Some teams within top divisions could be odd man out

Updated: December 8, 2006, 12:53 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The heavily unbalanced schedule, with its emphasis on intra-divisional games and the once-in-every-three-seasons appearances in the other conference's arenas, has another downside.

Well, maybe it's not a downside.

If one of the more influential franchises in the league, or one with the highest-decibel fan and media bases, again gets skewered by it, as Toronto did last season, that will increase the chances of the system being scuttled, at least at the end of the first three-season cycle.

Steve Sullivan
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesSteve Sullivan is leading the Predators in scoring. Will it be for nothing come April?

So perhaps a bit of unfairness, reprised, would be a good thing.

Somebody's going to get a raw deal again, though, and the most likely candidate seems to be whichever team finishes fourth in the Northeast -- almost certainly the Canadiens, Maple Leafs or Senators.

Might as well brace for the screaming now.

This scheduling system increases the chances that a team in a bad division can end up with more points than a team in a more balanced division, yet arguably or even demonstrably not be as good. And the "better" team could miss the playoffs, while the "weaker" team goes.

Last season, the Leafs watched the playoffs after finishing with 90 points. Tampa Bay sneaked in with 92. That might have been poetic justice, given that it allowed the Lightning to defend their championship (if feebly), but the Leafs got a raw deal because of the Northeast Division's balance. They were 13-5-2 against the Lightning's Southeast Division; the Lightning were 4-15-1 against the Northeast.

The biggest problem, though, isn't even in the East.

At this point, the divisional power rankings align this way:

1. Pacific
2. Northeast
3. Northwest
4. Atlantic
5. Southeast
6. Central

That's subjective, certainly involving personal definition of terms and decisions. Depending on how much weight is given along those lines, 3 through 5 can be pretty much interchangeable.

Returns are incomplete, of course. It takes a full season for relative comparisons to be valid, and by that I mean if you're talking about a team's record against the Southeast, it depends on how many of those games have been against Atlanta and Carolina, or how many have been against Florida. In this example, though, the Northwest so far is 5-2-0 and the Atlantic is 15-12-3 against the Southeast, and that's part of the rationale for leaving the once-belittled Southeast, the producer of the past two Stanley Cup champions, so far down. But that certainly could change, especially if the Lightning, as I keep waiting to happen, get it cranked up; and if the Alexander Ovechkin-led Capitals remain competitive.

Should balance be the first consideration? In that case, the Northwest and Northeast merit extra credit without having to buy CliffsNotes and do additional book reports. (Right, like you didn't do it that way?)

In the Northwest, where the last-place Avalanche are now six points behind the first-place Oilers, it's likely that three teams will make the playoffs.

The biggest potential for unfairness would seem to be if Nashville, especially with Tomas Vokoun out, barely makes the postseason, thanks to the Preds' fattening-up on the bottom-feeders in the Central, while a more "worthy" team from the Northwest misses out. (Preds fans, don't overreact! I'm not saying Nashville won't remain one of the best teams in the conference. I'm citing this as a theoretical example, especially in light of Vokoun's problems.)

Maybe I'm not giving the Atlantic enough credit, in part because as great of a story as the Islanders have been, that's not going to continue.

Yes, out West, the Central Division is so weak, the presidents of the University of Central Florida, University of Central Oklahoma and even the far-off University of Central Lancashire (from the land that gave us Lord Stanley and his Cup) should issue a joint statement, disassociating themselves from it.

Pundit-mocking Stephen Colbert, who pronounces his name the way a hockey player should, ought to blast it on behalf of Comedy Central on his "Colbert Report."

ESPN's Chris Berman, who loved the old NHL nomenclature and still occasionally transfers it to other sports, should take up the cause to have the Central's name changed to "Smythe" in honor of what, for a time, was the NHL's host horrid division. (The Colorado Rockies won 19 games in 1977-78, yet finished second in the five-team division. I am not making that up.)

The Blackhawks' surge under new coach Denis Savard notwithstanding, there is considerable justification for wariness. The franchise has a way of teasing its disaffected fans as they ponder more frequent visits to the United Center before going right back into the dipper.

The Blue Jackets? A couple of road wins at Edmonton and Colorado under new coach Ken Hitchcock shouldn't be enough to convince anyone that the franchise finally is on the move and in the right direction.

No, until evidence mounts otherwise over the longer term, the Central again is bottom-heavy with an inordinate amount of "gimme" points for the Red Wings and Predators. Unless one of those teams slip significantly, especially stumbling in non-divisional games, that's not going to produce a travesty.

The Pacific is another story.

It's not only a case of having one more strong team than the Central -- with Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas arguably being the three best in the conference -- but there's also the possibility that neither the Kings nor the Coyotes, in the overall relative picture, will be as bad as their records indicate.

Through Wednesday's games, the Coyotes are 8-7-0 outside the division, the Kings 6-5-3. And the chances of them making the postseason are slim, just as they were last season when Los Angeles' 89 points were only good enough to get everybody fired while Edmonton and Colorado both made the postseason with 95.

There was no miscarriage of justice there, either: Though the Kings beat Colorado three out of four times, Edmonton's and Colorado's combined records against the Pacific were 23-11-6, while the Kings were 14-14-4.

Granted, this is the sort of issue in which evidence can be found to back up virtually any stand.

If the Canucks weren't struggling within their own division -- they're 2-8-1 against the Northwest -- they'd be leading it, rather than sitting in the fourth spot and ninth in the conference. The paramount task in this system is taking care of business within the divisions, so the Canucks deserve derision (so far) for not doing that.

And as much as I despise the current scheduling format, the other extreme -- completely balanced -- would be just as abominable. If you don't play more games against a division opponent than the other teams in the conference or in the rest of the league, there is no valid reason for having divisions. That's why the NHL's completely balanced schedule in the era of 21 teams was horrible.

But with 32 games within the division and eight games against each opponent, the potential for unfairness becomes greater. At the end of the season, somebody's going to be complaining -- and with good reason.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."