurricanes were formerly in the Northeast Division and had relocated from Hartford, Connecticut.
The Lightning and Panthers were both relatively new to the league, with the former being added as an expansion team in 1992-93, and the latter joining the NHL in 1993-94. The Atlanta Thrashers were added to the league and the division in 1999-00.
During the 14 seasons of the Southeast Division’s existence, they were generally a comparative weak division within the Eastern Conference in many ways.
- In seven seasons, the division winner did not exceed 100 points in the standings and had the lowest number of points. In all but one of those seasons, the two other division winners topped 100 points. Additionally, in the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13, the division winner had a lower point total than the other two divisions.
- In eight of the 14 seasons, the Southeast Division contained three of the five worst teams in the Eastern Conference. In the 1998-99 season, the division contained only four teams, including two of the worst five.
- In eight seasons, the Southeast contained at least two of the worst three teams in the division and in two of those seasons, they had all three of the worst teams.
- In all 14 seasons, the worst team in the Eastern Conference ranked either last or second-to-last place in the 15-team conference (a 14-team conference in 1998-99). The division had the 15th-ranked team in six seasons and the 14th-ranked team in seven seasons, with one of the those seasons including just 14 teams in the conference.
- In five of the division’s 14-season history, the Southeast had a winner with less than 100 points, at least two teams who ranked in the bottom third of the conference, and the bottom team being in either 14th or 15th in the Eastern Conference. Often in their history, they had a relatively weak division winner and at least two of the worst teams at the same time, which indicated a poor top-to-bottom strength of the teams in their division. This was not the case every easy season, as the division boasted two Stanley Cup winners and a Presidents’ Trophy winner.
Since the division re-alignments, the fortunes have greatly changed for the former teams of the Southeast Division. The realignment prior to the 2013-14 season saw the Capitals and Hurricanes added to the new Metropolitan Division, the Winnipeg Jets (the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011) added to the Central Division, and the Panthers and Lightning added to the Atlantic Division. Since then, the Capitals and Lightning have both won Presidents’ Trophies (two for the Caps, and one for the Bolts) and Stanley Cup Championships (the Capitals in 2018 and the Lightning in 2020). The Jets have emerged as a contender in the Central Division and advanced to the Western Conference Finals during the 2018 postseason, while the Hurricanes have returned to contention status and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
An entirely new divisional alignment for the 2020-21 season was prompted by the closure of the United States-Canada border due to the coronavirus pandemic. This new configuration saw Winnipeg placed in the Scotia North Division; the Panthers, Lightning, and Hurricanes were placed in the Discover Central Division, and the Capitals playing in the Mass Mutual East Division.
Taking a look at the NHL standings at just past the quarter pole of the shortened 2020-21 season shows that the standings of the Discover Central Division sees Carolina leading the division with a 12-3-1 record and 25 points (a .781 points percentage). They are followed closely by the Panthers, who are 11-3-2 with 24 points (.750 points percentage). In third place are the Chicago Blackhawks, who have a 9-6-4 record, 22 points, and a .579 points percentage. The Lightning follow with a 10-4-1 record, 21 points, and a .700 points percentage. In short, three former Southeast Division teams hold three of the top four slots in the Discover Central Division standings. Tampa Bay, who are fourth in points, have a better point percentage than the third-place Blackhawks, however, the Blackhawks have played in four more games than the Lightning and also have four overtime losses, gaining points from overtime losses. It is likely that Tampa Bay, the defending Stanley Cup winner, will pass Chicago in the standings, given that they have a much better points percentage. If both Carolina and Florida also maintain their present pace of play, the top three finishers in the Central Division could be three former Southeast Division teams.
The Jets, meanwhile, are now in the Scotia North Division, and are sitting pretty with a 10-6-1 record, 21 points (.618 points percentage) in third place. If they maintain that pace, they would make it to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Capitals, now in the Mass Mutual East Division, have a record of 9-5-3, 21 points, and a .618 points percentage and currently sit in second place having played in more games than their current main division rivals.
In just a matter of seasons, the collective teams that once made up one of the NHL’s weaker divisions are all now successful teams who have emerged as contenders in a shortened, hard-fought season. With more of the 2020-21 season left to play, it will be interesting to see where the teams of what was sometimes mocked as the “South-least Division” are at season’s end.
By Diane Doyle